Nutrition in neo-peasant Wessex

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

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

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

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

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

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

(3) More pasture, at the expense of woodland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

X103

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

9 thoughts on “Nutrition in neo-peasant Wessex

  1. 10% surfeit of productivity over need – a margin that really does take some discipline to maintain.

    4000 calories either provide for a hard-working farm labourer or Art de PayMe (sorry(,) paleo joke).

    Reading ‘Big Farms Make Big Flu’, one becomes aware that the shadow Londinium casts may have its darkest stretches at that poultry factory just beyond the border, which is eagerly buying up surplus grain it can get its hands on and hoplessly attempting to keep away flocks of wild Wessex-based geese, having drained its part of the cross-border wetland.

    • Thanks for those links Michael – well worth a glance (and I wonder how long before this interesting bit of historical research gets monetised as “the steampunk diet”?)

  2. Rubber meeting the road. Useful and illuminating post, Chris, thanks.

    What jumped out at me was ‘the closest call being with the energy requirement, in which there’s only a 10% surfeit of productivity over need.’ That seems an worryingly tight margin, even given the built-in cushions you’ve provided.

    Seems like food storage would be a really critical factor for energy under these circumstances – clearly, there’s a need to store up against the chance of a bad year or years, for example, where energy needs could not be met through current production (e.g where widespread livestock death due to epidemic disease or other factors drives down available energy, protein – although your diversity would help there).

    Whole lotta smoking, curing, and jerking going on! 🙂

    In fact, this approach, extended out to more nutrients, might provide a sound basis for deciding what to store, and how. That is, maybe think about focus on storing items that provide the micro- and macro-nutrients with the lowest ratios. Those may also prove to be useful in any export trade, since foods with scarce nutrients may be accordingly more precious?

    Given the data in table 2, it also seems like vegetarians would likely be outta luck since dairy, meat and fish provide not only, as expected, the majority of protein, but of energy.

    Very interesting analysis – I’m looking forward to seeing the commentary…

    – Oz

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    I like the idea of a steampunk diet.

    I feel reasonably relaxed about the 10% margin, given the slack I’ve built in – notably in the possibility of growing a lot more wheat and potatoes. Though that raises a few issues that I hope to discuss in later posts. A cow-killing epidemic would be bad news. Though I think the neo-peasant cow would have a pretty robust immune system. You’re right that there’d be a lot of smoking, curing & jerking…and that folks would have to work out a good sense of margins.

    Of course vegetarians could grow more veg, beans and carb crops and feed themselves on a smaller area. But this is grassy Wessex, so I’m sticking with my ruminants! I think we’ll see that there are other parts of the country where vegetarianism is a better fit.

  4. Chris, thank you very much for you r effort in promoting neo-peasant solutions. It is in my humble opinion, the only way forward. Mixed farming is what we had in Flanders in the past and is what we will have in the future. Be it with some different practices. It is also a approach that you can start right away without waiting for others and it is also scalable once you have the skills on a relatively small acreage.

    I find your efforts very interesting and read the articles two or three times to make sure I understand everything. You give a model and test it on its feasibility.

    Farming will always be an exponent of the society that surrounds it. So farmers will change their way of doings things if they can’t do any more what they did before or because an alternative way of doing things gives a higher surplus. So I keep thinking : “How are we going to get there ?” Or to put it otherwise ; ” What kind of future are we preparing for ?”
    Four major evolutions are coming towards us : over-population, resource scarcity, energy and climate change. That are the problems that we know of. But what we don’t know is how they will evolve. Is climate change going to be the one that tips things over or is an world-wide financial crash going to put a halt on investments ? Is summer droughts the game changer or is declining net energy from fossil fuels going to take jobs away from people so that have no more income ? Is it a Senaca cliff in which the apocalyps is here and now and things change overnight or is it a long descent in which case we still have enough time to apply the solutions you are describing en in which we can gradually add more and more crops as they are no longer available from society ?
    Since I want to be a gentleman-peasant, I now have a small part of cropland and most is pasture and woodland. Because this way managing the farm with minimal work and minimal fossil fuel use is possible. I am self-sufficient in vegetables, meat and firewood and 60 % in fruits, berries and nuts. The grains and vegetable oils are bought in the shop and come from the specialised agriculture. Dairy would mean I have to milk the cow twice a day and process the milk twice a week, which would take up to much time. I can focus on the more pleasant and rewarding crops such as vegetables, meat, fruit, nuts, …
    For the moment I mostly think in terms of manageability of my farm. And then of course the case of the available energy is crucial. As long as we have fossil fuel we can decide to take as much cropland as necessary. But if the net energy from fossil fuels is to low, then permaculture and silvo-pasture livestock approaches will be more feasible.

    I calculated how my 3.2 hectares are divided and recalculated it to 10 hectares so that I can compare.
    So state in your last remark :`
    0.35ha buildings, tracks etc
    0.125ha gardens
    1.37ha cropland
    1.9ha woodland
    0.5ha orchard
    5.75ha permanent grass

    I would have (if I divided a 10 hectare farm as I do my 3,2 hectare farm)
    0,3 ha buildings and tracks
    0,15 ha gardens
    0,18 cropland
    0,6 woodland
    0,18 orchard
    8,4 permanent pasture.
    This way I can manage the farm combined with a part-time job and with small machines and little use of fossil fuels. Do not underestimate the necessary skills. A specialized farmer has his own set of practices but every part of my farm takes its own ‘knowing how’. You can’t manage sheep as you manage pigs and vice versa.
    It is an way of organising my farm that is satisfying for the moment and the question is how long the products of Big Agriculture will be available.
    As times goes by I can gradually move over to your scheme. Expand the orchard, put pasture to cropland, invite some labour force, put more pigs in the woodland, …
    Thank you for pointing the way.

    • Rudy, thanks for that very interesting comment. I agree that dairying is too much work in the present day if you’ve got other things to do – but if you’re feeding yourself fully from a pasture dominated agro-ecosystem and there are a lot of people around, it makes sense.

      You’re right that the ‘how are we going to get there?’ questions are paramount. I decided to postpone addressing them because I first wanted to consider what ‘there’ might look like. And also because they’re much the hardest questions to answer! But I’ll at least attempt to do so in due course.

      My actual holding (as opposed to my theoretical Wessex holding) sounds quite similar to yours but with more cropland (for commercial veg production), more woodland, less orchard and less pasture (though some of the woodland is wood pasture).

  5. Estimate for the labour involved with this landuse mix would be interesting. And how much wood and fiber is available from the 10 hectares for building, clothes, ropes, string, roofing materials etc

    The labour involved with producing nutrition and other products would depend on the kit used which in turn is driven by energy use decisions. All hand tools? Sawpit productivity making boards is very low even compared to a chainsaw. Where wind and small-scale hydro were feasible, sawmills were being driven by mechanical linkages pre-fossil fuels.

    But of course at that point there’s a requirement for a labour and capital surplus to cut the wood, build the windmill/hydro scheme …

    • David, as per previous posts I’m assuming 10 full time equivalent labourers on the 10ha holding, with 20% of the population thus employed. I’ll be writing more about the implications of this, including energy scenarios, in the future. But in brief, I think it would be possible to operate such a holding with no external energy inputs – indeed, in such a scenario (and barring highly centralised political coercion) I think farming in this way would occur by default. I doubt that a future suffering from such severe and rapidly emerging energy constraint could sustain the kind of populations I’m talking about here, however. Then again, you keep telling me that renewable energy solutions are readily available… I think you could be right, but more on that soon.

      I’m not assuming that every single material thing has to come from the holding or that there’s no surplus in the economy writ large. I don’t think such assumptions are necessary. But I’ll write more about this, including something on biomass and fibre, in future posts.

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