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.

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

  1. “We need the words and the politics. We need wider, more radical transformations.” Like peak oil? Have you ever had the fantasy of simply waiting for it provide the (albeit highly unpredictable) transformative forces needed to bring about a more levelled playing field?

  2. I like this very much, Chris. And I would like to read more about your discussion with Charles Dowding. Did you write about it here?

    I questioned the durability of the Fortier/Coleman market gardening model as well, in my post Is our localism too artisanal?

    ***

    I think market gardening could have a place in our sustainable future, if we tried to balance the inputs and outputs as you suggest.

    I think it is unwise for every urban dweller to try to grow grain. Here in Canada, vast amounts of grain are grown in the central prairies, and are transported very efficiently by bulk rail carriers.

    The potatoes, squash and apples could be grown in the farthest ring of local agriculture, bordering the hinterlands of ranching and grazing.

    Inside the that ring could be the cabbages, cauliflower, blueberries?

    And inside that, almost in the city, tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, etc.

    Right at the city’s edge, the market gardens of lettuces and whatnot, to supplement the kitchen gardens, which would grow a huge amount of the lettuces, herbs, and other ultra-delicate crops.

    I don’t think there should be an industry for cherry tomatoes, simply a bucket planter on every stoop.

    Would such an orderly distribution work with the need for compost production? Should the compost crops be grown on-farm, or be out in the further rings, so only the concentrated finished compost is transported?

    And, of course, do we have any hope of making a transition to such an orderly arrangement? I would argue we do not, but rather, such an orderly arrangement—probably on much smaller scales—will be the option we are left with after we have exhausted all our resources trying to avoid it.

    ***

    In my post I link to Ralph Borsodi, who wrote in the 30s that we should not try to make money off our farm, but rather work for import substitution; we should produce our own food and goods to replace the need to work to earn money to buy food and goods made by other people.

    I think you will quite like Borsodi for your Peasant Cycle, which I wish you would hurry up and write because I am very eager to hear your thoughts.

    ***

    I come by all these questions after several years working in Sustainability, and then several more researching and testing behaviour change.

    My conclusion is that we are largely not going to change behaviour in a rational and orderly way. We are not going to make the sweeping transitions promised by the bright greens.

    I think we are going to cope with the slow and disorderly erosion of our industrial civilization as best as we can at the time, with no more particular foresight than we have shown thus far.

    So my family has begun to implement the advice of John Michael Greer, who says, “Collapse early and beat the rush.”

    But we also look to the other side of collapse, or rather, further along the downslope of collapse, and wonder what we can do to ease the transition, and to help people who didn’t see this coming.

    And I don’t see a future in which more food, produced my more people, closer to their homes, is a disadvantage. At the very least, greater self-provender increases the richness of life, and at most, it can save your life, as Orlov says in my post.

    So, we think a lot about growing food, and preserving food. And we also wonder about the older patterns of community, and the older ways of spirituality. May Day is a good day to be writing these thoughts.

    Anyhow, Greer has a tasty morsel to help us along with baby steps in this direction.

    Learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing.

    “…the harsh dimensions of the future can be mitigated, and the positive aspects fostered, by preparations and actions that are well within the reach of individuals, families, and communities. Not all declines and falls are created equal; in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term.”

    Looking back now, I am shocked at how long ago he wrote that post, and yet that slogan is still common in our house.

  3. It puzzles me why there seems to be this interest in finding one way to do something. I can’t fathom why person X’s method has to be superior to person Y’s method. In the end there do seem to be as many ways of making a go of life as there are lives to have a go at it, but we seem to come back to comparing one to another. Success, failure, close to success, and so on and so forth.

    Peak oil might be pretty transformative – or a hydrogen economy might spring up just in the nick of time. That’s for the future. In the tiny little space between my ears it seems the present is really the only time we have to make a known impact. Future planning and resource allocation is speculative (not that we shouldn’t try… but we should expect surprises).

    In the context of one person or one family’s choices about location, the present infrastructure, fashion, economic aspirations, and so forth there are value judgments that have to be reconciled. Going a bit off course from a plan is not a bad thing. If you’ve ever spent a long hot summer day in the field hoeing weeds – and you come back in say a week and review the proficiency of your effort I’m going to wager you found the weeding work done toward the end of the day was less ambitious and will sooner need redone. Not everyone finds this result, but most will (those at least who’ve even made it through a whole day with hoe in hand… waste not your time searching for this rare sot these days). My point is human nature is part of our being. And each of us has his or her own being to be natural with.

    Working the land is hard work. The financial rewards – such as they are, and as you’ve well noted – hardly compare to fiduciary outcomes from other employment (at least for now). But there are other rewards to add to the balance sheet. A fresh carrot, produced by your own hand has no equal. But once you’ve eaten and enjoyed it you will eventually be hungry again. The difference between the present and the future.

    I’m half tempted to erase these lines and let it be. It’s obvious to me you understand these ideas. But perhaps their freshness has worn off like the carrot many days ago. So here my friend, have another.

  4. When I think of gardener vs farmer vs peasant I have a very clear model of peasant in my mind. My grandfather was a peasant who lived under monarchy, communism and capitalism and he kept, with few exceptions, his way of doing things that he learned from his grandfather. He was rotationally growing grains, mostly wheat, on half to 3 quarters of an hectare, corn with sunflowers, beans and pumpkins on pretty much the same surface and on the fallow year, clover for haying, manuring heavily in the early spring, before plowing. He had about half an hectare of plum orchard that he turned into double-distilled homemade plum brandy, 600-700 sqm vegetable garden with black currant and raspberry bushes on the edges, potatoes on 500-600 sqm, a 400 smq vineyard, some apple, cherry, walnut and mulberry trees. He raised 3-4 water buffaloes fed on communal pasture from spring to fall and on hay made over summer in the winter, 3-4 pigs in pens and small corral fed on potatoes, some corn, whey, garden weeds and kitchen scraps, 20-30 hens fed on grains, garden weeds and kitchen scraps, 5-10 rabbits, fed on same food. For a while he raised bees and for several years, when he had more hay over winter, kept sheep. The bread was baked in the house, grandmother would cook everything in the house, she made sour cream, cheese and butter from the buffalo milk, butcher a pig in the winter and render lard for cooking, cure and smoke the hams and make sausages from the rest of the meats and organs. During spring they would eat bacon, roots from the cellar with eggs and some greens, during summer they would eat chicken and rabbit meat with potatoes and greens. Carting, plowing and harrowing was done with the buffaloes, haying and the rest of the labors by hand. Grandfather lived in a 1000 years old village with an extensive labor and produce barter system, where they would do the hard work together, one day at one household or field, next day at another. He never sold the vegetables, the fruits, the hay or the manure, only the extra pig, sheep or steer.

  5. Well, you pretty much nailed the issues I had with the work as well as the things I appreciated about it. I particularly have an issue with the marketing to, what we call, the upper middle-class as a strategy for sustainable agriculture. And it is one that seeps into most schemes centered around the new local food movement. And I particularly endorse your peasant suggestion. We have conducted workshops on raising a homestead hog and learning to butcher your own chickens, for very modest fees. We have done these workshops, not to create a market share. But, we have done them to increase food security among our neighbors.

  6. Thanks for those comments. Some brief replies:

    @Michael – Yep, I’ve had that fantasy. Unfortunately, though, I think it probably is just a fantasy, hence the need for the politics…

    @Ruben – Interesting thoughts (and a nice post of yours on localism), and much that I agree with, including the improbability of orderly descent – though I perceive some positives in that improbability that I hope to discuss later in the year. Your zoning ideas make sense in principle, though in practice would be transected by other geographic considerations. But I agree with your scepticism about its likelihood. Perhaps there’s also a case for going beyond the implicit centre-periphery model here, which frames the issue in terms of how to feed population centres (ie towns). A peasant perspective would involve a more evenly inhabited landscape in which the towns have to earn their keep as satellites of the countryside, where the real business of life occurs…well, worth raising as a counter-thought anyway. And talking of peasants – yes sorry, those posts are in the pipeline, but I’m short of time to work on them at the moment. I’ll be working up to them slowly, so do please keep reading! As to Charles Dowding, that discussion predated this blog – it may still be floating around somewhere on the internet, but I’m blowed if I can find where. Sorry!

    @Clem – yep agree with much of that. Especially on the speculative nature of future planning…but also its necessity. More on that soon. And being true to one’s nature – thought-provoking. And on the tyranny of following X or Y’s methods – humans do so love a guru! Thanks for the carrot – delicious…

    @Radu – lovely description of your grandfather’s farming, and very informative. Many thanks. Where did he live?

    @Brian – not sure if you’ve written more elsewhere about the nature of your local community and its capacities for self-reliance, but from the scattered references I’ve picked up from your writing it sounds like you might have some interesting stories to tell on the possibilities for a Greer-style ‘early collapse’ in your neck of the woods.

    • It’s a rather productive phantasy, though.

      I am in the process of forming an integral part of something as-yet-unmentionable by politics (my little „part des sans-part“), which I’m striving to scythe and weed rather than belabour into being.

      Once the mental issues represented by current politics have had their oily fluids drained from them, why, I might even want to talk about what it is I do!

  7. I’m not a touch typist, nor one who has written enough to become better at it, but darned if your blog touches on issues that compel me to toss in my two cents.

    Regarding the market gardening and the various niche farming styles or schemes that are attempting to let farmers make a living while localizing and growing sustainably, I see them as transitory and really just a niche that occurs near concentrated wealth.

    I still think they are useful as one of the intermediate step towards the food system of the future, but will always be a smaller strand of that system. Relearning old methods, incorporating some new knowledge is a good thing, as the early steps toward fossil free food. Radu’s description of his grandfather’s farm will be more like what much of our future food production will be like.

    For me, it’s all about energy flows. Industrial agriculture is very efficient, it’s just not sustainable or resilient, and will slowly fade away as fossil fuels decline. All the localization and muscle powered gardening is good to learn now, while we still have fossil fuel backup. Inevitably, be it 50 years or 200, the food system will be like it was 150 years ago, but hopefully a bit smarter.

    You mention Mark Shepard, and another point from his book that also is relevant is farming for calories. Vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, etc are all fine, but you need calories, and that means grains, pulses, tubers and meats. Carbs, oils and proteins take a lot of acreage, and need to yield enough to feed us year round. So, fresh veg is a nice part of the diet, but the base need to be foods with calories.

    I read Greer and the others, and yes, we are in a predicament, but still have things we should try to do. Clear appropriate response will not be coming from on high. We all, as individuals and small communities, will make whatever preparations we can for self reliance and sustainable livelihood. Whether the descent is slow or fast, I agree with Ruben that we ( the wider society) will do the right thing once all other choices are denied us.

    So- peasantize and avoid the rush.

  8. Fortier is good at growing tomatoes and mesclun for the urbanites. Given the fact that is a CSA involved and he likes what he is doing I would say that he rather found his vocation than his job. Like my grandfather fate was to be a peasant, nowadays is more vocation than fate that drives the farmers and gardeners. So they get to choose the summer greens and the cash crops over self-sufficiency and the fertility of the soil.
    Such a farmer, not a peasant, is my mother, who took over my grandfather homestead in Northern Transylvania and she is farming like there is no tomorrow, without the buffaloes, the hay and the grains but with a lot of outside inputs like fossil-fuel plowing and sowing and harvesting, subsidized by my father’s pension. The fertility is lower, the orchard is old, the mud brick hay barn and stable is collapsing but we still make the best bacon, ham and sausage, and, sometimes, the best plum brandy around. Today’s farming and market gardening aren’t for sure the revolution we are looking for, they are a necessary intermezzo, a vocation between two fates.

      • I’m in the process of planting a plum hedge. Wine for me though.

        Viewing the energy descent as a string of intermezzi sounds like a plan, one that’ll ensure you’re not waiting for a grand apocalyptic finale.

      • I had some a few years ago that a friend had brought back from visiting a forester in Germany. The German forester has spent decades living in the forest he managed and apart from any incidental skills in tree management had clearly spent quality time on developing excellent capabilities in making distilled plum spirits. Absolutely delicious. Immediately brought to mind warm summer days, harvesting, maidens skipping through the hay in peasant dresses …

        I was at a conference in Wels in Austria a few years ago. I stayed in Linz. My birthday was during the trip so I took myself off to a great restaurant down by the Danube. Restaurant was in old vaults, I don’t know how many hundred years old etc They had a sensational selection of fruit spirits which in the great tradition of foresters and academics on overseas trips I manfully did my best to work my way through.

        Europeans do great distilled fruit spirits. One of the tour visits was to a PassivHaus school in Austria. They had a beautiful still which they used to teach the kids how to make distilled beverages. How good is that!

  9. “A necessary intermezzo, a vocation between two fates”

    “Peasantize and avoid the rush”

    Two very nice phrases – I hope you’ll allow me to quote them in the future!

  10. Chris,

    Would it make more sense to look at a ‘crofting’ model where farming/growing is mixed with paid work rather than relying entirely on making a living from a small plot.

    • Ignore that second “use freely”. Put it in the wrong place.

      Crofting- In the area where I live ( as well as many parts of the U.S.), there are a lot of smaller farms, and multiple income streams is very common, if not the majority. Off farm incomes from part time or seasonal jobs are what enable people to make it. The competition with large ag and its artificially low commodity costs makes it very difficult to make it on small acreage otherwise. (Unless you specialize in some high priced niche product.)

      • I’ve just finished watching the BBC series Edwardian Farm. They suggest that both the women and men would work off-farm at other jobs as well as onfarm value add activities like preserving fish. And that was in Devon; a fertile, productive part of the UK.

        I think people can get a bit hungup on the idea that real farmers only work on the farm. Whatever works IMO. It’s common here for a wife to work off-farm part-time.

    • Do you mean that I ought to write a book? Yeah, probably. This website is just a massive act of procrastination. Though maybe I should ditch the writing altogether and concentrate on the farming. Then I might be able to match Fortier’s income.

      • From your output I’d suggest you have two or three books in you. Just let me know the publishing dates. I admire your ability to formulate new writing projects and keep up with the hoeing.
        Big week for us on the farm with lots of lambs and steers to the butcher. It will be nice to replenish the bank account.

        • Brian, re Hervé-Gruyer (this WP comments function is awful…):
          Don’t you find it a bit light on…actual content?
          I can ignore the poverty kitsch, but I’ve read through it in a day without really taking any notes – and I’m not a native speaker.
          All the advertised “indigenous knowledge” is is a lot of trial and error and a store-bought pyrolysis unit.
          I’ll be buying their next book though, the one will all the data in it 🙂

          • David,
            Good point, although I’m less a data guy than you, Clem, Chris and many other readers on this blog. I’m a bit of a go with the flow, try a bit of this, have a beer and go fishing kind of farmer. So I treat books like I do a Sunday drive around our valley. They are a way to get inspired for new projects and get some insights into what we might do different.
            Cheers,
            Brian

      • I’ve been inclined to imagine you are (or will be) writing a book as well. All the way back to a reply you made to some snarky comment of mine…

        Next winter – right (or should I say… write)??

  11. If that guy in Wisconsin is your bench mark for verisimilitude … well he’s just full of shit to put it plainly.

  12. The blog post suggests that the farms you advocate in your small farm future are more like subsistence, peasant small-holdings than actual productive farms. While this lifestyle might appeal to some, they will always be a very small minority and I imagine many would want to escape it once trying it for a number of years. Unfortunately there are no figures offered to make a good comparison between your own and Fortier’s operation.

    • Hmmm, well for starters I’d dispute your distinction between ‘peasant smallholdings’ and ‘actual productive farms’. Nobody really knows exactly what proportion of the world’s food is grown on peasant smallholdings, but it’s pretty large (the figure of 70% is often bandied about). The term ‘subsistence’ is a bit of a pejorative one that I prefer to avoid. And peasant farms are very often more productive than larger ones acre for acre.

      I agree that the appeal of peasant-style farming in wealthy countries is limited and that many inclined to try it would be likely to give it up, even though a lot of that has to do with a hostile policy environment that throws up endless obstacles to the would-be peasant. That was a key point of mine at the end of the post – if people want there to be a small farm society (and I think there are plenty of reasons why they should, if not now then in the future) then we need to build a political movement to realise it, rather than expecting it to happen through individual people deciding they’d like to farm in the face of mainstream policy indifference and/or hostility.

      But I’d also like to turn your point back to you. Judging by the number of amateur self-provisioning veg growers who have no interest in doing it for money, I’d say there are many more would-be peasants than there are would-be market gardeners. And there are plenty of small-scale market gardeners who want to escape it (or have escape foisted upon them by business failure) – it really isn’t an easy way to make a living.

      I’ll be writing a series of posts soon about what a small farm neo-peasant society might look like in terms of farm structure and productivity, and also in terms of the necessary supporting political and social structures, and of course I’d be interested in any comments on this. If you look around this website you’ll find quite a lot of data about my farming, but I have no particular interest in comparing my operation with Fortier’s, and I’m not really sure why anyone else would have either…

      • Sounds like a great angle for a book chapter.
        We’ve not had that peasant ethos instilled into us, only brand offers to be either hippies, hipsters or Libertarian entrepreneurs.
        Simply being encouraged to neither feel discouraged if you’re not pulling in the big bucks nor if you’re not suitably lazy/fashionable would be a big help to many, I’m sure.

  13. I think that Chris is attempting to produce some sort of model of what a ‘sustainable’ future might look like, from a farming point of view.

    Having said that of course we have over 2 million ‘unemployed’ in the UK and many more underemployed so something that might provide them with some sort of sustenance and meaning also needs to be looked at

  14. Chris,
    I have been following your articles and find that you often express quite nicely what my thoughts are about sustainable farming.
    We are two part-time teachers here in Flanders, Belgium an inherited eight years ago 8 acres of land that surrounded our home.
    Because we are very aware of peak oil, industrial farming and climate change we wanted to manage this land ourselves and started of by reading about permaculture, holistic grazing, sustainable farming, restoration farming, …
    The key points – given our situation – are not yield or making a sustainable business but before all manageability.
    We don’t use pesticides, we try to limit our fossil fuel use to a minimum, we only have four ( two left and two right) part-time and aging work hands, we want to keep our plot as tidy as possible because we are tidy people and don’t want people to refer to us as “those hippies down the road”.
    We planted hedgerows along the borders of the pastures, planted hazelnut bushes, dug a pool, planted nut trees and berry bushels, had sheep and pigs. (Should recommend KuneKunes as the are docile pigs that eat only grass in summer so they keep the orchard tidy and don’t nibble on the new trees.)
    We tried different practices with different experiences. We had 5 sheep and had 72 sheep. We planned a 2 acres silvopasture with nut trees but settled for 10 trees instead. We had 40 tomato plants in our greenhouse and tried 12 this year. We had a 120 square meter vegetable garden and expanded this to 280 square meters. We had 18 sheep in the barn this year to lamb but that provided us with abouth 12 cubic meters of manure and shoveling this to a compost heap is something I can’t do every year. We already slaughtered a pig an three sheep which was satisfying but sold another 15 lambs to a professional buyer to find that he offers about 30 % of the costs we made for rearing the sheep.

    A long story just to come to this conclusion :
    – this is a nice life. We have meat, vegetables and fruit to share. We have enough wood to keep the fire going (next to a state of the art heathpump powered by solar panels) Everyday is a new adventure and the work is not to hard and keeps us healthy. Our way of life is not depending on other people or a steady income and the costs we have are covered by our part-time jobs. (We don’t fly, buy second hand and have small cars.)
    – the practices we try and ultimately keep are not aimed at a maximum yield as income is not our goal. We share or barter our surpluses or charge only the costs we made.

    Because of the size of the plot we are somewhat positioned between a gardener and a farmer and don’t want to be either of the two.
    The machinery we choose also has to be an appropriated size for the task at hand. So we are constantly re-evaluating what we do and searching for appropriated scale for what we do. A yield of 100 kg of nuts is still manageable (own use and friends and family) but 300 kg would be to big a task.

    We feel very lucky to be in this position and are aware that not everybody has the same opportunities. We are also aware that we have to feed the world. The yield we provide most for the moment is clean air, a place for wildlife and a healthy surrounding for us and our neighbors.
    But then again : if you regard yield as invested energy minus extracted energy I’m not sure we do worse than our farming neighbor with his big machines. The total yield is quite astonishing given the energy we put in it.

    Please regard this story as just another input in the discussion. We do need feel the need to set an example or try to convince anyone to try this.
    We can only testify that this is a nice and rewarding life.

    (P.S. if any spelling mistakes are made in the text above, please forgive me as English is not my native language)

    Many thanks for your work. Have fun.
    Rudy

    • Thanks for that Rudy, very interesting. I hope you’ll post on here again with more on your experiences. Being somewhere between a farmer and a gardener seems to me a good place to be if you can arrange things that way – my upcoming cycle of posts will be exploring that possibility in more detail.

  15. In the discussion about sustainable farming and market gardening it seems that very different time lines are involved and we are not able to predict how they are going to continue and how they will interact with each other. Resource depletion, declining net return on fossil fuel energy, increasing population, decreasing bio-diversity, climate change and other factors make that we are indeed in a predicament and that we can’t predict which solutions are going be necessary and successful.
    So market gardening is a fine idea as long as you have a wealthy and conscious middle class.
    This middle class will be there as long as we have what Gail Tverberg calls enough ‘benefit for society’ (net energy left from fossil fuels after deducting costs of mining for fossil fuels and taking a profit for the enterprises that do the mining) which allows to have a society where there are enough intermediates that have an income that is not related to producing actual goods. (such as farming or working in a factory). So the question is how fast the decline is going to happen and where the tipping points are.

    We have examples of how societies have coped with less energy and these examples are useful but will not be sufficient.
    Because we are in an all together different world. The practices of the past did not have to deal with a world population of about 10 billion people or did not have to deal with climate change.
    But on the other hand they didn’t have the knowledge about things as drones, computer networks, soil food webs, electric bikes and so fort.
    So it is anyones guess how this is going to evolve and this makes our time both frightening and interesting.

    Some of us are going to rely on this society as long as it goes and may well adapt after all other options are gone. Some will try to make a living in a more sustainable way en will be going through different stages as times go be. Some will be preparing and become neo-peasants. But as an individual it is difficult to choose what to do and how to survive in these conditions.
    That is how I as an individual am trying to lead my life. I try all sorts of things and see how they work for me. The success stories I keep, the failures I omit.
    But always bearing in mind that things could radically change in a not so distant future.
    I use a two wheel tractor but most always be able to do the same work with hand tools. I have an income from teaching kids how to read and write but don’t rely on it for paying for the food I eat. I have a heath pump to warm my house in the winter but also have a woodland to provide fire wood. I have a car but choose my leisure and day job at cycling distances. My wife loves to buy second hand quality clothes but also learns how to make her own clothes. I buy nice seeds from a local seed shop but experiment with keeping my own seeds for the next year. I occasionally buy organic fertiliser but compost my own sheep manure. I buy great Belgian beers but make some nice blackthorn brandy too.
    I am part of this society but wouldn’t bet my life on it.
    Your posts on peasantation will be read with intrest but don’t rush things.
    We’ve got time. Spring chores are at hand now.

    have fun.
    rudy

  16. Nice piece on JM and some of the food production/energy issues. I am pleasantly surprised that the term Mkt Garden seems to have a future!
    A few points;
    -I don’t think we should underestimate the nutrients per acre produced. You don’t have to be middle class to appreciate leafy crops in your sandwich.
    -Protein,calories and cereals are all issues which we all bump into,even Permaculture heads.There is a great deal of positive work going on in this area right now despite arable generally being the agent of countryside trashing.Mkt Gardeners wouldn’t be providing much of this part of the diet.
    -Composting can be a magic process.An efficient scale might a single farm site for a large village/small town catchment ie big enough to use a turner regularly.The carbon/energy consumption would be favourable compared to individual operators.
    -Location,location.Don’t drive anywhere with vegetables! (they are too low in value unless pallets and forks are involved).Peri-urban sites offer the possibility of a decent catchment able to get to the seller,even without the car.Getting sites and planning remains a big problem but sites do exist.
    -Marketing.Clearly JM and his mate Curtis Stone are better users of social media than most growers.Bravo to the young.However we have greater means to highlight the illegal Spanish labour problem than ever before.Spanish+Moroccan Aldi type veg looks like a campaign waiting to happen……( as per the slowly building glysophate effect).

    • I have read all the post and this is the perfect place for mine. I grew up on a farm. I was driving a tractor when I was 7. My dad sent me and my younger brother across the small creek in back of our house to some new ground he was clearing out of the Florida woods. We had to pick up roots and sticks that would damage cultivating equipment when he started planting it. One of us would climb up on the small John Deere tractor, start it, put it in low and snap in the hand clutch. He told us to climb off the back of the moving tractor and jump off the tongue of the cart is was pulling.

      Starting then the 50 years I drove tractors and other heavy equipment left me with damaged rotator cuffs and carpel tunnel in both hands. I cringe when I read about hoeing and shoveling.

      I wanted to comment about location for a market farm. Near me is the main road that is the only access several hundred thousand people to the white sand beaches of north Florida. It pass through the farming town of Hastings. One man with land bordering the highway started a vegetable stand in 1965. His land was on the line between two countys so he called it the County Line Produce stand. Thousands of beach goers saw his witty sign, “Cabbage ahead Slaw down” and did. He started with the cabbage and new spring potatoes grown on his farm. Today it’s a large open air market with a stream of cars coming and going. With the population growth the market is only closed for a few months in late summer opening up before Thanksgiving (mid October) to sell fresh citrus, sweet potatoes, and winter greens. There are some nice photos on their Facebook page.

      We lost our farm 20 years ago so I only have a few acres around my home to garden and only enough strength to work one hour a day. I did manage to get some greens and tomatoes and hope to have some sweet potatoes by August.

  17. Your blog is terrible – it keeps me from my work 😉

    Really enjoyed the article and comments. It seems to me that small farming is caught choosing between being sustainable and being financially viable. The two just don’t seem to intersect that much. Over the years of reading and thinking about these problems I’ve come to the conclusion that these problems are primarily economic and cultural. How could it be possible to create sustainable businesses in an unsustainable, debt based monetary system? And how can a business be sustainable in a culture that promotes consumption via marketing that fetishizes the new. I’ve always been amused/baffled by the food miles sat on the shelves of health food shops, where that new seed/plant extract/thing from Outer Mongolia is marketed as the thing that really is going to make you feel great/energised/live for ever – did all the things that came before not work? Sorry I’ve gone off on one.

    I haven’t worked in land based industries (forestry/agriculture) for about 15 years but the hankering to go back there never goes away. The price of land/property in the UK adds a whole other dimension to that but recently the possibility of getting the use of (but not owning) a small amount of land, sufficient for a market garden intensively growing high value veg crops a la the Fortier model, has come my way. But the more I look at it the more I realise that isn’t what I want or ever wanted. Probably for me and for most people, growing for our own needs and earning cash elsewhere is far more sustainable and likely to build far more resilience into local economies and food cultures than cash cropping to feed the (possibly transient) wants of the affluent.

    • Good points, very much the position I’ve come to, even if I’m still somewhat committed to commercial growing. And those are the nicest comments I’ve ever had from someone who’s told me my blog is terrible!

      • I’m glad that you and people like you are committed to commercial growing. And I wish I had the courage to take it on. It’s easy to poke holes in things, to point out their imperfections rather than acknowledging that right now they’re the best options we have – stepping stones into an uncertain future. And those who have the courage to make those steps perhaps prod at the rest of us, make it harder for us to ignore that future. I’d like to say that that has value to, but that’s just smug. As a student I had a part time job on a macro-biotic farm. I earned minimum wage and they wanted to part pay in produce. I didn’t stay there long.

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