Meet the city dwellers going back to the land
Working the land is as hard today as it has ever been. So why does a new generation of disaffected urban professionals want to get back to nature? Five converts tell their stories
Saturday 18 July 2009
Of all occupations," observed the Roman philosopher Cicero, "there is none better than agriculture, nothing more productive, nothing sweeter, nothing more worthy of a free man." It is a sentiment that still holds true in the popular imagination – despite the many well-documented travails suffered by British farmers in recent years. For while the 20th century saw the rapid decline in the importance of agriculture in all its forms – today it accounts for just 0.5 per cent of our GDP and employs barely 500,000 people – the yearning to own or work a patch of land remains as strong as ever and is felt, it seems, most keenly among urban professionals for whom the ultimate lifestyle choice takes them straight back to nature.
Interest in food and food production is higher than ever. The new farming generation has embraced diversification, bringing fresh ideas and energy to the countryside, raising, processing and marketing their own products with increasing success. Growers and even farmers are now flirting with celebrity status. In the cities and towns people flock to emulate them – waiting lists for allotments run into months, even years, while long-forgotten hobbies such as keeping chickens, growing vegetables and making honey are firmly back in vogue.
Agricultural land has proved a wily hedge against plunging stock and property markets, having doubled in value over the past five years. An average acre will now set you back £4,200 while a smallholding with sufficient land and buildings on which to grow enough to feed your family – with a little left over to barter – can be exchanged for no more than a three-bedroom terrace in one of the less salubrious London suburbs.
Today's new farming recruits bear little resemblance to the barley barons and broiler kings who dominated the large-scale agricultural enterprises encouraged by successive governments chasing the post-war dream of cheap food. Not for them the never-ending prairies of green concrete and vast sheds stuffed with ragged poultry. Their goal is neither money nor mechanised efficiency. Today, one-quarter of all farms make no profit at all, while half of them produce incomes of less than £10,000 a year. The work is hard and at times dangerous. As a previous generation in the 1970s was inspired by the writings of self-sufficiency guru John Seymour, today's new farmers are more likely to quote Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. For them it is a case of small is beautiful. Their farms are places designed to reconnect them with nature, where blogs about composting hold more fascination than the intricacies of Brussels' bureaucracy and where a man or woman can, as Cicero said, feel free again.
From: computer expert
To: goat herder
When shane Durston was thinking about what to buy his partner Emma for her birthday, he knew it was time to bow to the inevitable. "I'd put it off for five years but I'd finally run out of present ideas. It was what she had always wanted, but I couldn't stand the smell," he recalls. Now the proud owners of two Golden Guernsey goats, the couple have pressed both animals into service to produce milk and soft cheese for the family larder. Emma is happy and Shane has overcome his dislike of that unmistakably tangy aroma. It was a typically easy compromise in the enviable life of the Durstons, who gave up their previous existence living and working in Milton Keynes for a new start on a 12.5 acre smallholding in the Lincolnshire Fens. In April the couple and their 18-month-old son Finley completed their first year as stewards of their plot in the village of Sutton St Edmund, which they share with an impressive menagerie including nine Gloucester Old Spot pigs, three cows (Elsa, Mary and Violet) and a steer called Bovril.
They also reap the rewards of 45 egg-laying former battery hens, six ducks, two geese and four ewes. The garden is given over to new season vegetables, while soft fruit and berries flourish in an old netted polytunnel. Shane had given himself 12 months out from running his IT problem-solving business to enjoy bringing up his son. When the deadline expired, the couple just couldn't give up the good life.
Emma now works full-time, half the week from home, while Shane is devoting all his energy to making the smallholding, previously no more than a hobby, pay its way. "It has to put a few pounds in my pocket for beer, that's all. But what more can a man want?" says the 43-year-old who was bought up in inner-city London. "I call myself a professional bum. I raise my son, which is the best thing in the world, and it is great to see him interacting from such an early age with cows and sheep and goats. I suspect that when he gets older he won't be very streetwise but he has a brilliant environment to grow up in. I look back on my life and I think I would rather have his life than mine." The Durstons don't consider themselves to be eco-warriors. Though Shane makes his own bio-diesel, they are more than happy to send out for a non-organic kebab from the local takeaway. They do, however, seem very content. "We are as happy as pigs in muck," says Emma. "I love all of it, from going down to see the animals first thing in the morning to having a walk round in the evening when Finley is in bed. I love being able to look at the meat and veg we have raised. There are plenty of muddy and wet times but there is always something new to challenge us."
To: rare-breed farmer
there was a certain irony for Jan McCourt when he was made redundant from his job in the City. Having come to something of a personal crossroads as he approached early middle-age, he had none the less reconciled himself to serving out another decade in the rat race. The compensations of investment banking being what they are, however, three years earlier he had taken the precaution of buying Northfield Farm, a small working concern in the rolling countryside near Oakham in Rutland. Losing his job proved a decisive turning point. "That was when I thought, 'I don't want to be considered over-the-hill at 37'. I wanted to be doing something that I was responsible for myself – something tangible," he recalls. He had always felt happiest during childhood holidays spent on his grandparents' farm outside Dublin and had fostered a long-term ambition to reconnect producers with consumers as well as working with rare breeds such as Dexter and White Park cattle. Today, he presides over one of the most respected meat brands in the country, and having learnt to raise and butcher his own animals, he sells them at Borough and Broadway markets in London, as well as at music festivals and to top restaurants.
But making that decisive switch 12 years ago was not easy. "I certainly miss the money and I do miss some of the buzz that there was from putting a deal together," he says. "Although the hours were sometimes ridiculous in my previous life – you could be in at 6am and not leave until the early hours – with your own business you never switch off." There have been plenty of troubles on the way. His marriage to Tessa, the mother of his three children, fell apart under the strain of the challenges he faced. He has been forced to sell nearly 50 of his 150 acres to keep his head above water. There was the aftermath of BSE to contend with, two onslaughts of foot and mouth, one of which spread to within six miles of his farm gate. Then he nearly died when he was crushed by a tractor in a horrific accident which smashed his pelvis and broke his hip. After a two-year convalescence, he is forced to contend with reduced mobility and near-constant pain. It was a harsh reminder that farming is a dangerous business, but he was not deterred. "Even then, faced with the terror of not being here for the children, I don't ever remember thinking I wish I had stayed in the City – that just never crossed my mind. At least now I feel proud of what I have done and like the fact that the family business will survive me." Today everyone mucks in. Eldest daughter Charlotte, now 17, helps with the chickens and the music festivals while son Leo, 15, has taken to caring for billy goat kids that until now were discarded as an unwanted byproduct of the dairy industry. Tessa has also returned to work on the farm. "It is not an easy option. People look at what I do and think: 'That would be nice to sit around in the country all day long, write my novel and party all night.' But it is not much of a party life," he admits.
From: magazine editor
To: vegetable grower
kate collyns doesn't see herself as a refugee from the credit crunch. Having started up her new life as an apprentice vegetable grower just as the global banking system went into meltdown, she occasionally spares a thought for her former colleagues. A few months after she quit editing a glossy health magazine, the publication folded. "Some people think I have timed it in a very Machiavellian way so that I would be doing this for two years during the worst of the recession and then make a lot of money out of it. That would be lovely but I'm not doing it for that reason," she insists. The reality of her new career has thrown up new challenges she did not expect, but coping with large amounts of spare cash is not one of them. There was the long cold winter, much of which was spent in a freezing outbuilding sorting vegetables into boxes. She wrestled with the monotony of simple repetitive tasks such as weeding and packing when her mind would whirr "round and round in circles". And then there was the small matter of the state of her hands – which went from white to dirty black before settling for a beetle-green sheen. "My long-suffering boyfriend despairs at my filthy paws these days: no matter how hard I scrub, they refuse to get properly clean. Still, at least I look like a proper grower now," she says. Having fallen into magazine publishing almost by accident after taking an MA in philosophy, Kate, who is 28, had always harboured a love of growing things. At university and in her first jobs she cultivated vegetables in pots in the backyards of rented homes. When she spotted the Soil Association scheme for organic apprentices for an article she was running, she decided it was time to make the change. Today she earns around one-third of her previous salary and has no guaranteed job at the end of her two-year traineeship at Purton House in Wiltshire. But she doesn't seem to mind. "My boyfriend says I am a lot happier now, a lot more chilled. Even in the winter when the days are short and it is freezing cold, and I am standing up to my knees in mud digging carrots, I have never regretted it. I gave up a secure job but when I see what is happening in that industry I know I did the right thing," she says. Kate remains convinced that public interest in food production is more than just a fashion. "I think people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtsall have been a great advert for growing your own, but the movement has been going for much longer."
To read Kate Collyns' blog, see soilassociation.org/Takeaction/Learning/Apprenticeshipscheme/Apprenticeblog/tabid/241/Default.aspx
From: fashion buyer
as teenagers, both Emma and Rupert Evans would have laughed if they had been told they would end up working on a farm. Though they both grew up surrounded by animals and crops, in their respective homes in Staffordshire and Buckinghamshire, the very idea of earning a living off the land was anathema. "We spent all our time as kids wanting to get out of the village," recalls Emma, now 39. "As a teenager, I was the most unlikely farmer's daughter there ever was. It was a case of cows ... ugh! I was much more interested in sport and fashion." That interest in fashion was to provide the spur to study and later to become a buyer for River Island and then Monsoon. Her job and her husband Rupert's senior position in advertising provided the passport to a Victorian house in a sought-after part of west London, international travel, prestige and an enviable standard of living. But it wasn't enough. "It got too much after 15 years. We thought, 'Where are we going?' Yes, we were earning a lot of money but the quality of life just was not there. I couldn't carry on flying round the world, leaving my child behind all the time and I didn't want to put my son in a nursery," she says.
Today, the couple are the owners of Denstone Hall Farm Shop and Café, built in the shed where Emma's father once milked his herd of 370 cattle. The farm's profits had been declining steadily when the couple set up their new venture two years ago. Emma's father was delighted and hopes it means the farm will now pass to a fifth generation of his family, perhaps even a sixth, and is busy cultivating an interest in his two-year-old grandson Archie.
The Evans family now lives in a converted 15th-century mill which affords stunning views to the Peak District. The shop, which sells meat from the farm and other local suppliers, is thriving. Turnover is 40 per cent up and there are plans to expand both the business and the family. With the shop open six days a week, the hours may be long but the compensations are clearly there too, among them childhood friends who have also gravitated back to the village. Though neighbours still call Rupert "City Boy" because of his well-tailored shirts, the couple feel at home. "When I left London, I did think: 'What have I done?'" says Emma. "But now I know we've done the right thing."
From: IT consultant
dave morgan and partner Carole Austin count themselves luckier than most. "When we were planning our move a couple of years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is a high-flyer in the City. He said: 'If you sell your house now you won't regret it. I know what is coming and it isn't very nice.'" The friend, as we now know, was right. The couple sold one of their homes at the height of the market and banked the money. After a rigorous search they found what they were looking for – a smallholding at Capel Irwin, in a quiet corner of south-west Wales. Six weeks ago, they took possession of the keys and have only had two days off since. Since then they have been working hard to bring their two acres into cultivation and prepare for self-sufficiency. Both had fallen out of love with the rat race. "The south-east is full of people who are trying to get there a bit faster than you, looking for a bigger car or a bigger house," says the former IT consultant. "We just thought: 'Let's live a little differently'." The farm, which set them back £290,000, includes a sturdily built 1925 bungalow, several paddocks and a number of outbuildings.
Recent weeks have been spent cutting the grass, strimming and setting up a workshop and a vegetable garden. "We are not sure about livestock – we'll make that decision when we are more settled," Dave says, though he thinks chickens could be an option.
At present, the objective is to build a soft-fruit cage to grow raspberries and gooseberries that can be traded with other growers. And contrary to rumour, the locals have proved welcoming. "We have found everyone really nice and lovely. We heard a lot of talk from people about the English-Welsh thing but our experience is that any problems come from the English not the Welsh," Dave says. Carole's 17-year-old son Dan has settled down into his new life. "He absolutely loves it," says Dave. "Neither of us had really planned this before we met, though we both thought we wanted to move away. It was just borne out of a desire to life differently."
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