Model #1: Rural, Single-family Smallholding

by Jake and Stefy

Main area (with polytunnels) at the site

In search of a different way of life, our first stop was WWOOFing with a couple in South Devon, Anne and Bob. Both of them had been involved in permaculture and general green activism (particularly festival organization) for quite some time, and both had grown up and worked in London as well.Their site (whose name, as well as theirs, we are holding back as they are in the midst of a planning dispute and don’t want any publicity), comprises a 5 acre small holding that they envision turning into an educational center, rural business incubator, and eco-tourism site.

The Site

Their plot sits on the coast, in a bucolic area dominated by wealthy vacation-home owners and a few large farms. Their perch on a ridge right next to the sea affords sweeping views of the Atlantic (and easy access to the beach below), but vicious wind makes it extremely difficult to grow anything, particularly trees.

The Vision

If all goes as planned, they will have an energy-sufficent multi-purpose rural enterprise site, containing:

  • Workshops and education spaces on traditional low-energy skills, like scything, weaving, woodworking/natural building, gardening/permaculture, and herbal medicine.
  • Work spaces for rural entrepreneurs (who would be brought on as well to teach some of the workshops)
  • Yurt lodging for “ecotourists”
  • Medicinal herb garden
  • Vegetables and dairy (goats and chickens), primarily for themselves and guests, though possibly some additional for sale in particularly good harvests.

The Current State of Affairs

As the site is still only two years old, they’re still a bit of a ways off from their vision, though they have enough underway to provide a reasonable life for themselves and point the way to more to come, with the yurt-lodging business set to be running by later this summer. What they do have: six polytunnels (a cheap and flexible form of greenhouse) that allow for longer growing seasons and workshop space (they’ve hosted some education events), in addition to outdoor growing space with a wide variety of vegetables and herbs underway. They have a borehole onsite for water, and use wood from Bob’s forestry work for heat, but they’re still dependent on grid energy and a lot of purchased food. At this point, revenue comes entirely from work outside the site—graphic design and freelance internet work by Kit and landscaping, forestry and odd-jobs by Bob.

The Hardest Part (According to our Hosts)

Dealing with the planning commission. In the UK, rules around new development, particularly in rural areas, is extremely tight, and favors familiar ways of doing things and large developers. They can’t move forward on the project until they get clearance, and it’s been close to a year of getting letters of support from the local community and faraway bureaucrats, expert assessments, drainage plants, info packs and budgets, presentations in front of councils and sub-councils, and on and on. Apparently it’s essentially a full-time job.

Our Impressions of the Lifestyle

It’s a constant battle: Between mulching, weeding, strimming, moving things from here to there, it is a ton of work for what doesn’t even end up paying the bills or taking care of the full diet. That said, viewed in the context of the broader project for demonstration and tourism, it may make sense, but what I saw is not a way to feed and cloth the world.

It seems like it offers a life of reasonable variety, happiness and fulfillment on a low budget, but that’s contingent on having the asset of land: Between both our hosts, they apparently earn on the order of 12,000 pounds a year, putting them well below the poverty line in either the US or UK. They eat very well, with loads of fresh vegetables and herb, and have close relationships with all kinds of different people around them, with friends popping over for tea or a beer or to discuss a project nearly every day. They walk with their dog through the nearby forest nature reserve to lovely beaches as part of their daily routine (see slideshow here). They regularly attend green festivals around the UK, many of which they organize themselves. Their lives seem fulfilling, connected, and while not particularly comfortable by American middle class standards (they live in a yurt, do their cooking in a trailer, and have all of their heating via firewood stoves), their lives don’t seem hard either.

At the same time, the land was paid for by their parents, and I have no idea how much it was worth. What kind of comparison can be made across income sitting on an asset like that (particularly since much of the nice things about their life seems to come from it), I don’t know, so it’s hard to talk about it being anything like a model without addressing deeper issues of land distribution.

It takes a lot of different skills to make it work, though not insurmountable: Between the two of them, they have building skills, forestry skills, growing skills, planning skills, design skills, and computer skills, many of which they need to apply in different constellations to their own project and to eking out a flexible living to support it. These aren’t impossible things to develop, but it may represent a lot relative to the output (though again I don’t really know how to weigh it, and ultimately it’s hard to say without seeing how the rest of the project turns out).

My personal experience with it:

I like the relative quiet and the easy flow of my mind into the simple task at hand. I like the unstructured teaching that comes from dealing with nature in less constrained ways. I like living in a way that is more varied and built around creating and growing rather than consuming. I dislike the deep dependence on a car for human contact and services. I dislike being damp all the time (though this could just be England). I dislike everything smelling like firewood smoke. From this experience alone, I wonder whether I feel more comfortable in towns, surrounded by the familiar energy of other humans and the shorter sightlines and inadvertent artwork of their living spaces. But there is so much that I love about the country that I could also imagine that changing, particularly as I age and the land becomes an ever more valuable teacher of grace.

You can find pictures of the experience in our post here.

3 thoughts on “Model #1: Rural, Single-family Smallholding

  1. heartlandroad July 6, 2012 / 10:32 pm

    Really like your matter-of-fact consideration of what it would be like to live like this – it’s something a lot of people dream of but you don’t often get the chance to appreciate what it would really be like.

  2. Teris Riel September 12, 2012 / 4:56 pm

    Sounds fun, but hard to make it scale.
    The polytunnels and the yurt would require some extra work in some climates (e.g. hurricane country: “Only bricks and stones are wolf-proof” — The Third Little Pig)

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