Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.

Notes

  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.
  1. http://www.biogas-info.co.uk/about/feedstocks/
  1. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22984/1/UnivBath_PhD_2010_W_Mezzullo.pdf

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

Decision time

There can only be one topic for a blog post today, as a great country stands poised to make a momentous decision with potentially global repercussions for decades to come. I refer, of course, to the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, and the issue of how it will feed the 80% of its population who are not active farmers. For indeed it is high time that we returned to that happy nation and, even if the rest of the world should lose its head, tarry amongst its denizens to ruminate upon the intertwined fates of the human tribe in all its miraculous diversity.

The last time we visited Wessex we saw that a ten hectare holding housing twenty people, ten of whom were full-time workers, could feed its people pretty comfortably on the basis of a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy and with only a little in the way of starchy staples. A pretty good way to live, and a pretty good way to farm, I think, especially if on-farm energy is in short supply.

But I was generous with my land allocation, donating fully 40% of lowland Wessex’s farmland to the nominal 20% neo-peasant portion of its population. When it comes to thinking about how then to feed the rest of Wessex’s population, three main possibilities present themselves:

  1. Decide that everyone, or almost everyone, in Wessex should farm like this, and adjust the republic’s population downwards accordingly.
  1. Trim back the allocation to the neo-peasants so that it’s exactly proportionate to their numbers: 20% of farmland for 20% of the population.
  1. Stick with the 40% land allocation to the neo-peasants, and intensify production on the remaining 60% of the farmland in order to feed the remaining 80% of the population.

If we go for Option 1, then simple arithmetic suggests that 100% of the farmland will provide for 50% of the population. But we have some rough grazing not previously accounted for (about 83,000 ha, to be precise) which I reckon could feed about 18,500 people. And we also produced a food surplus of at least 10% on our neo-peasant holdings. Prudence might suggest that we hold onto that for a rainy day, but since I built in so many conservative assumptions into my food production figures I’m happy to make that 10% available to the non-productive population. If we do that, we end up with a total Wessex population that could be sustained by the projections I previously outlined of just over 3.9 million people – which amounts to 74% of its current population, or 62% of the projected 2039 population. So in this scenario, up to 2.4 million people would have to go and find somewhere else to live.

Drawn though I am by the neo-peasant lifestyle I’ve been outlining, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in arguing for an agrarian system that requires more than 2 million people not to exist. Similar ideas have often been mooted in recent times by people sincerely convinced that all would be well with the world if only the odd few million people could be dispensed with. When such thinkers have got hold of political power things haven’t generally worked out too well. So let’s not go there. Though I suppose we could bear the figure in mind as a long-term population goal to aim at for an agreeable neo-peasant lifestyle in Wessex.

On the face of it, Option 2 would seem to be the fairest, although for reasons I’ll soon come to I don’t really think it is that fair. But let’s crunch some numbers on it anyway. Can we double the productivity on our neo-peasant holding in order to feed 40, not 20, people from our 10ha? Well, maybe we could start by trying to increase milk production in order to retain our traditional Wessex love of grass and avoid too much extra spiking of our soils and blood sugars. The only real margin we have on the holding to do that, though, is the woodland. If we pinch about 1.4ha of it for grass to get some extra dairy cows (we’ll worry about the knock on implications of losing the woodland another time) we can get an extra 4,600l of milk…which isn’t nearly enough to feed another 20 people.

There’s nothing for it, we’re going to have to grow more potatoes. It turns out that if we turn all of the woodland over to cropland, take another 0.75ha of cropland from the pasture (although we do get some of it back as a grazable ley), lose our dairy-fed pig (so we eat the whey and buttermilk directly), keep everything else the same but grow about 2.2ha of potatoes on our 4ha of cropland then we can just about feed the 40 folks on the holding (again bearing in mind my very moderate yield assumptions). In this scenario, we exceed our calorific requirement by just 3%, while exceeding all our other nutritional targets much more comfortably. But we fail Proposition Paul, getting 63% of our calories from carbohydrates, the majority from the simple carbohydrates of the starchy staples. And, looking at it in terms of labour drudgery, the amount of cropland devoted to staple crops that’s going to have to be worked increases from about 500m2 per full-time worker to about 1,300m2.

Well, maybe that all sounds like a bit of a stretch. But see what we’ve just done? We’ve fed the entire population of 2039 Wessex – numbering a million more souls than at present – with a reasonably diverse and nutritious diet, using exclusively organic methods at low yield assumptions, and without expanding the existing agricultural area. For that, I think we deserve a round of applause.

OK, quieten down. Because here’s the thing: I’m not so keen on Option 2, really. In the UK we currently import most of the fruit and a lot of the vegetables that we eat, and we devote most of our farmed area to growing cereals – the most energy and protein dense of crops and the least labour intensive, albeit only if you replace human labour with copious fossil fuel inputs. So it wouldn’t really be fair to insist that the 20% neo-peasant fraction of the population produces its livelihood in its entirety from an exactly proportionate land area (possibly with constrained energy access), while continuing to farm the rest of it as we presently do. And really the whole point of constructing a society with such a high level of small-scale landholding is to encourage and celebrate the fact that this local and somewhat laborious way of life is a good way to live, and perhaps indeed a necessary one in view of the manifold problems in the world. So I’m not inclined to make it compete on even terms with a mechanised commercial agriculture. Instead, I’d like to put the shoe on the other foot to the way we tend to think about farming today. So for that 80% of the population who don’t farm, my question is…why not? Oh look, I’m just kidding. Don’t go – you don’t have to justify yourself to me. I’m sure you’re making a good contribution to society in other ways. But you’re not out there day in, day out earning your livelihood from the land, are you? So let’s allocate 60% of the land area to you and see what we can grow. On that somewhat limited area, agriculture will have to be quite starch-intensive – but that’s no different from the present, so nothing to complain about there. Still, we’ll try to vary the diet for you with a bit of meat and eggs, along with some fruit and veg. And if you’re not happy with the fare that you get from your 60% land share, then get yourself an allotment or start up a community garden. In neo-peasant Wessex, a faint air of disrepute hangs over those who make no effort to involve themselves in growing food.

How productivity turns out on this 60% land share depends a bit on the assumptions we make about energy use. I suppose I should have covered the issue before I started this cycle of neo-peasant essays. Instead I’m going to come back to it in more detail towards the end. One problem is uncertainties over likely future energy scenarios. But I suppose the two extremes would be to assume either (i) business-as-usual, with readily available fossil fuel (or, better, clean, renewable equivalents) in agriculture, or (ii) peak oil apocalypse, with no fossil fuel available at all. The general implications of the latter scenario are endless and profound, and I can’t follow them through here. But in an agricultural context, the obvious thing to try in that situation would be biodiesel. And in the UK the obvious biodiesel crop is rape (canola) – more obvious than eating the damn stuff at any rate. So, minimally, we could build a scenario in which we grow an oil crop to power our agriculture, and to transport its products to the towns. Whether we could retain 80% of the population in urban and/or non-agrarian settings in a full-on biodiesel economy is, at best, debatable. But the Lord God gave us Excel spreadsheets in order to mess about with improbable scenarios, so let’s give it a whirl.

But not now. I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. Plus I have to go and write a talk about the evils of urbanism. And there’s an election to watch…

Nutrition in neo-peasant Wessex

In my last post I presented a picture of the production on an ‘average’ 10 hectare holding in the future Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. Here I’m going to update that picture slightly in the light of some of the comments I received and then take a look at what sort of diet such a holding would turn out for its inhabitants.

So first the feedback. One general comment I received is that farming is specific: specific to the local soil, the farm’s exact microclimate, and so on – so two different farms are likely to be as similar as ‘chalk and cheese’, to use an appropriately local agricultural cliché. My response to that is partly to concede the point – here I’m describing a kind of ‘averaged’ or ‘ideal type’ neo-peasant farm, not a blueprint for what any individual farm would necessarily look like in reality. But my response is also partly to rebut the point: the basic mixed farming package of grass-cereal-legume-ruminant-vegetable-woodland is widely applicable globally, despite numerous local variations. And the emphasis on local self-provisioning in a neo-peasant world is a further generalising move – the point is not to develop the land to its single most productive specialised use and then create a living from it through extensive monetised trading with other specialists. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. The point is to aim towards making a generalised living as best we can from the land around us. So I’d guess that a lot of neo-peasant farms probably would approximate quite closely to the ‘average’ farm I’m describing.

Onto some more specific comments. As I mentioned previously, my assumption of one dairy cow plus calves per hectare was a fairly key one. Eric from North Carolina, who has considerably more dairying experience than me, suggested that it sounded feasible but possibly somewhat on the high side, while conceding that the grazing in Wessex may be rather better than in his location. I’m going to try to get a bit of local advice on this issue – though it’s complicated by the fact that not many farmers around here raise house cows without concentrates in the diet. In the meantime, I’m going to split the difference between my estimate and Eric’s and assume around 3,300 litres of milk per hectare. Eric also picked up on an embarrassing over-estimate in my buttermilk calculations, which I’ve now corrected. The result is that my neo-peasants get not only less milk, butter and cheese than I’d projected but also less pigs (albeit with a bit more buttermilk and whey for direct consumption). This makes the nutritional turn-out of the whole thing much tighter than it had been. So thanks a bunch, Eric. But seriously, I want this to be as plausible as possible, so I’m genuinely grateful for the scrutiny.

If I need to make good the deficit arising from Eric’s correction (and I think I probably do) it leaves me with some choices about which under-exploited margin to push. There are three options:

(1) More cropland (or more starchy staples within the cropland)

(2) More fruit, nuts etc. by pushing at the productivity of the edges

(3) More pasture, at the expense of woodland

I’ve opted for (3), with a bit of (1) in the form of growing relatively more maincrop over early potatoes (85/15%). So, with my new assumption of five-sixths of a dairy cow plus calves per hectare, to retain our three dairy cows (along with the sheep) we need 6¼ha of permanent pasture (plus a bit of temporary grass from the leys). That leaves us with 1.9ha or 19% woodland – still a pretty generous margin, I think, given that less than 5% of UK farmland is wooded currently.

Other comments included the suggestion of barley, which I’ve now included at a yield of 2.25tha-1 for hulled grain instead of my long-straw wheat. And also a suggestion for sugar beet. Not so sure about that one – but I’m providing for Beta vulgaris in the garden, and I don’t doubt that some wily Wessex neo-peasants would experiment with it and probably achieve better productivity with it overall than I’m projecting in my sugarless neo-peasant world. It was also suggested that geese are garden-raiders that are best avoided. In my limited experience of goose-keeping, it’s harder keeping the fox from the goose than the goose from the garden, but in any case the geese are a fairly insignificant part of the overall system so I’m not proposing to change that. There were also some interesting discussions about different ruminant species and the virtues of animal versus vegetable oil. I’ll come on to some of those issues in later posts, but I don’t propose to change my overall approach just now. Thanks to everyone who commented.

So now it’s time to look at the nutritional profile of the neo-peasant diet I’ve projected. For the moment, I’m just going to look at the 10 hectare holding with its 20 residents and consider whether the holding can meet their nutritional needs. Later on, I’ll look at the situation in Wessex as a whole, and beyond.

A complete definition of nutritional adequacy would, I suppose, have to look at the full range of dietary sub-components that nutritionists have identified – all the vitamins, all the minerals etc. This starts to get a bit unwieldy, so what I’ve done here is take the two obvious macro-nutrients that people need – energy and protein – and then four other indicator nutrients, namely Vitamin A, Vitamin C, magnesium and iron.

We then need some baseline figures for how much of these nutrients an individual person needs. This varies by age and gender and doubtless other individual metrics, which again complicates analysis. But since I’m assuming a mix of ages and genders on my hypothetical holding, taking an overall average figure is defensible, I think. Probably the most controversial decision is how much energy an individual needs. Current government recommendations average out at around 2,000 calories per day (that’s 8,373.6 kilojoules to us metricians). Doubtless it could be argued that a neo-peasant working their holding for food will require more energy than the average desk and car-bound modern westerner. Indeed, I’ve seen it suggested that peasants of yore consumed as many as 4,000 calories per day, though I haven’t seen that substantiated in the research literature – if anyone has a credible reference for it, I’d appreciate a tip-off.

If that 4,000 calorie figure indeed was true, it’s probably worth remembering that peasants of bygone days were typically working in low crop-yield and low fertility situations, producing large surpluses for their social superiors, and probably walking around a lot in between fragmented holdings. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions would be if applied to the future neo-peasants of Wessex (at least if it all turns out the way I’m construing it here, which it probably won’t). It does of course partly depend on what other energy sources are available on the holding, a point that I’ll address when I get around to it. But even if those additional sources are minimal, I think a lot of the working time on the silvo-agri-pastoral holding I described in my previous post would involve only minor exertion, though there’d certainly be some tiring days in the course of the year. It’s also worth bearing in mind that half the people on the holding are basically uninvolved in its day-to-day work and in view of their age profile are likely to have a sub-2,000 calorific requirement. Anyway, enough of this waffle. You want me to specify a figure for the assumed average daily calorific needs of all the residents on the Wessex neo-peasant holding? You got it – 2,250 calories. Any problems with that, please dial 1-800-DOYOUROWNDARNEDSPREADSHEET.

I’m hoping that the other nutritional targets require less debate. US government recommendations suggest, on average, about 50g of protein a day, 800mg of Vitamin A (RAE), 80mg of Vitamin C, 400mg of magnesium and 12mg of iron. And it doesn’t do to question what the US government recommends.

I’ve converted the crop yields by kilogram reported in my previous post into values for the nutritional indicators outlined above using food composition tables – mostly those provided by the USDA on this handy website, while occasionally using a borrowed copy of McCance and Widdowson’s venerable The Composition of Foods from the 1970s. The USDA figures are generally a bit lower than McCance and Widdowson, which suits my taste for under-estimation (though perhaps foods now are just genuinely less nutrient dense than in the 1970s?) The results are summarised in Table 1. The first line shows how much the 10ha holding described in my previous post would produce annually in total for each of the nutritional indicators described above. The second line shows how much of these various nutrients would be required by the 20 people on the holding annually on the basis of the recommended intake described above. The third line shows the ratio of these two figures to provide an at-a-glance indicator of whether the holding has hit its targets (so, less than one shows target missed, more than one shows target exceeded).

 

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity on a Wessex Neo-Peasant Holding

 

X103

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 75,617 791 29,367 3,635 5,241 125
Required 68,593 364 5,825 582 2,913 87
Ratio 1.10 2.17 5.04 6.24 1.80 1.43

 

 

So the answer is…yes the holding does hit its targets, quite comfortably, in all cases, the closest call being with the energy requirement, in which there’s only a 10% surfeit of productivity over need.

Bearing in mind my modest yield assumptions and the many potential margins of productivity that I left unexploited, I think this analysis clearly suggests that it’s not in principle a very difficult thing for people occupying lowland agricultural land in Wessex at a density of about 2 per hectare (or 1 per 1¼ acre) to furnish themselves with their needs. I probably need to reiterate once again in view of the scoffing that this exercise has already prompted that I’m making no claims here about the ease of creating a future sustainable neo-peasant society along the lines implied in this analysis. What I guess I am claiming is that, so far as we can tell from present circumstances, such a society might in principle be possible.

I’ll conclude this post with a few further breakdowns of the nutritional data. Table 2 shows the proportionate contribution of the different food types produced on the holding to the energy and protein components of the diet (apologies, I tried to produce these in the form of more appealing pie charts, but WordPress was having none of it).

Table 2: Energy and protein components of the neo-peasant diet

Proportion of Food Energy Intake (%) Proportion of Protein Intake (%)
Potatoes, wheat & barley 14 10
Legumes 1 2
Vegetables 21 25
Fruit & nuts 10 2
Dairy 27 27
Meat 21 22
Fish 4 9
Other 1 2

 

The figures show a nice, healthy diet, with most of the macro-nutrients from grass-based meat, dairy and vegetables. Fruit also looms quite large, and starchy staples only provide about 10% of the nutrients. So plenty of room to intensify there, should the need arise.

The other nutritional check to run is what I’m calling Proposition Paul – a suggestion from Paul, a pioneering local neo-peasant here in Wessex, that the peasant diet should aim to get about 16% of its calories from protein (max 20%), about 40% from fat (max 48%), and the rest from carbohydrates, preferably of the complex rather than the simple kind. And it turns out that we hit these targets. Calories from protein are 16.6% and from fat 40.5%. That leaves 43% from carbohydrates all told, and only 7% from simple carbohydrates.

Well, this neo-peasant lifestyle is a breeze, isn’t it? But of course we haven’t yet looked at how the rest of the good people of Wessex will fare. And lurking menacingly in the background is the dark shadow of Londinium…

A neo-peasant farm in Wessex

Right, no more faffing around. Without further ado, I’m going to describe the layout of an ‘average’ 10 hectare holding in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, circa 2039, as introduced in various preceding posts. The holding, remember, has 10 whole-time equivalent workers, and ten dependents (children/elders). I’m going to play around with those figures in due course, but let’s stick with them for now – so imagine 10 people doing the work implied in what I outline below. As to what energy sources they’ll have available…well, I’ll come to that when I’m ready.

Please shout out if you don’t like any of the numbers I’m about to throw around

1.The structure of the holding

First, I’m going to take out 3.5% or 3,500m2 of the land area on my 10ha holding for houses, outbuildings and tracks.

Each of the five houses on the holding gets their own 250m2 organic vegetable garden, totalling 0.125ha in all.

There’s just under 1.4ha of cropland, farmed organically, which the residents jointly tend.

There’s about 6ha of grass for grazing, comprising about 5ha of permanent pasture, a 0.5ha orchard with fruit and nut trees and grass in between for grazing (the trees may need some protection), and almost 0.5ha of temporary grass/clover ley in the cropland available for grazing.

There’s about 2.5ha of woodland.

2.The cropland

In a real situation, I think people would grow a pretty wide range of crops, a lot of them minor ones occupying small areas. I don’t see it as my job to lay out in exhaustive detail exactly what all these crops might be, so for this exercise I’m restricting the cropping to a relatively small range of fairly obvious crops. I’m interested in any suggestions for refinements, particularly if they come with reasons as to why it’s important to include them.

In relation to crop yields, I have three sources of data. First, my own data back from the days around 2010/11 when I was young and enthusiastic and I could be bothered to keep meticulous cropping records. Second, I have data in the form of a sneak preview from my friend Rebecca Laughton’s fascinating forthcoming study of small farm productivity in the UK. And finally, I have data from my copy of the 2011/12 Organic Farm Management Handbook. If I get a few more donations to the website I might splash out on a newer version, and update the figures. In keeping with my preference to err on the side of under-estimating rather than over-estimating yields, in each case I’ve taken whichever of my three data sources reports the lowest average yield. I think the yield per hectare figures I’m assuming generally are on the low side, but I’d welcome any comments.

Other sources of data I’ve used are further referenced below.

One other point: some people like to stress the yield advantages of backyard scale, labour intensive mixed cropping and might therefore think that the yield data I’m using from commercial-scale single-crop systems underestimates the possibilities. I’ve explained here why I’m a bit sceptical about the claims made for mixed cropping. And in any case, as I’ve just said, I don’t mind underestimating a bit. Where I have made minor allowance for the benefits of small scale is in the issue of edge. I don’t go with the over-mystical enthusiasm for edge associated with the wilder shores of the permaculture movement, but look at it this way: a square 10ha field has a perimeter of 1,265m. You could sow wheat in the field while establishing around 300 apple trees around the perimeter with essentially no loss of growing space for the wheat. A cereal farmer with a large number of 10ha fields isn’t going to do that. But 10 neo-peasants living in a 10ha field probably are. So in that way we can increase the effective growing area of the field using nothing but the magic of human labour and linear planting, so long as we don’t push that logic too far…

OK, so let’s look at what’s in the shared cropland. First up, I’m going to set aside about 350m2 to grow hemp and flax in order to make clothes. Personally I prefer wearing cotton and synthetic fibres and would probably be willing to spend some of my off-farm household income on that if it wasn’t too expensive, but let’s go with the home-grown option. I’ve taken figures for hemp and flax from Simon Fairlie’s ‘Can Britain feed itself?’1 – it amounts to about 7kg of fibre per person per year.

The rest of the cropland is split into an eight course rotation, each course occupying just under 1,700m2. The rotation I envisage is as follows (though not necessarily in this chronological sequence):

1 – Grass/clover ley (available for ruminant grazing)

2 – Grass/clover ley

3 – Potatoes, split between earlies yielding 6.4 tonnes per hectare (25%) and maincrop yielding 12.7 tha-1 (75%)

4 – A short-straw spring wheat, yielding 3.5 tha-1

5 – A long-straw, traditional variety winter wheat with low fertility requirements, yielding 1.75 tha-1

6 – Legumes, split 50/50 between broad beans for the summer and drying beans for the winter (both 2.5 tha-1)

7 – Vegetables: split between cabbages (75%) yielding 35 tha-1 and swede (25%) yielding 24 tha-1.

8 – Vegetables: a third each of onions (19 tha-1), leeks (11 tha-1) and carrots (35 tha-1)

I’ve grown wheat on small scales from time to time with mixed results – the main problem being that the small-scale sowing and especially harvesting technologies I’ve had available weren’t that great. In a society with a lot of small-scale wheat cultivation, that would probably change. Wheat’s co-product, straw, would be in high demand around the holding – one reason for growing a traditional long-straw variety, as suggested by Michael under a previous post.

Yield figures for potatoes, wheat and legumes are further corrected for seed input. The other crops aren’t corrected, on the grounds that it’s fairly negligible.

3.The Garden

In the garden, I’m projecting seven crops, though in reality there’d be more:

1 – Espalier apple on the south-facing edge: just over 3 trees on average in each of the 5 gardens, yielding 9kg of apples per tree.

2 – Tomatoes: 30 plants per garden yielding 2kg per plant

3 – Strawberries: about 80m2 yielding 6.3 tha-1

4 – Chard: about 40m2 yielding 30.5 tha-1 (cut and come again)

5 – Courgettes: about 40m2 yielding 40.8 tha-1

6 – Lettuce: about 40m2 yielding 3.3 tha-1

7 – Kale: about 40m2 yielding 35.7 tha-1

Fertility in the garden would come from compost generated from around the site. I’ll write more about fertility in another post.

4.The Orchard

In a 0.5 ha orchard, I think there would be space for:

  • 56 apple trees on MM106 rootstocks, producing about 26kg per tree
  • 47 pear trees on Quince A rootstocks, producing about 17kg per tree
  • 58 plum trees on St Julien A rootstocks, producing about 12kg per tree
  • 47 hazel bushes, producing about 3kg per tree

Yield data here is from Harry Baker’s lower estimates in his The Fruit Garden Displayed – an old one, but a good one. Hazel was a key part of the pre-agricultural British diet, and is one of the few realistic sources of non-animal dietary fat in these parts. Perhaps there’s a case for growing more? Then again, our ancestors didn’t have grey squirrels to contend with…

5.Livestock and Meat

(i) Cows

I have little experience of dairying, so I’m a bit uncertain of these figures and would welcome any comments. But the most efficient way of getting useful human food from grass is via a dairy cow, so there will be cows on my holding. These will be more or less pure grass-fed house cows, not souped up (or at least soya and cerealed-up) champion milkers of the modern kind. They will have preferential access to the clover-rich leys on the cropland and will otherwise be part of a grazing rotation over the permanent pasture. I’m assuming 1 ha of grazing will feed a cow and her calves over the year, and yield 4,000 litres of milk, plus 90kg of meat per hectare per year from the calf (slaughtered at 2 years, and with some kept as cow replacements after 10 years). There’d probably be a need for careful pasture management (and maybe occasional reseeding?) to ensure a relatively high-productivity pasture (white clover, perennial ryegrass etc.)

There would be 3 house cows on the holding. About a fifth of their milk would be kept for direct human consumption, which works out at about 300ml per day for each of the 20 people on the holding. The rest of the milk would be turned into butter and cheese. I’m assuming about half of it will be devoted to butter, with 20 litres of milk producing 1kg of butter (I’m anxious that my neo-peasants have enough fat to eat and to cook with). And just under a third is devoted to cheese, with 8 litres of milk going into each kg of cheese. The butter and cheese-making processes give the co-products of buttermilk and whey respectively (90l of buttermilk per 100l of milk for butter, and 87l of whey per 100l of milk for cheese). A little bit of this will be eaten directly by the people on the holding, but most of it will be used to feed pigs (see below).

(ii) Sheep

I’m assuming that a hectare of permanent pasture could support 6 ewes plus their lambs (and a ram, or part thereof) year round. I think that’s a pretty low estimate, but it provides a bit of extra margin for the cows. The sheep would be on just under 3 ha of the permanent pasture, and there would be about 18 ewes in all, each producing 1.5 lambs annually on average. Ewes would be culled on average at five years, with lambs raised to replace them. On the basis of those assumptions, the sheep would produce 544kg of meat (lamb and mutton) per year, plus some wool and other bits and pieces which would doubtless come in handy. Rotating them around the pasture with the cows would help to keep the worm burden down.

(iii) Pigs

I’ll start with the assumption that I can raise two pigs in the woodland. I know this is cheating a bit, but I’ll have a clearing in the woodland in which I can grow some clover and fodder beet for them. They’ll also get to eat waste material from the gardens and kitchens (there’s no swill ban in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex). This is pretty much what I do now, and I reckon I could easily raise two almost-default pigs this way. But I’m worried that my neo-peasants aren’t going to have enough easily available fat, so I’d like to raise some more pigs. If I reserve all but 5% of the buttermilk and whey from the dairy as pig food, and on the assumption that you have to put about six times more energy into a pig than you get out, I reckon I can raise another four pigs from the dairy. I think there’ll also be a bit of a surplus of potatoes and beans from the field crops, so I’m going to devote something like 650kg of the potato crop and 150kg of the bean crop to pig food, getting an extra three pigs. And that should give us about 400kg of pig meat per year altogether (I’m assuming smaller, leaner pigs at slaughter than the current commercial norm – killing out at 44kg, which was the weight of my default-raised Tamworths last year). We should be able to get a good few kilos of lard out of the pig meat (and a little more from the beef) which, together with the butter, will be our cooking fat. Having nine pigs in the woodland may trash the ground a bit, but on the basis of my current pig-keeping experiments I think it’d probably be OK – the average holding would just be raising weaners during the warmer months, which limits the damage.

(iv) Ducks and/or hens

Personally I prefer ducks to hens – better for eating slugs, the No.1 garden pest in Wessex. Though hens are better with some of the insect pests. And ducks’ waddling is less destructive of the ground than chickens’ scratching. And since I don’t have a TV or young children, ducks are also better at the slapstick humour otherwise missing from my life. But, ducks or hens, my assumptions are basically the same – I’ll have ten of them, each laying on average 285 eggs per year, and requiring about 10kg of feed a week. Half of that will come from their foraging free-range – well, not entirely free-range, but probably a lot more free-range than the ‘free-range’ products in the shops. The other half will come from the wheat. Talking of free-range, that reminds me that at some point I need to discuss fencing. But not right now.

At the end of their laying lives I guess I’d put the ducks and/or hens in the pot. But the amount of meat isn’t much to write home about, so I’ll ignore it. Meat hens/ducks of course are an option, but a less efficient one. I’m not including any here.

(v) Geese

There’ll be five geese, to be eaten at Christmas, or solstice, or whatever Dionysian rites there are in 2039 to keep the winter blues at bay. The geese will fight it out with the cows and sheep for grazing during the year.

(vi) Bees

There’ll be bees, helping with pollination as well as providing honey, wax, propolis etc. But I don’t think there’ll be much honey, because they need it more than us and we won’t be poisoning them with sugar. So let us say we’ll have just 10kg each year to put by for a rainy day.

(vii) Fish

Fish are efficient converters of fish-food into human-food, and before we became habituated to sea-fish and salmonids, fishponds were a ubiquitous part of the farmed British landscape. I’m sure that there would be neo-peasant fish farmers in Wessex. But most fish farming systems I’ve seen are high input as well as high output and quite energy/building intensive, so I really have no idea how to make realistic estimates. Therefore I’m going to ignore farmed fish. Likewise with wild freshwater fish. I’m sure people in Wessex would fish in its lakes and rivers, though with so many people around they’d have to be careful not to fish them all out. So I’m going to leave freshwater fish as another under-exploited margin in my analysis.

Sea-fish, on the other hand, seems like a margin worth exploring, given the historic importance of fishing in Wessex, the hundreds of miles of coastline, and the nutritional excellence of wild fish. But it’s a bit tricky coming up with an estimate of sustainable catch. And perhaps also thinking about fishing technology in a potentially energy-constrained future – though, more than with most things, perhaps the sun, wind and brine of the maritime environment suggests ways that it could be done using mostly renewable inputs.

I confess that I was fairly ignorant about the UK fishing industry until I obtained a copy of the UK Sea Fisheries Statistics and achieved instant enlightenment. Did you know, for example, that 418,000 tonnes of pelagic fish were landed by UK vessels using demersal trawl/seine gear in 2014? Seriously? Well do try to keep up.

I thought long and hard about how best to convert current catch statistics into something that seemed likely to be sustainable. In the end, I plumped for the simple expedient of limiting the catch to that which is currently brought in by UK boats of under 24m, constituting a mere 25% of their total catch. Allocated out on a per capita basis that gives everyone about 2½kg of fish per year each.

My friend Paul has used a more elaborate methodology, looking at estimated sustainable fish stocks from the European Atlas of the Seas, applying it to fishery zones of the western seaboard and allocating it out accordingly to the people of Wessex. He comes up with the much larger figure of 36½kg of fish per person per year (doubtless my figures are biased towards the considerably smaller onshore fishery while his include more distant offshore fisheries). I propose in time-honoured fashion to split the difference, giving my neo-peasants 19½ kg of fish each per year. This, incidentally, is the only source of food they get from off the holding.

(viii) Meat – A Summary

The holding’s pastures drive its meat productivity, particularly through the medium of its dairy cows. So my assumption of 1 cow plus calves per hectare is key. I hope it sounds reasonable. To put it into context, in his ‘restoration agriculture’ system, Mark Shepard proposes to produce just under 20,000 litres of milk and just over 1,200kg of meat from one hectare of his Wisconsin farm2, something that elsewhere I’ve suggested seems implausibly optimisitc3. Here, I’m proposing to produce 4,000 litres of milk and 168kg of meat from one hectare of a Wessex neo-peasant farm. I guess you could call Wessex the Wisconsin of England, only with a few more people and a few less lakes. And, apparently, a lot less meat and milk.

6.Other Food

It shouldn’t be hard to produce 15kg of fresh shiitake mushrooms on logs cut from the woodland each year.

And it shouldn’t be hard for the kids to harvest 10kg of blackberries from the woodland and hedges, along with 10kg of sea buckthorn berries that will have been strategically planted along one of the holding’s many edges. In fact, there’s huge scope for growing a lot more in the way of fruit and nuts along these edges, but I’ll leave things at that low level to create another underexploited margin.

I’m not convinced that there’s all that much scope for bushmeat from the holding. I doubt many people will be raising game birds in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there’s no Duchy of Cornwall, remember), so that pretty much leaves us with deer, squirrels, rabbits and pigeons. Usually, I find it more trouble than it’s worth to go after these creatures, though sometimes either luck or fury at their crop depredations brings some of their meat to my table. Teenagers with guns around the place can help – though remember there’s 20 people in every 10 hectares, so if you’ve got a rifle make sure you aim it downwards. Anyway, I’m estimating a parsimonious 4kg of bushmeat per holding per year.

Doubtless there’s some scope for collecting wild plants and mushrooms, and for developing invertebrate farming with good input/output ratios (mussels, snails, insects etc.) But again I’m going to leave all that as an unexploited margin.

~~~

Well, there you have it. The full dope on the neo-peasant holding. In my next post I’ll plug all of that into my magic spreadsheet to reveal the nutritional consequences of the Wessex way of life.

References

  1. Fairlie, S. 2007/8. ‘Can Britain feed itself?’ The Land, 4, 18-26.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture, Acres USA.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=704

Watching the watchers

I’ve had a certain amount of negative feedback on my current little exercise in describing a neo-peasant future, not so much here at Small Farm Future but in its wider tracks across cyberspace. Part of the problem seems to be its futurological aspects. Some people are quite certain that the future will be a techno-cornucopian one, with no place for the idea that there’ll be any need, let alone desire, for widespread localised, labour-intensive, land-based husbandry. Others are equally certain that, conversely, runaway climate change, energy scarcity and political collapse will so undermine our civilizational moorings that attempts like mine to plot some kind of stable locality society are futile.

For my part, I’m not so interested in the waiting game implied in either of these scenarios (waiting for somebody clever to come along and save our ass in the first scenario, or waiting around to die in the second). The exercise is based on the notion that we could, if collectively we so chose, organise ourselves into more localised and labour-intensive polities and economies, and that if we did so we might better secure our health and general wellbeing at a lower energetic and carbon cost. Whether that would be enough to save our ass in the long term doesn’t interest me all that much, basically because it goes too far into the realm of futurological speculation. But since more localised polities are, by definition, locally specific, and since they’ve not yet been achieved, it seems necessary to focus on particular places at some point in the future on the basis of a few plausible grounding assumptions, such as projected population size in 2039 in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as per my last-but-one post. I’m interested in discussing what such a polity might look like and what obstacles its emergence faces. I’m not so interested in predicting its likelihood over other possible future scenarios. Ah well, there seem to be enough people around willing to play along with my little conceit to make it worth continuing to flesh it out.

My first task is to consider the productive possibilities of the neo-peasant polity before turning to tougher issues concerning its political and economic gestation. But before doing that in detail I just want to sketch one more bit of context.

In my previous post I looked amongst other things at the maximally extensive margin of productivity in Wessex agriculture, namely ruminants on permanent pasture. Suppose we decided to turn over all of Wessex’s farmland to permanent pasture and feed Wessex’s future 6.3 million people entirely on lamb and mutton. Not that I’m suggesting it would be a good idea – it just gives us a handle on that maximally extensive margin. By my calculations (I’ll explain my underlying assumptions in later posts) farming in this way we would only be able to furnish about 20% of the people of Wessex’s basic calorific requirements. Which actually sounds to me surprisingly high, but of course not high enough to prevent mass starvation.

Let us go to the other extreme, and look at the maximally intensive margin of productivity – which here in Britain would be a potato monoculture. If we aimed to exactly meet the calorific requirements of Wessex’s 6.3 million by growing only potatoes at current average conventionally-grown yield levels (again, not something I’d actually recommend) we could do so using only about 9% of Wessex’s existing farmland (or about 15% if we grew them organically).

Somewhere in the (rather large) gap between those two figures lies the potential for a productive mixed agriculture to feed the people of Wessex. If I were responsible for provisioning myself under no pressures of land availability, I’d focus on growing what I liked to eat and what I liked to farm. And in that case I think my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories. I have a limited appetite for hand-planting and harvesting potatoes or wheat. With my tractor, on the other hand…

When people talk about the back-breakingly miserable life of the peasant, I don’t think they have this kind of pottering, forest-gardening, allodial, gentleman-peasant sort of existence in mind. Instead they’re thinking of what you might call the tithe-peasant, eking out a living on a small scrap of land grudgingly allocated them by someone more powerful, and who has to produce a considerable surplus in order to pay the latter personage their dues in cash or kind, thus propping up the rest of society on their overburdened shoulders. Historically, there have undoubtedly been more peasants of the latter than the former kind, so one important challenge for a future neo-peasant vision is how to try to tip the balance the other way.

And not only historically – there are many people in tithe-peasant situations today. And there’s also a kind of agricultural mindset that seeks to normalise it: Too poor to eat anything but Vitamin A deficient rice? Then let’s bioengineer Vitamin A into rice. The poor will still be eating nothing but rice, but they’ll no longer get Vitamin A deficiency, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Those idealists who suggest that we should organise the world such that people can afford to produce or buy a more varied diet ought to check their privilege. “Let them eat broccoli!”, the idealists say. The very idea! (I can never read this four-word argument in favour of golden rice without marvelling at how shamelessly it telegraphs the vastly greater enthusiasm of its proponents for their favoured crop technology than for combating poverty).

For people in the richer world, food choices are usually less stark. But there’s a similar agricultural mindset at work, which prefers to build a whole food system around a handful of major commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize, soya, canola, palm etc.) which can be processed into a myriad of rather appealing and seemingly differentiated products, especially when suitably garnished with additional minor crops. It would be stretching a point to call the consumers in this latter-day global food system tithe-peasants (for one thing the work they now do to earn their food, if indeed there’s work for them to do, usually inclines more towards the mind-breaking than the back-breaking). But the parallel is there.

I also wonder if one aspect of this contemporary agricultural mindset’s normalisation is to stress the healthiness of its limited offerings – carbohydrates and monounsaturated vegetable oils over saturated animal fats and so on. The essentials of nutritional wisdom are quite beyond my own limited areas of expertise, though I take sad solace from the fact that they also seem beyond those of the nutritional experts, who after all were extolling the virtues of trans-fats not so many years ago. I’ve found some of the writings produced by the Weston Price Foundation very thought-provoking in this respect – for example, this one on canola, and this one on dietary fat. It’s work of this kind that lies behind the demanding injunction under one of my earlier posts from a certain commenter going by the name of Paul to see if I could create a localvore, neo-peasant diet in which 65% of the calories came from fat – a requirement that, thankfully, he later reduced to 45%.

Weston Price was a dentist and dental epidemiologist who looked at the effect of switching to modern western eating on people who had previously eaten more ancestral wholefood diets. A Google search of the Weston Price Foundation quickly takes you to a whole mess of hits denouncing the organisation for its quackery, including one called ‘Quackwatch’ which features this article about Weston Price’s work. Read alongside the work of the WPF authors themselves cited above, I found it so full of unsupported generalisations and tendentious reasoning that I contemplated establishing a new online watchdog called ‘Meta-quack’ or ‘Watch-watch’ or maybe ‘Quackback’. Indeed, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning the regnant dietary consensus of a low fat, high carb, veg oil-based diet. Actually, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning just about everything. But, if such a thing is possible, it’s even worse on dietary matters.

Indeed, not only the web. Recently, the National Obesity Council issued a report suggesting that eating saturated animal fat wasn’t necessarily bad for you and eating simple carbohydrates wasn’t necessarily good. Cue widespread outrage, mass resignation from the organisation’s scientific ranks and then, a few weeks later, the results of a big US longitudinal study which was spun by one of its authors as ‘butter bad, vegetable oil good’. The paper is behind a paywall and I can’t get access to it, but looking at the abstract my feeling is that the truth is likely to be very much more complex than that.

I’ve traversed this ground before. To my mind, if you want to untease relationships and causalities in the material world, careful, scientific, empirical study is basically the only game in town. But scientific truths are always provisional and usually take a long time to mature. And science is also always a social practice, and is not therefore immune from the usual noise of people doing their people-like things. So there’s an important distinction to be made between science and scientism – the latter essentially referring to situations where a scientist is willingly wheeled out to justify a simplistic policy prescription on the basis of a simplistic summary of what ‘the science says’. I had personal experience of this on the Food Climate Research Network when I criticised the EU pigswill ban. Somebody jumped on me for my ignorance of ‘the science’ and the potentially dire consequences of feeding swill. I asked him to point me to research that specified the trade-off between the elevated economic risk of swill feeding and the economic cost of alternative food waste disposal and fodder production. No response. I’m still not sure if any such work was done prior to implementing the ban. I certainly haven’t seen any. Still, I expect when swill feeding is eventually permitted once again, as it probably will be, there’ll be no shortage of experts on hand to justify the decision scientifically. I’m inclined to regard confident generalisations about the evils of butter or saturated animal fat with the same degree of scepticism. But I’m interested in hearing other views.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this discussion together with the following seven propositions:

  • In the long-run, we’re all dead. But in the short-run, there’s something to be said for trying to construct more robust locality societies with local food production at the heart of them in order to prolong the life of civilisation-as-we-know-it. We’ll probably have more fun while we’re about it, too.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves sustainably with the suitably-raised animal products we desire, it suggests that we may be approaching a resource squeeze. A crack is opening in Parson Malthus’s coffin.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves with anything but carbohydrate-rich staple foods, then Malthus’s ghost is well out of the ground. In fact, it’s standing in the garden and knocking on the window …
  • …or alternatively it could just be that the garden is much too small and will have to be enlarged at the expense of the bigger gardens owned by richer folk. Then the ghost can be expelled to Zone 4 or 5 where it can graze contentedly for the time being along with the sheep.
  • When the gardens are shared out equally, we can hope that there’s space for a life of pottering silvo-agri-pastoral. In Wessex, we will probably have to grow some wheat and potatoes, though, and worry about that resource squeeze a bit. But let’s try not to go overboard with the arable stuff, because unless you have a tractor it’s back-breaking work. Nobody wants to live like a tithe-peasant.
  • Our silvo-agri-pastoral life will hopefully give us a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and saturated animal fats, with little in the way of simple carbohydrates and vegetable oils. The science says that this is a healthy diet. The science also says that this is an unhealthy diet. For now, I’m going to choose science of the former kind, and keep a close watch on the scientists.
  • Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. I’m going to keep a close watch on the watchers too, like the concerned citizens at Quackwatch. But come to think of it, I guess I’m also a watcher, so somebody ought to keep a close watch on me. And here’s your chance…

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.

The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

My previous post introduced the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, a future polity in the west of England where about a fifth of the working population are engaged in producing their own agrarian subsistence. In this post, I aim to start filling in a few details of what this might look like.

Let’s begin with a bit of geography and demographics. My state of Wessex encompasses the present English counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall (which as was pointed out under my previous post, scarcely corresponds with the medieval state of Wessex, or even with Thomas Hardy’s 19th century update. This is just one of my many departures from tradition – I don’t call it ‘neo’-peasant for nothing). The present population of Wessex is 5.3 million, which constitutes about 10% of England’s population, and about 8% of the UK population as a whole. So far as I can discern, the Office for National Statistics provides future population projections only as far forward as 2039, and only at country, not regional, level. It projects a population increase for England of about 10 million (20%) between now and 2039, comprising roughly half natural increase and half in-migration.

Let’s assume that the ONS predictions prove accurate and apply the 20% increase to Wessex. This yields a 2039 Wessex population of 6.3 million, which I’m going to use for my baseline population. And I’m going to define working age as 18-65. ONS figures suggest that currently 57% of the total population fall into this age group nationally – and again I’m going to apply this to my Wessex figures, yielding a pool of about 3.6 million working adults in my future Wessex. It seems likely that the ratio of working to total population in 2039 will be higher than now, but this is just one of several areas in which I’ll try to load the dice slightly against my analysis so that the results seem plausible rather than over-optimistic, so I’ll keep the figure at 57%.

Assuming as per my previous post that 20% of my Wessex population are self-subsisting, neo-peasant farmers, that gives us a total of just over 710,000 Wessex working adult peasants in need of a farmstead, with an additional 550,000 dependents (children or retired parents) to provide for. I’m now going to wave my magic wand and abolish the Duchy of Cornwall along with a few other feudal landholding relics in order to provide homesteads and farmsteads for my modern peasants on a little over 40% of the existing agricultural land in the Wessex lowlands. Then I’m going to divide this land area up (on average) into 10 hectare (25 acre) holdings, each of which will be allocated to ten working neo-peasants and their dependents. Alternatively of course, it would be possible to divide it up into 1 ha holdings at a peasant apiece. But I prefer to think in terms of a 10 ha holding with certain tasks shared, and certain ones conducted privately by individuals and families. Not dissimilar to many peasant societies, in fact, including historic Wessex. I’ll talk some more about the social dynamics involved as this exercise unfolds.

Another past practice I’d like to revive is that of the agricultural apprenticeship – or of being ‘in service’ in the older parlance. The idea of agricultural service now has negative and inegalitarian resonances, though the work of historians like Peter Laslett (The World We Have Lost) suggests that it was often more benign than might be supposed. Anyway, I’m thinking of it more as a kind of apprenticeship in the modern mould, or possibly as a form of WWOOFing, in which young people could learn farming skills and get a feel for whether the neo-peasant life was for them, perhaps backed up by some appropriate labour legislation to keep everyone honest. So let’s throw in a couple of apprentices on each 10ha holding.

Now, as per some of the comments under my previous post, I’m thinking of these 10ha peasant holdings as geared essentially to furnishing the food and fibre its residents need, not for cash-cropping. So it’ll be necessary for some of the residents to earn money off the holding. Let us assume that the 10 adult neo-peasants on the holding are living as five couples, with one member of each couple working full-time on the holding, and the other member working a quarter time with the rest of their time earning money off the holding. Let us further assume that the children and retired folk on the holding contribute one full-time equivalent portion of labour between them (something that will vary in practice over the demographic cycle). And then of course we have our two apprentices. So in total that gives us ten full-time equivalent workers on the holding, and twenty mouths to feed – which amounts to half a hectare or just over one acre per person.

Joe Clarkson, who objected to one of my earlier forays into the issue of redistributing agricultural land for reasons that I still don’t really understand, wrote “Your suggestion of one acre per person cannot be serious. Are you really going to show us how a family of four can live on four acres of “average” land? One third would be non-agricultural, one third would be rough pasture and only one third would be arable, and that’s without a place to live and roads to get to each parcel. Your division of the Duchy of Cornwall into 20 acre farms is closer to the mark.” So let me now answer, ornery soul that I am, yes – I am going to show you (or at least attempt to persuade you) how a family of four in the southwest can live off about four acres of agricultural (not ‘average’) land, or at least how twenty people and ten workers can live off 10 hectares (whether it’s four off four, or twenty off twenty is basically irrelevant). And then I’m going to show you how the other 80% of the population can live off the rest of Wessex’s farmland.

But to do that, we first need to look more closely at Wessex’s farmland. Current agricultural land use in Wessex and in England as a whole is shown in Figure 1, which is derived from DEFRA’s regional statistics. Unfortunately, there are some significant internal discrepancies with these statistics, and nor are they comparable with the more detailed land use breakdown DEFRA offers at a national level since the latter is UK wide, whereas the regional statistics are for England only. I did write to the DEFRA official responsible asking for clarification, but got no reply. Probably, she’s too busy working with her new boss Andrea Leadsom on dismantling the entire edifice of British agriculture. Anyway, the figure below gives us some rough figures to work with, and it’ll have to do.

Wessex3

 

 

 

 

 

 

The figure shows that, compared with England generally, Wessex has proportionately less cropland, slightly less rough grazing and a lot more permanent pasture. I’m going to take the rough grazing out of the reckoning, treat is as a proxy for the uplands (which in the southwest refers to the big moors of Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps to parts of the hillier areas such as the Mendips), and deal with it in another post. As a starting point, I propose to keep Wessex’s cropland and permanent pasture proportions pretty much as they are. In a sense, that’s an arbitrary decision. Historically, the boundary between cropland and grassland has varied through time in response to circumstances. But there are various reasons why I’d like to aim at something like the current level. For one thing, I don’t want to give ammunition to the ecomodernists by suggesting that in a neo-peasant scenario we’d need to start ploughing up grassland in order to feed ourselves. And for another, that’s something that I think indeed is best avoided. It’s possible to overegg the argument that grass/ruminant farming is climate friendly, but sparing permanent pasture from the plough whenever possible seems a wise course of action on both carbon and biodiversity grounds. And since the moist, temperate climate here in Wessex is especially well suited to growing grass, there’s a lot to be said for the grass/ruminant option, particularly in a self-subsistence situation where, at this latitude, there are essentially no options for producing fat other than animal-based ones. The downside of grass/ruminant farming is that it’s not a very efficient way of producing human food on a nutrients per hectare basis – but again that helps to load the dice a little against my analysis, which is no bad thing.

A couple more bits of dice-loading: I’m going to assume that one in every 20 of my 71,000 ten hectare holdings produces nothing. This builds in a margin for such things as seed-saving and raising breeding stock, as well as perhaps making allowance for the odd stereotypically lazy peasant. I’m also going to aim to grow all the food in Wessex organically, which means its farming is likely to be less productive on a per hectare basis, other things being equal. I’ve always farmed more-or-less organically myself and I’m supportive by inclination of the organic movement. But not zealously so. I don’t have a problem in principle with the use of synthetic fertilisers and other non-organic amendments, but I’m inclined to think that they should be used as a method of last rather than first resort, when it feels necessary to push the envelope of productivity after all available biotic avenues have been explored.

So to recap: my future neo-peasant Wessex has a population of 6.3 million (up from today’s 5.3 million). Twenty percent of its working-age population plus their young and elderly dependents live on a little over forty percent of its farmland. The adult neo-peasants devote about two-thirds of their collective labour to subsistence activities on the holding, using organic farming principles by default, with some extra help from apprentices and the young and old. The rest of their time is spent on income generation off the holding. And, on average, the land use on productive holdings (one in twenty aren’t directly productive) corresponds roughly with existing land use in Wessex, with ruminants on permanent grassland somewhat over-represented relative to the country at a whole.

So that, I hope, sets the scene for looking in more detail at what happens on the ten hectare neo-peasant holding. And I’ll turn to that question soon. But first we need to clear a couple of other issues out of the way, which are raised by the emphasis on grass/ruminant farming.

Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

From the furies of Brexit, let me turn to a saner and more achievable political project: restructuring Britain into a neo-peasant society. Actually I think the one may lead to the other. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing? I’ve long felt that many of our political and environmental problems can best be tackled by means of a more peopled and localised agriculture, but I’ve never been able to dream up any plausible mechanisms for driving such change in contemporary society, other than bleak end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it type scenarios. But now, thanks to that friend of the peasantry Boris Johnson and his merry band of Brexiteers, some real possibilities are emerging. Though whether they’re distinct from those bleak end-of-civilisation type scenarios remains to be seen.

Anyway, we’ll come to all that. What I want to do in this post is pick up the threads of the discussion about mega-cities in general and London in particular that I left hanging a few weeks ago. If a government emerged that was strongly committed to small-scale agriculture I think it would be entirely possible for it to organise the nation’s farming accordingly and provision large cities with its products. But that’s not the way the modern world has gone. It was on the cards at the moment of decolonisation in various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the carrot of western-style development and the stick of western-style economic domination conspired against it. And when all’s said and done there is something of an affinity between urbanism and the agricultural status quo of heavily mechanised grain farming. So although it would be possible to ruminate on how to feed London’s 8 million from a world of encircling smallholdings, the idea doesn’t really inspire me.

Instead, what I propose to do is consider the possible shape of regional neo-peasant agricultures in England, and of one such regional agriculture in particular. When I first started thinking about this not so long ago it seemed like an appealing mental exercise, though not one that carried much political weight in the real world. But since then we’ve had Britain threatening to quit the EU, Scotland threatening to quit Britain, London threatening to quit England, the Labour Party threatening to quit itself, and all manner of other intrigue besides. In short, in the present moment of British politics everyone is threatening to quit everyone else if they don’t like them. So the secessionist implications of my analysis, which only recently seemed entirely far-fetched, are suddenly in step with the zeitgeist. What I’m going to focus my analysis on, then, is a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England. Let us call it the state of Wessex. And I’m going to contrast it with various agricultural possibilities in the east and southeast, or Londinium as I will call it in order to capture the deep history of that city’s status as a greater or lesser centre within a larger imperium. As a sometime dweller of both Wessex and Londinium, I have to admit that my political sensibilities were mostly forged in the latter. But I hereby disinherit myself from it and throw my lot in with the neo-peasants of Wessex. Of course, many of my fellow Wessexers probably hanker more after the lifestyle of the contemporary Londoner than the kind of neo-peasant west country vision that I’m about to outline. If so, my message to them, one fully in keeping with the politics du jour, is: screw you. I’m perfectly happy for Frome to secede from the rest of the southwest if it has to. And as for those uppity east-side Fromies, they can take a hike too if they don’t like what I have to say…

In the light of the Brexit result, no one can surely claim any longer that people won’t voluntarily surrender their short-term wealth and wellbeing in service of larger aims, long a bugbear for any kind of contemporary peasant or agrarian populist activism. So let me push the Brexit experiment a stage further, and now formally announce the division of southern England into the Peasant Republic of Wessex and the Euro-imperium of Londinium. We could set up a border checkpoint in, say, Chippenham, announce a brief amnesty period in which people on either side of the border are permitted to migrate freely across it, and then settle down to observe the two-way traffic. What a fascinating sociological exercise that would be…

Anyway, let me now start putting a few parameters around my suggestion of a neo-peasant Wessex. When I’ve undertaken exercises like this before to construe a rebooted, smaller-scale agriculture, I’ve generally still thought in terms of commercial farming, albeit a more peopled one, furnishing the necessities of life for the wider population. But when I think about what prevents me from making my own holding both more productive and more ecologically benign, it’s the lack of human labour and/or the impossibility of securing the right kinds and quantities of labour (or, to put it another way, the impossibility of securing the right price for my products relative to the price of labour) when running the operation commercially that trips me up the most. I also think that the skill-set required of a sustainability-minded commercial farmer is a highly specialised and unusual one. There are far more people capable of doing a good job growing for themselves with sustainability in mind than there are who’ll do a good job growing for others in that way. So I think I agree with Ralph Borsodi, who others have mentioned on this site (I have to confess I’ve not yet read him – hopefully I’ll put that right), that it’s generally best for the smallholder not to rely on selling their produce.

At the same time, I’m not really in favour of a society comprised entirely of self-reliant smallholders. Looking at it in world-historical terms, I’m happy to go with the notion that the division of labour and the specialisation of agriculture isn’t any kind of existential advance on the life of hunter-gatherers or ‘subsistence’ agriculturists. But looking at it in terms of my already rather left-field advocacy for peasant-style living here in England in 2016, I think proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society face the problem that such a life would be deeply impoverished by any reasonable contemporary standard. While much that passes for wealth in the present world seems to me spurious and I consider a materially simpler life to be desirable, I don’t think those truths are best served by demanding that everyone grow their own parsnips. Another problem faced by proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society is that no such society has ever existed – but that’s something I’ll look at in further detail in a later post. Where this leads for now in terms of my neo-peasant exercise is making an essentially arbitrary judgment about how many self-reliant ‘peasants’ and how many commercial ‘farmers’ there might be, albeit that the categories admit to some overlap. And my answer is (at least provisionally, I haven’t yet finished crunching the numbers) – around 20% of working age (18-65) adult ‘peasants’, which would put my neo-peasant society on a par with countries such as Poland, Mexico and Iran. Though I’m open to other suggestions…

I’m going to reserve discussion of all the social, political and economic implications of my neo-peasant Wessex for later. For now, I just want to focus on what a neo-peasant agriculture might look like on the ground. What would it produce, how would it produce it, and would it be enough to feed the population? Anybody going about an estimation of this sort needs to make a lot of assumptions and plug in some plausible productivity data. I’m going to outline a lot of these assumptions in detail in my upcoming posts in the hope that somebody or other might read and challenge them, thus helping me improve my estimates. But I’ll mix a few jokes in with the stats, just to make it worth your while ploughing through it all. If even the prospect of my rapier wit doesn’t enthral you, I’ll aim to write a summary analysis when it’s all done and dusted so you can get to the bottom line without wading through the detail.

My general bias is towards underestimation rather than overestimation. I think there’s a tendency in the alternative farming movement to be overly optimistic about what we can produce, and I prefer to be the pessimist who gets a pleasant surprise than the optimist who gets a nasty shock. So if you think my estimates are too low, I won’t be too bothered (though I’d still be interested to hear from you). If you think they’re too high, that’s more of a concern.

My baseline data comes from DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the English regions’ dataset. My personal definition of the southwest is limited to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, whereas official classifications also include Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset – counties with a higher population density (252 people per km2 as compared to 183, since you asked) and also arguably a more eastward-oriented arable agriculture historically. But there you have it, I can’t unpick the data, so I’ll just have to make do with my six counties of Wessex. When it comes to Londinium, I’ve amalgamated the southeast and the east regions as part of its hinterlands, encompassing Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Bucks, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – which luckily for those resource-guzzling city-slickers encompasses a decent chunk of the best agricultural and horticultural land in the country.

But that’s probably enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll visit me again soon and let me introduce you to the people, food and farmsteads of Wessex.