PUBLISHED: 15:51 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013
Since 'The Archers' was launched in 1951, this 'everyday story of country folk' has become an institution, and today it is the most listened to non-news programme on BBC Radio 4. Beginning life as a source of information for farmers, 'The Archers'...
Always keeping abreast of the times, 'The Archers' www.thearchers.co.uk recently looked at what farmers can do to combat climate change with a storyline about whether Home Farm should have a machine that converts waste into electricity. Surprisingly, even this provoked a heated debate, with some listeners accusing writers of promoting the government's green agenda. And the person given the task of defending the programme was its agricultural story editor, Graham Harvey www.grahamsgrassroots.blogspot.com. He retaliated by saying that it is the job of 'The Archers' to debate current issues in farming.
"Radio 4's 'Feedback' programme had two or three letters from listeners who said they were sick of the story," says Graham. "But anerobic digestion is something that a lot of farmers are talking about and to suggest that it was put in 'The Archers' by the government is nonsense. We keep a close eye on what's happening in the real world of farming and we are not afraid to go into some detail."
Graham lives in west Somerset and we agreed to meet up in Taunton. Over a coffee he tells me he has listened to 'The Archers' since he was at university. In the mid-1980s, while he was working as a freelance journalist, he sent in some scripts, was given a week's trial and has been part of 'The Archers' team ever since.
So, having written more than 500 episodes, what is Graham's theory as to why the radio soap has seeped under the skin of five million loyal listeners?
"I think it's because very deep within the British psyche there is a desire to reconnect with that sort of society - the village where you belong - and although we may seem a very urban society, many of us feel not very far removed from the land."
Graham refers to his own story here. Born in Reading, with no farming background, he nevertheless felt an affinity with the countryside and this led him to agriculture. "I grew up on a post-war council estate on the edge of town, and at the end of our road was the countryside. As youngsters we spent all our time in the fields and I became interested. When I decided to study agriculture at Bangor my mates told me I would be surrounded by farmers' sons and daughters there and I wouldn't understand what they were talking about!"
"Anerobic digestion is something that a lot of farmers are talking about and to suggest that it was put in 'The Archers' by the government is nonsense"
Graham worked on a mixed farm in Dorset in the 1970s where he was a stockman. He then joined 'Farmers Weekly' www.fwi.co.uk as a trainee reporter and has been writing about farming and the countryside ever since. For a time he was the columnist Muck Spreader in 'Private Eye' and then, in the late 1990s, he began writing books.
'The Killing of the Countryside', which won the BP Natural World Book Prize, blamed intensive agriculture for damaging the countryside. In a recently revised and updated edition of another of his books, 'We Want Real Food', Graham tells us that our once fertile soil has been stripped of crucial minerals by industrial farming.
"Today's fresh produce has little in common with the nutrient-rich foods of pre-industrial societies," he says. "Years of chemical farming and soil mismanagement have robbed them of health-giving minerals and antioxidants. Healthy food comes from crops grown on fertile, biologically active soils and from animals fed on natural diets. Only a return to foods like these will restore the nation to health. The good news is it's still out there if you look for it, and finding it may even save you money."
Graham helps us out by printing a local food directory at the back of his book, and most of the list of producers, farmers' markets and farm shops from this part of the world will be familiar to 'Somerset Life' readers.
During his research for the book, Graham says he was amazed to discover that "some of the best beef in the world" was being produced on a farm just a couple of miles from where he lives.
"He showed me round his farm," says Graham. "A patchwork of meadows and pastures, all of them full of wildflowers and herbs. Here was the ideal formula for healthy beef, a slow-growing native breed grazing on species-rich grassland unspoilt by chemical fertiliser."
Home for Graham is on Exmoor where he lives with his wife, Anne, a literacy consultant. When he's not writing or travelling to Birmingham for 'Archers' script meetings, Graham looks after about three acres of land where he keeps a small flock of Exmoor horned sheep.
"They are pets really and are great grass mowers!" BY SARAH FORD. PHOTO BY MIKE ALSFORD www.alsfordpictures.com
Read Graham's blog about real food at www.grahamsgrasstoots.blogspot.com, or start your won debate on the 'Somerset Life' Forum www.somerset-life.co.uk/forums.Mike Alsford is happy to carry out portrait shoots for both professional and private clients. For more information visit www.alsfordpictures.com.