The first post-lockdown crops of the land army have been harvested. The food – chard, spinach, lettuce and radish – is being parcelled out to the local shops, market stalls and those in need. Now the volunteer labour force has its sights on a new goal: a land-use revolution that will make UK farming more nature friendly, plant-based and resilient to future shocks.

At Machynlleth, a bucolic town on the southern fringe of Snowdonia, the recently formed Planna Fwyd! (Plant Food!) movement is encouraging sheep farmers to diversify into vegetable production as their ancestors did. Teams of volunteers have sown crops of potatoes and, once or twice a week, they now fan across the slopes to tend gooseberry bushes, peas and squash. Others distribute seed packets to local families and run online classes on how to grow plants at home.

“If the whole coronavirus experience has taught us anything, it is that we should be more self-sufficient. It was terrifying seeing the empty shop shelves,” said Chris Higgins, a retired academic who gets as much back as he gives from the voluntary work. “It’s very enriching. Growing and cooking food and working together is a great way of engaging with the local community and nature at the same time.”

Chris Higgins, part of a small collective of volunteers that plant and grow edible crops, stands in the grounds of a plant garden in Machynlleth, north Wales.

In the not-too-distant past, eco-farming in rural communes was considered a fringe activity, but many of its core concepts – local distribution, diversity and eco-system management – have become mainstream concerns in the wake of a pandemic that made the public appreciate the vitality of nature and the fragility of global supply chains.

For many, the greatest upside of the crisis has been the respite for other species – deer on the beach in Hartlepool, mountain goats wandering the streets of Llandudno, more dolphins and porpoises in the harbour at Fishguard. In a nationwide YouGov-Cambridge Centre and Jesus College Intellectual Forum at Cambridge University survey, conducted in partnership with the Guardian at the peak of the lockdown, 75% of respondents felt the lockdown has been good for the environmental health of the planet. There were also strong expectations that the benefits to nature and the climate would continue after the crisis. The poll showed 47% believe the lasting impact of lockdown will be positive for the environment, 29% foresaw no change, and only 10% believed it would make things worse.

Survey results

As the lockdown eases, Boris Johnson says the “nation is coming out of hibernation”, but unless more space is found for nature in the government’s recovery plans, wildlife will once again retreat, the soil degrade and the climate destabilise.

Volunteers plant and grow edible crops on land close to Machynlleth.

History shows the folly of trying to return to business as usual after a pandemic. In the 14th century, the Black Death disrupted trade, left crops unharvested and prompted devastating famines. The aristocracy attempted to regain lost revenue and authority with higher taxes and more restrictions. This created the conditions for Wat Tyler’s Peasants Revolt and the Welsh war of independence led by Owain Glyndwr.

Today’s rebels want greater food security, lower carbon emissions and healthier commons that can provide clean water, fresh air and a stable climate for everyone. This is not just the Landworkers Alliance and Extinction Rebellion Farmers, but academics and former ministers who say it makes good business sense.

Machynlleth – the first seat of government for Glyndwr in the 15th century – is today among the most progressive rural communities in the UK. The landscape is recognised by UNESCO as a globally important biosphere, it is the site of the Centre of Alternative Technology, and its council was the first in Wales to declare a climate emergency.

The small population of 2,200 people is also home to a disproportionate number of influential thinkers, including Jane Powell, the coordinator of the Wales Food Manifesto. The writer and activist said Covid-19 had instigated a clamour for food democracy. “It has mobilised people. There is a huge uprising of people volunteering to distribute or grow food. They’ve seen the fragility of global supply chains. I think it has given people a sense of ‘gosh, it’s up to us’. We’d like to be better prepared next time. We need more control and knowledge.”

In Wales – as elsewhere in the UK – the pandemic exposed the risks of excessively specialising in sheep and cattle for export. This was already a concern due to Brexit, which will end subsidies and reduce markets, and a broader consumer trend to eat less meat. Lockdown brought a sudden dearth of vegetables and a glut of lamb. Shocked consumers are calling for a more reliable local supply. Welsh hill farmers are looking for new revenue streams either by planting crops or charging for ecosystem services, such as flood control, wildlife habitat and peatlands that absorb carbon dioxide.

“This pandemic gives us the permission to think differently,” says former Welsh environment minister Jane Davidson. “The UK government, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, has the biggest opportunity since 1974 to redefine the role of food in the economy and to create the stewards of the land to ensure the country is resilient.”

Ducks at Daniel Colbourne and Rachel Stevens' duck farm, close to Fishguard, West Wales.

Davidson is the woman behind one of the world’s most progressive pieces of legislation: the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which was passed by the Welsh Assembly in 2015. This obliges policymakers to think long term and take environmental limits into account. She says food is at the heart of this approach. “We are realising what is important. It is not finance, it is food producers, delivery truck drivers and shop workers. States should create new opportunities around food production. That is the kind of decent work that sustains people during a crisis.”

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The 10-acre smallholder has just written a book on the subject, and says the focus should not be “rewilding”, but on reasserting the lost human role in nature. She says the UK should set up land commissions in the four home nations and use subsidies to encourage diversity rather than monocultures. This is likely to mean less sheep for export and more horticulture for the domestic market. Currently, only 2% of the fruit and vegetables eaten in Wales are grown locally.

There is money to be made. Helen and Keith Lessiter run the vegetable, fruit and flower stalls at the farmers market in the Fishguard town hall. They have seen a surge in demand for seeds and plants. “We haven’t been so busy in 10 years,” says Helen. “Everybody wants to do their own growing. That is great. The more local production the better.”

English and Chinese produce for sale at farmer and greengrocer Keith Lessiter's stall in Fishguard Market, Fishguard, Wales.

The couple rent a cottage on 100 acres of land. When they started out, Helen was advised to have a gimmick that would set her apart from other traders so she wears a black bowler hat adorned with a pink ribbon and a garland of plastic flowers. Since the start of lockdown, such contrivances are unnecessary. She estimates business on her stall is up 70%, while sales of her plants through a local hardware store are 10 times higher than last year. “I hope this experience has made people appreciate what goes into food production. It has been classed as menial work for so long. Now people can see that it is not just a case of stick it in the ground and wait.”

Farmers won kudos by donating to community support groups that kept people fed at a time of lay-offs and delayed social benefits that forced more than 6 million people to cut portions or skip meals. Rachel Stevens and Daniel Colborne, a middle-aged couple from Worcester, left jobs in engineering and factories to raise ducks, plant crops and create a woodland on a four-acre plot of land just outside Fishguard. At the start of lockdown, they lost sales from luxury hotels and instead donated their eggs to the “community fridge”, which distributes food to more than 300 residents. This helped them later benefit from the burgeoning “buy local” movement. “It has been a hard slog, but this crisis might help us in the long run. People have got a taste for what we have to offer.”

Helen Lessiter at her flower and plant stall on Fishguard Market, Wales.

Daniel Colbourne, who plants crops and runs a duck farm with Rachel Stevens, poses in his field and land close to Fishguard, West Wales.

Such dynamism and idealism at the local level could morph into frustration, resentment and protectionism if the UK government’s Covid-19 recovery plans involve rural funding cuts and a rushed trade deal with the US, which would flood supermarkets with cheap, low-quality imports.

This is the fear of Sam Robinson, a shepherd, who lives just outside Machnylleth. He recently planted half an acre of potatoes for the first time, which he sees as part of a welcome return to mixed farming. “I am a defender of lamb and beef, but it is great to see a return of diversity,” he said. He also works on woodland creation projects for farmers. “We’re seeing a huge surge of interest,” he said. “But what we achieve depends on support. So far, the Welsh government has made this a priority, which means funding is available.”

Daniel Colbourne tending to the field in the land close to Fishguard, West Wales where he and Rachel Stevens have just started a duck farm.

A change in land use is essential for the UK to get back on track towards its climate goals. Returning peatland, bogs and other habitats to their natural state could absorb as much as a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Wildlife Trust.

Clive Faulkner, of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, said the region had proved it is possible to reskill farmers as environmental stewards and restore the land. “Twenty years ago people thought we were kooky, but now many are following.”

He is now working on the holy grail of agrarian reform: how to value ecosystem services, find a buyer and establish a mechanism for payment. That had seemed within reach until Covid-19. Faulkner was given a grant from the Welsh government to set up pilot schemes. UK officials had discussed eco-system service payments as part of the agriculture bill, which is currently going through parliament.

The fate of these long-term plans has been thrown up in the air by the pandemic and government urgency to jump-start the economy with a building boom.

Faulkner urged the government not to neglect the countryside. “I worry about who will support the farming community,” he said. “Covid-19 is an amazing catastrophe, but it is not as systematic a threat as our broken relationship with the landscape.”

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