The revolution will not be market gardenized: some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier

It was suggested to me recently that I might like to pen some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener1. And indeed I would. Here they are.

At one level, I think the book is very, very good. It’s packed with useful information on how to establish and run a successful, small-scale, local, organic market garden, clearly borne of years of experience and careful thought. A good many of Fortier’s recommendations are things that we’ve also adopted over time at Vallis Veg, albeit perhaps not quite with his efficiency or singularity of purpose. So I’d say this is definitely one for the bookshelf of any aspiring market gardener, alongside other classics like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Hall and Tolhurst’s Growing Green.

I have some reservations, though. These lie not so much in what the book says as in what it doesn’t say, because there are wider contexts within which market gardening needs discussing – and in which The Market Gardener is being discussed – that make me uneasy. They prompt me to question the importance accorded market gardening in alternative farming circles and to wonder whether we should be placing the emphasis elsewhere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me approach my broader theme by summarising a few of Fortier’s points, presenting them – as Fortier partly does himself – in the form of a kind of Bildungsroman, which I will then compare to the trajectory of my own farming life.

So we start with a young man and his partner who wish to pursue careers in commercial horticulture. To begin with, they rent a small piece of land where they grow and sell some vegetables, scraping by just about tolerably from year to year. But then they want to settle down, build a house and put down some roots. They establish themselves on a 1.5 acre semi-urban plot, close to a market for their produce which is not already saturated by other small-scale growers. They buy a new Italian two-wheel tractor with a PTO and various attachments, better fitted to the scale of their operation than a pricier four-wheel farm tractor, though in fact most of the work on their holding is accomplished by simple hand tools. They don’t grow vegetables year-round, or – given their scale – ones where the economic return per unit area is low, such as potatoes, squash and corn. So they grow mostly high-value summer vegetables, which they produce in large quantities through intensive cultivation methods (including gas-heated polytunnels). For this, they use compost in bulk which they buy in from commercial providers. This is partly because the production of top quality compost is an expert science they consider best left to people who aren’t specialist growers, and partly because the work involved in producing compost in such quantity with the mostly non-powered tools at their disposal would exceed their labour (and land?) capacity. In any case, their business flourishes and they make a decent living through vegetable sales.

Let me compare this story with that of a not quite so young man (yes, that would be me) and his partner who, fired up by a reformist zeal to help make the food and farming system more sustainable, sought a peri-urban plot in which to enact their not yet fully-formed agricultural visions. A 1.5 acre plot for a small house and large garden would have been fine, but they found in practice that most plots contained large houses and small gardens, while there was massive price pressure on peri-urban farmland, keenly sought as it was by all sorts of people with deeper pockets than them (and most certainly than anyone financing themselves through small-scale horticulture). But after six months of thorough searching they felt lucky to be able to purchase an 18 acre edge of town site (bigger than they’d planned, or had much experience in managing), albeit one lacking the necessary permissions to build a house. Despite distractions such as raising children and trying to earn some money to get by in the meantime, they too established a small market garden of about 1.5 acres on their site (planting the rest with orchards and woodland, or leaving it as permanent pasture). After some early messing around on the machinery front, they bought a 25 year old 50hp farm tractor with front loader, and assembled implements for it cheaply from ebay and farm sales – probably for a similar total cost to a brand new Italian two-wheel tractor. The implements were a bit of a ragbag, though – different working widths, offsets etc. So they also ended up buying a cheaper two-wheel tractor, better suited to working a small market garden (while, like Fortier, also mostly using hand tools). The four-wheeler remained invaluable for other jobs on the site. One of these was compost management – after experimenting with a range of onsite and offsite compost options, the couple adopted as their main fertility strategy the composting of wood chips brought in by local tree surgeons and mixed with other organic matter from the site. Although, like Fortier, relying mostly on high-value summer crops for their income, the couple operated year-round, growing winter crops and low value ones like potatoes, for although the fire of sustainability had dimmed in them somewhat through the years, they still felt the need at least to make some kind of effort to grow staple crops. A major boost to the business occurred in late 2016 when, thirteen years after buying the land, they finally received permission from the local council to build a permanent residence on it (OK, I’m forward projecting there – at any rate, that thirteen year hiatus is not untypical for rural worker applications in the UK planning system).

So now, on the basis of those two narratives I’d like to make a few observations about market gardening:

  1. Location, location, location: Fortier’s advice on siting your market garden close to your market and away from where other small growers are operating is wise, but not necessarily easily achieved. His stated customer base is 200 families. I think you can figure on a market of about 1.5% of households in a town if there are no other small growers locally serving it, which means you need to find an affordable 1.5 acres, preferably with a residential option, on the edge of a town of about 30,000 with no other growers in sight. Not impossible – but not easy. Here in southern England, land of that sort without residential permission can easily change hands for up to around £50,000 and with it for closer to £1 million. On the upside, it’s probably quite easy to find towns where there aren’t any small local growers. On the downside, there are good reasons for that. Markets don’t stay unsaturated for nothing…
  1. Equipment: personally, I don’t think you’ll save money by going for a new 2-wheel tractor over an old 4-wheel one. But if you only have 1.5 acres, a 2-wheel one better fits the scale. My site, with its 2-wheel and 4-wheel tractors, is arguably over-capitalised for its scale. If there were other small growers in the vicinity, sharing would make sense (but there aren’t – see point 1). I’m not sure it matters too much though. The embodied energy of this kit is low. So is the fuel use, though it’s probably higher than Fortier’s…
  1. Ghost acres: …but we do need to bear in mind that Fortier is exporting his compost requirements, as indeed I do too to a lesser extent. Even so, I’d estimate that at least half my tractor use relates to fertility management. I’m not sure how fuel efficient my small-scale compost handling is compared to large-scale commercial composting operations – I’d like to find some data on this – but impressionistically on the basis of my occasional visits to municipal composting sites, I’d say their use of fossil fuels is prodigious (moving bulky organic waste around is very energy intensive). And so too is the ‘virtual’ land take associated with growing all the fertility which is being concentrated on Fortier’s plot. I had this debate some years ago with Charles Dowding, another well-known small-scale grower who imports his compost. Charles’ view was that the compost is a waste product that’s almost going begging in our energy and nitrogen-sated world, and that it’s hard enough for a small grower to stay in business as it is without fussing over fertility provenance. I find it difficult to disagree, but I do think it’s incumbent upon people who adopt such methods not to make strong claims about the productivity or sustainability of small plots without acknowledging the ghost acres involved and their associated environmental costs. I’m not necessarily saying that Fortier is guilty of this, though I’m not convinced he’s entirely innocent either.
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (1): any small-scale commercial grower who stays in business long is probably going to have to make their peace with concentrating upon high-value summer vegetables. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many good reasons to support local small-scale farms that do it. But let there be no doubt that such farms are not ‘feeding’ their customers in the sense of meeting their full dietary needs. Without growing crops year-round and providing other foodstuffs, particularly staples, the proportion of total food demand provided by such a farm is not large. Again, not necessarily a problem, unless anybody is claiming otherwise…
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (2): …but Fortier is certainly right that this is the easiest way to make money from a small plot. He claims that it’s possible to bring in CAN$60,000 – 100,000 per acre in vegetable sales at a 40% profit margin, which I think is plausible – my per acre net income from veg sales languishes at the very bottom of that range. But Fortier is probably a better farmer than me, and he doesn’t waste his time as I do growing potatoes and other such tomfoolery. Still, I’m hanging on in there, eight years in, earning something rather less than the UK average income for a more than full-time job. As Fortier says, it’s not really about the money anyway, and it’s a good way of life. I guess I just worry that these kind of books can foster unreasonable expectations. The Market Gardener has an endorsement on the front from Joel Salatin, another rock-star alternative farmer, who writes “Few books have grabbed my attention as dramatically as this one – because it’s ultimately do-able for thousands of would-be food and farm healers”. Salatin’s books – with titles like Pastured Poultry Profits and $alad Bar Beef – also create the impression that alternative, small-scale farming is something of a gravy train. Well, I endorse the sentiment up to a point. At a time when career prospects for young people in many other walks of life are diminishing, it’s time to scotch the old clichés that “nobody wants to farm any more” and that farming is “back-breaking work”. But let’s not feed false hopes. Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, problematic as I find it in some respects, is refreshingly candid by comparison in telling his readers straight – you won’t make money through farming of any kind, now deal with it and get on with farming in a way that feels right. My line on the financial side of starting a small peri-urban market garden would go something like this: if you’ve got good farming skills and good business skills, if you work hard and persevere, if you’re lucky finding the right piece of land and perhaps lucky in general, and if you prioritise money-making above most other things in your business planning, then you may well be able to earn the kind of money that a lot of people expect pretty much as of right straight out of college. Alternatively, armed with Fortier’s book you may establish your market garden only to find that it goes under in a few years (and, let’s face it, most small businesses do go under). What did you do wrong? Probably not much…
  1. In a field far, far away …because somewhere, probably a long way from where you live (and more than likely in another country altogether) there’s a market garden that looks more like a large arable farm (or maybe a city of glass), sited on top quality, fertile, rich, deep, stone-free soil. With help from some very large, very high-tech and very fuel-hungry machinery, most likely some very poor and probably undocumented workers, quite possibly organised by criminal gangmasters, and a raft of implicit and explicit government supports and subsidies, this garden turns over more produce in a day than growers like me or Jean-Martin Fortier do in several years, and it exports some of it to your area where it’s sold at a fraction of the cost that we can produce it. That’s the baseline reality against which the local food and urban agriculture movement operates. When I started market gardening myself, I thought of it as a way of helping to transform a crazy food system through ennobling practical action rather than lots of fine words and political rhetoric. I still do, to an extent. But ultimately I don’t think we can transform the existing food economy in the ways it needs transforming by vaunting the possibilities for a few thousand growers in a society of millions to make a tolerable living. We need the words and the politics. We need wider, more radical transformations.
  1. Greenhouse guesstimates. For many different reasons, I would like to see a world in which there were more local growers like Fortier and fewer of those giant agribusiness vegetable operations. However, I think it’s unwise to assume that the small, local, organic operations are more ecologically benign just because they’re, well, nicer. Once you start trucking compost around in bulk and burning propane in your polytunnels, it may well turn out that the agribusiness operation has a lower carbon footprint per kilo of vegetables produced than the small organic urban operation. That may not be true, and in any case it’s not the only important consideration, as I’ve argued here. But it may be true, it is a consideration, and it’s not really addressed in Fortier’s book.
  1. A customer calls. Still, there are plenty of folks who are willing to pay more for good quality, locally-grown fresh vegetables. Well, there are some folks at any rate (note to younger self: don’t overestimate how much people are going to love you for being a local veg grower). Mostly quite wealthy folks, in fact. In this sense, the renaissance of small-scale peri-urban veg growing returns market gardening to its roots as a service for the urban wealthy. In the past, the rural rich had gardeners to grow vegetables on their estates, while ordinary rural folk grew their own. The poor, both rural and urban, mostly did without vegetables altogether. But with the cost of transporting bulky fresh produce long distances prohibitive, and with horse manure relatively easily available in towns, peri-urban horticulture found its niche supplying the growing class of the urban well-to-do. Nowadays, wealthy urban hipsters go artisan, while the rest mostly buy their now much cheaper (relatively speaking) vegetables from those distant agribusiness ventures via local mainstream retailers, and the poor (many of whom work in the food system, if they can find work at all…) probably still largely go without. Again, this is not a criticism of peri-urban growers (like me) who mostly serve the conscientious wealthy. Perhaps our customers are the leading edge of a consumer movement that will re-energise sustainable local food production. Though I somehow doubt it. As things stand, I’d argue that peri-urban small-scale growing doesn’t in itself radically challenge the status quo of an inegalitarian and agribusiness-dominated food system.
  1. Enter the peasant. Instead of trying to make a living from your plot mostly by monetising your returns from it, suppose you were trying to make a living mostly by eating your returns from it. What would your 1.5 acres look like then in comparison to Fortier’s, or to mine? I think it would look more like mine than Fortier’s, but probably not much like either. If it was at the kind of latitude where both he and I live, I think there would be a lot of space devoted to grains, seed legumes and potatoes. There would be some soft fruit and espaliered top fruit, and maybe some short rotation willow coppice. There would probably be some grass to feed livestock – livestock that would perhaps be shared with others in the neighbourhood, part-using their land too, or part-grazed on common land. The high-value vegetables dominating Fortier’s holding and mine would be relegated to a few small beds outside the back door. Someone who was managing their land in this sort of way could possibly be described as a peasant, or a neo-peasant. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to live like this, but if we want a just and sustainable global society I think it is necessary for a lot more people to live like it than is currently the case in countries like Canada and the UK. At present, it’s only really an option for a few remnant peasant-type populations in these countries, together with the downsizing wealthy. So we need to find ways to enable more people to choose this way of life. I’m not sure that the approach Fortier advocates (and that he and I have chosen) is the best way, though it was probably the best way available to us given the political and economic constraints we faced. My upcoming cycle of posts aims to explore what this better, peasant way might look like, and the political and economic changes it will require.
  1. An inner voice speaks: “Jeez Chris, lighten up”, it says. “The guy just wants to show you how to sell a few veg. He’s not trying to rewrite Das Kapital or change the world.” Another inner voice replies “Fair enough, but the problem is we’ve too often been guilty of conflating the one with the other in the alternative food movement. Me included. And perhaps also alternative farming hero, Masanobu Fukuoka. “I can remain patient no longer,” Fukuoka wrote. “With this straw, I, by myself, will begin a revolution”2”.

I admire the sentiment, but I’m less persuaded by it than I used to be. Gardening can be a radical act, sure enough. But if there’s to be a revolution, I think radical gardening will better serve to chart a route beyond a revolutionary past than towards a revolutionary future. And the relationship between radical gardening and market gardening is debatable at best.


  1. Fortier, J. 2014. The Market Gardener. New Society Publishers.
  1. Fukuoka, M. 1978. The One-Straw Revolution. New York Review Books, p.181.

The turning of the year

I’m not really sure when it feels right to talk about “the new year” in the endless cycle of life on the farm. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t 1st January though. Perhaps I’d go for late October or early November when the last transplants are out, the squash is in, the pace of work slows and thoughts turn to woodland work, repairs, planning and the like. Or perhaps it’s around now when the new season’s garden work really gets going. Home gardeners and intensive commercial growers already have many plants well established, but bringing early crops in has never made much sense to me for a small, low input operation like ours – gains in market price are cancelled by the additional inputs, and the stress of ensuring a return on the extra investment by getting the crop to market on time doesn’t seem worth it. Jean-Martin Fortier takes a different line in his book The Market Gardener, which a commenter on this site recently suggested I might discuss. Having now read the book, I’ll be happy to oblige soon…

It also feels like new year around now in terms of off grid life. The sun is getting high enough and the days long enough for the PV panels to do their work regardless of the weather – no more fretting over computer use on cloudy winter days (though the soil warming cable in our propagator now becomes a slight worry as it pulls a cool 150 watts out of the batteries all night). The solar hot water tubes are shaking out of their winter slumber too – except we’re now in the spring dip when the woodstove is no longer needed in the cabin but the tubes aren’t yet quite fully up to the job. Without the back boiler, our water at this time of year is decidedly lukewarm – an issue to tweak in the future perhaps. This winter I did the first proper thinning of our ten year old woodland, along with the yearly cut of the willow pollards, so I’m hoping we’ll have enough wood in from our site for next winter – if we’re still here. For indeed, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman is soon going to have to dust down his iron cloak and do battle once more with Mendip District Council in order to secure permanent permission to live on the farm. More on that to come.

Some things don’t change though, despite the turning of the year. For example, a correspondent has brought me news of an article by an old adversary – a critique of permaculture forest gardening from a master’s student in agroforestry at Bangor University on a brand new website, The Cultural Wildernenss. The article is detached and academic in tone rather than aggressive and ranty. And its author now sports an augustly scholarly beard. But it’s still, unmistakeably…Graham Strouts! Actually, I happen to agree with quite a lot of his critique. Though for one who bemoans the shoddy use of quantification in alternative agricultural circles, Graham’s like-for-like comparison of nut yields with potato yields on a tonnes per hectare basis almost made me laugh out loud. Various permaculturists have responded to his critique – and though a few of them were content to invoke that notorious permacultural fatwah to which I too have been subjected (“you’ll never understand permaculture”), I thought between them they offered some worthwhile counter-arguments. I’m still not convinced that Mark Shepard’s work is a clincher for the superiority of perennial polycultures, though. Ach well, I think I’m done with that debate for now (though I’ve updated my web page on it to include a few more things, including Brian Cady’s interesting thinking around ‘oligoennials’). And I’m done debating with Graham too. Despite apparently possessing a degree in sociology, he seems to have emerged from it blissfully ignorant of what the words ‘romantic’ and ‘feudalist’ actually mean, judging by his predilection for applying them to me in the various travesties of my arguments that he’s published. Hopefully he’ll study more diligently for his master’s degree, and somehow figure out what agroforestry is. I wish him well with that.

Another correspondent, another old adversary. Ted Trainer has drawn my attention to his critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology (also relevant here are some interesting discussions with Anthony Galluzzo concerning modernism in general and Leigh Phillips in particular). I’m just working through Ted’s interesting thinking on ‘The Simpler Way’ at the moment, which I hope to discuss soon. Ted says that my critiques of the ecomodernists haven’t addressed the numerical evidence concerning the rate of resource/economic decoupling that will be necessary for their vision to be realised. I suppose that’s fair enough, though for the record I’ve engaged in some basic analysis along such lines here and here. Leigh contacted me a while back promising, in amongst the insults (and, to be fair, some praise for offering to host his reply) that he’d write a rejoinder to my critiques of him. Nothing has yet been forthcoming, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, all this argumentativeness over perennial polycultures and ecomodernism feels…well, just so last year. With the turning of the year, I plan to focus my upcoming posts mostly on an analysis of how a peasant farmscape might look in a Europe (…or Britain … or England … or Wessex) of the future, and what the politics of such a farmscape might involve. On the latter point, I want to pick up again on the discussion I started in this post around modernism, agrarian populism or what Bill Barnes calls ‘producerist republicanism’. The ensuing debate has led me to think that getting to grips with modernism is vastly more important than getting to grips with ecomodernism.

So that’s a rough outline of my future programme. But first I’m going to take a new year’s holiday from blogging for a few weeks. For one thing, I’ve got that rarest of beasts, a paid writing gig, to get done, and I also need to spend a bit of time researching the peasant farming posts to come. Hell, I’ve even got some farm work to do. So, I hope to be live again on Small Farm Future in late April/early May. Meanwhile should you need to fill that Small Farm Future shaped hole in your life – and if you’ve read this far, then you surely do – you can listen to me talking about WWOOF on BBC Radio’s Farming Today.

Slaughterhouse Zero

Following on from my post about our compost toilet (the full photo experience is now available at, by the way), I thought I’d stick with the visceral theme and devote a few words to the closure of my local abattoir in the centre of my town, only about a mile from my holding. Apparently it failed to meet modern hygiene standards.

I imagine this will be one of the less mourned business closures among the good people of Frome. Tales abounded of the rivers of blood running down Vicarage Street at dead of night, or the unearthly screams of doomed animals reverberating off the walls of St Johns church. Urban myths, methinks. Plenty of people are happy to eat meat, but fewer like to be reminded about what eating meat involves. I welcomed the fact that the abattoir was in the town centre, so that people going about their daily business could at least see the trucks and trailers of live animals heading to their final destination and have some kind of connection to the business of life and death that is farming. Even so, most local residents I’ve talked to didn’t know there was an abattoir in town.

I for one will mourn its loss. I can’t say I ever particularly enjoyed taking my animals there – not least because of the increasingly overbearing legislation and form-filling that has accumulated around the raising and slaughtering of livestock in recent years, mostly as a result of food scares associated with large-scale farming that nevertheless bite hardest on small-scale farmers. But it was good to have a small local abattoir that was happy to process just a few animals, and which was close enough by to keep the stress of moving them to a minimum. In the 1980s there were more than a thousand abattoirs in Britain, a number that has now dwindled to less than 300. Leaving aside issues about the role of livestock in sustainable farming (I’ll be considering this in more detail soon) I’m not at all convinced that these closures are a good thing for either animal or human welfare. Our culture seems endlessly concerned with micro-managing small risks of the kind that lie behind small abattoir closures, while blithely ignoring much larger risks – climate change, to name but one.

If we’re to have the kind of small farm future that I think we need to create a just and sustainable society then we’ll also need a local agricultural infrastructure to support it. The closure of Frome’s abattoir is one more little step in the wrong direction. Time was when the point of a small market town like Frome was mostly to provide those kind of services to the people living and working in its rural surroundings. It wasn’t so long ago that there was still a cattle market in the town centre. Year by year, the contact of the general public with farming is eroded.

A walk around Frome reveals a plethora of lovely old buildings with all manner of hatchways, trapdoors, gantries, workshops, stables and so forth that show how work, including agricultural work, was once part of daily residential life in the town. Today they’re almost purely residential. Many of these buildings now have listed status and are part of the town’s conservation area. Strange how we’re so concerned to preserve the form of old buildings but so happy to dispose of their function. Those who speak up for a more localised mixed agriculture are widely dismissed as backward-looking romantics, whereas those who maintain the pretence of it by preserving old buildings are hailed as forward-thinking conservationists standing up to the vandalism of development.

To me, the more telling vandalism is in the gutting of local economies, symbolised by the huge industrial abattoirs, markets, feedlots and all the other paraphernalia of modern large-scale farming, which removes agriculture from public view. In the past, towns and cities usually grew up around working functions, as commercial or industrial centres. But now these functions have become so large and concentrated that often they can no longer fit even within the distended boundaries of our modern cities. The port at Shanghai, the largest in the world, at 3,600km2 is more than twice the size of Greater London. And most of Britain’s old port cities, including London, are no longer working ports – a function that has been outsourced to non-urban places like Felixstowe with greater legroom. All this raises the question of what modern towns and cities are actually for…but that’s something I aim to look at in another post.

A tour around my toilet

After a string of posts on eco/modernism, it’s time for something earthier. And since the Small Farm Future office recently received a request for a feature on compost toilets, we’ve decided to bring you a world exclusive photo-essay on the sanitary facilities at SFF headquarters. What could be earthier than that?

There is a connection to the last cycle of posts, though, which I hope I’ll be forgiven for mentioning briefly. Because it’s not hard to find texts within the ecomodernist corpus that scorn the humble compost toilet1. Perhaps there’s a simple division in the world between those who think it’s absurd to compost human waste, and those who think it’s absurd not to. But consider the consequences. In India, more than half the population (which amounts to something not too shy of 10% of all humanity) has no access to a latrine of any kind. Open defecation, it has been shown, is associated with intestinal illnesses causing childhood stunting, and this results in numerous health problems throughout the life course2. It’s also associated with assaults on women and children occasioned by their search for secluded spots for defecation. And that’s to say nothing of the fertility lost to agriculture by failing to make use of human waste (which is considerable – by my calculations, the urine produced by Britain’s population could furnish something like 40kg of nitrogen per hectare of cropland, which would put us well on the way to agricultural self-fertility).

The narrative of ecomodernism makes much of high-tech items like golden rice and nuclear power as means for improving the lot of the poor. But since all a compost toilet requires is some wood or plastic and a bit of easily-imparted knowledge, I’d be interested to see an economic evaluation comparing the per dollar benefits of creating access to compost toilets to poor communities lacking latrines with the fancy technologies preferred by the ecomodernists. Though on reflection, not that interested – I’m not against worthwhile research, but I guess one reason I quit academia was a sense that a lot of the money devoted to economic evaluations of whether to do this thing or that thing was probably better spent on actually doing this thing or that thing. In fact, what I’d really like to see is an economic evaluation of how useful economic evaluations are. But I digress – rather embarrassingly, as I’ve scarcely even started.

So let us turn our attention to some compost toilets in their practical manifestations. Here’s one, and ain’t she a beauty? This is the first one we built at Vallis Veg – a magnificently lofty throne from which I’ve surveyed my farm on many a fine sunny morning with the door thrown wide open just like this to welcome the rising sun, while I simultaneously perform other important work. Though not if I’m expecting visitors. Unless I know them very well.

Digital Camera

Digital Camera

We now have four separate compost toilets on the premises, all source separating ones, and all basically variants on the same theme. The unlovely IBC in the foreground of the photo showcases our receptacle of choice for the solids in two of our toilets. As Michael argued under my last post, the near future may turn out to be a salvage economy – so here’s my tip: invest in IBCs now! Source separation makes a lot of sense, to my mind. The urine is more readily usable, and it’s also much bulkier so if it’s mixed in it creates a slurry that’s trickier to deal with. Standard sewage systems are even more slurry-based, of course. All that wasted water! In urban situations no doubt it’s harder to avoid slurry-based sewerage, just as industrial farming demands slurry in preference to the simple farmyard manure systems of the small mixed farm, occasioning the need for more complex downstream treatment, if it’s treated at all. I just feel so sorry for all those poor animals cooped up in their little pens and so alienated from their environment that they’ve been trained to flush away their own fertility.

Now I’d love to be able to take you for a look around the back of my toilet (sorry if that sounds a bit wrong) but unfortunately I’ve had a devil of a job uploading some of my photos due to what a Google search reveals is known as “the notorious WordPress upload problem”. Too notorious for me to solve just now at any rate. So you’ll just have to imagine a chimney into the IBC, which funnels nasty smells safely upwards into the innocent Somerset air. And a large square of dark fabric covering it, the idea being to make it darker inside so that flies are attracted up the chimney and out towards the light. We haven’t generally found flies to be too much of a problem, except on the odd hot, still summer day when there are a few more around than feels ideal. Maybe in a climate less given to roiling cloudiness than western Britain, more elaborate insect-proofing may be required. And then to the right you can see imagine 25 litre containers (old wholesale laundry liquid cans) where the urine goes. We have about 20 of these. When almost all of them are full, we empty them onto our woodchip compost windrows. Not a particularly pleasant job – more because of the weight of manhandling the cans than their somewhat noxious contents – but it doesn’t need doing all that often.

The compost toilet in the picture has served us loyally for the last five years or so. The IBC has only just filled completely (though the site wasn’t residentially occupied until 18 months ago), and we’ll now let it mature for another 2 years before using it (probably not directly on food crops – more likely on top fruit, willow or hay). But we recently came across the new-fangled idea of having a toilet indoors. Apparently, it’s the very rage nowadays among all the fashionable folk. And so with the help of our friends Joanna and Josh, we recently built a fetching little wooden cabin-style addendum to our humble abode comprising separate indoor composting toilet and shower room, which unfortunately you’re also mostly just going to have to imagine. I really wanted to demonstrate how well it blends in with the adjoining north wing of Vallis Veg Mansions, which we built according to a traditional English farmhouse design dating right back to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, a signal piece of legislation that made the pursuit of new dwellings in the countryside other than those possessing wheels something of a lifelong quest. But you’ll just have to imagine a nice little cedar-clad cabin adjoining a godawful plastic trailer. Still, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego, Spudman, will soon be dusting off his cape and preparing to do battle with Mendip District Council once again in pursuit of a wheel-less house. But that’s a story for another time.

The indoor toilet has proved a hit with the family so far, and certainly with me. No more pulling on boots and venturing out in the lashing rain in the middle of the night after a few too many down at the Farmers Arms. Again, I’d like to show you our double-chambered toilet design, with two IBCs enrobed in their cedar raiment. Unfortunately, that’s something else I’m going to have to leave to your imagination. We figure that it takes a couple of years to fill an IBC, and then another couple of years of undisturbed composting. Hence two IBCs so that we can alternate between them.

Now, something I can show you is the door to the inner sanctum of this temple of self-fertility.

ct1 small




















Would you like to take a look inside? Well, all right then…

ct2 small


















…and there you have it, our smallest room in all its woody glory, with a stack of cut willow pollards drying at the back ready for the woodstove next winter. And so that brings our tour of the compost toilet to a conclusion – I hope you… Sorry, what was that? You want to see what? Hmmm, well, where I come from I was taught to honour a visitor’s requests whenever possible, however unusual. So, er, here’s a world exclusive view down my toilet.


You’ll notice the advanced source-separating technology hidden in the toilet bowl, which cleverly accommodates itself to both female and male anatomies – albeit in the latter case only if one adopts a seated posture for excretions of both kinds. Which I’ve noticed is quite beyond the capacities of certain among our male visitors, who leave the distinct impression that sitting down to pee is an insurmountable challenge to their deepest sense of self. They also often leave a suspiciously moist residue inside the IBC where it ain’t supposed to go. But I find that men with experience of organic growing are generally better able to take it in their stride. I like to think this is because we’re somehow more secure in our masculinity. Though I fear it’s more likely that time spent organic gardening has fostered a willingness to endure any indignity in the hunt for good compost.

Beside the bowl (previous photo) you’ll note a bucket of sawdust, which we mostly obtain at no cost from a local forestry sawmill (so no dodgy glues and suchlike in our compost). A handful down the bowl after each deposit adds a useful shot of carbon and has the added benefit of concealing the visual and olfactory evidence of one’s effusions from the following hapless visitor. Without source separation, a lot more sawdust would be required, reducing system efficiency.

And, finally, let me show you the urine can in the new toilet, usually concealed by the floor hatch you see in the picture. A piece of high-end technology that would surely delight Stewart Brand himself…


I should add that I deserve very little credit for designing or building the incredible contraptions on show here, which are the speciality of my beloved. Pretty much my only contribution has been wiring in the lights. But I like to think that’s my role in life – whether in the wide open reaches of the blogosphere or the narrow confines of our backwoods abode, I bring illumination where previously there was darkness…

And that’s pretty much it. Next week: inside my laundry basket.


  1. For example, Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & the Collapse Porn Addicts. Yes, that book. And also Bruckner, P. (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse.
  1. Spears, D. (2013) ‘The nutritional value of toilets: How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain?’


I wrote a lengthy piece about modernism in my last post. Then I drafted another lengthy piece about its critical implications for so-called ‘ecomodernism’, which became so lengthy that it turned into two posts. Then I read over them, and felt – bored.

So it’s probably time to move on from ecomodernism. But there’s a little bit of unfinished business to unfurl in this post before starting on something else. I may even need to spend some time actually farming soon (there’s ewes to lamb and seeds to sow), as well as putting in some research time for my next cycle of posts, so the pace may have to slacken.

Anyway – Unfinished business #1: I got some great feedback to my last post here on SFF, and at and via New York academic Anthony Galluzzo’s site. Constructive, engaged criticism – the blogosphere at its best. I’d argued with the help of the late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air1 that agrarian populism – that is, the localist politics of a neo-peasant small farm movement – is not anti-modern, nostalgic or backward-looking but on the contrary is thoroughly modernist in its willingness to abandon the weight of tradition accumulated through the history of capitalist development, and to chart alternative paths to sustainability and social justice. The criticisms that came back to me mostly hinged on a sense that I was over-extending the concept of modernism and effacing its negatives. Reasonable points, calling me back to my more sceptical pre-Berman take on modernism. But I still think Berman opens interesting ways of seeing how contemporary politics – including the green, leftist and agrarian populist politics with which I’m most engaged – have to develop more subtle narratives about history and human agency than they typically do. I hope to come back to this at a later date.

Unfinished business #2: I received some other interesting feedback recently. In my critical post on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future, I implied that their analysis was more ‘grownup’ than that of Leigh Phillips in the latter’s book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts. Srnicek messaged me back, writing “Thanks for the considered thoughts here”. Phillips also messaged me back, writing: “Twig-munching reactionary”. Then he added “I’m only replying to your ‘critique’ that mine is not a ‘grown-up’ argument”.

It’s a sweet thing when you put a tentative hypothesis out into the world and then get the solid proof of it zinging right back at you, and I should probably rest my case right there. But I’d like to probe just a little more at the world-according-to-Phillips in order to wrap up my ecomodernist theme for the time being. Mr Phillips has been promising for a while to write a refutation of my critical commentary on his oeuvre without, to my knowledge, coming up with the goods, so I hereby invite him to do so in a guest essay that I’ll happily host at Small Farm Future. His writing exemplifies what I consider to be various failings of the techno-fixer and/or ‘ecomodernist’ worldview. I’d like to offer a quick two-part overview.

Part I: Ecomodernism as retro-modernism

It strikes me that ecomodernism and techno-fixer approaches generally find a receptive audience among vaguely left and vaguely green folks who worry (albeit vaguely) about the sustainability of our present civilizational course and are therefore predisposed to be positive about local food, organic farming, renewable energy etc. without looking into the issues too deeply or thinking much about how life might change if such approaches were generalised. Works like the Ecomodernist Manifesto or Austerity Ecology are reassuring to them in their business-as-usual-but-raise-up-the-poor-while-defeating-climate-change-while-we’re-about-it optimism (optimism/pessimism is another problematic contemporary duality in the modernism/primitivism mould). To the uninitiated, ecomodernism reveals itself as a fresh new critique of localism, organics etc.

But it’s not a fresh new critique. As I’ve argued in more detail elsewhere2, the ecomodernist critique of localism, agroecology, energy descent etc is superficial, and the alternative narratives it mobilises are not new but are grounded in older liberal, neoliberal and communist modernisation movements which are now manifestly problematic. They involve a psychological flight from seeking an authentic self in favour of a self-overcoming Übermensch3, they involve a notion of modernity as a solidly achieved state rather than a provisional construct apt at any moment to melt into the air; and they involve, too, the notion of modernity as a one-size-fits-all technological culture to be spread by outmoded neo-colonial and/or Fordist means. In all these ways, I’d argue that ecomodernism is retro-modernism – less alive, less open to the changes and possibilities in the world, less modern, than the localism and the ‘folk politics’ that it derides as primitivist, romantic or backward-looking.

These retro-modernist leanings are disguised to casual readings of the main ecomodernist texts, but are not hard to discern (by ‘disguised’ I don’t mean in a deliberate, conspiratorial way – rather, they figure as an implicit set of unexamined assumptions). The disguised leanings of the ecomodernism associated with the Ecomodernist Manifesto and the Breakthrough Institute are towards neoliberalism (I’ll take the BTI’s professed pro-poor narrative more seriously when it campaigns as vociferously on green boxes as on golden rice). And the disguised leaning of Phillips’ Austerity Ecology is towards Bolshevism.

Part II: Ecomodernism as Bolshevism

Let me illustrate that briefly. Phillips stridently denounces Bolshevism and I don’t doubt that he feels as genuinely opposed to the excesses of the Bolshevik regime as anyone. Indeed, I think ecomodernism in its various incarnations is usually a genuine attempt to reckon with the problems of social justice and sustainability we face in the contemporary world. It’s just that its retro-modernism reconstitutes the problems it’s trying to redress so its solutions become self-undermining. In Phillips’ case, his arguments rest implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, on so many commonplaces of communist/Bolshevik ideology that it seems hard not to locate his analysis within communist retro-modernism, and hard to imagine how a political programme based on it would avoid the excesses of that ideology.

I wrote a more detailed critique of Phillips’ political theory, such as it is, elsewhere4. Here I just want to identify in short form the five main Bolshevik elements I discern in it.

  1. ‘Democracy’ – Phillips invokes democracy as a kind of deus ex machina to right the wrongs of contemporary global governance, but provides no account of what such a democracy would look like, and no account of what the political communities it’s organised within would look like either. This was also a failing in Marx (cf. Berman: “Marx never developed a theory of political community…this is a serious problem”5). The omission haunts the history of communism, and underlies the problem of democracy in places such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, neither of which have ever been conspicuously democratic. In Phillips’ democracy “all economic actions occur as a result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society”6, a strong utilitarianism of the kind which is notoriously ruthless towards minorities and pariah groups. I fear the democracy of Mr Phillips very much.
  1. Global government – But there would be no escaping it, because Phillips aims for a single global socialist government. This would return us to good old-fashioned communist orthodoxy – the orthodoxy of Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin that sought a global communist revolution, before Stalin gave up the ghost with his unambitious ‘socialism in one country’. According to Phillips, a global government is necessary to foster the rational decision-making demanded by the severity of the problems we face – at which point, his democracy really does start to look rather GDR-like.
  1. Big kit – And let it not be said that Phillips’ programme lacks for ambition. He quotes what he calls the “continent-straddling ambition” of the old left, approvingly citing Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”7. You could doubtless argue that breakneck Soviet industrial development brought benefits to an underdeveloped country. You could also argue that indeed it broke a lot of necks – mostly those of peasants, who bore the brunt of the country’s modernization, and in some respects still do. In the face of Phillips’ enthusiasm for what he calls ‘big kit’ solutions to global problems, I find Berman’s a more salutary voice: “Millions of people have been victimized by disastrous development policies, megalomaniacally conceived, shoddily and insensitively executed, which in the end have developed little but the rulers’ own fortunes and powers”8. As energy and climate crises loom, sadly I think we can expect to see many more such grandiose projects, delivering less than they promise, and quite possibly less even than their antecedents achieved, while clothing themselves in a techno-modernist rhetoric that’s contemptuous of humbler, less chancy, more sustainable and less grandiloquent ambitions. Phillips’ writing no doubt gives a foretaste of what’s to come, as does Graham Strouts’ enthusiasm for the idea of Hinkley C as compared to EDF’s unenthusiasm for its actuality.
  1. The working class: Phillips espouses another old-fangled orthodoxy about Marx’s ‘new-fangled men’, which was crude enough in Marx’s own writing and further debased by the Bolsheviks, namely that the proletariat is the privileged historical subject: “the working class is not just the liberator of itself, but of all mankind. It is the universal class”9. But the proletariat that emerges from Phillips’ pages is shallow, censorious, materially-oriented, pleasure-seeking and status-obsessed – basically indistinguishable from the capitalist bourgeoisies it supposedly replaces. Peasants have never really fitted into the ‘universal class’ rhetoric of vulgar Marxists, who generally like to speak for them and tell them what they ought to want: “It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturist – or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine – any day”10. It also takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to ignore the fact that the Bolsheviks built their regime substantially on the back of peasant rebellion and then, believing they knew what peasants really wanted and what was of ‘maximum utility to society’, returned the favour by murderously expropriating them. Peasants are too often written out of history by soi disant sympathisers who don’t want to romanticise them.
  1. The terror: And finally there’s Phillips’ taste for a mode of discourse that deals in archetypes rather than arguments, and sometimes doesn’t seem a million miles away from hate speech. So I, for example, am dismissed as a “twig-munching reactionary” while others figure as an “army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells”11. And so on. I suppose there’s a danger of taking this all a bit too seriously, but then what are the implications? That Phillips’ analysis isn’t serious? It seems clear that he thinks it is – in which case I’d have to say that the way he engages his foes is…serious. Hacks with literary skills of this sort did a roaring trade in the 1930s, writing prepared confessions for show trials and anti-kulak posters. I hope they never get anywhere near political power again. If they do, I wouldn’t bet against me finding myself in a court some day confessing my degenerate kulak praetorian fascism. Until then, I plan to call it as I see it. Not everything Phillips writes sounds Bolshevik, but for me there’s a preening, self-regarding character to much of it that’s redolent of historic communist autocracy. It traduces the subtlety and variety of socialist traditions into rigid, bombastic certainties. And if it were to be realised politically, it would make the world a more frightening, more repressive and indeed a less sustainable place. Or, to quote from Anthony Galluzzo’s splendid piece of invective, Phillips uses “a Stalinoid rhetoric of productivism” involving a “cult of quantitative production-technological development and outputs-while reifying (rather than abolishing) the worker”. Quite so. This is old, old wine. Not even the bottles look that new.

But I think I’ve pretty much said my piece. Phillips has been promising for some time to unmask my innumerate arguments, and to provide the evidence to prove I’m wrong (another worrying ecomodernist tic, as if sifting different political philosophies and orientations to what human life is all about is simply a matter of ‘evidence’). He refers to my “blud-und-boden doom-mongering” which particularly intrigues me – I’d very much like to know what I’ve written that invites the Blud und Boden tag. Actually, I doubt Phillips has read much of what I’ve written. I think he just prefers the dualities of the propagandist – if it’s not standard modernist/rationalist fare then it must be anti-modernist/Blud-und-Boden reaction. In my eyes, what he calls my doom-mongering is a positive vision for a just and sustainable neo-agrarian future. Anyway, I’d be interested to read a genuine critique from him. Well, he knows how to contact me. Leigh, the next blog post is yours for the taking…


  1. Berman, M. 1982. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
  1. For example here. And here. And here. And here.
  1. cf. Berman op cit, p.42.
  1. ‘From growth economics to home economics’ – available here.
  1. Berman op cit, p.128.
  1. Phillips, L. 2015. Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Zero Books, p.227.
  1. Ibid p.189.
  1. Berman op cit, p.77.
  1. Phillips op cit, p.153.
  1. Ibid, p.252.
  1. Ibid, pp.92-3.

Peasantization as modernization – an alternative ecomodernism

I’ve spent – wasted, probably – a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing various techno-fixer scenarios for achieving future sustainability and social justice, most notably that of the self-styled ‘ecomodernists’1. I’m not going to rehash that here, but in this post and the next I’m going to come at the underlying issues from a different angle by reflecting on the question of modernism, which suggested itself to me through a rereading of the late Marshall Berman’s brilliant book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. At issue is the question of whether there’s a way out of the airless dualism in contemporary thought between modern/high tech/progressive/optimistic/positive/rational/urban vs primitive/low tech/reactionary/pessimistic/negative/romantic/rural that so disfigures debates about farming and social futures. Sorry to harp on about it, but I think it’s important. I’ll get back to some more on-farm content after these two posts.

I first read Berman’s book thirty-odd years ago – required reading as it was then for every trendy young cultural theorist – and was reminded of it recently while reading Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips, who invoked it in support of his enthusiasm for heroic, large-scale technological modernization. I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’. Indeed, even the passage from Berman that Phillips cites is quite ambivalent1. And so it proved on a rereading. In fact, it made me wonder if Phillips had really read the book – entertainingly, in view of the sub-theme that’s emerged in my engagements with him over exactly who’s read what, as elaborated by Ruben, my Canadian mole. I suppose I should be grateful to Mr Phillips for drawing me back to Berman – perhaps the price of reading the latter’s exceptionally good book was having to plough my way through the former’s exceptionally, er, not so good one…For reasons I’ll come to in my next post, I should probably try not to annoy Mr Phillips any more than I have to.

Anyway, the thesis I want to develop with Berman’s help is that a future neo-peasant society – relatively labour-intensive, relatively low-tech – of the kind I’ve long advocated involves a modernist vision, notwithstanding the common tendency to dismiss such thinking as backward, romantic or primitivist. Indeed, I think it’s a more supple and sophisticated form of modernism than the modernism of the ecomodernists – but that’s something I’ll pursue further in my next post. Perhaps I erred in my engagements with the ecomodernists by accepting their framing of the debate, allowing them to appropriate the idea of modernism for themselves. If what they’re describing is modernism, my thinking ran, then I guess I’m not a modernist. But here’s Berman’s opening definition:

“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern:  from Marx and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.” (pp.13-14)

So that’s modernism, huh? Show me where to sign!

Berman suggests that the great thinkers of the 19th century who first wrestled with the problem of modernization were more subtle and alive to its ambiguities than we are today, when we tend to either embrace it blindly or condemn it out of hand, supplanting open visions of modern life and the possibility that it can be changed to suit contemporary needs and problems with closed and monolithic conceptions of what modernity entails. Quite so. In a long and brilliant chapter that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize, encompassing the history of St Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s musings on class conflict in the modern city and the 19th century significance of London’s Crystal Palace, Berman draws a distinction between modernism as an adventure and modernism as a routine – more specifically, the social adventure of challenging fixed traditions and cultural conventions on the one hand, and, on the other, the routine of becoming subordinated by those immense and crushing bureaucracies.

In a moment, I’ll try to sketch the implications of this for my own concerns to articulate a small farm or neo-peasant future, but to further that aim I first want to look at another brilliantly-realised part of Berman’s book – his analysis of Goethe’s Faust. Again, I can’t do it – the poem-drama or Berman’s interpretation of it – any justice here, but I want to highlight three of Berman’s points that are relevant to my purposes. First is the notion, personified in the figure of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles, that modernity is about endless development – development of the self and of personal agency and capacities, and development of society and its capacities. Although the engine of this developmental process in modern capitalist societies is money, capital accumulation, this isn’t the fundamental purpose. Worldly wealth is a recurrent fantasy in many societies, not limited to capitalist ones – to be rich, happy, and influential – but in capitalist societies that alone is not enough. Change and development become goals in themselves – constant change, constant reinvention, constant growth, a constant tearing down of the old and a ringing in of the new.

That process causes suffering. In the poem, Faust’s tragic lover Gretchen comes to grief because ultimately she can’t or won’t transcend the traditional, religious, small-town world from which she comes, a world that takes revenge on her for her temerity in even trying. As Berman puts it, the Gretchen tragedy

“should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearning for the worlds we have lost” (p.60)

Amen to that. But the problem is, our crude 21st century versions of modernism want to subsume every possible critique of modernity into such nostalgic yearning, as if being Gretchen is the only possible alternative to being Faust. I’ve been accused of ‘romanticising’ the past often enough by people I’ve tended to assume haven’t bothered to read what I’ve actually written, but perhaps it’s more that the Faust-Gretchen duality is so deeply ingrained in their thinking that they can only comprehend anti-Faust as pro-Gretchen (yep, I’m looking at you Graham Strouts). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for those happy souls who are content never to stray beyond the comforting confines of that duality, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly say to enlighten them3. But for the more intellectually curious, it’s worth mentioning two other relevant individuals in Faust, Philemon and Baucis – a sweet old couple who live a simple, rustic life in a cottage surrounded by lindens in the land where Faust is conducting his giant engineering projects. In Berman’s words

“They are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete” (p.67)

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership….
Hence is our soul upon the rack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack

That rage at obstinately unmodernizable people or those who speak up for them always feels close to the surface in modernism – and I think the more so in contemporary modernism which lacks the sophistication of its antecedents and which now finds it harder to do as Faust did and quietly arrange to have Philemon and Baucis removed (though it still does a pretty good job). Hence we get all manner of trickery of the kind evident in The Ecomodernist Manifesto and similar works – that, actually, everybody wants modernization, apart from a few romantic intellectuals who are complacent in their own privilege; or that unmodern people engage in unsustainable practices that can’t be allowed to continue; or that although modernization may inflict some temporary hardships upon those accustomed to a different way of life it will ultimately prove to be in their best interests. In my opinion, these are little more than salves to the modernist consciousness seeking its worldwide ownership, but washing its hands of the human cost.

Berman writes that Faust “comes to feel it is terrifying to look back, to look the old world in the face” (p.69) and to me this exactly captures a rage in modernism that troubles me. If we’re relaxed and confident in ourselves, we feel no need to belittle others’ achievements and to exaggerate our own. Nor do we want to be anyone else, because we’re happy enough being ourselves, but we’re open to the possibility of learning new things from other people, including people who some might say are beneath our contempt – for our part, we feel no need to judge. That genre of ecomodernist writing that contemptuously asks which period in history the critics of modernisation wish to return us to misses the point that there is no such period – the point, rather, is that we can open-mindedly learn from other societies, including ones from the past, rather than assuming that they have nothing to teach us and are beneath our contempt. I’d like to think that this view could command widespread agreement as a matter of simple cultural maturity – our way is not the only way – quite apart from the more practical lessons we might learn from the low energy societies of the past as we face an uncertain and quite possibly lower energy future ourselves. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If there’s one thing in contemporary culture I’d like to help change it’s this complacent assumption that primitive/modern is the only necessary lens for observing history – a complacency redolent of modernity as routine, not modernity as adventure, that more open vision of modern life of which Berman spoke.

The widespread tendency nowadays to dismiss non-modern peoples past and present, to impute a misery to their lives that we claim to have transcended, may sometimes have a factual grounding but I think also speaks to an anxiety that for all our restlessness, our endless growth, our appetite for the new and our contempt for the old, we haven’t found what seek, and we are not at peace. Indeed, the whole point of that restless modern urge is that we never can be at peace. Leigh Phillips makes that point explicitly and sees it as a positive – never be satisfied, always demand more – without seeing the psychological cost that our emphasis on constant self-reinvention imposes, and the cost in blood that is paid for it by the Philemons and Baucises of this world (or, if he does acknowledge the latter cost, he imputes the problem to ‘capitalism’ and considers it soluble through socialism, without seeing how the problem moves more deeply within modernization processes which both capitalism and socialism manifest).

The final point to make about Faust, which emerges from the last, is that there is no still centre towards which modernity is reaching, no finally achieved perfection. Again, it’s possible to see a positive side to that, but also an uncomfortable truth that appears to be lost on the ecomodernists – namely, to quote Berman again, that “yesterday’s Fausts may find themselves today’s Philemon and Baucises” (p.79). That indeed is the whole axis of the Faust myth: “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go” (p.70).

Let me now briefly try to pull this together in relation to my thesis that a small farm future is a modernist future. I endorse Berman’s definition of what it is to be modern, a definition that is political and not technological, emphasising a striving for improvement in an ambiguous world full of difficult choices, and in particular the choice of adventure over boring routine or established hierarchy. In some historical circumstances the appropriate modernist choice has been to step away from small-scale peasant farming, and from the boredom and hierarchy it entailed, and that’s probably still true today for some people – though for fewer, I’d submit, than is commonly supposed by many a latter day savant.

For numerous people now living in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, on the other hand, I’d suggest that the opposite is the case. It is more adventuresome and more ‘modern’ to see that the world is changing, that the trajectory of high-tech liberal capitalism is leading us not only into environmental problems but also to economic and political crises out of which we in the global north are unlikely to emerge unscathed, and that an appropriate modernist response is to embrace this changing order by reaffirming the importance of good land husbandry, a defence of localism and local communities, and an emphasis on the limits to consumption – more adventuresome and more modern at any rate than the bureaucratic modernism-as-routine now lived by so many of us toiling in our offices, working for huge corporate enterprises in jobs whose purpose we’ve forgotten if we ever knew it in the first place, before the fearsome commute home through gridlocked streets to our apartments, where we hope the lights will stay on and the goods will keep flowing once ‘they’ have worked out how to sate our cities’ endless appetite for energy. Of course, it’s not easy for many people to escape that life for reasons both practical and psychological. But nor was it easy for their great grandparents to escape the farm or the conservative forces then holding them in their grip. The modernist adventure is never easy.

No doubt there’s a fine line between my argument for peasantisation as modernisation and a nostalgic, conservative hankering after old hierarchies and old certainties – but nevertheless there is a line, and to me it’s a pretty clear one. Berman helps elucidate it in his analysis of how Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the Bronx, where he grew up,

“So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself….the so-called modern movement has inspired billions of dollars’ worth of “urban renewal” whose paradoxical result has been to destroy the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized. The practical corollary of all this…is that in our city life, for the sake of the modern we must preserve the old and resist the new” (pp.295-318)

As in our city life, so in our country life. There was a time when the tractor over the horse, the bulk tanker over the milk churn, or whatever other examples you care to choose, seemed and probably were a liberation. But I don’t think it’s possible to be so complacent about the inflow of new agricultural technology and the outflow of agricultural labour any more. A peasant modernism isn’t against new technology, but it’s not necessarily for it either, and it may often default to older ways of doing things – more human labour, less power-hungry machinery – as a more modern response to our problems.

So if peasant modernism isn’t necessarily for new technology (the tendency to conflate modernisation with mere technological improvement is a mistake that Berman effectively criticises) then what is it for? Well, I guess every political ideology has some kind of future utopia in mind which usually looks…pretty boring. For the techno-fixers and ecomodernists it’s a workless society of urban, wealthy, plugged-in Eloi, drifting around in pursuit of their leisured interests. For a peasant modernist it’s a life lived close to the land and the rhythms of the natural world, a life of hard work sometimes sure enough, but also of human community and folk songs around the fire. In both cases, the adventure of struggling to realise the vision is maybe more appealing than the vision itself. But as I see it, the peasant modernist vision has more intrinsic appeal – there are endless, engrossing ways of improving small farms and the small communities of which they’re a part, whereas post-work utopias evince the same problem that Hannah Arendt detected in communist utopias – “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labor is past” (p.128).

Incidentally, Gene Logsdon has written a nice essay recently which makes similar points to the ones I’m making here, but without the sociological theorising. Perhaps I could learn something there. Logsdon writes,

“One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described…got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore.”

Well said – although I think there are different resonances between North America, Western Europe, and so-called ‘developing’ countries today around this point. Still, perhaps an implication of Logsdon’s argument is that ecomodernism is a form of retro-modernism, attempting to solve old-fangled problems (the hardscrabble life of the small farmer) by old-fangled methods (labour-shedding, energy-intensive technological development). Of course, the life of the contemporary small farmer isn’t easy. But my point is that it’s modern – and usually more so than that of their salaried urban counterparts.

Still, I acknowledge various difficulties in my peasant modernist vision. One is how to realise or generalise it. Earlier strands of modernist thought have offered pat answers to achieving their own utopias – Marx’s notion (also espoused by Phillips) that there is an inherent tendency to self-overcoming within capitalism located within the working class, or the strange notion so intricately elaborated by capitalist (‘neoclassical’) economists that free markets deliver what everybody wants, or the even stranger notion elaborated by the ecomodernists that heaven is to be found in a world of urban residence, nuclear power and GM crops. None of these neat resolutions strike me as convincing – but that leaves the problem of how to take hold of the machinery of modernization and create a neo-peasant world out of it. Here I agree with Berman and other writers in the anti-folk politics or anti-small is beautiful tradition like Srnicek and Williams or, hell, maybe even Leigh Phillips, that local particularisms need some kind of meta-local political context to succeed – a context best delivered by agrarian populism in my opinion, though that’s hardly an answer in itself. The other major problem – which is not specific to neo-peasant modernism, but is shared by all modernist utopias – is how to retain the positive force of all that restless striving, self-development and adaptability to change that’s part of the modernist way, while transcending its destructiveness, its anti-humanism and its troublesome tendencies towards change for change’s sake. I confess that I don’t have any simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers. But I’ll do my best to grapple directly with these problems in some future posts.


  1. My main writings on this are a critique of the ecomodernist manifesto, along with a follow-up essay, a piece for Statistics Views on ecomodernist approaches to energy and poverty, an essay concerning ‘peasant socialism’ by way of a critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology, a piece about the climate deal in Paris, and my recent essay on Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.
  1. “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London: Verso. Cited in Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & The Collapse Porn Addicts, Winchester: Zero, p.255.

Does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? Some thoughts on accelerationism

“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens” according to political scientist Jodi Dean, quoted by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (henceforth S&W) in their recent book, Inventing the Future1. And if that title doesn’t sufficiently telegraph S&W’s line of argument, perhaps their subtitle ‘Postcapitalism and a world without work’ will help, as will the insistent demands imperiously inscribed on the book’s cover: “Demand full automation – Demand universal basic income – Demand the future”.

In other words, it’s the kind of book that probably ought to be complete anathema to me. And in some ways it is. But actually I find myself in agreement with a good deal of what S&W have to say. It’s a serious, grownup book about the challenges now facing progressive politics – the kind of book that Leigh Phillips should have tried to write instead of penning fatuous putdowns to the green movement2. By contrast, S&W’s diagnosis for the mess we’re in seems to me spot on in many ways. But I think they lose their way when they try to provide solutions. It’s plain that they don’t know much about farming or about the history of agrarian populism. I’d like to think that if they corrected this – perhaps through a long chat with a farmer over a hard day’s shared work, like the one I recently had processing and salting down my recently-slaughtered pig (not sure what Goldman Sachs’ line is on suids) – we might find a surprising amount of overlap in our thinking.

The points at issue are important, I think, if we’re to create the kind of moral/ethical polities that Steve Gwynne raised in the comments on my recent post about commons – polities of the kind I think are necessary to achieve just and sustainable societies. So let me whizz through a few aspects of S&W’s analysis in order to lay some foundations for that project.

S&W perceptively analyse the demise of the implicit postwar capital-labour deal in the richer countries (essentially, full employment in return for political docility). What we’ve experienced more recently isn’t just more economic downturns but a fundamental reconfiguration of the labour market – the growth of an insecure ‘precariat’, the emergence of ‘jobless recoveries’ where economic upturns fail to generate new jobs, and the development globally of non-capitalist labour markets. I was pleased to note on the latter front that S&W don’t fall for the familiar ecomodernist fancy that the growth of slums is a positive sign of ascent from rural peasant misery towards urban middle-class plenty – in their view, slums represent “a dual expulsion from the land and from the formal economy” (p.96). Quite so.

These changes have complex causes, but S&W devote considerable attention to the rise of neoliberal ideology as one important factor. They point to neoliberalism’s origins among rather marginalised and unorthodox economic thinkers in Europe and the USA from the 1920s onwards, and show how the neoliberals brought their agenda into the political mainstream as a result of careful, strategic, long-term thinking which came to fruition after the global economic crises of the 1970s. Their argument is that contemporary capitalism in its neoliberal guise wasn’t an inevitable outcome of the modern political economy, which I think is true…but only inasmuch as capitalist economies have hitherto been restrained by non-capitalist considerations such as the ties of community, or nation, or ideas about economic relations as the servant to social wellbeing. Neoliberalism by contrast is the pure logic of capital, capitalism with its gloves off, albeit dressed up in many disguises about how the marketization of every sphere of life will bring wider benefits to all. So although it’s true that the neoliberal turn in the global economy wasn’t foreordained, nevertheless it was a clear developmental possibility latent within the more circumscribed capitalist economies prior to the 1980s neoliberal take-off.

S&W’s prescription for transcending neoliberal capitalism also has its strengths. Unlike Leigh Phillips, they’re not the kind of nostalgic, backward-looking socialists who still believe that the working class is uniquely placed to liberate all humanity from capitalist oppression, emphasising instead contemporary political struggles as populist struggles (which is refreshingly open-minded for writers still operating largely within traditional leftism). “Why do we devote one-third of our lives in submission to someone else?” they write of modern employment, thereby knocking on the front door of a populist critique of wage labour and concentrated property ownership. But then they turn away from it, developing what I struggle to call anything other than a technofantasy of a leisured world without work, where human Eloi are freed to pursue projects of self-realisation such as experimenting with their gender and sexual identity through new medical technologies in a world without Morlocks, whose role is performed by machines using limitless clean energy (S&W, p.2).

I won’t dwell here on why limitless clean energy and the complete automation of work seems a fantasy to me, because I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Perhaps I’ll just note in passing that S&W’s description of the technologies that are going to make human work redundant are thinly described – driverless cars are mentioned frequently, agriculture, construction and the various mechanical arts which presumably would be needed to keep the machines in order scarcely at all. More interesting to me is S&W’s conviction that nobody really wants to work, and their policy proposal for a universal basic income (UBI) so that people can live a sufficiently abundant life without actually having to.

S&W’s analysis of UBI is interesting – they make the point that it’s been seriously on the table in government policy discussions at various times and places, and that it’s affordable with a bit of judicious juggling of government finances, mostly involving increasing the tax burden on the wealthy. They also argue that the UBI would have to be set sufficiently high that it didn’t just act as an implicit subsidy to business. Personally, I’m sceptical that it would be possible to set it high enough in societies where large numbers of people wanted to avail themselves of the possibilities it provides to avoid work – with one important exception that I’ll come to soon. But then I’m also sceptical of S&W’s assumption that people actually do want to avoid work. I think what people mostly want to avoid is the subordination involved in working for someone else, and the repetitive emptiness of excessive work specialisation – dimensions of work that have been considerably augmented with the rise of the neoliberal global economy. Various writers have recently tried to recover the value of skilled practical work, of pitting yourself against the objective resistance of the natural world to human desires, whether that involves fixing a broken engine or bringing in a wheat harvest3. S&W are having none of it. In a typically overdrawn duality they say “In the end, the choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both” (p.126). I don’t see it that way. To my mind, there are endless possibilities between glorification and abolition.

What seems to annoy S&W about reconfiguring work as craft is that it involves all the usual bugbears to their version of progressive thought, bugbears they summarise as “the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural”, a form of “folk politics” with the “guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation” (p.10). For S&W, on the other hand, “There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved” (p.82).

Actually, I pretty much agree with that last sentence – my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott’ drew similar inferences from the source material of the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis4. And yet I still have what S&W would call ‘folk political’ tendencies in identifying with the small-scale, local and traditional. Again, I found myself agreeing with a good deal of S&W’s critique of ‘folk politics’ in contemporary leftist and anti-capitalist movements. But that was partly because their critique didn’t seem applicable to the kind of peasant agrarian populist politics I espouse. “They don’t mean me,” I thought, as they laid into folk politics for its “fetishisation of local spaces, immediate actions, transient gestures, and particularisms of all kinds” (p.3), objections that to my mind have little bearing on the particularisms of my daily practice as a farmer and the generalities of my political activism around agrarian populism. But it soon became apparent that, yes, they did mean me. Partly at issue is S&W’s criticisms of the local food movement, which I’ve already examined elsewhere and won’t further dwell on here, except to say I think their grasp of the issues is superficial and their critique naïve. But the more general problem is that S&W want to set up an opposition between ‘the immediate’ and ‘the mediated’, and to find the former wanting.

I don’t myself find this dualism terribly illuminating, and I want to try to transcend it. Let me invoke as my witness someone whose grasp of capitalism was certainly very mediated. In a famous passage in The German Ideology, Karl Marx wrote,

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

It interests me that three of Marx’s four examples refer to subsistence or self-provisioning activities. Anyone who seriously tries hunting, fishing or cattle-raising will find that they do in fact need to put some hours in and become ‘accomplished’ to succeed – all involve complex social relations, technologies and knowledges. They are not unmediated. But at the same time such activities do evince a kind of simplicity, and a testing of oneself against natural boundaries, that aren’t to be found in the kinds of ‘mediated’ city work or modern self-realisation that I think S&W have in mind when they refer to the mediated. And I want to hold on to that simplicity. Not because I’m baffled and frightened by the bewildering complexity of the modern world and want to retreat to some imagined simpler past as a comfort blanket – that, it’s true, is one historic manifestation of populism, understandable but unfortunate, with its tendency to blame outsiders and follow projects of historical, religious or moral purity. Let us call it Nigel Farage populism. The point I want to make is that, actually, the diversely productive self-provisioning and post-prandial philosophising imagined by Marx, mediated though it is, is a relatively simple and a relatively satisfying way to live. Is there not a danger of over-complicating the basic rhythms of human life?

Not according to S&W. In their critique, for example, of folk-political public campaigns to disinvest in dodgy banks, they say this neglects what they call “the complex abstractions of the modern banking system” (p.44). This seems an unfortunate turn of phrase when what we learned in 2008 is that, actually, the banking system is less complex and less abstract than the bankers and economists had thought, as complex fiscal abstraction ran aground on the hard reality of demands for actual purchasing power. But let me admit that I know very little about the banking system. I’m sure a knowledgeable person could convince me that it is quite complex, and that simplistic populist critiques of bankers don’t get us far. But their arguments would have to be…complex. Is it not rather simplistic to argue, as S&W do along with many defenders of the economic status quo, that populist anger with the banks is simply ‘simplistic’, without further elaboration?

There are too many of these extravagantly drawn dualisms in S&W’s thinking: “The choice facing us is…either a globalised post-capitalism or a slow fragmentation towards primitivism”5. Why? To my mind, such Procrustean oppositions do little more than buttress the dreary conservatism that so much self-avowed modern or progressive thought now inclines to: “Oh, you’re against mechanised agricultural intensification are you? Well I’d like to see you taking on a woolly mammoth with a pointy stick!”

S&W write,

“Whereas folk-political approaches lack an enticing vision of the future, struggles over modernity have always been struggles over what the future should look like: from the communist modernism of the early Soviet Union to the scientific socialism of postwar social democracy, and on to the sleek neoliberal efficiency of Thatcher and Reagan” (p.70).

OK, well let me ask you which of these visions for your future you find most enticing:

(a) living in a modest but comfortable house with a generous vegetable garden and access to meadows and pastures in the vicinity of a small friendly town with many like-minded people

(b) living in a society organised according to the principles of scientific socialism

(c) living in a society organised according to the principles of sleek neoliberal efficiency

Perhaps I’m stretching a point but S&W seem incapable of construing any political possibilities other than embracing technological acceleration, universalism (and precisely whose universalism, given that there is no human authentic human essence, no harmonious unity etc.?) and the imperative to expand and extend. They argue that only projects of this kind can lead to emancipation from capitalism, whereas folk politics is doomed to failure because it can’t reckon with the abstraction and global reach of capital. I’m inclined to propose a counter-thesis: projects of technological acceleration, post-work self-actualisation, restless self-improvement, simple universalism and anti-authentic mediation are potentially radical, liberatory and anti-capitalist but are so close to regnant capitalist ideologies of liberation from limits and self-overcoming that they will almost certainly be swallowed up by the existing order they set out to challenge – as indeed has mostly been the case with avant garde movements in modernism. Agrarian populist projects of self-provisioning, far from being what S&W call “freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias” (p.109) offer enticing visions of abundance, which are neither primitivist nor nearly as dystopian as the Eloi-vision of S&W. We do not have to choose between either Antonio Sant’Elia or John Zerzan.

But an agrarian populist vision for the future undoubtedly faces several difficulties. One of them is how to mediate (that ‘m’ word again) the focus on localism with the need to generalise it politically – the issue that Steve Gwynne and I were touching on in our discussion around the notion of the commons. I like S&W’s distinction between folk-politics and populism inasmuch as the latter seeks to build a common language and project – precisely what I hope I can contribute to in my own political writing and activism in groups like La Via Campesina. I also like their ideas about a universal basic income in this respect. Imagine a UBI programme fostered by a government that supported localism and small-scale farming – the budget might not stretch to what today would seem a very generous allowance, but in a context where a large number of people were producing a large number of their needs for themselves, it may not have to. For that to happen, though, a thorough reform of landownership would be required – an issue that, surprisingly, S&W don’t mention at all.

In summary, does Goldman Sachs care if you raise chickens? No, of course it doesn’t if you raise chickens, just as it doesn’t care if you withdraw your labour as an individual miner or farm labourer by way of political protest. But if we raise chickens as part of a political movement, then I think it’ll start to care, just as it or at least the political and economic establishment care when trade unions are able to use the power of labour as a collective political weapon. S&W teach us that new political projects take time to build, and that they have to be strategic. I have little interest in their own particular political project, but I take heart from their analysis that – possible political or ecological meltdowns notwithstanding – it may be feasible to build in time a strong global agrarian populist movement that changes the face of contemporary politics.


  1. Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.
  1. Phillips, L. (2015). Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts. Winchester: Zero.
  1. Eg. Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman, London: Penguin; Crawford, M. (2009). The Case For Working With Your Hands, London: Penguin.
  1. Smaje, C. (2008). ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2, 2: 183-198.

Plants are not accountants, and heaven can wait: perennial grains revisited

It’s been about a year since I published my article on perennial grain crops in the journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems1 so maybe it’s time to revisit this teasing topic. Other reasons to return to it…well, I seem to be in the midst of a series of posts on things that are leading us astray from the true path of sustainable agriculture so why not toss another brick onto the barbecue before turning to something more constructive? Then there’s yet another new article, this time in Permaculture Magazine, heralding the imminent solution to the world’s problems once the Land Institute has completed its work on this earth2. Plus ça change. And finally there’s what might be termed blogger’s privilege: for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a disputatious middle-aged man in possession of a blog must be in need of a hobby horse that he can (c)harmlessly ride every now and again when the mood is upon him.

So, to summarise what’s at issue: Take a look at your local wild flora – it mostly comprises perennial plants, which grow prodigiously without anybody destroying the soil through tillage, or going to the trouble of adding fertiliser, pesticides and so forth. Trouble is, it doesn’t produce much to eat. Now take a look at your local arable agriculture – it mostly comprises annual plants, which provide plenty to eat but often at the cost of soil-eating tillage and a load of fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs. Obvious solution: breed perennial varieties of edible arable crops, and you get the best of both worlds.

There’s a problem though. Plant breeders have been trying this for well over a century, and the results aren’t much to write home about. They’ve managed to breed plants with good perenniality but poor edible seed yield, and plants with good edible seed yield but poor perenniality. Plants with good perenniality and good edible seed yield, though? Not so much. Patience, patience, say the plant breeders at the Land Institute, probably the world’s premier perennial grain research organisation. This is a project of ‘deep permaculture’3. Don’t expect it to bear fruit overnight. But expect it to bear fruit eventually – and when it does, we’ll be able to grow soil-conserving, self-fertilising, pest-resistant, perennial grain polycultures that yield just as much as our present annual grain cultures, but without all the environmental costs associated with them.

Nice. Except I think it’s a fantasy. Not that fantasies are necessarily bad things. I think it’s good that the Land Institute are working on this stuff. I doubt that they’ll find their perennial grain holy grail, but you never know, they just might. And even if they don’t, they’ll probably come up with other useful things. So more power to them. Except that…well, despite being every permaculturist’s favourite scientists, including mine not so long ago, I’ve fallen a little bit out of love with the folks at the Land Institute because…because…OK, out with it…because they’re so damned dismissive of essentially every other approach that anyone tries to take towards a sustainable agriculture, and because they’re so unscientifically cocksure about the correctness of their approach despite their unimpressive results to date that they feel the need to fill the pages of periodicals both scientific and popular with more blandishments about what they’re going to achieve than any solid information about what they actually have achieved.

I’ve written at some length elsewhere about why breeding high-yielding perennial grains is such a tall order4, and I’m not going to go into the details again here. But, prompted by the latest bout of enthusiasm for perennial grains in Permaculture Magazine, I’d like to present brief arguments from five perspectives as to why I struggle to find a great deal of enthusiasm for what the Land Institute are doing.

1. Plants are not accountants: an argument from plant ecology

Perennial grain breeder Peggy Wagoner published a comprehensive review of achievements in the field to date in 19905, in which she stated “the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual.” Those seventeen words pretty much encapsulate my take on the issue. Wagoner, I think, is right, and I’m doubtful that any amount of genetic twiddling by plant breeders is ultimately going to overcome that basic truth.

Land Institute scientists take a different view, and indeed flatly contradicted Wagoner’s contention in a 2007 book chapter6. The debate has been a largely theoretical rather than an empirical one, focusing on whether it’s conceptually plausible for a perennial grass to produce as much edible starchy matter in the form of seeds as an annual grass while maintaining perenniality. Producing energy-rich seeds is, after all, energetically costly to the plant, and so is producing perennating structures that enable it to survive year after year.

The Land Institute have a fancy scientific rationale for their view, and a regular workaday one – neither of which I personally find convincing. The fancy one has to do with quantitative genetic trade-off theory – a red herring in my opinion, for reasons outlined in my article. In their response to the article7, the Land Institute authors ignored this part of my critique altogether…suggesting to me that perhaps I’m onto something. But I hope someday I’ll get some feedback on it from a neutral party with a stronger grounding in genetics than me. The workaday one, repeated in the Permaculture Magazine article, is that – being better established from the get-go – perennial plants are able to harvest more sunlight over the course of the year than annuals, and are therefore able to “pay the energetic cost of perennation”8.

That sounds plausible, even if it’s doubtful that perennials always harvest more light than annuals. But metaphors can mislead. Plants aren’t accountants who check their bank accounts at the end of the financial year, pay their debts, and then spend off the balance as they wish. They’re organisms, like us, who are pursuing longer term projects. And the long-term project of a perennial plant is to keep on living rather than punting scarce resources on reckless acts of maximal reproduction. When the firm has had a good year and everyone’s flush with their bonus, the perennials may have an extra half glass of wine at the Christmas party but they’re not going to join in with the carousing annuals, waving their wads at the barman and ending up on the carpet at the end of the evening. Doubtless plant breeders can mix things up and introduce a bit more of that annual swagger into their perennial charges. If things go well, they may even get both good seed yield and good perennation for a year or two. But I suspect that sooner or later, and probably sooner, this new breed of wad-waving perennials will end up on the carpet along with their annual buddies. That, essentially, is what Wagoner reported empirically, and despite the Land Institute’s outright dismissal of her analysis, and of mine, I’ve not yet seen any very convincing results to suggest otherwise (I’ve only been able to access the abstract from the Land Institute’s latest publication on a lack of correlation between seed yield and (short-term) survival in Sorghum bicolor x S. halepense crosses but, as with an earlier study9, it seems unclear what longer-term survival is and whether allometry is controlled).

2. Never walk alone: the argument from history

But maybe I’m overdoing this whole annual versus perennial growth habit thing. The Land Institute folks certainly think so, writing in response to my article that “There are as many life history patterns as there are species”7. Except there aren’t. Not really. I think plant ecologist Phil Grime is more on the money when he says that the outcomes of natural selection are restricted to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation and physiology10. Which is basically my point, and which explains Wagoner’s finding. I’m glossing a lot of detail here, which can be found in this blog post and in my original article1, but that’s the long and the short of it.

Suppose the Land Institute were right, though. Suppose it’s true that there are as many life history patterns as there are species. Then you’d surely expect to find some long-lived herbaceous perennials somewhere in the world with high allocations to starchy, edible seeds, and you’d surely expect that over the 10,000+ year history of human agriculture somebody would have run across them at some point and incorporated them into the human agricultural package. But it doesn’t seem to have happened. In their reply to my article, the most compelling counter-evidence to my arguments marshalled by the Land Institute authors is some early successional perennial sunflowers (early successional, note…) that have a higher sexual allocation than their annual counterparts. For an institute that’s being going at this problem for forty years, this seems to me a pretty weak result to hang your research rationale on, as I argue in more detail here.

I think this issue of the lack of high yielding perennial grains throughout agricultural history is a bit of a problem for the Land Institute’s line of argument, because if there are no fundamental ecological obstacles to producing such a plant then it’s curious that it hasn’t yet happened. A lengthy paper by Land Institute plant breeders in the scholarly journal Evolutionary Applications argues that there were various compelling reasons why the early agriculturists opted for annual crops despite the lack of fundamental obstacles to perennial ones, and this sent humanity off down a blind alley which it followed religiously for ten millennia until modern perennial grain breeders appeared on the scene11. It’s an interesting paper, but an ultimately obfuscatory one, I think – the ‘backing the wrong horse’ historical argument tries to get the case for high-yielding perennial grains off a tricky historical hook. But I don’t think it really succeeds.

3. The argument from human ecology

Anyway, what’s so great about high yielding cereal crops? As I argue in this article, the world has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the semi-arid continental grassland regions. The countries that have put serious effort into perennial grain research are all major grain exporters, and grain exports have had the effect of undermining more local small-scale agricultures and hustling populations into grain import dependent cities. So if it turns out that in order to conserve soils in the semi-arid continental grasslands it’s necessary to grow perennial grains with a lower yield than annual ones, thereby lowering grain exports from these regions, that would be a felicitous result for creating a more sustainable world. The Land Institute has already produced edible perennial grains, albeit ones with a much lower yield than their annual counterparts. Excellent stuff. You can stop now, your work is done!

Incidentally, as the aforementioned Phil Grime explains in a note on my website (available from here), there was interest in the 1960s in producing energy-rich food out of leafy rather than seedy perennial matter. This is a much more ecologically plausible way of teasing nutrition out of herbaceous perennials. But then along came Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, where the strategy was to max out on the seedy potentiality of annual cereals, with short-straw, high nutrient responsive annual varieties – very clever, if ultimately somewhat questionable in its achievements, but illustrative I think of how much easier it is to push plants in directions they’re already ecologically predisposed to go in (the Green Revolution) than to push them in the opposite direction while trying to maintain key original traits (perennial grain breeding).

4. Heaven can wait: the argument from farm ecology

In the 2007 article that I mentioned above6, Land Institute breeders wrote “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”, which strikes me as plausible. If your farming involves small, carefully-sited areas of tillage within a larger context of perennial and annual cover cropping, water management, wind protection and so forth, then it seems to me that annual grains would indeed have limited negative impact – especially in areas such as here in northwest Europe where rainfall isn’t especially erosive. Such farming is eminently achievable right now, without any further technical or plant-breeding innovations – a minimally destructive small farm future is right here within our grasp.

But Land Institute scientists now appear to have reneged on their earlier position – for example, in the recent Permaculture Magazine article in which Tim Crews is quoted as saying “In terms of carbon loss and nutrient leakage, if you open up 3x3m (10x10ft), it is going to take place whether you are a postage stamp gardener or not”12. Well, maybe so but is there not greater potential to check such losses in a farmed landscape with millions of people working small plots than there is in a landscape where you have a couple of tractor drivers tending thousands of acres? And even if there isn’t, might there be greater future potential for finding ways of preventing these losses on small-scale farms at the level of whole farm design than in finding the holy grail of a productive perennial polyculture? Crews talks as if developing perennial polycultures is the only viable way of devising a sustainable agriculture, without providing any evidence for this view.

It’s here that I start to find the Land Institute position a bit annoying. It’s like trying to talk trade-offs with a nuclear fusion nerd. Suppose I’ve got gas heating in my house, and I invest in cavity wall insulation to decrease my gas consumption. “You’re wasting your time,” says the fusion fan. “You’re still using gas, which is a bad, bad thing. And in a few decades we’re going to have figured out fusion, giving us unlimited clean energy. So you’re barking up the wrong tree with your silly insulation.”

Well, nuclear fusion isn’t here yet, and nor are productive perennial grain polycultures, so in the meantime why not try to get by as best we can in limiting the damage? A high yielding and sustainable perennial (grain) polyculture may be the gold standard, but we may never attain it and it may turn out that we get a decent bang for our buck taking other approaches. Heaven can wait. Perhaps in the long run annual agriculture may not be a sustainable strategy for humanity. But in the short run couldn’t the Land Institute just get off the backs of people trying to make their farming as sustainable as they possibly can, and accept that there are different paths to sustainability that are worth exploring? That way, it’ll spare us the frustrating experience of hosting permaculture visitors who look disdainfully at the wheat or potatoes in our rotations while citing the Land Institute as an example of what we should be doing. Though why the ‘domestic prairie’ it’s seeking is regarded as an example of permaculture nature mimicry beats me, since by its own admission what it’s trying to create is unprecedented in biological history.

5. The emperor’s clothes: the argument from scientific humility

And finally, talk of biological history makes me think of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution by natural selection was a big shout, and it took him twenty odd years in between first formulating the elements of the theory in his mind and actually formalising it with the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859. What he didn’t do in the course of those twenty years was publish (or cause his acolytes to publish) an endless stream of data-light articles about how he’d figured out this great approach that was going to upturn everything people thought about biology, and though he hadn’t quite put all the details together yet, this was going to be really, really big at some point in the future.

No doubt perennial grain breeders are under the same pressures as other researchers to secure funding by talking up their approach. But I suspect that if they overplay their hand it may backfire. At some point somebody may yell that the emperor has no clothes. In a blog post, Land Institute breeder David Van Tassel wrote, “getting perennial plants to reallocate massively to sexual structures is a huge challenge….It may prove impossible”13. Hallelujah! More of that please. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It just means that they’d be going about their business like proper scientists should – with circumspection, humility and the consciousness that their approach could prove wrongheaded and that other approaches may have something to contribute.


Here are some suggested lines for Land Institute scientists to voice in the next article somebody writes about them:

“Peggy Wagoner wrote that ‘the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual’. We think she could be wrong when it comes to edible perennial grains, though we haven’t proved it yet. There are difficult genetic, ecological and agronomic obstacles to overcome in developing a sustainable and high-yielding perennial grain polyculture, but we think it’s worth trying to overcome them. Other people are trying to overcome the problems of agriculture in other ways. Nobody can yet tell which – if any – ways will prove effective, but in agricultural research as well as in agriculture it pays not to put all your eggs in one basket, so we welcome these other approaches. In the meantime, we plan to continue with our research and to publish data on our perennial grain yields and the longevity of the crops in question in all of our publications”.

It would be a fine thing if the Land Institute could see its way to endorsing such a statement. Unfortunately, the Permaculture Magazine article reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now investing in perennial grain research. So I guess we can forget about circumspection, humility or the possibility of being wrong in this area.

It just remains for me to thank anyone who’s succeeded in reading this far, and to let you know that I feel sooo much better now I’ve got all that off my chest.


  1. Smaje, C. (2015). The strong perennial vision: a critical review. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.
  1. Bird, W. (2016) ‘Perennial grain research’ Permaculture Magazine, 87: 61-3.
  1. Ibid. p.61.
  1. See reference 1, and writings summarised at
  1. Wagoner, P. (1990). Perennial grain development— Past efforts and potential for the future. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 9: 381–408.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. (2007). Perennial grains. In Farming with nature: The science and practice of eco-agriculture, eds. S. Scherr and J. McNeely, 61–82. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  1. Crews T. & DeHaan, L. (2015) The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. 2005. Perennial grain crops: A synthesis of ecology and plant breeding. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20: 5–14.
  1. Piper, J., & P. Kulakow. 1994. Seed yield and biomass allocation in Sorghum bicolor and F1 and backcross generations of S. bicolor x S. halepense hybrids. Canadian Journal of Botany 72:468–474.
  1. Grime, J. & S. Pierce. 2012. The evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  1. Van Tassel, D. et al. 2010. Missing domesticated plant forms: can artificial selection fill the gap? Evolutionary Applications 3: 434–452.
  1. Bird, op cit. p.62.
  1. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

One cheer for the commons

A recent article on proclaimed that ‘the commons is the future’, so let me state my thesis plainly at the outset: no it isn’t, and in the event that humanity manages to create sustainable societies and/or sustainable resource use in the future, common property regimes will likely only have a fairly minor role to play in them. I’m not going to dwell much on the Resilience article, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but the general position I’m staking seems to put me at odds with a lot of environmental and egalitarian-minded people whose views I otherwise largely share, so maybe it’s worth exploring further – as I do below under a number of headings for ease of argument.

What is a commons?

People often talk rather loosely about the ‘global commons’ or humanity’s ‘common treasury’ of soil, air, water, knowledge, seeds etc. Part of the problem in thinking about commons arises right here at the definitional outset, because these things aren’t actually commons. They’re what economists call public goods – that is, a good where consumption is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, like air – the breaths I take don’t impede the breaths you take, and it’s hard for us to limit anyone’s access to air in such a way that we can charge them for breathing (…don’t mention it to George Osborne though, just in case). A commons, by contrast, is a resource where people’s use of it does affect others’ use, and indeed is often at risk of destruction by overuse. To remedy this, a commons identifies a specific community of users (and thus, by implication, a wider community of non-users) and a set of usage protocols that specify how the resource is to be used. A classic example is the commons of pre-industrial England, where certain local people were entitled to graze a set amount of livestock on land they didn’t own, or glean corn from the fields after harvest, or take gorse as firewood. The tripartite commons definition operates in these cases – a resource, a specific community, a usage protocol.

Private – Public – Common

Commons certainly have their place in the scheme of things, but I’m not entirely sure why they seem to be flavour of the month in alternative economics circles. Most likely it’s because both private and state ownership of economic resources have had a poor track record in recent times, with callously rapacious capitalism and repressive, monolithic communism both standing indicted in the historical dock. Do the commons, neither purely private nor purely public, offer a fresh option?

Maybe. But let’s look closer. Yavor Tarinski, in the aforementioned ‘Commons is the future’ article, refers to the work of leading commons scholar, the late Elinor Ostrom, on the commons in the Swiss Alpine village of Törbel. Tarinski writes, “In the Swiss village in question, local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing.”

Let’s look at what Ostrom says:

“For centuries, Törbel peasants have planted their privately owned plots with bread grains, garden vegetables, fruit trees and hay for winter fodder. Cheese produced by a small group of herdsmen, who tend village cattle pasture on the communally owned alpine meadows during the summer months, has been an important part of the local economy. Written legal documents dating back to 1224 provide information regarding…the rules used by the villagers to regulate the five types of communally owned property: the alpine grazing meadows, the forests, the “waste” lands, the irrigation systems, and the paths and roads connecting privately and communally owned property”1

In other words, the primary subsistence activities undertaken by the villagers, which take up the majority of their time, are private affairs. Only in the case of a few less intensive activities are things arranged communally – important activities, to be sure, but scarcely indicative of a thoroughly communalised mindset. To me, it seems strange to home in on Törbel’s commons as somehow exemplary of a commoning life distinct from private property relations, when so much of the village economy is clearly organised through the latter.

Undoubtedly there’s a need in contemporary politics to transcend some of the more problematic consequences of traditional economic systems, both private and state organised, and commons provide some interesting examples of self-organising collective institutions in this respect. But as Ostrom herself pointed out, institutions are seldom wholly private or public – “the market” or “the state” (indeed, markets require state manipulation to operate, and even the most totalitarian of regimes is incapable of eliminating private economic relations). Ostrom provides many examples of the ways that commons – whether pastures, fisheries, irrigation schemes or water catchment protection – draw strength from what she calls “rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy”2. So perhaps there’s a need to go beyond simplistic notions of markets or states being bad and commons being good, and to specify more richly what kind of private, public or common institutions can be effective in different circumstances. Ostrom’s work stands as an impressive rebuke to those who think that communities can never organise their own resource use effectively without the help of the state or the market, but she’s at pains to show that commons don’t always work and aren’t always an appropriate mode of organisation.

So when do they work? Summarising Ostrom’s intricate analysis very crudely, the answer seems to be when there’s a relatively small number of people of fairly equivalent social standing who have a long-term interest in using a resource, particularly when that resource has a low value per unit area, or is erratically productive, or is hard to intensify, or is hard to exclude people from. I’ll come back to this. But I hope that answer begins to hint at why commons may not always be the optimal strategy for a sustainable agriculture of the future.

Of selfishness and altruism

The fact that commons seem to involve an element of altruism is, I suspect, one reason for the contemporary enthusiasm over them as a reaction to the tired nostrum of orthodox economic theory concerning intrinsic human selfishness. So are people intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic? Both, surely. A close look at successful commons invariably reveals elaborately constructed procedures to detect and disincentivize cheating and free riding, while a close look at historical court proceedings associated with functioning commons reveals numerous actual examples of such behaviour. Not necessarily very frequent examples – the mark of a good commons is strong arrangements to ensure that people stick by the rules – but numerous enough for all that. Most people surely display all manner of altruism in their daily lives, but commons based on the notion that everyone will play ball because of an intrinsic human altruism soon founder.

To develop that point further, I’d suggest it’s untrue that private property regimes inevitably instil selfishness or that public authority is inevitably unresponsive and monolithic, just as it’s untrue that commoners are intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic (David Bollier’s interesting book Think Like A Commoner sometimes errs, I believe, in its tendency to assimilate private property to capitalism and thence to beggar-my-neighbour self-interest: private property relations are not necessarily capitalist relations). Again, we need richer descriptions of the ways in which specific forms of economic organisation function or malfunction in specific cultural contexts. Part of the problem, I think, is the ascendancy of a neoliberal fundamentalism in western politics over the last thirty years or so that insists every sphere of life must be marketised. Recoiling from this delusion, and bruised by the defeat of the alternatives offered by traditional leftism, progressive thinkers have cast around for alternatives and lit upon the commons. But, as outlined earlier, commons usually only work well in particular rather specialised situations – and indeed themselves depend on wider private and public institutions. It’s often better, I’d argue, to work at correcting the malfunctioning aspects of private or public sector institutions than to assume that a commons will solve the problem.

Poverty and the commons

Much has been written on the enclosure of the commons – paradigmatically, on the extinction of commoners’ rights in early modern England. The reality of it was more complicated than pro- or anti-enclosure propagandists will usually admit, but I’m broadly sympathetic to the position sketched by historian J. Neeson that the enclosure of the commons represented the destruction of a peasantry and its reconstitution as a proletariat3. Enclosure undoubtedly imposed hardship on the rural poor, and for that reason I mourn it. Most of my writing revolves around making the case for a contemporary peasant agriculture. I do not welcome the destruction of peasantries, historic or contemporary.

But let’s get a grip. The loss of harvest gleaning rights must have been a blow to many a poor rural family, but would you like to go on your hands and knees through a cornfield in search of your supper? Commons can be a good way of intensifying land use, making them more ecologically and economically efficient, and thereby helping redress poverty in situations of great economic inequality. But they don’t in themselves radically challenge that inequality. Indeed, in some ways perhaps they buttress it. In situations where the poor have little access to resources, commons arise which help them make best use of what’s available to them. But there are better ways of creating access to resources. Those ways change over time, too. When the cost of containing livestock was prohibitive, it made sense for people to band together and employ a cowherd to tend their beasts on the common pasture. Nowadays, it would probably cost more to employ a herdsman on the commons than to fence your own fields.

But nowadays few of us have our own beasts or fields. Instead we have ideas and creative output we want to disseminate. The modern commons is about information and information sharing – an ‘open source’, ‘digital commons’. The idea of open source is that the great stock of human knowledge is a commons that shouldn’t be enclosed. But it seems to have turned into the notion that stuff ought to be free, and that people shouldn’t expect recompense for the work they put into uploading more content into the collective human consciousness. In other words, when we talk about the modern digital commons, the community and the protocol part of the commons definition goes missing. We happily fill Microsoft or Apple’s coffers so we can gain access to the content of this ‘digital commons’, but we expect the creators of content to furnish it for free on the grounds that they’re just recyclers of the knowledge commons, forgetting that so too are Microsoft and Apple. As farmers down the ages will tell you, the middleman makes the money and the producer gets little or nothing. This is not a commons.

There’s a donate button top right on my blog, by the way.

Contemporary peasants, contemporary commons

But I digress. Let me conclude by getting back to land use and thence to agriculture. Here’s an example of a contemporary commons that can work very well: residents in an urban area successfully petition their hard-pressed municipal authority to cede a piece of wasteground to them on a preferential long-term lease, organising themselves to tidy it up and improve access so that it becomes a valued recreational haven in the hurly-burly of the city. It works, because the characteristics of a successful commons that I outlined above mostly apply – a community of interest, an extensive resource that’s hard to intensify or exclude people from etc.

But now suppose that the commoners decide to plant a community vegetable garden on the site. At first, the volunteer days are well attended and the garden gets off to a flying start. But growing vegetables is a lot of work, and most people’s interest soon flags. Volunteer attendance starts to drop off, and the hardy few who are now carrying the project begin to resent making produce available to those who aren’t pulling their weight. They try to come up with some protocols about inputs and rewards from the garden at a fractious meeting in which accusations of selfishness fly from all quarters. Some residents really would like to help, but they aren’t sure if they’ll have the time, or even whether they’ll still be living here come next growing season. And now there aren’t enough volunteers even to keep the beds properly weeded. Then a property development company appears on the scene with its eye on the gardens, which it thinks could make a good site for housing. They offer to buy the commoners handsomely out of their lease. Many of them are keen on this idea. The community gardeners are aghast.

I’ve seen this kind of thing play out many times. I could dwell on the ramifications at length, but instead let me offer a brief closing thesis. Before we can have meaningful contemporary agricultural commons we need to create a relatively egalitarian community of small farmers who are in it for the long haul and who are anxious to preserve the productive potential of their local environment for themselves and their descendants. Once such a community has arisen, it will likely find many creative ways of forming commons around the interstices of its activities which will increase the efficiency of local resource use. So in this sense, yes, commons can definitely be a part of the future, and probably a bigger part than they currently are. But – as in Törbel – the most important, most intensive activities are likely to be better served by a private property regime, so long as it’s a private property regime geared primarily to providing homes and productive agricultural land to farmers who have independent agency within publicly-agreed norms of acceptable behaviour, rather than a private property regime geared to the easy monetisation of assets (in other words, that it’s a peasant and not a capitalist private property regime – a compassionate and community-minded one, yes, but a communal one, probably not). Private property certainly isn’t the only possible way of organising a just and sustainable human ecology, but it’s one that’s familiar to us westerners. And it’ll be hard enough wresting a private property regime of petty proprietorship from the fiery hell of capitalist land values without further saddling ourselves with idealistic commoning arrangements as a means to earn our daily bread. Let us not run before we can walk.


  1. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-2.
  1. Ibid. p.14.
  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

The year, I know, is scarce begun, and yet already I feel able to offer you three strong contenders for this new annual award from the small farm future stable, culled from my recent trip to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Now, trade unionism gets a bad press these days, and I have to admit that for all its associations with progressive leftism, the movement has mined a rich historic seam of small-minded conservatism and unenlightened self-interest. Still, you only have to look at what happens in the absence of trade unions to appreciate their importance – for example, in food journalist Felicity Lawrence’s sobering reports about the criminal exploitation of migrant labour in British agriculture. Or, talking of mining as I just was, an example from my own family history: my great grandfather, killed with sixty other men by a methane explosion in a Yorkshire pit during the pre-unionised days of the late 19th century. The mining company stopped his pay at the moment of his death. My grandmother said it was only the Salvation Army that kept her widowed mother from penury.

For all the demonization of the traditional working-class trade unions, it’s the white collar unions – the British Medical Associations and Law Societies of this world – who really put the ‘con’ into trade union conservatism. But perhaps the recent, narrowly-averted strike by junior doctors signals another step along the slow path of middle-class proletarianization being worked even upon the medical profession by the magic of neoliberal capitalism. The really powerful trade unions now left after the eclipse of blue and white collar power are not really ‘trade’ unions at all, but organisations that shore up landownership and the forms of cultural and social capital through which privilege is quietly reproduced. I was grateful to get a window into their world in and around my time at the ORFC.

And so, without further ado, I now present to you my shortlist for the worst trade union in the world award. First up, let’s hear it for the Duchy of Cornwall, as represented at the ORFC by its Secretary, Mr Alastair Martin. If you’re not up on your British constitutional history, the Duchy was founded by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income to his son and heir. And it’s still doing the business 700 years later for the present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and six other members of his immediate family, in the form of a 135,000 acre portfolio of prime British real estate, mostly west country farmland.

Now I must admit, apparently unlike the majority of my fellow Brits I’ve never had much time for the royal family. Parasites. Feudal relics. All that bowing, scraping and toadying. Please. Still, despite his dodgy letters to the government, I suppose I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Charles, whose heart seems to be in the right place on various matters and who enjoys something of a reputation as a do-gooder. So it was salutary to be reminded by Mr Martin that the primary purpose of the Duchy is to furnish its incumbent with cold, hard cash.

Well, fair play to the man – as an advocate of agrarian proprietorship I have no problem at all with the idea of furnishing the necessities of life from a piece of land. But, as an egalitarian-minded one, I do have a bit of a problem if those pieces of land are distributed too unevenly. I mean, I don’t want to go overboard – I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody always has to have exactly the same. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a reasonable distribution would allocate no more than nine times more resources to the richest than the poorest. And let’s further assume that – as a result of his obviously superior intelligence, charm and good looks – Charles takes his rightful place in the upper echelons of this hierarchy, with the remainder of these fair isles allocated to its 64 million populace according to a rough bell curve, such that the richest 4% of the population, like Charles, each have a Duchy of Cornwall sized 135,000 acres to play with, whereas the poorest 4% have to scrape by with a measly 15,000 acres each. As pragmatic a compromise between modest egalitarianism and the natural differentiation of the human tribe as one could possibly imagine, don’t you think? And, on that basis, a few simple calculations reveal that the British populace would require something a little shy of 3 trillion square kilometres of land for their lebensraum – or around 21 times more than the entire land surface of the planet.

Get outta here, Charles – you’re a leech on the face of the earth.

Mr Martin made the further point that much of the Duchy’s land was farmed by tenants who could concentrate on the business of farming without the troublesome burden of landownership weighing on their minds – a liberation that he considered made them more efficient. But I’d venture to reframe his point thus: if you have no secure tenure to fall back on you’ll probably try to maximise your short-term income any darned way you can. And that, in a single sentence, pretty much encapsulates the emergence of capitalism, which arguably started right here in merrie England for exactly that reason – converting secure customary tenures into short-term fiscal leases created an upwards ratchet upon agricultural output. The rest, as they say, is history – and not one that ultimately turned out too well for the power of the monarchy and the wider aristocracy. And yet here they still are, the royal duchies and all the rest, owning land all over the place – a trade union of undeserving landowners. Parasites, as I said earlier. Feudal relics.

Next up, the National Farmers’ Union, as represented at the ORFC by Guy Smith, NFU vice-president. I’ve got to tip my hat to Mr Smith for straying from the safety of the Oxford Farming Conference across the road and daring to enter the lion’s den of the Oxford Real Farming Conference where he was given a predictably rough reception. To adopt a cricketing metaphor, when a batsman is facing a hostile attack it’s best to keep it simple, which was perhaps what was on Mr Smith’s mind as he dead batted every question like Faf du Plessis weathering an over of Moeen Ali teasers. Whereas Faf’s defensive measure of choice is a forward prod to silly mid-off, Mr Smith protected his stumps with the heavy bat of consumer demand, arguing that while there may indeed be many things wrong with the food and farming system, there’s nothing that farmers can do about them and there’s no alternative but to give the consumer exactly what s/he wants. Presumably the NFU policy favouring maize silage for anaerobic digestion emerges from this same public clamour. Certainly, the last time I was abroad on my local high street I heard shoppers talk of little else.

‘Consumer demand’ seems to be a clinching gambit for a lot of people these days about the sad reality of the way the world is, regardless of our fondest wishes. It’s not one that I personally find very convincing for several reasons that perhaps I’ll spell out in another post – but more importantly for my present purposes it’s surely not one that any self-respecting trade unionist should find convincing. How would it sound if a trade unionist said “sure, we’d all like safer working conditions in this mine/higher wages in this factory etc. but consumer demand being what it is the market will never bear it”. The whole point of being a trade unionist is that you organise politically in order to change what the market will bear in the direction of your favoured policies. I’m not the first to suggest that supposedly ‘free’ markets are essentially creations of monopoly capital working in concert with the state in support of the former’s interests (as George Monbiot likes to point out, you can tell a lot from the fact that DEFRA is headquartered at 17 Smith Square, and the NFU at 16 Smith Square). Nor am I the first to suggest that the NFU basically represents the interests of larger scale, wealthier farmers. I get the sense of a powerful and exclusive trade union busily organising in its members’ interests not to change the market in order to preserve policies which suit it very well. Helplessness in the face of consumer demand is a veil of economic power.

Some of Mr Smith’s other remarks were equally informative. Against the charge that contemporary farming practices were damaging soil he referenced Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the US dustbowl. The extent to which the dustbowl really was a result of farming practices is debatable, but let’s just go with the logic of Mr Smith’s position – farmers have been wrecking soils for at least 80 years, so why should anyone start caring now? Finally, Mr Smith mentioned his pride in the barn owls living on his farm, and reckoned that the government ought to pay him £500,000 for each one. Er, why? I’ve always done my best to counter the crude and unfair stereotype of the farmer as subsidy-junky, but you’re not helping Mr Smith, you’re really not helping…

The third and final contender is Oxford University – well, let’s extend it to Cambridge University too. As I walked among the university’s dreaming spires in the course of the conference, various among the younger generation within my extended family were waiting to hear whether they’d received an offer to study there. The key variable for success, as it proved, was whether they’d received a private education. And it doesn’t just apply to my family – only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, whereas 44% of Oxford’s students are. It seems an Oxbridge education unlocks the door to the upper echelons of public and private sector power in the UK: only 1% of the UK public is educated there, but its graduates comprise 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs and 33% of BBC executives. Talk about a closed trade union shop…

And the winner is: Hold your horses, hold your horses. In true awards ceremony style I’m going to keep you on tenterhooks by handing out the runner-up prize first. And that prize goes to…Oxford and Cambridge universities. Unquestionably a cancer within British society which narrows the perspective and the representativeness of key institutions and builds an inherent conservatism into them, nevertheless I have to concede that these universities do leave the door of their closed shop oh so very slightly ajar to new blood from the lumpen masses. True, it’s mostly window dressing…but there’s good research being done by good people at these places. And so I’m happy to concede that they’re the best of the bad bunch on show here.

We now come to the gold and silver positions. At first I was minded to award the gold to Mr Smith. After all, Oxbridge and the Duchy of Cornwall are only doing what comes naturally to them – defending inherited privilege, just as they’ve always done. But you, Mr Smith, are a trade unionist. You’re supposed to be representing farmers. Perhaps you’re even supposed to be representing agriculture. Why not offer an enlightened vision of the role it can play in delivering a just and sustainable world, instead of hiding behind the false god of consumer demand in order to promote a self-serving conservative agenda?

But on reflection I’ve decided that Mr Smith only merits silver…probably. Because if there’s one single thing that stands in the way of that just and sustainable agrarian future it’s the structure of landownership in this country, and the near impossibility for most people of owning what the great Dick Gaughan calls one handful of earth. To be fair, aristocratic landownership is only one part of the problem, but it’s emblematic of the pernicious death grip that money and privilege always have over real estate. That grip needs to be loosened before there’s the remotest possibility of achieving the small farm future that I believe is needed to achieve sustainability and social justice, so I hope that the gold medal I hereby award to the Duchy of Cornwall will go some way to helping loosen it. Step forward Mr Martin. Unless…well, I said that the Duchy of Cornwall only probably merits gold because, under questioning by small-scale market gardeners and land rights activists, Mr Martin said that the Duchy might consider making land available for small, alt-ag concerns. So if it donates, let’s say, 120,000 acres freehold to around 6,000 would be farmers, Small Farm Future is prepared to be magnanimous and downgrade the Duchy’s award to silver or bronze.

Before I close, and while I’m in the business of parading this cast of shifty characters across the halls of disrepute, perhaps it’s appropriate that I turn the spotlight a little closer to home. For although I’m scarcely a landowner in Prince Charles’s league, nevertheless I have a stake in property, not least my humble eighteen acres of finest Somersetshire, which most likely puts me in serious kulak territory. And while I refuse to yield to the scantily-mortgaged denizens of multiply-zero valued townhouses as they grumble about access to the countryside, I’m all too aware of what an extraordinarily privileged position I’m in compared to the majority of the world’s labourers and farmworkers. If there were truly effective unions organising the wretched of the earth, I suspect that many of us here in the UK would have a lot of rethinking to do about our expectations of the world.