I spent last Wednesday travelling to East Yorkshire and back to collect our brand new delivery van, the old one having spectacularly failed its latest MOT. Well, it’s brand new for us anyway (at 7 years old it’s precisely 22 years younger than the average age of the Vallis Veg vehicle fleet to date). So this post naturally has to be about transport and fuel, a lengthy drive across the heart of England giving me the perfect opportunity to think about these things.
What struck me most as I drove was the depressing ugliness of our country’s transport infrastructure – the motorways, the service stations, the fuel depots, the mouldering railway yards, the factories and the quarries that service it all. And beyond that, the distorting effect that fast, cheap transport has on the economy, particularly the rural economy – the dormitory villages, the fields bled of productivity by pointless international price competition, the overgrown woodlands no longer coppiced because it’s cheaper to import wood from the Baltic.
What also struck me was my own participation in all of this, for was I not myself tearing along said motorways in a 1.5 tonne box of steel I’d bought in service of my supposedly ‘ecological’ farming business? And what exactly did I want instead – an unchanging, chocolate-box Britain in preference to the railway yards, which after all – as Richard Mabey showed in his wonderful book The Unofficial Countryside – have an intricate ecological beauty of their own?
It’s very easy to obsess about greening minor aspects of our lifestyles, and then unthinkingly blow all the accumulated credit in a huge fossil fuel-fest – that flight to New York, or that delivery van. We often justify these decisions on the basis of our ‘needs’, but the justifications always sound a bit hollow to me. How much do we really ‘need’ our delivery van? Well, probably more than anyone needs a flight to New York, but when we started Vallis Veg I fondly imagined that we might be able to make it work as a business by keeping input costs down, particularly polluting input costs relating to internal combustion engines. We owned no vehicles, and no farm machinery, and I had visions of forks and spades, lots of willing volunteers, deliveries by bike and so on. Now we have a van, a 50 hp tractor and a 7 hp tiller – a sad reflection of the fact that in the modern British economy fuel is very, very cheap and human or animal labour is very, very dear. I don’t know whether we really ‘need’ these machines, but I don’t think our business could survive without them (an adult human can sustain a power output of about 0.1 horsepower, so roughly speaking at the touch of a button the tiller gives me the equivalent of 70 agricultural labourers and the tractor 500 of them).
Does it matter? Well, that depends. I don’t think it necessarily matters that I as a purportedly ‘ecological’ grower use machinery. Anti-environmentalists are always quick to smell hypocrisy, but whether we like it or not all of us have to live in the world they’ve created. It’s akin to the argument that nobody who ever shops in a supermarket can criticise them – an argument that would carry more weight if the supermarkets hadn’t systematically eliminated virtually all of the alternatives.
It would matter more if it could be shown that machinery use in small-scale farming was less efficient than in large-scale, conventional farming – in other words, that big machines can get more food on your plate per litre of diesel than small ones. You hear this said quite often in relation to food distribution – that 44 tonne trucks are more fuel efficient than 1.5 tonne vans. This is no doubt true, and if the food system involved nothing more than huge trucks speeding up and down motorways between gigantic farms, then it would be a good argument for large-scale mechanised farming. But since the food system also involves people driving in private cars to out-of-town supermarkets and small vans delivering groceries to shops or door-to-door, and since the alternatives include growing food for local consumption on peri-urban sites like Vallis Veg with no need for any 44 tonne trucks at all, then that particular argument falls by the wayside.
You can ask similar questions about food production on the farm itself. Don’t big modern tractors, with all their GPS-guided gizmos and their capacity to take care of huge tracts of land, outperform somebody like me pootling around with my little 7 hp tiller? I’ve found it remarkably hard to locate any research on this, perhaps because there are now so few small-scale commercial growers in countries like Britain that it doesn’t seem a pertinent question. But inasmuch as I’ve been able to assemble some data and do a few back-of-the-envelope calculations, I think the answer is no – there are no returns to scale with increased machinery size. Quite to the contrary, in fact: if energy efficiency is your goal, you’d be better off farming with a fork and spade than a 200hp tractor. You can see some of my research on this here, and I’ll publish some more in a future post.
If you take the view that there will be no long-term problems with energy supply, or with the climate effects of fossil fuel combustion, then the energy inefficiency of modern farming probably won’t alarm you. It’s not quite as cut and dried as that, because farming using fossil energy instead of human energy calls for simplified forms of agriculture, which have other implications. And it also paves the way (quite literally…) for the kind of industrialised landscapes I witnessed as I drove across England last week. Is that problem? Ah well, that’s a topic for another time, I think. And I’ll look some more soon at energy resource futures too.
But there are also complexities that small-scale, fuel-light growers such as me have to confront. When we deliver a local veg box, are we saving our customers a journey in their cars or do they hop aboard anyway to shop for other things? How, precisely, are we managing to grow more food for less energy? Can these growing systems really be generalised beyond the antics of a few mavericks like me to the food system as a whole? And if we don’t like the ‘unofficial’ countryside of a postindustrial Britain, then what exactly do we want? There’s food for a few future posts in all of that too.
Amazing, really what you think about as you drive along a lonely motorway at night…and all this was before I’d left Yorkshire. Anyway, here – should you be interested – is the van in question, in all its glorious redness.
Will I be able to resist whistling the theme from Postman Pat as I drive around delivering vegetables? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll spray it green and call myself Vegman Chris instead.