Emilie and John are WWOOF UK hosts in South Devon and passionate about the environment and what they do. Having been WWOOFers themselves, for the last twelve years they’ve taken their passion to the next level by starting out as small scale sustainable farmers.
Living on the land where they are farming has become an issue and a planning application has had to be made to South Hams Council.
We hope that by sharing this blog we will be helping Emilie and John, and others like them, to gain security and peace while they farm; living and looking after the land under their feet.
Working and living on the land – by Emilie & John at Wave Hill Farm
We are a small farm by today’s standards. We look after 100 acres organically and regeneratively, in South Devon, and have been doing so for 12 years. Our sheep are entirely pasture-fed and being perfect ecological engineers, they are rebuilding soil fertility and driving carbon sequestration, making our farm a net carbon sink. We gave up our cows due to TB policies that made no sense to us, so decided to diversify and create a mixed integrated “closed-loop” system. We started a small market garden using manure from our sheep, growing and planting trees in grassland to create silvopastures, raising a small flock of hens who are now enjoying life on pasture from our mobile chickshaw (when not in lockdown), and we even did sheep dairy trials last year which we’re looking forward to taking further.
In order to achieve this and manage the long unsociable hours that are inevitably required together with family life, chronic health issues etc, we ended up moving on our farm full-time at the beginning of lockdown, in a wooden mobile home. We use our own solar electricity, spring water, wood for heating, and we grow a large proportion of our food. We are not impacting on anyone, and our little home is scarcely visible in the landscape. In fact, with minimum inputs hence few deliveries and just one fairly small tractor rather than a fleet of big machinery, we can safely say that as farms go, our impact on neighbours (closest ones being across our valley) is also pretty minimal. We are now having to go through planning, for permission not to build anything, but simply to stay living in our mobile dwelling. The truth is, we cannot farm the way we now do while living elsewhere. It is not feasible nor sustainable for us to drive to the farm every single day at all hours, and financially we cannot afford to rent or buy a family house nearby. Making a living from a small farm is notoriously hard, but on top of that many regenerative practices such as mob grazing, planting new trees etc are highly labour intensive. We do not get paid for doing that, we do it because we believe it is the right thing to do. We can only afford to do it by living on the land where our needs are minimal. Crucially, it is thanks to all the WWOOFers, volunteers, interns, workers etc who come here to help, learn and be part of this adventure that together we are able to do this. In effect, by moving away from a system that is fossil-fuel-dependent, what we are seeing emerge as a result is something that is very much people-based, more akin to how small farms in the past would have supported several families who in turn would have supported each other. We really believe we should welcome this, not oppose it.
Yet there are so many barriers, not least our outdated planning system. This is a real issue: just to state the obvious, people working the land, both temporary or full time workers, need to live somewhere, and with long hours and low wages, options are limited. We will know if our own application is successful by mid-February but it is far from certain and may well take years because although we are not asking to build anything, we may not meet conventional justifications in terms of animal numbers and income. Maximising animal numbers regardless of environmental costs is clearly ludicrous, while maximising income before sustainability seems to us the wrong way round. The costs and hoops we’ve had to jump through to even request permission to remain on our land are ludicrous and wildly prohibitive, with no guarantee we will succeed given the lack of planning framework for land workers living in low-key temporary dwellings.
Yet barns can be converted under Class Q without full planning, simply under permitted development. So barns get converted to houses, mostly unaffordable to future land workers, while the land is sold separately, without buildings. There are even firms now specialising in buying small farms to do just this, to “help” farmers who are struggling financially (that’s a lot of us thanks to low food prices and will be even more with the new trade deals and land grab currently taking place) and obviously, making huge profits in the process. The land, shorn of its farmsteads often ends up swallowed up into large agri-businesses. Or if some intrepid newcomer is brave or mad enough to take it on, they are forced to live in town and commute, whilst those living in the converted barns commute to work in the other direction. The absurdity and hypocrisy of this should be plain for all to see, all the more so at this time of climate crisis. Yet by asking to live on our land sustainably in what is actually classed as a caravan, we find ourselves accused of somehow abusing a system which is in so many ways geared up against us, by those who have themselves benefitted and often profited from it. There is a tragic irony when the very people who have moved into former barns and farmhouses, some of them holiday homes, vehemently object to those farming the land around them doing just that, or worse, living there. And certainly in our experience, all the complaints and objections, from yurts to volunteer caravans, polytunnels, hedge management, use of our sheds etc etc, have come from people living in the very buildings that would once have served our land and the land around us. There appears to be a deep disconnect and misunderstanding regarding our role as land workers, farmers and growers, in that we seem to be primarily expected to look after the views of those who can afford to live here. Meanwhile we are supposed to remain a hidden part of “their” landscape.
This situation is all the more incomprehensible given the current context. With the global pandemic and the effects of the ecological crisis impacting communities across the globe, there has never been a more evident and urgent need for low-impact living, relocalisation of much of our food systems, stronger community resilience, and a wider implementation of agroecology, with farming methods that are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. One could reasonably go one step further and argue that access to land and the ability to produce our own food should be actively enabled and encouraged, to reduce both individual and collective reliance on industrialised food systems and repair our connection to the land. Not only have modern chemical agriculture and factory food created havoc with our health and environment, but their inherent fragility has now been exposed for all to see – made all too obvious by a reliance on fossil-fuels and other unsustainable inputs that are either running out or highly vulnerable to disruptions in production and distribution networks. Yet while this seems at least partly recognised in theory, with countless policies, declarations and legal commitments, including the UK’s emission target of net zero by 2050, there is still little evidence of any real action or plan coming from the top on how to achieve this – only talk and a fragmented approach which is failing. What’s more, those of us who are trying to act now to address some of these issues find ourselves battling against local resistance to change and an outdated system that does not reflect current global and local challenges.
Still there are also some good aspects in our planning system, like the consultation period which gives everyone a right to be heard, so we are putting our trust in the process and have tried our very best to put forward our case thoroughly and transparently. Things are hopefully moving in the right direction with for example a wider implementation of the One Planet Development framework*. But still we believe there is an urgent need to collectively reflect on where we want our food to come from, what kind of food systems we wish to support and what that looks like in our landscape. And with so many land workers already doing what they can to be part of the solution, we feel we should at least be part of that conversation too.
Planning ref 2044/21/FUL on South Hams Planning webpage for full details & comments before 27th January!!! (Your support will also be most welcome after this date of course )
Visit the planning application documents and add your support here.
* The One Planet Council – supporting small scale sustainable farming: www.oneplanetcouncil.org.uk/
Photos by Alice Carfrae: Check out her Instagram @