Songs of the uplands

I recently mentioned the strange phenomenon of those political radicals and environmentalists who reserve their keenest barbs for members of their own tribe. Well, in this post I’m going to engage with a radical environmentalist I greatly admire, one who mostly avoids internecine conflict of that sort and keeps his sights appropriately trained on the real enemy. And, yep, you guessed it – I’m going to criticise him.

But not, I hope, in an especially negative way. George Monbiot – for indeed, it is he – has made a strong case against sheep farming in the UK in general, and upland sheep farming in particular, arguing that sheep occupy a large proportion of Britain’s uplands at considerable expense to the public purse in the form of farm subsidies, while providing very little food and creating severe environmental problems – notably in preventing the tree cover that could help both in limiting the water runoff that causes flooding problems in the lowlands and in promoting the re-emergence of indigenous wildlife, two causes for which he’s advocated with commendable passion and acuity.

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I’ve written before on this issue, but I recently exchanged a few comments with George about it on Twitter, which is absolutely the worst place to debate anything1. So here I offer you what I hope reads as a sympathetic critique, or at least a questioning, of his case against upland sheep farming. It’s not that I think he’s necessarily wrong. I think he could well be right, or at least mostly right. I’m pretty sure he’s done more thinking and more research on the issue than I have, and I’m glad he’s raised it and spoken up for rewilding, or ‘wilding’ at any rate – a cause for which I have a lot of sympathy. It’s just that there are various aspects of his case that don’t quite convince me, a few points I think he hasn’t addressed, and a few others where the implications seem to me more complicated than he supposes. My aim isn’t to refute the case against upland pastoralism, but ideally to help make it more refined.

In my review of George’s book How Did We Get Into This Mess I made the point that there’s a tension in it between the perspective of the indigene trying to figure out how to make a living from the land, and that of the rational-bureaucratic planner trying to figure out how to deliver services to the existing population. That wasn’t intended as a criticism – on the contrary, I think it’s a credit to him as a mainstream commentator that he should even be thinking about an indigenous self-provisioning perspective. But it’s that self-provisioning perspective that mostly animates my thinking on upland pastoralism, whereas I think his critique of ‘sheepwrecking’ mostly arises from a rational service-delivery perspective. And therein, I think, lies most of the disagreement. In a crowded modern country, I think it’s impossible not to take a rational service-delivery perspective when it comes to policy prescription. On the other hand, if that perspective consistently crowds out the voice of the denizen, the self-provisioner – as it usually does – then I suspect we’re condemned to endlessly replicate the problems we’re trying to solve. And there you have the generality of it. But let me try to outline some specifics.

1. The Golden Rice corner: George points out that a huge area of Britain, especially upland Britain, is devoted to raising sheep, and yet sheep meat furnishes only a small proportion of our diet. The figure he cites is about a 50% agricultural land take for sheep, which contributes only about 1.2% to our diet. I’m shortly going to question that figure, but I’d accept that the general case he makes is almost unarguable. You can grow way, way more food per acre by tending wheat in the lowlands than by tending sheep in the uplands. But if you push that argument to its logical conclusion, you end up boxing yourself into what I’d call the golden rice corner. Why not restrict ourselves to growing what’s maximally productive of calories per acre (in Britain that would basically be wheat or potatoes) and leave it at that? Why not stop farming the lowlands too and import food from places that can grow it still more efficiently?

OK, so George doesn’t in fact push his argument that far, and I think he’s (partly) right to emphasise how pitifully productive sheep-farming is compared to lowland wheat. What he actually says is  “sheep occupy roughly the same amount of land as is used to grow all the cereals, oilseeds, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and other crops this country produces”, but we need to bear in mind that the country doesn’t produce much of the fruit and vegetables it consumes, and that these are also quite low in calorific value per unit area: almost 80% of Britain’s cropland is devoted to growing just three crops (wheat, barley and oilseed rape), and more than half of that 80% is wheat – so I’d suggest the comparison he’s making is effectively between sheep and wheat. But the bald sheep-wheat comparison doesn’t really help us decide how much land we should ‘spare’ by growing wheat, and how much we should spread out and diversify our cropping in accordance with the land uses most locally appropriate. The high per hectare productivity of cereals partly stems from the fossil-fuel intensive inputs involved in arable farming – and, as George himself has elsewhere argued, perhaps these fuels should really be left in the ground. If we did so, arable yields would decline and we’d need grass-clover leys in the crop rotation – which would best be grazed by ruminants such as, er, sheep. And if you really push back on energy intensity, then human labour input starts to be an issue – at which point the case for pastoralism strengthens. As things stand, Britain could just about feed itself with a purely organic arable agriculture, based on 50% cropland leys – admittedly, here we’d be talking about a lowland ley farming focused mostly on dairy cattle rather than sheep, but my point is that cropland/grassland productivity ratios are something of a moveable feast.

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2. Calories, schmalories: when it comes to the aforementioned pitifulness of sheep productivity identified by George, I do think his choice of data casts sheep in an especially bad light. First, there’s the fossil energy intensity point I just made above. And then there’s the fact that George focuses only on food energy, which is but one of the many things people need from the food they eat. I concede it’s an important one, though there are those who argue that getting it from high productivity staples rich in simple carbohydrates is not nutritionally optimal. In any case, there are things you can get from sheep meat like Vitamin A that you won’t get from wheat or potatoes. That’s not to say that upland sheep farming is necessarily the best way of getting them. Still, the point is that the nutritional benefits of our food aren’t reducible to calorie-by-calorie comparisons (incidentally, the calorific value that George uses for sheep meat is a tad lower than the one I generally use, derived from McCance and Widdowson). If we were seeking national food self-sufficiency in Britain – particularly in energy-constrained scenarios with limited synthetic fertiliser – then getting enough dietary fat becomes quite an issue (unless we grew a lot of organic oilseed rape, which we probably shouldn’t). And then the case for sheep would start looking better.

Another issue with George’s calorific measure is that he looks at how many calories people actually consume (including in food imports) to show what a small proportion is furnished by sheep. That figure turns out at about 3,500 calories per person per day – about 1,000 calories more than nutritionists recommend. We know that obesity is a major contemporary issue, so I’d suggest a more apposite denominator might be how much we ought to be consuming.

There’s also the issue of mutton and offal – I’m not sure how much of this potential yield from British grass finds its way onto our plates. I suspect not much – and consumer taste is not the fault of the grazier. Having proudly produced my own home-made haggis for the first time recently from the offal of my slaughter lambs, I’d like to raise the question of what George’s analysis would look like if his sheep production figures were fully haggisified.

Maybe these various data corrections I’m suggesting wouldn’t change the land use/productivity ratio enough to convince George and his supporters to moderate their views – in which case, fine. But I think they should be in there.

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3. Only disconnect: as every statistician knows, the more you aggregate data, the more you conceal underlying variability. Let me go with my haggis example and – notorious socialist that I am – renationalise the data by allocating out the sheep meat between the populations of Scotland and England in accordance with the quantities of sheep grazing in the two countries. Doing that, we find that in Scotland sheep meat produces 14% of the population’s calorific requirements from 49% of its agricultural land (mostly of the poorer quality), and English sheep meat produces 0.1% of its population’s calorific requirements from 6% of its agricultural land (ditto). I’m not saying that this necessarily negates George’s overall argument, but it does improve the look of the figures a bit.

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4. The sheep pyramid: although it’s true that upland sheep aren’t very productive of meat, that’s not really their main purpose. Their main purpose is to provide breeding stock with the good characteristics of upland breeds (hardiness, milkiness, easy-lambing, good mothering etc.) which, when combined with meaty lowland breeds, optimises productivity – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’. In that sense, there’s a need to see upland sheep farming more holistically in symbiosis with lowland grass as an important part of an optimised system of national flock management. True, you could probably lose a lot of upland acres without affecting total productivity or flock characteristics a great deal, but you would lose something, and it would be a good idea to figure this somehow into the considerations.

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5. Defending the commons: read virtually any environmentalist treatise these days and odds are that’ll it wax lyrical about the commons as a vital way of managing society’s resources effectively (perhaps a little too lyrical, as I’ve argued here), and it’ll probably bemoan the way that modern industrial society rode roughshod over the commons of the past. Well, about a quarter of Britain’s (upland) rough grazing is managed as commons – pretty much the only functioning agricultural commons we still have, and with a finely-graded agricultural way of life attached to it. I’m not saying that it should be preserved in aspic just for that reason if other imperatives present themselves. But I am saying that people ought to think carefully before consigning it to oblivion out of some perceived greater contemporary need. It would be very easy to venerate commoners of the past whose voices are lost to us and bewail the forces that overwhelmed them due to their putative inefficiency…and then to visit the same fate on contemporary people for the exact same reason. And these would be real, complex, ornery, flesh-and-blood people, who don’t necessarily sing to the same tune as us. That’s long been the fate of many a peasant farming community, and it surely delivers a historical lesson worth pondering. It’s true that there may be more and better jobs available for upland residents in tourism than in sheep-farming in a post-pastoral, rewilded future. I’m just not sure that in the long run an economy based around a pastoral heritage is better than one based on actual pastoralism.

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6. The destruction of the kingdom: …and talking of pastoral heritage, I do feel the need to take issue somewhat with George’s historical take on pastoralism, in which he blames Theocritus for inventing in the third century BC the pastoral literary tradition that associates sheep-keeping with virtue, tracing it in Britain through what he calls the “beautiful nonsense” of the Elizabethan poets to contemporary television programmes exalting a country life of sheepdog trials, adorable lambs and so forth.

In George’s alternative history, sheep occupy a malevolent role as shock troops of enclosure, dispossessing indigenous peasantries, who were providing for themselves, in favour of a monocultural ovine cash-crop. Well, there’s certainly some truth in that. Then again, there’s always been an oscillation between grassland and cropland in British history, with complex implications for agricultural output and social relations. Elizabethan poets may have exalted pastoralism, but Elizabethan statesmen did not: converting cropland to pasture was denounced in 1597 as a “turning of the earth to sloth and idleness”. In 1601, William Cecil said “whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys this kingdom”2. Whereas now the plough itself is regarded as a destroyer, and the issue of which kind of farming is most carbon-and-wildlife friendly – grassland or cropland – gets ever more baroque.

Another point worth making is that the late medieval and early modern turn to commercial sheep-farming by the aristocracy led to a release of peasants from corvée arable labour on the demesnes, which arguably fostered the rise of an independent yeomanry3. There is neither crop nor beast which can be allotted the status of an unalloyed historical bad. Well, maybe sugar? Anyway, if there’s a case against sheep, it has to be a contemporary case. History has got nothing to do with it. Though I’m loth myself to underestimate the importance of the accumulated cultural capital in sheepdog trials, livestock markets and the plethora of finely adapted sheep breeds. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about nostalgia or television programmes – it’s about the possible lives that we can lead, which are necessarily built on the shoulders of our forebears and can easily be diminished when we turn our backs too readily on their achievements.

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7. Aiming high by aiming low: I think I get George’s point about targeting the uplands for rewilding – they don’t produce much food, so why not devote them to something else? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be the case that these areas are among the least propitious for wildlife for the same reasons that they’re the least propitious for farming? If rewilding is the name of the game, why not aim higher by first developing proposals for lowland rewilding, where there are richer possibilities which will be better integrated with where most people live? After all, lowland arable deserts are no less dreary than upland grass deserts, are equally if not more destructive of wildlife, and produce an over-abundance of commodity crops that aren’t good for us. My alternative proposal, which I’ve been examining in some detail in my Peasant Republic of Wessex series, would be to look to feed ourselves first with vegetables and fruit, second with grass-fed and waste-fed livestock, and only third with starchy arable staple crops to make up the shortfall – with almost no place at all for grain-fed meat. I’d keep most of the grassy uplands for meat and reduce lowland arable as much as possible, starting my rewilding there. Ultimately, to feed the nation you’d probably have to trade off some lowland productivity for some rewilding, but why not at least start there?

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8. Songs of the uplands: a rare breed hoop: As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the idea of rewilding, but I have a nagging feeling that the general public might get behind it as ‘a good thing’ without much clarity of objective, while continuing to know or care very little about how their food is produced. This will buttress the land sparing/sharing tension I’ve mentioned – big agri in the lowlands, no agri in the uplands. Or, worse, ‘wild’ uplands in Britain and lots of imported lamb from places like New Zealand that didn’t even have terrestrial mammals prior to human colonisation. So I’d like to know more about the kinds of wildness the re-wilders are proposing and why they want it. I’m not necessarily opposed to it – I appreciate how degraded the wild places are compared to the past – but how do we evaluate its qualities and trade them off against present agricultural practices? I’m less inclined than George to write off the symbiosis of human, dog and sheep in upland pastoralism. I see it as a thing of beauty, another fine song of the uplands, just as the song of eagle, marten or rowan has its beauty. I don’t dispute that upland sheep farming isn’t always beautiful – I agree that it’s possible for land indeed to be ‘sheepwrecked’. Still, wilding the uplands involves making a human value judgment that the songs of the wild (and which songs, exactly…?) are so superior to the song of the shepherd that it justifies essentially terminating a historic upland industry. It’s a strong claim – maybe a plausible one, I’m not sure. I think I’d like to hear a lot more about the wilding that’s planned and its putative advantages.

So how about this as an interim measure to test the public’s resolve? Before adopting full-on, sheep-vanquishing upland rewilding, why not promote silvo-pasture using traditional, locally-appropriate, lower-productivity rare sheep breeds – a situation that could create ‘wilder’ uplands than at present, and would force the public to reach into their pockets to support it if they wanted? Consider it a rare breed hoop to jump through, a wallet-test for rewilding that would probably generate more accurate feedback than public opinion surveys.

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9. Multi-functionality: in our contemporary cash-crop farm system, sheep basically have the single function of producing meat. But in a self-reliant economy they have what Philip Walling calls a ‘tenfold purpose’ – meat, fat, blood, wool, milk, skin, gut, horn, bone, manure. In the past this provided “food, clothing, housing, heating and light, all manner of domestic implements, soil fertility and parchment”4. Perhaps we should think about some of those possibilities again in creating a more sustainable agro-ecology. Would they make a difference to George’s argument? I don’t know – maybe not much. But it’s worth pondering.

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10. Money: George is probably right that upland sheep farming in its present form is only propped up by a generous EU subsidy regimen (so maybe it’s already a goner, though peasant peoples historically have been pretty good at weathering the storms raised against them from the political centres). Then again, our contemporary food system in its entirety is only propped up by a generous set of explicit and implicit subsidies, and the price the public pays or farmers receive for their food bears next to no relation to its costs. I take George’s point that upland sheep farming may not be the best use for precious public money, but since the whole food system needs rethinking across the board I personally wouldn’t single out upland pastoralism for special opprobrium. In the long-term, I think we need a human ecosystem more closely fitted to its surroundings and I’d imagine that in Britain upland sheep farming in some form would have a role there. In the short-term, I’d say that the fiscal balance sheet of sheep farming is largely irrelevant to the case for or against it.

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11. Flooding vs. rewilding: the flood abatement case against upland sheep-farming seems to me rather different to the rewilding case. In the former, it’s surely possible to develop silvo-pastoral systems which adequately combine the purposes of sheep-keeping and flood abatement5. Whereas in the latter, each sheep is one small extra quantum of human affliction against the kingdom of the wild (full disclosure: I plead a total of six offences currently on this score, as pictured – though I’d argue that they do contribute to the productivity of the holding, which still has it wild spaces…) It’s reasonable to make a both…and case against sheep, but others might want to make an either…or defence which finds an ongoing role for sheep in the uplands.

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So there we have it. I salute George for sticking his head above the parapet as few others are prepared to do and making his case against upland sheep in Britain. But I’m not quite yet ready to throw my lot in with it. First, I’d like to see someone work through the doubts I’ve expressed here and convincingly defuse them.

Notes

  1. George’s main writings on sheep farming, the uplands and related issues are in his book Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) and in articles here, here and here. I’ve written previously on upland sheep farming here, and on rewilding here.
  1. See Thirsk, Joan (1997). Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford, pp.23-4.
  1. Duby, Georges (1974). The Early Growth of the European Economy. Cornell.
  1. Walling, Philip (2015). Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain. Profile, (pp. xix-xx).
  1. As I argue in a little more detail here.

Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

Let us beat a retreat from the troubling politics of the real world and pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, where all is sweet accord. Though in the light of recent events in the UK and the US, it’s tempting to begin with a little story that just might conceivably link the ghost of Wessex present with the ghost of Wessex future. It goes something like this:

With hindsight, Britain’s exit from the EU turned out to herald its final decline as a major global economic force. Though it had a freer hand to make its own trade deals as an independent country it discovered that (a) outside the privileged bubble of the EU single market and the wider access to global circuits of capital this made available, it didn’t actually have all that much to trade, (b) its most obvious trading partners belonged to large trading blocs with membership benefits it could no longer access, and (c) years of public sector underinvestment and private sector asset stripping left it ill-prepared to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, a similar fate befell other western powers in Europe and North America, albeit for slightly different reasons. But after the brief, transformative Third World War came to an end with the Peace of Beijing brokered through the forceful diplomacy of Russia’s new Tsar, most of the western nations shored up their fragile economies by reinventing themselves essentially as client states to the rising industrial powers of Asia*. Thus, few of them fell quite as far or fast as Britain. Or England to be more precise, in light of the secession of the other UK countries and their integration into the EU. Those secessions created a devolutionary impetus in England that saw the emergence of regional assemblies – initially entirely subservient to Westminster, but with the dwindling willingness and ability of the Westminster government to fund or provide services outside the southeast, the regional assemblies increasingly assumed a de facto local sovereignty. Some of them courted multinational corporations, turning themselves into maquiladora economies that used the income thus generated to contain, barely, the resulting social tensions. For its part, London lost a large proportion of its migrant workers, who sought richer pickings elsewhere – probably just as well, given the increasingly constrained base available for the city to feed itself. It retained something of its lustre as a once-great global city, with a still active, if declining, financial and service sector, giving it a kind of seedy grandiloquence reminiscent of, say, Istanbul, only colder and wetter. In the southwest, the conditions for either the industrial self-abasement of the maquiladora regions or the stately decline of the southeast were lacking – it had little going for it except its rich farmland and the pleasant landscapes visited by an ever-declining number of tourists. But its regional government, building on the example of early-millennium independent Frome, pursued a course of regional agricultural and industrial self-reliance. Not by any means an easy course, and one requiring an enormous mobilisation of its people that necessarily rested on a substantial egalitarianism in access to wealth and resources. But though a few old men would still get drunk in its bars and sing patriotic songs about the greatness of the country’s illustrious history, much as a few old men now still do in, say, Mongolia, few people had time for such conceits and felt more engaged in the intricate business of forging a livelihood in the challenging times of the present. In the context of the post-United Nations fraying of the Westphalian nation-state – what scholars had been calling ‘the new medievalism’ of overlapping sovereignties and autarkic regionalism from as early as the late 20th century – the Wessexers found that if they kept their heads down, avoided meddling in larger national and international power politics, paid a largely symbolic obeisance to London, and complained bitterly to any foreigner they met (especially Londoners) about how desperately poor they were, they were pretty much left alone to get on with the challenging but not unrewarding business of making a living from the land. When, in the late 21st century, the world was hit with the long-anticipated triple crisis of accelerating climate change, spiralling energy prices and capitalist economic stagnation, Wessex was better placed than most parts of the world (including the other UK regions) to try to ride out the storm.

* We’ll dwell more in another post on the North American side of this story. But in brief, as everyone knows, the USA ignored the warnings about the limits of its military power signalled by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and – under pressure from a bellicose Congress – President Kardashian launched a war in three separate theatres that soon backfired spectacularly. By way of reparations, at the Peace of Beijing China imposed on the US the migration of millions of Chinese peasant farmers, political troublemakers and other ne’er-do-wells, referred to collectively as ‘non-capitalist roaders’, each to be allocated up to 160 acres of US farmland as determined by the Homestead (Legal Immigrants) Act, 2062. The Chinese incomers were received with rank hostility by the local population at first, but their love of American political freedoms, their endearing taste for Hollywood movies and American fashions, and their superb farming skills soon helped to thaw relations once Americans had resigned themselves to their diminished place in world affairs. Thus, some 250 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wholesome US smallholder republic was finally realised, albeit with a greater emphasis on fermented soy products than he’d imagined – an industry with its epicentre in Ohio.

That, clearly, is what is going to happen. But the question is will this future Wessex be able to feed itself? When we were last there we learned that the enlightened rulers of the satellite republic had determined that 40% of its lowland agricultural holdings should be given over to peasant self-provision for a 20% portion of the population who were thus able to feed themselves comfortably using low impact organic methods. That leaves the remaining 60% of the farmland available to feed the other 80% of the population, numbering some 4.9 million souls in 2039. Let’s see how this 80% might fare.

Presently, 68% of lowland farmland in Wessex is permanent pasture, while 31% is arable land – leaving the princely total of 1% for horticulture. At those proportions, I’m worried that my wan Wessex urbanites might suffer from a touch of scurvy, so I’m going to adjust the grass/arable/horticulture proportions to 61/32/6%. In other words, a bit of the permanent pasture becomes cropland. Not all permanent pasture is suitable for cropping, but my guess is that enough of it would be for this adjustment to be feasible.

On the arable lands of the PROW about 3% is devoted to hemp and flax for keeping the urbanites in the latest fashions. On the rest of it, I propose to establish a fairly standard mixed organic rotation comprising 50% grass/clover ley, the remaining 50% being split evenly between winter wheat, winter oats, potatoes, field beans and spring wheat. The grass/clover ley is used for grazing dairy cows.

The horticulture land is split 75/25 between vegetables and fruit/nuts. The vegetables are grown organically, with 30% down to a ley (also used for livestock) and the rest growing a mixture of vegetables in rotation.

In terms of livestock, I’d propose to keep dairy cows on the arable leys and the permanent pasture. Some of them would be fed oats (1,100kg/cow/year) and beans (550kg), yielding an assumed 6,200 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow/ha (I’ve lifted these figures from the Organic Farm Management Handbook). With about 116,000 tonnes of oats produced on about 33,000ha at 3.5 t/ha, and about 83,000 tonnes of beans produced on the same area at 2.5 t/ha, that’ll give us enough feed for about 106,000 cows, with about 25,000 tonnes of beans left over to feed some pigs and laying hens. But, after subtracting the 106,000ha of intensive-organic dairying, there’s still just under 700,000ha of permanent pasture, so let’s raise more dairy cows extensively in the same manner as the neo-peasants, getting 3,300 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow plus calf per 1.2ha. We’ll get some beef from the dairy calves at the same rates as the neo-peasants too.

We’ll also keep pigs and laying hens, mostly on the peri-urban market garden/truck farm sites. We’ll split the remaining beans between the pigs and hens 50/50, and also feed them food waste (we’ll assume that 3% of Wessex’s food production is discarded as waste, which is available for the pigs and hens). That should give us about 12,000 tonnes of pig meat and 227 million eggs.

We’ve also got about 83,000ha of rough grazing where we’ll keep sheep, producing around 80kg of sheep meat per hectare per year, if that doesn’t sound too much? And we’ll have the same amount of sea fish as for the neo-peasants – about 20kg per person per year.

And there you have it – the full nutritional spread for our Wessex non-peasants. Let’s take a look at whether it meets the nutritional needs of the population. This is shown in Table 1, which parallels the corresponding table in my analysis for the neo-peasants.

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity for Wessex’s Non-Neo-Peasant Population

 

x1011

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 181 1.93 32.4 3.53 11.5 0.22
Required 168 0.89 14.3 1.43 7.14 0.21
Ratio 1.07 2.16 2.27 2.47 1.61 1.05

Holy cow, we’ve pulled it off again! Maybe it’s a bit tight on the energy, so there’d be a case for trimming back the permanent pasture for cropland a little more – or else suggesting those city slickers get their hands dirty on an allotment and grow a few of their own potatoes. But let’s just take another moment to admire our handiwork. With only a minor bit of jiggery-pokery around permanent pasture and cropland, we’ve met the entire nutritional needs of a future Wessex population comprising an extra million people over the present using entirely organic farming methods at modest yield assumptions and without expanding beyond the existing agricultural land take. Cue another round of applause.

I’ve got to admit that the non-peasants have a starchier diet than the peasants, as is shown in the pie chart below – a pie which, for my taste, goes a bit overboard on the pastry and skimps a little on the filling. This diet fails proposition Paul, with 17% of its calories coming from protein but only 33% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates, mostly of the simple rather than the complex variety. I still think it’s not such a bad diet compared with many, but the greater reliance on starchy staples surely sounds a warning note in terms of the capacities of the land. Parson Malthus isn’t quite yet out of his box, but it’s as well to be aware that his coffin lid is rattling. The last Malthusian crisis in the southwest was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – pretty much around the time when the much-derided Reverend (who died here in Somerset) was writing, curiously enough. The problem was solved on that occasion by mass migration to Australia and the USA – two great migrant nations that command the respect of the world for welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to this very day…or so I’ve heard.

Figure 1: Calorific contribution to the Wessex non-peasant diet by food group

wessex-non-peasant-energy-pie-chart

But there’s an elephant in the room. And this time it’s not capitalism. Well, maybe it is in view of the difficulties Wessex will have in earning foreign exchange. But the real elephant is energy. If 80% of Wessex’s population are going to be fed from 60% of its farmland without working as producers themselves, then farming on this 60% is going to have to be heavily mechanised. At the moment, this is achieved through copious use of fossil fuels. But that may not be possible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex circa 2039 or thereafter. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…Gosh, the low battery alarm on my PV system has started to sound! Well, that’s quite enough for one blog post anyway. I’ll tell you the answer to the energy conundrum when the sun comes out again and my electricity supply isn’t likely to cut out at any mome

Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

~~~

All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?

Notes

 

  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

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.

Of pigs, peasants and pastoralists

I’ve been meaning to write a simple little blog post about the pigs I’ve been raising on my holding this year. But here at Small Farm Future we like to go for big picture analysis, and somehow the post has turned into a redesign for British agriculture in its entirety. Ah well, at least it enables me to riff on various hot topics recently featured on this blog: rewilding – particularly in the context of Miles King’s fascinating vision of nature-friendly arable farming; the affinities and tensions between livestock and arable, which in these modern consumerist times often figures as a vegans versus omnivores debate, but in the alternative farming world can also hinge on arguments about the respective ecological credentials of meat versus plant production, and more broadly in the longstanding historical tension between agrarians and pastoralists; the issue of whether organic farming can feed the world; and, lastly, the war cry of the latter-day agricultural improvers that we need to get people out of small-scale farming and increase the productivity of the land without increasing total land take.0 2015 09 21 Pigs in clover 2

But let’s start with my pigs. I have two weaners which I’ve been attempting to feed as much as possible from my on-farm resources, minimising the amount of grain or soy-based concentrate I buy in (no offence intended to any grain or soy-oriented readers…) It’s been going OK. The pigs are living in about an acre of mixed young woodland plantation, which includes an area of pasture and fodder crop. The fodder crops are alfalfa for protein (reasonably successful) and fodder rape (not so successful). The pigs have also been getting crab apples, some nuts, and a lot of vegetable waste from the market garden, including our reject potatoes. So far I’ve had them four months and got through just over one 25kg bag of concentrate. I’ll probably need to buy in a bit more before they’re finished, but I did get them relatively late in the year (July). I suspect the main limiting factor if I run this as a long-term project is going to be their soil-disturbing activities, which are quite profound even at a stocking density of 2 pigs/acre. A topic for further reflection and discussion…

Projects like this make me think about land use. What kind of land take is associated with these pigs? What else could or should I be doing with it instead? And if I were to generalise from what I’m doing, what would be the wider social and environmental implications? So in the light of the interim lessons from my pig project let me temporarily appoint myself God and redesign British agriculture as I see fit. I’m going to do it using the following self-imposed guidelines:

  • My agricultural output will be mixed
  • My British farmscape will need to furnish the entire calorific needs of the country’s population. It’s not that calories are the only important nutritional metric, but there’s no avoiding the fact that any plausible farm system has to meet its population’s energetic requirements, and this is among the more demanding tasks asked of it. I conjecture that in my mixed farming system, if I can take care of the calories most of the other nutritional needs can take care of themselves
  • Fertility will be organic, and largely self-generated on the farm
  • Farming will be small-scale and labour-intensive for a variety of reasons that I won’t dwell on here but have done in past posts and will do in future ones. You know it makes sense!
  • Livestock will be default, ie. they will complement the production of human food and not directly compete with it. In that sense, my pig project is much closer to default than grain/soy fed pigs, but it’s not quite default because of the fodder crops and the small amount of bought in concentrate
  • Trees on farms are good – for biodiversity, for the soil, for wildness, maybe even for timber. But people need to eat too

Let’s start by looking at existing UK agricultural land use, as reported in DEFRA’s Agriculture in the UK. Figure 1 gives you the lowdown.

Fig 1

Fig 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now let’s look in Figure 2 at what we’ve got in that cropped area.

Fig 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hmmm, this isn’t good. Not good at all. Happily, having arrogated temporary omnipotence to myself, I can soon put things right.

First of all, I have to profess my sympathies with Robert C, the upland sheep farmer who commented on my recent post about rewilding. His family have been farming sheep since the sixteenth century and they’re not going to be pushed around by Johnny-come-lately urban re-wilders. Plus, upland shepherding drives the whole of British sheep farming. Fair play, sir – to you and your kind, I allocate all of the sole right rough grazing for sheep farming. But I’m also sympathetic to the re-wilders – George Monbiot’s laments for the sheepwrecked uplands touch my soul. So I’m going to allocate half of the common rough grazing to the re-wilders, taking it out of agricultural production and getting some trees on it, while retaining the other half for sheep farming. Then I shall watch what unfolds from my lofty perch in the heavens before issuing my final judgment. May the best man win!

Now then, heaven forbid that I should invite the ridicule of the ag improvers by taking any more cropland, so I’m going to fix the cropland essentially at its current level of 4.7m ha. I am, however, going to add in the temporary grass, which is surely just cropland that’s lazing about and not reporting for work…and there’s no place for malingering of that sort in George Osborne’s Britain. I’m also going to add in the outdoor pig land. I don’t care if they’re outdoors – it if ain’t default, I’m calling a halt. So let’s do something more useful with that.

We’ll need to come back to the crop mix, but first we need to do a little more tidying around the edges of the cropland. As I mentioned, trees are good, so let’s arbitrarily (arbortrarily?) treble the amount of farm woodland (we can put a few pigs in it). We’ll do it by including the re-wilded commons in our woodland portion and then pinching just under a million hectares of the permanent grass. Hell, those aristocrats and horsey folk won’t even notice they’ve lost a smidgeon of their copious estate. We’ll also forest up the ‘all other’ land. I wasted too much of my youth as a data analyst pussy-footing around with residual categories. To any parcels of land that won’t clearly state their intentions I say this: I have a tree-planting auger, and I know how to use it…

So now let’s get back to the cropland. Dear oh dear. My fellow Brits – didn’t our parents tell us to eat our greens? Right, well we’re farming organically so let’s put a quarter down to legume-rich grass leys. Then we’ll have a quarter down to wheat, a quarter to potatoes and a quarter to vegetables. Oilseeds? No, sir. But I suppose we do need some oil or fat. Well, let’s have some dairy cows then. They can graze the permanent pasture and the leys. No concentrates, though.

That brings us to livestock. We’ve got a few sheep in the uplands and some dairy cows down on the farm. And we can eat the calves, of course. Apart from that, it’s tricky. How many default pigs can we have? Not many. Let’s say we can produce one default pig carcase per two hectares of farm woodland per year. And how many default hens? Depends on the farm size, of course. Let’s look at that next.

I’m figuring on about 10% of the working age population working as farmers – something I looked at previously. Maybe that sounds high. I think it’s probably a sensible, sustainable figure, and it may not be too far off the actual number toiling to fill the British plate when you count in all the people around the world to whom we’ve outsourced the most labour-intensive food production jobs. So that would be about 3.9 million farmers. Let’s say most of them live and work as couples. Then the average holding size would be about 6.7 hectares – not too dissimilar to my own humble plot, in fact. Assuming that these lowland farms have to do the bulk of the work in feeding the nation, each 6.7 hectare parcel would be charged with the nutritional welfare of about 33 people. And, coming back to the hens, how many default hens could we have on our 6.7ha? I don’t think too many. A bit of food waste, a bit of gleaning, a bit of grass and some insects from the field – shall we say six dual purpose birds to give us eggs and chicken pie? And let’s have some bees. Easy now with the honey. Default bees need it more than we do. But perhaps they’ll allow us to skim off 10kg a year.

I haven’t said anything about fruit and nut trees. Tough, I’m a veg grower. La Brassicata and I are going to be pretty darned busy growing your spuds and milking the cow, so if you want fruit and nuts as well you better come down to the farm and lend a hand. Actually, in this climate I think nuts are probably better thought of as an occasional gift of wild nature rather than a farm crop. And fruit production is quite specialist. But I imagine we can fit in a bit of top and soft fruit in our spare time – let’s say 200kg of apples and 50kg of raspberries.

Right, well there we have it. Agri-redux, courtesy of Spudman. Let me now plug in some figures to see what we can produce. Full details are on this spreadsheet and it’s a real back of an envelope job so I’d welcome any comments, especially if you want to challenge the plausibility of my yield figures or stocking densities. Absence of howling errors not guaranteed. Probably the key assumptions are a wheat yield of 4.3 tha-1, a potato yield of 20 tha-1, a grass-fed house cow producing 3000 litres of milk a year, dual purpose hens laying 200 eggs a year, and upland sheep farming producing 3 lamb carcases per hectare (an overestimate?) Most of those yield figures are quite low – lower than current yields from organic farming. But my suspicion is that there’s quite a surfeit of manure and other implicit energy subsidies in the organic farming of today stemming from our overdriven nitrogen and carbon cycles, our food imports and so on. I know on the basis of my experience that the figures I’m using should be achievable long-term with mostly on farm nutrient cycling, so they feel more properly sustainable or ‘agroecological’ to me. In any case, this way the result ought to give a minimal, baseline figure.

Assuming an energy requirement of 2,300 calories (9.6 MJ) per person per day, my figures turn out a national energy requirement of 2.25 x 1011 MJ and a total farm productivity of 2.58 x 1011 MJ – a ratio of 1.15 the latter over the former. So, my conclusion is that yes we can produce a decent, mixed and calorifically adequate diet for the UK population organically from its existing farmland. But only if we keep livestock numbers rigorously controlled and meat consumption low, and resign ourselves to getting most of our food energy from wheat and potatoes (see Fig 3) – which may not suit some folks. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should diversify our diet away from simple carbohydrates. But I’m also sympathetic to the ideas that we should farm organically, with minimum tillage, on mixed farms and that we have to feed the population. So something has to give. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s priorities might be. As it stands, I’m projecting about 6-7kg meat per person per year from my system, something like a tenfold drop from current EU levels of consumption. And about 90 litres of milk (or 6-7kg of butter). By God, this is tight. Still, we can always go visit the candyman for a sprinkle of his magic Haber-Bosch dust. And, by my figures, there’s scope for trimming back the potato/wheat area a little. Or we could try to increase the margin in other ways – more labour input for diverse perennial cropping, a bit more farm specialisation (but not too much, we’ve fallen into that trap before…), urban farming with poultry and pigs as waste cyclers. And we do have to bear in mind that this is probably a minimum yield figure that we’re working with.

Fig 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now then, if we did away with the cropped area and grew grass instead we could put an end to all that damaging tillage farming. We could replace it with the most productive form of livestock farming – dairying – and bring in another house cow and calf, while keeping the other livestock, the fruit trees etc. But if we did that, we’d only be able to produce about 15% of the national population’s energy needs. That’s an interesting figure in relation to the old ecological rule of thumb that each step up in trophic level loses about 90% of the productivity of the previous level, which seems to be roughly borne out here.

There’s quite a move in alternative farming circles these days to talk up livestock farming – particularly in relation to extensive raising of ruminants for meat. Great claims are made for traditional range management, desert reclamation through grazing, carbon sequestration in grassland soils, grass-fed cattle, mob stocking and the like. I’m sceptical about some of them, though I find them plausible enough in the main. But I don’t find them plausible as a method of feeding humanity. They’ll feed small numbers of poor rangeland pastoralists and small numbers of rich grass-fed meat enthusiasts, but extensive pastoralism is no more viable as a plan for feeding contemporary humanity than hunting or foraging. That’s not intended as a criticism of people farming livestock agroecologically. If I took on a farm in present economic and ecological circumstances that’s what I’d probably do. And it makes sense to fit extensive livestock husbandry in where possible around more intensive provisioning strategies. But – as with Britain’s upland sheep – its role will be minor.

I think what this analysis shows is that, unlike extensive pastoralism, intensive, ‘organic’/ agroecological, local ‘peasant’ farming is feasible for national self-provisioning.  It may seem impossibly distant from how we farm now, but it’s not impossible as a provisioning strategy. And how we farm now may seem impossible in the not too distant future. So my punt is that the livestock of choice in the future will be the usual peasant menagerie: the house cow, the pig and the chicken, and not the pastoralist option of the ruminant herd. Though to make up the shortfall in the meat ration, insect and mollusc farming may have an emerging role too.

When I write posts like this, somebody usually says “yes, but what about the energy requirements?” and then bangs on about the land-take of horses or oxen. But most of the energy requirements in the food system relate to fertiliser synthesis and farm-to-consumer costs. Here, I’ve eliminated the former and the latter isn’t my problem. Hey, I’m growing your food for you, you expect me to worry about how you’re going to get hold of it too? You shouldn’t have bought that fancy townhouse! The world according to Spudman is a world of producer sovereignty, re-ruralisation and localisation. So if you want to live in the city, you’re gonna have to pay for the privilege. And if you want to call my vision ‘feudal’, it means you don’t know what ‘feudal’ means and, even more inexcusably, you haven’t yet read the essay I’m going to be posting up on here in a few weeks’ time about all that sort of thing. There, I think I got my retaliation in first.

OK, OK, so farm energy may still be a problem. But if so, it’s a hell of smaller problem with 4 million working the land than with 400,000 – and not just because of the direct substitution of human for fuel energy, but also because of the different kind of farming strategies involved. Give me 30 litres of petroleum a year for my on-farm use and I’ll cope OK. If, as Andy McGuire said here, our societies prioritised fuel use sensibly they’d make it (sparingly) available to farmers in preference to many other more frivolous uses and we could use if for centuries without facing such acute energy uncertainties as we presently do. But if I can’t have my 30 litres then I’ll plant 30 pine trees and make the damn stuff myself, or – as David suggested here – grow another biofuel crop, by trimming back the woodland or the meat. Really, when it comes to unsustainable energy use, farm traction comes low on the list. Meat comes in higher, but if you and my other 31 customers are really, really nice to me, I may just put a little chicken and bacon by for you for Christmas. Don’t eat it all at once!

Gosh, I’m feeling dizzy…I think I’m falling…what’s that I see? It’s a field…a field of…no, it can’t be…aargh!…oilseed rape. And where has all my woodland gone? Crash! Dammit, I think my omnipotent powers have deserted me and I’m back to the bare earth of the arable cereal fields with a bump. Sigh. Well, I’ll just have to work out how to deliver on that vision by normal, human means. Any suggestions gratefully received below…

Grass dilemmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making hay while the rain pours…

We’ve got a fair bit of grass on our holding which we haven’t been using to its full potential by grazing it – partly because it’s hard enough to find the time to grow vegetables, let alone looking after livestock, and partly because it’s hard to look after livestock when…(yes, I know I sound like a broken record) we don’t live on the site (more on our planning appeal soon…the date is now set for 20 August).

But we want to make amends by getting some ruminants on the grass (grass grows so well here in Somerset that I sometimes think I should give up on the veg and just become a stockman), and indeed getting them in amongst our trees too to experiment with that good old fashioned technique of wood pasturing. This year we got hold of three bum lambs, bottle fed them and they’re now out snacking happily on the pasture, even though they’re a bit dwarfed by it…still, every journey starts with one step, as they say.

One tricky issue for the small-scale farmer with ruminants is hay/silage. To do it mechanically with a tractor you need a proper drum mower (and not the cheap and cheerful pasture topper that I’ve got), a hay bob and a baler – quite a lot of expensive kit, even if you buy it second-hand. You can get contractors in to do it, but they’re not usually interested in small acreages and since haymaking is so weather dependent it’s very easy to get let down. Or you can do it by hand, with nothing more than a scythe, a pitchfork and a barrow.

Just as an experiment, a couple of weeks ago I took the latter route. I spent a couple of hours cutting maybe 300m2 with my Austrian scythe from the excellent scythe shop (results of another recent scientific experiment of mine: it’s quicker to cut a red clover ley with a scythe than a strimmer…though it works up more of a sweat…and I’m not sure the same would be true of rough pasture grass). Then I let it lie for a few days, fluffing it around regularly with the pitchfork until it was really dry, and then barrowed it loose into the shed. Call me a retro-romantic reactionary if you like, but there are things in farming that just feel elemental and somehow right, and making hay is one of them. Actually, I think it’s a bit sad not to be romantic about this – why not feel a sense of connection with things that our ancestors did and that paved the way for our lives today?

One thing I did that wasn’t really an option for our ancestors, however, was raking the hay up one night and covering it with a plastic tarp when the Met Office forecast an evening of heavy rain in between several days of blameless blue sky. In fact, it’s not really an option in the present either for anyone making hay on any significant scale. But it worked a treat for me – shaking the rainwater off the tarp and spreading the dry hay underneath out again to parch for another day or so. Just one more reason why small scale works best…

Of course, doing it the way I did has only given me enough hay to feed a few sheep for a few days, so it’s hardly a solution to the general problem of haymaking for the small farmer, though I could easily have done a fair bit more in the same way. Then again, maybe in a real ‘small farm future’ this will be the right kind of scale – just a bit of grass and a few ruminants alongside the cropped area, the garden and the woodland, a bit of scything, some hay in the shed…oh, and a plastic tarp.

There are lots of interesting ecological issues about livestock, of course, which are excellently discussed in Simon Fairlie’s Meat and have just been given a fresh airing in George Monbiot’s new book Feral. But I’ll come back to those another time. Right now, I’m just happy that I’ve got some dry hay in.