In an open letter to our PM, Simon Fairlie, co-editor of The Land magazine, describes everyday life on the Dorset farm and guest house he shares with 20 others
Dear Boris, Congratulations on your recovery, I hope you are enjoying your convalescence in your second home. Thank you for your letter, received 5 April, expressing your concern about the “profound impact of coronavirus on our communities”, and stating that you “understand completely the difficulties this disruption has caused.”
I am writing to reassure you that in the case of our own community, which runs a guest house and education centre in rural Dorset, the impact of the virus not been particularly disruptive. Indeed, the lockdown experience has been fascinating. Being a single household of 21 people we are all in the same boat, so to speak. If one person here gets the virus, all of us are likely to: we match the definition of “community” as “a group of individuals who share the same diseases.” Some of us are getting on a bit, so last year we installed a defibrillator, but now it seems that an oxygenator might have been a better buy.
As a large household, we are by no means deprived of company: we eat, work and play together, and our licensed pub, though closed to the public, remains open for us as we are all technically the landlord — providing a useful revenue to a hard-pressed local microbrewery. Since we share a large house with 10 acres of grounds and outbuildings, we are not living in cramped conditions, and spend a healthy amount of time working outdoors. Our income has been reduced to near zero, but we have more time for vegetable growing, processing the milk from our Jersey cows, baking bread, cooking with wood to save gas, and catching up on the maintenance of the house and grounds.
Our elder children are receiving one-to-one home education, and also have time to work with adults in activities such as cooking, haymaking, planting potatoes and carpentry, and are learning more than they would going to school.
With a well-stocked larder, a cellar full of cheese and apple juice, an acre of vegetable garden and an extra large crop of potatoes expected in July, we are not going to starve, even if we never get to the supermarket again — though we might run out of toilet paper.
The other benefit has been an improvement in our local environment and our own environmental impact. Over the last few years our community has made attempts to reduce its carbon emissions, but few of the resolutions we have made have been adhered to. Now it has been done for us by decree. Our car park, which so often used to be crammed full of vehicles (despite our entreaties to visitors to come by public transport) is now almost empty. Only the few cars belonging to the community remain, and they rarely leave the premises. In order to save money we are finding new ways of reducing our consumption of electricity and gas.
Instead of selling our surplus dairy produce to restaurants in Bridport ten miles away, we now sell it at our front gate to local parishioners. Hopefully they appreciate that the milk they are buying has not been trucked from a supermarket depot 100 miles away, but is made from the grass they can see growing outside their window.
Meanwhile peace has descended upon our valley. The drone from the nearby dual carriegeway is now just a murmer. The heavens no longer reverberate to the pulse of jet engines, nor are they criss-crossed with contrails. Birdsong is once again the dominant background noise, along with the gurgle of the stream. The fruits of economic degrowth are now tangible.
We are each of us thankful not to be stuck in a high rise flat with a tetchy spouse and a brood of bored children. But we are not fat cats who have used our wealth to sequester a rural idyll far from hoi polloi. We don’t own the Victorian rectory we occupy, but rent it in return for our labour. We have sought a lifestyle that is modest, resilient and sustainable, and now that the shit has hit the fan, we are reaping the benefits.
My reason for writing to you is because everybody should have the opportunity, if they so wish, to live in healthy natural surroundings with access to land and the means of production. At the moment 83 per cent of people in Britain live in densely populated urban areas, that can be crucibles of disease. Britain currently only produces 60 per cent of its food, and employs just 1.5 per cent of its workforce in agriculture. A diminishing number of farmers monopolize vast acreages of land, which they manage with monstrous land-compacting machines, to the exclusion of millions who could benefit from stimulating outdoor employment if they were ever given the opportunity and the training. Market towns cease to have markets, villages become dormitory settlements, the majority of rural residents have urban incomes — the rural economy is being sucked dry.
There are many things that can be done to remedy this, but the most fundamental is to increase the price of food and reduce the price of housing correspondingly, so that that average household expenditure stays the same, and agricultural incomes are commensurate with rural housing costs. When this pandemic has died down, please could the Government pursue this and other ways of making Britain’s rural economy more resilient, and extending to more people the benefits of a healthy rural lifestyle.
Simon Fairlie is a micro-dairyman, co-editor of the Land magazine and scythe seller. The next issue of The Land magazine, which normally comes out twice a year, will appear towards the end of June 2020. Read more here.