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A Farmer’s Year was subtitled “Being the Commonplace Book for 1898.” Haggard remained, after all, an expert in farming – he had farmed for many years at Ditchingham on land of 365 acres purchased for six thousand pounds in 1865 by Major John Margitson (Louisa’s father). As such, he had a good understanding of the agricultural life of England. His work is radical in that it proposed changes to farming methods that had been established over centuries – more rotation of crops, better drainage of fields (he called for his agricultural labourers to “lay drainage pipes in the ditch”) and improved husbandry of cattle. Haggard promoted the use of footpaths and hedgerows to encourage the spread of wild life. He was concerned about the rural depopulation starting to increase at the turn of the century due to the population escape to the towns and competition from foreign imports of cereals. It was such that “a neighbouring farm of nearly two hundred acres had been reduced to that of the bailiff in charge of it and one horseman through the winter months.”
Haggard introduced better methods of remunerating agricultural labourers and paid his own workers a good rate for the time. He mildly supported the spread of mechanised farming that was being introduced into East Anglia making farming of cereals on an industrial scale. He believed in the manuring of crops for he spent “about two shillings (10p) the load as it lies upon the heap.”
But Rider would be amazed to see the conditions of cattle today where an artificially inseminated heifer neither sees the bull, nor is even allowed to suckle her offspring. He would have been revolted at the conditions in English farming, including feed for ruminants containing animal material, that persists to this day and caused the foot and mouth outbreak in the eighties which led to the slaughter and burning of tens of thousands of cows.
Modern agriculture has changed the whole character of East Anglia, altering the landscape, destroying hedges and wildlife and generally contributing to a deleterious environment, plagued by pesticides and genetic plant breeding and promoted by huge, unaccountable corporations like Monsanto.
Nevertheless as one (much later) balanced and fairly appreciative, American comment on A Farmer's Year enthused:
“How entertainingly passes along Mr. Rider Haggard's "A Farmer's Year' in Longman's Magazine. You read of corn, of beets, potatoes, of horses, cows, sheep, of rabbits, foxes, of crows, swallow, and then there are absurd comments on landlords, publicans, and farm laborers. (sic) You get an insight into English rural politics. Then Mr. Rider Haggard tells you of old churches…”
And then …parsnips, peas and pollen…probably (ed.).
Ditchingham, his home village, is described, too, giving details as in a census:
'I turn now to describe the land I farm here at Ditchingham. Ditchingham is a parish of about eleven hundred inhabitants, containing something over two thousand acres of land. In shape it is large and straggling, but the most of the population live at the Bungay end, for the village and the town meet at the bridge over the Waveney;
It is little changed today, (ed.).
Rider Haggard, with his trust in God, believed that the farmer had a divine duty to plant, nourish and garner his crops and if he had a bumper crop, he was not to be subjective about it to the extent that it was his own work – it was the work of the Almighty.
Haggard was aware that he was farming on land that had been there for thousands of years, and he wonders, in passing, about the previous tenants of the land - who they were, and what had become of them. He saw it in a spiritual way, its antiquity being its finest recommendation. The soil at Bodingham was harsh and unworkable, making the farmer’s life a difficult one. And, since he had lived out of England, he relished the opportunity to return home to the epicentre of traditional social groups that had been joined together by their unchanged lineage