Off Grid-ish


Small Farm Future's HQ

Time to bring it all back home today, with a sneaky behind the scenes virtual tour of Small Farm Future’s corporate headquarters.

The picture at left gives an overview of the complex, as seen from the lofty throne of the outdoor compost toilet. Funny that in these days of retro fashion the backyard loo hasn’t made a return to every hipster’s homestead wishlist. Ah well, more evidence that SFF is ahead of the curve.

So let me walk you through the various accoutrements visible on the edifice’s southern wing. At left is the satellite broadband dish through which my jeremiads about the false god of progress are beamed instantaneously around the world – and who would have thought that possible just a few short years ago? Up and right, at the back of the roof are our solar hot water tubes – mighty sentinels surveying the farm from the lordly height of their tin roof. Nothing very lordly about their performance in the darkest depths of December, however, so fortunately we have backup in the form of a wood burning stove with backburner whose chimney outcrops cheekily between the footings of their rivals. The Small Farm Future cabin is moderately well insulated for a prefab that’s only supposed to see us through 3 years of temporary planning permission. It does require a bit of space heating in winter from the wood burner, but surprisingly little. Heating water is another matter, though. Just as well we planted a veritable forest on site ten years ago, which pretty much serves our needs.

Prone on the roof beneath the tubes, you’ll observe twelve PV panels which provide the bulk of our electricity, via our 3kW inverter. 3kW would have been a fine thing indeed in the winter, but now that it’s summer we’re on electrical easy street, despite the odd cloudy day. At far right you’ll see our 1kW wind turbine lurking in camo colours in the lee of the building. Dang thing hardly turns at all where it is, especially now I’ve tied it with baler twine. Getting it generating will be a project for the autumn.

On the facing wall the attentive viewer will notice more solar panels – in this case for the dehumidifier, which blows warm, dry air into the cabin on sunny winter days. Far right is the Vallis Veg propagator, allowing us to flood the global market with an endless stream of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines – but with a night time power drain of 150W through its warming cable, it’s a bit of tease to our electricity supply. Through the window you may even be able to spot the nerve centre of the Small Farm Future publishing empire, the very locus of its awesome creativity, known affectionately by staff as ‘the dining table’. Such wags.

Mercifully out of view around the deck on the left are our 19kg propane cylinders, used for cooking and occasional heating. “The great thing about the propane cylinders” I opined airily to Mrs Spudman one dark December Saturday, “is that, unlike the solar panels, if we run out we can just go and buy some more”. Sure enough, it did run out the very next day. And my desperate search for replenishments among the garages and hardware stores of Somerset proved wholly fruitless. I’d like to say I was sleeping on the sofa that night, but in fact it was Mrs S who was sleeping on the sofa – it was a lot warmer in the living room. I now have several spares.

Regarding water, other than the magnificent plenitude of the Somerset skies, we currently rely on a mains pipe – though I did have to spend a merry week in January in an open canopy mini digger laying the pipe to the house. Now there is household talk of boreholes and reservoirs in the longer term. Another alliance with Mr Yanmar beckons.

Off grid-ish, then, but not off reliance on the wider world. No sir, I’m all too well aware of my position somewhere near the end of Mr Putin’s tailpipe, which is not where anyone really likes to be. Still, let me try to draw some wider conclusions from all of this in keeping with Small Farm Future’s general brief. Perhaps the first one to note is that technological progress such as LED lights and photovoltaics allows us to live a pretty congenial off grid-ish lifestyle which previously could only have been funded by a large diesel generator. But it still requires a certain amount of care from us – doing the laundry only on sunny days, equalising the batteries regularly, rationing hot water and so on. Not massive sacrifices, but things that connect us a bit more to the potentialities of the natural world around us, and also lower our energy use and our carbon footprint a bit.

Now, I’m not one to brag about the size of my carbon footprint. I’ve come to think that human beings seek ever new arenas in which to best their fellows – bigger house, newer car, angrier blog, more LinkedIn connections, lower carbon footprint, whatever. I can’t say I’ve completely succeeded in overcoming the need to play this childish game, but I reckon I do a much better job than most people in not comparing myself with others. So I really don’t want to make a big deal about what I’m doing as some kind of exemplary sustainable lifestyle. Given our particular circumstances this approach made the most sense to us, but it’s probably not a widely replicable model. Nevertheless, what I like about it is the fact that it does impose occasional limits: if the sun ain’t shining, the laundry stays undone, and so on.

There’s a lot of talk about the way that technological developments enable more efficient use of given resources – for example, a 4W LED light can now provide illumination equivalent to about 60W from an old incandescent bulb. But this relative decoupling of resource outputs from resource inputs only really matters if it helps achieve an absolute decoupling – less total resources used. And when you look at global resource use, most notably in relation to fossil fuels, this just isn’t happening. It’s all very well me postponing the laundry until a sunny day – meanwhile, they’re pumping water up a Welsh mountain at dead of night so that everyone can have a cup of tea after watching Coronation Street. Rebound effects abound.

So maybe my point is this: it’s often more efficient to produce a good like electricity, or public water, collectively, but the danger is that it is then undervalued by the public, who demand – from the government, from ‘scientists’, from ‘civilisation’ – that the spigot must be opened ever further. I’d argue that there’s something to be said – no more than that – for more people to have the chance of being responsible for an area of land and figuring out how they’re going to produce food, water, energy and other necessities from it, especially when there’s a carbon price or other long-term environmental cost as well as a fiscal price attached to their decisions. It concentrates the mind.

Wrapped up within that point is a set of issues about public, private and collective control of resources, which I want to address in my next couple of posts on the matter of commoning, past and present. Until then, it’s goodbye from Small Farm Future HQ: don’t forget to turn out the lights.

Grass dilemmas

Today a few musings prompted by a characteristically thoughtful and lyrical post on haymaking by Brian Miller.

As Brian points out, there’s really no comparison between the speed of hand or indeed horse-powered haymaking and what can be achieved even by a small 45hp tractor, let alone by a big one. The way that’s worked out in ‘developed’ country farming on a straightforward cost accounting basis is that fiscal output over fiscal input favours the tractor every time, and it also favours the big tractor over the small one, which is why the agricultural landscape in so many ‘developed’ countries looks like desert(ed) steppe. We tend to slip into talking about this kind of agriculture as being ‘efficient’. It may be so financially, but not necessarily in terms of carbon, energy or social accounting. I’ll be dealing with that issue in more detail in an upcoming post, aka ‘the Vallis Veg grass cutting experiment’.

But what I want to focus on here is some of my dilemmas around the classic agricultural balance between grass and tillage cropping (or ‘horn and corn’ as they used to say in these parts). Granted, nowadays both arable and livestock/grass farmers tend to rely on imported synthetic fertiliser and the grass farmers often plough and sow short-term temporary ryegrass leys, but in a classic mixed agricultural situation with few external inputs you’d go for a mix of permanent pasture, temporary grass and cropland. My 18 acre site was all permanent grass when I started – now it’s about 2 acres of vegetables, 7 acres of woodland/wood pasture and 9 acres of grass.

I’ve only recently established a small flock of sheep on the site, having finally got the green light to live here. I’m still basically just a glorified veg gardener, but I’ve been enjoying having the sheep around. The birth of my first set of lambs this spring was pretty special. God, it’s a lot of work though: and I was even thinking of getting a house cow at one point…

So now, how should I best manage my own little mixed farming experiment? A lot of people (especially if they’re vegan) say that livestock farming is land-inefficient, and we ought to trim it back and focus on direct human plant food. Fair enough, but I’d raise a few queries. First, 2 acres of veg is more than enough to keep me busy, especially on our rather poor, alkali soil where the best parts are already under cultivation. You could argue that we should therefore turn the rest of the land over to other people to do something more productive with it – which to some extent is what we’ve done, but we’ve found those arrangements aren’t 100% straightforward and in any case people aren’t exactly queuing up to become commercial fruit or veg growers. Trying to help out younger people who want to get a start in farming is definitely part of my longer terms plans, however. And so is more thought on private and collective land management – some posts coming up on that soon.

Another issue somewhat elided in the ‘just grow food crops’ argument is how to get enough fertility into your cultivated ground if you’re not importing synthetic fertility from offsite (we can – and I have – argue about how much need there is in the world for synthetic fertiliser. But drowning in an ocean of artificial fertility as we are here in southern Britain, and with significant downstream nitrate and phosphate pollution, personally I can’t see good arguments other than possibly financial ones for a small market garden startup to use synthetic fertiliser as a first resort). You can go the vegan organic route with temporary clover leys like Tolly’s interesting system, but then you’ve got quite a lot of forage that you’re just cutting with a tractor – if you’re not vegan, why not graze it too? The trouble is, I find in practice that a market garden is quite an intensive system: I’ve got raised no dig beds (of which more anon), polytunnels, all sorts of irrigation kit, seedlings etc. so I don’t really want a bunch of woolly grass munchers blundering around amongst it all. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to set things up so that I can graze them out in my field crop rotations (more bloody fencing…) – but it’d have to be limited to a short period in the spring when there are no crops in the ground. I like the Hampshire Downs idea of grazing the sheep out in the wildlands during the day and then bringing them down into the fields at night. But again not easy to make work in practice – and obviously quite a low output system. I suppose there are confinement or cut-and-compost options too, but in practice it seems to me that using ruminants as nutrient vectors for an intensive market garden isn’t an easy stunt to pull off.

Oh well – maybe I should be happy just having them on the grass and keeping the pasture ticking over. That brings a few more dilemmas (life is full of them, no?) At this time of year the grass growth is so rampant that my flock can’t keep up, whereas winter is more problematic. The obvious thing to do is to make hay or silage like Brian, but I’m not sure I can quite justify getting a drum mower, hay bob and baler, all just for my ram and six ewes. And contractors are a pain. Here in warm, moist Somerset the grass grows virtually all year round and the sheep just about got by on it through the winter. I did make a little hay by hand – scythe, rake and wheelbarrow into the shed. But the sheep were none too keen on it, or indeed on the nice green bale I bought at the farm merchants. I noticed that, being unbaled, my own hay had its fair share of mouse droppings in it (despite the fact that the cat seemed to spend most of the winter asleep on top of it), and it didn’t feel so grand feeding it to the sheep. Not sure I’m up for making hay again by hand this summer. I think I like the idea of a foggage system, supplemented with a bit of bought in hay and maybe some concentrate for the pregnant ewes. Perhaps not the best way to get the most out of the grass, but most isn’t always best. I like all the insects, and the voles and raptors we have on site – plus our campers too, our most lucrative form of livestock, in the wild wood pasture.

One final sheep issue. I’m not sure what the balance of shepherding wisdom on this is, but I vaccinated my sheep against pulpy kidney and clostridial diseases under veterinary advice – all but one lamb, which is reserved for a valued customer who is not a fan of vaccination. His view, if I don’t misrepresent it, is that the adjuvants used in vaccines can be quite toxic, that the risk-immunity tradeoff is not good, that overuse of vaccines has similar consequences to overuse of antibiotics, and that the medical and veterinary industries are – how can I put this – fleecing us. I’m possibly with him on the latter point at least – after trawling the web for information on the incidence of said diseases I found very little, except for one piece claiming 50% lamb mortality prior to the advent of vaccines. For me personally, I’m pretty happy to be up with my tetanus jabs, but (especially for the small-scale shepherd) there’s a slightly more brutal cost-benefit calculus involved with the lambs, given that they’re off to the abattoir in just a few months. And so my question: to jab or not to jab?

Meanwhile I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s tirade against intensive meat farming. And his book Feral is in the in-tray: I gather it involves a tirade against extensive meat farming. I guess George just doesn’t like meat. I’m actually a great admirer of his writing, though I do think he tends to blame farmers themselves a little too much for the dysfunctions of the food system. Also in the in-tray is Philip Walling’s Counting Sheep, and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which has become a minor literary sensation. I’m glad that some books about farming are intruding upon the obsessional recent trend for nature writing in Britain, even if I’m troubled that these guys may have stolen my schtick. Maybe once I’ve let George, Philip and James argue it all out I’ll be able to answer some of my dilemmas. But feel free to add your tuppenceworth below.

Vallis Veg Takes The 100 Species Challenge: No Contest!

I have a few posts coming up on annual and perennial plants, or more generally on the relationship between agriculture and plant growth forms. As a preface to this, I thought I might post up a list of plants (and animals) that we’ve deliberately introduced onto our site here at Vallis Veg. I was also prompted to compile the list as a result of a recent discussion with this site’s favourite Ohio-based soya expert on the number of species introduced onto our respective farms.

I don’t want to make any particular points about the list. I think there are about 140 species in it. We’ve probably established a few more that I’ve forgotten about. Not all the animal species are still on site. Some of the perennials we planted unfortunately are no longer with us. Some of the perennials we planted unfortunately are. I don’t grow all of the annuals every year. Some, like buckshorn plantain, I’ll probably never grow again. But overall I think we have in excess of 100 introduced species still onsite this year – not that there’s any particular virtue in that. I’m not an expert on systematics, so maybe some of my ‘species’ designations are suspect. And of course some of the introductions are very minor – just a few individual specimens.But there you have it.

In terms of numbers of species, the balance is roughly 50:50 between perennials and annuals. In terms of biomass, perennials are strongly in the ascendancy, particularly if you add in the ones we haven’t deliberately introduced but are still growing onsite (like the pasture grasses). In terms of our input and our fiscal income the annuals are strongly in the ascendancy…but now I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not expecting anyone actually to read the list (troubling interior voice: Why not? It’s a lot less turgid than your usual prose). But here it is for better or worse as a written record of our plans, mistakes, and biases. My own initial reaction on looking at it was – why so few invertebrates, fungi, and fish? Doubtless there’s a bias there in modern European farming, though on the latter count maybe it’s also because we have no ponds which have the important property of actually retaining water. Another job to add to the list.

Animals

Anas platyrhynchos Duck

Anser anser Goose

Apis mellifera Bee

Bos taurus Cow

Equus ferus Horse

Felis catus Cat

Gallus gallus Chicken

Homo sapiens Human

Ovis aries Sheep

Sus scrofa Pig

 

Perennial Plants

 

Woody perennials

 

Acer campestre Field maple

Alnus viridis Green alder

Alnus incana Grey alder

Alnus cordata Italian alder

Betula pendula Silver birch

Carpinus betulus Hornbeam

Castanea sativa Sweet chestnut

Cephalotaxus Plum yew

Cornus sanguinea Common dogwood

Corylus avellana Hazel

Crataegus mongyna Hawthorn

Elaeagnus x ebbingei

Elaeagnus umbellata Autumn olive

Euonymus europaeus Spindle

Fagus sylvatica Beech

Ficus carica Fig

Fraxinus excelsior Ash

Hippophae rhamnoides Sea buckthorn

Ilex aquifolium Holly

Juglans regia Walnut

Malus sylvestris Crab apple

Malus domestica Apple

Morus nigra Black mulberry

Origanum majoranum Marjoram

Populus deltoides x Populus trichocarpa Hybrid poplar

Populus tremula Aspen

Prunus avium Wild cherry

Prunus domestica Plum

Prunus spinosa Blackthorn

Pyrus communis Pear

Quercus robur Pendunculate oak

Ribes nigrum Blackcurrant

Ribes uva-crispa Gooseberry

Rosa rugosa Ramanas rose

Rosmarinus officinale Rosemary

Rubus idaeobatus Japanese wineberry

Rubus idaeus Raspberry

Salix caprea Goat willow

Salix viminalis Osier willow

Salvia officnalis Sage

Sorbus aria Whitebeam

Sorbus aucuparia Rowan

Sorbus tormiinalis Wild service

Thymus vulgaris Thyme

Tilia cordata Small leaved lime

Ulmus glabra Wych elm

Viburnum opulus Guelder rose

Xanthoceras sorbifolium Yellowhorn

 

Herbaceous perennials

 

Armoracia rusticana Horse radish

Asparagus officinalis Asparagus

Cynara scolymus Globe artichoke

Dactylis glomerta Cocksfoot

Festuca rubra Red fescue

Helianthus tuberosus Jerusalem artichoke

Holcus lanatus Yorkshire fog

Iris pseudacorus Flag iris

Levisticum officinale Lovage

Lolium multiflorum Italian ryegrass

Lolium perenne Perennial ryegrass

Medicago sativa Lucerne

Phleum pratense Timothy

Plantago lanceolata Buckshorn plantain

Rheum x hybridum Rhubarb

Rumex acetosa Sorrel

Symphytum x uplandicum Comfrey

Trifolium pratense Red clover

Trifolium repens White clover

 

 

Annuals & Biennials

 

 Allium cepa Onion

Allium porrum Leek

Allium sativum Garlic

Amaranthus cruentus Amaranth

Anethum graveolens Dill

Apium graveolens Celery/celeriac

Atriplex hortensis Orache

Beta vulgaris Beetroot, chard, fodder beet, leaf beet

Borago officinalis Borage

Brassica carinata Texel greens

Brassica juncea Oriental mustards

Brassica napus Swede/turnip/radish etc

Brassica oleracea Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, calabrese, kale, kohlrabi etc

Brassica rapa Pak choi, Komatsuna, Mizuna, Mibuna etc

Calendula officinalis Pot marigold

Capiscum annuum Pepper

Centaurea cyanus Cornflower

Chichorium endivia Endive

Chichorium intybus Chicory

Cicer arietinum Chickpea

Cucumis sativus Cucumber

Cucurbita pepo Squash/courgette

Daucus carota Carrot

Eruca sativa Rocket

Fagopyrum esculentum Buckwheat

Foeniculum vulgare Fennel

Helianthus annuus Sunflower

Hordeum vulgare Barley

Lactuca sativa Lettuce

Limnanthes douglasii Poached egg plant

Lupinus spp Lupin

Lycopersicon esculentum Tomato

Medicago lupulina Black medick

Montia perfoliata Winter purslane

Myosotis spp Forget-me-not

Ocimum basilicum Basil

Pastinaca sativa Parsnip

Petroselinum crispum Parsley

Phacelia spp Phacelia

Phaseolus vulgaris French bean

Phaseolus coccineus Runner bean

Physalis peruviana Cape gooseberry

Pisum sativum Pea

Raphanus sativus Radish

Salsola spp Salsola

Scorzonera hispanica Scorzonera

Secale cereale Rye

Sinapsis alba Mustard

 

Solanum melongena Aubergine

Solanum tuberosum Potato

Spinacia oleracea Spinach

Tagetes erecta African marigold

Tagetes patula French marigold

Tragopogon porrifolius Salsify

Trifolium incarnatum Crimson clover

Triticum aestivum Wheat

Tropaeolum spp Nasturtium

Valerianella locusta Corn salad

Vicia faba Broad bean

Vicia sativa Vetch

Xanthophthalmum coronarium Shungiku

Zea mays Maize

 

Fungi

 

Lentinula edodes Shiitake

Of consumers and permaculturists: or, win some, lose some

More breaking news in this post from the vortex of literary creativity that is the Small Farm Future office these days. Editor-in-chief Chris Smaje’s article about the Vallis Veg box scheme (yes, I do occasionally actually grow some plants) entitled ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has just been published in the academic journal ‘The Journal of Consumer Culture’. I can make individual copies available to my expectant publics once I’ve worked out how to use my author privileges to breach the publisher’s formidably defended paywall.

I’m sure few would disagree that this major publishing event demands a blog post of its own in order to explain the nature of the article, so I think I will leave that to another time. However, it’s not all been a bed of roses in the Small Farm Future publishing empire this year. Today I also bring you news of an article most cruelly spiked. And in future posts I shall then get on with the business of talking about small-scale farming rather than endlessly attempting to showcase my literary output.

Anyway, earlier in the year I published a blog post Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, which garnered a bit of attention amongst permaculturists. As a result of it, I was asked by Permaculture Activist magazine to write an article about the relationship between permaculture and science. It’s always nice to get a commission even if you’re mega busy on the farm, and even if they’re not paying you for it, so I obliged. The editor told me that the article was great, and even asked me to identify pictures for it and track down the copyrights, which I also did. Then a couple of months later he told me that it turned out they had enough articles for the edition, so they weren’t going to run mine. Now, in my original blog post I professed my enthusiasm for what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful, can-do amateurism’. But in the case of Permaculture Activist I feel the need to omit the adjectives. I’ve spent a good many years bottom-feeding in the lower trophic levels of the writing game, but I’ve never been so badly messed about by an editor before as that. So when it comes to Permaculture Activist magazine, my advice to any aspiring permaculture writer is – avoid!

Oh well. Permaculture Activist’s loss is Small Farm Future’s gain. So I hereby present my article for your consideration. I already posted it on the Permaculture Association’s website, which led to an interesting email discussion with Ford Denison, so I suppose the effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It’s quite long, and I expect few will read it – though the uncharitable thought forms that much the same would have been true had the article appeared in its intended location. Still, any further thoughts welcome below. I’ll also make the article available on this site’s Publications page.

 

Of holism and reductionism

Permaculture & the Science of Hunches

Chris Smaje

 

Permaculture emphasizes holism. It addresses problems through wider relationships and patterns scaled at different system levels, avoiding the reductionism that isolates a problem within a specific sub-system of the wider whole and tries to solve it narrowly at that level only. The science from which it draws most inspiration is ecology, the biological discipline par excellence of relationships, systems, and levels.

Yet what interests me here are some tensions between permaculture as an holistic practice and ecology as a reductionist science. I want to make a reductionist biological critique of some aspects of permaculture’s holism, but also a holistic critique of certain forms of scientific reductionism. The result, I hope, will be some pointers toward improving permaculture’s scientific grounding, without losing the movement’s wider insights. Or to put it another way, sometimes it’s good to be holistic, whereas at other times a bit of reductionism fits the bill, and some subtlety is needed when choosing. My comments below represent my own personal journey in and around the worlds of permaculture and science—apologies in advance for over-generalizations or misrepresentations.

 

A reductionist ecology

 

Biology and ecology confront the incredible world of organisms and their interactions, but there’s no point simply marveling at the complexity of it all—understanding proceeds from reducing it to simpler elements and then building up again. For example, 19th century biologists discovered that soluble nitrogen compounds were critical plant nutrients, and this enabled them to characterize the nitrogen cycle which brings plants, grazing mammals, soil detritivores, and microorganisms into relationship with each other.

A key relationship in the nitrogen cycle is the mutualism between certain bacterial biochemists, who can fix nitrogen into plant-available ammonium, and plants able to take advantage of this skill, such as alders, which are often pioneers in nitrogen-poor soils. It’s tempting to take an holistic perspective and consider such plants to be generous trailblazers for the wider biotic community, which can take up residence only after the generously nutrifying efforts of the pioneering alders. But ecological research suggests instead that the excess nutrient is a function of atmospheric nitrogen’s virtually limitless availability, and the priority of pioneer plants comes mainly from their competitive advantage in establishment and not from their communitarian benevolence (1).

To push this insight to a more general conclusion: biodiversity in the wild usually results from niche occupation by organisms with specialist skills in tapping often recalcitrant resources, whereas human cultivation usually relies on getting high returns from a small number of organisms that respond impressively to high resource availability when humans make conditions favorable for them. This explains why, at least at a given level of the system (a vegetable bed, for example), there is little compelling evidence that polycultures or companion planting are, in general, more productive than monocultures. And it’s why ecologist Ford Denison warns against what he calls “misguided mimicry of nature” in designing agricultural systems (2).

 

From science to scientism

 

The gold standard in science is the controlled experiment. By carefully defining a problem in terms of associations between variables that are then rigorously manipulated, it becomes possible to develop and test causal hypotheses about how the various parts of the universe relate to each other and to the whole.

As a reality check to prevent us from leaping to conclusions on the basis of what we think is probably going on or what we’d like to think is going on, this experimental method in science is pretty much the only game in town. Sure, we can scoff about the reductionism of lab work and how it over-simplifies the complexities of real-world relationships. But nobody ever figured out how to replace biological nitrogen fixation with a synthetic alternative by musing on the irreducible complexity of nature; that trick was figured out in the lab, and then taken into the field. It’s hard to gainsay its technical success. Something like 40% of our food globally now relies on nitrogen fertilizer synthesized industrially using air and fossil fuels.

There’s an obvious catch here, though. The experimental method enables scientists to understand plant nutrition and develop synthetic alternatives, but it doesn’t tell us whether those alternatives ought to be adopted. The widespread use of synthetic fertilizers in agriculture has led to eutrophication in rivers, lakes, and seas and the emission of greenhouse gases, among other problems, which may or may not prove remediable by further technical interventions. The larger point remains: should we adopt synthetic fertilization, or any particular innovation enabled by the scientific method? Science has nothing to say about this.

So when people say that we need a “scientific agriculture” (for which read “large-scale, capital-intensive, labor-light, and biotech-heavy”), or that we must embrace “technological progress,” the concepts of science and technology lose their only true moorings in the experimental method and start to function as ideologies—symbols for the kind of politics, economies, and societies that its proponents favor. In this way, science becomes “scientism”—a political metaphor that has precious little to do with science as a method of enquiry. We might debate, for example, whether vitamin A deficiency in South Asia is best tackled by developing transgenic golden rice or by community agroecology projects, and we might adduce certain kinds of scientific evidence in favor of one view or another. But that pervasive brand of scientism in contemporary culture, which always favors the higher tech solution: golden rice over agroecology, represents ideology rather than science.

Others go further: a long tradition of science criticism questions the distinction I’ve just drawn between ideology and science. In this view, scientific enquiry isn’t some value-neutral enterprise that reveals objective truth, but is a social practice defined by the same ideological blinders that afflict politics and society. The society of scientists is a maelstrom of personalities and power politics no different from any other walk of life, in which some people and some questions get promoted over others for reasons that have nothing to do with truth. Personally, I’m happy to go a fair way along that road with the critics of scientific practice—of the military-industrial complex, the corporate takeover of science, and so on. However, I’d argue that ultimately there is a difference between science and ideology. I don’t think the kind of ecological findings about nitrogen I mentioned earlier can be described as ideological in any useful way, and scientific enquiry is self-correcting in a way that is scarcely true of religion, politics, or ideologies like scientism. In science, ultimately the truth will out, whereas these other modes of thought are almost endlessly capable of legitimating themselves to avoid facing their limitations.

 

Permaculture: from self-legitimation to emergence

 

So much for the critique of science as a self-legitimating political metaphor. The same can be said of permaculture. Many of us in the permaculture movement are attracted politically by the values of a flourishing community, mutual aid, social cooperation, balance, and moderation. I think we’re therefore predisposed to look for these values in the natural world and the wider universe, and to latch on to any supportive evidence that seems to confirm our worldview. I’ve already touched on some ways in which nature doesn’t always play ball with us. I’m not sure it much matters, because we don’t need to model the rules for human interaction after those of the natural world—and in any case, these values have complexities enough in their own terms (anyone who thinks that a commons or a community is a naturally self-organizing entity that maximizes net benefit probably needs to read some more history). But we do need to pay attention to the way the natural world works in our traffic with it as gardeners or farmers because, as with scientific enquiry, we can delude ourselves with wishful thinking about landscape design only for so long.

We can, if we like, describe the relationships between organisms as cooperative in preference to a Darwinian emphasis on competition. But it’s not very illuminating either way to use such singular, determinist labels, and it takes a lot of ideological conjuring to characterize the relationship between, say, lions and zebras as cooperative. Only by appointing ourselves lofty judges of lion and zebra-kind can we afford the luxury of an holistic view that holds the dance of death they enact as the benign unfolding of some larger plan for their self-improvement. If I were an individual zebra, however old or sick, I’d more likely take the reductionist position of not wanting to get eaten.

Nevertheless, the lion-zebra example illustrates the concept of emergent properties, which may help permaculturists escape the dissonance between ecological realities and communitarian ideals. Emergence occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as the form of a future cake cannot be deduced from its specific ingredients. The agronomist Andy McGuire, building on the insights of ecologists like Denison, has argued that there are no emergent properties in ecosystems, and therefore human designers can better nature by improving on the genomes of its constituent organisms and combining them in novel ways (3). At one level, as a gardener and farmer, I can scarcely disagree, because my daily practice involves propagating improved varieties in non-natural combinations to give me products that I would never otherwise obtain.

But at another level, I do disagree because there is emergence in nature. Emergence doesn’t require the presence of some mystical unifying force of the kind that accords alders the role of benevolent trailblazers (there are many enthusiasts in the permaculture movement for such mystical forces—I’m not myself persuaded that this is more than self-legitimating ideology). But lions and zebras, while doing no more than following their individual dramas of predation and survival, help create an emergent ecosystem that cannot be derived analytically from its parts. It’s not a community in any meaningful human sense—it’s not cooperative and it’s not necessarily balanced. More important than any such questionably anthropocentric values is its emergent and conditioning form, which I would characterize in the words of ecologists Philip Grime and Simon Pierce, “within all branches of the tree of life, constraints of habitat interacting with the limited potentiality of the organisms themselves have restricted the outcomes of natural selection to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation, and physiology” (4).

The great inspiration of Denison’s work is his emphasis on the tradeoffs faced by every organism in the context of these limited options that evolution presents, and at a higher emergent level the tradeoffs we also face as human assemblers of agro-ecosystems built around arrays of similarly limited organisms. The essence of a tradeoff is that “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p. 44), and I’d be inclined to turn this point against Denison’s own argument that “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems… is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom.’ ” For while there may be no mystical wisdom of nature, our understanding of tradeoffs suggests that drawing in more external inputs, more good things from somewhere else, usually imposes deficiencies elsewhere in the total system.

Here, permaculture, as an approach in human ecology, can build bridges between the economy of nature and the ecology of humanity. The human doctrine that most strongly motivates the overcoming of local resource constraints is capitalism. Requiring a compound annual growth rate of at least 3% to preserve its impetus, the modus operandi of the capitalist economy is to seek out new global arenas for investing capital and absorbing wage labor, and thus to eliminate any local constraints to its expansion (5). By my calculations, at 3% the global economy will have to grow from its present $85 trillion to $246 trillion by 2050, all else remaining equal. Not all growth necessarily impacts negatively elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine a tripling of the global economy within a generation that won’t draw down natural capital even faster than at present. And, for many of us, it’s hard to see what benefit this relentless growth ultimately brings to the majority of humanity, let alone the rest of the biosphere.

A basic insight of permaculture is that to get out of this impasse, it’s worth exploring some of nature’s lessons on making do with what we’ve got, avoiding waste, avoiding the total system costs imposed by overcoming local constraints, and finding ways to live more convivially within the parameters of our environs rather than feeling the need to define ourselves over and against them. To be fair, Denison himself writes “we may learn much from studying the adaptations of wild plants that evolved under… constraint” (p.106), and the real force of his complaint about the “misguided mimicry of nature” is not that it’s misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly. If the permaculture movement keeps refreshing its engagement with a reductionist ecology, it’ll avoid making a lot of unnecessary mistakes of this sort, which mostly stem from too reductionist an approach to various specific practices that have become permaculture’s sacred cows: perennial cropping, zero tillage, swales, mulching, forest gardens, livestock tractoring, and so on. All of these are appropriate in some situations, but not in others (and, I’d submit, often in fewer situations than permaculture education generally conveys).

When reductionist science hitches itself to an expansionist economic doctrine such as capitalism, it easily fosters troublesome hybrid ideologies like scientism. In contrast, complementing science with an holistic doctrine of sufficiency such as permaculture could help us make better design decisions and ultimately enjoy a productive, convivial social ecology.

I accept that in the long run nature overcomes limits, that it’s not in balance, that whole assemblages of organisms rise and fall. But we need to design for the human short-run, not for nature’s deep time, and if permaculture sometimes errs in its vision of nature as a balanced, functional whole, this is a more appropriate fiction for staving off humanity’s fall than scientism’s fiction of humans overcoming all.

 

The science of incremental hunches

 

At present, the scientific establishment is not even very aware of permaculture. If we want to bring more of the benefits of reductionist science into our present practice, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

And herein lies a problem. The experimental method is tremendously costly in time and money. Even quite simple agronomic trials can involve much skilled labor by many people working with huge sample sizes in order to produce worthwhile data. Although there are welcome signs that various permaculture institutions are becoming more interested in formal research studies, it seems unlikely that the movement as a whole can command the resources to do much scientific research, particularly with the small-scale and highly diverse cropping it tends to practice. On this score, I have to confess a poor record on my own part in seeing through various mini-experiments I’ve initiated on tillage and fertilization, polycultures, and pest-repelling intercrops, which have all fallen by the wayside in the face of my need as a commercial grower to focus on production. I’m hopeful that my current experiments in small-scale wheat growing and extensive pig husbandry will prove longer-lived than some of those previous efforts.

But maybe it’s possible to develop a permacultural science more in keeping with the movement’s amateur, grassroots character. Gardeners and farmers always have hunches about what works in their particular situations. We can go a long way towards being more scientific permaculturists if we subject these hunches to a little gentle testing through observation. This is a cornerstone of both good science and good permaculture, albeit a difficult one to master, as it’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on mentioned above. We can go further still if we keep good notes, ground ourselves in the rudiments of reductionist scientific methodology, and try to keep abreast of ecological thinking, regardless of how well it accords with our fondest notions about how the world should be. In this way, we can develop a skilled and responsive local practice as permaculturists based on a science of incremental hunches which avoids clichéd one-size-fits-all permaculture design, while remaining true to the wider insights in political ecology of the permaculture movement.

I’m neither a great scientific permaculturist nor an expert commercial grower. But my practice over time has inclined toward traditional mixed land uses from my region—clover leys, annual vegetables, orchards, permanent pasture, and wooded pasture—in other words, local sourcing of inputs and dealing with natural constraints by multiplying the cycling of those inputs. We can learn a lot from the reductionist science of contemporary ecology, but there’s much to learn too in the natural wisdom—the “natural science?”—of tried and tested agricultural systems, a fact which ecological research indeed increasingly reveals (6).    ∆

 

Chris Smaje is a market gardener and small-scale farmer based at Vallis Veg in Somerset, England. Hes also worked in academic research, and writes on agricultural and ecological issuesrecent work has appeared in The Land, Red Pepper, Statistics Views, and the Journal of Consumer Culture. Chris blogs at www.smallfarmfuture.org.ukthe present article develops some themes originally presented in a blog post, Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=491.

 

References

1. Begon, M., Townsend, C., Harper, J. Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2006).

2. Denison, F. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2012).

3. McGuire, A. http://csanr.wsu.edu/dont-mimic-nature-improve-it/.

4. Grime, P. and Pierce, S. The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2012).

5. Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Oxford University Press (2010).

6. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. Natures Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty, London: Earthscan (2009).

 

Quotes

 

It’s not misguided to mimic nature, but it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

 

It’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on.

 

 

 

A centenary and two outputs

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s 100th blog post. Coincidentally, it’s also the first one to be sent from my new home on the farm, where I’m now living permanently (or at least until my next reckoning with Mendip District Council), using purely renewable energy from our off grid system. Well, when I say ‘purely renewable’ energy, there is of course the small matter of the satellite that spreads my messages of hope to a hungry world. But as I understand it, it was manoeuvred into position using nothing more than the hot air generated by all the blog sites such as this one that it hosts.

Anyway, what with it being my centenary and all, I hope you’ll allow me to indulge myself with a bit of self-publicity. I’ve had a couple of outputs recently that may be of interest to the small farm future fraternity. The first is an essay entitled ‘Farming past, farming future’ which has just come out in Dark Mountain 6 and is reproduced on this blog here. The essay considers the troubled future of our agrarian civilisation and uses the historical examples of Russian and American populism to articulate the social challenges that must be overcome, and the potential of agrarian populist movements to do so. Dark Mountain is an interesting project which is worth taking a look at, and there’s lots of other essays, stories, poems and artwork in Dark Mountain 6 which are almost as good as mine (sorry, I did say I was going to indulge myself today).

The other output is an interview with my good self conducted here at Vallis Veg by Phil and Lauren, globe-trotting permaculturists and sonic wizards of the web. You can hear my thoughts on vegetables, small scale farming, peasants, progress, the Book of Genesis – and other themes perhaps wearily familiar from this blog – filtered through Phil’s microphone, the evening chirruping of insects and, for my part, three glasses of red wine here. Enjoy!

Seven things WWOOF has taught me about the global economy

It’s been 10 years now since we started hosting farm volunteers at Vallis Veg, mostly through the excellent organisation World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that the WWOOFer, as they are widely known, works a not-quite-full working week in return for board and lodging, with no money changing hands. We’ve had well over a hundred wonderful WWOOFers contribute to our work at Vallis Veg, and regrettably many hundreds more whose overtures I’ve had to turn down. I’ve learned things both general and particular from everybody who’s visited us. Here are seven general lessons about the global economy that I’ve distilled from their visits.

1. English is still a (the?) global language

Many prospective WWOOFers state that improving their English skills is a prime reason for their visit, including people from China and South Korea who might reasonably expect English-speakers to be keen to learn their languages. English still rules, OK? To be honest, I prefer people who actually want to farm. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about language through talking to our international WWOOFers (not quite the same as learning a lot of languages, sadly). And it’s been great for our kids to have people from all over the world passing through our household. Mercifully, honing English and putting in an honest day’s farm toil don’t seem to be mutually exclusive, so I extend a WWOOFerly hand of welcome to English-improvers, so long as you’re able to pass what I call the ‘courgette test’. That is, if I ask you to weed the courgettes you need to have sufficient language skills, gardening skills and/or common sense for me to find the courgettes still intact at the end of the day. If so, you’re in. A final word of advice to French speakers (though as a near monoglot Englishman it ill behoves me to laugh at anyone else’s poor vocabulary): the phrase ‘I am looking forward to your exploitation’ can be interpreted in several ways in English. None of them will be to your advantage.

2. The Spanish economy is in deep trouble

Since the fiscal balloon went up in 2008, the number of Spanish WWOOFers we’ve had has rocketed. And almost invariably intelligent, competent, well-educated and pleasant young people they are too. It’s just that they can’t find any jobs anywhere. What an indictment of the way the global economy works. Yes, market forces will out – but they’re a human artifice, and they exact a human cost.

3. The South Korean economy is in deep trouble

South Korea could hardly be more different, with a steady economic growth rate of around 5% over recent years. Small wonder that Michael Gove, our unlamented former Education Secretary, exhorted us Brits to try to keep up in the global race and match South Korea’s phenomenally successful development path (even though he kept quiet about the importance of the public sector in promoting it). But at what human cost? Those South Korean WWOOFers who are escaped to tell us warn of 18 hour school or work days, suicide nets around high school buildings and a depressing society of regimented automata. After collecting the morning’s eggs, one of them asked us if our hens were all male. Kind of makes you wonder what they’re taught in those 18 hour days.  Another wrote, engagingly ‘I was software engineer at Samsung who worked on best mobile phone in world, but now I leave. The reason? Samsung most workaholic company in world. Now I wish to grow gardens’. Just as compost is the same solution alike for both free-draining or waterlogging soils, so the extremes of the global economy have the same solution. Go WWOOFing, grow gardens.

4. (Western) girls (and boys) just want to have fun…

The phenomenon of the gap year, or the post-university round-the-world-to-find-myself trip, is easy to mock as an indulgence of the over-privileged classes. I say bring it on. Some of our best and most interesting volunteers fall into this category, and I only wish I’d done the same when I was their age instead of falling prey to the got-to-get-my-foot-on-the-ladder-and-make-a-success-of-my life delusion. Maybe I’d have learned to be a better farmer and a better person that way. And anyway, is it so different from other traditions among uncoerced peoples of the world, such as the Native American spirit quest? To the disaffected youth I say give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – you can start by weeding the courgettes…

5. …and then they want to garden

One small, but I hope significant, new category of WWOOFer that I’m beginning to notice is what might be called ‘gap year redux’ – the thirtysomething graduate who’s spent a few years working in some kind of professional career before realising that they have become a mere plaything of an unjust, uncaring and unsustainable global economy that tries to buy them off with trinkets. There are many good places to go with this insight, but one of them is certainly to start reversing the centuries old propaganda that holds farming in general and working the land up close and manually in particular to be somehow an unbecoming and lowly pursuit. It’s not always completely straightforward hosting such folk, because the good habit of intelligent questioning can very easily slip into the bad habit of knowing-better-than-thouness or of latching onto the received wisdom of soi disant experts able to bridge the languages of agriculture and urban professional smart-talk: a problem that I identified in a previous post concerning the permaculture movement. But taking the rough with the smooth, the gap year reduxers give me more hope for the future than just about anything else. OK, so being one of them myself I’m probably biased, but reconstituting practical agriculture as something that smart people actually do rather than just talk about is critical, I think, to a just and sustainable future.

6. Human capital, or capital humans?

The basic WWOOF package of exchanging work for board and lodging with no money changing hands raises many interesting issues – certainly too many for immigration officers to cope with. Their predilection for deporting WWOOFers arriving on visitor visas must be distressing for those involved, but points to an incoherence in the way contemporary global governance distinguishes between the free movement of money and the free movement of people which I suspect cannot endure long-term. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about the unpaid labour that goes into my farm, though I suspect our WWOOFers get a better deal than many a graduate intern now under-labouring  in the belly of the capitalist beast in the hope of a brighter future. I won’t expostulate at length on the question of agriculture and money here, but WWOOF at least begins to show a way in which people can come together, work, laugh, and achieve things together that they couldn’t achieve alone without the morbidly quantifying hand of money values interceding. Move over, Jeremy Bentham – people are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as human capital, only capital humans.

7. A woman’s work is never done

We (by which I mean me, Mrs Spudman and all our marriage guidance counsellors) have gradually worked out a marital division of domestic labour over the years that roughly approximates to half each, though if I’m entirely honest I’d probably have to admit that my share still doesn’t amount to that magical 50% figure of which many women through the ages must have dreamed. Not so, however, for 10 hellish days in August when Mrs Spudman abandoned four children and five WWOOFers to my tender mercies and left me with the whole domestic shebang while she swanned off to a wedding in America. Just couldn’t get that darned Kenny Rogers song out of my head all week. Four hungry children and five hungry WWOOFers imposed demands upon me from which, truth to tell, I still haven’t recovered. And yet it was as nothing compared to the burden that many women bear throughout their lives without thanks or pay and often without complaint. Yep, the global economy would be nothing, nothing at all, without the hidden work of women.

Spudman screws up

Well it’s been a rum old week here at Small Farm Future. First up, as you may have noticed, the blog site went belly up. This was caused by me attempting to sort out a minor problem that I didn’t fully understand very late at night when I wasn’t concentrating properly. Result: minor problem became a major problem, and I had to call in the experts to solve it. Which they did, almost – but not quite. Not quite, because a few of the comments (notably some of Patrick’s, Clem’s and Brian’s) from my last post got etherised. I’ve restored them, but have had to do so in my name rather than theirs (though the relevant name appears at the start of the comment). There’s no false modesty at Small Farm Future, and I’ve got to say that passing off other people’s thoughts as our own is one of our strong points, but I hope that everything appears more or less in order on the last post.

Moral of the story #1: don’t fiddle about with stuff in the blogosphere you don’t fully understand, especially when you’re not paying proper attention to it.

Moral of the story #2: if you do fiddle about with it, make sure you’ve got a backup.

Moral of the story #3: experts are good, but not infallible.

Moral of the story #4: substitute ‘biosphere’ for ‘blogosphere’ in the preceding 3 morals, and note that moral #2 does not apply. Be afraid…and then write a blog post about it in a couple of weeks’ time.

Anyway, I was following the discussion between Clem and Brian about markets and competition under my last post with great interest before I inadvertently axed it, along with the entire site. But rather than comment further on it here, I think I might pick up on some of those themes in my next post.

In other news, clearly I shouldn’t have cast aspersions in my previous post on my lovely (is that OK, Tom?) Ford 3600, which experienced multiple system failure shortly after I uploaded the post. Hopefully fixable, but I’ve had to boldly go into parts of the tractor I’ve never visited before, and my usual solution (a copious squirt of WD40) just isn’t going to cut it against 34 years of rust and grime.

And in yet further news, Spudman went out to buy a brand new secondhand potato planter and gave his hard-earned cash to someone styling himself from ‘a traditional old Devon farming family’ who promptly disappeared with the money. Moral of the story #5: people from ‘traditional old Devon farming families’ are thieving, lying b******s? Or maybe people from non-traditional Somerset farming families are gullible idiots? Or that it’s never OK to generalise? Anyways, Spudman is a week’s worth of veg boxes in arrears and still two furrows short of a planter.

Well, troubles never come singly they say. And frankly my troubles are pretty trivial compared to those faced by many small farmers globally. So I’m glad that I’m heading up to London tomorrow to mark the International Day of Peasant Struggle with a good old fashioned demonstration alongside my mates from the Land Workers’ Alliance.

Hopefully normal service on this blog after Easter.

Spudman backs up: or of household production, tractors and peasants

Maybe time for a quick post from down on the farm, so here’s a picture of part of our new farmhouse being shunted into position.

Well, I know it’s not much of a farmhouse, but I can only refer you to Mendip District Council’s Local Plan, Policy DP13, which insists we have to erect a temporary building with no foundations that must be removable after 3 years. “In this way”, to quote from Mendip’s document, “We will make it as difficult as possible for hippy upstarts with ornery ideas to get their foot in the door of England’s green and pleasant land, thereby saving the timeless and unchanging beauty of the countryside, with its oil seed rape, maize silage and temporary ryegrass leys, for the aesthetic edification of passing motorists and dog walkers, or those rich enough to buy farms whose purchase price far outstrips the value of all the produce that can ever be grown on them ”. OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit…

In any case, what you see before you results from the fact that Mr Mobile Home Relocator pronounced the platform we’d provided for it unfit for purpose, leaving us to move the darned thing the last critical 30ft ourselves after undertaking the necessary remedial work. Trouble is, whereas he had something like a 200 horse 4wd John Deere c/w hydraulic front linkage, our own dear little 50 horse 2wd Ford c/w only marginally hydraulic rear linkage that you see pictured decided it was more interested in aimlessly spinning its wheels on the track than putting in the hard yards to move the home. Fortunately, with your blogmaster Spudman pushing with the Ford, the intrepid Mrs Spudman tugging with the mini digger, and our lovely WWOOFer Teresa standing in between waving her arms about to pass communications between the Spudpersons in an increasingly desperate but I’m pleased to say ultimately successful effort to prevent the onset of major domestic disharmony, we managed to get it into place. All we need now is water, electricity, a few more walls and roofs, a large bookshelf for my collection of rare tomes on global agrarian history and we’re good to go…

Regular readers of this blog will probably think I’m building to some larger point about the present state or future prospects for farming on the basis of this homely tale.

Nope. I just thought you might like to see a picture of my new house.

Oh go on then, you twisted my arm. How about the following?

This website’s predecessor was called ‘Vegboxpeasant’, but I changed it to Small Farm Future on the grounds that (1) At that particular juncture, I was no longer actually selling veg boxes, and (2) I was worried that I couldn’t rightly call myself a ‘peasant’, given the typical definition of peasantries as joint family labour oriented to household production.

Happily, I can report not only that I’m now back in the veg box business, but that – as you can clearly see from the picture – my family’s labour is most definitely oriented to household production at present, in a rather literal sense.

Of course, I accept that as an owner-occupying truck farmer with the princely total of 18 acres at my command, farm labourers clamouring to work on my holding for the price of a meal, and another 500 or so (usually) willing labourers tucked under the bonnet of my trusty-ish Ford, I guess I’m a rather privileged peasant, and would no doubt have been ripe for liquidation as a kulak in Stalin’s Russia. But as Clem Weidenbenner pointed out on this website in a different context a few weeks ago, when it comes to classification there are lumpers and splitters, and I do think there are things to be gained by lumping folks like me in with all the other peasants. Those things, specifically, relate to political solidarity and common experience.

On the political solidarity front, I’m happy to be going up to London on 17 April – the International Day of Peasant’s Struggles – to demonstrate with my friends in the Land Workers’ Alliance outside the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, asking it to pay more heed to small scale farmers here in the UK, and through our connections with our global umbrella organisation Via Campesina with the wider world. This article on the ‘peasant’ concept expands a little on the issue.

On the common experience front, well I don’t doubt there would be many differences between me and a poor peasant farmer picked randomly from a low income country, but I like to think that there would be some commonalities of experience on the basis of our mutual efforts to feed ourselves and other people via the vagaries of food markets. Paul Richards makes the following interesting comment in this regard:

“It is an obvious characteristic of small-scale resource-poor farmers that there is little scope (however orthodox economics might wish otherwise) to insulate the farm from other aspects of existence. This embeddeness is a feature of all people-intensive small-scale farming systems, irrespective of whether output is for market or household subsistence. Members of the farm household in these circumstances judge the success of their on-farm actions by whether they further their social projects more generally”.1

A nice point from a great thinker on small-scale farming, whose Indigenous Agricultural Revolution2 is still just about the best book I’ve read on the subject of peasantries, and how they’re typically misunderstood by the agricultural improvers who wish them into oblivion for their own good, and also often enough by sympathisers who wish to preserve them in aspic as remnants of a more authentic age or elevate their agricultural knowledge to the level of mystical truth.

Anyway, I for one certainly judge the success of my on-farm actions by whether it furthers my social projects more generally (a good thing too, because to be honest at the moment that’s just about the only thing that’s keeping me ticking as I toil away on the house and the land towards rather uncertain goals). For me, this blog has become an important part of attempting to think through what those projects are. So I’ll be returning to more serious matters in my upcoming posts…time permitting. One of which probably ought to involve taking a closer look at the labour that gets done on the holding by volunteers and by machines. But before that, first we need to talk about populism, and then about the balance of nature and the rambunctiousness of gardens.

References

Richards, P. (1993) ‘Cultivation: knowledge or performance’ in Hobart, M. (ed) An Anthropological Critique of Development, London: Routledge,

Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London: Hutchinson.

After Eden

Happy new year of the family farm (…any bets on how many more of them will be gone by year’s end?) Over the next couple of weeks I’ll mostly be sat in the cab of a digger trying to carve a new family farm out of the wilderness here in northeast Somerset – so please excuse any delays in your regular blog service. Anyway, here’s a quick post to chew on.

A few years ago I published a paper called ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture1. The paper engaged with the writings of environmental philosophers Aldo Leopold and the eponymous J. Baird Callicott, and in particular the latter’s superb essay on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden2. The story bears on something that’s become a bit of a theme in my blog posts of late, namely ideologies of ‘historical progress’. I won’t précis my analysis here, but basically I see the Eden story as a brilliant caution against two kinds of romanticism that are all too prevalent in contemporary environmentalism – on the one hand, the notion that we’re on a historical downslope from a perfect past towards a degenerate future, and on the other the notion that we’re on a historical upslope from a backward past to a perfect future. What Genesis offers us instead is the prospect of hard work to earn our daily bread, unavoidable alienation from the rest of creation, and the certainty that we’re going to keep screwing up. And to that, while I’m scarcely religious myself, I can only say ‘amen’.

I’ve received a couple of responses to the paper recently. One was from that duke of dubious dualisms, self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts. When I mentioned my paper and its analysis of these two problematic romanticisms on his blog, Strouts replied, “Bullshit. You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant and happy to spread misinformation to score political points. Green elitists like you really don’t deserve the ‘running start’ civilisation has given you”. Ah well, intellectual nuance isn’t really Graham’s forte. I’ll be coming back to ideologies of historical progress and the charge of green elitism in a further post before laying that topic aside for a while. Suffice to say for now that anyone who writes of their first person gratitude that ‘we’ aren’t still uneducated and unhealthy peasant labourers really shouldn’t be throwing stones from their glasshouse at others’ alleged ‘elitism’.

The second response came in an email from Ray Tincknell, who as I understand it is a professional agricultural scientist – and how refreshing it is to engage with an actual scientist rather than the science wannabes who swell the ranks of the ‘eco-sceptics’. Ray’s comments in fact focus on the agricultural practices we follow at Vallis Veg (explained in more detail on our soon-to-be-updated website), rather than my analysis of Genesis (and, just to clarify, I certainly don’t look to the Bible for practical farming inspiration – who needs God and Moses when there’s Ian Tolhurst and Jenny Hall?

Anyway, here is my summary of Ray’s main comments about our sort of practices:

  • green manure leys are good for sustainable soil and nutrient management but, if generalised, would be ‘extravagant on scarce resources of land’
  • the avoidance of modern chemical pesticides for fear of human or ecosystem health risks, if generalised, would lead to crop losses
  • rejection of GM technology is obstructing the development of crops that could lead to better weed control, disease resistance and drought tolerance
  • rejection of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides leads to more tillage, which has a substantial fossil fuel requirement
  • the above practices raise the costs of production, which makes it difficult for our kind of farming to break out of niche markets

Interesting comments, to which I’d essay the following brief responses:

1. It’s true that without synthetic fertilisers per hectare yields are usually (though not necessarily always) lower. However, I don’t agree that this makes our practices extravagant on scarce land resources. Thinking locally, if we weren’t doing what we’re doing our land would most likely be used for horses, which nobody eats (oh, hang on a moment…) or at best for cattle, and almost certainly not for conventional vegetable production. I’d argue that the most relevant comparator is our land’s likely alternative use, and not its theoretically maximum yield – and on that count, our approach enhances productivity. Generalising that point more globally, I’d argue that many other practices can be criticised for their extravagant use of scarce land before the argument bites on organic farming. These include the inefficient over-production of meat, food waste and biofuels, the global misallocation of synthetic fertilisers (too much on the already nutrient-rich soils of wealthy countries, too little on the poor soils of poor countries) and questionable recreational practices such as horseyculture and barn conversions. As I suggested recently on the Biology Fortified site, per hectare yields are only one among many things that require optimisation in farming. Energy use, carbon emissions, labour inputs and food for humans are others – and if we decided to prioritise some of them, we might find that certain organic methods started to look the opposite of extravagant.

2. My main concern with pesticides is the emergence of pest resistance, though human and ecosystem health are also big issues. It’s not a black and white issue, and of course all methods of pest control encourage pest resistance (something that uncritical proponents of both organic farming and GM technologies too easily seem to forget), but my understanding from the work of agronomists and ecologists who aren’t necessarily organic advocates is that modern chemical pesticides have their limitations (and increasingly so, as agriculture’s economic and biological base narrows), and that basic organic procedures such as polycultures and cultural control need to be in the mix.

3. Personally, I’m no longer necessarily wholly opposed on principle to any kind of GM crop, but I haven’t been convinced by the case for any such crop that’s currently out there. My main concerns with GM (not all of which are specific to GM techniques) are pest/weed resistance, including direct transgene transfer to wild competitors, the elusiveness of tradeoff-free transgenic improvements (as per Ford Denison’s arguments), over-emphasis on crop level rather than farm-level or bioregional solutions, the association with increasing corporate control of the seed industry and its implications for crop diversity, and a failure to learn past sociological lessons of why biotech solutions to social problems don’t usually work. I’ve written about the latter a bit recently in discussion with Ford Denison and also in the context of the nonsense about golden rice put about by the likes of Graham Strouts and Owen Paterson.

4. Yes, the reliance of organic farming on tillage creates a substantial fossil fuel requirement, which is exacerbated by the tendency of organic farming to scale up and try to beat conventional farming at its own game, which it probably never will. Then again, synthetic fertiliser production is also hugely fossil energy intensive. By my reckoning – which admittedly is pretty back of the envelope – my type of small-scale, locally-oriented farming can deliver enough calories and protein to feed the UK population comfortably with a lower energy intensity than conventional farming. I found it quite hard to put together this analysis because DEFRA keep no national statistics on on-farm energy use. I think that tells its own story, but if we want to save energy I suspect that small-scale farming is probably the way to go.

5. Yes, our costs of production are higher. But this isn’t just some inevitable outcome of natural market logic. It reflects a whole series of policy decisions about food, energy, labour, land use and the environment which were not the only possible decisions, nor in my opinion the best ones. I’ll aim to post something more specific about this in the future. Currently what we do at Vallis Veg is indeed very ‘niche’ – in fact, commercial fruit and vegetable production of any kind is very niche, which is a nutritional scandal. But for all sorts of reasons – environmental, nutritional, social, political – I think it would be good if what we did could become less niche. And the only way I can think of helping to make that happen is by doing it. Oh, and by banging on about it on this blog.

Anyway, my thanks to Ray and – in this season of good cheer – maybe even to that snarky and incorrigible old panglossian Mr Strouts for prompting me to think about these things.

 

References

1. Smaje, C. (2008) ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2,2: 183-198.

2. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Genesis and John Muir’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press.

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.