We were particularly fortunate in having Simon Fairlie , who lives at Monkton Wyld, as our AGM’s keynote speaker. Simon is an author (Low Impact Development: Planning and People in a Sustainable Countryside and Meat: a Benign Extravagance.), founder and editor of The Land magazine, and campaigner, who also runs Chapter 7, which gives planning advice. He has exhaustive knowledge and strong opinions, and gave a thoughtful and passionate talk about getting, and keeping, people on the land. He pointed out that land itself is a scarce resource which needs to be used purposefully, and questioned the value of people choosing a rural lifestyle which may conflict with, rather than support, their occupation. He feels that people aspiring to a rural lifestyle should question their motivation, and examine their consciences, as the price of land increases to a level which may make it prohibitive for people wanting to start genuine land-based enterprises.
He quoted Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century champion of the rural economy, who also understood the attractions of the independence of rural life, but was living at a time when there was less pressure on land, currently fuelled by government policies allowing barns to be converted into housing or industrial development, and subsidies and tax concessions that are inflating land values.
He compared eighteenth-century hiring fairs for farm servants to the WWOOF movement, which can offer the equivalent of an apprenticeship for people wanting to gain a holistic understanding of agriculture, and specific skills not currently taught in agricultural colleges. He also spoke about the difficulty of acquiring land and the advantages of being ‘on the ground’ and embedded in rural communities, to network with others and to seek out possible opportunities. He advised people wanting to start rural businesses to go WWOOFing, but to be selective when choosing hosts and to know what they want to get from the experience.
With regard to planning issues, persistence is required, but profit-making enterprises usually get permission in the end.
Simon expressed concerns about the increasing mechanisation of farming, as people are replaced by robots on large farms, and traditional skills and the ploughman’s knowledge of the countryside is lost. To counter this, he mentioned the Landworkers Alliance, a new initiative campaigning on issues affecting small scale food producers. Part of La Via Campesina, the Alliance hopes to promote an agricultural policy that prioritises small and medium scale producers who use sustainable practices and serve local markets. The six pillars of food sovereignty on which it is based are absolutely in keeping with the WWOOF ethos, and many hosts may be interested in joining (email: email@example.com). Hosts may also be interested in subscribing to The Land, an occasional publication about Land Rights, published from Monkton Wyld (www.thelandmagazine.org.uk).
Simon himself manages five acres of land and keeps two Jersey cows which supply the Monkton Wyld community – about twenty people, with milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, and some butter. He earns a living by importing and selling Austrian scythes and runs courses on how to use them.