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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Barkham

Simon Fairlie: ‘People are so detached from the land’

‘We’re fighting a rearguard action against the forces of technological greed. But we can keep a check on these idiots’: Simon Fairlie at Monkton Wyld, Devon.
‘We’re fighting a rearguard action against the forces of technological greed. But we can keep a check on these idiots’: Simon Fairlie at Monkton Wyld, Devon. Photograph: Leon Foggitt/The Observer

This is my dream yard,” sighs Simon Fairlie, standing in a small quadrangle of rough stones strewn with hay, surrounded by low redbrick barns, where swallows dip in the summer. With its pair of soulful Jersey cows and folds of Dorset hills beyond, it resembles an idyll of long-lost farming life.

Fairlie, one of the most interesting and influential activists you may never have heard of, has had a long and varied career. But the latest chapter in the multi-storied life of one of the fathers of Britain’s environmental movement sees him as a farmer. Which might sound at odds with his background, but Fairlie – true to form – is championing an alternative type of farming, in the shape of the micro-dairy.

The man who was part of the original hippy movement, pioneer of the road protest movement and anti-fossil fuel living, is these days happy tending to livestock. But he farms small, running the dairy for the charitable trust in charge of Monkton Wyld Court, a Victorian pile that hosts yoga retreats, campers and various alternative gatherings. He rears two pigs for meat every six months, fed upon the community’s leftover food.

“That’s what pigs were bred for – they eat the food that would otherwise be a rat problem,” he says. The don’t-eat-food-waste regulations are “to protect the factory farms because if they get swine fever, they cull thousands in one go. Diseases are a part of life. Only in factory farming are they catastrophic.”

His current pair are called Jim and Bob. Is it difficult to dispatch them to market? “I’m fairly OK with it, but less so with cows. Once you accept that eating meat is a sensible part of human nourishment you’re guided by your head rather than your emotions. Your emotions are flexible and a little bit untrustworthy. If you think about what you feel, you’re thinking more about yourself than the animal. You just make sure they have a nice time when they are alive.”

‘Accept that eating meat is a sensible part of human nourishment, just make sure that animals have a good time when they are alive’: Simon Fairlie.
‘Accept that eating meat is a sensible part of human nourishment, just make sure that animals have a good time when they are alive’: Simon Fairlie. Photograph: Leon Foggitt/The Observer

Dairy has a bad press today, but Fairlie is frustrated by guests who would rather consume soya products shipped around the world than what’s made 50 yards down the hill from two well-kept animals. “A large amount of what we eat here is just what we’re seeing out of the window,” he says. Today’s dairy industry is “dreadful,” he says. “It’s tragic. So many small farms have disappeared and these monstrous farms concentrate far too many nutrients in one place, causing pollution, and even these farms are struggling.”

Fairlie is convinced that the micro-dairy model is workable in the modern era, and does not require everyone to live in a commune. Small dairies could be attached to small communities, from prisons to residential homes, reducing carbon emissions, pollution and waste. “When you’ve got a little closed community you can see more clearly what people’s needs are and how much you need to produce.”

He is an eloquent critic of consumerism, but also a defender of activities that many environmentally minded folk now decry – from cattle farming to wood stoves. If that sounds a bit retro, he is also an evangelist for local food and a radical advocate for land reform.

His generation came of age during the 1960s and matured with the environmental movement through the 1970s and 80s. His new memoir, Going to Seed, brilliantly conveys how the ideas of the counterculture have evolved over the years. With his shock of still-dark hair, neckerchief and stout demeanour, Fairlie looks like an authentic countryman, but he was raised in 1950s suburbia and farmed out to boarding schools by his errant father, Henry, a notable Fleet Street journalist who coined the term “the establishment” and had an affair with Hilary Amis, wife of Kingsley.

The commune at Monkton Wyld works says, Simon Fairlie. The house hosts ‘endless yoga retreats… We’ve had a couple of orgies, even.’
Peaceful harmony: the commune at Monkton Wyld. The house hosts ‘endless yoga retreats… We’ve had a couple of orgies, even.’ Photograph: Leon Foggitt/The Observer

After Simon dropped out of Cambridge university to follow the hippy trail to India, his father wrote a book called The Spoilt Child of the Western World, ostensibly about the decadence of America but also, Fairlie felt, taking aim at him and his generation.

While his father was desperate for Fairlie to write, like he did, his son was determined to forge an alternative society. His tribe were then variously known as flower children or freaks; Fairlie prefers the French term “les marginaux”, but the only word that endures is hippy.

Today’s radical young environmentalists “are just like I was, but they don’t think of themselves as an alienated generation,” says Fairlie. “Greta Thunberg is angry and that’s good, but she’s not saying, ‘We’re different from you.’ She’s just saying, ‘We’re younger than you and you’re not living up to your responsibilities.’ We were saying, ‘We are a different culture – we are freaks and you are straights.’ I’m not saying that was right or wrong.”

Bearing in mind his 1970s motto – “a career is a headlong rush towards doom” – Fairlie lived on communes and took casual jobs to avoid a conventional career cul-de-sac. He embraced the protest movement ignited by the Thatcher government’s Roads for Prosperity building programme in 1989. The movement mobilised a generation of writers, environmental scientists and campaigners. Fairlie’s protests against the M11 extension landed him in Pentonville prison, where his cellmate enthused about a plot of land for sale in Somerset. So began his next adventure: co-founding a fossil fuel-free eco-community called Tinkers Bubble in 1994.

Fairlie is rather scathing of his 11 years there, criticising the community’s lack of organisation and work ethic. “We were a magnet for nutcases,” he writes. “We hippies actually weren’t too good at working communally.”

Communes may seem an idea whose time has gone, but Fairlie mounts a spirited defence. A decent proportion of the rural communes established 50 years ago still exist today; they may be more stable than the nuclear family, he argues. Monkton Wyld works, he says, because all 20 or so residents have a job. “To live here, you apply for a role like the gardener or maintenance. It’s a business.” The house hosts “endless yoga retreats”, but also weddings, family weekends and parties. “We’ve had a couple of orgies, even. They were quite interesting. They were very well run.”

And so to the micro-dairy he runs for the community: the key to truly sustainable food production, he argues, is its scale. He likes the term “plantationocene” to describe the relentless scaling up and intensification of globalised food production with all its associated problems.

Local food is embodied by his two Jersey cows, Cocoa and Folly. Rather than separating calves from mothers at birth as in conventional dairying, the calves live with their mothers for about three months. Given six acres of grazing, the pair produce 8,000 litres of milk each year – about £11,000-worth of milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Rather like his journalist father, Fairlie has a keen eye for a trend. When he took up scything, importing modern lightweight scythes from Austria and running how-to-scythe courses, he was surprised to see the trend take off. He wonders whether scythes will be his most lasting legacy – but his years of campaigning on land reform have helped many people seeking to live off-grid. He calls for simple tweaks to the planning system to enable young locals to self-build affordable homes on village edges. But spiralling land prices are reducing the possibility of a back-to-the-land movement for all but the very wealthy.

He would like to see a revival of the “county farm” system whereby council-owned farms provide affordable tenancies for motivated but landless young farmers. Instead, councils sell off these assets. The landless English often don’t realise how much common land was annexed by private landowners during the enclosures of the Middle Ages. “Breaking up the big estates or making them more accessible is nowhere near the political agenda because the majority of people in England are so detached from the land they don’t realise they’ve been dispossessed,” he says.

Some of these big estates may be leading the way on restoring nature, but Fairlie is a rewilding sceptic. “It’s potentially a scam. It’s a way of pulling in new subsidies for ‘public goods’ [such as restoring biodiversity or soils], and you’re not actually producing any food. I’m not totally against rewilding, but I’m very suspicious of it on good agricultural land. If it’s a public good, it should be under public ownership, not be paid for by the public to a landowner for doing sod all.”

Fairlie took up writing and editing – for the Ecologist and then the Land – only after his father died. What would Henry Fairlie have made of his son’s life today? “He’d be very glad I started writing. That was what he wanted, but he also had an interest in farming as he got older.”

The critical father would probably also agree with his son’s conclusions about environmental activism. “When you are young and swept up in a revolutionary moment, it’s easy to believe there is everything to win,” writes Fairlie. “When you look back, towards the end of a full life, you realise you have just been treading water – fighting a rearguard action for justice and ecological modesty against the forces of corporate greed and technological rapacity, who have wealth and power on their side. But we can keep a check on these idiots, and limit or delay their excesses.”

Going to Seed: A Countercultural Memoir by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, £14.99) is out now. Buy a copy from at £13.04

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