Alex James: Winning urban hearts with trees and fields

The Great Escape
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Chris Gaskell runs the Royal Agricultural College. You may remember that he invited me there for lunch a while back, and gave me the run of their extensive collection of pig literature. Could he come over, he said, with a group of kids from urban environments who'd shown an interest in becoming farmers?

They arrived in the afternoon. Wide-eyed and whispering, clasping their packed lunches, they poured out of the college minibus and assembled obediently, timidly, in the yard. They looked really cool, hoodies in new wellies. I would have bought vegetables from them. Ah, youth, so appealing!

I started to explain the history of the farm. Just as I was getting to the Enclosure Act of 1801, the exciting bit, I spotted Fred. Here was a bona fide expert, a man of the soil, an award-winning husband of nature to enlighten them, right on cue. I asked him to say a few words about his sheep.

"Well, them ewe lambs just bout last 'em. Got them tups up in yard 'spose. Ooh, aren't them buggers, though! Eh?... Goh!" Just then, Ray managed to fire up the circular saw. It had been playing up all morning. Now it was back in business and Ray was waving it around for joy. "Maybe we'll go crayfishing!" I shouted over the din, grabbing the nets and heading for the river. "Bit of farm business diversification. It's a free crop. It's a nice walk. There are sheep on the way. You'll see."

The top field had just been cropped for hay, and was looking spectacularly good. Suddenly it was high summer, one of those bright days that makes you remember why billionaires have always lived on farms, why pop stars buy them to live happily ever after, why it might be better mucking about making bonfires and gazing like Fred does than staring at a computer screen and wondering whether to have a sandwich or sushi. It's a hard sell at the moment, agriculture, but the butterflies and dragonflies were skipping on the hedgerows. It was busy. It was beautiful, wherever you were coming from.

"Is dat your tree?"

"Yep, I guess so."

"No way, man. How can you laak, own a tree? Is it? Das so cool! Laak. How much is it? Dis place."

"Well, you can rent the fields for 25 quid an acre a year, at least Fred does. I throw the trees in."

We built the nets as we munched sandwiches by the waterside. The kids were enthusiastic, inquisitive and completely and involuntarily engaged with it all. They asked Professor Gaskell questions that led to more questions, and he sprinkled his expertise over them like seasoning for the sandwiches.

We caught four crayfish. Not a huge success, but I think agriculture won a few hearts today. Sometimes it's hard to see why anyone would want to do anything else.

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