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So you want to quit the rat race Disillusioned millennials dream of upping sticks in pursuit of the agrarian fantasy

You, too, could have chickens. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

You, too, could have chickens. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

April 23, 2020   5 mins

In my twenties, stuck in a London flatshare, I often fantasised about somehow acquiring a patch of land and forming an agrarian collective where we’d have no hierarchies, raise chickens and generally flee late consumer capitalism. Instead of being forced into the rat race, my liberated friends and I would create a radically egalitarian community where we made money somehow or other, we’d all have enough to get by with, and everyone would have time to write long treatises on the internet about Stuff.

In practice, possibly fortunately, this never happened. None of us worked out how to make the jump from the city to our bucolic dream. (Though I did, for a while, live in a kind of commune in Brixton, where I soon discovered that even radically egalitarian households rapidly form pecking orders that — in more everyday settings — would definitely be described as ‘hierarchies’, an experience that was formative for my now middle-aged politics.) As time went on, life took me in a different direction: I got married, eventually left London in rather more conventional style, and now live in a small market town in rural Bedfordshire.

Someone wittier than me remarked other day that the difference between British and American post-liberals is like the difference between Britpop and a rave in a derelict factory. The former is cheery, vaguely agrarian and occasionally at risk of being twee; the latter feels like an excerpt from a Mad Max film, all post-apocalyptic survivalism and weird technology.

This makes sense when you consider that there isn’t really space in England for everyone to build a survivalist bunker, so British post-liberalism tends to take a more sociable form than its wilder American cousin. My own domestic post-liberal utopia definitely shares a border with the world of twee: our first backyard chickens hatched this week, all claws and beak like tiny dinosaurs, and my husband and I are dividing our time between remote working and planting summer veg. It’s a painfully middle-class version of Back to the Land, and decidedly more Tolkien than Mad Max.

Working from home, I often think of the generation a decade younger than me wilting under lockdown in grim city flatshares like the ones that prompted my agrarian fantasies at the turn of the Millennium. I wonder how many of them dream of a more rural lifestyle — and how achievable that would even be, when graduate jobs are overwhelmingly city-based today. After all, it’s one thing being Blur-bassist-turned-cheesemaker Alex James, using a fortune garnered in the music industry to set yourself up as a country gentleman. But for the generation struggling with massive student debts, flatlining wages and soaring rentals, what prospect could there ever be of even settling down, let alone outside the big city with friends and a few acres?

One way round this could be to join a commune, though according to University of Waterloo ecologist Stephen Quilley these have “a patchy survival rate” compared to more conservative agrarian communities such as the Bruderhof in Sussex (founded 1971). Left-wing communes, Quilley told me, don’t tend to survive as long “because they have an individualistic culture, and raise individualistic children who want to leave and do something else”.

That said, some long-established communes such as Findhorn have survived beyond the founding generation, while keeping community and ecology centre-stage and managing to make ends meet without imploding like my Brixton effort did. (If anyone is tempted by the commune option, WWOOF has a list of current vacancies here.)

Or there’s the Britpop method already mentioned: use money earned elsewhere to subsidise your rural idyll. Arguably my own domestic chicken-raising and carrot-planting is a variant on the Alex James model, as both adults in the house also earn money elsewhere while producing veg (and, if Chicken Sunny and Chicken Flora both turn out to be girls, eggs as well) for our own consumption.

Of course, not everyone who dreams of a smallholding wants to become a commercial farmer. But for most people, buying land isn’t realistic unless there’s a business plan attached. So another approach that’s gaining in popularity is Community Supported Agriculture. CSA initiatives can take different forms, but what they have in common is ‘a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared’. The idea is to bring communities and farming back together, with communities having more access to farm life and in turn helping to support the more labour-intensive styles of growing that market logic routinely forces out of business.

Strawberry Grove Growers, a CSA market garden in Cambridgeshire, is one example local to me. Owned by its founders, it is neither a commune nor a millionaire’s toy farm, but run as a membership organisation supplying seasonal veg boxes to the local area. None of the three founders is wealthy: Felicity, 35, is a former nurse. She and her partner Sam started the project with their friend Connor, with all three founders working part-time to support it. Four years in, their membership is growing steadily, veg box subscriptions are at capacity and they are on a course to be self-supporting.

You have to be seriously rich to buy a tract of farmland just so you can sit on it and write poetry. So for most, the agrarian dream means some kind of business plan – even just to break even. Felicity told me that when they started Strawberry Grove, locals assumed they had far more conventional commercial plans: “Everyone thought we were going to build houses,” she says. “Even the council didn’t understand what we were doing.”

But if Felicity and her business partners are on their way to being self-supporting, maybe perhaps there is hope for those who dream of their own patch of land without being millionaires or joining a commune. And maybe there are ways for our food chain to become a bit smaller-scale, more local and more more labour-intensive without being killed by the brute logic of the market.

If so, it will be welcome. The pandemic has prompted concern about Britain’s fragile food security: currently, half of the food we consume is produced overseas. One biologist estimates that by shifting toward more labour-intensive gardening methods, Britain’s entire fruit and veg requirement could be met using a mere 200,000 hectares of green space – just 2% of current farmland. Allotment-style management could even make cities fruitful: a recent study estimated that cultivating just 10% of urban green space could supply 15% of a city’s population with five portions of fruit and veg a day. So at least from an ecological point of view, there’s a strong case for more small-scale growing of all types — including Strawberry Grove style initiatives supported by a wider community.

From my own experience, pursuing a kind of 21st-century update on the productive household, the Bilbo Baggins dream has many upsides but some challenges too. For one thing, a productive garden is a serious commitment. You can forget going on holiday in August, as that’s peak harvest season. And as Felicity says, unless you’re a millionaire toy farmer who can afford to hire a manager, there’s always work that needs doing, outside, whatever the weather. “In the winter it can be tough,” she told me.

Whether you’re dividing your time between growing and something else, like Wendell Berry, or Roger Scruton, or producing full-time like Felicity, it’s also a lifestyle that does away with the idea of ‘time off’. “Unless you’re willing to work hard this isn’t the life for you,” Felicity told me. Though our growing is on a smaller scale, I can relate – there’s always something that needs doing. And while it’s a lifestyle that offers flexibility for mothers, you can forget maternity leave: Felicity had her first baby in January and has continued working in the garden, with her baby son in a sling.

As long as you love your work, this is all fine. As Felicity puts it, “If you love gardening, it doesn’t feel like work.” But those of us drawn to the Tolkien rather than the Mad Max postliberal aesthetic, busy promoting chicken-rearing and the joy of limits as possible solutions to all manner of ecological, economic and sociocultural issues, probably need to think pragmatically about the trade-offs as well as the advantages of the agrarian idyll.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 years ago

Full marks for mentioning Wendell Berry who I’ve been reading for 40 years and am just reading his latest collection Stand By Me – you have to read him slowly, like Marilynne Robinson.

Would it be wise to advise people who want to escape the rat race to sort of try out their gardening aptitude by first having a go in the suburbs. (Downside: commuting time, but hey, there are podcasts).

My suburban garden is small but it takes a lot of time! The front is for show, but the rear garden – maybe 250 sqm of usable space – is for food. I concentrate on plants I eat everyday like lettuce, easy to grow things like beetroot & celery, things I love to pick fresh like figs, strawberries and blueberries. You learn not to grow things that you never really use. You learn about soil. I have useless Australian sand, so it has taken decades of adding manures, compost, pea straw, peat, rock dust …. then there’s the watering and weeding and composting and raising seedlings. Maybe it would be a good idea to try all this out before you make a big decision to leave civilisation. You might not get everything you want, in suburbia, but it could be enough.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
4 years ago

Very sensible advice. I’m a keen gardener and also do most of the work on a friend’s allotment. As Mary says, it is hard work and there is minimal time off. Slightly off point, but I am trying to grow some begonias from seed. The seed is like dust and the seedlings are tiny when they emerge and very slow to develop. I am constantly misting them and very worried that the soil will dry out and the seedlings will die. I’m not sure there is much that is actually ‘easy to grow’. Most of it needs close attention and care. Even potatoes.

roger white
roger white
4 years ago

So. In 1994 when in my early 30’s my wife & I bought 19 acres in Devon with some vines on, & outline planning for a 1-bed bungalow.
It cost us £80,000…
13 years of double working, shift working for the BBC in London, the rest of the week in Devon working on the holding….& I could finally chuck in the broadcasting nonsense with some confidence in an income from a farm shop, cafe & wine sales.
1 week’s holiday in the past 20 years – in Cornwall.
You don’t need pots of money – just the will to do what it takes ( no-one would buy the holding in 1994 due to the 90’s recssion), willingness to do every job under the sun, from agricultural worker, to accountant, to salesman, to builder, to financial advisor, to plumbing etc.
& a good business plan – reason to think it would work financially.
& willingness to move out of your comfort zone – geographically as well.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
4 years ago
Reply to  roger white

Why did you begin your comment with the word ‘so’? Please don’t ever do this again. Ever.

roger white
roger white
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Quite right. I won’t.

ralph bell
ralph bell
4 years ago

Now more people will have the option to work from home, then it is possible for people to live remotely and earn their main income elsewhere. I imagine demand for country living will continue to increase. Cities may also be avoided if people feel they might catch something….

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

Very enjoyable and informative read -thank you.

It made me think of Horace writing;

“This is what I had prayed for: a small piece of land

With a garden, a fresh flowing spring of water at


Near the house…

It’s perfect. I ask for nothing else, except to implore,

O son of Maia, that you make these blessings
my own

For the rest of my life… “

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago

Wer’e lucky enough to have a large country plot.
The idea of growing your vegetables is much nicer than the reality, which is that slugs, deer, pheasants and greenfly eat most of them and those that are left are far more expensive than a supermarket. Taste good though.
Fruit trees need almost no effort but you get a sudden flood in a couple of weeks so learn chutney-making too.
Tomatoes can be grown easily in a large tub growing up the side of the house on net so you don’t need acres Good value and tasty, carry on for a couple of months too.