Life as a field study

August 8, 1997

Mark Redman is a rustic, holistic academic. He lives in the country, champions organic farming and lectures on and in bucolic bliss. Gail Vines reports from deepest Dorset

The academic life is often a rootless one. By and large, a scholar's work could be done anywhere; local communities remain untouched and irrelevant. But there are exceptions to such alienation.

Agricultural scientist Mark Redman, 34, senior lecturer and research fellow at Bournemouth University, lives with his wife and three children in the north Dorset village where he was born and went to school. Their cottage is rented from the first farmer he ever worked for. His parents and his wife's parents live a stone's throw away. "I very much enjoy the sense of pulling it all together, of feeling rooted in the rural situation that gave me inspiration,'' says Redman. "I value the sense of belonging."

It is a life wedded to the countryside. Although his family were not farmers, Redman worked on the land from his early teens and felt "an incredible identity with farming. I always felt that the countryside was the place to be.'' But after four years at agricultural college in Devon, he swapped the practicalities of farming for the urban academic environment of Edinburgh University. Employed as a research assistant in the department of soil science, Redman was responsible for running a major field study on a notorious agricultural pollutant, the leaching of nitrates from farmland into rivers and drinking water.

The science intrigued Redman, but his holistic instincts could not be suppressed indefinitely. "I always found the context in which science occurs and its relevance to the wider world more interesting than the science itself," he confesses. Leaving Edinburgh, he "jumped into a black hole'', came back to Dorset and made a living writing reports on agri-environmental issues.

By this time, Redman was convinced that organic farming was not only environmentally sound but economically viable. "It offers a strategic solution to so many problems associated with industrial agriculture - everything from public health and animal welfare to environmental pollution and rural unemployment.'' As a consultant researcher, he had the opportunity to draw together the evidence to prove it.

For the Countryside Commission, he studied organic farming's contribution to conservation; for a supermarket chain, he investigated the marketing of organic produce. He wrote briefs for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, and supervised a national study comparing the biodiversity of organic and non-organic farms.

His reputation spread. One evening he got a phone call, inviting him to edit the leading UK journal for organic food production, New Farmer and Grower. "It was a fabulous opportunity to combine science, agriculture and journalism,'' says Redman. During his four years as editor, he helped put organic farming on the political agenda.

A few years later, another phone call. Bournemouth University asked Redman to teach on a new degree programme, land-based enterprise. The post proved a godsend, giving him the chance to teach about agricultural science, rural issues and the environment in the round. Based at East Lulworth on the south Dorset coast, the course puts its 120 students "in touch with rural life" - everything from dairy cows to retail management.

The buzzword is diversification and the hope is that rural communities can grow stronger if more businesses can find a foothold there. Students sharpen their teeth by running their own small-scale enterprises: one does a roaring trade in early strawberries, another sells eggs from free-range hens. This summer the course's first graduates venture out into the rural job market.

With funding from the European Union, Redman and colleagues at the Centre for Land-Based Studies at Lulworth are also running a number of projects with universities, non-governmental organisations and rural communities across Central and Eastern Europe. "We are not just shipping out solutions from the West, but trying to help people develop small-scale appropriate local responses.'' One initiative, at the behest of the Lithuanian Women Farmers' Association, is to set up a training programme for rural women - a task made urgent by rapid agrarian reforms. Another project focuses on food products with local economic and cultural significance in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. It is exploring the potential impact of changing "consumer expectation'' upon the production and processing of everything from tomato paste to blackcurrant juice as a free-market system evolves.

Redman may carry a torch for organic farming, but confrontation is not his style. "I want to see sustainable enterprise, but I try not to be judgmental. What is most important is enriching rural areas, stemming the loss of diversity, in every sense - biological, economic, social and cultural - and resisting specialisation and uniformity.'' Redman has "severe concerns'' about the adversarial approach favoured by many environmental campaigning organisations. "It is easy to be critical of farmers, but the issues are more complex." He says he is committed to the innovative approaches adopted by two British environmental charities, the Soil Association, and Common Ground. "They develop solutions and then promote them. They suggest creative, pragmatic ways forward."

Common Ground develops community-based schemes such as Parish Maps, Apple Day, Field Days and Community Orchards. The Soil Association, as well as encouraging supermarkets to sell organic food, has dreamt up a direct-marketing alternative - the "box schemes'' now growing in popularity. Asked to investigate the feasibility of "urban agriculture" in the West Midlands, Redman discovered that these organic-veg-to-your-doorstep schemes not only bring good food to areas of social deprivation but can be instruments of social cohesion too. "People can be reconnected by food,'' he says.

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