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How I enlisted The Archers in an environmental battle for the soul of our countryside

As a farming journalist, Graham Harvey saw how industrial methods were depleting the UK's nature. Could he use The Archers to raise the alarm?

Till Lukat's illustration of a farmer driving a tractor made of a giant radio

Illustration: Till Lukat

It wasn’t the obvious launch pad for a social and environmental revolution – a vintage radio soap opera set in a sleepy English village. Yet when I landed a part-time job as a scriptwriter on The Archers in the ’80s, I soon learned this was a great way to sneak out messages on what I considered the biggest issue of the day – the takeover of our food and farming by large, unaccountable chemical companies. 

I’d been working as a freelance farming journalist, so I’d witnessed first-hand the dramatic changes that were taking place in the countryside. I’d grown up in a world where our food mostly came from sustainable mixed farms, with pasture fields and grazing animals as well as food crops like wheat. Now animals were being concentrated in large, specialist farms while fields were being given over to continuous grain crops. 

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Without grazing animals to keep the land fertile, farmers had to rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It was a change that became known as the ‘green revolution’. In reality it was anything but green. Our food and farming had been hijacked by the agrochemical industry, whose products were destroying wildlife and contaminating our food. I didn’t think it was likely to end well. 

For the next 34 years, as documented in my book Underneath the Archers, I made sure that, in my episodes at least, nature would feature strongly in Britain’s longest-running drama. I wrote scenes around badgers and beetle banks, barn owls and skylarks. I set scenes in hay meadows, harvest fields and woodland glades, where the sounds of bees and birdsong provided the mood music. 

While I didn’t introduce organic farming to the show, I made sure that nature-friendly methods were regularly featured. For balance, I had to include counter arguments from one of our intensive chemical farmers, usually Brian Aldridge. This didn’t bother me. I was confident that so long as the issue was being aired, our listeners would at least be aware that a battle was going on for the soul of our countryside. 

After a few years, I got to devise many of the farming storylines for the show. This was a new opportunity to give nature and the threat of industrial farming a far higher profile. I began setting up conflicts about the destruction of species-rich grasslands, the pollution of rivers with cow slurry, and the deliberate poisoning of birds of prey. 

In one storyline I dramatised the contentious issue of GM crops. I had Brian Aldridge grow an experimental GM oilseed crop, while trying to hide the fact from his neighbours. Not surprisingly, the news leaks out. Alarmed that the crop could threaten his organic status, Brian’s nephew Tom Archer joins local activists in trashing the crop as it’s coming into flower. He’s subsequently charged with criminal damage and put on trial in the Crown Court. 

I wrote the trial scenes, running them over a week. Again, for balance, I had to ensure the pro-GM arguments came over as strongly as the anti-GM arguments. I’m glad to say that at the end of the trial, Tom was found not guilty. 

Looking back, my passion for nature-friendly farming started in childhood. Our family had no connection with agriculture. I grew up on a housing estate on the edge of Reading. The glorious English countryside started right at the end of our road! 

I decided to study agriculture at university. As a student in north Wales the farming I saw in the late 1960s was of the traditional kind – sustainable, diverse, mostly family run, and wildlife friendly. By the time I started work as a farming journalist in the early 1970s, Britain was preparing to enter the European Common Market, as it was then called. Traditional farming, with its rich wildlife and diverse habitats was coming under threat from industrial methods. 

As a working journalist I got to see the tragedy unfolding. Species-rich grasslands were being ripped up to make room for chemically grown wheat, adding to the surplus – the grain mountain – accumulating in Europe. It would eventually be sold off cheap to the Soviet Union. But our wonderful, flower-filled meadows would be lost forever. 

Today good sense is at last returning. Even the politicians are recognising the damage industrial agriculture has done to our health, our environment and the climate. Policies are finally being put in place to arrest – even undo – some of the destruction. At the same time a growing number of free-thinking farmers are racing ahead of the politicians and switching to regenerative methods. 

Whether my own contributions to the show played a part in this slow awakening I’ll never know. But I like to think there are farmers out there who adopted nature-friendly methods such as fertility-building herbal leys (pastures with deep-rooting herbs) because they first heard about them on The Archers

Underneath the Archers by Graham Harvey

Underneath the Archers by Graham Harvey is out on 24 August (Unbound, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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