What’s happening to the back to land movement? Where was the exodus of disillusioned urbanites seeking to Reclaim the Fields and occupy the farm? When will the hordes of weekly waged and weary precariats realise that the grass in greener, and there’s more of it, outside the city walls? In the face of the manifold social economic and ecological crisis why aren’t more people demanding access to land to build homes and livelihoods that could provide for their basic needs?
Such were the questions we brought to the recent “Redesigning back to the land” workshop led by John Thackara . Hosted by Stir to Action and held over a weekend in Bridport it offered us a good opportunity to reconfigure and reflect on where we are and how we got here, in a woodland in Wales wondering where everybody else is and whether we have lost the plot….
The aim of the workshop was to explore the possibilities of more meaningful exchange between rural and urban populations and ask how we could heal this metabolic rift, the disconnection from most of the population with the processes of exchange and production that sustains their economy. What are the existing pathways for land seekers? What are the steps people take to move towards a rural, low impact lifestyle, could these avenues be made more apparent? Could they work better? Do we need to come up with something new tool or service or can we redesign or “hack” the tools and services already at our disposal?
The first question is what problems would such a tool help us overcome? What are the difficulties or obstacles we encounter when faced with the proposition of going “back to the land” or put another way, what is it that deters people from making the move to a low impact, more subsistence lifestyle away from the bright lights of the city?
These were some of the obstacles we identified:
- land ownership
- planning system
- fear of drudgery
- hard physical work
- fear of isolation
- challenges of collaboration
- culture clash
- lack of skills
- fear of boredom
- lack of transport
- access to markets
Having been hacking away at this for a few years we are familiar with these problems, so how have we tried to design the Agroecology Land Trust (ALT) to meet these challenges?
To put this in perspective these obstacles can be considered through four main concerns of any land project:
Access to land – The high cost of land alongside a prohibitive planning system for low impact development is the first stumbling block or rather a massive capital barricade. There are also other social and political factors involved in land ownership and use that further entangle the land seeker in a bewildering and often intimidating nexus of local cronyism and prejudice.
Using a Community Benefit Society model to offer shares we can create a channel for investment that can be used to secure land for regional led agroecological development and co-sufficient low impact housing solutions. It is in a way, a form of crowdfunding and joint stock enterprise within the co-operative principle of common ownership.
By founding the ALT upon the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty we have a principled framework from which to present and argue our case for the need of this style of development to local planning authority.
It also gives us a wider significance; using agroecology as a tool to analyse and unify different practices of alternative agriculture and drawing from the power of Food Sovereignty as an ethical framework born of an international co-ordination of peasant activism. Appealing to the emerging discourse of agroecology in the context of Food Sovereignty we will have more credibility to a much wider section of the population beyond any particular region.
Building skills and training – It might not be the amount of work that deters people from pursuing a landbased livelihood but the nature of work and the diversity of skills required. In reality what this means is a reorientation of the practical involvement in one owns economic activity. This takes time and a learning (and unlearning) process that can be just as much emotional as technical.
We want to begin building skills and training through a stronger volunteer process. With regular volunteer weekends we will create local relationships and a continuity of involvement in the project. It is through this continuity that skills can be built. Learning new skills necessarily involves practice, and as such an occasion and location for practice to take place. We can provide this through an informal education process but it requires mutually beneficial activity and a commitment to a shared purpose.
Expanding on this our website and network presence can provide publicity for courses, workshop and skill share events organised by our members. With our support we can begin to model alternative methods of exchange to enable more people to access opportunities for training and skill sharing.
Business – It’s one thing accessing land quite another what you actually do with it. Farming is a business and a risky one at that.
By designing co-operative methods of marketing and distribution we can alleviate many of the difficulties involved in setting up a successful rural enterprise. Taking this one step further (or back) we can create co-operative enterprises and design collaborative production models that help us maximise efficiency and reduce risk involved in productive processes.
Why organise as a cooperative? To overcome the commodification of labour and all the inequities that this abstraction entails. Take control of production and the circulation capital.
The food hub model is of central importance to our objective to demonstrate the clear potential that innovative co-operative organisation alongside advances in information technology can play in designing shared marketing and distribution platforms.
On a practical level setting up a food hub is a way for group of people can gain experience in setting up and running a business, create local business links and potential partnerships that will increase local food production and provide a genuinely useful local service while engaging the local community in building a more resilient local food economy.
Our wider ambition is to not only provide access to land but also resources such as equipment and technology. Our governance, finance and legal structure can be viewed as a technology of sorts, a technique that will enable our members to engage with the bureaucratic and financial systems that dominate our economy. Such resources are extremely valuable to an entrepreneur.
Community and culture – Life in the country doesn’t have to be a lonely monotonous mud drenched slog. If we can approach the challenge of building co-sufficient subsistence economies as groups of committed individuals and communities with a shared purpose, using holistic design and realistic approaches to communal living the journey to a self-reliant economy will be rewarding in multiple ways.
We need to understand the importance of distinguishing the work/business organisational space from the community space. Often when people live and work together closely these boundaries become blurred causing confusion and conflict.
It is here that the purpose of the ALT gives sense and direction to the collaborative goal of responding to external economic factors. It becomes a tool as a reference point and aspiration in the evolving process of adapting to the complex and changing world around us. This general purpose fragments into the particular purpose of a project, enterprise or community farm.
The purpose of a particular community we hope to be unique to the relation of individuals in that community.
Self determination and autonomy in community organisation is the overriding goal. Culture cannot be designed but comes from a relation to place and the modes of exchange expressed by a group. Within the context of agroecology the hope is to create a plurality of cultural expressions embedded within and given meaning by the geogenetic boundaries and particularities of a bioregion.
With this in mind our membership agreement provides the foundation for self organisation aspiring to the broader values and principle of agroecology and food sovereignty without recourse to the prescription of normative values.
A co-housing community project with the ALT can prescribe the particular values they wish to live by through a community covenant but they will share the foundational principles of the ALT.
In short, community and culture cannot be designed and managed it comes from a relationship to the bioregion and the more authentic and reciprocal the relationship the more integrity and resilience the community will embody and the culture will express.
We want to provide a stepping stone for people to get into the position where they would be better able to take on the sort of small holding the Ecological Land Co-op are offering. So primarily this involves building skills and equity.
Flexibility and adaptation is key here. This is why we are proposing a “co-sufficient” cohousing structure using mobile cabins. It’s an easier less expensive way for people to get started, gain experience and secure equity without being over dependent on a co-operative structure. If things don’t work out it’s possible to move or sell the cabin and hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two along the way. All’s not lost.
Although we might personally view living in a rural fungal kingdom as beneficial, for many, such a move is less a step than a huge leap of faith. Unfortunately, there are still too few opportunities to give people the experience of moving outside the confines of the city and experiment with the joys and demands of low impact living while testing their own expectations and capacity.
Earlier this year a 4 year land occupation of 180 acre farm savagely came to an end. Yorkley Court Farm in the Forest of Dean was squatted as a Reclaim the Fields action. A complicated and ambitious attempt to claim land for a Community Farm Land Trust that despite the overwhelming animosity of local business interests and a corrupt district and county council, in the very least, provided a transitional space for young and old urban dwellers to come and live in the countryside to experiment with communal rural living and gain a greater appreciation of the challenges involved. We should not underestimate the benefit of such a space as a place to hold these ideas of land rights and sustainable agriculture and encourage the practices and collaborations required to transition to an economic form of organisation built upon agroecological methods and the principles of food sovereignty.
With this in mind we have to ask ourselves whether perhaps our proposed co-sufficient cabin cluster model would be best served on the edge of settlements in the “peri-urban” environments of towns and cities where more people could access this style of transitional space.
A model of CSA with the specific outcomes of volunteer engagement, skills sharing, and a process of building equity for investment in housing and home ownership. A sort of garden nursery/shared equity housing co-op for aspiring landworkers.
Proximity to urban areas would also mean access to a wealth of waste materials. Much of the on site infrastructure could be built, with skilled guidance, using reclaimed and recycled materials.
Another benefit would be the potential involvement of a broad spectrum of talented and skilled professionals that could contribute to this wider emerging articulation of a bioregional perspective.
Sweat to Own
On the second day of the workshop we tried to condense the previous day’s discussion and explore practical solutions. One proposal was to build a new co-operative platform to engage volunteer action with land projects but with the additional element of some sort of user driven ownership scheme. This would be a volunteer process that aims not only to build skills but also equity in a particular project or organisation.
How could a volunteer scheme be combined with a process of sweat equity where the the volunteers become user stakeholders of the project varying amounts of shared equity within the co-operative principle of common ownership.
One example of how this might work comes from an new online music streaming website. Resonate offers users, in this case music listeners with a subscription membership, a way to “stream to own” their favourite tracks. The more they listen to a track the cost for each listen increases slightly until they have paid the total cost for the track which can then be downloaded. According to Resonate, on average this service works out cheaper than existing platforms such as spotify with the added benefit of eventually owning their favourite songs.
How might such a “sweat to own” model work within the ALT?
I think the first effect would be the combination of a volunteer and membership process. Anyone volunteering on a ALT affiliated project could also enter into the same process by which applicant members work with existing members for a trial period before joining the co-operative.
After which the new members could become actively involved in seeking opportunities to build equity in particular projects that add value to ALT property or create value with ALT resources. Their actual ownership could take the form of equity shares in exchange for work, held against the increase in value of ALT property that benefits from building these fixed assets.
As for the cabins, finance for materials and related costs could be raised through share offers. The members could buy the cabin out right or they could “sweat to own” the cabin through a combination of their labour in the construction, sweat equity in other ALT projects, alongside a rent to buy scheme.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But I think we’d need a lawyer.
Time Share Nomads
One other interesting element that was brought up during the weekend was the idea of time sharing residents on land projects. There could be overlap here with the sweat to own concept but could cater for a different kind of stakeholder. Allowing people, perhaps with capital investment, to live and work on land projects on a seasonal basis. This could suit people that still want to live in an urban environment. It could also serve people who want to live a more nomadic lifestyle.
There is now a strong tendency towards exploring this form of nomadism with some of the former inhabitants of Yorkley Court Community Farm. They hope to acquire land in different locations and move periodically between these sites depending on the demands of the season. In this way they hope to not only avoid the bureaucracy of state planning regulations but also the economic coercion of settled agrarian community.
Could this be the emergence of the return of a nomadic form of social organisation based on an economy of pure gift exchange in a higher dimension? Liberated from the culturally constructed symbolic reciprocity of community, superseding the extortion by fear of state plunder and imposed imperial redistribution, transcending the alienating dispossession of commodification necessary for the self valorisation of capital?!
Or perhaps it is here we start to losing the plot…?
We don’t have to become vitriolic utopians to take on this task. There’s a return to simplicity in all this. Finding a place and coming to dwell in that place creates a story, it is the story of you and the people you come to live with and near, it might become a little weird and rough around the edges at times but in the end that makes for a better story. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more folk making these stories?