The Real Archers Country
By Graham Harvey
9 February 2019
When I first arrived in Ambridge back in the 1980s Brian Aldridge was by a big margin the wealthiest of all the farmers in the village. With about 1500 acres of prime farmland and no mortgage he was about as solid as the Bank of England.
In those days Home Farm was valued at around £1000 an acre. Today it’s got to be worth ten times as much. Over the past couple of decades farmland prices have soared faster than those of residential property in Mayfair. Which means that, despite the ups and downs of farming profits, Brian and Jennifer have seldom been troubled by money worries.
Without obvious ostentation they’ve been able to surround themselves with elegant furnishings at home while buying themselves decent cars to get around in. Over the years they’ve put on many lavish parties for family and friends. Their winter shooting parties and summer soirees beside the pool have become legendary among the Borsetshire glitterati.
In its own modest way Home Farm has always had a touch of Versailles about it, sitting within its own ordered fields beside the gleaming waters of the River Am. But Providence no longer smiles on Ambridge’s own Sun King.
This week he appeared in the magistrate’s court along with assorted muggers and drug dealers, charged with polluting – or allowing to be polluted – that same river. Toxic industrial chemicals, as we know, have leaked out of drums illegally buried on the farm several decades ago.
It seems that in his early days of farming, when money was a little tighter than now, Brian took a bung from a person or persons unknown in return for burying industrial waste. This long-forgotten indiscretion has already cost him his home and his power and influence with the family partners who now run the farm.
This week Borchester magistrates added £120,000 in fines to the cost of his ancient “indiscretion”. He has at least admitted to his “mistake” though there has been little sign so far of any remorse. Nor does he seem particularly concerned at the widespread animosity his selfish act has aroused in the village.
I remember my predecessor in the job of agricultural editor telling me that uniquely among the farmers in Ambridge, Aldridge was shock proof. With his land-holding and scale of operations it would take an earthquake to bring him down. Well it may have taken a while but we managed it. And the story was based on fact.
Back in the 1970s there were no end of media stories about the illegal dumping of industrial wastes in the countryside. At the same time you could scarcely find a farm that didn’t have its own all-purpose dumping area. I saw plenty of them in my days as a farming journalist.
Sometimes they’d be littered with oil drums, supposedly empty. How many of these sites were later covered in topsoil and forgotten?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Archers storyline is that Brian hasn’t faced more flak from his farming neighbours. Most in their more thoughtful moments would surely admit that they hold land in trust for future generations. Can there be a greater betrayal of that trust to poison or destroy it?
Or maybe it’s a little too close to home for them to want to think about it. Brian Aldridge is of the farming generation that first embraced chemicals as the norm. Somewhere around the 1960s and 70s they abandoned traditional mixed farming with its crop rotations and blend of livestock and cropping enterprises.
Instead many got rid of their animals and reinvented themselves as wholly arable operations. To pull this off you have to rely heavily on farm chemicals. You’re no longer using nature’s methods of maintaining fertility – basically grassland and grazing animals. And you’re becoming reliant on the fertiliser bag, principally inorganic nitrogen compounds.
When you use chemical fertilisers crop pests and diseases inevitably become more severe. So you have to use pesticides as well. Today most arable farmers apply a barrage of weedkillers, insecticides and fungicides to their crops. The residues of many of them linger in our everyday foods.
It’s possible to view Brian and his land contamination as a kind of metaphor for some of today’s routine agricultural practices. Not that Home Farm is wholly arable. They have grazing animals too – sheep and deer. But much of the grassland they occupy is not the “rotational” grass of the old mixed farm. It’s permanent pasture.
In reality a good deal of the land is under continuous arable cropping, which means it gets an annual battering with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Could this be what lies behind Brian’s gung ho attitude to the whole legal process? He appears to be rather too full of indignation and a little light on remorse.
There’s no doubt that the chemical dump has cost him dear, not just in fines but in the clean-up costs he’s had to cover. But his protests that he’s the victim in all this is as hard to swallow as his contaminated water.
Is he in denial about a more fundamental aspect of what it is to be an arable farmer today? Who knows? But as any dedicated Archers listener will tell you, the plotlines and the characters in this ever-popular serial are usually multi-layered. That’s the joy of the show.
9th March 2019
I’m reading a terrifying book about the nightmare future we face as a result of climate change. It’s called The Uninhabitable Earth and, as the title suggests, author David Wallace-Wells offers precious little by way of comfort.
2nd February 2019
Vet Alistair Lloyd is rapidly becoming a local hero. If he saves another sheepdog, lame pony or dairy cow injured in a farm accident he’ll surely be in line for some special honour from a grateful community.
19th January 2019
I’m intrigued by the odd behaviour of Brian and Jennifer Aldridge following their enforced down-sizing from a large and comfortable farmhouse to a small cottage next to Kirsty and Roy.