Watching the watchers

I’ve had a certain amount of negative feedback on my current little exercise in describing a neo-peasant future, not so much here at Small Farm Future but in its wider tracks across cyberspace. Part of the problem seems to be its futurological aspects. Some people are quite certain that the future will be a techno-cornucopian one, with no place for the idea that there’ll be any need, let alone desire, for widespread localised, labour-intensive, land-based husbandry. Others are equally certain that, conversely, runaway climate change, energy scarcity and political collapse will so undermine our civilizational moorings that attempts like mine to plot some kind of stable locality society are futile.

For my part, I’m not so interested in the waiting game implied in either of these scenarios (waiting for somebody clever to come along and save our ass in the first scenario, or waiting around to die in the second). The exercise is based on the notion that we could, if collectively we so chose, organise ourselves into more localised and labour-intensive polities and economies, and that if we did so we might better secure our health and general wellbeing at a lower energetic and carbon cost. Whether that would be enough to save our ass in the long term doesn’t interest me all that much, basically because it goes too far into the realm of futurological speculation. But since more localised polities are, by definition, locally specific, and since they’ve not yet been achieved, it seems necessary to focus on particular places at some point in the future on the basis of a few plausible grounding assumptions, such as projected population size in 2039 in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as per my last-but-one post. I’m interested in discussing what such a polity might look like and what obstacles its emergence faces. I’m not so interested in predicting its likelihood over other possible future scenarios. Ah well, there seem to be enough people around willing to play along with my little conceit to make it worth continuing to flesh it out.

My first task is to consider the productive possibilities of the neo-peasant polity before turning to tougher issues concerning its political and economic gestation. But before doing that in detail I just want to sketch one more bit of context.

In my previous post I looked amongst other things at the maximally extensive margin of productivity in Wessex agriculture, namely ruminants on permanent pasture. Suppose we decided to turn over all of Wessex’s farmland to permanent pasture and feed Wessex’s future 6.3 million people entirely on lamb and mutton. Not that I’m suggesting it would be a good idea – it just gives us a handle on that maximally extensive margin. By my calculations (I’ll explain my underlying assumptions in later posts) farming in this way we would only be able to furnish about 20% of the people of Wessex’s basic calorific requirements. Which actually sounds to me surprisingly high, but of course not high enough to prevent mass starvation.

Let us go to the other extreme, and look at the maximally intensive margin of productivity – which here in Britain would be a potato monoculture. If we aimed to exactly meet the calorific requirements of Wessex’s 6.3 million by growing only potatoes at current average conventionally-grown yield levels (again, not something I’d actually recommend) we could do so using only about 9% of Wessex’s existing farmland (or about 15% if we grew them organically).

Somewhere in the (rather large) gap between those two figures lies the potential for a productive mixed agriculture to feed the people of Wessex. If I were responsible for provisioning myself under no pressures of land availability, I’d focus on growing what I liked to eat and what I liked to farm. And in that case I think my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories. I have a limited appetite for hand-planting and harvesting potatoes or wheat. With my tractor, on the other hand…

When people talk about the back-breakingly miserable life of the peasant, I don’t think they have this kind of pottering, forest-gardening, allodial, gentleman-peasant sort of existence in mind. Instead they’re thinking of what you might call the tithe-peasant, eking out a living on a small scrap of land grudgingly allocated them by someone more powerful, and who has to produce a considerable surplus in order to pay the latter personage their dues in cash or kind, thus propping up the rest of society on their overburdened shoulders. Historically, there have undoubtedly been more peasants of the latter than the former kind, so one important challenge for a future neo-peasant vision is how to try to tip the balance the other way.

And not only historically – there are many people in tithe-peasant situations today. And there’s also a kind of agricultural mindset that seeks to normalise it: Too poor to eat anything but Vitamin A deficient rice? Then let’s bioengineer Vitamin A into rice. The poor will still be eating nothing but rice, but they’ll no longer get Vitamin A deficiency, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Those idealists who suggest that we should organise the world such that people can afford to produce or buy a more varied diet ought to check their privilege. “Let them eat broccoli!”, the idealists say. The very idea! (I can never read this four-word argument in favour of golden rice without marvelling at how shamelessly it telegraphs the vastly greater enthusiasm of its proponents for their favoured crop technology than for combating poverty).

For people in the richer world, food choices are usually less stark. But there’s a similar agricultural mindset at work, which prefers to build a whole food system around a handful of major commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize, soya, canola, palm etc.) which can be processed into a myriad of rather appealing and seemingly differentiated products, especially when suitably garnished with additional minor crops. It would be stretching a point to call the consumers in this latter-day global food system tithe-peasants (for one thing the work they now do to earn their food, if indeed there’s work for them to do, usually inclines more towards the mind-breaking than the back-breaking). But the parallel is there.

I also wonder if one aspect of this contemporary agricultural mindset’s normalisation is to stress the healthiness of its limited offerings – carbohydrates and monounsaturated vegetable oils over saturated animal fats and so on. The essentials of nutritional wisdom are quite beyond my own limited areas of expertise, though I take sad solace from the fact that they also seem beyond those of the nutritional experts, who after all were extolling the virtues of trans-fats not so many years ago. I’ve found some of the writings produced by the Weston Price Foundation very thought-provoking in this respect – for example, this one on canola, and this one on dietary fat. It’s work of this kind that lies behind the demanding injunction under one of my earlier posts from a certain commenter going by the name of Paul to see if I could create a localvore, neo-peasant diet in which 65% of the calories came from fat – a requirement that, thankfully, he later reduced to 45%.

Weston Price was a dentist and dental epidemiologist who looked at the effect of switching to modern western eating on people who had previously eaten more ancestral wholefood diets. A Google search of the Weston Price Foundation quickly takes you to a whole mess of hits denouncing the organisation for its quackery, including one called ‘Quackwatch’ which features this article about Weston Price’s work. Read alongside the work of the WPF authors themselves cited above, I found it so full of unsupported generalisations and tendentious reasoning that I contemplated establishing a new online watchdog called ‘Meta-quack’ or ‘Watch-watch’ or maybe ‘Quackback’. Indeed, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning the regnant dietary consensus of a low fat, high carb, veg oil-based diet. Actually, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning just about everything. But, if such a thing is possible, it’s even worse on dietary matters.

Indeed, not only the web. Recently, the National Obesity Council issued a report suggesting that eating saturated animal fat wasn’t necessarily bad for you and eating simple carbohydrates wasn’t necessarily good. Cue widespread outrage, mass resignation from the organisation’s scientific ranks and then, a few weeks later, the results of a big US longitudinal study which was spun by one of its authors as ‘butter bad, vegetable oil good’. The paper is behind a paywall and I can’t get access to it, but looking at the abstract my feeling is that the truth is likely to be very much more complex than that.

I’ve traversed this ground before. To my mind, if you want to untease relationships and causalities in the material world, careful, scientific, empirical study is basically the only game in town. But scientific truths are always provisional and usually take a long time to mature. And science is also always a social practice, and is not therefore immune from the usual noise of people doing their people-like things. So there’s an important distinction to be made between science and scientism – the latter essentially referring to situations where a scientist is willingly wheeled out to justify a simplistic policy prescription on the basis of a simplistic summary of what ‘the science says’. I had personal experience of this on the Food Climate Research Network when I criticised the EU pigswill ban. Somebody jumped on me for my ignorance of ‘the science’ and the potentially dire consequences of feeding swill. I asked him to point me to research that specified the trade-off between the elevated economic risk of swill feeding and the economic cost of alternative food waste disposal and fodder production. No response. I’m still not sure if any such work was done prior to implementing the ban. I certainly haven’t seen any. Still, I expect when swill feeding is eventually permitted once again, as it probably will be, there’ll be no shortage of experts on hand to justify the decision scientifically. I’m inclined to regard confident generalisations about the evils of butter or saturated animal fat with the same degree of scepticism. But I’m interested in hearing other views.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this discussion together with the following seven propositions:

  • In the long-run, we’re all dead. But in the short-run, there’s something to be said for trying to construct more robust locality societies with local food production at the heart of them in order to prolong the life of civilisation-as-we-know-it. We’ll probably have more fun while we’re about it, too.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves sustainably with the suitably-raised animal products we desire, it suggests that we may be approaching a resource squeeze. A crack is opening in Parson Malthus’s coffin.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves with anything but carbohydrate-rich staple foods, then Malthus’s ghost is well out of the ground. In fact, it’s standing in the garden and knocking on the window …
  • …or alternatively it could just be that the garden is much too small and will have to be enlarged at the expense of the bigger gardens owned by richer folk. Then the ghost can be expelled to Zone 4 or 5 where it can graze contentedly for the time being along with the sheep.
  • When the gardens are shared out equally, we can hope that there’s space for a life of pottering silvo-agri-pastoral. In Wessex, we will probably have to grow some wheat and potatoes, though, and worry about that resource squeeze a bit. But let’s try not to go overboard with the arable stuff, because unless you have a tractor it’s back-breaking work. Nobody wants to live like a tithe-peasant.
  • Our silvo-agri-pastoral life will hopefully give us a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and saturated animal fats, with little in the way of simple carbohydrates and vegetable oils. The science says that this is a healthy diet. The science also says that this is an unhealthy diet. For now, I’m going to choose science of the former kind, and keep a close watch on the scientists.
  • Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. I’m going to keep a close watch on the watchers too, like the concerned citizens at Quackwatch. But come to think of it, I guess I’m also a watcher, so somebody ought to keep a close watch on me. And here’s your chance…

Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.


All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?



  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

My previous post introduced the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, a future polity in the west of England where about a fifth of the working population are engaged in producing their own agrarian subsistence. In this post, I aim to start filling in a few details of what this might look like.

Let’s begin with a bit of geography and demographics. My state of Wessex encompasses the present English counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall (which as was pointed out under my previous post, scarcely corresponds with the medieval state of Wessex, or even with Thomas Hardy’s 19th century update. This is just one of my many departures from tradition – I don’t call it ‘neo’-peasant for nothing). The present population of Wessex is 5.3 million, which constitutes about 10% of England’s population, and about 8% of the UK population as a whole. So far as I can discern, the Office for National Statistics provides future population projections only as far forward as 2039, and only at country, not regional, level. It projects a population increase for England of about 10 million (20%) between now and 2039, comprising roughly half natural increase and half in-migration.

Let’s assume that the ONS predictions prove accurate and apply the 20% increase to Wessex. This yields a 2039 Wessex population of 6.3 million, which I’m going to use for my baseline population. And I’m going to define working age as 18-65. ONS figures suggest that currently 57% of the total population fall into this age group nationally – and again I’m going to apply this to my Wessex figures, yielding a pool of about 3.6 million working adults in my future Wessex. It seems likely that the ratio of working to total population in 2039 will be higher than now, but this is just one of several areas in which I’ll try to load the dice slightly against my analysis so that the results seem plausible rather than over-optimistic, so I’ll keep the figure at 57%.

Assuming as per my previous post that 20% of my Wessex population are self-subsisting, neo-peasant farmers, that gives us a total of just over 710,000 Wessex working adult peasants in need of a farmstead, with an additional 550,000 dependents (children or retired parents) to provide for. I’m now going to wave my magic wand and abolish the Duchy of Cornwall along with a few other feudal landholding relics in order to provide homesteads and farmsteads for my modern peasants on a little over 40% of the existing agricultural land in the Wessex lowlands. Then I’m going to divide this land area up (on average) into 10 hectare (25 acre) holdings, each of which will be allocated to ten working neo-peasants and their dependents. Alternatively of course, it would be possible to divide it up into 1 ha holdings at a peasant apiece. But I prefer to think in terms of a 10 ha holding with certain tasks shared, and certain ones conducted privately by individuals and families. Not dissimilar to many peasant societies, in fact, including historic Wessex. I’ll talk some more about the social dynamics involved as this exercise unfolds.

Another past practice I’d like to revive is that of the agricultural apprenticeship – or of being ‘in service’ in the older parlance. The idea of agricultural service now has negative and inegalitarian resonances, though the work of historians like Peter Laslett (The World We Have Lost) suggests that it was often more benign than might be supposed. Anyway, I’m thinking of it more as a kind of apprenticeship in the modern mould, or possibly as a form of WWOOFing, in which young people could learn farming skills and get a feel for whether the neo-peasant life was for them, perhaps backed up by some appropriate labour legislation to keep everyone honest. So let’s throw in a couple of apprentices on each 10ha holding.

Now, as per some of the comments under my previous post, I’m thinking of these 10ha peasant holdings as geared essentially to furnishing the food and fibre its residents need, not for cash-cropping. So it’ll be necessary for some of the residents to earn money off the holding. Let us assume that the 10 adult neo-peasants on the holding are living as five couples, with one member of each couple working full-time on the holding, and the other member working a quarter time with the rest of their time earning money off the holding. Let us further assume that the children and retired folk on the holding contribute one full-time equivalent portion of labour between them (something that will vary in practice over the demographic cycle). And then of course we have our two apprentices. So in total that gives us ten full-time equivalent workers on the holding, and twenty mouths to feed – which amounts to half a hectare or just over one acre per person.

Joe Clarkson, who objected to one of my earlier forays into the issue of redistributing agricultural land for reasons that I still don’t really understand, wrote “Your suggestion of one acre per person cannot be serious. Are you really going to show us how a family of four can live on four acres of “average” land? One third would be non-agricultural, one third would be rough pasture and only one third would be arable, and that’s without a place to live and roads to get to each parcel. Your division of the Duchy of Cornwall into 20 acre farms is closer to the mark.” So let me now answer, ornery soul that I am, yes – I am going to show you (or at least attempt to persuade you) how a family of four in the southwest can live off about four acres of agricultural (not ‘average’) land, or at least how twenty people and ten workers can live off 10 hectares (whether it’s four off four, or twenty off twenty is basically irrelevant). And then I’m going to show you how the other 80% of the population can live off the rest of Wessex’s farmland.

But to do that, we first need to look more closely at Wessex’s farmland. Current agricultural land use in Wessex and in England as a whole is shown in Figure 1, which is derived from DEFRA’s regional statistics. Unfortunately, there are some significant internal discrepancies with these statistics, and nor are they comparable with the more detailed land use breakdown DEFRA offers at a national level since the latter is UK wide, whereas the regional statistics are for England only. I did write to the DEFRA official responsible asking for clarification, but got no reply. Probably, she’s too busy working with her new boss Andrea Leadsom on dismantling the entire edifice of British agriculture. Anyway, the figure below gives us some rough figures to work with, and it’ll have to do.








The figure shows that, compared with England generally, Wessex has proportionately less cropland, slightly less rough grazing and a lot more permanent pasture. I’m going to take the rough grazing out of the reckoning, treat is as a proxy for the uplands (which in the southwest refers to the big moors of Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps to parts of the hillier areas such as the Mendips), and deal with it in another post. As a starting point, I propose to keep Wessex’s cropland and permanent pasture proportions pretty much as they are. In a sense, that’s an arbitrary decision. Historically, the boundary between cropland and grassland has varied through time in response to circumstances. But there are various reasons why I’d like to aim at something like the current level. For one thing, I don’t want to give ammunition to the ecomodernists by suggesting that in a neo-peasant scenario we’d need to start ploughing up grassland in order to feed ourselves. And for another, that’s something that I think indeed is best avoided. It’s possible to overegg the argument that grass/ruminant farming is climate friendly, but sparing permanent pasture from the plough whenever possible seems a wise course of action on both carbon and biodiversity grounds. And since the moist, temperate climate here in Wessex is especially well suited to growing grass, there’s a lot to be said for the grass/ruminant option, particularly in a self-subsistence situation where, at this latitude, there are essentially no options for producing fat other than animal-based ones. The downside of grass/ruminant farming is that it’s not a very efficient way of producing human food on a nutrients per hectare basis – but again that helps to load the dice a little against my analysis, which is no bad thing.

A couple more bits of dice-loading: I’m going to assume that one in every 20 of my 71,000 ten hectare holdings produces nothing. This builds in a margin for such things as seed-saving and raising breeding stock, as well as perhaps making allowance for the odd stereotypically lazy peasant. I’m also going to aim to grow all the food in Wessex organically, which means its farming is likely to be less productive on a per hectare basis, other things being equal. I’ve always farmed more-or-less organically myself and I’m supportive by inclination of the organic movement. But not zealously so. I don’t have a problem in principle with the use of synthetic fertilisers and other non-organic amendments, but I’m inclined to think that they should be used as a method of last rather than first resort, when it feels necessary to push the envelope of productivity after all available biotic avenues have been explored.

So to recap: my future neo-peasant Wessex has a population of 6.3 million (up from today’s 5.3 million). Twenty percent of its working-age population plus their young and elderly dependents live on a little over forty percent of its farmland. The adult neo-peasants devote about two-thirds of their collective labour to subsistence activities on the holding, using organic farming principles by default, with some extra help from apprentices and the young and old. The rest of their time is spent on income generation off the holding. And, on average, the land use on productive holdings (one in twenty aren’t directly productive) corresponds roughly with existing land use in Wessex, with ruminants on permanent grassland somewhat over-represented relative to the country at a whole.

So that, I hope, sets the scene for looking in more detail at what happens on the ten hectare neo-peasant holding. And I’ll turn to that question soon. But first we need to clear a couple of other issues out of the way, which are raised by the emphasis on grass/ruminant farming.

Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

From the furies of Brexit, let me turn to a saner and more achievable political project: restructuring Britain into a neo-peasant society. Actually I think the one may lead to the other. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing? I’ve long felt that many of our political and environmental problems can best be tackled by means of a more peopled and localised agriculture, but I’ve never been able to dream up any plausible mechanisms for driving such change in contemporary society, other than bleak end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it type scenarios. But now, thanks to that friend of the peasantry Boris Johnson and his merry band of Brexiteers, some real possibilities are emerging. Though whether they’re distinct from those bleak end-of-civilisation type scenarios remains to be seen.

Anyway, we’ll come to all that. What I want to do in this post is pick up the threads of the discussion about mega-cities in general and London in particular that I left hanging a few weeks ago. If a government emerged that was strongly committed to small-scale agriculture I think it would be entirely possible for it to organise the nation’s farming accordingly and provision large cities with its products. But that’s not the way the modern world has gone. It was on the cards at the moment of decolonisation in various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the carrot of western-style development and the stick of western-style economic domination conspired against it. And when all’s said and done there is something of an affinity between urbanism and the agricultural status quo of heavily mechanised grain farming. So although it would be possible to ruminate on how to feed London’s 8 million from a world of encircling smallholdings, the idea doesn’t really inspire me.

Instead, what I propose to do is consider the possible shape of regional neo-peasant agricultures in England, and of one such regional agriculture in particular. When I first started thinking about this not so long ago it seemed like an appealing mental exercise, though not one that carried much political weight in the real world. But since then we’ve had Britain threatening to quit the EU, Scotland threatening to quit Britain, London threatening to quit England, the Labour Party threatening to quit itself, and all manner of other intrigue besides. In short, in the present moment of British politics everyone is threatening to quit everyone else if they don’t like them. So the secessionist implications of my analysis, which only recently seemed entirely far-fetched, are suddenly in step with the zeitgeist. What I’m going to focus my analysis on, then, is a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England. Let us call it the state of Wessex. And I’m going to contrast it with various agricultural possibilities in the east and southeast, or Londinium as I will call it in order to capture the deep history of that city’s status as a greater or lesser centre within a larger imperium. As a sometime dweller of both Wessex and Londinium, I have to admit that my political sensibilities were mostly forged in the latter. But I hereby disinherit myself from it and throw my lot in with the neo-peasants of Wessex. Of course, many of my fellow Wessexers probably hanker more after the lifestyle of the contemporary Londoner than the kind of neo-peasant west country vision that I’m about to outline. If so, my message to them, one fully in keeping with the politics du jour, is: screw you. I’m perfectly happy for Frome to secede from the rest of the southwest if it has to. And as for those uppity east-side Fromies, they can take a hike too if they don’t like what I have to say…

In the light of the Brexit result, no one can surely claim any longer that people won’t voluntarily surrender their short-term wealth and wellbeing in service of larger aims, long a bugbear for any kind of contemporary peasant or agrarian populist activism. So let me push the Brexit experiment a stage further, and now formally announce the division of southern England into the Peasant Republic of Wessex and the Euro-imperium of Londinium. We could set up a border checkpoint in, say, Chippenham, announce a brief amnesty period in which people on either side of the border are permitted to migrate freely across it, and then settle down to observe the two-way traffic. What a fascinating sociological exercise that would be…

Anyway, let me now start putting a few parameters around my suggestion of a neo-peasant Wessex. When I’ve undertaken exercises like this before to construe a rebooted, smaller-scale agriculture, I’ve generally still thought in terms of commercial farming, albeit a more peopled one, furnishing the necessities of life for the wider population. But when I think about what prevents me from making my own holding both more productive and more ecologically benign, it’s the lack of human labour and/or the impossibility of securing the right kinds and quantities of labour (or, to put it another way, the impossibility of securing the right price for my products relative to the price of labour) when running the operation commercially that trips me up the most. I also think that the skill-set required of a sustainability-minded commercial farmer is a highly specialised and unusual one. There are far more people capable of doing a good job growing for themselves with sustainability in mind than there are who’ll do a good job growing for others in that way. So I think I agree with Ralph Borsodi, who others have mentioned on this site (I have to confess I’ve not yet read him – hopefully I’ll put that right), that it’s generally best for the smallholder not to rely on selling their produce.

At the same time, I’m not really in favour of a society comprised entirely of self-reliant smallholders. Looking at it in world-historical terms, I’m happy to go with the notion that the division of labour and the specialisation of agriculture isn’t any kind of existential advance on the life of hunter-gatherers or ‘subsistence’ agriculturists. But looking at it in terms of my already rather left-field advocacy for peasant-style living here in England in 2016, I think proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society face the problem that such a life would be deeply impoverished by any reasonable contemporary standard. While much that passes for wealth in the present world seems to me spurious and I consider a materially simpler life to be desirable, I don’t think those truths are best served by demanding that everyone grow their own parsnips. Another problem faced by proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society is that no such society has ever existed – but that’s something I’ll look at in further detail in a later post. Where this leads for now in terms of my neo-peasant exercise is making an essentially arbitrary judgment about how many self-reliant ‘peasants’ and how many commercial ‘farmers’ there might be, albeit that the categories admit to some overlap. And my answer is (at least provisionally, I haven’t yet finished crunching the numbers) – around 20% of working age (18-65) adult ‘peasants’, which would put my neo-peasant society on a par with countries such as Poland, Mexico and Iran. Though I’m open to other suggestions…

I’m going to reserve discussion of all the social, political and economic implications of my neo-peasant Wessex for later. For now, I just want to focus on what a neo-peasant agriculture might look like on the ground. What would it produce, how would it produce it, and would it be enough to feed the population? Anybody going about an estimation of this sort needs to make a lot of assumptions and plug in some plausible productivity data. I’m going to outline a lot of these assumptions in detail in my upcoming posts in the hope that somebody or other might read and challenge them, thus helping me improve my estimates. But I’ll mix a few jokes in with the stats, just to make it worth your while ploughing through it all. If even the prospect of my rapier wit doesn’t enthral you, I’ll aim to write a summary analysis when it’s all done and dusted so you can get to the bottom line without wading through the detail.

My general bias is towards underestimation rather than overestimation. I think there’s a tendency in the alternative farming movement to be overly optimistic about what we can produce, and I prefer to be the pessimist who gets a pleasant surprise than the optimist who gets a nasty shock. So if you think my estimates are too low, I won’t be too bothered (though I’d still be interested to hear from you). If you think they’re too high, that’s more of a concern.

My baseline data comes from DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the English regions’ dataset. My personal definition of the southwest is limited to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, whereas official classifications also include Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset – counties with a higher population density (252 people per km2 as compared to 183, since you asked) and also arguably a more eastward-oriented arable agriculture historically. But there you have it, I can’t unpick the data, so I’ll just have to make do with my six counties of Wessex. When it comes to Londinium, I’ve amalgamated the southeast and the east regions as part of its hinterlands, encompassing Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Bucks, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – which luckily for those resource-guzzling city-slickers encompasses a decent chunk of the best agricultural and horticultural land in the country.

But that’s probably enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll visit me again soon and let me introduce you to the people, food and farmsteads of Wessex.

Hunting for the exit

I left the prospect of my long-promised analysis of a neo-peasant future dangling at the end of my previous post. But the first lesson they teach you at blogging school is to hold your readership in suspense so they keep coming back for more. The second lesson they teach you is not to hold them in suspense so much that they decide not to come back at all. So I promise you upon my word that I’ll start the neo-peasant analysis in my next post. In this one I’m going to replicate my review of George Monbiot’s new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? which has recently appeared in The Land (Issue 20). If you’d like to read it all nicely laid out with The Land’s characteristically meticulous aesthetic, then it’s currently available on their website here. But if you’re content with the more homespun approach we take here at Small Farm Future, then it’s all laid out for you just below.

Meanwhile, the grand soap opera of British politics continues apace with more twists and turns than last year’s discarded baling twine. Andrea Leadsom, only recently touted as the Brexiter’s prime minister, fell on her sword to leave the way clear for Theresa May. Leadsom has now been made Secretary of State at DEFRA, the government department responsible for agriculture: perhaps a case of ‘well, you wanted Brexit, now you sort out the mess’. In a characteristically sharp blog post, Miles King sets out the implications. Present indications suggest my prediction of an ecomodernist turn in British agriculture, with the land sparing/land sharing divide set at the 500ft contour, could prove accurate. But I suspect there are plenty more episodes in the drama to come.

Anyway, let me turn my attention to George.


Monbiot, George. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. London: Verso.

It’s a poor reflection on the state of our civic culture that George Monbiot stands almost alone among journalists in the mainstream British media as a voice for the radical green left. I doubt it’s easy facing the opprobrium not only of the usual suspects but also the not-so-friendly fire of radicals looking to him for public representation of their own particular agendas. So let me begin by giving credit where it’s due. Monbiot’s new book, a selection of his journalism over the last ten years or so, showcases an immense achievement.

Since everything here was originally an op-ed piece in The Guardian, each chapter is short and pithy, making the book as a whole an easy read. The chapters are arranged in thematic sections, including among others energy, food and farming, the marginalisation and demonization of the weak and powerless (including children), the murky world of right-wing think-tanks and corporate lobbyists, the rise of neoliberalism, and wildlife, or “wild life”, as it’s better framed within the book. This last section is particularly strong. Whereas the tone in other sections is often strident (understandably so – as Monbiot ably documents, there’s a lot to feel strident about), there’s a kind of lyrical transcendence to his wildlife writings that encompasses and transfigures his more straightforwardly political pieces.

The book holds some frustrations, though. One of them is the inevitable downside of its punchy short-form journalism. Every piece stands up well in its own terms, but despite the shape given by the thematic approach it’s disappointing to heft such a weighty tome in your hands only to find that the many fruitful lines of thought that Monbiot opens up often aren’t followed through with the level of detail you’d hope to find in a book-length analysis. More importantly, that lack of detail enables Monbiot to run two different kinds of politics through the book without fully confronting their tensions. These are, respectively, a municipally-oriented democratic socialism and a more rurally-oriented producerism-cum-agrarian populism. Or, to put it crudely in terms of two periodicals that are dear to me, it’s the voice of The Guardian versus the voice of The Land. There’s much to be learned from both voices, but if we’re to answer satisfactorily Monbiot’s question of how we got into this mess – and perhaps more pressingly of how we’re going to get out of it – some further probing is required, because the two politics have different implications.

I’d summarise the democratic socialist story that Monbiot has to tell like this: The landowner ruling class in pre-capitalist Britain had the countryside and its riches pretty much stitched up. With the rise of coal, capitalism and colonialism, rural working people became an urban-industrial working class with little nostalgia for the dependent rural life they’d lost, though to his credit Monbiot takes resistance to enclosure in the British countryside and in the country’s colonies abroad more seriously than most. Urbanised and industrialised working people were instrumental in creating a more inclusive and egalitarian society, and with the enormous economic forces unleashed by fossil fuels and the globalisation of capitalist markets were eventually able to secure for themselves a share of wealth unimaginable to their forefathers in a “great flowering of freedom that has enhanced so many lives since the end of the Second World War” (p.4). But the gains achieved in this statist, meritocratic, Keynesian society stalled in the 1970s. The monetarist doctrines of Milton Friedman and his ilk were waiting in the wings, and with the election of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Britain they were politically realised in the ideology of neoliberalism, whose ‘growth at all costs’ mentality now threatens to reduce “the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels…to the same grey stubble” (p.177). Meanwhile, the gap that early capitalist development opened between productive industrialists and parasitic rentiers is narrowing once more. The captains of the neoliberal global economy are parlaying their control of these global marvels into personal riches and a small, exclusive ruling class, at great cost to the majority of the world’s people and to the natural world through the concentration of wealth, the dismantling of public services and the deregulation of business and financial markets. What’s needed, then, is a reversal of this neoliberal trajectory which “if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state” (p.221).

The alternative producerist-populist narrative shares a good deal with this democratic socialist one, but frames it in bigger and less statist historical terms. It’s glimpsed in Monbiot’s writing when he argues that human freedom and self-actualisation are more important than comfort or the accumulation of material things. So while civilisation may be a good thing up to a point, it’s possible to have too much of it for various reasons. One is that “civilisation is boring” (p.95), stymying and limiting the full use of our mental and physical capacities while remorselessly reducing everybody to its purview: “the oddest insult in the English language [is] when you call someone a peasant,” Monbiot writes. “You are accusing them of being self-reliant and productive” (pp.141-2). Another issue is the environmental cost of servicing the non-self-reliant multitudes forged in civilisation’s image. In various chapters, Monbiot touches on the disproportionate call on global resources made by the wealthy (which includes most of us living in the global north), the difficulties of sustaining it in the face of long-term economic growth and a more equable global wealth distribution, and the life-denying pointlessness of much of our material consumption. Discussing the impossibility of endless growth, he suggests that industrial revolutions prior to the advent of fossil fuels were ultimately unable to sustain themselves, and collapsed. Indeed, the mathematics of compound growth suggest that “salvation lies in collapse” (p.175). He advocates an orderly retreat in the face of this reality before it’s foisted upon us more capriciously, for example by leaving the remaining fossil fuels in the ground to avoid runaway climate change.

The figure who awaits us if we do beat such a retreat is the peasant. Monbiot recognises, as so few do, that provisioning the world’s people adequately and sustainably is more about ownership, about widespread access to the land and its resources, than about the technocratic boosting of high-energy, low-labour agriculture. This is a populist or producerist, a peasant-centred, vision. But here is where the tensions between the social-democratic and the producerist strands of his analysis bite. Essentially, these turn upon whether you address problems in the manner of the rational-bureaucratic planner, asking how best to deliver services to the population, or whether you address them in the manner of the autochton, asking how best to inhabit and thrive in the land you call home.

So for example, in his well-known critiques of upland sheep farming, of livestock farming more generally and of the expansion of agriculture into what he calls “ever less suitable land” (p.97) Monbiot operates mostly in rational-bureaucratic mode, trying to reconcile the competing demands of conservation, food production and sustainability at the level of generalised policy. Much of this analysis is subtle and persuasive, as in his understanding of the disastrous disconnect between farm, forestry and conservation policy afflicting upland farming, and the social history underlying the emergence of an upland peasantry. But a more peasant-centred vision would find scope for mixed upland silvo-pastoralism. Abolishing small-scale farming in these ‘unsuitable’ places which “in the face of global trade…cannot compete with production in fertile parts of the world” (p.97) would not only be another act of enclosure, but – as I’ve argued in an article in The Land (Issue 18) – also an ecologically risky strategy that plays into the hands of corporate agribusiness.

Another case in point is his advocacy for nuclear power and his critique of “deep green” energy production – “Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales; it’s not much use in Birmingham” (pp.166-7). For sure, if we want to leave fossil fuels in the ground while hanging onto some semblance of civilisation in the short term we need large, concentrated sources of energy, and arguably there’s little in the cupboard besides nuclear. For those of us who advocate a peasant or neo-agrarian future, the fact that there are thousands of Birminghams in the world indeed is quite a problem. But it’s also a problem for nuclear advocates, whose favoured technology currently furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. Which is the more plausible strategy – to embrace something like a sixtyfold proliferation of nuclear power within a few short years along with the huge associated and currently unavailable technological changes that would be needed to keep all these Birminghams ticking along as they are? Or to embrace rapid energy descent, that salvational ‘collapse’ which Monbiot himself advocates? His critiques of pointless consumerism further raise the question of how much energy we actually need. He doesn’t provide estimates here, but it would be interesting to hear them – particularly if he spoke them with his wilder voice, the voice of a dweller in the land, rather than that of the rational planner or the urbane Guardian man.

To get out of the mess, I’m sure that we need both approaches. But it’s this wilder voice that I prefer in Monbiot’s writing. I don’t always agree with it, as when he contrasts the ‘linear thinking’ of agriculture with the ‘rambling and responsive’ existence of the forager (p.92) – an over-simplified distinction which effaces the possibilities for a rambling and responsive agriculture, for ‘wildness’ to be articulated within farming rather than against it. Still, Monbiot’s wild voice gets closer to the source of the mess we’re in – and is also much rarer – than the social-democratic urge to blame everything on Thatcher and Reagan, lobby for a return to pre-1980s public provision, and hope that modern technology will banish woes like climate change. The malaise runs very much deeper than that, as Monbiot convincingly demonstrates. In this book, he stands at the doorway of the producerist or agrarian populist vision I believe we need if we’re to create a just and sustainable future. But he doesn’t quite step through. In future books or collaborations I hope he will, because few people are better equipped to articulate it convincingly while retaining the necessary critical edge. In the meantime, what he’s given us here is a passionate, deeply informed and endlessly thought-provoking analysis of our times.  “To seek enlightenment about ourselves and the world around us: this is what makes a life worth living” (p.115). We’re lucky that he’s set himself that goal, and done so much to share it.

A farmer’s guide to Brexit

I promised a Brexit two-parter with a second post on agriculture, so that’s what I aim to deliver. It’s clear that the Brexit issue is going to reverberate for a long time to come, but I think I’d better start pressing the fade button on it for a while after this. Funny how quickly it’s flipped from a slow-burning issue of the disgruntled fringe in both main parties to a fast-burning issue of the disgruntled mainstream. Looking back at my pre-referendum predictions, I thought a Brexit result would cause strife in the Tory party, which it has. What I didn’t predict, though perhaps it’s obvious with hindsight, is that it would also lead to a full-on meltdown in the Labour Party. Compare the way the two parties have handled the fallout: on the right, the smooth and ruthless excision of Johnson and now probably Gove as a threat to Tory ruling hegemony; on the left, a massive and possibly terminal public brawl. Those who see Brexit as an opportunity to reshape our politics for the better, which includes me to some extent, have got their work cut out. I also failed to perceive how, especially outside Britain, many in the heterodox leftist circles where I usually find my inspiration would side with the neoliberals in heralding the Brexit vote as some kind of victory, rather than just another perplexing lurch in the long-term crisis. At issue, I think, are different notions of political sovereignty, on which I’ll have more to say later in the year.

Something that I did predict was the delusional excess currently parading across the country and its political talk shows: Britain is important once again, a great trading nation that now has a free hand to direct the flow of money and limit the flow of people. If the Brexiteers succeed in those dual objectives then it’s game, set and match for neoliberalism in the UK. But I doubt they will, so I feel reasonably relaxed about putting up with the current victory party. It’ll be over soon enough, and then things will get more serious. Perhaps the question is, as David Hare puts it, whether we’ll have politicians who are serious enough to cope with the aftermath.

Anyway, I’m just a humble farmer so let me leave all that aside and say a little about how this might pan out agriculturally. Policy wonkery isn’t really my forte, and neither is accurate prediction, so it seems. But let me hazard a few guesses about the agricultural landscape of a post-Brexit Britain…

The first point to make, along the lines of Tim Lang in this interesting commentary (interesting also for the mixture of wise and foolish comments beneath the article, including the good old vertical farming fallacy) is that food and farming are just about the biggest ticket items within the entire EU but got almost no coverage in the referendum campaign, except obliquely in terms of immigration issues. A case of “let’s quit the EU, and then start figuring out the implications”.

I think those implications are going to be quite troubling for farmers, consumers and Brexit negotiators. But a lot will depend on the shape of the Tory government that takes us out of the EU. My best guess (which on present form probably isn’t a very good one) is that the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers will be a more dominant hue in the post-Cameron Tory party. My predictions below are based on that assumption.

A brief statistical interlude – the following three figures are worth bearing in mind: The average annual earnings in the UK are around £25,500; the average annual farmer’s earnings are around £19,500; and, three-quarters of the latter comes from support payments1.

So let me now take a few wild punts on how all this will play out:

Small-scale farmers: plus ça change. Britain has the largest-scale and most straightforwardly market-oriented agriculture of any EU country. After the last round of CAP negotiations, the British government could have chosen to keep basic farm payments for small farmers, cap maximum payments for large ones, and use the CAP framework and other trading mechanisms to support local small-scale farming in other ways. But it didn’t. In that sense, small-scale commercial farmers who are still in business may be Brexit-proofed ahead of the curve. But we also mostly focus on high value niche products which are quite income elastic. So if the post-Brexit economy bombs, then so might we.

Large-scale lowland farmers. Despite all the promises of the Brexiteers, I can’t see basic farm payments lasting much beyond the 2020 election. Their days are probably numbered in the EU too, but here in Britain we won’t be able to afford them, they’re not in keeping with the neoliberal faith, and there aren’t many farmers anyway, so their votes don’t matter much (besides, who else are they going to vote for – Jeremy Corbyn?) On the upside, a lot of that meddlesome EU environmental regulation will probably go too, which will save a bit of money. Expect more dead fish in the River Frome, and in other waterways the length and breadth of the country. Fuel and fertilizer prices, grain prices – ooh, it’s a knife-edge, but I’m sure a lot of the big guys will pull through. The schmooze factor between Big Agri and the Tory government will increase exponentially (expect pedestrian disruption between Nos. 16 and 17 Smith Square due to pavement repairs). But I’m not sure it’ll make much difference in the end.

Big Landowners. In his article Tim Lang takes a gentle sideswipe at George Monbiot for overdoing his CAP-as-a-subsidy-to-the-rich schtick. I’m with Tim on this, even though George is right that the CAP does function as an outrageously regressive negative income tax for wealthy landowners. But George tends to underplay the fact that, within Europe, it mostly functions as a subsidy to consumers and retailers (note earnings figures above). In any case, with Brexit I think the big landowning wing of the Tory party will lose out to the swivel-eyed neoliberals. But I’m not sure how much it’ll care. Tenant farmers are a pain in the backside anyway. Big landowners will most likely line up with all the current ‘getting our country back’ tosh, position themselves as custodians of the timeless English landscape and find other ways to cash in. They’re good at that sort of thing. They’ve been practicing it for, like, a thousand years.

Upland stock farmers. Hard times are in store when the subsidy regimen dies and the winds of neoliberalism blow harder. Ironically, perhaps the New Zealand sheep farmers who suffered in the 1970s when Britain tightened the screws on its EU membership (or EEC as it was then) will return the favour now we’re leaving it. But some of the British upland farmers will survive because, like the aristocracy, the peasantry is adept at hanging on to what it has. The lightening of the regulatory burden may help. So more dead fish, then. Don’t expect much rewilding or watershed management, unless it’s undertaken for free by Mother Nature on abandoned upland farms.

Dairy farmers. The final death knell for medium-scale family dairy farming? And no more generous grants for converting to indoor robotic systems. So a game for giant corporate players. But also perhaps some spaces opening up for low-impact micro-dairying?

Conservation policies and environmental regulation: you’re joking, right? (See Miles King for details).

A national food policy: are you some kind of communist? Read my lips: no centralised planning unless we have absolutely no other option. Which may turn out to be the case (see below).

Energy: I doubt there’ll be enough in the kitty for the new reactor at Hinkley Point, and negotiating with EDF just got harder. I also doubt that the instinctive Tory hatred towards renewable energy of any kind will change much. And now we’re out of the EU we don’t have to ratify that silly Paris climate deal. So I’d predict lots of fracking and open-cast Welsh coal. Probably not enough to keep us ticking over, but there’s a chap called Putin knocking at the door with some excellent deals up his sleeve. They seem a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but surely it would be madness to say no?

Horticulture: now that we’ve got our country back, will British consumers want to buy more British fruit and veg? I’m not so sure. They’ll have their job cut out anyway, because we import most of it from abroad (the EU, principally). And the stuff we do produce is heavily dependent on the kind of footloose migrant labour working long hours in hard jobs for low pay that we’re supposed to be getting rid of. Though a good deal of it is organised by criminal gangmasters who are unlikely to be affected by whatever edicts are issued out of Westminster. But maybe more horticulture jobs will open up for British people. What’s the betting that after further onslaughts on trade unions and labour legislation a good number of Brits will find themselves lying nose-to-stolon on giant picking rigs supplying strawberries for their favoured politicians’ jaunts to the tennis at Wimbledon, and will then vote the Lib Dems in at the next election in order that we rejoin the EU and bring the migrants back? Stranger things have happened. Though not many, to be honest. Anyway, rising fruit and veg prices are a fair bet for the future, turning them into luxury items that’ll be increasingly beyond the means of ordinary people. But that might foment an allotment movement, and once the smell of the veg patch is in people’s nostrils then peasant insurrection is never far away.

An ecomodernist calls: what this all seems to point to is that Britain could become a giant laboratory for ‘land-sparing’ ecomodernism, with its uplands re-wilded by default and intensive, large-scale, grain-heavy farming in the lowlands. Expect Mike Shellenberger to be flying in soon for another meeting with Owen Paterson (will Paterson soon be stalking the corridors of DEFRA once again, or is that just another Bremain scare story?) In terms of the ecomodernist agenda, the roll-out of GM crops in the UK is probably now a foregone conclusion, so we can look forward to the end of weeds and pests and the feeding of the poor and needy. But as I said before, new nuclear is probably off the agenda for the time being until we’ve saved a bit more cash. Mike, could you bring some piggybanks over with you?

Food prices and food policy: In summary, I imagine that we’ll keep churning out the wheat, barley and oilseed rape in the short-term until all our best agricultural soil has been washed into the English Channel (it’s OK to call it that again, right?) But food prices will probably rise, especially for things that require work to grow and actually taste nice: fruit, vegetables, meat and such. And our national food self-sufficiency will probably continue to dwindle, necessitating increased food imports bought with a weaker pound on less advantageous trading terms. As climate change, more populist government and trade protectionism begin to make their influence felt around the world the UK government will suddenly panic about the parlous state of the food supply and appoint a safe pair of hands to pilot a national food security policy – Boris Johnson, perhaps? And as we know from Johnson’s antics to date, anything could happen after that. My prediction is that he’ll target the planning system as a dastardly communistic impediment to free enterprise. The last time the Tories took a look at the planning system they ditched decades-worth of meticulous planning guidance in favour of a short document that they knocked out on the back of a beermat as they walked home from the pub. This time they’ll probably throw out the beermat too. And then, my friend, every acre of these fair isles will be ripe for a sturdy peasant farmer to fight it out with the aristocrats and property developers to take possession. What’s that you say? Who on earth in this day and age has a plan for how Britain could feed itself through peasant farming? Well, I’m glad you asked me that…


1. Figures from: and Wood, Z. 2016 ‘Figures that add up to higher food prices’ Guardian 04.07.16

The Breakdown of Nations

I suppose I have no option but to write about Brexit, adding my own small voice to the torrent of verbiage that’s already been devoted to the current extraordinary events.

There are endless possible questions and implications to be traced. How they’ll play out is anybody’s guess. What does already seem clear is that the Vote Leave campaign was based on a series of lies that have already unravelled, and its soundbite-politician architects have absolutely no clue how to deal with the political, economic and social mess they so carelessly engineered. Maybe some of the present sky-is-falling rhetoric of my fellow remainers will prove in time to be overblown, but as things stand scenarios like the end of Britain’s EU membership, the end of the EU itself, the end of the United Kingdom, the end of peace in Northern Ireland, the end of the UK’s voice in the world, the rise of racism and nativism in Britain and in Europe, the self-destruction of the Labour Party, recession, job losses and major, long-term national impoverishment are all on the cards, if not already happening. That’s a big list of achievements, though not in a good sense, for our electoral representatives to pull off at a single stroke. Many of them were probably inevitable in the longer term anyway, and some of them aren’t necessarily all bad in themselves. “Collapse now to avoid the rush” as some of my pro-Brexit neo-agrarian friends have put it. A considered retreat is one thing, unforced self-destruction quite another. Still, it’s been plain enough for a while that the days of the current global order are numbered and it would be naïve to imagine that the transition to the next one is always going to be smooth. What really matters is what the next order will look like.

It’s tempting to pursue that question along the many convoluted byways of the Brexit issue, but perhaps it’s best if I stick to this blog’s main themes – sustainable farming and the kind of politics that can foster it. In this post, I’m going to focus on the politics. In the next one, I’ll take a closer look at the agricultural implications of Brexit.

I’ve long argued that if we’re to create a sustainable agriculture (and therefore a sustainable culture) a more localised politics is needed, so on the face of it perhaps that ought to put me in the Brexit camp. Certainly, a lot of anti-neoliberal, pro-small farm folk I’ve encountered have pinned their colours to the Brexit mast – but not many of them are actually British. There are some local and some wider dimensions of the EU issue that complicate any simple Brexit = localism equation. It’s worth examining them, because they raise important questions about the politics of a neo-agrarian transition.

To flesh out the local issues, where better to start than my hometown of Frome? In the town elections last year, its denizens chose an independent local party – Independents For Frome – over established national party candidates for every single one of the town council’s seventeen seats. But in the EU referendum, as far as can be inferred from aggregate figures, they voted to remain. A contradiction? I don’t think so. Arguing for a localization of politics doesn’t necessarily mean that politics should only be localized. The trick is to create nested systems in which decisions, arbitration and spheres of influence are appropriately structured at different geopolitical levels – including very broad, global or continent-wide levels. In my vision of a more localised politics, there’s room both for organisations like Independents For Frome and for ones like the EU. Political scientists have been talking for some time of a ‘new medievalism’ in contemporary global politics, by which they mean that the Westphalian system of nation-states is breaking down into a more polymorphous politics of cities, regions, nations, identities, para-statal organisations, supra-statal organisations, trading leagues and so forth, rather like the more politically variegated pre-modern age. By contrast, the Brexit campaign was founded on a conservative, nostalgic, modernist project of reclaiming sovereignty for the nation-state. It’s not a project that I think can succeed, and it’s not one that I support anyway.

I suppose I might have supported it if I felt there was something worth rescuing in the concept of national sovereignty. The EU has its problems, after all – though in the cold light of day the wilder flights of the Vote Leave campaign are beginning to look a bit silly. It wasn’t the EU, it turns out, that was lurking in the park waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women and children, or creeping into your house at night to disorder your CD collection and steal odd socks from your washing machine. And the fact is, Westminster has its problems too. From medieval times, Britain has had very weak traditions of local political autonomy, which is one reason why it once rose to prominence as a global power above other European countries. Like many countries, it has strong traditions of popular radicalism, but more than many countries those traditions have been consistently frustrated by a political elite that has cannily absorbed most of the challenges to its power and kept a more or less continuous grip. The main checks on its power over the last couple of centuries have been the politics of organised industrial labour, the politics of municipal radicalism, the troubled politics of the UK union, and the EU. The first two were eclipsed in the 1980s (the self-destruction of the Labour Party in the wake of Brexit merely being another sad coda to that tale). The EU has now gone, and with it possibly the union. So although the referendum has left some blood on the carpet inside the conservative establishment, it’s also quite possibly delivered it a firmer grip on power than at any time since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Good news if you support the Conservative Party, and its neoliberal, pro-rich policies. Less so if you don’t hold this self-serving political class in high regard, which – bafflingly – seems to be a major point of issue for the Brexiteers. The truth is, Westminster has a crushing, centralising, conservative, undemocratic grip on power – the notion that the referendum is somehow liberatory for a more sovereign and localised politics seems to me very much mistaken.

There are many aspects to that lack of democracy. Some stem straightforwardly from Britain’s political institutions: the monarchy, the House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting, the stifling of municipal independence. Others have broader socio-political causes: inequalities of wealth, landownership and education, the corporate grip on the press and so on. But more important than the notion of democracy-as-voting is democracy as social interaction, the endless frictions, accommodations and slippages between us as individuals and as interest groups in our multiple social roles that constitute a democratic civil society. That’s what needs nourishing if we’re truly to build democracy, and it’s taken a hell of a battering in this referendum campaign.

A lot has been made of the class character of the Brexit debate – the out-of-touch political class, the cappuccino-quaffing, don’t-know-how-the-other-half-lives remain voters (though of course, Boris Johnson et al qualify on both counts there) versus the excluded post-industrial working class who want to take back control of their lives, who want to count for something again. I agree with Frome’s own Guardian man, John Harris, in dismissing what he calls “that lousy old Marxist trope of “false consciousness”, whereby people enthusiastically following the supposedly wrong cause are only a speech or poster away from enlightenment, and a sharp left turn”. But you don’t have to be all that Marxist to question the class mystification involved in the Brexit case for national sovereignty, a point that leaps out at me when I reconsider the work of Leopold Kohr in the light of the referendum.

Kohr’s book The Breakdown of Nations (1957) was one of the early offerings in the green localisation movement that I still consider myself to be a part of. When I read it a few years ago I thought Kohr had some wise things to say. I still do, but looking at this article about Kohr’s book in the context of the UK referendum (thanks to Ruben Anderson for drawing it to my attention) makes me think that we in the localisation movement need to raise our game. “Kohr,” the writer claims, “understood that God made atoms small, that small business invigorated the economy, that only a small number of people created real social change and that virtue came in a small box. He appreciated that we lived in a microcosmos, not a macrocosmos.”

To my mind, that’s a list of non-sequiturs. The size of atoms has nothing whatever to do with the size of polities. We live simultaneously in a microcosmos and a macrocosmos. And so on. Kohr argued that smaller European states have an organic primacy over larger conglomerate polities – Scotland as against the UK, for example. But here he succumbs to the seductive power of nationalist mythology. The myth of ‘Scotland’ has no more intrinsic coherence than the myth of the UK, or the myth of the EU. Consider the divisions between highland, lowland and island; Protestant and Catholic; the class connivance of the lairds with English interests against their tenants after 1746; lord versus subject; Rangers versus Celtic; English versus Gaelic; 45% for independence versus 55% against; 62% for EU membership versus 38% for exit. There is no single, coherent story to tell of authentic ‘smallness’ here that righteously divides the UK from the EU, and Scotland from the UK.

There is a coherent story to tell (though it’s only one of many) of authentically small farms, businesses and communities as parts of larger human and non-human conglomerations. It’s a story I’ve tried to tell on this blog and will continue to do so. It’s a story that can be told within and against the EU, within and against the UK, within and against Westminster. But I think I’d prefer to tell it within the EU, within the UK, and against Westminster. And if the EU has become an unreformable cabal of power-hungry neoliberals, then so has Westminster, with bells on, for at least the last forty years.

Still, what’s done is done. I think the worst (if probably the likeliest) thing now would be a messy compromise, which will leave the Brexit voters feeling cheated of their victory. So – perhaps to contradict my recent post on the perils of right-wing populism – I think what I’d most like to see from here is a clean, hard break from the EU under a Johnson premiership. No access to the single market. The promised brakes on immigration, so long as they’re done with humanity (and, of course, the return of all Britain’s own EU emigrants). It’s not that I vindictively want to see my country and its Brexiteers suffer the full consequences of their actions, but I think without it the lessons won’t be learned. Immigration was never fundamentally the problem. Bureaucratic EU rules were never fundamentally the problem. A declining post-industrial power drifting aimlessly in the sea of neoliberalism was the problem. Alternative economists talk about the ‘addictive’ nature of the mainstream economy, and as many an addict will recount you have to hit rock bottom before you can begin the path to recovery. Perhaps ironically a Johnson premiership in a fracturing, isolated UK under massive trading disadvantages could be the best hope that the long and divisive grip on power by a conservative establishment might finally crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, just at the moment of its apparent triumph.

It’s a high risk strategy, but from where we now stand all strategies seem to me high risk. The risk involved in the one I’m advocating has been identified by Polly Toynbee: “When leavers find there’s no money and no exodus, that it was all lies, where does their wrath turn next?” Already we’re seeing a rise in racist incidents, leaflets circulating with the legend ‘No more Polish vermin’ and so on. When reality dawns on the Brexiteers, we progressive populists have a huge job on our hands to try to shape the succeeding political narrative for the best, and it’s suddenly become a lot more urgent.

So as well as a Johnson premiership, I’d also like to see a resurgent left populism articulating the alternatives. Let other power blocs feast on our vacated place at the world table while we pursue our self-enforced agenda of economic localism, out of which some good could certainly come. I’m not entirely convinced a resurgent left populism will happen – especially in the light of the Labour Party’s abjectly unresurgent behaviour at present – but as long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m ever the optimist. And, luckily for Britain, Small Farm Future is here to guide the country through the morass in its hour of need. Indeed, I’ve just heard that our board of directors has approved in principle the hiring of an extra staff writer to improve our coverage of these weighty issues. All it needs now is the funds to make the appointment. The donate button is, as ever, top right. So a message to any pro-Brexit non-British neo-agrarians reading this: please dig deep. My country needs you. It needs your support. Above all, it needs your foreign exchange.

Requiem for the imperial city

In the early 19th century London was such an unhealthy place that it couldn’t sustain its population through indigenous births and had to rely upon net in-migration. Its death rate has long since declined to a more acceptable level, but today the capital relies as much as ever on in-migration. About 40% of its current population was born abroad. And foreign-born workers in London constitute more than a third of all foreign-born workers in the UK.

Those facts aren’t much, I realise, to build an entire hypothesis on, but I’m going to give it a go. Hell, there are people out there like Stewart Brand and Erle Ellis who’ve worked with less in trying to convince us that urbanisation is an unalloyed positive.

So here’s my alternative hypothesis to their narrative of joyful urbanisation: Some people want to live in the city and some people don’t, but most people want a secure livelihood. Historically, industrialisation and economic development have been associated with urbanism or urbanisation. Cities were job-creators, built around commerce and industry. So people, in search of that secure livelihood, have tended to go to them, temporarily or permanently. Cities were (and are) also resource sinks, drawing in food and other materials from much wider areas. They thus have an imperial aspect – gravitational centres, as it were, that orient their surroundings to themselves. In some cases, the imperialism is quite localised. In others – like London in its heyday, and apparently still today – it can be global in reach. But the nature of the livelihoods available in the post-industrial city seems to be changing. As I mentioned in a recent post, traditional urban sectors such as heavy industry and port functions are now much less labour intensive, and have also become too large to fit into traditional cities like London. In London, manufacturing is still important (mainly now of food products and clothing), but rising up the list are human and city services – domestic personnel, food retail, hospitality, security, transport, construction, landscape services and so on1.

In other words, cities concentrate people, thereby creating many employment opportunities for people to service other people. So there’s a kind of positive feedback loop of self-reinforcing urban concentration. Meanwhile, London as a so-called ‘world city’, with the benefit of political stability and ratcheting property prices, has increasingly become a playground for the global wealthy. At the same time, the possibilities for cheap accommodation in the city are dwindling – the generation-long onslaught on social housing symbolised most recently by the notorious bedroom tax, the curtailment of private renters’ and squatters’ rights, the closure of loopholes such as narrowboat moorages and heavier planning enforcement of ‘shedrooms’. So there’s a massive squeeze on the living conditions and standard of living of the traditional working class, and quite a squeeze too on the situation of relatively poorly paid middle class workers – teachers, social workers, nurses etc.

I have no idea how all this will play out in the future. But that high level of foreign-born workers is intriguing. It seems to me that cities like London are no longer operating in the way described by classical urban sociology – the slow (and often painful) assimilation of successive waves of migrants into the city’s stable demographic fabric (in London’s case, up to the 1970s, successively Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and South Asian for the most part). The present migrants seem a more provisional and footloose phenomenon than the migrants of the past. They are not necessarily there to stay, but there to earn while they can…largely by servicing the settled population, who rely on them even as they moan about them. On that latter point, there’s clearly a class dimension which is at issue in contemporary politics: the jobs done by migrants service wealthier people the most and tend to undercut the work or the work conditions of the traditional working class. Fortunately, here in the UK we have the political maturity to realise that this is due to structural economic and political factors, and can’t simply be blamed on the migrants themselves – oh, wait. Anyway, should London’s economic fortunes decline, or other cities in other places start to beckon harder, or opportunities in their homelands brighten, or today’s referendum propel Britain out of the EU, then perhaps we could expect London’s migrant population to decrease – with interesting consequences, I’d think, for the life of the city.

Meanwhile, I doubt this situation fosters economic resilience or stability for London. And since the population of Greater London constitutes around 16% of the whole UK population – a pretty high main city/total population ratio when set alongside comparable countries – I also doubt it fosters economic resilience or stability for the UK as a whole. But maybe that has some interesting implications. For one thing, although the UK (or at least England) is one of the more densely populated and heavily urbanised countries of the world, once you take London out of the picture, things start to look more spacious. The southwest region of England where I live has nearly 2 million hectares of farmland and a total population of 5.3 million, with only six cities in the region exceeding populations of 100,000 and only two exceeding 200,000 (Bristol is its largest city, and the tenth largest in the UK, with a population of 400,000). Population density here is 2.9 people per hectare of existing farmland – a contrast with London and the southeast, with 7.5 people per hectare of farmland in that region.

Of course, in reality you can’t just ‘take London out of the picture’. But when I advocate for a smaller scale and more localised agriculture I often come across the kind of objection that runs “Well, that all sounds lovely, but I live in London. How are you going to feed us?” As an ex-Londoner myself – and one, moreover, who has benefitted considerably from its overheated economy – I’m quite sympathetic to that question. Especially if it’s phrased open-endedly rather than as a challenge – less an aggressive ‘how are you going to feed us?’, and more a plaintive ‘how are you going to feed us?’ This is something I’m going to look at more closely in my upcoming posts.

Perhaps a more subversive implication of this line of thought would question London’s overdevelopment. Big (or biggish) cities undoubtedly have a role to play in concentrating various administrative, educational and commercial functions, although much of their old commercial-industrial raison d’être has now gone. But do we need a city of 8 million in a country of 63 million? How much of that population concentration has resulted from old patterns of development and the positive feedback loop I mentioned earlier? How many of those wealthy Londoners being serviced by not-so-wealthy migrants can a just and sustainable society afford? There are those who argue that by promoting ease of interaction, large cities display ‘super-linear power scaling with total population’2 – that is, they create economic activity disproportionate to their size. This hypothesis has been strongly disputed, even in its own terms empirically3, quite apart from the question of whether super-linear power scaling is such a great thing anyway when the case for degrowth is mounting. Indeed, others have argued that the fractal pattern of super-sized cities represents an instability in a complex system operating far from equilibrium4. I wonder if these competing perspectives are over-mathematizations. Perhaps in imputing some kind of ordained and intrinsic trajectory to city development they efface the way it emerges from the self-interested policies of states and their elites. Might it be time for policymakers to start thinking about ways of trimming back the hyperdevelopment of large cities like London in service of wider interests?

The situation is different in the growing megacities of the global south, though there are various similarities. One of them is the same basic imperialism that underlies their prodigious growth – a local imperialism of the city bleeding its rural hinterlands, and a global imperialism associated with institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment programs geared to opening markets for global free trade in agricultural commodities (allied with the utter hypocrisy of the US and the EU in continuing to subsidise their own agricultures) gave many peasants and rural poor people few other options. Despite the blandishments of Brand, Ellis and other urban advocates about the advantages of urban residence for poor people in the global south, I still haven’t seen any compelling evidence to suggest that it provides a solid route out of poverty for many, though I’m still open to persuasion. I suspect there may be a historical fallacy here: because urbanisation was associated with economic growth in various historic and contemporary cases (Europe, USA and, perhaps more problematically, China), it’s assumed that urbanisation is a necessary and sufficient condition for development. I’m not so sure. And I think there’s a road not taken here which is worth exploring – endogenous rural development.

But it’s hard to broach such possibilities because of our modernist romance with the idea of the city. In a Twitter exchange, Haroon Akram-Lodhi, whose work I greatly respect, pointed me to Katherine Boo’s amazing book about a Mumbai slum, Behind The Beautiful Forevers as an example of how ‘vibrant’ slum life is. The book certainly shows the ingenuity and tenacity that people in desperate circumstances display in getting by from day to day, which I suppose you could choose to call ‘vibrant’. But to me it also shows the violence, despair, corruption and systematic unfairness of slum life that makes it virtually impossible for all but a lucky few to escape. It’s not that the countryside is necessarily much different. Indeed, in most poor countries rural people are poorer on average than city people. But, leaving aside the question of how valid measures of poverty across the two settings are, it doesn’t follow that moving to the city will improve the lot of the rural poor. I’ve not yet seen convincing evidence for economic acceleration which is intrinsically related to urbanism per se.

Cities have a pretty impressive track record historically of achieving long-term imperialistic control. So I wouldn’t be surprised if places like London and Mumbai carry on their merry way long into the future, controlling the flows of people and resources over large distances, essentially in accordance with the whims of their established elites. But perhaps, if we listen hard, we might just catch a few strains of a requiem playing for them on the horizon of the future. Because what we really need is smaller, tighter cities that are more mutualistically geared to the needs of the wider society of which they form a part. And when it becomes clear, as I think it probably will, that the imperial mega-cities of the modern age are loading the dice against the displaced multitudes of their peripheries, who knows what kind of radical shakedowns of the country and the city might await?



2. West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

3. Shalizi, C. 2011. ‘Scaling and hierarchy in urban economies’. PNAS.

4. Orrell, D. 2012. Economyths, Icon, pp.93-4.


Notes on a spirit quest

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m slowly working my way towards an analysis of a neo-peasant future. Well, the operative word there is ‘slowly’ and here’s one of the slow bits. It comes in the form of the report I promised on my recent spirit quest, and also by way of a breather before I shoulder the onerous burden of the neo-peasant analysis. But I’ve also got to say that I’m reeling in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder. Various people are cautioning not to make political capital out of her death, which is probably wise. So let me make some symbolic capital out of it instead, in the context of a murderer allegedly yelling “Britain first” and “Keep Britain independent” as he killed her. Doubtless he was a disturbed man operating alone, but nobody ever really operates ‘alone’. The anti-EU referendum campaign has been a thoroughly poisonous exercise in small-minded nativism, and Cox’s murder looks to me like a kind of apotheosis of it. A left populist case could have been made for quitting the EU, but it wasn’t. For me, Cox’s murder symbolises the whirlwind we’ll reap from indiscriminate support for populisms of any kind as a way of shaking up the present political inertia. I will not lend my support to a politics of localism and self-determination without tolerance, egalitarianism and internationalism at its core. The primary task is to build such a movement, not hope to piggyback it onto squalid nativism. Britain isn’t ‘first’, and nor is anywhere else.

Anyway, reporting on my spirit quest seems a bit self-indulgent in the light of Cox’s death, but there we have it – writing a blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, as I further discuss below. I’m not even sure that what follows here (written a couple of weeks ago, before the murder) is wholly relevant to this blog’s own limited themes. I think it probably is. Anyway, it’s good to stretch the wings once in a while. We’ll be back on the farm soon enough. So here goes.


My friend Paul shamelessly revealed here not so long ago that I recently turned 50, an event that prompted more soul-wracked reflection on my part than I’d anticipated. Fortunately, having given up my academic career and most of my pretensions to professional respectability in my 30s, I got the bulk of my midlife crisis out of the way early and I’m now an only mildly disillusioned farmer rather than the kind of time-bomb of utter rage that young scholars learn to avoid as an academic rite of passage when they chance upon certain senior colleagues around the photocopier.

Even so, I’ve been turning over thoughts of death in my mind of late – and not exclusively my own. Throughout human history, the individual’s birth and death have generally been thought of as mere waymarks on a longer journey of the soul rather than the definitive start and endpoints they’ve become in the post-Christian west. It occurs to me that this has been a profoundly unsettling psycho-cultural change that goes less remarked than perhaps it should. I think it manifests in some odd conceptions that we often fail to notice: the idea that although we ourselves pass to dust, the civilisation of which we form a part progresses ever onwards towards godlike immortality, or the notion that as individuals we must be authors of a unique, important life that other people need to witness. I’ve never subscribed to the former conviction, but the latter…well, perhaps that’s why I took to writing this blog and am now repackaging my holiday notes under the grandiloquent title of a ‘spirit quest’.

Paul has a nice metaphor for our thoughts and ideas being like the spoor of an animal pursuing its course through the landscape. When others intersect with it, they might stop and sniff at it, and maybe follow it for a while as a part of their own journey. Or else they might just plough on through, only stopping long enough to piss on the trail they found. I’ve been truly gratified at the number of people who’ve taken the trouble to respond positively to my online spoor, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I feel bad that I sometimes haven’t found the time to respond adequately. Then again, my journey was bookended by a commenter opining on my deadened spirit and by another one criticising my empty criticality. So I hereby renew my ever ill-kempt resolve to try to spend my time among the sniffers, and not among the pissers. If I’m lucky, these notes might find a sniffer or two.

My journey is taking me first to the Scottish Highlands, on which I recently wrote. So I drive northward, mountain-bound, in a borrowed car. M4, M5, M6, M74. The spirit-traveller of old would measure their journey in the lengths of their own prostrate body, but today’s pilgrim works to tighter deadlines. The farm is at several crossroads in its own narrative – a good time to leave it and reflect, but there are others taking up the slack of my absence and I need to be back in a week. For a long time I rationed my fossil-fuel assisted travelling out of concern for the climate, but since Copenhagen I’ve become more slovenly. If everybody denied themselves journeys such as this, emissions would plummet. If I avoid it personally, it makes no difference. The eternal dilemma in the society of the crowd. On this trip, I choose to reject the duality of the environmentalist as either hypocrite or saint.

In any case, I can report with total certainty that not everyone is denying themselves journeys such as this. From Worcester to Manchester, it’s a stop-start dance in three lanes of laboured traffic. At 0mph I have plenty of time to reflect on the sticker adorning the 4×4 in front – “One life. Live it.” That post-Christian conceit again. Why do you only ever see it on 4x4s? Because driving off-road seems livelier than the constraints of the tarmac? How closely shuttered the horizon!

The traffic thins towards Carlisle. I stop for food at Tebay, the organic service station. Like most once-good consumerist ideas, it seems to be slowly regressing towards the mean. I peel off onto the A702, Edinburgh-bound. I like the fact that the main southern route to Scotland’s capital is a winding single carriageway. In Edinburgh, I spend the night sleeping on the floor of my son Oliver’s student digs. Oliver is coming to the Highlands with me. His room is cluttered with mountaineering equipment, some of it inherited from me. He’s slowly replacing it with more up-to-date kit, a fact I try not to ponder too metaphorically.

The next day we drive to the far northwest and climb Ben Hope, the mountain described by Robert Macfarlane in his celebrated book The Wild Places. I find Macfarlane’s writing engaging and irritating by turns – too self-absorbed in places, too overblown, too politically ill-attuned. His version of Ben Hope is pitiless and frightening. For us today it’s a gentle amble in the sun, T shirts on the summit with some pretty views. But then the clouds roll in, the warmth vanishes instantly and I remember that it was a winter night Macfarlane spent up here. Context is all. Perhaps I only find him irritating because he writes a lot like me, only better, and to vastly more acclaim.

South of Cape Wrath, the landscape is post-glacial, the ice age palpably recent. The land is still rising here in rebound from its glacial load. Macfarlane is right, this is just about the wildest landscape you can find in Britain. In one sense, it’s not so wild. You’re never more than about 30 miles from a road, and once on a road you’re probably never more than another 30 miles from a cappuccino or whatever damn thing you want. But imagine dwelling in this land, making your living from it. Few could, and those that once did are long departed. Highland or lowland, trade may be a saviour, but it’s also a destroyer. The sheep eat the people, as they once said in these parts. But now the sheep are mostly gone too. Not many people are returning, apart from wayfarers like me.

The clouds that rolled in yesterday have now set for the week. Oliver and I climb Arkle, stepping through the portal of a huge split boulder into pine forest and then the mountain’s rocky wastes. Blasted by an arctic wind, the only animal we see on the mountain is a small spider, scion of an ancient lineage.

We drive south again, through Assynt. I love this landscape of ancient inselbergs, and I’m intrigued by the recent crofter buyout of the Assynt estate. This country has some of the most unequal landownership in the world, but the winds of change are blowing in the new Scotland. I’d like to stay here a while and chase that story, but my visit is driven more by introspection and the desire to find some kind of redemption in the hills. I’d wanted a physical challenge, and I’d chosen An Teallach, thrilling to the reverential tones in the hillwalking guidebooks about adrenaline-fuelled scrambling on the Corag Bhuidhe pinnacles towering precipitously over Toll an Lochain. Packing nervously for the hike the night before I persuade Oliver to bring a rope.

“You read too many of those hillwalking books,” he says. “You’re a climber, not a hillwalker. You’ve led extreme grade rock.”

“Ah well, that was then. This is now.”

“Just stop reading those hillwalking books.”

But in the morning the clouds are low and the rain is hammering against my tent. I decide that the spirits of this quest have determined that my goal of traversing An Teallach will go unrewarded. I decide that I’m OK with that, like Peter Matthiesen in his book The Snow Leopard, searching for a spirit creature that he never glimpses. Oliver isn’t so sure. We drive to Torridon, the weather improving all the time, and with the sun now shining I’m no longer sure myself. Too late. Oliver goes fishing while I sit in a café reading George Monbiot’s new book, which I’ve been tasked to review. I also have with me James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. The two make for argumentative bedfellows.

The next day dawns dull and wet again, but I’m not going to make the same mistake twice so we slog up to the ridge of Liathach – an objective that my hillwalking guide says is only marginally less terrifying than An Teallach. The views from the ridge are said to be magnificent, but ours rarely extend more than a few yards. We see no one else on the mountain all day. We’re pricked by a steely rain, outriding gusting northerlies. Tracing the ridge, we soon reach the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles – “a hard, exposed scramble that sets the pulse racing” the guidebook says. But it goes pretty easily. The only part where I stop to think is the descent of a small slab where there’s nothing much to hold onto. In a playground it would probably be none too taxing to the average eight year old, but with wet rock, numb hands, a fierce wind and a potentially fatal fall in the event of a slip it’s a somewhat different prospect. Looking down into the clouds boiling up from the corrie below I think for a second that I see my old friend Nick sitting on a dark bed of mist, trident in hand, beckoning me mischievously over. I turn to face the rock and lower myself gingerly, like an old man inching his way down a swimming pool ladder. There are no anthems in my head, and I’m cold, but it feels good to be here and good to have negotiated the pinnacles, as if indeed a pulse of deeper life-spirit flickers in me after all. Oliver scampers down the slab in four easy strides, facing out, and jumps onto the narrow bounding path.

“Guess you’re right,” I say, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I shouldn’t read those hillwalking guides so much.”

“Innit,” says Oliver, hefting his rucksack before he turns to kick up the edge of a sugary snowfield, the last remnant of winter, heading towards the final summit of Mullach an Rathain.

This is an era of diminished expectations. I do not think my children’s generation will find greater wealth or happiness than mine. I do not think that our culture is inexorably improving. But I find pleasure in the fact that my son is already a better mountaineer than I was.

In the valley, we backtrack along the road to our car. In places, there are deer-fenced exclosures, funded by EU money, to help with woodland regeneration. Outside them there’s little but heather. Inside, strong young saplings of birch and Scots pine. By God, that deer fencing looks a pricey business, though. And inside one of the exclosures we come across a doe, paler than usual, regarding us with infinite attention. I’m not inclined to take sides today in the ‘balance of nature’ debate, but I’m pleased to see her and take an illicit pleasure in the fact that she’s outwitted the fence. Perhaps she’s my spirit animal for this journey. The pine and birch grow strong around her.

On the final day in the Highlands we climb Slioch, again in cloud and rain. But as we follow the east ridge round to the summit of Sgurr an Tuill Bhain the sun burns through. A rainbow arcs northwards across the uninhabited lochans and moors of the Fisherfield Forest, pointing in the far distance to the sawtooth ridge of An Teallach itself, glinting in the sunlight. I don’t know whether to treat this sight as an emblem of my failure or of my success. Probably both, or neither. In any case, it’s beautiful. Rainbow, mountain, old tracks of ice. The spirit feels strong inside as we descend.

Oliver needs to get back to Edinburgh for a field ecology course. And I’m feeling the need to get back to the farm for some field ecology of my own. But I have a couple more things on my itinerary. First, a long drive south along England’s eastern coasts – a part of the country I’ve scarcely visited – and through the rich farmlands of Lincolnshire and the fens. There’s a beauty to the moors and beaches, but it’s unwillingly surrendered to the passing motorist whisked between appropriate stopovers. I try to find a campsite around Lincoln. There are ones marked on my map, but I don’t find them on the ground. Instead, incongruously, shuttered up in open farm country I find a couple of sex shops, and I begin to wonder if ‘campsite’ is some kind of east country euphemism. These late-night roads are unfriendly places, making a peon of the casual motorist: no stopping, no camping, layby closed. I’ve never stayed in a cheap service station hotel before. Who would? I assume there are always vacancies in such places. But from Lincoln, through Margaret Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham, and on to Peterborough, there’s no room at the inn. Just as I decide that the spirits of this journey are telling me to go home I find a room for the night.

The next morning, I start with coffee in the service station. Such non-places seem the very anathema of what I stand for, but I can’t help somehow liking them. A historical display near the burger bar shows how archaeologists found a bronze-age farm on this site, as the service station was built. Coachloads of football supporters arrive in raucous good humour. It’s easy for me to play the silent prophet and scorn their frivolity. Their team won, who cares? But I enjoy their enjoyment. Sometimes, there’s too little space for playfulness.

The fens are a place of industrial wind turbines, cereals and vegetables, undocumented workers, anti-EU sloganeering, and a cold shallow sea nibbling for purchase at the country’s edges. I drive along roads that speak of the fens’ drainage and Dutch connections: Forty Foot Bank, Sluice Road, Sixteen Foot Bank, Vermuden’s Drain. A family story holds that our ancestors were Dutch fen-drainers, hence the distinctly non-Anglo ‘j’ in the surname Smaje. The truth is more prosaic – and more interesting, speaking to the anxieties of history. The landscape is regimented here, its wildernesses confined to canal edges. Cow parsley and feral rape, kestrels. Occasionally the edge thickens to encompass a smallholding with geese and pigs. But mostly I see wheat, barley, rape, like all the arable fields of England. I reach the Breckland, where there are sand and trees, another destination of my journey, but I’m impatient now and there’s also a motorway leading westwards past self-proclaimed ‘historic market towns’ where suburban jumbles of ugly utility buildings reluctantly cede a few old town-centre streets. In Hemel Hempstead the inevitable happens and the ugly jumble on each side stretches to meet in the middle. Ah well, at least there are people playing cricket here. And perhaps in centuries to come those ugly buildings will be memorialised in turn. Hemel Hempstead: historic dormitory-commercial satellite? Somehow I can’t quite see it.

Just one more place to stop. Is this wise? The village where I grew up, and haven’t visited for nearly thirty years. My parents worked in London, and drew circles around it until they found the nearest place where they could afford a family home. I have no connections here now. The place today is even more self-memorialising than my own old memories of it. The Victorian building where Mrs Maunder once put me through my paces is now neatly museum-ized by a signpost: ‘The Old Schoolhouse’. And, talking of museums, the high street is emblazoned with the jaunty hues of the Roald Dahl museum, where once he was just an old bloke in the village who was known for writing books. No couple just out of college with two young kids could afford a place here now.

I climb the hill to the Anglican church where we used to walk up from the school for services, two abreast, girl and boy. A plaque on the wall lists every parish priest here from the thirteenth century. There have only been three since 1939, and I remember the first two from my school assemblies. The present incumbent started well after my time, and is the first female name on that list of ages. Perhaps I do believe in progress.

Another two hours and I’m home. The oaks we planted ten years ago now tower over me, their leaves a good three weeks ahead of the ones I’ve just seen in the Highlands. Spring has fully taken hold since I left. The first leafy crops of the season are ready to harvest. The lambs, so wraithlike just a few weeks ago, are now fully adhered to life. Soon it’ll be hay-making time. Or silage-making, anyway. More progress? I don’t know – I’ve returned with no more answers, no more spirit perhaps, than when I left. And no real home in the world but the one I’ve made, which is here.

Neo-peasantries: from permaculture to permanent agriculture

Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.

Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.

That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.

Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.

1. The limits of biomimicry

 A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.

But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.

Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.

A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.

2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac

Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.

Small farm monoculture

Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.

An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.

I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.

But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”

In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.

3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!

Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).

Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)

Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.

Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.

There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.

I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.

We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.

4. Playing with the state

Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.

5. Conclusion

 I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.

My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…

Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:

  • Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
  • Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?

I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.


  1. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
  1. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
  1. Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.