Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.


  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.


  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)


  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.


  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.


  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.


  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.


  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.


  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.


  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.


  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.


  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.


  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.



  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).

A farewell to the year

And so I come to my final blog post of 2016, and what a year it’s been. I’ve been asked by Dark Mountain to write a retrospective of it, which I hope will be up on their website soon. I’ll be offering some thoughts on the larger events of the world in that post, so here I’m mostly just going to offer a few nuggets focused on my specific theme of small-scale farming, and its future.

But first I thought perhaps I should take a leaf out of John Michael Greer’s book and make some predictions for 2017. I got a certain amount of stick on this site earlier in the year for the dim view I took of Donald Trump’s politics, and of Greer’s (deniable) enthusiasm for them. I was told that Trump’s speaking up for the working class, his focus on domestic politics rather than global power politics, and his anti-corporate/neoliberal agenda promised fresh departures. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced now that the president-elect has stuffed his team with Goldman Sachs bankers and assorted billionaires and foreign policy eccentrics, while baiting China and the Arab world.

So my prediction for December 2017: Trump’s presidency will have had a minimal to negative effect on improving the lot of the US working class, a negative effect on international relations and tensions, and a positive effect on the entrenchment of corporate power. Something to reflect on in a year’s time… The history of global power politics suggests that the rise of one power and the slow decline of another, while scarcely going unnoticed, often reaches a flashpoint where the starkness of the reversed fortunes is suddenly revealed, as if unheralded – the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War spring to mind in the case of European history. I predict a future flashpoint in which the supremacy of China over the US is revealed, though probably not in 2017 unless Trump really surpasses himself. I hope he doesn’t – I’d prefer it to happen under a steadier pair of hands in the White House.

Anyway, let’s talk about farming. Back in October I went to the small-scale farming skill share day organised by my Land Workers’ Alliance friend Rebecca Laughton, in association with her interesting research project on the productivity of small farms in the UK. My train was delayed and I turned up late to the event, walking in to the middle of a session on small-scale grain growing just as an audience member asked the session leader what variety of wheat he grew. “Maris Widgeon,” he replied, to audible intakes of breath through the pursed lips of the assembled participants.

I sometimes think that in Britain, more than in most countries of the world, the cause of small-scale farming is, alas, a lost one. So I somehow found it cheering that there are still people around in this country capable of tight-lipped disapproval at the thought of someone growing a variety of wheat that most other people have never heard of.

That event was held at Monkton Wyld, where the inestimable Simon Fairlie and Gill Barron keep a small herd of Jerseys, sell scythes, and run The Land magazine, which celebrated its twentieth issue this year – a small ray of sanity in a crazy world. It was great to have a look around Simon and Gill’s operation, including its traditional small milking yard. As Simon pointed out, there used to be thousands of these around the country. Most are now gone, but as the margins for milk production narrow and the inputs of robotic mega confinement dairies broaden, there are some glimmerings of a return to low input micro-dairying of the kind that Simon and Gill practice. Another reason to be cheerful.

Simon is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance – still probably the best single-volume examination that I’ve read of what a small farm future might entail. And talking of meat, alternative farm guru Joel Salatin has recently been taking on all comers in defending the cause of ‘sustainable meat’ – notably against a New York Times op-ed by James McWilliams called ‘The myth of sustainable meat’, and in a debate here in the UK with, among others, Tara Garnett, head honcho of the Food Climate Research Network.

Salatin makes a lot of good points, and generally gets the better of McWilliams in his response to the NYT article, which recycles the usual weary old shibboleths about the superior ecological credentials of intensive confined meat operations. But on one point I find Salatin evasive. Critiquing McWilliams’ figures for the amount of land needed to finish an animal on grass, Salatin writes that these figures “are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures….Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.” What he doesn’t say is how many acres an animal needs with these exponentially augmenting space-age methods, and how many acres you’d need to produce the same level of nutrition from exponentially-augmenting space-age technology applied to food crops grown directly for human consumption rather than to forage crops. Because the fact is, there’s a cast iron ecological law of trophic levels which shows you can’t produce as much meat from a given area as you can of vegetable matter.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for livestock on the farm, or that there isn’t a case for scaling up ‘sustainable meat’ – issues that Simon Fairlie looks at in some detail in his book, and that I’ve been looking at in my blog cycle on sustainable farming in the UK. But let’s be honest – except in highly marginal environments, you’re never going to produce human food via the intermediary of livestock with the same land-use efficiency as directly edible crops. Tara Garnett is undoubtedly right that levels of US or UK meat consumption aren’t globally sustainable, however the animals are raised. And in any case, ruminants are a sideshow in global meat production – the real issue is pork and chicken, which compete more directly with humans for cropland.

Western levels of meat consumption may not be globally sustainable, but they could still be locally sustainable. I’ve spent a lot of time this year crunching numbers on a projected future ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ here in southwest England where I live, with a view to comparing it to the imperium of London in the southeast. On the grassy expanses of Wessex I’ve found a role for animals in feeding the populace. But I’m not sure those assumptions will play out so well in the case of Londinium, which I’ll be coming to. My aim has also been to discuss the politics and sociology of a shift to contemporary neo-peasant societies in ‘developed’ western countries. I’ve made much less progress on this than I’d hoped to by now, but hey I’ve got a farm to run as well. And there’s always next year – I hope.

On the upside, my neo-peasant exercise seems to have prompted some wider interest. This has been the year when Small Farm Future went…well, not exactly viral, and maybe not even bacterial, but certainly amoebal, with over 1,100 comments on my posts here at Small Farm Future alone in the course of the year. Some of them weren’t even written by me. So thank you very much to everyone who’s commented, and apologies if pressure of time has sometimes meant that I haven’t been able to reply as fully as you might have liked. I’ve learned a lot from the comments I’ve received, and getting feedback is certainly an encouragement to continue blogging.

Indeed, Small Farm Future was even mentioned in dispatches by an academic study called ‘Is there a future for the small family farm?’, funded by the Princes Trust and with a foreword written by lord somebody of somewhere-or-other, so here at SFF we now have true blue aristocratic pedigree. Admittedly, the mention we got was somewhat backhanded:

Others lament the decline of the small farm in a global context. Chris Smaje, who runs a website called Small Farm Future, writes:  

“From the brief high-water mark of pro-peasant populism in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the possibility of founding self-reliant national prosperities upon independent small proprietors has slowly been eroded through land grabs, global trade agreements and agrarian policies favouring capital intensive staple commodity production over local self-provision, regardless of the consequences for small-scale farmers.” (Smaje, 2015) 

The close association between advocacy of small-scale farming and advocacy of radical organic alternatives to conventional agricultural systems (see Smaje, 2014; Tudge, 2007) often serves, in fact, to keep the size issue on the margins of mainstream debate. This is unfortunate in our view as there is real scope for positive interaction between alternative visions for agriculture and the concern at the challenges facing more conventional mainstream family farms.

Ah well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I’m not sure it’s lonely voices in the wilderness like mine that are keeping the issue of farm size to the margins of mainstream debate, and I can’t really see how a serious case for small-scale farming as anything other than a minor complement to high input, specialised, large-scale agriculture can be made in the absence of advocating for radical (if not necessarily organic) alternatives to conventional agricultural systems. The report is certainly interesting in its analysis of the role of small-scale farming within the lifecycle of the mainstream farm economy, and in bringing a little (though only a little) data to bear on this under-examined sector. But ultimately I’d have to say that, no, there isn’t a future for the small family farm in the UK unless somebody shouts out for it politically long and loud. What a lucky break for the world it is that Small Farm Future is here to do some shouting for it…

…but not for a month or so. All this blogging of late has left me behind on my farm chores and other writing tasks. So while some opt for alcohol-free Januaries, I’m going for a blog-free one in order to catch up in some other areas of my life. And so…thanks for reading, all the best for 2017 – and I hope to see you again on the comments page sometime around February. Ciao!

An objector’s guide to the English rural planning system

Long-term readers of this blog will know about my bureaucracy-busting superhero alter ego, Spudman. While I’ve been farming by day and blogging by night, Spudman has for the past four or five years been locked in a fierce battle with the forces of darkness in order to win the right for us to live permanently on our farm. And I’m pleased to announce that he has finally prevailed, thanks in no small part to his long-suffering partner in crime, La Brassicata, and a merry band of local sisters-and-brothers-in-arms who have long given our project their unstinting support. With planning permission for a permanent rural worker’s dwelling hot off the press, we now have the green light to develop the farm long-term with security of tenure. Time, then, for Spudman to hang up his spurs, beat his sword to a ploughshare (or at least a small transplanting tool), and enjoy a quiet retirement.

But it strikes me that there’s quite a lot of ignorance about the English planning system as it applies to small-scale farming. For evidence, I cite the objection letters against our application sent in by a few local residents and, let me whisper it, also the views of one or two within the system who really ought to know better. So as his last contribution to the cause before slipping off into a quiet retirement, I bring you a question-and-answer session with Spudman himself, amounting to nothing less than an objector’s guide to rural planning applications.

  1. Spudman, why do people buy small plots of bare agricultural land and then try to get permission to build houses on them?

Essentially for one of two reasons. The first is that the price of housing in England (including farm housing) is so extravagant that unless you’re independently wealthy, the chances of being able to buy a farm and then service the debt from farming it hover between the remote and the non-existent. Therefore a lot of people who want to farm buy cheaper (but still not cheap) land lacking in any dwelling, and hope that they may be able to build a house on it.

The second reason is that, in view of the extravagant costs of housing and the relative cheapness of agricultural land, it’s tempting for people who have no real interest in farming but who would like a nice, cheap house in the countryside to buy some agricultural land in order to steal a march on the rural property market.

If people of the latter kind had their way, the countryside would soon be full of gimcrack mansions and agricultural land would cost the same as any other development land, making farming impossible. Therefore we have a planning system, which attempts to filter out people of the latter kind from people of the former. This is a good idea, except the filters it uses are so fine that they catch out a lot of people of the former kind too, making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone to establish a new farm business.

  1. How does this planning system ‘filter’ work?

In various ways – for the full local detail where I live, take a look at Development Policy 13 in Mendip District Council’s Local Plan. Essentially, you first have to get permission for a temporary house, which has to be completely removable. You then have just three years in order to move onto your site, establish your (temporary) home, develop your enterprise and convince the planning authority that it all stacks up business-wise. Quite a tall order. But after that you can apply for permission to live permanently on the site.

There are various other criteria that you have to satisfy too. Probably the two most important ones are, first, that your business is in profit for at least one of the three years of your temporary residence, and, second, that there is an agricultural need for you to be on the site. Both of these make sense in theory as a way of filtering out people who don’t really intend to run a business and don’t really need to be on site. But the devil is in the detail: it’s extremely hard to make any small business turn a profit after three years, especially an agricultural business in which the financial returns are invariably small. And it’s also hard for farmers with small-scale, labour-intensive enterprises to convince people in the planning system (who don’t usually know much about this kind of farming) that they really do need to live on their site. Planning officers (and local objectors) often go to town (quite literally) on the idea that small-scale market gardeners don’t need to live on their sites in order to make a reasonable living from growing and selling vegetables. This makes it plain that they’ve never actually tried it.

  1. So what definition of ‘profit’ is used to judge a rural enterprise?

Aha, well that’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe – like how to unify quantum physics with general relativity, and the precise whereabouts of Elvis. But I can tell you that last year Vallis Veg earned a shade under £19,000, that we’ve received permanent planning permission, and that ipso facto our business must be profitable. At one meeting, a local councillor said that our profitability was ‘marginal’. I pointed out that it was only slightly less than the national average farmer’s income (I should have added that it’s also been achieved on a paltry 18 acres, and with no EU farm subsidies, which account for more than half most farm incomes). He conceded that a lot of farmers would be happy to earn what we’d achieved. This is what I mean by the filters being too fine.

Various objectors to our application questioned on the basis of our profits whether our business was ‘serious’, one of them saying “it would be impossible to support a family on these results”. This suggests to me that a lot of folks really have no idea how squeezed farm incomes are. In fact, it suggests to me that they have no idea how squeezed incomes are in general around the world, since by my reckoning our returns exceed average global income on a purchasing power parity basis by about 50%. Which means that there are a hell of a lot of people around the world achieving the ‘impossible’ and supporting their families on much less income than us every day, something that I find worth remembering. Perhaps one or two others might find it worth remembering too.

  1. OK, I get it, I get it. But what’s the best way of me stopping someone from being allowed to build a house on my neighbouring farmland?

Well, first of all maybe you should ask yourself why you want to object. You’re living in the countryside, right? Are you farming it? No? So maybe you’re living in a dwelling that could be occupied by someone who is producing something useful from the surrounding land? And yet you want to stop them? Maybe you should think about that…

  1. Right, thought about it. I still don’t want somebody moving into my backyard and spoiling my quiet enjoyment of the countryside by producing vegetables and nonsense like that. So could you just tell me how to stop them?

OK, well it’s tricky but what I’d suggest is (1) do some research, (2) stick to what affects you, (3) avoid casual insinuation and spurious dirt-digging, and (4) don’t make things up. Otherwise you just sound like a Nimby.

  1. Could you break that down for me a bit?

Certainly. On the research side of things, you might start by finding out what local policies govern the application. If, for example, the Local Plan has a policy relating to “permanent rural worker’s dwellings” and the application is for a “permanent rural worker’s dwelling”, don’t write an objection letter that says “The title of the application is misleading – it says permanent rural worker’s dwelling but the supporting documentation shows that it is for a farm house”. Because, here’s the thing, everybody already knows that it’s for a farmhouse. It’s just that in modern planning-speak the word for ‘farmhouse’ is ‘rural worker’s dwelling’ – kind of the way that in modern school-speak the word for ‘library’ is ‘enrichment centre’. So what I’m saying is, don’t assume that the applicant is trying something sneaky just because they’re using phrases you’ve never heard of. They’ve probably just spent way, way more time than you have reading Mendip District’s Council Local Plan. Take pity on them.

Actually, the issue of our ‘farmhouse’ raises an interesting point that haunts the question of housing in modern Britain. The Local Plan states that the size of the dwelling should be commensurate with the enterprise, which is fair enough – if you run a small market garden, you shouldn’t need a leisure palace. But it’s reasonable, surely, to ask for enough room to house your family and visitors. Not according to certain objectors: “It is quite clear that this request is for a country house to suit the requirements of the applicants rather than a simple rural worker’s dwelling”, wrote one of them. I’m not sure if the adjective ‘simple’ in that sentence is qualifying the noun ‘worker’ or ‘dwelling’, but I think it’s telling either way. Here in outline is the same mentality which prompted the government to impose its notorious bedroom tax on social housing tenants deemed to have more space than they deserved. Another objector commented that our proposed house appeared to be “substantial” and “well designed” and therefore apparently “does not fulfil the function of a basic rural workers dwelling”. If you have the money, of course, there are huge rural properties on the market which you can buy and occupy (or else leave empty) however you damn well please. But heaven forbid that a ‘simple’ farm worker should be allowed a substantial or well-designed house. Might there be a trace of class elitism here, alarmed at the prospect of the hoi polloi getting the houses they want rather than what their betters are prepared to allow them?

Well, I couldn’t possibly say. But I can show you our existing house, much of which will be retained as part of the permanent dwelling. It doesn’t look much like any country house that I’ve ever seen, other than in the rather literal sense that it’s (a) a house (well, sort of), and (b) in the country.


Perhaps I can generalise from these observations into my ‘stick to what affects you’ point. I’d recommend that you think about why you’re actually objecting. Maybe it’s because you share road access with the applicants and would prefer less traffic? Then you can just say so, without taking it upon yourself to go through the whole application with a fine-tooth comb looking for loopholes to try and shoot down the business they’ve been toiling away at for years, just so that you can have a marginally quieter life. Therefore, I’d suggest that you don’t write things like “It is recommended that Mendip District Council pay an unannounced visit to validate the viability of the Vallis Veg enterprise” – partly because they already do that as a matter of course during their evaluation process and it’s their job, not yours, to have opinions about the viability of the business, and partly because it makes you sound like a pompous busybody. Anyway, are you really that interested in the financial details of your neighbour’s business? Or is your interest more like the kind of interest in bat welfare that people objecting to large wind turbines often seem to develop quite late in life, which had hitherto lain entirely dormant?

On the spurious dirt-digging front, you may happen to know something about the applicants’ personal affairs. Maybe they own other property, or have other sources of income, such as this high-earning blog whose ‘Donate’ button is virtually worn out through overuse. Maybe you have extra sources of income too. What actually matters is whether the application meets the relevant criteria in the Local Plan. Nothing else. So don’t go there.

On the making things up front, maybe check what applications have actually been submitted for the site. This will help you avoid imputing phantom planning applications to the applicants that have never actually existed – for example for orchards, woods and market gardens (none of these are planning considerations) or for farm shops. If there’s a campsite on the application site which doesn’t accept caravans, then it’s probably best to avoid claiming that it’s used by caravans, huh? You get my drift…

  1. I do get your drift, but honestly some of these small-scale growers don’t even grow all their own vegetables. Some of it they buy in from other growers.

A point that some of our objectors made much of. And, well, readers of the Small Farm Future blog may crow in delight to discover that in real life the author of the fantasy novel Neo-Peasant Wessex, far from living an entirely self-reliant peasant life on his small farm, actually buys in and sells on produce as part of his evil capitalist business model. But the fact is, the present economics of commercial horticulture dictate that pretty much every box scheme does this. And remember, as per point 2. above, that said author needs to have a viable business in order to keep the farm intact so that he can dabble at being a neo-peasant in his spare time. But you could look at it this way: we buy in produce from other small local businesses and non-profits, the increased volume enables us to employ people to help with packing and increases the overheads we pay to some of the retail outlets we use. So what we’re doing is a net benefit to the wider local economy. A small net benefit, perhaps. Last year we paid out less than £2,000 for part-time help, for example. But again, that’s not bad going for an 18 acre farm just 3 years into full onsite production. We’re paying out more this year. And even small things can matter. “The part-time well paid work they offered me made a massive difference to me personally”, as one of our workers wrote. So before writing lofty dismissals like “Based on these results there is no opportunity to employ anyone from the local community, other than the odd part timer, so there is no benefit there.” I’d recommend finding out if anyone in the local community does actually feel some benefit.

  1. OK, thanks for your advice, Spudman. But, tell me honestly, if I write in to complain, what are my chances of getting the application rejected?

Well, if the application fulfils the criteria in the Local Plan and your only real objection is that you’ll occasionally be held up by a bit of extra traffic, then I’d venture to say that, happily, your chances are remote. Despite the fact that writing in and complaining to the authorities is something of a national pastime in Britain, the planning system doesn’t pay a huge amount of attention to letters of objection (or indeed of support) unless they raise an issue of planning policy that wasn’t already apparent. It’s ironic, really – a lot of people get into small-scale local agriculture because they dislike the money-and-market obsessed dysfunctions of the contemporary food system. But if they manage to establish a small business that stands on its feet – which is by no means easy – then the money-and-market friendly planning system will likely reward them for it in the end. The downside is that if you buy an acre or two of land to provide for your own personal subsistence, or let us say just as a wild example that you buy ten hectares of land to provide for your family’s subsistence and that of four other families who you wish to live with on your site, you haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of getting your project through the planning system. Which is why when I retire from farming and step into a senior governmental role within the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I’m going to have to tear down the entire planning system and build it up again from scratch. How? I’ll tell you another time. For now my take-home message is this: the world is a crowded place, and if we’re going to get through the various looming crises we face, a lot of us – me included, as you can probably tell from this post – are going to have to get a whole lot better at the fine art of living and letting live. A really simple way of starting that process is thinking about whether we really need to object to a neighbour’s planning application, and if so how best to do it graciously…

Notes on a spirit quest

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just stop reading those hillwalking books.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The turning of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slaughterhouse Zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tour around my toilet

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

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

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

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

Digital Camera

Digital Camera

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

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

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

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

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

ct1 small




















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

ct2 small


















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


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

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

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


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

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


  1. For example, Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & the Collapse Porn Addicts. Yes, that book. And also Bruckner, P. (2013) The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse.
  1. Spears, D. (2013) ‘The nutritional value of toilets: How much international variation in child height can sanitation explain?’ https://d3gxp3iknbs7bs.cloudfront.net/attachments/902b86b5-eb72-4f97-9a72-ea4f758be1aa.pdf

So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

I gave two talks recently at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. One concerned peasant agriculture, which I’m planning to come back to on this blog later in the year as part of a series on constructing a neo-peasant agriculture for contemporary times. The other was at a session inaugurating the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, brainchild of science writer and ORFC founder Colin Tudge.

Colin asked me to describe my experiences establishing a small, ecologically-minded farming business, the obstacles we’d faced and how we’d overcome them. I only had a few minutes of the floor, and I didn’t want to present my own fumbling efforts to learn how to farm as any kind of blueprint for others to follow, so I decided to present the talk in the form of thirteen maxims I’d like to have been able to pass on to my younger self at the point I started my switch into the agrarian life. The talk seemed to go reasonably well and so here, by popular demand (or three emails at any rate), I’m reproducing it.

  1. Make sure you live on the land you farm, however you do it, whatever it takes, LIVE ON YOUR LAND!
  1. Run a small, mixed farm – we need maybe 2 million farmers in the UK, equating to an average farm size of 50 acres or less depending on how you crunch the numbers with permanent pasture, so if you think your farm needs to be bigger than that you need to be able to convince someone else why theirs has to be smaller.
  1. Try to insulate yourself as much as possible from depending on open market prices – it’s not easy, but there are various possibilities. Be creative. Start a non-profit social enterprise if you have to, but if you do tread very, very carefully.
  1. Try to sell retail, not wholesale.
  1. Farming is full of get-rich-quick schemers, and people obsessed with a pet approach of one kind or another. Listen to what they have to say with an open but sceptical mind, then discard what’s not useful – which is usually most of it.
  1. Or to put that another way, there’s essentially no such thing as a low input – high output farming system. Modern farming is generally high input – high output. The safe bet is low input – low output.
  1. If you’ve learned farming via a traditional agricultural education, then consider diversifying. If you’ve learned it (as I did) via an alternative agricultural education like the permaculture movement, then consider un-diversifying.
  1. Focus generally on producing basic foodstuffs and ignore the advice to ‘add value’ by getting into processing as a way of making money. ‘Add money’ rather than ‘adding value’, possibly by growing a high-earning cash crop. The best high-earning cash crop is usually people – get them somehow to come to your farm and to pay you for the privilege.
  1. Hold on to your ecological idealism, but don’t kill yourself. Use some diesel. But imagine if diesel wasn’t available or it had a carbon price attached to it of, say, £50/litre – would it be remotely possible to continue farming as you do? If not, rethink.
  1. Be completely honest and open about what you do with your customers, and show them your genuine gratitude for their custom. But don’t toady to them – let them know subtly that it’s producerism and not consumerism that makes the world go around.
  1. Be as open and honest as you absolutely have to be, and no more, with anyone else, especially government bureaucrats.
  1. Don’t worry too much about the howling errors you’ll inevitably make – the only people who’ll really scorn you are people who aren’t actually running a small farm business themselves…
  1. Remember that every farm and every farmer are different, and that you’ll be different too as the years pass. Remember too, as I’ve already said, that farming is full of charlatans offering their unwanted advice. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. Except maybe this – if you start a new small farm enterprise you almost certainly won’t get rich quick, or even get rich slow, but if you’re lucky you may just stay in business and you’ll be doing something more interesting and more worthwhile than many, many other things you could do.