AMBRIDGE: the red mist

Joe and Eddie Grundy never said it, but Graham Harvey is the man to thank for saving their farm from that bastard, Debbie-beating, agribusiness mogul Simon Pemberton. Harvey, above, may look at ease leaning against that gate, but he is a man under real-life fire. What he writes about farming in Ambridge and elsewhere has aroused wild fury. By Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
Being agricultural story editor of The Archers would strike most people as a fairly gentle occupation. It merely entails making sure that the inhabitants of Ambridge know their silage from their silos, doesn't it?

That is the automatic assumption - until you meet the present occupier of the post. Far from giving him a soft and easy existence, Graham Harvey's input into Britain's most celebrated radio drama series has made him the target of astounding vitriol and abuse.

Harvey is now firmly established as the chief bete noire of the farming press to which he once contributed. Anthony Rosen, a former dairy farmer who writes a forthright weekly column for Farming News, has called on the BBC to sack him for turning the programme into a politically correct "townie" version of rural life with a relentless bias against agribusiness and large farmers.

"Cocooned as he is in the ivory tower of Pebble Mill (the BBC's Birmingham studios, where The Archers is recorded) Mr Harvey has not the slightest idea of the truly magnificent state of Britain's green and pleasant land, thanks entirely to the love and devotion of conventional farmers of whatever size," he asserts.

According to Rosen, Graham Harvey is the central reason why young Tony and Pat Archer now run an organic dairy farm. He is the reason why those lovable rogues the Grundys fought off a recent attempt by a nasty big landowner to evict them from their farm.

Rosen argued in Farming News last week that "the hidden left-wing green agenda gathers pace" on The Archers. "I confess to finding it sad that someone who was once a credible agricultural journalist, and especially one who holds the listening lay public in his fiefdom with The Archers, should have descended into publishing blatantly emotional claptrap."

It isn't just his contribution to The Archers that has made Graham Harvey the subject of such demonisation. He has also incurred the wrath of Britain's agricultural subsidy junkies because of his provocative book - The Killing of the Countryside - in which he argues passionately for an end to all production subsidies and an approach to agriculture which is on a smaller scale, more humane and respectful of wildlife.

The book has been hailed as a powerful polemic by one of Britain's most prominent environmentalists, Jonathon Porritt. "Graham Harvey's boots must be size 14 or bigger," he wrote in a highly favourable review. "In chapter after chapter, he kicks the hell out of farmers, the politicians, the civil servants, the Country Landowners Association and the NFU, the scientists, the farmers and, above all, us - the dumb clucks who go on paying over the odds for food that often has little nutritional value while stumping up billions of pounds as taxpayers to enable farmers year after year to go on destroying landscapes, decimating our flora and fauna, polluting our water and generally disporting themselves as if they had some God-given right to be kept in the style to which they had become accustomed."

Harvey would consider that a fair summary of his central argument. The Killing of the Countryside, he readily discloses, was inspired by Will Hutton's The State We're In. Like Hutton, Harvey has been in a highly excitable state since the moment it became apparent that Tony Blair had led New Labour to a stunning landslide victory.

Harvey, who is now 53 and lives in Taunton, Somerset, was not born a country boy. He was raised on a post-war council estate in Reading, but it was located on the edge of town and had easy access to the surrounding fields. "I was always going out into the countryside with my gran, who used to come back with armfuls of it," he recalls fondly.

In the latest edition of the London Review of Books, David Craig comments: "The chief attraction and moral linchpin of Harvey's books is that he unashamedly puts beauty and sensuous nourishment at the top of his priorities."

This is true. But Harvey's anger towards the system which makes food expensive, farming hugely profitable for agribusiness, and our landscape increasingly monotonous, also stems from a level-headed concern for the most basic needs of urban as well as rural dwellers. As he puts it: "There is nothing more fundamental to the well-being of working people than the food which they consume."

But, while being up-front about his socialist sympathies, Harvey steadfastly denies that he is pursuing a political agenda through The Archers. He was a scriptwriter for 15 years before he started to advise it on agricultural matters three months ago.

"I was just one scriptwriter out of 10 and I simply wouldn't have have lasted if I'd been pushing my politics," he observes somewhat wearily. "But nothing I say will stop some people blaming my malign influence for the greening of the programme."

He did initiate the Grundy plot which gripped a good proportion of the nation recently and even prompted a statement from the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. But the reason the Grundys emerged triumphant from the Agricultural Lands Tribunal had nothing to do with an anti-landlord bias. "The Grundys won because there was no way The Archers could lose such great characters," he says.

But what about the fact that one of the four farms in Ambridge is organic - a proportion well above the national situation? "I am well aware that that less than one half of 1 per cent of Britain's farmland is under organic management," says Harvey. "But it's perfectly feasible that Ambridge could be one of the few British villages with an organic farm. Why shouldn't we introduce such an element to open up conflicts and debates among the characters?"

There are certainly few platforms for such debates in the farming press, whose editorial content is driven by its dependence on agribusiness ads. Harvey discovered this the hard way when, after completing a degree in agriculture at the University of Bangor in north Wales and working on a farm in Dorset for a year, he decided to try his hand at agricultural journalism.

Interestingly, one of the papers he worked on, the Farming News, is the publication which now pillories him most mercilessly. It set out to be a a more adventurous and outspoken alternative to the highly conservative Farmers Weekly, but it almost went under when agribusiness firms withdrew advertising en masse. "It was never the same paper after that," Harvey laments.

This is one reason why he went free-lance and veered into radio drama. Like many of the best journalists, Graham Harvey soon perceived the wisdom of William Faulkner's observation that the best fiction can be far more true than any journalismn

'The Killing of the Countryside' is published by Jonathan Cape, price pounds 17.99.