Over the coming posts I’m going to start slowly moving towards my next big theme: the practice and politics of a neo-peasant agriculture. But first I need to prepare the way with a bit of context, and one context is permaculture. The word is a contraction of ‘permanent agriculture’, so in that sense seems close to the kind of sustainable farming and society I seek. But it’s also a movement with a distinctive literature and community associated with it, a movement in which my own route ‘back to the land’ was originally forged. Yet now I’m not so sure how much permaculture (the movement) is likely to deliver permaculture (permanent agriculture). I’ve started to think that peasants or ‘neo-peasants’ are a more promising vehicle for permanent agriculture than permaculturists. That at any rate is what I’ll address in this post.
Framing neo-peasant agriculture in relation to permaculture may not be the best way to start this cycle of posts, but it’s uppermost in my mind after a series of readings and interactions recently – Dan Palmer’s interesting article on Christopher Alexander and his ‘challenge to permaculture’; a re-reading of what I think is a very important ‘state of permaculture’ article by Patrick Whitefield; a fascinating article in New Left Review about the enrichment of objects; and, a lively set of exchanges on Resilience.org regarding my letter in Permaculture Magazine, some of which degenerated into the kind of pissing contest that represents the permaculture movement at its doctrinaire worst.
That contest was initiated by Rick Larson, whose opening gambit to me was “My backyard is much more interesting than your simple tilled smallholding” – an assertion I find interesting for several reasons that I’ll come to. Rick’s major beef seems to be that mixed semi-commercial small-scale farming-cum-horticulture of the kind I practice is not the way forwards into a sustainable future, especially in its (in fact, rather minimal) use of tillage. As it happens, I largely agree with him, for reasons that I sketched in my review of Jean-Martin Fortier’s book. On the other hand, I also doubt that the backyard, no-till, perennial-heavy polyculture of the kind practiced by Rick would feature too heavily in such a future either. What I would say in favour of commercial farming is that it helps to concentrate the mind on inputs and outputs. Given that most backyard growers don’t furnish anything even close to their total household food requirements and tend to think of time in the garden as recreational, a spell working in commercial agriculture can be salutary in appreciating what it takes to feed a household, and also on how backyard methods might scale.
Anyway, let me now try to show why I think moving towards a sustainable neo-peasant agriculture may involve plotting a course away from permaculture as it’s typically now understood.
1. The limits of biomimicry
A typical farm – even a traditional, small, mixed, organic one – doesn’t look much like a natural ecosystem. It thus stands indicted in the eyes of a certain kind of permaculture thinking, because nature provides the gold standard for efficient design.
But, as previously discussed in much more detail on this site, I’ve come to question that ‘certain kind of thinking’, largely as a result of books by two ecologists – Ford Denison1 and Phil Grime2. In brief, Denison argues that organisms are evolutionarily optimised by natural selection in ways that ecosystems aren’t. So there’s no reason to assume that the structure of natural ecosystems necessarily optimises the parameters sought by humans as they design their agro-ecosystems. Therefore, there’s a danger of what Denison calls the ‘misguided mimicry of nature’. The point is not that biomimicry is inevitably misguided. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that a more biomimetic agroecosystem is necessarily a better or more efficient one simply because it’s mimetic.
Grime shows how organisms conform to different types across the axes of habitat disturbance and resource availability. Natural ecosystems commonly display low disturbance and low resource availability, selecting for more sessile, resource-conserving, stress-tolerant organisms. There’s an intrinsic appeal to mimicking such ecosystems because they’re robust and they get by with few inputs. But they’re also slow-growing, low in output and well defended from cropping and/or predation. By contrast, typical agroecosystems, and also a few natural ecosystems, are high disturbance, high resource setups. Productivity is high, but so are input and management costs.
A perfect solution would be to create an agroecosystem with the best of both worlds – low input, stable, robust, well-defended, but high output. Unfortunately, perfect solutions don’t exist. Both Denison and Grime emphasise trade-offs – if we try to maximise one thing (like food yield) we generally lose other desirable traits (like stress tolerance). As Thomas Sowell put it, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs”. I think this insight needs wider promotion within alternative agricultural circles.
2. Production functions: or, thinking like a celeriac
Take a look at this picture of the recently transplanted celeriac in part of my (no till) market garden (just try to ignore the lupins, comfrey, hornbeam, sunflowers, rhubarb and grasses OK?). Rick Larson calls this a ‘monoculture’. Well, maybe. Given that celeriac occupies only 80m2 (or around 0.1%) of a 7.3ha holding with well over a hundred other introduced species, and it won’t grow on this spot again for at least another six years, I think that’s stretching a point. But call it what you will. I think what’s more interesting is why I, like most commercial growers, generally avoid intercropping at the fine-scale, whereas a lot of backyard permaculture gardeners prefer it.
Rick’s answer is that I’m ‘locked in’ to a detrimental system. To my mind that substitutes easy censure for more careful thought. I think the reason most commercial growers opt for these ‘monocultures’ is because labour is our key constraint – the labour involved in efficient planting, weeding, irrigation and harvesting, and the labour involved in planning crop quantities and rotations. It saves work if you don’t mix the crops up too much. But on a garden scale, space is often a more significant constraint than labour. It makes sense to cram in lots of different plants in a given area, and take advantage of their different growth habits and other properties that enable the gardener to make the most of limited space. Different trade-offs in different situations.
An economist might frame these considerations as a production function, a kind of input-output equation. So the inputs might be things like land area, soil quality, water, compost or fertility, human labour, mechanical or fossil energy inputs and so on. And the outputs might be things like food to eat or food to sell, the pleasure of working hard in the garden, the pleasure of not working too hard in the garden, as well as undesirable or negative outputs – soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, water drawdown and so on.
I don’t think there can ever be a single, ‘right’ solution to that production function – not for an individual and not for a society. We can trade-off labour inputs, land area, mechanical energy and so on in endless ways. I think most of us in the alternative farming movement would agree that we need more human input and less mechanical input into farming, but that only puts some vague boundaries around a few parameters.
But what I think is in the minds of the permaculture polyculturists is the notion that there are interactive effects when you put plants together. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere in a debate about polycultures with Patrick Whitefield that was sadly truncated by Patrick’s death. The basic point is that by planting, say, carrots alongside onions you expect to get better total yields, or the same total yields for less work, than if you planted them in separate blocks. But the truth is that the evidence for most of these interactive or ‘companion planting’ effects is poor, or at least highly contextual – something that’s discussed in more detail by Denison in his book and by me in my aforementioned post. And even when there is a demonstrable effect (eg. onions deterring carrot root fly), trade-offs are still in play. Should carrots be planted with onions? Well, it depends on the extent of the fly problem, the balance required between carrots and onions, the costs and efficacy of the deterrence vis-à-vis other deterrent methods, the labour costs, and so on. Is interplanting always preferable to monocropping? I think Patrick got it right when he wrote “any blanket statement…is almost certain to be wrong or at least only right in certain places and at certain times.”
In the excellent article from which I’ve taken that quotation, Patrick offers a mea culpa for the emphasis in his own early permaculture teaching on stand-alone ideas like swales which he taught because it differentiated permaculture from more traditional ways of working the land. I think this is an important insight, and I’ll say more about it below. For now, I’d just like to suggest that trade-offs abound – trade-off free improvements and genuinely interactive effects not already widely practiced by farmers and growers are rare. Rick says he finds the ‘monocultures’ of the kind I practice less interesting than his approach, which is fair enough. Different strokes for different folks. What interests me is whether a given garden polyculture offers any agronomic advantages over single crop rotations – not necessarily the case just because it looks more ‘natural’. The current evidence is weak. My advice to the budding backyard permaculturist would be: experiment with new things by all means, but treat traditional farming systems with some respect. Don’t assume they’re necessarily misguided. Maybe even allow them to challenge some of your assumptions. People have been doing this kind of farming, and thinking about how to do it better, for a very long time.
3. Designing from wholes to parts: or, check out my wineberries!
Designing from wholes to parts is the lesson of the influential design thinker Christopher Alexander, which Dan Palmer has recently argued should be better incorporated into permaculture. Some of the respondents to Palmer’s article argued, correctly I think, that this kind of thinking is already part of the permaculture toolkit – as in David Holmgren’s admonition to ‘design from patterns to details’. But what are the ‘wholes’ we’re thinking about when we do our designs? Typically a house and yard, perhaps a farm or community garden. These themselves are only parts. Few people other than government planners are really planning holistically at landscape-regional-society-wide levels, and for the most part not even them, increasingly subordinated as they are by a neoliberal ideology that claims the best kind of planning is no planning at all (except corporate planning).
Though it’s true that the ‘patterns to details’ message is well known in permaculture, ‘details to patterns’ thinking nevertheless seems to me surprisingly widespread within the movement. On Resilience.org I was criticised for admitting I didn’t have swales, raised beds or forest gardens on my holding – the implication being that they’re so obviously appropriate in every situation that I couldn’t have tried them and was therefore just offering empty criticisms from the outside (the definition of a ‘swale’ in the discussion turned out to be a path where the topsoil is dug out and heaped up alongside – in which case examination of the photo shows that in fact I do have swales on my holding. If the definitions of forest gardens and raised beds are equally fluid, I probably have them too, so perhaps I am a proper permaculturist after all…)
Criticising someone for not having specific landscape features is pretty absurd without detailed knowledge of their land and their thought processes about it, so I don’t think it’s worth wasting time on rebuttals. But I’d like to make a hypothesis about its underlying motivation. Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre argue in an interesting recent article3 that deindustrialisation (ie. the relocation of the mass production of cheap industrial artefacts away from the wealthy countries of the global north) has led to a change in the way that we in these wealthy countries articulate our identities in relation to the things around us. Specifically, we try to imbue things with enriched and particular value, making ‘exceptional objects’ of them. Boltanski and Esquerre trace the rise of practices such as stamp collecting in the 19th century, and the rise of public interest in the trappings of celebrity lifestyle or ‘stylish’ living more generally as a part of this process. These are signified by various rare and special objects and experiences, of the kind endlessly repackaged in TV home makeover shows and the like.
Green or radical-minded people may not have much truck with such things, but it feels to me that the suburban permaculture garden, with its carefully curated polycultures of unusual plants and its special design features recognised only by those ‘in the know’ – the swales, herb spirals, keyhole beds and so forth – are basically involved in these same practices of self-distinction. I’m not saying that they’re entirely lacking in any other rationale. It’s never a bad idea to play around growing backyard vegetables. But it strikes me that such processes of lifestyle distinction are often part of what a permaculture garden is about. Patrick’s admission that he taught about swales because they were ‘different’ seems of a piece with this. My own exemplar is the Japanese wineberry. I planted one on my site around the time I did my permaculture design course, mostly I think because it was the ‘in thing’ (possibly because Patrick enthused about them in his forest garden book, a popular tome at the time). I’m sure there are those who’d hate to be without their wineberries, but I’ve never been able to get too excited about them myself – I’d rather have raspberries or blackberries (but everybody knows about them…) When I see a Japanese wineberry now, it’s a bit like a masonic handshake or a clan totem, a surefire sign that the person who planted it did a permaculture design course circa 1999.
There’s nothing wrong with having a funky garden. But I’m not convinced such gardens will pass the test of permaculture as ‘permanent agriculture’, of provisioning people sustainably and well long-term. Perhaps there might be backyard permaculturists reading this who will holler their dissent. If so, I hope they’ll convince me I’m wrong. To do that, they’d have to provide some plausible information on how much of their yearly calorific, protein and other nutrient intake they furnish for themselves from their garden (by plausible I mean something more specific than saying “a lot”); how much of the fertility inputs and, perhaps, water are furnished from their site; how much of their time they spend working on it, and so on. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of good data out there on this in the permaculture movement. Mark Shepard4, to his credit, has provided some information about productivity on his perennial polyculture farm (or at least on a theoretical perennial polyculture farm), arguing that it outperforms a corn monoculture so much that it’s ‘not even funny’. But, unamusingly, his own figures prove the opposite, as I’ve shown here.
I don’t issue this challenge because I think my own small mixed semi-commercial farm in any way escapes from the same critique. Let us speak honestly – there are vanishingly few people in mainstream agriculture, in alternative agriculture or in backyard permaculture who even approach a ‘permanent’, locally self-provisioning agriculture. At best, we’re playing at being neo-peasants. And I’m not criticising anyone for playing. Play is good. Play is how we learn to do things for real. All I’m suggesting is that we should recognise it for what it is, avoid making exaggerated claims for what we do, and try to play nice with other people so our play builds up instead of knocking down (I’d add that constructive critique can be a worthwhile part of nice play). Play is also context-specific: I think Patrick’s ‘any blanket statement’ comment needs to be taken seriously. Which brings me to the matter of my “simple tillage” criticised by Rick.
We first need to remember that many of the plants which now dominate the human diet are disturbance-adapted, high resource-demanding, weed-susceptible types. That doesn’t mean that tillage is essential for growing them, but it does mean that alternative methods have to mimic what tillage achieves. I’ll assume that permaculturists aren’t going to do that with synthetic fertiliser and glyphosate, and I’ll further assume that they won’t do it by importing compost or manure from offsite, since this only displaces the dependence on tillage to unseen acreages elsewhere. What that basically leaves you with is some kind of permanent fertility-building sward on your holding, which you access via livestock or directly through cutting and composting. Both feasible, if probably less efficient than tilled leys. Maybe it would be possible to go with the Elaine Ingham/compost tea sort of approach, with extremely careful attention to onsite nutrient cycling. I’m not sure, I think the jury’s out on that one. Or, if you live somewhere with a cool, moist, temperate climate, little wind and water erosion and heavy, fertile soils, you might come to the conclusion that a bit of judicious tillage makes sense. I live in such a place, and that’s a conclusion I came to, along with many generations of peasant farmers in this region. Perhaps we’re wrong – but I think somebody who wants to make that case needs to ponder Patrick’s ‘blanket statement’ point and also the various trade-offs involved in the decision. Certainly, everyone I’ve come across locally who grows significant quantities of edible crops without tillage imports some of their fertility, which makes it difficult to wax too purist about the evils of tillage. Ultimately, I’m not (yet) convinced that backyard no-till polycultures which grow only a small proportion of a household’s food can scale up as a generalised permanent agriculture.
4. Playing with the state
Another consideration is that in designing food production systems we often focus on plot-level productivity and neglect the political relations within which plots are embedded – the Green Revolution mistake, which is all too easy to replicate in agroecological thinking. For a backyard permaculture plot in the UK, state policies are fairly indifferent – though they are making it increasingly hard for people to get a backyard plot in the first place. For a small-scale agroecological farm, on the other hand, the policies are mildly hostile. But in both cases, in the UK there’s an enormous fund of wealth, infrastructure and other implicit subsidies that we scarcely notice, many of them derived from the past and present plunder of other people in the world. You’d have to be an ascetically saintly hermit to avoid drawing down on this fund – in fact, I think it’s impossible. So again, while I don’t criticise myself or anyone else for doing so I think we should be aware of it. The situation is different in many past and present peasant societies. There, the state is wholly hostile, predatory, and given to extreme exemplary violence. When people say ‘nobody wants to live like a peasant’ I think the answer has to be ‘well, it depends on the nature of the state they’re involved with’. What will future states look like? What can we do to try to make them supportive rather than destructive of a permanent agriculture? That’s got to be part of the design process. Rick and I are lucky to be able to work with the growing systems we find ‘interesting’. In peasant situations where you have to produce almost your entire livelihood locally in the face of a state that offers you less than nothing, an effective agriculture becomes more important than an interesting one. I’m sure there are things to learn from interesting contemporary agricultures. But I think there are also things to learn from effective old-fashioned ones.
I don’t know if such a thing as ‘permanent agriculture’ will ever exist. I certainly haven’t seen anything that I’d be happy to apply the label to, though there are some agroecosystems that come close – particularly low input-low output traditional peasant ones. Such traditional societies are often also attuned to the dangers of egocentrism and self-importance, and seek ways to undermine it – which is worth remembering, I think. These traditional agroecosystems don’t look much like many backyard permaculture gardens that I’ve seen in the UK or North America, and they don’t look much like my holding either. I plan to use them as a rough model (though only a rough one) for my outline of a neo-peasant future.
My last post on these matters earned me accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve tried here not to claim to be anything that I’m not, but if I’ve failed I apologise. The longer I’ve farmed, the less certain I’ve become of how best to do it. When it comes to farming skills, I don’t think I’m necessarily the sharpest blade on the power harrow, so maybe Rick and those permaculturists who’ve told me that I’ll ‘never understand permaculture’ are right. But nemesis lurks in even the funkiest of gardens…
Anyway, my challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to advocate for a given type of agroecosystem is this:
- Can you provide a sufficient account of its input and output costs relative to other systems that you disfavour for you to convince yourself (and, more importantly, others) that it’s unambiguously superior?
- Can you examine your heart and be sure that there is no ego or self-aggrandizement in your analysis?
I think that’s a tough challenge. I’m not sure I’m equal to it. But I aim to give it a go.
- Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture. Princeton Univ Press.
- Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley.
- Boltanski, L. & Esquerre, A. 2016. ‘The economic life of things’ New Left Review, 98: 31-54.
- Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers. Acres USA.