[Diggers350] Going To Seed, Simon Fairlie autobiography: ‘People are so detached from the land’

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sun May 29 19:45:04 BST 2022

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

<https://www.twitter.com/patrick_barkham>@patrick_barkham Sun 29 May 2022

Simon Fairlie is possibly the most influential – 
and unusual – eco-activist you might not have 
heard of. A hippy in the 60s and a pioneer of the 
road protest movement, he’s now a persuasive advocate of micro-dairy farming
Patrick Barkham


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.

'When you’ve got a little closed community you 
can see clearly what people’s needs are and how 
much you need to produce' - Simon Fairlie

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 
<https://monktonwyldcourt.co.uk/>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.”

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 
Amis, wife of Kingsley.

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. 
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 <http://www.tinkersbubble.org/>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 
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.

'Rewilding is a way of pulling in new subsidies 
for public goods and you’re not actually producing any food.' Simon Fairlie

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 
<https://theecologist.org/>Ecologist and then the 
<https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/>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 
to Seed %E2%80%93 A Countercultural Memoir by 
Simon Fairlie is published by Chelsea Green>guardianbookshop.com at £13.04

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