THERE is a group of small-holders, food producers and farmers on the West Dorset-South Somerset-Devon border who call themselves the Peasant Evolution Producers Co-operative.
The name is a bit of a mouthful and sounds like the rather worthy offspring of Wat Tyler, the Levellers and a bunch of Californian vegans.
However, don’t let the name put you off. This is a hard-working and passionately committed group of people, who produce and sell wonderful wholesome food and drink, including fresh organic vegetables, meat, cheese, dairy and honey, and traditional crafts, ranging from herbal soaps to sheepskins to Fivepenny chairs, made by a master bodger (a proper craftsman not a bish-bash-bosh merchant).
You do have to be pretty dedicated to live off-grid, as most of them do, and work as hard as they do – 24/7 (not a phrase they are likely to use) just isn’t in it. It really is round-the-clock, round-the-year.
On a sunny day (whatever the season), it always looks very appealing at Fivepenny Farm, on the hills above Wootton Fitzpaine. But it is an unrelenting pattern of caring for animals, tilling the soil, nurturing heritage fruit trees, wrestling with polytunnels in winter gales, tending fragile seedlings through drought, chasing chickens in at night, maintaining the homes and co-operative thatched barn they built themselves and taking their produce to markets, farm shop and festivals.
Whatever the weather.
A hard life then, but a fulfilling one. One of the most striking things when you visit Fivepenny is the happy faces that greet you. Husbands, wives, partners, friends, willing volunteers and children of all ages take an active part in the farm, the growing, the production and the selling.
Over the years, from initial suspicion and mistrust the peasant small-holders have won respect, admiration and loyal customers in the surrounding valleys and villages, and in Bridport Market where you can buy from them every week.
If you visit their website* you will see the huge variety of their products and read their simple clear ethos. They “have joined together to help each other make a viable living off the land.”
They say: “We believe that being a peasant is a way towards the future. We promote organic farming and sustainable land management, fairtrade, rural crafts and handmade, healthy local food.”
It’s not really very far from the traditional family farms that still continue in this region, like the Kimbers at Charlton Musgrove near Wincanton, the Holland family at Allington near Bridport, and the extended Tory family in the Tarrant Valley near Blandford.
There was good news recently for traditional farmers in the West Country that their properly produced, pasture-fed meat (beef and lamb) has been given PGI status, one of the EU’s designations intended to give confidence to consumers (very important in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.)
But with so many fewer children – and so many more enticing and wealth-generating possibilities than farming for those children – farming is now often a lonely existence.
So co-operatives are one answer. And they don’t have to be quite so back-to-basics as the off-grid Fivepenny community. In south Devon, Guy Watson has gathered a grouping of organic farmers around his family’s Wash Farm near Totnes.
With Guy’s energy, drive and marketing skills, Riverford Organic veg boxes have become an internationally recognised brand and the Riverford Field Kitchen and farm shop are both popular destinations.
Guy travels regularly to their farms in France and producers in Spain and most recently to India, where he was inspired again by the traditional farming methods practised by the peasant farmers.
In one of his recently weekly newsletters, he comments on the “fantastic array of food plants, mostly perennial and normally cultivated in complex mixtures” which he found in Kerala. He compares the traditional farming methods with the agri-business practices of the West and writes: “I am pretty sure that the aggregate yield of the better managed areas could not be matched by any modern monoculture, however many sprays were applied.”
Western farming, with its concentration on “highly bred annuals and maintaining the unsustainable environment needed to coax a crop from them in their short lives … uses vast amounts of energy and chemicals, stripping our land of ecological diversity in the process.”
We clearly do need a peasant revolution to bring us back to the roots of good farming and husbandry.
*Bodging is a traditional wood-turning craft, using green (unseasoned) wood to make chair legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs.