April 23, 2020

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.