During our two week trial of touring with Sunny, we made a point of visiting two ecological communities: one in the Vosges region of France, and one near Kleve in Germany, not too far from the Dutch city of Nijmegen. Even though they both are predominantly populated by Dutch people, champion ecological farming and provide opportunities for volunteers to stay for shorter or longer periods, they couldn’t be more different.
The first place is situated in a beautiful area of France, with a good amount of land to use. It has developed a large number of activities, besides various agricultural activities, such as a shop, their own brand of cosmetics, a campsite, restaurant for volunteers and guests, and various workshops.
It all seems very well organised. Volunteers work forty hours a week for food and accommodation, and more permanent residents work six days a week for a little more benefits, including medical insurance.
There is a clear leader, everyone has a specific task assigned, and have their breaks together at set times.
The place is well known among for its special energy and as the ideal place for an “agri-retreat”. To sustain this, everyone is asked to switch off their phones, and there’s no WiFi allowed. Instead, when necessary, there is access to the internet and a phone in the library using a cable connection.
Even though the environment is spectacular, the facilities are nice and well kept, the welcome was warm at the reception, the food tasty and the people we met were nice and interesting, we both didn’t feel particularly comfortable here.
Somehow it wasn’t for us. It was hard not to judge too quickly, without knowing more. And yet, it quickly felt too organised, too strict, most likely ruled by a few, with a clear pecking order, a clear set of rules and a little too much focus on making money. And that was pretty much confirmed, reading between the lines, in conversations we had with some of the volunteers we met.
A few days later we were again warmly welcomed, this time in the place in Germany. While they advertise having a campsite, we were directed to a soggy field, a place relatively far from the toilet and other facilities. After a brief introduction where we explained for the reason of our visit, we got a tour of the grounds for more than an hour, and an honest and open overview of the main challenges the community faces.
From the start, it was clear that the community is struggling with their way of getting organised, as well as to ensure a stable harvest and income to accommodate all the needs of the volunteers and more permanent residents.
Without hesitation, one of the founders and probably oldest resident, called Anatosh, shared his concerns about the debts they have and the fact that many projects get started but are often not successfully completed. Also, while they try to accommodate everyone, some of the people who struggle in the regular society also have difficulties to settle in their community too. And with some melancholy in his voice, he praised the success of the community we had previously visited and spoke well of their leader, someone he had known for a long time.
And while it’s an undeniable reality that they face these problems together, as a community, there were also interesting and promising projects going on. Such as the projects of the gardener who was developing a site for permaculture and planting fruit trees, another volunteer was trying to find ways to get students at the local university interested in visiting the place, another planned to build a number of tiny houses to promote the concept and rent them out, and again others were writing a newsletter and material to promote the rental of the seminary and its rooms for workshops and retreats. And so there was something for everyone.
With all its issues, this place felt so much more relaxed and welcoming. Straight after arrival, we were invited to dinner, we could make use of the living room and WiFi to work and were involved in lively discussions about the experiences as a volunteer in different communities.
The gardener, who had previously lived for more than three years in the place in the Vosges, confirmed my thoughts. He made me realise that, if I have the choice, I would rather work as a volunteer in a place like this, than in the beautiful place in the Vosges where, as a woman, I think I am bound to get administrative, cleaning, kitchen or light gardening duties assigned to me.
And that raises interesting questions such as: what makes one place more attractive than the other? Why is one place more successful than the other?
Of course, the answers for each one of us will largely depend on our personal preferences, what we value in life and possibly our political preferences.
On the other hand, as Anatosh stressed during our short meeting, regardless of your ideals, there is also the need to guarantee the possibility for residents to live reasonably comfortable and without severe financial concerns for a longer period of time.
In that respect, he seems to be right to praise the community in the Vosges, even though it didn’t seem the most fun place to live.
That makes me keen to find a community that combines both a sustainable income, sufficient to guarantee long-term survival, and a more fun, open and democratic structure and to try to understand what makes such a place successful. If it even exists.