Songs of the uplands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Starting a market garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

  1. What are good cash crops?

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

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

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

 

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

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

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

 

  1. What are your methods for sale?

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

 

  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

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

 

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

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

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

Local grower groups can also be good.

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

 

 

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

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

A farewell to the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Of pigs, peasants and pastoralists

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 1

Fig 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fig 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soil food webs: from farm to garden?

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about since February, when I heard Elaine Ingham talking about soil food webs at the Canadian organic growers conference. Dr Ingham is one of the main movers and shakers behind this apparently increasingly influential perspective, which has found its way into the gardening firmament through books like Lowenfels and Lewis’s Teaming With Microbes. The idea in a nutshell is that plant/crop growth is interdependent with a complex web of small, mostly soil-living organisms. Plants exude proteins and carbohydrates into the soil, funded from their photosynthetic way of life, which provides food most importantly for bacteria and fungi, and thence to a vast array of other single- and multi-celled critters whose life and death in the soil provides the complex nutritive foundation upon which the larger organisms intelligible in the everyday human world build their lives – the trees, the shrubs, the grasses, the forbs, the birds, the mammals, the reptiles, the molluscs, the arthropods and so on.

Two main points emerge from this of relevance for farmers. The first is that despite our impressive level of human knowledge about the chemistry of soils and plants, we don’t really know exactly what our crop plants need to thrive at any given time – only the plants know that (‘know’, that is, in a biochemical sense – which brings to mind this nice article by Richard Mabey about plants as authors of their destinies in ways not always suspected by humans). So instead of fiddling about with idealised fertiliser regimens, we’d be better off just providing the plants with healthy soils teeming with life, and let the plants themselves get on with the job of self-nutrition. This is basically the familiar adage of the organic movement: feed the soil, not the plant. A further, unproven, implication is that plants which have been able to optimise their self-nutrition may better enable us, their predators, to optimise our own.

The second point concerns precisely how you ‘feed the soil’. What you don’t do, according to Dr Ingham, is add synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, because these salty additives kill soil life. Nor do you till, because this does the same – particularly in the case of delicate fungal hyphae, which are torn apart by ploughs and harrows. So instead you add compost – lots of it. That’s how you feed the soil.

Not just feed the soil, in fact, but according to Dr Ingham actually build it. She was scornful of the USDA agronomists who claim that soils form at a rate of (I think she said) one millimetre per year. She informed us that she could make a soil thirty feet deep in two days (or some such improbable amount…I forget the exact figure…), evidenced by her work to create a native Texan prairie in just one year at the gardens of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, where her photos showed us trucks dropping off compost by the ton1. Cue astonished wows and whoops from the audience…

…and an uncontrollably arching eyebrow from me. It’s not, of course, that I question the morality of working to beautify the legacy of the USA’s 43rd president. Because, let’s face it, no amount of native Texan flora could make Mr Bush come up smelling rosy. No, it’s because…because…well, JUST WHERE THE HELL IS ALL THAT COMPOST COMING FROM? Surely from the detritus of an American agricultural civilization which, though it accumulates in centres of human population, ultimately stems directly or indirectly from its farmland. Let’s put it another way: if you put your mind and a decent number of large trucks to it, you can probably produce and spread compost several feet thick over the 13 acres of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and several other such institutions besides. What, I’d submit, you can’t do is spread it over the 900 million plus acres of farmland in the USA where I suspect the overall rate of soil formation is more likely going to approximate to that disparaged USDA figure, and then only if you’re lucky.

The implications of all this are potentially significant. First, I suppose I should pose the question as to whether Dr Ingham’s arguments are sound. There are those who would doubtless argue that farmers have been merrily tilling and spraying their fields for a long time now and nobody’s died yet – well, nobody identifiable anyway, apart perhaps from a few farmers. Personally I find it plausible that we’ll have to look after both soils and soil food webs better than we presently do if agriculture is to continue to serve humanity well long-term. And there does seem to be some evidence that repeated fertiliser and pesticide applications aren’t good for soils, but I’d be interested to hear more expert views than mine on this.

On a garden scale, I think it’d be quite easy to grow food in no-till beds nurtured by compost made on site. True, that’s partly because in a domestic growing situation people are rarely producing all their own food so there’s a net nutrient inflow – particularly in modern industrial societies awash with cheap energy and fertiliser. In a self-provisioning or ‘peasant’ situation it’d be harder, but probably still doable with careful attention to human and animal wastes, compost crops and the like. This is something I plan to start trialling soon and will hopefully be able to write about in the future with my own data to hand.

In a broadscale farming situation, though, it’s tricky to see a solution. You could go for the conventional no till approach with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. You could go for the organic approach with clover leys and tillage. But both fall foul of Dr Ingham’s strictures. I suppose you may be able to establish some kind of permanent pasture and/or biomass crop with a cut & compost or graze & confine regimen, which enabled you to transfer nutrients to the crop. But I imagine it would be quite inefficient in terms of per hectare yields and possibly also energy inputs. Maybe organic no till methods will prove feasible, with crops established in a clover sward.

In southern England where I live, the cool, moist climate and heavy soils make for a very forgiving environment for tillage farming. The annual crops that we grow prosper in bacterially rather than fungally dominant soils, and bacteria are relatively little affected by tillage. So the system I’ve adopted has essentially been a standard organic ley and tillage one, albeit with a few closed-ish loop, no till affectations thrown in. But there are lots of good reasons to try to avoid tillage, especially if Ingham is right and you need a decent level of fungal hyphae in the soil even for annual agricultural crops to prosper. So maybe my present approach will prove unsustainable in the long run. But the George W. Bush presidential library approach is certainly unsustainable in the long run. Fitting, perhaps, for a rather unsustainable president. So are we then left only with the peasant self-provisioning option? Nurture your own soil, grow your own vegetables, compost your own excrement…oh and buy land, they’re not making it anymore, as Mark Twain had it. Or at least only at 1mm per year.

Well, that’s a familiar bottom line conclusion for me to reach. This website ain’t called ‘small farm future’ for nothing. Even so, my feeling is that Ingham’s no till, soil food web approach may be something of an ideal, and there’s room for messier compromises to be made with the world. It may be best not to till for soil, plant and human health, but perhaps the world is not so black and white that a judicious bit of tillage here and there is so impermissible. But perhaps that’s wrong. Perhaps, somewhere, or perhaps even everywhere, a long biological soil clock is starting to tick down on human agriculture.

Note

  1. In September 2016 I received an email from Laura Solano of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc, stating that Dr Ingham did not work on the George W. Bush Presidential Center project. See http://www.mvvainc.com/

Thinking like a molehill

“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.

I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.

Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.

It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.

The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).

We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.

I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.

I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.

This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.

Notes

  1. Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.

Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

So, no comments on my previous post – obviously my contention that medieval agriculture was more efficient than its modern counterpart was wholly uncontroversial. Let me up the ante in this post, then, and shout out for the pre-Neolithic diet as a healthier way of eating than most of what’s come after. This, by the way, is also my attempt to address Clem’s question about why I’ve claimed that a grain/legume diet is not especially healthy.

You can barely move these days for people following the Palaeo diet it’s so faddish, but I think the issues it raises are interesting. I’m not an expert on this, but that’s never stopped me before on this blog, so here’s a tentative appraisal of the issues.

The classic agricultural package developed in various centres of domestication around the world about 10,000 years ago involved a starchy cereal crop (or sometimes a starchy non-cereal crop), a legume and often domestic livestock, perhaps most importantly ruminants. This furnished people with the basic macronutrients they needed (energy, protein) and it furnished farmland with a potentially sustainable nutrient cycle involving crops, grass fallow, nitrogen fixation and manure. In some places (eg. China, New Guinea) crop domestication was more horticultural than agricultural, with a wider range of vegetable crops supplementing the grains, beans and meat. Either way, it’s hard to gainsay the success of the package in terms of productivity and human population growth – what we like to call ‘civilization’ depends upon it, and it seems unlikely we’ll be departing from its main features any time soon.

But it may be that it’s not so good for us. The argument, as I understand it, is that simple carbohydrates cause cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the seedy agricultural diet (grains, beans) causes us to ingest various anti-nutritional agents which the seeds have evolved, presumably as a defence against destructive ingestion by herbivorous animals. This causes illness: the gut-inflaming effect of proteins like gluten leading to long-term immune system problems, anti-nutritional substances in legumes like soy potentially leading to health problems of various sorts (the Weston Price Foundation has produced this indictment sheet against soy), glycaemic load from simple carbohydrates playing cardiovascular havoc and so on. The result, so the argument goes, is the chronic disease prevalence of modern times: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis etc. Pre-agricultural peoples didn’t generally eat such heavily seedy diets, and since there have been many more pre-agricultural generations than post-agricultural ones people are still not evolutionarily well adapted to the agricultural diet. Nevertheless, people have been experimenting with agriculture and its dietary effects for a long time, so perhaps it’s possible to qualify a purist emphasis on a ‘palaeolithic’ diet with the notion of an ‘ancestral’ diet: using the tricks of our farming forebears to lessen some of the negative health effects of our chosen seedy agricultural foods, for example with purely grass fed ruminants, or sourdough bread or fermented soy products.

Well now, what to make of all this? There are those who dismiss it as some kind of deep ecology impulse to return to Palaeolithic lifeways, and who are therefore inclined to point out that life in the Palaeolithic often wasn’t so healthy. That latter point is perhaps somewhat debatable, but is also irrelevant – the point is not to live like Palaeolithic people, but to eat like them inasmuch as that might be better for our health. I haven’t looked in detail at the research evidence. Certainly, there are some peer-reviewed biomedical papers that favour the palaeo diet hypothesis – like this one – but I’d be interested in any comments on the plausibility of the hypothesis from a nutritional point of view. Of course, there was no single palaeo diet –  some folks, like the people who lived at Wadi Halfa in the Nile Valley 15,000 years ago, ate a lot of starchy plants1. Other Palaeolithic people didn’t. I don’t know if archaeologists have been able to reconstruct patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with these various different palaeo diets – probably not in the case of the Wadi Halfa people because their favoured starchy fare was so sought after that many of them died young defending it – early evidence, perhaps, of the dangers attending humanity’s attraction to junk food. I can’t imagine that morbidity data on the basis of the archaeological evidence would be all that robust, which I suppose may weigh somewhat against the Palaeo diet hypothesis itself.

It may be that in fact there are stronger selection effects for the agricultural diet than might be supposed. As I understand it, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are pretty catastrophic among modern hunter-gatherers when they switch to contemporary agricultural diets: if a similar selection effect operated on our early farming forebears then perhaps we’re better fitted to our seedy diet than you’d expect purely on the basis of the timescales involved…though the fact that these are mainly chronic diseases of later (post-reproductive) life, and the fact that they’re highly prevalent today perhaps suggests otherwise.

In my writings on perennial grain cropping I drew on Phil Grime’s competitor-stress tolerator-ruderal ecological framework, and also on Wes Jackson’s idea of agriculture as a failing experiment to produce a large standing crop of humans. Put those two together, and you get the notion of agricultural civilization as a kind of human ruderal strategy in contradistinction to the competitor/stress tolerator strategy of hunter-gatherers: agricultural civilizations produce large numbers of low status, impoverished, poorly nourished and essentially expendable people, while reproducing their basic structures through knowledge transfer among elites. Nowadays we’re a bit more squeamish than civilizational elites of old about accepting the fact that agricultural societies produce a stratum of impoverished and expendable people – which perhaps is why people like Graham Strouts get angry when people like me argue that biotech developments like golden rice essentially just normalise extreme poverty, and why advocates of ‘free’ markets like to insist – despite all historical evidence to the contrary – that capitalism will liberate everybody. It’s curious, come to think of it, how the ‘ecomodernists’ advocate urbanization as a solution to rural poverty, and then deride anybody who suggests that poor urban dwellers ought to be able to afford anything other than rice, as per Mary Mangan’s diatribes against me or the denialist Mark Lynas rather silly ‘let them eat broccoli’ slogan. If the palaeo diet people are correct, then it’s surely ironic that you have to be quite rich in order to eat as healthily today as many of our ‘uncivilised’ forebears did.

I can’t see myself personally or humanity collectively taking to a strict palaeo diet in the near future. But it might be worth thinking about its implications and trying to move a little in that direction. Food policy commentators are pointing to the unsustainable tendency in rich countries for people to eat ‘feast food’ as everyday fare, and also to the unsustainable tendency in those same rich countries to import vegetables from countries where cheap labour is abundant (even if cheap water ultimately isn’t…) So why don’t we take just a few modest steps to move towards a more local and horticultural and a less agricultural (grains-grain legumes-meat) diet? As well as ‘meat-free Mondays’ we could have ‘farm-free Fridays’, in which we tried to source everything we ate for one day of the week from the (local) garden rather than the (global) field, producing veg intensive, carb-light meals (OK, as a small-scale market gardener, I know I’m biased here). And we could try to limit our meat consumption to special occasions when we’d be willing to pay for the true cost of livestock, raised – to use Simon Fairlie’s term2 – as ‘default livestock’ in larger mixed farming systems…which would probably mean sharing out the grass-fed ruminant meat and going easy on the soy-fed monogastrics. Building local solidarity through sharing meat at feasts – well now, there’s another time-tested Palaeo strategy we might do well to try…

Notes

  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality, Harvard, p.40.
  2. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Permanent Publications.