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.