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.

20170204_141008

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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?

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

oOo

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.

92 thoughts on “Songs of the uplands

  1. Can’t wait to read George’s response to this – lots of interesting points – the use of statistics, land use, culture and the place of money & energy in our agriculture.

    Personally I’m pretty convinced that a turn toward a neo-peasant form of agriculture would be a good thing – I think I’ve always felt that, I’d just never heard it described that way until I started reading this blog. I think an agriculture that looks first to provisioning and to marketing second is probably our best hope for a sustainable agriculture – The other night I was reading Wendell Berry, “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems” and its far more eloquent on the subject than I’m likely to be.

    I’m not sure what such an agriculture might look like in the uplands – perhaps it might be wilder, more forestry but I’m sure there would still be sheep. I used to live in the Forest of Dean and the commoners there run sheep in the forest so the two can mix. They’ve also been experimenting (inadvertently) with re-wilding and the wild boar are becoming a serious problem – so my guess is that rewilding of our uplands wouldn’t ultimately be that wild. More than that the idea that the communities of these rewilded landscapes would turn to eco-tourism for their livelihood seems no more sustainable to me than an agribusiness food system dependent on fossil fuel energy.

  2. This is a very thoughtful piece, as ever Chris.

    I have also made some of these points, and others, to George.

    I enjoyed your use of the word “Baroque” when it comes to arguments over carbon and farming, especially grazing. I would tentatively suggest another word, which is “Byzantine.”

    I wrote a direct riposte to George’s claims regarding upland sheep farming and carbon a little over a year ago – here https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/the-answer-lies-in-the-soil/. I think he just got his sums wrong on that occasion.

    a couple of other thoughts: the UK has the largest sheep population in the EU; that just seems mad to me, given that the industry is propped up by subsidies from taxpayers, and over 1/3 of the production is exported, thereby creating no benefit for the taxpayers.

    from another perspective, extensive sheep grazing is tied inexorably to the maintenance of both what is loosely called “high nature value farming” especially, but not exclusively in the uplands; and the maintenance of semi-natural landscapes (and the historic/archaeological features that inhabit them) both in the uplands and lowlands. I for one would be very concerned if there were no sheep to graze eg Maiden Castle. I imagine the sheep that graze Maiden Castle, Hod Hill and elsewhere on the Dorset Downs in the winter, return to the Welsh uplands (known locally as Tegs). I guess this ties in with your “sheep as a national system” point.

    It is a particularly interesting (to me) point that 25% of UK lamb production goes to local Muslim communities; and I was told that half of the lamb that goes to our main export market (France) is also heading for Muslim communities there. I don’t know how this factoid would go down with UKIP-voting sheep farmers, but it does suggest that sheep farming is now very much part of multicultural Britain and Europe. I think this is something to celebrate.

    Finally you touch on something which troubles me greatly, which is the defence of upland sheep farming as part of an indigenous farming culture, something which is held up by nativists as embodying the very essence of England. The argument goes (forgive me parodying it ad absurdam) that sheep farming has gone on for generations (back into the mists of time) that it has survived war, famine, plague and so on, that hardy sons of the soil have worked those hills with their bare hands, brought them to productive life; and how dare any townies or (god forbid) the Metropolitan Elite (George being clearly singled out as a leading light in this group) tell us, the true natives, how the hills should be managed (or indeed not managed).

    To me this conjures up images of Lederhosen and Dirndls, the Volkisch movement and Blud und Boden. Yes I may be seeing phantoms where there are none, and obviously Germany has more of a (ahem) tradition of this than we do http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/voelkische-siedler-im-laendlichen-raum-der-bio-nazi-von.976.de.html?dram:article_id=379541 but we must be on our guard and watchful, especially in these times.

  3. What about all the millions of houses and miles of road built on farmland in lowland Britain that it would seem most people agree with, surely that could have been turned to wilding as no-one seemed to care enough to keep it producing food when we can buy it from NZ or Kenya.

  4. Excellent as ever Chris – Few points on (re)wilding.
    I think most readers of this blog would support a post Brexit agriculture scenario along the lines of the excellent reports from the soil association & landworkers alliance – http://mollymep.org.uk/2017/02/20/agri-reports/
    That is mixed, organic and all the rest. Where I’ve see rewilding mentioned in terms of partnering agriculture, to me it isn’t rewilding, it’s nature farming. Which is great but we do have a definition problem… I’m certainly less militant than I was when I first came to these issues after reading Feral. Funnily enough that’s after having a good think and talking to farmers in Upper Wharfedale where a benign landlord, the National Trust, is trying to move livestock farmers towards wood pasture type arrangements, with more trees and all the benefits they bring.
    Again, great stuff but this isn’t creating any wild land, certainly not at a landscape level. My opinion now is that sheep farming is important culturally and worth saving and we should acknowledge that. In an ideal world though it should make full use of our animals, as per point 9, especially as the going gets tough and things get tough to get hold of. I’m with you on not wanting to inadvertently engineer another clearances. As ever with these things the coming climate catastrophe looms large and places may get abandoned anyhow but I’d rather see us try and preserve some of our pastoral culture if possible.
    My take now is to see wilderness as a continuum, as Steve Carver from Leeds Uni argues http://www.wildlandresearch.org/ (Also see the excellent blog by Mark Fisher http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/ for more on these matters).
    A good place to start then would be to also acknowledge we’re depauperate in tree cover. I know you’ve done the maths on land use and feeding ourselves but I think we could manage to have forest cover at 30% of available land space, mostly wild and still be able to feed ourselves. So no wholescale rewilding, just in areas perhaps already more to the wild end of the spectrum and any efforts by farmers to increase biodiversity (if that’s the aim) should be called what it is, farming with nature or some such, but not (re)wilding.
    So to take up the challenge, yes great, let’s have a farm system that allows more space for nature, but perhaps let some areas revert to wildland and actively help others along this path? See what people think then aye? As ever a compromise is best!

  5. Thoughtful and well balanced post! I had the pleasure working a bit in Mongolia and observe how livestock still provide a lot to many people, housing, transportation, fuel, clothes etc. Also in Sweden where I live we have the Sami reindeer keeping and quite some livestock grazing, but there is a strong lobby against them, assisted by arguments built on methane emissions. Rewilding is less pronounced here, but the argument is get rid of ruminants and not replace them with wild versions, but with forests or biofuels.

    • Interesting to hear about a strong lobby against the Sami. I know they have been resistant to financial incentives aimed at promoting tolerance of wolves, although they have become more tolerant of lynx and wolverines. What are the anti-Sami lobby’s aims?

  6. In the second paragraph here (and other times at SFF I believe) there’s been mention of uplands pastoralism causing (or not preventing) lowland flooding. How dependable are the data that back this accusation? Not being familiar with the upland/lowland dichotomy you’re faced with I have to fall back to what I suppose might be comparable geographies on this side of the pond. Here the government has been very active in flood plain management. And I’m not going to suggest we have all the worries parked in the past (and Californians might want to weigh in right now…) but our inland waterways are far less dangerous today than they have been – and this might even be demonstrable for geological spans of time.

    Now I must hasten to add that our inland waterway infrastructure is in place for more than mere flood control. The major rivers here are extremely important commercial transportation routes. Locks and dams are serious business. The Army Corps of Engineers is a force to be reckoned with. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is also quite a regionally significant entity (with significance well beyond the borders of its namesake state of Tennessee).

    I have to suppose the upland/lowland issues you’re dealing with might most closely resemble the differences between the Appalachian region and the prairie lying to its west (or perhaps the Chesapeake Bay watershed lying to its east). There are flood control issues and pollution control issues (especially on the Chesapeake side) which seem more significant close to the Appalachian chain than do the transportation infrastructure issues (which would be the case for the interior prairie where we’re talking about the Mississippi River watershed). But even without the barge traffic, the TVA is pretty adept at creating lakes and ameliorating some strong storm events to a degree that makes life there manageable. I should defer to Brian on this, but I’m guessing there aren’t many who would point to his Tennessee hill farm and suggest he shouldn’t be raising sheep because by doing so he’s harming downstream peace and prosperity.

    • Clem, the condemnation of sheep is made easy by management practices combining low labour investment (i.e. no planned grazing patterns) with a wet climate, on poor soils.
      Monbiot has had discussions with Rebecca Hosking about this; of course you need trees, but rainwater infiltration rates are increased by proper management of flocks, not by planting trees.

  7. I suggest that there is an issue here about balance. For a whole series of reasons both cultural and agricultural I suggest that we would want to keep areas under sheep as they are at present BUT that there is also a significant percentage of our uplands that we would wish to see either rewilded or with more tee cover

  8. Thanks for the comments. It’s nice to see some nuanced positions being laid out, generally along the lines of more trees please, but let’s keep some sheep too. Couldn’t agree more. (Not sure about more tees, John – careful, Donald Trump may be reading…) I agree with Bill that a bit more attention to preserving lowland agricultural land wouldn’t go amiss in terms of developing a properly holistic view of agriculture.

    On Miles’s point about ideologies of peasant farming as nationalist mythology, I agree that this can be a problem (though indeed it’s loomed less large in British nationalist mythology than in other countries). I’ll be writing about this in more detail later in the year, hopefully. Typically the veneration of peasants is a sub/urban pursuit which rarely benefits actual peasants. However, in my view the direction of travel in modern times has too often been at the opposite extreme of contempt for traditional farming cultures. My own thinking stops well short of endorsing any form of agriculture just because it chimes with some kind of nationalist trope. However, there’s surely a distinction to be made between valuing traditional forms of agriculture because they involve deeply-grounded skills and solutions to the problem of farming within a particular biogeography, and valuing them just because they’re traditional.

    Clem, others like Miles can probably answer your question about the hydrological impact of upland sheep farming and the evidence for it better than I can. The basic argument is that over-stocked and under-treed steep uplands lead to surface water flashing off too quickly, and also soil erosion which silts up lowland watercourses and compounds flooding. It’s interesting to see a US perspective – I guess it must be a complex equation of precipitation levels, vegetation cover, soil types, landform, and river topography. But I think the worst of it here is remediable with mixed woodland-pasture solutions that don’t preclude sheep farming as such. I’d be interested in any other views.

  9. In a crowded modern country, I think it’s impossible not to take a rational service-delivery perspective when it comes to policy prescription.

    Even assuming that the service-delivery perspective is correct, I am not sure how grass covered hills are more prone to flooding than tree covered hills. Certainly all the dozens of Google images that pop up when searching for “upland sheep farming UK” show no significant evidence of hillside erosion. Also, if this system of upland grazing has a long history, waterways have long since adjusted to carrying typical high-water flows.

    But I think the more important issue is whether there is any reason a “modern” country should preserve a good bit of non-industrial farming practice other than nostalgia. I think there is, if only because it will provide some cushion against any rapid decline in industrial agriculture (including declining imports) and also provide the availability of a nucleus of expertise when the inevitable transition back to low-energy agriculture happens. Eco-modernists may scoff at the notion of having to return to muscle powered agriculture, but they are mistaken in assuming that “modern” is here forever.

    Pastured animals are one of the easiest ways of converting sunshine-falling-on-rough-terrain to high-value food. I suggest we keep as much of it as possible. The only reason for preferring trees over grass on hilly land is if there is a burning need for wood rather than the meat (and all the other products) pastured animals can provide.

  10. Trying this instead of Twitter (https://twitter.com/csmaje/status/837064446648418305) maybe it’ll get a better response.

    I don’t know that you need to quote too many figures like this to work out just how marginal sheep farming is, or what an impact it has on the landscape. You can look at what sheep farmers are saying themselves: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/21/farmers-sheep-lake-district-preserve-environmentalists

    My take aways from this piece:

    The picture that the Guardian have chosen (though you can see plenty of others on Instagram) makes George’s argument all by itself. I can see:
    1. at least three erosion gullies on the hillside
    2. maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the land eroded down to bare rock. It looks better lower down, but there are still quite a few patches. I’d say there’s at least a meter, probably two, of soil loss over what there might’ve been originally.
    3. stone walls. Incredibly labour intensive to build and maintain, the only reason you build them is because there’s nothing else to build with (eg. timber for post and beam), and no money to buy in anything. We have some stone walls in Australia, mainly South Australia, another marginal country, but as soon as wire fencing was available, farmers stopped building them.
    4. a few trees, but nowhere near enough to act as a wind break. I can imagine the howling gales going through there in the winter time.

    And it gets worse when you read the article. They made no wages from sheep farming in six years, just enough to barely cover their costs. There’s no mention of subsidies, which means that they’re likely being subsidised somehow (if they received no subsidies I’m sure they’d mention it). And their stocking rate is two sheep per acre, which seems both high for that sort of poor soil, and low compared to what you could grow on better land.

    The fun part is that they pride themselves on doing everything the hard way – “Look how tough we and the sheep are” (also see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-15/how-a-sheep-farmer-gained-a-flock-of-followers-on-twitter/7540604) – so you’re unlikely to get any sort of change (other than the sheep farmer who “lost heart”) but it’s ultimately just an expensive hobby.

    What would I do instead? Well, pretty much anything else. Forest the hill tops and any slope over 20 degrees, terracing/fences and tree shelterbelts mid-slope, fence off and revegatate the waterways and slow down the streams and rivers. (And actually forest it, not just leave it all to go to brambles as per the article, though you may need brambles to shelter the young trees and rebuild the soil). Diversify into timber, trout, deer, mushrooms, possibly other stuff once the soil improves and it’s not so barren, cold and windy. You’ll still have sheep, but they’ll be in the midslopes, not on mountaintops, and you’ll probably find that you can run *more* sheep that way than with how it currently is.

    Is that enough detail? 🙂

  11. Joe, maybe it the flooding also shows systems that may have worked at one time, but cannot cope with climate chaos.

    Here are some more links to Monbiot specific to the impacts of land use and agriculture on flooding.

    Do little, hide the evidence: the official neglect that caused these deadly floods | Opinion | The Guardian

    ” A study in mid-Wales suggests that rainwater’s infiltration rate into the soil is 67 times higher under trees than under sheep pasture. Rain that percolates into the ground is released more slowly than rain that flashes off the surface. But Cumbria’s hills are almost entirely treeless, and taxpayers, through the subsidy regime, fund farmers to keep them that way.”

    This flood was not only foretold – it was publicly subsidised | George Monbiot | Opinion | The Guardian

    How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes | George Monbiot | Opinion | The Guardian

  12. A key point for me in the above is that nobody – not even Anthony – is arguing that there should be no sheep in the hills. So then the concept of ‘sheepwrecking’ has served its polemical purpose, and we can get down to debating the details of how best to manage the trade-offs between upland pastoralism, wildlife and flood management. In doing so, I think we need to go beyond anecdotal evidence of the ‘look, here’s a photo of some eroded upland pasture’ variety, and review the evidence a bit more systematically. The paper cited by Ruben, and George, is one such piece of evidence. So is the paper I’ve previously cited suggesting that flood peaks can be reduced 40% by judicious planting of small strips of trees: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-318X.2008.00009.x/full. Let’s start joining these dots by debating how to strike the right balance between pasture management, afforestation, watershed management and leaving well alone.

    Here, I don’t find Anthony’s position convincing in the main. I’m not an expert on upland topography – perhaps he is – but I struggle to see incontrovertible evidence of sheep-caused erosion in the blurred background of the photo. The Lake District comprises rocky mountains and valleys scoured only a few millennia ago by glaciers, but now with some thin, poor soils. No doubt sheep grazing has compromised some of these soils, but when a few bits of protruding rock in a mountain landscape are taken as proof of ovine malfeasance to me it suggests that the ‘sheepwreck’ critique is starting to get dysfunctional. Regarding diversification, no doubt it’s a viable route for some upland sheep farmers but as this lowland veg grower knows all too well, the fiscal problems of primary producers in the food system are generic and related to the overall structure of the market, not to the peculiar hopelessness of sheep farming. Timber, trout and mushrooms strike me as an implausible route to solvency for all but a small minority, and as to deer, I don’t see the virtue of switching from one tree-munching ruminant to another, even less remunerative, one.

    The debate on ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ farming is an interesting and complex one. I wouldn’t argue that traditional is inevitably best, but I’d tend to come down cautiously on Joe’s side of the argument.

    • Two things:
      First – I found the 2008 paper you link behind a paywall, but I used it to track papers that cite it and now have a review from Scotland in 2015 that may help me get closer to these data (Haydn et al Towards a research agenda for woodland expansion in Scotland; Forest Ecol and Mngmt 349 (2015) 149-161). I’d stick the link I used here but it’s onerous. I’m not even close to finished reading this paper, but the abstract and intro make me think it will help me.

      Second, and tangential… but all the mention of oilseed rape makes me wonder are we talking about Canola (low erucic acid rape) that can be used for human consumption?

      • Thanks Clem – I think you can get a copy of the 2008 paper through Google Scholar. The Scottish paper sounds interesting.

        Yes, oilseed rape is the same as low erucic acid canola.

    • Chris, I don’t have the numbers to hand, but JB MacKinnon looked at foraging compared to forestry.

      The huge corporations that clearcut a forest down to moonscape contribute less to the economy than the informal, unsubsidized, and unsupported forest foragers.

      Some of the industries are fish, but also fishing trips and guiding. Deer, but also hunting, and photography guiding. Bird watching. Mushroom harvesting, berry harvesting, greens harvesting for the floral industry, greens harvesting for the Yule season, berries, fiddleheads, herbals harvesting, selective logging, camping. On our coast yew bark is harvested for processing into a cancer medicine.

      And all of this happens year-round, and year after year. Yes, it may be a small minority, but that is all our might timber industry employs these days too, and they leave moonscapes behind them with 60 year regrowth cycles.

      I am easily convinced by Monbiot’s point that these hills used to be forested, and that overgrazing that reduced them to grasslands.

      Grasslands are worse at slowing and storing water, and in this hilly context, would be immeasurably worse at storing carbon.

      • Ruben, I’m sympathetic to your vision. But I’d want to raise a few caveats and clarifications.

        First, I’d distinguish between income-generating and provisioning activities. Bird-watching, photography etc. may be better ways to make money, but only because they draw in excess money generated elsewhere in an ecologically dysfunctional economy – so if one were to argue that bird-watching is more ecologically benign than sheep farming I think there’s a danger of spurious comparators.

        Second, I think it’s plausible (though not definite) that the kind of provisioning activities you list may be as nutritionally or economically productive a use for the uplands as sheep pasture. But they’re very labour intensive ones which are more in keeping with a peopled, self-provisioning economy. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s the kind of agrarian economy I think we should be moving towards. But if that’s the way we want to go, then I think we’d need a policy shift towards a more peopled, crofting-oriented upland agriculture – more housing in the hills, more economic support etc. And that’s not the way that either rural policy or the sheepwreck critique has gone. As things stand, I don’t think it’s a viable way for existing upland farm communities to get by.

        Third, inasmuch as a move out of upland pastoralism reduces national sheep production, I’d want to be clear that we didn’t displace the demand for sheep products onto ghost acres abroad.

        Fourth, I’d like to see some stronger quantification around the assertions in this debate. Perhaps it’s already out there, but a lot of the assertions (including mine) in this area tend to the generalised or anecdotal. It’s undoubtedly true that upland sheep husbandry contributes to water and soil runoff and to lack of afforestation (as indeed does lowland arable husbandry), but how much? I’m not sure it’s true that all of the British uplands would be forested but for sheep, or that the burden of lowland flooding is mostly associated with upland pastoralism. I think we need some more nuanced positions here. And part of that could surely involve silvo-pastoralist approaches (and also, as Michael says, better pasture management) which don’t insist on a binary of either sheep or trees.

        Finally I’d like to shift the goalposts a bit here as I tried to do in the post above, and ask why the focus of this debate falls so singularly upon upland sheep. Why aren’t we discussing rewilding the lowlands, protecting lowland agricultural soils, and diversifying out of wheat, barley and oilseed rape – which are problematic on all sorts of fronts? To be fair, George does campaign against maize silage too, but I’d like to see this debate encompass the question of a sustainable self-provisioning agriculture more fully. On the flooding front, I think UK-wide aggregation somewhat conceals the point that there’s not much in the way of uplands in England, where the great majority of the population lives. On the rewilding front, I’d like to see a more thorough debate about what this actually entails – trees are not necessarily intrinsically better than other organisms, and I fear that the whole rewilding sentiment risks becoming a pretty anthropocentric business of introducing a few varieties of trees, wildflowers and iconic mammals that certain people want to see. You could say that we should just let the uplands go wild. But I think it would be better to farm the uplands and let parts of the lowlands go wild. So I’d like to know more about what human values we’re trying to promote and demote in favouring different kinds of upland land planning. On the carbon storage front, you’re probably right but having more trees or less sheep in the British mountains seems to me of rather minimal import in global greenhouse gas abatement. Maybe we’d save more carbon by banning people from going on grouse shooting or birdwatching trips to Scotland?

        Anyway, I do like your vision – to realise it will push us towards the kind of detailed debates that we need to be having instead of the sheep bad/arable good or sheep bad/trees good positions that are too often the endpoint of the sheepwreck critique.

        • Chris I am embarrassed you had to correct me with your first point, “but only because they draw in excess money generated elsewhere in an ecologically dysfunctional economy”

          Your second I agree, but let’s dare to dream. After all, a peopled uplands can’t be that much harder to sell than neo-peasantry.

          #3, I agree.

          #4 fair enough.

          #5 “Why aren’t we discussing rewilding the lowlands, protecting lowland agricultural soils, and diversifying out of wheat, barley and oilseed rape – which are problematic on all sorts of fronts?”

          Sure, but strategically, will it be easier to rewild the lowlands, with higher population and much more productive agriculture, or the uplands, with one or two sheep per acre?

          At least that is my view from nearly the opposite side of the planet, having never visited the UK, and having gotten most of my information from watching Victorian Country Farm and Downton Abbey. If you think some lowlands rewilding would be better and easier, then I defer to you.

          Yes, protect the soils, and yes, diversify crops. In fact, this article came through my RSS today—half of the GHGs from your loaf of bread come from the nitrogen fertilizers used to grow wheat.

          What’s the environmental impact of a loaf of bread? : TreeHugger

          But when in doubt, I would prefer more forest. That is habitat for birds and animals and bugs. It is good for water, and great for carbon. And one truckload of firewood would be earn much more than two sheep per acre, in addition to all the other ways to earn money off our newly populated, rewilded uplands.

          • Getting a logging truck up there is going to be costly and messy on several fronts. I think we need more sheep in the picture somewhere soon though, if only to reduce the amount of microscopic plastic fibres washed out of polyester ‘fleece’ clothing and now being ingested by marine life to currently unknown effect.

    • Chris, the erosion gully is smack bang in the middle of the photo, I’m not sure how you can miss it, even with the blurriness. I can bust out MS Paint and draw arrows if you need me to.

      There’s a lone tree in the middle, right above the sheeps’ heads. The gully starts there and extends straight up the hill to the rocks, then extends out to the right. You can also see that the land next to it curves down compared to the rest of the contour. That’ll be due to soil eroding and then being swept away into the gully, which also means that it’s probably a large one.

      You can also compare the colour of the grass on the hill (brown) to that on the lower, flatter slopes (green) as a rough rule of thumb – there’s no way the soil up there is healthy.

      So “sheepwrecking” is not “polemical” or “dysfunctional” – it’s plainly and literally true.

    • Another point – Joe is flat wrong, as the paper that you’ve linked shows, so I’m not sure how you lean towards his side? If you want to see more practical application, take at look at what RSuDS are up to in Stroud: https://www.stroud.gov.uk/rsuds (It’s a bit flatter than the Lake District, but the general principles are the same).

      The “strips of trees” thing sounds to me like keyline (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyline_design), which is a water management/storage system developed here in Australia. That’s where a lot of the contour planting, small dams, swales, etc. come from in Permaculture. I doubt you’d be able to get a tractor up on the slopes in the Lake District, and if you could it’d cause more erosion than it’d solve, but tree planting, swales, etc. should still work.

    • Then, when the beavers get out of hand, wolves can be reintroduced, having the advantage of taking care of the excess sheep population too.

        • Not so sure about wolves: half a dozen roam the neck of the woods where we live in Hungary, though you’d never know. Much like the occasional bear that wanders in, they only ever get caught on camera, while the lynx are too shy even for that. Hence I believe the point about rewilding being a possible boon for tourism to be moot at best. In my experience tourists visit biodiverse areas for what they actually stand a chance of seeing and photographing and that doesn’t frighten them. But back to wolves and their ilk, their descendants the dogs have a massive carbon footprint and will do while ever they are domesticated. Feral dogs however…

  13. I don’t see the point in this debate that makes it seem like we have to have sheep or trees. Why not combine trees and pastorlism as they do in other European countries and we used to do here? The sheep will benefit from the shelter trees provide, a much wider range of ecosystem services would be provided including increased biodiveristy and soil productivity, flood amelioration, carbon sequestration, improved water quality, better stream conditions for salmon, trout and other aquatic organisms and land managers could earn a living from timber, livestock and game shooting as well as from non-timber forest products. It’s a no brainer. Of course we can have both if we want to. We just have to stop arguing with each other and work towards a common vision that would be better for both rural and urban populations and would also help to bring our land back into good ecological health.

    • Indeed! But who’s common vision?

      As someone who has lived in rural areas since 1970 (except for 2 years in Beirut), I know that every legal and management aspect of rural life is controlled in the end by urbanites. Since they have by far the most votes, the “common vision” you desire is most likely going to be a city dweller’s vision.

      I think it is also unfortunately true that most city folk are swayed more by their desire to look at a picturesque landscape than by the requirements either of rural ecology or of the necessities of the people trying to make a living in that landscape. Forgive my rural curmudgeonism, but for most urban environmentalists, their work will not be complete until wilderness fills all the space not occupied by cities.

      • Joe, the problem that I see is that most farmers are stubborn and will continue doing what they’ve always done out of sheer bloody mindedness, even when it’s in their own best interest to make changes.

        Case in point is the article I linked earlier (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/21/farmers-sheep-lake-district-preserve-environmentalists), where they work their arse off and make no money for six years.

        They hate, hate, *hate* George Monbiot with a burning fiery passion, but all of the things that he’s suggesting – planting trees, reducing erosion and run off, reintroducing beavers – would help farmers just as much as town people. Better soil, more water, less wind, fewer stock losses, diversify what you’re growing – what’s not to like?

        Upland sheep farmers don’t have enough money to fence off hilltops and grow trees even if they wanted to. On the other hand the city greenies who are “out of touch” are the only ones that I see supporting programs for fencing off waterways and hilltops and replanting.

      • Joe:
        Rural curmudgeonism – I like it!! And I’ve seen enough of what you’ve referred to to last the rest of my days. I’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit either truly rural, or periurban landscapes my whole life. And at the edges of the urban ecosystem the politics do heavily favor the landless. Numbers rule.
        The other issue – that once the concrete ends it should be wild… (or that there should be no smell of poultry, swine or dairy) is also a frustrating trope.
        But I take a little solace on those rare occasions when someone from town acknowledges there are important activities going on “out in the country”.

  14. A few comments in relation to the additional points.

    1. Upland tree cover. Oliver Rackham says that the natural upper limit of trees in Britain is around 1,700 feet, which sounds plausible to me. Wind exposure is key as well as temperature. What proportion of the uplands currently devoted to rough grazing could realistically be treed? It would be good to be talking figures rather than generalities.

    2. Anthony, I don’t think anyone’s getting stuck on the idea that upland tree cover is a good idea. We all seem to agree that. What we need to be doing now is discussing the details at a policy and landscape level, not focusing on individual examples of good and bad practice.

    3. Some of the suggested ecological improvements probably would help upland sheep farmers, but not immediately and in the short run they’d be costly. So the only way they’re going to happen is if they’re paid for as public goods or farmers are properly remunerated for long-term management.

    4. Doubtless there are farmers who hate George Monbiot and other environmentalists. I’ve encountered a fair few environmentalists who seem to hate farmers, often with very little appreciation of the kind of pressures farmers are under and with quite naïve ideas as to how they themselves could do it better. But I don’t think these kinds of generalisations get us far. Let me propose another one: ultimately, countries get the farmers and the farming they deserve, and are prepared to pay for.

    5. It seems to me implausible that upland farmers could earn adequately from timber. Brian Miller may have some views on that since he tends both sheep and trees, albeit in a US context. The price of wood is driven by industrial-scale forestry beyond the compass of small upland farmers.

    6. Ruben, you’re right that it would be politically easier to rewild the uplands than the lowlands. But this is why my alarm bells start ringing and I fear that the rewilding argument can easily become an enclosure argument against politically weak upland dwellers, which will let a destructive lowland big agri off the hook. Yes, let’s debate good upland management – I agree that more trees are good – but let’s also test the public’s appetite for rewilding by rewilding our own backyards.

    • 1. All of it, surely? Some of the more windy areas might take a while to recover, and it’ll need human intervention in a lot of places, but in principle it’s not that hard. Succession can help – eg. planting trees into bracken or brambles will help with wind.

      2. Clearly we don’t, because upland sheep farmers don’t see anything wrong with grazing sheep on the side of a mountain. And individual examples give you a good idea of what’s possible, and what’s going wrong.

      3. and 5. Running sheep is costly too (six years no wages, remember?) and the price is also set by industrial scale farming – but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone insisting on having sheep.

      The point is that with trees, you’ll have a better climate and grow more sheep than without. If your streams are cleared up and have more water in them, you can grow trout. Now you have three incomes. Grow fancy mushrooms in the off season and you have four. Etc.

      6. It’s already happening – Beaver trials, Permaculture, Regenerative agriculture, Natural flood management – and they’re working.

      • 1. OK, let me rephrase that. Assuming Rackham’s right, what proportion of rough grazing is above 1,700ft where it seems unlikely that natural tree cover could be established? Or are we talking sitka spruce plantations, and what are the ecological implications of that?

        2. ‘We’ as in ‘we who are debating this issue on this website’. Yes, individual examples can be useful, but not as useful as overall indicators. As I’ve said, I’m not disputing that things need changing in the uplands. I’d just like a more nuanced debate about how and how much.

        3. True, but then you have to factor in the additional up front costs of the new landscape management. Prices are set across the food and farming sector by intensive methods, including trout fed on maize and soya etc. What would be the effect on prices of thousands of hill farmers entering small luxury markets for expensively-produced trout and mushrooms? I don’t doubt that it’s possible for some farmers to find successful ways of diversifying out of sheep, but I don’t see any panaceas.

        6. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture isn’t rewilding. But yes I accept there’s a bit of rewilding going on in the lowlands. However, there doesn’t seem to be as strong a critique of lowland arable monoculture and the culture surrounding it at the whole landscape level as there is of upland pastoral monoculture, and I think there probably should be.

        • 1. Not very much, most of the hilltops around there seem to be 500m. My 2c is that if it’s too high to grow trees, you shouldn’t be grazing sheep either, and returns from doing it are likely to be minimal anyway.

          2. Right, but you still have to come up with something that’s likely to work culturally. And it’s still useful to go and “look” at the place and see what’s there as part of that process.

          3. You have to do *something*, yes? Sheep farming seems to be so marginal that any addition to income would be welcome. It doesn’t have to be expensively produced – if anything I’d go the opposite way and brand things as ‘wild’. It’ll add value and it’s much harder for lowland agribusiness to compete with.

          6. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the uplands are much more fragile than the lowlands. There’s hardly any soil, the climate is much harsher. It’s the reason that they’re running sheep – nothing else up that way is profitable with the land in its current state.

          The other is that the state of the uplands has an impact on everyone downstream, in terms of water quality and quantity.

    • re tree line in the UK, this is a useful reference:

      http://www.snh.org.uk/publications/on-line/advisorynotes/26/26.htm

      With respect to cold, trees can be grown pretty much anywhere in the UK. (The comment of Rackham’s you mention might have been regarding the places in Scotland where a genuine tree line has been identified in the UK.) Most of the UK was forested pre humans. By comparison, I’ve spent time at 63 degrees latitude in Finland. It was -20C while I was there and -35C a week or so before. And heavily forested. Almost of the UK by comparison is much more hospitable.

      There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on re reforesting parts of Scotland. All sorts of debates as to what species to use, what are the objectives etc

      And re benefits of water catchment tree cover moderating floods, there’s an extensive literature on this topic. And trees provide a wealth of other benefits in a silvopasture or agroforestry context including stock and crop shelter, riparian zone protection, bird habitat, timber, firewood etc

      A commonly quoted figure is that about 20% of a livestock farm can be treed without affecting overall production. But, as generally tends to be the case in more complicated systems, this may vary with locale.

      And on rewilding, many farmers find wild animals interfere with farming. And tend to take matters into their own hands. Note the reintroduced wolves being shot in the US. There’s a tendency of people that don’t understand farming to see a farm as a de facto wildlife preserve. But for farmers running a business to make money, wild mammals tend to have very few benefits and can cause significant losses. As can some birds.

      • “many farmers find wild animals interfere with farming”

        Too true!

        In the UK we exterminated large carnivores long ago but farmers still aren’t happy. They continue to complain about wildlife, from ravens to geese, from badgers to beavers. They even complain about wild animals that have been dead at least 500 years, protesting against proposed reintroductions.

        But where are the wild animals to live if not in a farming-dominated landscape. Is it only developing countries that should tolerate these animals, while we in the UK watch Planet Earth and wring our hands over the fate of the tiger? Even those protected areas exclusively reserved for wild animals are too small, too few and too disconnected.

        The public subsidises farming. The public want to live in a world still inhabited by wild animals. Farmers need to find ways to live with wildlife, even if it sometimes entails costs. That might mean a return to a greater shepherding presence and other forms of animal husbandry but so what?

        An innovative farmer might even offer shepherding holidays to those much reviled liberal elite townies who already pay hundreds of pounds a week to go on tree planting holidays. Imagine what they’d pay to go on wolf patrol!

          • Simon, yes, that was my thought when George Monbiot started banging on about ‘sheepwrecking’.

            He no doubt has in mind nice, sensitive, eco-literate, tourists, willing to be wilder-educated and leave no trace. They do exist – but are there enough to make it financially viable?

            One could argue that ‘Tourists’ as a crude sort of grouping, have a bad name because one of the motives behind ‘tourism’ is merely seeking-some-diversion-or-other. Wilderness is not particularly diverting. It can be pretty boring for the uncommitted – it’s not going to be like a BBC nature documentary and north wales is not the serengeti.

  15. People get hung up on trees.
    Sometimes, they get strung up on trees.
    They find poppies cute.
    Those that grow in a wheat field.
    The big fields are the ‘I can see for miles’ landscape.
    The non-flat thingies are where the pixies live.
    Those need trees, you know.
    If the pixies don’t get their trees, they send a plague of water down to where the good people live.
    (The good people always live down somewhere.)
    When people are bad, they have to live in the non-flat thingies.
    James C. Scott is their leader.
    Good people only go there for hiking, and they take sharp knifes with them if they go.

    • Agreed, people get hung up on trees,
      and sometimes get strung up on trees.
      Some pixies are cute
      Others resolute
      Until strung up or stung up by bees.

      Water is your friend when it’s free
      So long as too much it won’t be
      A flood is no fun
      Once forcefully begun
      But the sheep had little to do with it in the first place – you see?

      Ok, so I have trouble counting…

  16. What about wood as fuel?

    There was an item on Points West (Local TV News Programme where Chris & I live) a while ago about the boost to the local economy as a result in the growth of woodfuel on Exmoor

  17. Growing exotic musrooms commercially is not very sustainable – i’ve been looking at it in some detail. Yes you can grow on logs but yields are lower and for many varieties erratic – shiitake can be shocked into fruiting but not in winter and its bundles of work. Once you start growing inside you’re managing temperature & humidity, pasteurising or sterilising growing medium etc etc. The carbon trust did some work for tesco on the carbon footprint of different foods – if memory serves weight for weight mushrooms were on a par with chicken but with less nutritional value.

    • In my corner of the world there is a large and profitable commercial mushroom foraging industry. People disperse into the woods to find and harvest many species which are sold fresh or dried for later sale. These are sold to locally-focussed restaurants, as well as over to Japan.

      So, yes, not year-round. But neither are sheep.

      • There are people making a living foraging in the uk although recently the practice has been criticised – the resource base is insufficient to support commercial exploitation. Paul Stamets talks about mycological landscaping – managing land to increase the range of species and the available yield. He’s even growing black morels but admits its somewhat hit and miss.

  18. Thanks for the further comments. Here’s one that came my way from the inestimable Simon Fairlie, author of ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’. I don’t have time to respond further at the moment, but I’ll try to pick up on Simon’s comments and any others that come my way by the beginning of next week.

    Yes Chris, as always, makes some very astute points. But he seems to miss an obvious one: that you can have too much of a good thing and in some parts of Britain there are simply too many sheep, notably in parts of Wales where they are an almost total monoculture. More than half of all the farms in Wales are sheep farms — 5,380 out of 9,590. There are only 300 mixed farms that might practice the sort of ley farming that Chris advocates
    Driving across the semi-upland hills of South Wales last November we were craning our heads our of the window looking for arable, and round every corner there were more ruddy sheep — very occasionally some cattle. When we did finally find some arable fields , they held a crop of turnips being grazed by sheep. The farmer, who appeared on his quad bike, told us that they used to grow corn, but now it wasn’t worth it.
    Surely what is most needed in the uplands and hilly areas is less monoculture and more diversity?

  19. Hi All. Sorry to interject and break up the flow of the discussion so please read my post as abit of an advert.

    I’ve recently come across Blue Labour who are making a bit of resurgence these days and are looking for policy ideas to not only reconnect with the working class but are also looking to engage with rural communities. I was thinking Landworkers Alliance might be able to offer their Peoples’ Farming manifesto.

    In many ways they do seem to be trying to create a leftwing populism perspective with a specific focus on labour interest but not in terms of a growth perspective but more from a steady state perspective. In this respect Im sure they would be open to an agrarian dimension to their thinking but from what I can tell they need more input from this particular field. Similarly they are interested in federated regionalism.

    You can read their blurb here which for me takes in the best of the socialist tradition (in terms of a critique of the exploitative aspects of capitalism as opposed to central planning) mixed in with a post-liberal approach (which specifically makes the critique that global capital treats people like extractive resources and that equality should be based on reciprocity and contribution rather than undifferentiated need) with a dose of conservatism in the form of family, community and belonging.
    http://www.bluelabour.org/blue-labour-book-second-edition/

    Jonathon Rutherford’s articles pretty much follow a Blue Labour trajectory as does David Goodhart with his Demos piece
    https://quarterly.demos.co.uk/article/issue-1/a-postliberal-future/

    If you didnt know already Blue Labour started up following the 2010 Labour defeat with the following selection of essays (free pdf download) which provides a more indepth insight into their thinking.
    https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/labour-tradition-and-politics-paradox

    Lastly, David Goodhart has just released a new book on populism that takes the politics of belonging decidedly to the left.
    https://www.waterstones.com/events/the-future-of-british-politics-with-david-goodhart-and-rachel-reeves-mp/london-piccadilly

    Again sorry for interupting the discussion but was rather excited that their areas of interest seem to overlap with concerns expresed in the blog. So I wanted to share especially as they might well become influential post-Brexit and so thought now is the time to engage them with our ideas which in the first instance can be done through their survey
    http://www.bluelabour.org

    Thanks.

  20. Thanks for the additional views. Plenty to comment on. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

    In relation to Simon Fairlie’s comments, I guess I’d begin by reiterating that I’m not fundamentally opposed to George’s argument that there are too many sheep in the uplands. I just don’t think it should be pushed too far, and I’d like to see it specified more precisely. Simon’s comment that ‘You can have too much of a good thing’ is interesting: my feeling is that, nutritionally, there’s too much of the arable commodity crops in our diet and not enough grass fed meat – so I don’t think we have too much sheep meat. But sheep meat is a lot more land hungry than arable commodity crops, so in view of our population size we have to trade off. The fact that you can raise sheep on land where you can’t grow good arable crops improves the trade off and the complementarity. But there are the downsides that George highlights – less wilderness, more flooding. It’s great that he’s initiated this debate – I think we now need to move on and debate the trade-offs involved more exactly. I don’t think just banging on about the uplands being ‘wrecked’ helps to do that. Nor do I think that there is any correct balance between woodland, pasture and cropland given in the nature of things. However, the global farming economy does tend to push land use towards its most remunerative short-term use, ie. to monocultures – hence the predominance of sheep in Wales and wheat in lowland arable. I don’t think this is a good thing (neither the sheep nor the wheat), but the problem of monocultures isn’t specific to sheep in the uplands.

    In relation to Anthony’s points about upland farming being more damaging than lowland, well I’m not sure. Yes, surface water runoff from steep ground is more problematic other things being equal than from flat ground, but if you evaluate the total social costs of lowland arable farming – the soil loss from prime cropland, the polluting runoff of soluble nitrogen and phosphate, the biodiversity loss, the costs to human health of cheap arable commodity crops, then it seems to me questionable. Ultimately, I’m less interested in debating whether upland or lowland farming as they stand are worse, and more interested in trying to construct a more sensible agriculture at every level.

    On farm poverty & ecological management, I disagree with Hugh’s point that ‘the public subsidises farming’. The truth is that farmers subsidise the public, as is surely evident from the fact that about 25% of farmers live below the poverty line while food is as cheap as, er, chips. I’m sympathetic to the idea that farmers should do more for wildlife – but then the public will have to pay them a lot more, one way or another.

    On farm poverty & diversification, I see this as much the same as poverty more generally, even if farmers aren’t the poorest segment of society. Most people who are born into poverty live in it through their lives. Some of them through luck or skill find ways to escape it, and how they manage to do so undoubtedly contains some useful lessons for others. But ultimately poverty is structural, not a result of individual failings or lack of initiative. Some hill farmers may successfully diversify into fish, mushrooms or whatever. Most won’t. Obsessing over which crops might be more remunerative for them doesn’t get us close to the crux of farm poverty or the way that the structure of the global farm industry drives ecologically-damaging monocultures. The article linked by Daz from upland sheep farmer James Rebanks (thanks for that) is closer to the mark. John may be right that the market for firewood is buoyant at the moment, but the same point applies – and I’m not sure it makes ecological sense for small-scale farmers in the thinly populated uplands to be trucking firewood to the lowlands. Likewise with ‘wild’ products. These suggestions fit better into the kind of vision outlined above by Ruben, but that’s a whole different ball game.

    On trees (and sheep), I’d beg to differ with David. Rackham says “In the high valleys ancient woods ascend to 1700 feet, perhaps the nearest approach to a natural upper limit of trees in the British Isles”. True, there are colder places in the world that are treed. My guess is that most of them are coniferous, and there aren’t natural conifer woodlands in Britain south of Scotland, which suggests we’re at the edge of a temperate, wet, warmish biome which just doesn’t suit more cold (and dry/snow) adapted trees. If you take a walk from the summit of Glyder Fawr in Snowdonia at about 3,300ft down to the valley near Nant Peris you’ll find sheep from top to bottom, and quite a lot of trees too, but only from around 1,500ft – I can’t vouch for the landscape history of that place, but it seems to me that sheep aren’t the only challenge to trees there. Anthony’s 500m figure is pretty close to 1,700ft, and I don’t see any inherent reason why sheep shouldn’t graze above the treeline. Ultimately, all this is a bit of a sideshow – the only reason it really matters is if people push the ‘sheepwreck’ critique further than it ought to go and blame every bit of open ground, every outcropping rock, every bit of poor soil or surface water runoff on sheep.

    I agree that farmers can stick bloody-mindedly to what they think is right, regardless of other views. So can environmentalists, bloggers and blog commenters. Farmers possibly have better grounds for their conservatism, for the reasons mentioned by Brian Miller on this site recently – they’re forever subject to fads and fashions imposed on them by other people with greater political power, and it’s often them that foots the bill. Maybe it’s true that hill farmers would actually be better off adopting the kind of ecological measures suggested by the sheepwreck critique. My feeling is that the economic gains would probably be slight, and overshadowed by the costs, and more than likely by the vagaries of global commodity prices – costs the farmers would mostly bear unless we rethink the finance of the industry. But it’s true that there are wider costs in relation to flooding, wildlife etc. I guess this post is a plea for more quantification and specification of those costs and trade-offs, and then a debate about where to go from there which involves less blame directed at hill farmers, and a bit more bridge-building.

    • I would like to think that everyone, including environmentalists, would keep in mind the larger context of any discussion of our current uses of land. Sooner or later (probably sooner) all the exponentially ascending curves for world population, energy use and resource throughput are going to roll over and descend as fast or faster than they went up. Almost all human societies are facing an extreme bottleneck, after which the civilization we live in now will be gone.

      Now consider the case of marginally profitable sheep grazing in the uplands of the UK. Of all the land use activities that one can consider, this practice, which has been going on for hundreds or even thousands of years, has one of the very best chances of skating right through the coming bottleneck unscathed. Per unit of food and fiber, raising sheep on permanent pasture requires incredibly low amounts of labor and resource inputs. If the lowlands of the UK disappeared tomorrow, upland sheep farmers would scarcely notice.

      Their situation is not perfect. Perhaps these sheep herders could plant a few more trees to provide fuel-wood for when bottled gas is gone and to provide replacement beams for their houses. Perhaps they could get rid of the ATVs and use horses more. But it seems to me that the kind of animal husbandry being described as an environmental disaster by Monbiot (even though it has somehow existed very stably for centuries past) is one of the most sustainable food producing activities in the world. Sheep will be standing in pastures long after London has crumbled into ruin.

      So, in the context of all the other unsustainable trends in human affairs, it seems to me that upland sheep farming is one of the last things that anyone in the UK should be worried about.

    • “The truth is that farmers subsidise the public, as is surely evident from the fact that about 25% of farmers live below the poverty line while food is as cheap as, er, chips.”

      OK, farmers sometimes don’t get paid very much for what they produce (e.g. milk) but isn’t that just what happens when supply outstrips demand? I realise this sounds harsh, it is harsh, but I am genuinely confused by the logic and perhaps people here can offer some insight. Maybe we have too many cows in the UK? Certainly we seem to have too many sheep. Maybe farmers should diversify and if they can’t operate profitably, why should they be any different to any other livelihood in receiving subsidies to stay afloat? In NZ they abolished all farm subsidies in 1984 and while “going cold turkey” was painful they now have a more productive farming sector to show for it (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/02/business/worldbusiness/02farm.html).

      It seems to me to be a matter of fiscal record that farmers receive enormous subsidies (£3bn annually in the UK) although admittedly in the EU 15-20% of the farms with the largest payments share 80% of the total payments. But then when campaigners pushed for a cap on these CAP payments to address this imbalance the NFU lobbied hard against it and so the payments continue to be handed out in proportion to your acreage and so the richer you are the more hand outs you receive. Meanwhile these subsidies often do enormous harm to the environment (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/21/waste-cash-leavers-in-out-land-subsidie).

      If we have to keep subsidising farmers (as it seems likely we will) then it seems reasonable that the public who are paying these subsidies should get some say in how farmers operate, e.g. if the public wants more wildlife what right have farmers to oppose this?

      One specific question: Are you claiming that 25% of farmers in the UK live below the poverty line? Or globally? Can you give a reference please?

      • Hugh, low price would indicate over-supply if the food market approximated to a perfect market – but it doesn’t, because the large retailers control something like 90% of the grocery trade and therefore have monopsony power. Farmers have to sell at (sometimes) below the costs of production, and then get compensated by the bizarre subsidy regimen – but not by enough to keep many of them anything much more than barely afloat. In that sense, yes it’s a matter of fiscal record that farmers receive subsidies, but the main beneficiaries of those subsidies are the retailers and the consumers, not the farmers. The stereotype of the subsidy-bloated farmer is a convenient fiction that diverts attention from how the system works. It may be true that there’s over-supply in some instances (though not with sheep – there are probably more sheep in the UK than there should be for wise land management, but that’s a different issue), but that’s not the main issue driving low farm prices.

        It’s true, however, that large landowners and large-scale farmers benefit disproportionately from the farm subsidy regimen, and these are the people that the NFU represent – not small-scale and family farmers. So yes, they certainly want to keep their subsidies and I agree with you that it would be better if they didn’t. Contrast the NFU’s position on subsidies with that of the LWA.

        I’d support the abolition of farm subsidies, but only if steps were taken to make the market for food function like a proper market. So that would have to involve breaking up supermarket monopolies, creating price support structures, or some such. The result would be higher food prices, unless we pretty much just gave up farming in the UK and imported from abroad – not a good idea in my opinion for a whole host of reasons. Higher food prices would be problematic for a lot of people, essentially because of another dysfunctional market – namely housing, which siphons off vast amounts of people’s income into the pockets of landowners, making it difficult for them to afford much else other than getting a roof over their heads. Therefore creating a proper food market would also have to involve creating a proper housing market. I think it would be great if the government did this, though I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, I think it’s important to keep saying that ordinary farmers are not the major beneficiaries of the subsidy regimen.

        Whether farmers receive public money or not, I agree with you that they ought to look after the land and its wildlife if that’s what the public want (or even if the public doesn’t – and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much most people care…but again a proper housing market and a more egalitarian distribution of society’s resources might work wonders for nature). But it’s too much to expect farmers to run solvent businesses, provide food at penuriously low prices and also to be good stewards of the landscape. Something’s got to give, and the way things work at the moment it’s going to be to be the latter. So if we want environmentally responsible farming, I think we’re going to have to pay more for it.

        The 25% in poverty figure refers to the UK and came from a report by the Commission for Rural Communities in 2010 – see for example, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/quarter-of-farming-households-below-poverty-line-2147252.html. The Commission was disbanded early on by the Conservative-Lib Dem government, and I haven’t searched for more up to date figures, but I doubt it’s much different.

        • In reply to Hugh, Chris said:
          I agree with you that they ought to look after the land and its wildlife if that’s what the public want

          Land owners should look after the land. Wildlife… maybe. But the impetus for a land owner is going to come back to their own private motivations. What the public wants – in respect to land held by private interests – is going to take a back seat in many decisions. There are zoning restrictions – fine. But to come down to the farm gate and tell the farmer what she can and cannot do… oversteps in my mind. The farmer is not a public employee.

          To the point of farmers living at or below the poverty line – it’s a bit like using GDP for national economic analysis. A peasant livelihood may not compare to national income levels such that poverty is escaped, but if a person chooses this path and meets their personal needs and wants (food security, shelter, etc) then who are we to judge and scream poverty? Happiness metrics would serve better in this regard.

          • But Clem, surely there are all sorts of things that a farmer can and can’t do on his/her farm beyond just zoning restrictions? This isn’t over-stepping, it’s just about being part of society and living within its laws.

          • Let’s compare a privately held farm field to some other type of private property. Maybe a lot in town where you might build a home. If you desire to build a loud music venue on the lot, zoning may have something to say on the matter. A zoning law.

            But if you build a house to inhabit – all within the prescribed zoning for size, ingress, egress, etc. etc.; should you then welcome the state to come by and tell you that you now need to raise a dozen badgers, rip up those pretty rose bushes and replace them with hawthorn, and by the way, we’d rather the paint on your house be a pastel?

            Being part of society and living within its laws already involves paying taxes, purchasing insurance, obeying zoning laws, and looking out for your property rights.

            If some city dweller who doesn’t know a guilt from sow wants to place onerous restrictions upon her country cousin because it ‘feels’ right, she might do us all a favor and reflect upon where the lines might drawn fairly. Oh, and if she wants to ride her four-wheeler across your property, wouldn’t it be considerate if she first asked permission?

          • I think we could find some middle ground here as well, Clem, short of painting your house in colours approved by the local Tourism Board.

            Maybe X% of land left to habitat, perhaps a bit of migration greenbelt that crosses your land?

            Perhaps like you, they will have to pry the rosebushes from my wife’s cold, dead hands. But I think that is a bit of a straw man.

          • Ruben:
            I’ve no problem with a system where takings are compensated. What I do have a problem with are 1) folks not even recognizing that a ‘taking’ is occurring in the first place; 2) folks imagining that a land owner should just give up their property rights because it seems like a nice thing to do.

            As for the straw man nature to the rose bush example – there are folks who will project one agenda or another into situations where they have no legal or commercial standing just to see if by their boisterousness they might effect change. There are folks campaigning to plant milkweeds for monarch butterflies. Good grief! Habitat loss in Mexico (overwintering home) is more significant than milkweed loss in the Midwest. If you plant milkweeds in your own garden or pasture – great. But if you let them go to seed and the seed is blown all over creation you are essentially causing havoc beyond your own property. Just because someone has read up a little about monarch ecology doesn’t mean they should go about ‘taking’ from their neighbors.

            So, yes, there may well be ways to accomplish some of the changes you’d like to see in the environment. But expecting someone else to just open their checkbook for you because you think it would be nice…. really?

        • Thanks Chris. Very interesting. I will look up the LWA.

          I wonder if we will have to pay more for better stewardship or whether existing subsidies might just be better allocated and distributed. That might be one benefit of leaving the EU I suppose.

        • Being Canadian, perhaps I have a more intuitive comfort with what is clearly a sore point for you.

          After all, we Canadians are extremely possessive of our healthcare system, which is single-payer, funded through general taxation, and consistently provides better general outcomes at lower prices than the US system.

          And we do this as socialists, to each according to their need, from each according to their ability. So, even though most of us have little need for health coverage, some of us have great need for health coverage.

          I have “enjoyed” pennies on the dollar of the healthcare my taxes have paid for. For most people, it is little else than an opening of the chequebook.

          Another place I open my chequebook is for roads. I don’t have car, so while I still buy goods that travel over our shared infrastructure, I personally enjoy very little wine from all the fruit I have paid for. In fact, as a cyclist, I am systematically screwed over since many drivers don’t think I belong on the roads I pay much more than my fair share of.

          So, there are lots of ways we all pay, with zero input from ourselves. The US, of course, is famous for the scale of its military budget. I would love it if citizens got direct input on those purchasing decisions, but no fear of that happening anytime soon.

          Now, it is true and frustrating that clueless city folk impose many things on country people.

          But, in both our countries, the rural folk have a disproportionately large electoral influence, resulting in a decade of Conservative government here, and decades of Bush, and now Trump in the US. So this imposition of will definitely flows both ways.

          Hey, the subsidies under discussion here are flowing generally from cities out to the rural area. Yes, the poverty conditions also flow out, I won’t forget that.

          But the rural areas certainly could not pay for the roads they drive on, nor the helicopters that evacuate them in medical emergencies.

          All of which to say, I am sure you have very good and specific reasons for being pissed off about this issue. And living in a society necessarily entails other people making decisions for us. Personally, I would much rather decisions were made for land expropriation for rewilding than tax appropriation for buying tanks and planes.

          • Clem – whether you are a city dweller or a rural landowner you have to abide by society’s laws. Period. Many of those laws apply within the limits of your property and your “property rights” do not supersede them. If a city dweller gets bats in their roof, they cannot just kill them or chase them away (in the UK anyway) despite the potential inconvenience and notwithstanding that person’s “property rights”. Society has determined that bats are rare and valuable and so need protection. Equally if a peregrine nests on an office building that nest cannot be disturbed. So a farmer may resent a family of beavers appearing on their land, but they are protected by law (in the UK anyway) and so he/she cannot legally kill them or chase them away, although being far from the eyes of the law the temptation may be strong and the belief that “it’s my land, I can do what I want” may encourage them to act how they want as we often see with, for example, gamekeepers persecuting protected raptors on UK grouse moors. I was going to use the example of badgers, but intense lobbying by farmers in the UK means they CAN now kill them in many places, much to their delight and much to the majority of the public’s distress.

            I guess this is all obvious and your issue is with the extent that society’s laws impinge on how you want to have things on your land (e.g. telling you what colour you can paint your house), but consider this, you could live in Switzerland and they have laws about what days of the week you can cut the grass, what time of day you can have a shower and when you can put the bins out. I imagine such regulation would have you in conniptions but they are all laws designed to facilitate urban people living closely alongside each other in a way that minimises impact on neighbours for the perceived greater good of society.

          • Interesting debate here about the extent to which farmland should be seen as private property. It currently is, of course, at least in Britain and other ‘developed’ countries, and its status goes together with the commercial economy that ultimately defines how it is used. All sorts of arguments might be amassed to support this, such as the possibilities for commercial innovation that go with the sole control exercised by the farmer (ability of the farmer to make decisions about diversification, etc).

            But if this is blog is about what might be, rather than what is, we can question all that. The comparison made above between a private homestead and a farm is not a necessary equivalence, because whilst a farm often produces food for more people than just those who live there, a homestead doesn’t usually produce anything except the people who live on it (and I don’t doubt that most would except that people should be able to make most of the important decisions on how they produce themselves by themselves!).

            In the kind of economy based more on provisioning than on making a profit, which is what I think Chris’s thought experiment is mostly about, the closest parallel to the private homestead is the peasant farmstead, which is mostly self-supported. The argument for self-determination there is pretty strong, though I’m sure there are always wider considerations to take some account of. Anyway, this seems to represent the ideal world view (and often practice) of a lot of the commenters here.

            But outside the peasant farmstead, farmers producing food that goes in part to feed non-farming sections of the population will have to consider issues about local and regional provisioning that are different to the kind of commercially-based decisions currently made by farmers as owners of private property. How this works in practice is a huge question, and I’ll be interested to see how Chris tackles it in the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex. Community Supported Agriculture might be a step towards some kind of answer, but any proper solution will have to be far less fringe. It seems to me quit possible, though, that such farmers would act in some sense as public servants, at least if the public is defined in some kind of bioregional sense.

          • “the subsidies under discussion here are flowing generally from cities out to the rural area […] rural areas certainly could not pay for the roads they drive on”

            Do you count the cost of roads that take agricultural produce into urban areas as a subsidy to the rural community, Ruben?

          • Andrew, you might be interested in the land reforms I’ve been advocating, one element of which I summarise as ‘establishing explicitly that all ownership of land includes an element of trusteeship (i.e. all landowners are trustees for future generations, and owners of all agricultural and industrial land are trustees for the public at large whose survival and well-being depends on them)’.

          • Do you count the cost of roads that take agricultural produce into urban areas as a subsidy to the rural community, Ruben?

            This is a clever question Malcolm. And it is a difficult one to parse out in a mental and financial environment as tortured and twisted as ours.

            I would point out, as I did to Chris below, that my point here is not get into a bun fight about who receives the most subsidy, city or country. Before we spend any time at all on that, I think we should sharpen the pitchforks and oil the guillotine, for we have a much more damaging common target.

            My point to Clem was to illustrate that collective decisions that impact the private realm are totally common and normal and, in many cases, good.

            Many of those collective decisions are also bad, and we should try to correct those, but let’s keep the baby in the bath.

            Let me also say that in the big picture of economic flows, I am clear and I agree that cities are generally wealth pumps that extract from the periphery and concentrate in the centre. I don’t think this is desirable or fair, and this is one of the reasons I love Chris’ thinking on a Peasant Wessex.

            On a smaller scale, though, and to your question, I would guess you are alluding to the fact that farmers feed the cities and yet remain, generally in precarious poverty.

            This is what we call the Great Glory of Capitalism, but I hate it, and am perfectly willing to describe it as a subsidy of sorts.

            But again, the tortured twists, for the exact same condition benefits the farmer. No longer wearing homespun, the farmer enjoys fine weaves and knits courtesy of labourers in poor countries. These garment workers mirror this notion of subsidy, but for the farmer—and furthermore the garment industry is all coordinated from within the cities. Without, then, the cities, and the subsidy from the garment workers, the farmer would not have their heavy canvas duck overalls and warm flannel shirts.

            But let’s talk about roads.

            I am a giant fan of the Strong Towns movement. Strong Towns is quite clear that everything must be paid for, and if you build more infrastructure than you can afford to maintain, then you go bankrupt.

            Strong Towns points to the traditional development model to offer us some guidance. Traditionally, development was done with cash in hand—credit is widespread only very recently. So the historic development patterns we see are patterns that proved they could pay for themselves.

            So, compact, walkable urban cores. Lots of apartments above shops, and architecture that lends itself to incremental expansion. This is the exact opposite of “Build it and they will come.”

            And what we saw, of course, was very little surfaced road.

            This story talks about some of the economics of paving rural roads.
            Officials say paving dirt roads an expensive, timely project

            So, to be precise, if a farmer grows tomatoes, sells tomatoes, and uses the proceeds to pay for paving the road, then I would say the road is not subsidized. The same would go for the power lines, and the water and sewage pipes.

            And what did we see historically? Dirt roads, windmills for power, wells, and septic fields or outhouses.

            That is the infrastructure you get without subsidies.

            So yes, the roads are paved largely with money taken from the wealthy urban areas (which took the money from the poorer periphery, I know, I know).

            Do I want to live in a world in which farmers are paid more than bare subsistence? Yes.

            Would I want to live in world in which farmers are paid so much they can afford to pave their country roads? No.

            I don’t want paved roads everywhere, for environmental reasons, but also because everything has to be paid for somehow and I would rather we use money on things like early childcare than unproductive stretches of rural roads. (again, but unproductive, I mean they do not create enough value to pay for themselves)

            Hey, I also don’t want farmer’s driving into town as much as rural folks do. It is bad for the planet.

            So, I would the like the tomato farmer to get paid enough to enjoy their life with little worry about the bills. I think tomatoes should pay enough to occasionally grade the dirt road, and to maintain the solar panels and composting toilet and water filtration system.

            But the arrangement we have built where the city just gets thinner all the way out into the country is not productive. We can’t afford to build or maintain the blacktop, pipes and power systems.

  21. Martin, I see what you’re saying but I also think it telling that it’s referred to as rewilding in English, a word seemingly ripe for marketing to those ‘searching for enchantment’ (in the blurb from Monbiot’s Feral). It’s termed repatriating, resettling or reestablishing in Hungarian, which don’t have the same ring to them and any way are attempted for the sober aim of increasing biodiversity, not, as far as I’m aware, and/or as a nice little sideline.

    The irony of making a place wilder (or wild again) to then make it more touristy can’t have been lost on Monbiot, who must nevertheless still view it as the lesser of two evils. I consider it the weakest strand in the argument for rewilding, almost comically cock-eyed.

    Where rewilding is being shown to do some good to an environment, then great. Various beaver reintroduction programmes seem to be showing a favourable track record, in Wales as in parts of Eastern Europe. A similar rewilding effort in Hungary with Black Grouse proved a mismanaged failure in a place where there’s barely any suitable habitat left for these ground nesters had they survived.

    And yet, whether it’s selling books or tourism, we all have to make some money somehow. One of the refreshing things about peasantry (however you want to coin that) is that it goes some way towards keeping money in the role of servant not master. It would be a pity if rewilding the UK only gains traction among those with an eye on the cash tills.

  22. Very interesting again Chris. I know very little about all this, but currently doing more reading in this area. My thought is why can’t we see silvopasture systems as a transitory step towards a ‘re-naturing’ of the uplands. To me, it seems more realistic, and also more compassionate of upland sheep farmers. It would be a step forward, bringing many of the benefits the re-wilders want. It doesn’t satisfy re-wilding completely, but then perhaps that can be trialled in some areas, where possible. It would perhaps further George’s case if he also criticised the arable lowlands and suggested reform there too. As you say, they’re perhaps more damaging – and there’s hardly a dearth of rape and wheat in our diet. So perhaps if he was was more even-handed, the uplands farmers wouldn’t feel so targeted. The upland sheep farmers seem an easy target.

    Looking out my window, I’d like to see less sheep and more trees. I’d like to see more fruit and vegetables too. Wales imports about 97% of fruit and veg. I’d like to see more mixed, ley farming too in this part of the world, as Simon points out, and it would perhaps take some pressure off the English lowlands. If anything the lowlands needs more grass and trees, and Wales more arable and of course trees.

  23. Chris,

    I am about – I think to do a sort of ‘summation’ post rather like you do……… Anyway

    As child I used to holiday on a dairy farm near Cardigan. The Farmer (Fred) was coming up to retirement age and was passing it on to his son. One of the possibilities they were looking at was that they could go over to sheep and the son could get a job so be a ‘part time’ farmer. I wonder if many who run sheep on the hills work in that way?

    Some years ago a fellow Green Party member talked about growing up on a farm in Galloway – funnily enough not that far from where my wife spent her early childhood on a farm. He commented on the reduction in the numbers working on the farm from about 8 including his father to 2 now – his brother & nephew. Another comment by a friend who had worked on a farm is that farming takes so many different skills that unless you have a reasonable size workforce its hard to be able to properly cover all the work that needs doing. In the case of the farm I was on, gates were Freds weak spot……………

    Another comment I have seen made by a farmer was that the management of some farms is pretty awful and it isn’t surprising that some go bust..

    So possibly we have a situation where the farmers skill is in sheep, they might well be farming ‘part time’ and they cant find the time, money or get anyone in with the skills that might allow them to diversify? To say nothing of course of the strong ‘sheep farming’ culture that Monbiot quite rightly recognises and wishes to see continue.

  24. Thanks for the further comments. John, that makes sense to me – pastoralism commends itself as a strategy when labour is scarce, such as when you’re working part-time. So how about introducing UBI as a method for rewilding the uplands? The notion of everyone busily looking at farm diversification schemes as a way of increasing their income doesn’t sit well with part-time farming, let alone peasant farming.

    Much to agree with in Joe and Alex’s comments too. I think the flooding and biodiversity issues in the uplands need looking at, but I’m not sure I’d put them at the top of my list when it comes to agricultural reform.

  25. Pardon my bunny trail, fellow peasants. Some developments in France prompt me to post a transcript of Le Pen being interviewed, about the wave of farmer suicides in France, and what to do about French farm policies. Something that is affecting other countries around the world, too. So many stories about India’s farmers’ suicides…. So let’s get real about being peasant agrarians and talk about policies that help peasant farmers. What do you say?

    05:30 We are now going to tackle regional questions, and we’ll start with agriculture:
    05:34 A week ago a woman farmer in Côtes d’Armor [Brittany] committed suicide in the milking room.
    05:38 She was a 47-year-old dairy farmer, mother of two children. The suicides
    05:42 are multiplying. They tripled in 2016. How are you planning
    05:47 to solve this problem of the distress of the farmers? — This distress,
    05:51 let me tell you first of all, that it is gut-wrenching.
    05:55 Voilà. I think… to all the French people. A thousand suicides in five years! It’s absolutely huge.
    05:59 This means that some proportion of farmers don’t believe
    06:03 in politics anymore. Politics must regain control
    06:07 of financial markets, must regain control of
    06:11 Finance; it must regain control of everything in the European Union,
    06:15 which in fact decided, as part of its plans, to make French agriculture vanish.
    06:19 And to make vanish, more specifically, the French agricultural model,
    06:23 which was founded on the model of family farming.
    06:27 So we need to immediately introduce a series of measures.
    06:31 I’m proposing three immediate measures that will have concrete results.
    06:35 The first one is economic patriotism. Communities in our territory have to order French products
    06:43 no matter what. It’s unheard of to see that
    06:47 50% of beef that served in our cafeterias, and so on,
    06:51 is still imported beef. Second: we need to implement measures
    06:55 To ensure that farmers have a decent income. That’s what they are calling for, because
    06:59 I would like to remind you of the numbers of the MSA [social security for farmers] — half of farmers,
    07:03 HALF of farmers, live on less than €350 a month [$370] —So what are you going to do?
    07:07 Will you subsidize it? —I’m sorry, but is there any profession that would accept that? If tomorrow
    07:11 half the journalists had to live on less than €350 a month, do you think it would go unremarked?
    07:15 So we have to put conditions in place that so commercial relations are negotiated in advance,
    07:23 by three parties: producers, processors, distributors,
    07:27 with transparency guaranteed by the government. A stop
    07:31 has to be put to the great distribution
    07:35 getting a greater and greater gross margin, when the producers
    07:39 are forced to sell almost without gain. — And the third measure? — Finally,
    07:43 we need to “Frankify” subsidies. When I say “Frankify” grants, it means that we are paying
    07:47 20 billion to the EU, and you know what I think of the EU. I think that it
    07:52 has had solely catastrophic consequences… — There the question is, of course…
    07:56 unblocking. Unblocking our exports, if we
    08:00 renounce PAC [common agricultural policy], are we still going to be able
    08:04 to sell our products to our European neighbors? — But, how were we doing it
    08:08 before? We were doing better business before the European Union!
    08:12 Before the EU our commercial balance was
    08:16 in surplus. Today, except for wine, it generates a deficit.
    08:20 So it’s not true that the EU was for us an opportunity to export.
    08:24 It doesn’t let us export, and I will partially tell you why: it’s because of the level
    08:28 of the currency, which makes our products barely competitive.
    08:32 —If we stay in the agricultural domain, Mme Le Pen, I’m sorry, but you invoke the amount paid
    08:36 by France to the EU, which truly is an important amount, but France is receiving
    08:40 as well: French agriculture is the first to
    08:44 benefit from EU subsidies. Nine billion planned for 2017.
    08:48 If you cut off this help, if you suppress the PAC [farmers’ pensions] , which is your wish,
    08:52 what do you imagine for the future? —But I’m not suppressing the PAC. At some point you have to
    08:56 show common sense! We pay 20 billion;
    09:00 or even 21 billion, almost, we get back 13 billion. PAC included.
    09:04 Well. We get back our 20 billion and we keep the grants
    09:08 of course, or even increase it a little, for agriculture.
    09:12 However, we change criteria, because once France is the one that grants those subsidies,
    09:16 we are the ones to decide about the criteria. And we are going to stop this nonsensical help,
    09:20 where EU finances the farmed land and not the farmer. Voilà. And I think
    09:24 that it’s a mistake. And I think that we need to be based on and lean on the trade associations,
    09:28 because I think that those associations are the most capable of determining
    09:32 the needs of the industry, how not to destabilize
    09:36 the industry: which is the case with the grants allocated nowadays, at least in the way
    09:40 they are given, by the technocrats in Brussels.

    • Thanks for that Vera. I’d say that she offers a plausible critique of CAP, albeit one not dissimilar to many other critiques from across the political spectrum. I also find the various signatures of right-wing populism – taking back control (‘we are the ones to decide’), Brussels technocrats, and how things were better prior to the EU – problematic to a greater or lesser degree. I’ll be writing more about this soon. But I’m sceptical of the agrarian claims made by far right parties in Europe – generally, the idea of supporting local farmers fits their patriotic narratives, but their real support base lies elsewhere and I’m doubtful that the talk would turn to much action if they gained power. How much would they rein in the owners of capital and intervene in property markets? How much would they pursue the employers of undocumented migrant workers as well as the workers themselves? How prepared are they to admit that a pro-‘peasant’, pro-national economy will be vastly more cash-strapped than the present one they oppose?

  26. Thanks for keeping the debate alive on various fronts. A few observations:

    The issue of individual versus collective determination is vitally important – at this stage I’m enjoying reading the various opinions without feeling the need to nail my colours to any particular mast. But at some point in the future I’ll need to address this more directly. A couple of things I’d add… First, Ruben you’re a brave man to broach the issue of the fiscal power balance between country and city here on Small Farm Future and come down for the latter! Not that I necessarily disagree with you fundamentally – but it’s akin to the debate on farm subsidies, where on the surface it appears that the public subsidises farmers whereas in truth it’s the other way around. So I think it’s the case with the city and the countryside.

    I think a distinction can be made between the politics of public revenue collection and expenditure, and the politics of regulating the behaviour of self-employed landowners. There are also cultural distinctions here. I’d concede there’s an aspect of traditional farming culture which can be hostile to wildlife or environmental issues. There’s also an aspect of environmentalist thought which can be hostile to farmers while being quite ignorant of the pressures they’re under and complacent about the structure of the food industry. Generally, I think trying to exhort or regulate farmers to think like urban environmentalists, while leaving all the economic incentives pushing the other way, is a recipe for failure. Better to regulate at source, and make good practice follow the money?

    Vera’s point on the big dilemma of farming – my solution is to shift farming from commerce towards self-provisioning. Possibly alongside Andrew’s interesting suggestion of farmers as public employees. Of course, that only moves the problem into the realms of achieving major political and cultural change. I’m working on it.

    Clem’s point on rural vs urban livelihoods – well yes, it’s hard to make like-for-like comparisons here. Rural living can cost less in some ways, though more in others (accessing services). The extent to which people choose the lives they lead can be variable, and is also conceptually debatable. But generally if people are working and earning less than poverty-line wages, I’m loth to gloss over it by arguing that they chose their line of work.

    Anthony’s point on CAP: the amount you can produce is no longer set. Pillar 1 payments are based on how much land you have. Pillar 2 are more geared to supporting agri-enivronmental work. It would be sensible, I think, to emphasise Pillar 2 more and Pillar 1 less. As to what farmers are like, I’d say that given the choice of more money or less money, more regulation or less regulation, they’d generally go for more money and less regulation. Does anyone seriously want to argue that this makes them different from people in other walks of life?

    • Chris, I am not brave, but perhaps inarticulate. So let me be clear to you and Clem that I am NOT coming down on the side of the city.

      I think most of what we call cities are inhumane hellholes that cannot survive without constant inflows of resources. I fully expect them to shrink to more manageable sizes over the course of the medium-future.

      But I am saying that in this whole ridiculous arrangement we call modern “civilization”, the country is not without power, and it is not without some benefits. Not the power we would like, not the benefits we want, but there it is nonetheless.

      I hope that all the unfairness and injustice that angers Clem will be addressed in the Peasant Wessex.

      My interest in this project is that my math adds up to sort of peasant future, and I would very much like us to argue out some of the problems in advance, and therefore smooth or better our peasant future. What are the tools, mindsets or cultural patterns that may be useful to our descendants as we negotiate the Long Descent?

      • We’ll start by calling J.G.A. Pocock and telling him we’d like to serve as figureheads of the effort to introduce a ‘landed peasantry’ as a corrective against the corrosive influence of urban elites; past, present and future.

      • Thanks Chris, Ruben and Andrew.
        On the matter of insurance and receiving pennies on the dollar now… I hope and wish you the best of health for the rest of your years. But if something harsh may befall you, the system you have subsidized all these years will (or should) be there to pick you up. So I’m missing the relevance of the Canadian vs. US insurance distinction in regard to how production decisions are made in real time under a governance system that can arbitrarily take things you’ve invested in with a certain expectation of sovereignty. You can buy insurance for some potentially harmful outcomes; but I’ve not yet seen a policy for stupid regulations by folks who haven’t a clue where their food comes from.
        To the point of bats in the belfry… we don’t seem to have that exact problem here, but we do have beavers. Great little beasts. And here abouts they have a mixed protection. If a pair were to come along to the creek that borders the south edge of my property they would stand a very good chance of not just being left alone, they might become rock stars. But if they wanted a homestead a few hundred meters along another tributary they might well find themselves stretched out on a board, soon to become a hat. And for me personally – I’ve no scratch with either outcome. The rules guiding their potential treatments were hammered out years ago here and were in full force when I purchased the property. There are also rules in place to modify the present situation if the beaver population should shift uncomfortably one way or the other. So one can reasonably argue (and I would agree) that I have accepted this stipulation and the potential for it to change in the future.

        I purchase crop insurance. And this alone could well up thousands of lines discussion… but I only mention it to suggest that I have no difficulty playing within the rules that all members of society have a chance to participate in.

        But let me return to the Monarch butterfly for a moment to spell a bit more precisely where my own agitation rises from. If someone (or a whole bunch of someones) wants to increase the milkweed density for the butterfly – I have some sympathy. My sympathy rests with judicious use of our resources to benefit all of creation – up to and until some competing part of creation wants to bite us in the backside. Compare the Monarch butterfly with the mosquito carrying the Zeka virus. Both are insects, no? So why do we go so far out of our way to protect the one and annihilate the other? Be careful, this is not so simple a distinction to make (at least not if one wishes to avoid a hypocrite’s bench).
        I will not begrudge a city school teacher planting milkweeds in the schoolyard to educate her charges about the ecology of monarch’s laying eggs on the weed and the rest of their life cycle. Great stuff. But would it be too much to have her kill the milkweed plant once the caterpillars make their way through a cycle? The only beef I have with the milkweeds are their airy seeds that float all over and have no respect for boundaries. Some of us still kill weeds with a hoe. And there are still going to be some milkweeds even if they aren’t being planted by the awe shucks folks. But the numbers might plausibly return to something manageable.

        There is so little connection between the city dweller and the country dweller any longer. It takes an enormous effort to defend oneself in the court of public opinion when you hear cracks like – “You’re just going to spray the hell out of everything anyway”. Gosh, and I thought I was just trying to explain something (he says, leaning on his hoe).

        Someone mentioned I could be living in Switzerland. Sure. That’s going to happen. I’ve been able to make choices in my life (for which I am truly very grateful). And choices have been made to accept certain rules of governance while avoiding others. So as long as there are places with more space (and fewer restrictions on personal liberty) I’ll seek them out.

        There may well be some matters of infringement upon private property rights that extremely aggravate me. But I hope in my defense of what I consider sensible protections to these rights I am also holding out commensurate rights to the rest of humanity. If you have a computer of your own (as I suspect you might if you’re reading this) I would hope you are able to use that computer in ways you’d imagined when you purchased it. And I will fight on your side if someone comes along and tries to take your property without justification or compensation.

        • Well said Clem.

          I am in a city due to family obligations, though that is not where I grew up, and not where I want to be.

          I would much rather be having this conversation over some homebrew after a few hours of hoeing, though I am grateful for the global discussion made possible here.

          • Yes, though both in North America, I fear we’re not geographically close by any measure.

            But I do love the sentiment – and a homebrew sounds wonderful at this point. There are hop yards springing up all over Ohio at this point. Barley, while struggling, is working mightily to make a comeback here. Hoeing should never go out of style, and heaven knows we seem to stumble upon a myriad of difficulties in modern life that could do with a little informed discussion.

            Consider this an open invitation if your travels include Ohio during the growing season. I’ll find us a row to hoe, and some fresh brew to celebrate it with. I’m confident the problems will present themselves – invited or no.

  27. If self-provisioning in food, fuel and other necessary things adds nothing to the coffers that keep society running and on which we all depend, then how realistic is it?

    • I would say that keeping society running is not realistic—by which, of course, I mean this industrial, extractive, stealing from the future society.

      So, when the unsustainable society is no longer able to be sustained, what will be left with?

      A much greater degree of self-provisioning.

      • I agree completely, but in line with Chris’ comment about collective vs individual preparation for such a transition, how does anyone get started in a time where “self-provisioning” is extremely hard to do? Let me count the obstacles to becoming a self-sufficient agrarian peasant family farmer.

        1. All land is owned by some entity or another, so there is no “free” land to settle on.

        2. Land costs a lot of money to purchase and live on. If debt is involved monthly cash income to pay the lender is required. “Monthly cash income” is totally inconsistent with “self-provisioning” from a subsistence farm.

        3. Unlike times past, when a huge proportion of the population was making a living farming, there is little existing infrastructure to support peasant agriculture.

        There used to be a smithy in even the tiniest town. Now, unless one uses cash to hire a farrier, one must do the shoeing oneself. Multiply this example by every other aspect of a family farm that was mutually supported by others in the rural community, and you will find that a truly cashless farmstead is almost impossible.

        If there is no similar neighbor to borrow services from (or lend services to), then those services need to be purchased from professionals or one must develop multiple high-level skill sets.

        4. All government support for farming in the developed world is for farming as a business, not subsistence farming. All of the advantages government largess can provide go to commercial farmers.

        5. Even though some of these difficulties can be mitigated by forming an intentional community, zoning restrictions make creating multiple houses on a single parcel of land very difficult.

        So, in order to get the jump on the return to self-provisioning in any OECD country, one needs to be wealthy, have a fabulous repertoire of farming skills, and live in a place where the authorities will let one carve out a peasant lifestyle while all legal and institutional support goes to commercial farms and land use ordinances only create barricades.

        “Wealthy peasant farmer” may seem like an oxymoron, but those are the only kind that even come close to existing in my rural county. Now imagine trying to create a situation where someone with little money can get started in self-provisioning from the land. I live in the US and I can’t see how it’s possible here. Those that want to see it happen have their work cut out for them.

  28. I don’t want to take part in city vs country bun fights either, though I have done in the past – mainly in the context of arguing with ecomodernists and modernists generally over their love affair with the city. This has included making similar points to Malcolm concerning the urban-extractive infrastructure installed in the countryside. Still, I enjoyed Marshall Berman’s urban modernism, and ended up arguing his corner with Anthony Galluzzo – something that I need to come back to. Anyway, I’m glad to find common ground with you Ruben, so thanks for clarifying. You make a lot of nice points in your response to Malcolm, which I found informative. One point where I’d differ is the notion that credit is a recent invention – I enjoyed David Graeber’s book ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ which argues otherwise. Still, there’s no doubt that we’re now caught in an unprecedented global spiral of credit. I’ll be writing more about that soon…

    …which touches on Simon’s point, already addressed by Ruben. Yes, a society composed entirely of subsistence farmers is grim. But our present society is unaffordable both ecologically and economically, and is also grim for a lot of people. The ideal would be to find some plausible middle ground – which is basically the purpose of my peasant wessex thought experiment. My opening gambit was a population of 20% subsistence farmers. I’m interested in debating it. I don’t think such a situation would be historically stable – but that’s another matter, which I’ll come to presently. Meanwhile, I’ll take Michael up on his suggestion of help from Professor Pocock. Generally, I think we need to be dreaming up more utopias in our political thinking these days (why let the neoliberals be the only ones doing it?), but I’m not personally interested in minutely specifying a perfect future society in which all contradictions are deemed resolvable (so Ruben, I’m not sure I’ll be able to abolish the things that irk Clem – though he seems to be doing a good job of working through those issues without my help). Rather, it’s a matter of specifying choices, cultures, politics.

    Both Ruben and Joe nicely specify the extent of the problems before us. I think there are numerous small ways in which we can ameliorate these problems within existing structures (for example, I was out last week prospecting land for the excellent Ecological Land Co-op). But I doubt they’ll be enough. Major global-structural change seems inevitable. I think we need to try to steer it in ways that are better rather than worse. And on that note, thanks to everyone for lending a hand.

    • Sound summations Chris, Ruben, Joe; a call for moderation in all things (including moderation?).
      I’m probably taking your thought experiment too much to heart Chris. My question is peasantry realistic within the current system stemmed from reading Will Bonsall’s book on radical self-reliant gardening (now being translated into Turkish). It may have been my high expectations at the time of reading, maybe I just plain misunderstood, but Bonsall’s conclusion that the homesteading route will likely keep you so busy you might not have time to pay your dues to society struck me as an apologia. When I emailed Bonsall about this (he really didn’t seem to mind!) he advised having some form of income (he writes, gives talks and educates for his) to look after one’s market needs, however much you wish to eschew the market and its erosive effects.
      Sticking with money, if a welfare state provides financial help to a varying percentage of its unemployed, it shouldn’t be too troubled by neo-peasants seeking to unburden not just the system with the fruits of their labour. But as Joe pointed out, you need money to be a peasant these days. Let’s say you can afford to make that transition; if a peasant then no longer pays taxes and insurance, surely that slightly weakens their claim on wanting to change the system they’re enmeshed with, as they see it, for the better? This is perhaps where your 20% of the population would come in handy: if only every household had a peasant!

      Vera, from BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme, news regarding the price of milk was dire a year or so ago when farmers supplying to big distributors were operating at a loss and some were talking of jettisoning their dairy enterprise. More recently the programme has featured the same farmers facing bankruptcy to report that, with the recent rise in the milk prices, many are now hoping to clear their accumulated debts in the years ahead. In the same period, the only success stories in that line of work that I can recall concerns farm gate sales of raw milk (the Welbeck Farm Shop in Nottinghamshire reports struggling to meet demand; a Sheffield farm business Our Cow Molly also report very healthy returns selling straight to discerning baristas at universities and local businesses in and around the South Yorkshire city.) I think you have your facts right. Hope that answers your question in part.

      • Thank you so much, Simon (and Chris below). The same picture exists in America, as I have gathered. The only good prices on milk are in the organic/grass-based side of the business, and local micro-dairies selling direct to foodies, and then mega-dairies where the less you want to look at the details, the better for your sleep. Massive milk dumping, too, just like in the Depression. And dairy policy? Byzantine shambles.

  29. So I’ve been running around looking into the EU quota system as it existed for dairy products. From what I see on the web, dairy farmers liked it, and it worked to keep supply and demand relatively in synch.

    But it was done away with in early 2015, and as far as I can tell from the bureaucratese, they did it to crank up neocon/neolib globalism, hoping to sell like crazy to China. Then demand crashed world wide. What’s the word on the ground? How are dairy farmers coping? Do I have the facts right?

  30. Yes, it’s tricky for all but a wealthy or extremely dedicated few to become neo-peasants in contemporary western societies. The issue that I really want to address, though, is what are the circumstances in which that might change in the future. I’m going to be writing more about that soon, so I think I’ll leave it at that for now – but thanks for prompting…

    I don’t have much inside knowledge of the dairy industry, but my general impression has been that it’s struggling – certainly in this area of Somerset, which still just about has a relatively small scale dairy industry. As with most things, I suspect we’ll see innovation at each end of the scale – micro-dairying, raw milk sold direct etc at one end, and mega-dairies with indoor cows, robotic milking etc at the other, and an increasingly squeezed or non-existent middle. The supermarkets have conceded somewhat to public pressure and make a song and dance about how they’re now offering a better deal to dairy farmers in terms of wholesale prices. But I can’t get too excited about the general drift of things…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *