Wessex and Londinium – the reckoning

I promised a bonfire of the numbers on my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex project in this post. Well, here goes. We shall also be taking a couple of side trips to the city state of Londinium – which, it turns out, is not without its peasant-like aspects – and to the Principality of Wales. So pour yourself a stiff one, pull up a pew, and get yourself some matches to help me light the flame.

First, though, a stop press from the Somerset County Council newsroom. What, you didn’t know Somerset County Council had a newsroom? Shame on you – I’ll have you know that Somerset’s a happenin’ place. And what’s happening, specifically, is that “Somerset County Council and partners across the South West have been working together to seek more power and budgets devolved from central government….in response to the Government’s interest in devolution from Westminster.” I bet those who said that the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex was an impossible dream are feeling a bit sheepish now, huh? Well, let’s have a look at what the County Council has in mind: “The detailed plan aims for higher productivity and better-paid jobs, improved road, rail and broadband links and more homes for the region’s growing population.” Oh.

Well, nobody said Rome was built in a day.

Anyway, back in the make believe world of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I think I’ve shown in previous posts that a population comprising around 20% of predominantly self-supporting smallholders and around 80% non-farmers could feed its expanded population circa 2039 using organic farming methods, powering its agriculture with non-fossil energy – and, more questionably, possibly its society more generally, though only with deep cuts from current levels of usage. I suspect that the 20/80 split is unlikely in reality – I’d guess there would either be a larger or smaller proportion of smallholders depending on the likely future course of agriculture’s negative experience curve. Anyway, it’s a starting position for debate.

The assumptions I made in projecting future food productivity in Wessex were, I believe, quite conservative. I think it would be eminently possible to grow a lot more food by relaxing or otherwise changing some of those assumptions. I worked up a spreadsheet along those lines, which involved plugging in higher confidence limit rather than lower confidence limit productivity averages, and also ploughing up the region’s major arterial roadways and growing apples and potatoes on them instead – which is the kind of thing you can do when you’re the supreme leader of a regional republic, even if said republic is merely a figment of your imagination made manifest in Excel. But, as I recently mentioned, I’ve started becoming a little bored with my plaything – an occupational hazard among narcissistic dictators – so I can’t really be bothered to outline my ‘abundant Wessex’ projections in detail. Suffice to say that if you relax your assumptions about the possibilities for growing more food, then it’s possible to grow more food.

Conversely, I suppose I should also run some projections using yet more stringent assumptions. At the limit, the most stringent assumption is that we’re all screwed and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it – except maybe listen to the earth died screaming on repeat play until a blessed insanity descends. But try putting that in an Excel spreadsheet… An alternative would be to project what our prime minister might call a ‘just about managing’ scenario – or what I, being a glass half-empty kind of guy, would be more inclined to call a ‘we’re all moderately screwed’ scenario. On that score, perhaps we could invoke a recent paper projecting that the impact of climate change in the USA will reduce its agricultural yield to pre-1980 levels by 2050. I’m not sure if anyone’s done a similar analysis for the UK and if it would be sensible to assume similar yield declines. As I say, I’ve fallen a bit out of love with my spreadsheets of late, so I’m inclined just to say that here in Wessex we might be able to feed ourselves in the future very comfortably, quite comfortably, not very comfortably or not at all. There. I’m glad I crunched through all that data in order to push at such far frontiers of new knowledge. If you want me to quantify a ‘moderately screwed’ scenario, you’ll have to twist my arm. Hitting the ‘Donate’ button would help – the lucrative returns for writing this blog seem to have dried up of late. Maybe I’ve been arguing too much.

So, I plan to leave my Wessex peasants and non-peasants there for now. But of course in a world where there’s a Wessex, perhaps we need to ask what of Mercia, what of Northumberland, what, indeed, of Londinium? Well, for the aforementioned reasons I don’t plan on cranking out a whole series of spreadsheets for every UK region, but nor do I want you to leave this post entirely bereft of quantification, so here’s a table ranking seven English regions (I’ve amalgamated the East and Southeast regions, which basically constitute London’s agrarian hinterland) plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland according to available agricultural area per capita. I define ‘agricultural area’ as cropland plus temporary grass, and exclude from it permanent grass and rough grazing – quite a stringent assumption, because there’s a lot of permanent grass in the UK (about 65% of the total agricultural land take) and some of it would be suitable for cropping, though some of it most certainly wouldn’t be.

Table 1: Agricultural land per capita in the UK

Region/Country Hectares agricultural land (excluding permanent grassland) per capita population
Northwest 0.04
Wales 0.08
‘Londinium’ (East + Southeast) 0.09
Northeast 0.09
West Midlands 0.10
Northern Ireland 0.11
Yorkshire + Humber 0.12
Scotland 0.15
‘Wessex’ (Southwest) 0.17
East Midlands 0.19

Source: Derived from http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/5559/84

 

I guess you could say the table suggests I’ve been making it easy for myself in construing the agricultural sustainability of my particular region (the southwest), since this has pretty much the highest per capita farmland availability in the whole country. So let’s look at Londinium (aka the East and Southeast regions), which has pretty much the lowest.

The first observation to make is that if we devote 40% of Londinium’s farmland to 20% of its population for the purposes of homesteading, as we did in the case of Wessex, then there are going to be some seriously hungry folk in the smoke. Besides which, I’m figuring that this region will mostly house metropolitan types who couldn’t tell a Gloucester Old Spot from a Wiltshire Horn, and probably wouldn’t much care. I daresay there’d be a little homesteading going on around the margins, but I’m not counting on it – quite literally.

Likewise, we’re going to come up short if we try to grow all the food in the region organically, as a result of both lower organic yields and lower proportionate land areas after correcting for leys. Actually, organic farming does hit its targets for five of my six nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) in Londinium – the exception being the rather important one of energy, where it can only furnish about 60% of total calorific requirements. Not bad for a population of 27 million (again projected to be 20% higher than at present), but not quite good enough (once again, I acknowledge the claims for higher-productivity forms of alternative agriculture, and once again I’m going to sideline them – not because I’m necessarily sceptical, though with some such claims I am a bit, but more because of my preference for under-estimating on the basis of known parameters rather than over-estimating on the basis of unknown ones).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve modelled agrarian production for Londinium along fairly similar lines to the way I did it for the non-peasant folk in Wessex – growing cereals, potatoes and beans on the cropland (but using conventional methods) along with a 25% grass ley. I’ve given over more cropland to growing fruit and vegetables than is currently the case in Londinium in order to prevent any unfortunate outbreaks of scurvy, and I’m raising dairy and beef cows organically on the limited grassland available (there’s a much smaller proportion of permanent grass in Londinium than in Wessex), supplemented with cereal and legume fodder from the cropland. There’s also pork and eggs in the diet, grown essentially from the same sources, and the same ration of fish that was available to the Wessexers. As with Wessex, I’m (controversially) growing grass silage to make methane in order to fuel the food production and distribution system. But I’ve left out of account the energy required to make the synthetic fertiliser – assuming about 150kg Nha-1 and a total energy production cost of 40 MJkgN-1, this amounts to the equivalent of about seven or eight litres of diesel per person per year (not that you’d use diesel to do it). Make of all that what you will – I’m steering clear of any more wrangling over energy futures for the time being.

For information, Figure 1 below shows the overall land use in Londinium and Wessex, comparing present reality to the projected reality of the self-sufficient futures I’m construing in the two cases.

Figure 1: Wessex and Londinium – Present and Projected Land Use

Land use

We now come to the all-important question of whether Londinium can feed itself on the basis of the assumptions outlined above. And the answer is – yes. Next question. Oh, all right – I’ll show you some figures. Table 2 shows, as in my previous such exercises, the ratio of production and requirement for my six nutritional indicators produced in Londinium’s agrarian hinterlands on the basis of the assumptions outlined above (the figures for Wessex shown in previous posts are included for comparison).

Table 2: Production/requirement ratios

Energy Protein Vitamin A Vitamin C Mg Fe
Londinium 1.09 1.59 1.31 3.31 2.00 1.52
Wessex (peasants) 1.10 2.22 5.06 6.24 1.87 1.44
Wessex (non-peasants) 1.00 1.96 2.12 2.47 1.55 1.06

 

So, on the basis of the assumptions outlined here and elsewhere, the neo-peasants of Wessex and their non-peasant counterparts, together with their metropolitan cousins in the neighbouring republic of Londinium all get an adequate diet – though the metropolitan one comes at a higher energetic cost. However, their respective diets aren’t identical. This is indicated in Table 3, which shows the weekly allocation of foods of different kinds to an individual in each of the three cases.

Table 3: Regional diets (kg per person per week)

Peasant Wessex Non-peasant Wessex Londinium
Starchy staples 1.1 4.4 9.8
Vegetables 11.2 3.4 2.4
Fruit 3.3 0.2 0.0
Nuts 0.1 0.0 0.0
Beans 0.2 0.1 0.0
Meat 1.1 0.8 0.2
Milk 9.8 8.0 1.2
Fish 0.4 0.4 0.4
Eggs 0.2 0.0 0.3

 

The three main food groups are (1) the starchy staples, (2) fruit and veg, (3) meat and dairy. Meat and dairy is the most land-hungry form of production in terms of nutritional output for hectares of input, although in all three cases the strategy I’ve adopted is largely a ‘default’ one of fitting livestock production around the edges of producing vegetable matter for direct human consumption, rather than producing livestock in competition with direct production. That’s the case, at any rate, if we assume that the breakdown of cropland and grassland shown in Figure 1 is taken as a given, since you can’t really produce food from grass without the intermediary of livestock. But the crop/grass balance is an arguable assumption – really, this is a moveable feast, and you could turn over some of the grassland to cropland, or else do other things with it such as grow fruit. A couple of points to bear in mind in relation to that vegan argument, though. First, where we’re growing organically, we need generous grass/clover leys, which are conducive to ruminant grazing. And second, I think we need to have some oil and fat in the diet, which in this climate we can only really get from livestock – unless we grow oilseed rape, which I’ve avoided doing in these models.

Notwithstanding those points, there’s a certain convertibility between the three main food groups described above. We can choose to grow fodder crops for ourselves or for livestock, and we can choose to devote cropland to starchy staples or to fruit and veg. The diets of the Wessex neo-peasants and the metropolitans of Londinium are quite divergent in this respect – the neo-peasants get a lot of meat and dairy in their diet (well, actually not that much compared to current levels of US or EU consumption, but as much as they can feasibly produce). Their 10 litres of milk per week also sounds like a lot, but not when you convert it into butter for fat, or into cheese. Likewise, they have a lot of vegetables in their diet, and not much in the way of starchy staples. The Londoners, on the other hand, get little meat or dairy (fat is a problem here) and a lot of starchy staples.

Effectively (and a touch ironically) I think the diets of Wessex and Londinium tend towards what I’d call the two extremes of the ‘peasant way’. The Wessex diet represents the peasant way of abundance, the kind of thing you can do if you have access to adequate land and a light coercive touch from the state. I think I’d possibly be tempted to grow a few more starchy staples and a bit less veg, but essentially this diet strikes me as nutritionally and agriculturally optimal. The garden and the pasture predominate over the field – a good way to eat and a good way to farm. The peasant way of abundance is far from the norm in peasant societies historically, though it’s been more common than those who like dismiss peasant lifeways as a tale of utter misery are usually prepared to admit.

The Londinium diet, on the other hand, represents the peasant way of stress, which is probably closer to the historical norm. The stress factor historically has usually been one or both of: (1) a predatory state, which extracts as much surplus from peasant cultivators as it can get away with, or (2) a Malthusian crisis, in which population outstrips the productive capacity of the land in relation to current technical levels of production (though sometimes an apparently Malthusian crisis is a manifestation of a predatory state, which controls the availability of land). In such circumstances, cultivators necessarily adopt the strategy of producing as much macronutrient-dense food as possible for the minimum input of land and labour – which usually pushes them towards the starchy staples. In the case of Londinium, we have an unprecedentedly dense population, which has resulted from the geopolitics of a globalised and industrialised modern world not at all geared to local food production. Feeding it adequately from local resources is, arguably, doable – but only by pushing pretty hard towards a Malthusian limit. At the moment, such megacities don’t need to provision themselves locally. They typically rely on grain from the continental grasslands and labour-intensive luxuries from the labour-rich, money-poor economic periphery. In the long term, those tactics probably aren’t sustainable – not least because of the outlook for the continental grasslands alluded to in the paper cited above, and also in this excellent piece, another Small Farm Future trailblazer. So perhaps in the future places like Londinium will be reduced to scraping for their supper like any average hard-pressed peasantry.

But another way of looking at it would be that Londinium is probably capable of providing its basic subsistence needs from its immediate hinterlands, which puts it at some food security advantage in these fractiously neo-mercantilist times. I imagine its fortunes will start to decline in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that they’ll stay healthier than those in most of the rest of the UK, which might enable it to do what cities do best and pull in the productivity of less prosperous far-flung lands. Imagine all those beady metropolitan eyes, tired of their bread and gruel, fixed upon the pastures of Wessex where the milk and honey flows. Well, I have a few ideas about how to cope with that which I’ll outline in a future post, but I can’t deny it’s a sobering thought. So perhaps in the meantime we Wessexers should sharpen our pitchforks and summon the Duke of Monmouth’s spirit to our cause.

Well, I’m pretty much inclined to leave my quantitative analysis of Wessex and Londinium there, at least for the time being, though it’s a shame to end on such a conflictual note. There’s a certain London food activist, whose work I greatly admire, who may just possibly be reading this. If she is, and has ideas for brokering a peace between Wessex and Londinium, I’d be delighted to hear from her.

Finally, and talking of Monmouth as I just was, let’s take a short trip across the Bristol Channel and pay a brief visit to Wales. As shown in Table 1, Wales has among the lowest ratios of cropland to population in the UK. On the other hand, it has among the highest ratios of permanent grass (including rough grazing) to population – at 0.49ha per capita it comes second only to Scotland’s whopping 0.88ha, with the highest English region being, you guessed it, Wessex, at a trifling 0.18ha. Recently, I was looking at George Monbiot’s critique of upland sheep farming, in which he has Wales very much in his sights. So I thought I’d look at Welsh food self-sufficiency on the basis of its current agriculture, which on the face of it seems to have a lop-sided focus on low productivity sheep. I’ve taken a figure for sheep meat produced in Welsh abattoirs – which I imagine greatly underestimates the potential productivity of the Welsh sheep industry. I’ve added a rough figure for beef, but ignored dairy on the grounds that it probably relies considerably on imported concentrates. Then I’ve added in all the cropland productivity. And the result of all that is that in calorific terms, Wales could be 61% self-sufficient. Bearing in mind that it’s probably a considerable underestimate, I think that’s an intriguing figure. You could interpret it as supportive of George’s position, or of Simon Fairlie’s view reported on my relevant blog post that there are too many sheep in Wales. Certainly, if you wanted full self-sufficiency for Wales you’d need to find a bit more cropland and probably practice more mixed ley farming as perhaps used to be the case before Wales turned to a more monocultural ovine export agriculture. But given the much-derided low productivity of upland sheep farming, my feeling is that a focus on upland pastoralism may not be such a bad way to go as a key part of a self-provisioning strategy in a relatively unpopulous and mountainous country.

Postscript

I’m providing some additional figures in response to John Boxall’s comment below:

Population Perm Grass Rough Grass Cropland
Northeast 2,596,441 259,000 107,000 222,369
Northwest 7,055,961 540,000 118,000 250,915
Yorkshire and The Humber 5,288,212 339,000 107,000 645,407
East Midlands 4,537,448 285,000 30,000 866,621
West Midlands 5,608,667 397,000 14,000 542,969
East + Southeast (inc London) 22,719,609 562,820 33,650 1,931,717
Southwest 5,300,831 891,000 62,000 882,012
NORTHERN IRELAND 1,800,000 650,414 166,629 48,204
WALES 3,100,000 1,068,814 437,569 89,006
SCOTLAND 5,300,000 1,127,964 3,533,347 592,698

Left agrarian populism: a programme

I was aiming to take a January break from blogging, but various whisperings (and the odd shout) in my ear prompt me to put this one out into the ether right now. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts. But on the upside you won’t hear from me again for a couple of weeks after this.

What I mostly want to do on this site over the next few months is resume exploring the alternative world of my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s a case for taking a step back, putting that exercise into a wider context, and laying out something of a programme for the year – especially in the light of some comments I’ve recently received. So that’s what I’m going to do here.

The first comment was from Vera, who took exception to the fears I expressed in my review of 2016, A Sheep’s Vigil, that we may be witnessing an emerging fascism. She also questioned my advocacy for agrarian populism:

“maybe he is not really interested in building an agrarian populist movement — maybe, he is only interested in building an agrarian faux-populist progressively-politically-correct movement. In which case I am out. Maybe it’s time he stopped pussyfooting around and made things clear.”

Well, I’m not sure I can clarify everything in a single post, but it seems worth trying to set out as best I can what I understand left agrarian populism to be and why I support it. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if their politics lie wholly elsewhere…

Left Agrarian Populism: So then, three key terms – ‘left’, ‘agrarian’, and ‘populist’. The last is much the trickiest. For many commentators, ‘populism’ refers to little more than the unscrupulousness of those politicians who’ll say whatever they calculate will make them most popular with the electorate. We’ve had way too much of that recently, and frankly ‘populism’ has become such a toxic brand as a result that I’m half inclined to wash my hands of it. The reason I don’t is partly because there are historical and contemporary peasant movements I support which fly under the banner of populism, and partly because there’s an important aspect of populism which differentiates it from most other modern political traditions.

Let me expand that last point through some admittedly gross over-simplifications of three such other traditions. First liberalism, which believes that private markets, if allowed free rein, will deliver optimum benefits to humanity. Second conservatism, which believes in defending the established social order and fostering progress through the cultivation of individual character. Third socialism, which believes in organising human benefit on a collective, egalitarian basis through politically-guided planning. There are elements of all three traditions I’d subscribe to, but I can’t wholly identify with any of them. A feature they share is a rather totalising normative vision of what a society should be like and how individual people ought to fit into it, and a willingness to bend the world hard to fit that vision. Populism, by contrast, doesn’t really have a totalising normative vision in this way. It’s a politics ‘of the people’, and all it expects of people is that they’ll do their people-like things: be born, grow up, secure their livelihood, raise families, live in communities, die. That’s pretty much it. I prefer it to the stronger normativity of the other traditions.

But it only takes a moment to realise that things aren’t so simple when it comes to implementing a populist politics. Who are ‘the people’? They’re any number of individuals and groupings with endlessly jostling identifications, hostilities, aspirations and conflicts. ‘The people’ don’t exist as an undifferentiated mass any more than ‘the community’ does in your town. So you can be pretty sure that when a politician says they’re acting in the interests of ‘the people’, they’re really acting in the interests only of certain people, a group that probably includes themselves (and may well not include the group they claim to be acting for). You can be doubly sure of it if they say they’re acting in the interests of ‘ordinary people’, ‘real people’ or ‘the silent majority’.

I think this problem for populist politics is virtually insurmountable in highly monetised, consumerist societies characterized by wage-labour and riven by class, ethnic and national differences. Political movements do arise in these societies under populist banners which purport to represent the interests of ‘the people’, but to my mind their claims are invariably spurious, papering over class, ethnic or other interests. And that, I think, is pretty much where we’re now at in the UK and the USA, among other places.

An aside on ‘political correctness’, the ‘alt-right’ and class. Let me go with that last sentence for a moment before returning to my populist theme. I’ll recruit for the purpose some help from John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, albeit with some trepidation. Its mishmash of half-truths and flat untruths – in which we learn, for example, that the New Left forgot social class was important until a working-class champion by the name of Donald Trump came along and took up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, and in which Trump’s appointment of Goldman Sachs executives to his administration somehow becomes evidence not of his own hypocrisy but that of his critics – is truly a document for these post-truth times. In environmentalist circles Greer increasingly seems to resemble some weird kind of alter ego to Trump himself – no matter how superficial, ridiculous or outrageous his pronouncements, his fanbase only seems to grow. Still, there are a few nuggets in his piece that make a good foil for my analysis, so I’ll proceed.

Greer correctly notes that Trump garnered a lot of support from working class voters who felt disenfranchised by politics-as-usual. But he then imputes leftist horror at Trump’s election largely to class hatred from the middle classes against those who put him there. Even Greer can see some of the contortions involved in making such a bizarre argument stick. He tries to shore up the edifice, but what he fails to do – and what he’s consistently failed to do throughout his writings on the 2016 election – is to see that a politician who gains class support and a politician who acts in class interest aren’t necessarily the exact same thing.

The missing ingredient in Greer’s recipe is a concept of ideology – the insight that ideas about society are both systematically structured and selective, and that the relationships between things, words and actions are complex. It’s an insight that social scientists and political thinkers have developed in numerous ways in recent times but we now seem to be in danger of forgetting. Greer could certainly have done with remembering it when he wrote this:

“The Alt-Right scene that’s attracted so much belated attention from politicians and pundits over the last year is in large part a straightforward reaction to the identity politics of the left. Without too much inaccuracy, the Alt-Right can be seen as a network of young white men who’ve noticed that every other identity group in the country is being encouraged to band together to further its own interests at their expense, and responded by saying, “Okay, we can play that game too.””

I mention this because it’s relevant to the issue of ‘political correctness’ that Vera identified in my thinking. Although I deplore the censoriously ‘PC’ excesses of essentially insignificant bodies like student unions in their calls to “Check your privilege!” as much as the next man, or perhaps I should say as much as the next gendered subject, I think the concept of political correctness lacks any real political traction. It stems from the kind of right-wing mythology peddled here by Greer, which posits an equivalence between different ‘identity groups’, all supposedly competing on the level playing field of life. One of the few things I have first-hand experience of is what it’s like to be a straight, white, middle-class man – and I’d have to say that, from where I sit, alt-right politics based around that identity indeed looks to me a lot like ‘playing a game’. I’m not sure that’s always so true for people in other situations.

Somebody wrote this to me in relation to the Greer passage I cited above: “Women, Mexicans, Muslims, and LGBT folks such as myself have been working for many years to be treated fairly and respectfully, something that has been lacking in my lifetime.  None of us in these categories wish to treat “young white men” the way we have been treated.” Quite so. In contrast to Greer, I’d submit that the horror many people feel at Trump’s election arises not out of hatred, but out of fear.

There’s often a fine line between explaining a phenomenon and justifying it. To my mind, it’s a line that despite his occasional distantiating turn of phrase Greer has unquestionably now crossed – his political writing has become little more than an apologia for Trump and the alt-right. But that’s by the by. I want to take my discussion back towards agrarian populism via the issue of class with a final quotation from Greer:

“According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution is led by the radicalized intelligentsia, but it gets the muscle it needs to overthrow the capitalist system from the working classes. This is the rock on which wave after wave of Marxist activism has broken and gone streaming back out to sea, because the American working classes are serenely uninterested in taking up the world-historical role that Marxist theory assigns to them.”

There’s certainly some truth in that – and it’s why left populism appeals to me more than Marxism or socialism as such. Note, though, Greer’s slippage from ‘Marxist activism’ as an unqualified and therefore presumably global phenomenon, to its specific grounding in America (actually, the USA). The tendency to see the USA as a synecdoche for the whole world is a mistake often made by US citizens and by the country’s overseas admirers, but I imagine it’s one that will be less commonly made in the future (when the US president says “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” it does, after all, drop a big hint to the remaining 96% of the world’s population about how to order their own priorities). So, wrenching our gaze momentarily from the USA, perhaps we should ask if there are any countries where socialist revolution has been successful, at least in the short term. Well, it turns out that there are. Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba spring to mind – all countries with large peasant populations at the time of their revolutions.

The story of how Marxism co-opted peasant revolutions – populist revolutions – to its own purposes can’t detain us here. But I want to note that, in contrast to the inherently contradictory populisms of contemporary industrial-capitalist countries, populist politics has made some headway in societies where there are a large number of poor farmers and a small, wealthy elite. Here, populists have sometimes succeeded in clawing back some of the surplus produced by the farmers and appropriated by the elite, and more generally in validating the agrarian lifeways of the farmers as something important and worthy of respect. And I further want to note that, in these countries, there’s been a basis for populism in social class.

Back to populism: So I’d argue that populist politics remains relevant in the many parts of the world where peasantries still exist in significant numbers. I think it may also be relevant in ‘post-peasant’ parts of the world such as Britain, where I live, inasmuch as various looming crises in global consumer capitalism may propel us towards more local, land-based and low energy forms of living. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘agrarian’ part of the populism I espouse. A nice thing about it is the promise it holds out that this local, land-based, low-energy style of life can be a rewarding way to live, even if we have no choice about living it, rather than being a disastrous reversal in the progressive unfolding of industrial modernity.

But it can only be rewarding if everybody has a decent chance to live it. The agrarian populism I espouse is therefore a left populism, for two main reasons. First, even assuming a fair initial distribution of land and resources, through bad luck or bad choices some people inevitably end up less well endowed with the capacity to provide for their wellbeing than others. If these differential endowments are inherited down the generations, then the evidence is pretty clear that before long we’re back with a downtrodden mass peasantry and a small, wealthy elite – which is to nobody’s long-term benefit, including the elite. So a redistributive element is necessary that prevents the accumulation and defence of unearned inter-generational advantage – we can argue about the extent and form of the redistribution, but I don’t see good arguments against the fundamental need for it. Presumably that would be something on which for once John Michael Greer and I would agree.

The second reason is that while there’s something to commend the conservative trope of stand-on-your-own-two-feet-and-don’t-expect-the-world-to-owe-you-a-favour, all of us ultimately depend on numerous other people. We’re not the sole authors of our fates, and we all screw up in ways small and sometimes large in the course of our lives. So I favour an approach to others based wherever possible (though it’s not always possible) on empathy and generosity of spirit rather than censoriousness or status competition.

And that in barest outline is how I’d characterise left agrarian populism. There’ve been places in the past where something like it has prospered for a while, and I suspect the same will be true in the future. I think a lot of human suffering could be avoided if it were to be a norm rather than an exception. But I’m not too optimistic. What seems to me more likely as resource crises bite and the global capitalist economy hits the buffers is a slamming of shutters, a beggar-my-neighbour race for resources and an authoritarian policing of the body politic which seeks to root out any dissent from various nationalist senses of manifest destiny (“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” etc.)

An aside on fascism. In view of various comments I’ve received, including Vera’s, I’d like to clarify my use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe my fears about that kind of future. It’s a word that, I acknowledge, comes with a lot of baggage. And history never repeats itself exactly, so there’s always a debate to be had about the relevance of past events to the future. On the other hand, history contains some useful warnings if we care to heed them. In invoking ‘fascism’, I don’t mean it as a generic term of abuse but as a reference to a fairly specific type of politics: the creation of an authoritarian corporate state grounded in an essentially mythical conception of a unified and exclusive ‘people’, in which various independent bodies that can hold the state to account such as parliaments, judiciaries and media are repressed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU, a good deal of the political discourse around Brexit in the UK has been leading in that direction. The lesson I draw from the 1920s and 1930s is that people didn’t take the threat of fascism seriously enough soon enough to prevent the first stirrings of nativism and discrimination – and indeed the kind of alt-right normalisation that Greer is peddling – from later turning into all-out war and genocide. There’s little I can do individually to stop the re-emergence of fascism if that’s the way the world is going, but I can promise to challenge it when I see it.

So when the Daily Mail calls judges ‘enemies of the people’ for deciding that parliament has to debate the Brexit referendum vote (in which, let us remember, 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% voted to remain), the word for it is fascism. But my main point isn’t that we’re currently under the thumb of the fascists – it’s that I can’t really see many plausible future scenarios in which President Trump or Britain’s Brexiteers will be able to deliver what many of their supporters thought they were voting for. And those conditions will be ripe for fascism – though I acknowledge that we may get away with mere xenophobic right-wing authoritarianism. I pray that I won’t ever think the latter is the best outcome I can hope for. So let me be clear – I’m not using the word ‘fascist’ out of contempt for people I simply disagree with. I’m using it out of fear for what the future holds, and out of determination to work for something better.

Left agrarian populism, again: That ‘something better’ is left agrarian populism. But perhaps I’ve caught myself in a contradiction here. I emphasised above the actual rather than the normative basis of populist politics. Given that nothing remotely approximating left agrarian populism currently animates western politics except at its furthest fringes, a programme for realising it involves advocating for it normatively as an ‘ought’, a political ideal around which the world needs remodelling. So in that sense perhaps agrarian populism is no less normative or totalising than, say, liberalism. I can think of various ways to try to get myself off that hook – by arguing, for example, that our modern ideologies of progress have warped our thinking away from the honest actuality of making a living from the land, or by arguing that whether we like it or not the gathering crisis of global consumer capitalism is going to deliver us (if we’re lucky) into a world of local self-reliance, to which an agrarian populist politics is best fitted. There’s some mileage in such arguments, but ultimately they’re a bit lame. So maybe I have to argue that when all is said and done left agrarian populism is just a normative political ideology like any other – one that I happen to think answers the puzzles of contemporary human existence better than others, partly indeed because it doesn’t opine normatively too much on how people ought to live other than by saying, well, they do have to live, they have to do that by farming, and their farming should try to screw other people and the rest of the planet as little as possible.

In that sense perhaps my populism is rather impure, drawing on aspects of liberalism, conservatism and socialism. So maybe Vera is right that the populism I espouse is a ‘faux populism’ – though, if she is, then I’d venture to say that all populisms are ‘faux populisms’, since I don’t think there can be any singular, historically fixed or ideologically neutral conception of ‘the people’, still less ‘the people’s will’. All populisms reference other political ideologies. When I wrote about this previously, Tom Smith questioned the extent to which my position was different from socialism. I think it is different in the way it understands the relationship between peasants or farmers, states and historical change. But maybe not all that different – it is a left populism, after all. Suffice to say that it probably has more common ground with socialism than with forms of right-wing populism that consider the concept of ‘political correctness’ to be useful. But I’d hope that at least it lacks the disdain of Marxists and certain other flavours of socialism for peasants and the petit bourgeoisie. In fact, that’s exactly where I see the best hope for a left agrarian populism – as a class movement. The fact that, as I’ve mentioned, there’s virtually no extant peasant or petty proprietor class in western countries is therefore a bit of an inconvenience for my politics. I do have some cards up my sleeve on that front that I’ll lay out in later posts. Though I confess they don’t make for the greatest of hands.

Whatever anyone might think of the case for a left agrarian populism, it certainly won’t get far if it can’t furnish people with their basic needs. So the aim of the vast number-crunching exercise I’ve been undertaking over the past few months in relation to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex has been to check for myself, if for no one else, whether it can. It often surprises me that such exercises aren’t more commonly undertaken by government agencies with the funding to do them properly and the remit to secure the wellbeing of their populace. On that note, I was struck by the reasons Michael gave in a comment under my last post for why such exercises aren’t more routinely undertaken – “too divisive, nationalistic, fear-mongering”. I was also struck by the following passage in Georges Duby’s classic history of the medieval European economy,

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied. What was expected of manorial production was that it should be equal to foreseeable demand…It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it at such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”1

In that sense my mindset is medieval. The question that interests me is the same one, at whatever scale – can we produce what we need in the next period to see the people through? The modern mindset asks a different question – how can we produce the highest profit from these inputs? In modern society, the bridge between that question and the first one is usually provided, if it’s sought at all, by some kind of ‘implicit virtue’ notion in the tradition belonging to Mandeville’s fable of the bees, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and Milton Friedman’s ‘capitalism and freedom’. What’s becoming increasingly clear – as other thinkers have long been warning – is that there is no invisible hand, or if there is its designs are forever being thwarted by an invisible foot which, just as the hand works yet another miracle, simply can’t help treading in the next bit of shit up the road.

So my programme for the year, aside from a few digressions and diversions, is to go on asking the question – can we produce enough to see the people through? And once I’ve addressed that as best I can I’ll continue by asking how we might organise ourselves socially and politically to help us do so. That’ll take me deep into the history and the politics of agricultural production and agrarian populism, wherein I hope I might be able to find some more productive ways out of the crises facing us than the dispiriting contemporary populisms of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their fellow travellers. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll be travelling in fellowship with me. But if not, I hope you get the politics you want from the other paths you tread – so long as it doesn’t involve selfishly trampling over other people. Ach, me and my danged outmoded liberalism…

Notes

  1. Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth Of The European Economy, Cornell Univ Press, p.92.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…

End of term report

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2014 – the Year of the Family Farm, to which the British government’s considered contribution was abolishing CAP payments for entitlements under 5 hectares (oh well, I can’t say I’ll miss dealing with the Rural Payments Agency too much), and refusing to cap payments over €150,000.

Still, at least it hasn’t been a bad year for literary output from the Small Farm Future publishing empire. We’ve just heard that our CEO Chris Smaje has had his paper on perennial grain breeding accepted for publication in the academic journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, with a reply by the folks from the Land Institute in Kansas, so we’re pretty excited about that. We’ll write something on it in the new year – hopefully another opportunity to chew the fat with Clem about the role of plant breeding. Chris also published an academic paper about agroecology (‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’) in the Journal of Consumer Culture, which apparently is the top rated journal in cultural studies – however they figure that out. Another blog post on that in the offing too. And in 2014 Chris chalked up an article in Dark Mountain, an interview on the Permalogues and – despite a summer break involving building a house and moving into it – no fewer than 31 blog posts in the course of the year. We just hope that in 2015 some of the other staff in the Small Farm Future office will step up to the plate and match this productivity.

Ah yes, blog posts, blog posts. Themes for the year included, at the start, my continuing sceptical but friendly engagement with permaculture – including the minor firestorm caused by my post Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, which got more comments than any of my other posts, ever. And towards the end, an admonishment from my permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield for playing fast and loose with the evidence on polycultures. Well, fast and loose is how we like to play things on the Small Farm Future blog, but of course the whole point is to get useful feedback and so I’ll be writing a post or two early in the new year on the matter of polycultures. In the course of the debate I learned that Patrick is unwell, and I want to send my warmest wishes to him once again – a real titan of agricultural thinking and rural knowledge.

I also continued my much more sceptical and much less friendly engagement with those hair-of-the-dog philosophes in the eco-panglossian camp, with posts on urbanisation, peasantries, GM crops, energy and other such matters dear to the eco-panglossian heart. There are certainly interesting issues wrapped up in all of that which are by no means black and white. But I didn’t get an awful lot back other than the usual insults, mangled economics, skin deep analysis and self-regarding assurances that they’re the ones who really care about the poor. Ah well, I think I’ve looked deeply enough into the eco-panglossian soul now to learn what can be learned from it. I have a few more posts up my sleeve in which I attempt to engage with its distinctive (though strongly normalised) Weltanschauung, and then it’s time to move on.

My main focus next year, both in real life and here in the blogosphere, will be to engage in more practical terms with things that I think can help to make small scale farming productive, fulfilling, sustainable and community-building. And on the intellectual front, over the next year I also want to try to develop in further detail my thinking on some of the economic and political underpinnings necessary to develop a plausible agrarian populism for the future to help realise those practical aims.

Hmmm, next year. Well, next year and the one after it will be necessary for me to make my farm more profitable, not only to feed my hungry children but also to keep the wolves of Mendip District Council from the door, and Spudman’s superhero cloak safely mouldering in the cupboard. So I fear that – with various other little writing projects to reckon with too – my blog posts may become a bit more sporadic. But do please keep reading and commenting. I’m always interested to hear from anyone willing to engage constructively with debating a small farm future – so a festive greeting to everyone I’ve engaged with on this site over the past year. That greeting does not, however, extend to the ever-proliferating number of spammers. You lot can get lost. Yes, you. You know who you are. And no, I don’t want a bloody Louis Vuitton handbag.

On that upbeat note, see you in 2015.

Interruption of service announcement…And, sustainable farming? Problem solved!

Apologies for my sporadic blogging of late. I think I’m going to have to admit defeat and temporarily put Small Farm Future out to grass for a month or two (seldom a bad idea for a sustainable farm…) It seems that my paper on perennial crops may be accepted for publication by an academic journal but only with ‘major revisions’, so your humble blog editor needs to pull his finger out on that score. Meanwhile, Mrs Spudman is going on a jaunt to a family wedding in Ohio, leaving me to look after Spudgirl, the farm and the farmhouse all alone (save for a host of much-appreciated WWOOFers, on which subject my next blog will be winging its way to you, albeit not imminently).

I wouldn’t mind so much if we actually had a farmhouse, but since we’re still working frantically on building the damn thing, I’m feeling a trifle over-committed at the moment. It’s a shame to postpone the blog posts, especially as I had a couple of crackers lining up for you. Still, I want to inform aficionados of my acerbic narratives on all things small and agricultural (and I know you’re out there somewhere, both of you) that good things are in the offing. As well as the perennial paper, I have an essay coming out in October in Dark Mountain 6 which I hope at least begins to do what Brian was asking me to do, namely address the question of sustainable farming futures. And another one in August in Permaculture Activist about the troubled relationship between permaculture and science. And I shall also be writing something about urbanisation for my regular gig on the Statistics Views website, to be published in the autumn. I just don’t know how I find the time to do all this stuff. Well, merciless exploitation of my farm volunteers allied to a complete absence of a social life helps. Though saying that I shall be going to a Martin Simpson gig tonight. On my own.

So apologies once again for the hiatus. I hope the remains of the summer (or winter, for SFF’s avid southern hemisphere following) treat you all well. I aim to be jumping back on the blogwagon in September at the latest.

In the meantime, I have some other important news, brought to my attention courtesy of my brother Richard and his friend Steve: a simple hand tool is now available that can replace all the other machinery on the farm and reduce at a stroke the bloated carbon footprint of us over-dieseled Euro-American farmers. Just watch this promotional video and marvel at how you’ve managed to get by without one so far. The stirring music alone is enough to increase your productivity by a good few bushels per acre, I’d wager. All that’s needed now is for someone to devise the permaculture no-dig version.

So long for now

Chris

Of peasants, pigs, permaculture and Patel…

Christmas is over, I know, but this week Small Farm Future brings you a veritable Santa’s sack-full of snippets from the alternative farming scene.

First up, the latest issue of the brilliant The Land magazine is hot off the press – including an article by one Chris Smaje entitled ‘Peasants, Food Sovereignty and the Landworkers’ Alliance’, which defends contemporary peasant agricultures and the concept of food sovereignty from the derision of Marxists, free marketeers and eco-panglossians. Sounds like my sort of chap. And many of the other articles are almost as good, including a penetrating analysis by Simon Fairlie of the crazy bio-security regimen around pig farming that I mentioned in a previous post, which seems basically intended to squash backyard pig-keeping as a default livestock strategy. I’ll be posting something soon on a new pig project at Vallis Veg.

Second, and sticking with The Land, there are various responses in the current magazine to the criticisms of permaculture made in the preceding issue (No.14) which are relevant to my own little outburst about permaculture in my previous post on this site. They include comments by permaculturists I respect like Deano Martin, Tomas Remiarz and Martin Crawford. Deano makes some nice points about perennial and annual crops which complement my discussion about this with Tom in my previous post. And of course, being Mr Perennial, Martin Crawford weighs in on that issue too. But since this topic is a favourite hobby horse of mine, I’ll come back to it in more detail in a future post.

Tomas says “If the target is poorly thought out, painting-by-numbers permaculture, then I’m all for it”. This is the key issue for me – I don’t have a problem with permaculture itself, so much as the tendency of the PDC process to inculcate various idées fixes in its graduates. To be fair, the result of all forms of education is often a somewhat coarsened parroting amongst its students of whatever its teachers have said which tends to diminish over time as one is enriched by other inputs, so perhaps what’s really important is to subject the claims of permaculture to practical experience (perhaps the problem here being the ‘pyramid selling’ aspect of PDCs alluded to by Tom). In her comment on my previous post, Louise made the nice point that it’s easier to apply given techniques than to go through the full process of observation, feedback and modification. And in The Land another good comment from an organic veg grower called A Grower (what a remarkable coincidence!) described how “being so convinced that it was all the gospel truth, patently obvious failures and untruths, such as the numerous projects claiming to be highly productive that very obviously weren’t, were totally invisible to me through some form of cognitive dissonance”. Which underlines both the importance and the difficulty of that ‘observation, feedback and modification’ stage.

The important thing I think is to be open to critical reflection, which is where the “you’ll obviously never understand permaculture” kind of reaction I got on the Permaculture Research Institute site was so disappointing (research, RESEARCH for crying out loud!) I think the Exit, voice and loyalty framework developed by the American economist Albert Hirschman may be relevant here – when your views come into conflict with the orthodoxy of an institution with which you’re associated you either say ‘bugger this’ and leave, or you decide not to rock the boat and keep schtum for what you perceive to be the greater good, or else you voice your concerns. I guess I’m in the voice camp.

Third thing: and talking of Americans, I’ve been pitching in to more American blogosphere debates on organic farming, this time on Steve Savage’s always informative but usually irritating Applied Mythology site. Steve’s objections to organics seem similar to the ones aired on the Biology Fortified site I mentioned in an earlier post – essentially the somewhat less than purist approach taken by large-scale commercial organics. I can understand conventional farmers bridling at a perceived ‘holier than thou’ mentality among organic farmers which is not necessarily well founded. But it seems to me these anti-organic folks doth protest a bit too much about corner-cutting in one particular section of the crazy corporate world without providing much analysis of how crazy corporateness in general breeds corner-cutting, and without much analysis of the basic agronomic wisdom of much in the organic approach. So I was a bit disappointed that Steve didn’t pick up on this in his reply to me. Ah well, we’ve all got better things to do than hurl our worthless opinions into cyberspace, right?

Fourth thing, and still talking of Americans, I’ve just come across the work of George Lakoff on political metaphors, which I think may hold the key for me in my battles to understand the strange psychopathology of the eco-panglossians. More on that soon.

And finally, tying together such of my themes as The Land, American academics and psychopathology, I bring good news to close in the form of this tweet by Raj Patel, one of my favourite food writers, whose brilliant book Stuffed and Starved is the best single overview I’ve come across of the dysfunctional global food system. Patel has just discovered and endorsed The Land magazine. And given that he’s been identified as the messiah, I reckon that’s bound to help its circulation. Apparently, his family refute the messiah tag and describe him as a very naughty boy. Pah! Pure denialism, as Mark Lynas would say.

 

Composting dilemmas


Maybe it’s time to write something about practical farm issues for a change, and what could be more practical than compost? In principle, compost is one of those ‘what’s not to like’ phenomena. You pile up unwanted organic matter that otherwise requires disposal, mix it with a bit of air and water and, hey presto, you end up with a magical substance that feeds your next crop and builds your soil. Compost is foundational to the organic farming idea of building beneficial biological cycles into farming practice.

But the practicalities of composting raise quite a number of dilemmas. Here are five:

  • on anything much more than a small garden scale, there is a considerable labour or energy cost to moving all that bulky organic matter to and from the compost heap – so much so that, before you know it, the energy advantage over buying in synthetic fertiliser is cancelled out, especially if you start trucking in manure from other people’s holdings
  •  if you don’t build your compost heap expertly – and to do so is a time consuming business – parts of it will go anaerobic and start emitting methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas
  • likewise, if you toss in any old organic matter from the garden and don’t build a professional-grade hot heap your compost will be absolutely full of weed seeds which you will then distribute around your garden
  • unless you build a compost heap resembling Fort Knox, it will be a magnet for rats to build a cosy retreat from which they will sally forth all winter and make a terrible nuisance of themselves
  • if you use animal manure in your heap – particularly imported farmyard manure – the likelihood is that you’re basing your ‘organic’ farming on a synthetics-dependent and unsustainable livestock agriculture. You also risk importing all sorts of nasties into your soil, including various pathogens, antibiotic residues, aminopyralid herbicides that will kill your plants and – in my experience – quite often an assortment of terrible crap like old spark plugs and broken glass.

So, what is to be done? If I were running a small domestic garden, I think these problems would be manageable. And if I were running a large farm I’d use a big tractor and other energy-intensive kit to develop a decent composting system. It probably wouldn’t surmount the energy issue, but then nothing really does on a large farm. On the small farm, however, as with many things you get caught between two stools.

Steve Savage, a persistent critic of organic farming, decries its use of compost for similar reasons to those outlined above and advocates the use of anaerobic digestion instead. Such critics often forget that good old composted farmyard manure is widely used in conventional farming too, though perhaps only in those areas which have thankfully managed to retain a bit of mixed arable and pastoral land use and haven’t yet succumbed completely to the depressing uber-specialisation wrought by big agri where soluble synthetic fertiliser is king. Still, Savage has a point – in an ideal world, a digester is probably the best way to go. But then the argument tends to drift in favour of massive dairy farms or feedlots with ‘efficient’ industrial-scale digester facilities. I don’t know if there are any good energy lifecycle analyses of such facilities, or of large-scale mechanised farming machinery powered by methane, biodiesel or renewable electricity but if anyone could point to me to some, I’d be grateful. My feeling is that the whole-life energy costs, including building these big plants and then trucking the raw materials around, would be pretty high. Likewise with the opportunity cost of a fossil fuel-free industrial-mechanical agriculture would be high. But I’d like to see some good data. As I’ve suggested before, there are many other external costs of large-scale agriculture that suggest to me the wisdom of small-scale farming solutions, but I don’t deny that compost and fertility cycling is a problem for farming of all kinds which isn’t simply banished by scale.

One alternative for the small farm is a small-scale, backyard digester of the sort pioneered in China. My worry there is that if the facility isn’t very well built the chances are it’ll leak methane and lose its advantage, and to build it well may take more time and money than the average small farmer can really afford. But it’s a technology I’d like to keep my eye on. Some people coming from a vegan perspective are excited by such technologies as a means to turn grass into something useful without livestock. Call me old-fashioned, but personally I prefer to see ruminants on grass in mixed farming systems, though again it’s an intriguing idea and it would be worth seeing a good lifecycle energy or emissions analysis.

Anyway, the compromise strategy we’re currently pursuing at Vallis Veg is a much lower tech one. It has the following components:

Sheet compost

  • most of the fertility for the field crops comes from clover-rich leys, supplemented with a bit of manure from the livestock on the holding. The leys are tilled in as part of a tillage-minimising rotation
  • weed-free crop residues are added to the newest ley in the rotation as a kind of sheet mulch, with the aim of it breaking down slowly and aerobically over the 2-3 year life of the ley (see photo)
  • Cordelia uses our volunteers to build beautiful compost heaps which she polices terrifyingly in order to ensure that they’re weed free and nicely aerobic
  • nasty seedy-weedy stuff is either tossed callously into the field margins or put into a modified water butt to produce liquid compost
  •  the only stuff we routinely bring in from offsite is woodchips from local tree surgeons and a little reclaimed (not mined) peat. As I discussed previously the peat is used for our soil block transplants and I think is a tolerable compromise in sustainability, but in the longer term we’d like to minimise its use and make seed compost out of the wood chips, as Tolly does on his amazing site. We also plan to mix the urine from our compost toilets with the woodchips to make some handy, weed-free compost. Our rationale for the woodchip is that the tree surgeons are driving around with it anyway trying to find somewhere to dump it, so they may as well dump it on our site where we can make good use of it. It requires a bit of turning with a front loader or mini digger once in a while, but that doesn’t use too much diesel in my opinion. With its high carbon content it also takes a long time to compost down into something useful, but hey I ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can currently think of. As always, I’d welcome any comments.

Composting dilemmas


Maybe it’s time to write something about practical farm issues for a change, and what could be more practical than compost? In principle, compost is one of those ‘what’s not to like’ phenomena. You pile up unwanted organic matter that otherwise requires disposal, mix it with a bit of air and water and, hey presto, you end up with a magical substance that feeds your next crop and builds your soil. Compost is foundational to the organic farming idea of building beneficial biological cycles into farming practice.

But the practicalities of composting raise quite a number of dilemmas. Here are five:

  • on anything much more than a small garden scale, there is a considerable labour or energy cost to moving all that bulky organic matter to and from the compost heap – so much so that, before you know it, the energy advantage over buying in synthetic fertiliser is cancelled out, especially if you start trucking in manure from other people’s holdings
  •  if you don’t build your compost heap expertly – and to do so is a time consuming business – parts of it will go anaerobic and start emitting methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas
  • likewise, if you toss in any old organic matter from the garden and don’t build a professional-grade hot heap your compost will be absolutely full of weed seeds which you will then distribute around your garden
  • unless you build a compost heap resembling Fort Knox, it will be a magnet for rats to build a cosy retreat from which they will sally forth all winter and make a terrible nuisance of themselves
  • if you use animal manure in your heap – particularly imported farmyard manure – the likelihood is that you’re basing your ‘organic’ farming on a synthetics-dependent and unsustainable livestock agriculture. You also risk importing all sorts of nasties into your soil, including various pathogens, antibiotic residues, aminopyralid herbicides that will kill your plants and – in my experience – quite often an assortment of terrible crap like old spark plugs and broken glass.

So, what is to be done? If I were running a small domestic garden, I think these problems would be manageable. And if I were running a large farm I’d use a big tractor and other energy-intensive kit to develop a decent composting system. It probably wouldn’t surmount the energy issue, but then nothing really does on a large farm. On the small farm, however, as with many things you get caught between two stools.

Steve Savage, a persistent critic of organic farming, decries its use of compost for similar reasons to those outlined above and advocates the use of anaerobic digestion instead. Such critics often forget that good old composted farmyard manure is widely used in conventional farming too, though perhaps only in those areas which have thankfully managed to retain a bit of mixed arable and pastoral land use and haven’t yet succumbed completely to the depressing uber-specialisation wrought by big agri where soluble synthetic fertiliser is king. Still, Savage has a point – in an ideal world, a digester is probably the best way to go. But then the argument tends to drift in favour of massive dairy farms or feedlots with ‘efficient’ industrial-scale digester facilities. I don’t know if there are any good energy lifecycle analyses of such facilities, or of large-scale mechanised farming machinery powered by methane, biodiesel or renewable electricity but if anyone could point to me to some, I’d be grateful. My feeling is that the whole-life energy costs, including building these big plants and then trucking the raw materials around, would be pretty high. Likewise with the opportunity cost of a fossil fuel-free industrial-mechanical agriculture would be high. But I’d like to see some good data. As I’ve suggested before, there are many other external costs of large-scale agriculture that suggest to me the wisdom of small-scale farming solutions, but I don’t deny that compost and fertility cycling is a problem for farming of all kinds which isn’t simply banished by scale.

One alternative for the small farm is a small-scale, backyard digester of the sort pioneered in China. My worry there is that if the facility isn’t very well built the chances are it’ll leak methane and lose its advantage, and to build it well may take more time and money than the average small farmer can really afford. But it’s a technology I’d like to keep my eye on. Some people coming from a vegan perspective are excited by such technologies as a means to turn grass into something useful without livestock. Call me old-fashioned, but personally I prefer to see ruminants on grass in mixed farming systems, though again it’s an intriguing idea and it would be worth seeing a good lifecycle energy or emissions analysis.

Anyway, the compromise strategy we’re currently pursuing at Vallis Veg is a much lower tech one. It has the following components:

Sheet compost

  • most of the fertility for the field crops comes from clover-rich leys, supplemented with a bit of manure from the livestock on the holding. The leys are tilled in as part of a tillage-minimising rotation
  • weed-free crop residues are added to the newest ley in the rotation as a kind of sheet mulch, with the aim of it breaking down slowly and aerobically over the 2-3 year life of the ley (see photo)
  • Cordelia uses our volunteers to build beautiful compost heaps which she polices terrifyingly in order to ensure that they’re weed free and nicely aerobic
  • nasty seedy-weedy stuff is either tossed callously into the field margins or put into a modified water butt to produce liquid compost
  •  the only stuff we routinely bring in from offsite is woodchips from local tree surgeons and a little reclaimed (not mined) peat. As I discussed previously the peat is used for our soil block transplants and I think is a tolerable compromise in sustainability, but in the longer term we’d like to minimise its use and make seed compost out of the wood chips, as Tolly does on his amazing site. We also plan to mix the urine from our compost toilets with the woodchips to make some handy, weed-free compost. Our rationale for the woodchip is that the tree surgeons are driving around with it anyway trying to find somewhere to dump it, so they may as well dump it on our site where we can make good use of it. It requires a bit of turning with a front loader or mini digger once in a while, but that doesn’t use too much diesel in my opinion. With its high carbon content it also takes a long time to compost down into something useful, but hey I ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can currently think of. As always, I’d welcome any comments.

Vegetable Experiment – First Report

I thought I’d post an update on my vegetable growing experiment, if only to prove I do occasionally get out and do some growing rather than just sitting at my computer composing angry screeds about the state of the world.

It’s way too early to present any results from the experiment, which will be some years in the coming if indeed they ever do. But I’m aiming to offer a running commentary as time goes on about how it’s going. I’d welcome any thoughts on what I’m doing, and what I might do better.

So I’ve now pretty much got thirty 10x1m beds in various stages of establishment. Charles Dowding told me that it would be a lot to take on, but having previously being cultivating over an acre I was inclined to disregard him. I must have forgotten the horror of it all, because all of a sudden I fear he was right, and I’m feeling overwhelmed at what I’ve taken on…

Anyway, I chose an area tucked away in an upland corner of my holding for the experiment, reserving the established market garden plots for a time when hopefully they’ll be in full production again. The topsoil is a bit thinner where I’ve established the experimental plots, and the subsoil is chock full of rubbly limestone. Actually, that’s not quite true – there seems to be a band of seriously rubbly subsoil a few metres wide running across one of my two rows of 15 beds, with the rest of the area rather less stony. It’ll be interesting to see if there are any yield or other differences associated with the rubble. Still, at least I’ll be rotating across the plots so it shouldn’t compromise the comparative results too much. It’s probably not the greatest land for growing veg on, and I’m probably not the greatest grower either. At least this way the kind of yield figures I’m likely to get will seem within the reach of ordinary mortals, unlike the terrifying quantities that John Jeavons reports from his Californian veg factory.

The history of this bit of land is that it had been down to long-term permanent pasture until 2010, when I put four pigs on it. The permanent pasture didn’t last long after that! I then tilled it and grew wheat in 2011 (a bit of a disaster – but that’s a story for another day), then tilled it again and sowed a mixed ley of red clover, chicory and cocksfoot in spring 2012, which I meant to grow on for a couple of years but came up with this crazy plan instead.

To establish the beds in this largely preparatory year, I took a no till approach with the Dowding no till beds by simply mulching them with phormisol. I’ll put some compost on in the autumn and start growing something on them next year. The Tolhurst and Jeavons beds I started off by rotavating them. It takes approximately 1 minute to do one pass along a 10m bed with the rotavator, which I’d estimate is at least 100 times faster than hand digging. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, I’m just sayin’. Having first rotavated the Jeavons beds I then initiated a programme of double-digging (by hand, obviously). I’ve only done two beds so far. The first one took me 4 hours to do the 1x10m, the second 2 hours – the difference I think being largely down to variation in the stoniness of the subsoil. Just goes to show how different a couple of bits of land can be even when they’re just a few metres apart.

I’ve left 50cm paths of the untilled ley around the beds, which I guess I’ll have to scythe or strim. The paths are absolutely chocka with docks. Maybe I should have tilled in the whole damn ley, though that would probably only have brought temporary relief. I’m not sure the pigs did me any favours on the dock front, and as an aside I think I’d like to register a slight scepticism about the usefulness of permaculture ‘pig tractors’ (also a topic for another occasion…). Then again, perhaps I should blame my poor weed management rather than my poor pigs. Anyway, I think the docks are going to be a bit of a problem – lots of hard work with a lazy dog? I’ve never really figured out the optimum way of making paths around vegetable beds on largish scales.

I’ve been late getting going with establishing any crops in the beds – let’s just blame it on the cold spring. Still, I never planned to go full tilt in the first year and at least I’ve now got potatoes in one of the double dug Jeavons beds, and in one of the Tolhurst beds. It took me one minute to ridge each bed with – yep, you guessed it – my trusty Honda, and about twenty minutes to plant each one up by hand (22 Sarpo Mira seed potatoes per bed). The potatoes went in nice and deep into the loose soil of the double dug Jeavons bed. It will be interesting to compare yields with the Tolhurst bed.

Having been advised by various folk not to overdo it and mess around with a polyculture bed as originally planned – wise words, I think – the illicit thought occurred to me that I might just grow one of my six rotation crops in the bed originally earmarked for polycultures using conventional methods. It would be my own little contribution to the sustainable intensification debate. Anyway, more on that another time.

Four of my ten Jeavons beds are for carbon-and-calorie/biomass crops. I sowed a mix of four parts wheat (Tybalt – it was all I could get…), one part buckwheat, almost one part lucerne (which turned out not to have any inoculant with it when I opened the package, despite the seed company’s assurances – oh well, I just sowed it anyway), almost one part red clover, a one-tenth part broad beans and a tiny bit of grain amaranth. Seems hard to get grain amaranth in large quantities. Perhaps I’ll rethink that mixture in future years. Anyway, then I raked it, rolled it and put Enviromesh over it to keep the corvids off until it’s germinated. It’s pretty late to be sowing wheat, so I probably won’t get much of a grain crop. I suppose for this year at least the carbon/biomass is more important.

I’ve already made various stupid blunders in establishing the beds, most of them to do with complex technical issues such as my inability to count, tell left from right etc. But I don’t think they’ll compromise the results – the main thing is to make sure that I do the same things year on year across my three different systems, other than the key variables of interest which are basically tillage and fertility. I want to keep inputs as low as feasible, so I’m avoiding irrigation, transplanting etc as much as possible. I’ll see how it goes.

And your reward for reading this far is to see the first official picture of the Vallis Veg Experimental Trial. Don’t it just look lovely? I sent it in to Homes and Gardens Magazine, but I’ve not heard back yet.

For peat’s sake

Last week I sold on a few organically-certified bags of reclaimed peat seed compost that I’d bought from West Riding Organics and received some negative feedback about the use of peat from customers who apparently hadn’t realised that the reclaimed peat I was selling was based on, er, peat. The episode raises some wider issues that are close to the theme of this blog, and has prompted me to think a bit more about them, so I thought I’d give them an airing.

The basic problem is that peat is pretty much the best substrate for seed compost, but you can only get it from the slowly accumulating vegetable detritus of wet moorlands, which are rare and sensitive habitats, and also ones that sequester carbon. So digging it out for gardeners at rates far greater than it’s being deposited isn’t a sustainable practice.

Reclaimed peat is peat that has been eroded out of moorland habitats and washed into lakes and reservoirs, from where the enterprising folks at West Riding Organics filter it out, fiddle about with it a bit and then sell it to the likes of me. The West Riding Organics website states “It must be stressed that this is a result of natural erosion with man playing no part in its formation”, but according to one customer I spoke to views of this kind are ‘weasel words’.

Why? Well, I can’t speak for my customer but one possible problem is that the erosion is only partly ‘natural’, with at least some of it (how much?) resulting from human practices that exacerbate the erosion. Another possible problem is that there’s nowhere near enough natural erosion to satisfy the demand for seedling compost.

Actually, I don’t think the second objection stands up. No, there isn’t enough peat to go around, but if some of it is knocking around on the bottom of a reservoir then there’s a good case for filtering it out and doing something more useful with it. The same argument applies to the recycled chip fat that I use in my van – we can’t fuel the entire global vehicle fleet with chip fat, but that doesn’t mean that a few of us shouldn’t make use of the resource. The first objection is potentially a problem though. On reflection, my view is that it’s still worth making use of the eroded peat – it’s not doing any good where it is, and it can’t be put back. But if it could be shown that the market for reclaimed peat was in some way directly incentivising land management practices that contributed to the erosion of moorland, then I think I’d avoid buying it. I don’t think using reclaimed peat is ethically tainted just because it’s peat, but if its use is directly contributing to moorland erosion then I’d have to accept that it is ethically tainted. And I don’t know whether it is or not – it would be good to find out.

For me, there are three wider issues of interest here encompassing (1) trust (2) farm economics and (3) growing practices. A few brief comments on each in turn.

My customers bought the compost without researching the details because, touchingly, they trusted my ethical integrity as a sustainability-minded grower. I don’t suppose they’ll be making that mistake again, dammit. And I suppose I in turn bought it without researching the details because it’s organically certified, so implicitly I placed my trust in the Soil Association to have researched the details for me. That’s basically what third party ‘ethical’ certification is all about, as when we buy fair trade coffee in the supermarket for a few pence extra and feel like we’re good people. But since my whole ‘small farm future’ schtick is basically about direct relationships of trust between producers and consumers then I’m somewhat hoisted by my own petard on this one. The only thing I’d say in my defence is that I was pretty explicit in my message to customers about the source of the compost, which just goes to show how much people’s trust of individuals can obscure attention to the fine print. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe peat compost will have to go the way of cigarettes, with ‘PEAT COMPOST KILLS WETLANDS AND CAUSES DISEASES OF UNSUSTAINABILITY’ marked in huge letters on the bag. Maybe people will go on buying it anyway, just like cigarettes.

Oh what the hell, I’m going to say two other things in my defence as well, which come under the rubric of the other two wider issues – first farm economics. As a ‘direct producer’ I would love it if I really could produce everything directly. When people visit our holding they often ask, ‘do you save all your own seeds?’ or ‘do you make all your own seed compost?’ In fact, we do try to do a bit of both, but the honest answer is ‘I’d love to but I can’t even earn a living wage spending all my time just growing vegetables’. As I’ve said before on this blog, the economic reality of farming is that fossil energy is cheap and human labour is dear, and this fundamentally distorts the social ecology. Whether it’s possible to farm sustainably at all in the long view of human history is a moot point, but it’s certainly not possible to farm sustainably in contemporary Britain. Which means all of us have to make personal decisions about what we will and won’t do for the sake of our sustainability principles, decisions that are endlessly open to the scrutiny and criticism of others.

And so to the final interesting issue, growing practices. One decision I’ve made is not to import any manures or composts onto my holding…well, er, other than seed compost that is. There are various reasons for that, but the main one is that even supposedly ‘organic’ compost relies directly or indirectly on fossil fuel intensive synthetic nitrogen, and I think we need to experiment with other ways of producing our food. It’s worth bearing in mind that organic growers have to use something like 25 tonnes of soil-building compost per hectare, as compared to something like 250kg of seed compost for the transplants that go into the same area. I think importing the seed compost is a lesser evil. Of course, seed compost doesn’t have to be peat-based, but it pretty much does if you use a soil blocking system for transplants, which I’ve found to be the most effective way of establishing transplants – and effective germination has sustainability implications of its own. Seedling substrates are a big issue for organic growers, because there are very few products available that do a good job without having sustainability implications of one kind or another (coir being the main alternative to peat). If you don’t buy organic it’s pretty likely that there’ll be peat in them thar vegetables, the transplanted ones anyway. What are the solutions? Well, I’m open to suggestions, but everything I can think of involves greater costs, and – if my customer surveys are anything to go by – people think organic veg costs too much already.

Conclusions:

1: I ought to have found out a bit more about the erosion processes associated with reclaimed peat, and whether the market for it incentivises poor land management, rather than relying on the Soil Association to do it for me. I’ll invite West Riding Organics to comment on this.

2: it’s a lot easier to be a sustainable domestic gardener than a sustainable commercial grower, and it probably pays better too

3: but if you really want to be a sustainable gardener don’t import compost of any kind. Period. Or much of anything else for that matter.

I’d be interested in comments on this post, or thoughts on other dilemmas of sustainability facing growers and gardeners.