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.

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.

Vallis Veg Version 2.0: or, the Broccolator Resolves

Those of you who’ve followed this blog will know that Spudman, my crime-busting alter ego, fought a lengthy battle with Mendip District Council to win the right to live on our holding and thereby make it possible to continue with our veg box business Vallis Veg. But Spudman didn’t act alone. Not only did he receive unstinting support from the long-suffering Mrs Spudman, not to mention the Spudkids, but also from a great number of other people in our local community and beyond. This weekend we’re having a little party on the site just to thank some of the local folks who pitched in (dress warm, the house ain’t up yet) – and let me here record my thanks to the many others from near and far who’ve also helped us.

Although we’ve kept on trading through the planning appeal process, the truth is that over the past couple of years Vallis Veg has been a little in the doldrums while the gods at Mendip District Council played knucklebones with our future. But now that it’s been decided in our favour, at least for the next 3 years, the time seems right to launch Vallis Veg Version 2.0.

There will be some differences from a customer perspective between Vallis Veg 1.0 and 2.0 which will be explained on our yet to be revamped website in due course. But more importantly there will be some differences in my mental approach to it, which I shall here outline briefly by way of a kind of manifesto…or perhaps an early and rather public statement of my new year’s resolutions.

Having quit a securely-salaried university job to grow vegetables out of the naively idealistic conviction that the food economy needed reforming from the ground up, I’ve gotta say it’s been a steep learning curve. Would I have made the same choice if I’d known then what I know now…? Well yes but, sheesh, a lot of the time I’ve been way out of my comfort zone in switching from a salaried job to self-employment in a small business, setting up a market garden from scratch with virtually no prior experience, and in a low-paid sector littered with the corpses of market gardens past. I don’t know how good a job I’ve done, but the world has more need for second-rate farmers than for second-rate sociologists and so I’ll resolve to continue doing my best.

Did you see what I just did there? You got my first resolution, right? Resolution 1: I will do my best.

And now here are four more.

Resolution 2: I will embrace my agricultural mind. My background, and perhaps the background of most people in contemporary Britain, is relentlessly contemptuous of farmers and tillers of the earth. A proper job involves a big salary and office-based brainwork. The discomfort, the ‘backbreaking labour’ of agricultural work (note how often you see that phrase accompanying discussions of small-scale farming) must be avoided at all costs. I find it curious that we admire professional seekers after major discomfort (mountaineers, explorers) but generally not professional endurers of minor discomfort like farmers, and curious too how readily we assume that mindbreaking and mostly quite pointless office work (the kind that makes us ill, depressed, fat and eager for physical exercise) is intrinsically superior. But, hey, I’m not pretending that I’ve kicked these middle-class hang-ups – I’m always going to be wrestling with the uncomfortable thought that I ought to be doing something more ennobling than this. Deep down, though, I think there’s nothing more worthwhile, and no more privileged place to be, than producing food out of nature’s guts. On that point, I want to paraphrase a few sentences from Wendell Berry’s beautiful essay on the ‘agricultural mind’:

“The agricultural mind is not at all impressed by the industrial legendary of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned. It is interested – and forever fascinated – by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work: What is the best location for a particular building or fence? What is the best way to plow this field? Should this tree be cut or spared? Questions which cannot be answered in the abstract and which yearn not towards quantity but towards elegance. And though this mind is local, it is not provincial; it is too taken up by its work to feel inferior to any other mind in any other place.1″

So that is my second resolution – to embrace, as best I can, my own agricultural mind.

Resolution 3: I will try to avoid both self-righteousness and self-pity. Having, as I said, given up a well-paid job in order to farm out of idealistic conviction, it’s easy to feel let down by the great big indifferent ‘YEAH, WHATEVER’ that is a common response of people in particular and society in general to my humble second career. And when I’m toiling away at a succession of backbreaking tasks (oops…) on the farm for minimal financial return, it’s also easy to get riled by the incomprehension of others who may be inclined to think it’s their right to enjoy the fruits of the earth without doing any of the pruning and grafting. But as Wes Jackson, another great American agricultural writer, notes “Teachers of sustainable agriculture…may feel inclined towards both self-righteousness (‘We are farming without chemicals’ and ‘We are farming nature’s way’) and self-pity (‘We do all this extra work so that we won’t have to use the chemicals, yet we are not properly compensated for our labour’). Both attitudes will have to be avoided at all costs”2. Right on, and so I resolve to try to avoid them, and instead to channel the energies of potential self-righteousness or self-pity to more positive ends – to good connections with our customers and the wider community, and to political and educative work with organisations like the excellent Land Workers’ Alliance and blogs like the superb Small Farm Future.

Resolution 4: I will avoid arrogant self-regard and self-promotion.

And finally, Resolution 5: I will work hard and have fun. There are some in the alternative farming movement who think that if you design your system well enough, then you can produce a lot without having to work much. I don’t agree with them (but then again, as I mentioned above, I’m only a second-rate farmer…maybe there really is that holy grail out there somewhere of the low input-high output system; not convinced though, I ain’t seen it yet). So in order to provide for the good people of Frome who wish to buy our produce, I resolve to work hard in order to furnish it. But I will not work myself into the ground in order to convince myself or anybody else (like Mendip District Council, for example) that I am a good person and I’m doing the right thing, a mistake that I’m rather prone to make. Therefore, I also resolve to have fun, to spend good time with my friends and family, to enjoy the setting sun, the warm breezes, the buzzards wheeling overhead, the tree-crunching deer, and the miracle of life. Hey, perhaps I’ll even put that sentence into my ‘essential need grounds’ the next time I submit a planning application to Mendip District Council.

As I mentioned in a previous post Spudman has now retired after his exertions fighting the Council, so it is the solemn responsibility of the Broccolator, my new alter ego, to execute the heretofore mentioned resolutions of my new best farming self. Perhaps I’ll ask him to report in a year’s time on how well we’ve both done. In the mean time, please raise a glass to Vallis Veg Version 2.0!

References

1. Berry, W. (2002) ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in Kimbrell, A. (ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader, Washington: Island Press.

2. Jackson, W. (2011) ‘Making sustainable agriculture work’ in Jackson, W. Nature As Measure, Berkeley: Counterpoint.

The bugs and the bees

A brief post this week on the bugs and the bees – well actually, mostly bugs. In fact, not really bugs either, strictly defined. Hell, I’ll just get on with it.

Like most growers, I keep a keen eye out for certain insect pests that tend to plague the crops at predictable times of the year, like flea beetle, carrot fly, aphids and cabbage whites. But I’ve also noticed over the years cycles of various other insects and invertebrates that don’t impinge so directly on the crops.

Early in the spring, the garden beds are rife with small wolf spiders (useful little critters) and the air is filled – briefly – with hawthorn flies (aka Bibio marci, named after St Mark’s day when the adults emerge – apparently they’re potentially useful pollinators).  Later in the summer it’s the turn of the cardinal beetles, Pyrochroa serraticornis – predators of flying insects, so also potentially useful. And pretty little things to boot, as you can see.

In the autumn, the orb web spiders seem to come to the fore – or is it just that their webs are more noticeable in the dewy mornings? Voraciously insectivorous things – how useful!

This autumn I’ve also witnessed huge numbers of crane flies (Tipulidae spp), whose larvae – leatherjackets – eat crop roots, so definitely not useful. And then just recently as the crane flies have dropped off, a plethora of harvestmen – also generally insectivorous, and therefore useful.

Whether these species consider me to be useful in turn is something I have been unable to ascertain, although I suspect that the leatherjackets are keen followers of my horticultural activities.

This year there were far fewer hawthorn flies around than usual, but far more crane flies and harvestmen, which I hadn’t noticed en masse previously. Presumably, most of them only make themselves noticeable to me when they’re putting themselves about in the mating season – that’s certainly the case with the hawthorn flies, but I’m not so sure about the others. Amazing really how little most of us know about the things going on under our noses.

Having observed our Vallis Veg site (albeit not very systematically or actively) over the past ten years, it does seem to me that it’s getting more insect-rich as we’ve diversified it and indeed left quite large parts of it pretty much alone – on a hot summer’s day there’s certainly an audible buzz as you enter the site that you just don’t hear in the surrounding fields of arable and ryegrass. Of course, there are extensive ecological debates about this sort of thing, including the so-called ‘land sparing vs land sharing debate’ which until recently seemed to come down against the view that any kind of farmland was of much ecological use, fuelling the notion that we need intensive industrial arable farming and then as much undisturbed wilderness as possible. Quite why people think that intensive industrial arable ‘spares’ land is beyond me, particularly when about 40% of the calories it produces go for stock feed and biofuels – but it doesn’t stop the New Scientist printing pictures of giant American combine harvesters under headlines stating that this is the greenest way to farm. Anyway, some recent research suggests that agro-ecosystems may not be so ecologically useless after all. The studies referred to tropical agroforestry systems, but I wonder if it may also prove to be true of temperate mixed farming or agroecology. Not really, according to an interesting talk I attended by David Bohan: small islands of biodiversity in a sea of monoculture have no effect (though it may be otherwise if everyone started farming agroecologically).

Ah well, what do I know, I’m just a bloody peasant (…on which topic, more soon). Objections to our recent planning application included the comments that our activities had made the site both unkempt and bad for wildlife. But I kinda like our mix of hedgerows, trees, wild tussocky grass, weeds and the odd kempt bit. And, though I can’t really tell, I think the wildlife does too.

Cordelia’s garden: or is female to male as polyculture is to monoculture?

Throughout most of its existence, I’ve been the main grower for our market garden but this year my wife Cordelia has been in the forefront while I’ve sat at my computer preparing endless submissions for our planning appeal and writing elegant rebuttals to all those other angry men at large in the blogosphere who are too benighted to see the truth of my words.

But now our planning appeal is over I’m getting back into the growing, helping Cordelia to put this year’s season to bed, and planning for next year. All of which has set me to thinking about the different ways we go about things. Here’s a picture of Cordelia’s garden – it looks very different to the serried ranks of my own rigid rotations. For one thing it’s got lots of flowers in it – flowers, I tell you! To be honest flowers have always been a big part of commercial market gardening in the UK, at least until they were outsourced abroad like just about everything else these days. But it would never have occurred to me to grow sunflowers and sell them on our stall alongside our vegetables, as Cordelia’s been doing this year.

For another thing, she’s got all sorts of plants jumbled around the garden, making a fine mess of my rotations – kohlrabi here, radish there, physalis and peas in the polytunnel, mizuna next to the squash, and squash mixed up with the sweetcorn. A right old jungle it is. ‘How am I expected to find the bloody radishes?’, I ask. ‘Well, you could ask me,’ she says, ‘I know where everything is.’ It all gets weeded and picked meticulously, or at least as meticulously as time and labour allows. And she invites people to come for a picnic or lend a hand every Thursday, which people often do.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk about polycultures on my holding, and as I prepared for it I developed a slight panic trying to think of convincing examples. Actually, compared to the average arable farm, the whole place is intrinsically polycultural with its mixture of trees, grass, fruit crops, staple crops, vegetables and livestock. But looking in my vegetable plot, with my rigid rows of cabbages, lettuces, squash and the like, it’s hard for me to escape the sensation that I’m just a downsized monoculturist.

Research in many small-scale agricultural societies suggests that it’s often women who take care of the polyculture in the garden, while the men grow the staple monocrop in the fields. It also suggests that when peasants turn away from self-provisioning towards commercial farming, it can be the female farmers who lose out – relegated from being linchpins of family subsistence to domestic ornaments while the men get to play with their new machinery. And the social polyculture of the community, also typically tended more assiduously by women, often atrophies alongside it. So all of this prompts my question ‘is female to male as polyculture is to monoculture?’ (a subtitle shamelessly stolen from Sherry Ortner’s founding article of feminist anthropology, ‘is female to male as nature is to culture?’)

OK, now for some caveats. Generally, I dislike it when people bandy about over-generalised ‘female’ and ‘male’ principles and then seek to apply them to individual men and women. After all, there are plenty of men who like flower arranging and plenty of combatively aggressive women (Cordelia, for example, albeit only when I accidentally weed out her sweet peas). But even though my social scientific training that tells me these gender identities are mere social constructs (try telling that to a cockerel or a bull) dies hard, I think there may be enough of an overlap between these gendered tendencies and actually gendered men and women to advance my general hypothesis.

Some more caveats. A market garden rotation may look like a bunch of individual monocultures, but it’s also a polyculture in the medium of time. As Ford Denison, author of the excellent Darwinian Agriculture and sometime contributor to this blog has argued, there’s good evidence for the benefits of rotations but less good evidence for the benefits of intercropping. Polycultures typically yield less than their highest yielding component alone, and are not necessarily more resilient than less diverse systems either – examples perhaps of what Denison calls ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. Maybe that’s why there are so few convincingly established agricultural polycultures and so much competing advice in the gardening books. Besides which it’s a right bloody faff managing the complex requirements of more than one in situ crop and fitting them into a sensible rotation, although we’ve found a few things do work quite well such as asparagus/parsley, tomato/basil and various clovers undersown to just about anything we can.

Anyway, despite all that I’m glad that Cordelia’s been investing her female/male/whatever energies into the market garden this year and I’m really looking forward to working with her more closely on it in future years. Like a lot of couples, we’ve had our trials and tribulations over the years figuring out the ways in which we can work together and the ways in which we can’t but, unlike Ford’s plant polycultures, I think the intercrop of the two of us working together on the market garden will be able to create something better than either of us working alone. Maybe the traditional division of labour will assert itself to a degree, with me on my own in the tractor working the field crops, and her in the garden working with our merry band of volunteers. But both of us have a secret affinity for a bit of (judicious) tillage and a few power tools, and a liking for kicking back with our friends on the farm, so I’m optimistic that we’ll figure something out that works.

‘As long as we can have lots of flowers in the market garden again next year,’ says Cordelia.

‘I suppose so, they’re good for beneficial insects anyway,’ I grudgingly reply.

‘Yes, and they look nice too.’

Unpublished and be damned

Well, it’s been a funny week and indeed a funny year for the Small Farm Future publishing empire.

Having scaled back my farming activities this year in order to fight our planning application, I’ve also had more time to do a bit of writing around alternative and small scale farming systems. Encapsulated therein is the main contradiction of my life, which I fear I’ll never resolve: as a grower and small-scale farmer, I love producing useful stuff for people to eat, working outdoors and figuring out as best I can good practical ways of trying to farm – against which all the chatter and opinion in the media frequently seems dispiriting and irrelevant. But as a sometime university academic, or ‘clever interlexyouwell’ as Tom put it in a recent comment, writing and analysing stuff and trying to make the case for better ways of living and better ways of farming out in the wider world also seems worthwhile (particularly on days when I’m digging parsnips out of the snow…)

So, which way to go? On the upside this year, my article about our veg box scheme ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Culture (more on that in another post), and the article I wrote on quinoa that I mentioned in last week’s post has gone viral, or at least gone biodiverse, having been the subject of a blog post by Jeremy Cherfas on the excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

On the downside, I’ve toiled long and hard this year on a journal article about perennial staple crops emerging from an earlier post I wrote on the topic, and I’ve just heard this week that it’s been rejected by a supposedly multi-disciplinary sustainable agriculture journal that I will refrain from naming. Now, I’m not one to whinge (OK, that’s wholly untrue – but the whingeing that you’re about to witness has a higher purpose, so please read on) but for me the experience raises interesting questions about the way forward.

Peer reviewed publication is often held up as a kind of gold standard for credible research and analysis – as per George Monbiot’s endless and quite valid complaints about the way that crappy climate change denying opinions are often equated in the media with proper climatology research. But I think anyone who’s submitted themselves to the curious business of peer-reviewed publication can attest what a capricious process it is. Referees’ reports are often replete with the same kind of personal hobbyhorses, low insults, specialist arrogance and bizarre misunderstandings that you’ll find down the pub or down the blogosphere – and suffer from the same drawbacks of anonymity as the latter.

I wish I could publish some referees’ comments from a selection of my papers to illustrate the point, but unfortunately they seem to be copyrighted for no good reason that I can discern. Suffice to say that the process as I’ve experienced it is a complete lottery – I’ve won a medal (yes, seriously) for one paper I wrote that was a complete load of b______s and yet my undeniably superb analysis of perennial staples is now languishing on the editor’s spike.

Anyway, the point of all this really is just to ask myself where to go from here. Now that I’m no longer an academic, I gain no career advancement or financial advantage from writing papers in academic journals. But I suppose I still implicitly harbour the notion that for all the absurdities of peer review, if I get stuff published in them it gives me some kind of status and self-respect which is unattainable if I just bang out my worthless opinions into the blogosphere like everyone else and their dog…and probably a wider readership too. On the other hand, now that I’ve attained the requisite bureaucratic sanction to start farming again (more on that in another other post) pretty much simultaneously with the journal rejection, perhaps the message from the gods is that I should focus on the practical farming instead of trying to be an intellectual. OK, so here’s my plan. I’ll have one more shot at getting the perennial paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If it fails I shall publish it and be damned on this blog and then turn away forever from academic publishing. Let the blogosphere be my witness – henceforth I shall dedicate myself to practical farming and use this blog as my publishing outlet, where my words of wisdom can jostle for attention with all the YouTube memes, dating websites and Facebook updates in a cold, uncaring world. But if you’d like to comment on any of my posts, so much the better. Please…