An Oxford education

Perhaps I should essay a brief report here on things I heard and learned at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference that I attended a couple of weeks back. If I try to lay it all out in connected prose I’ll probably come grinding to a halt after about 5,000 words, so I thought I’d present it mostly in the form either of little news snippets or of one-sentence assertions…the latter being things I heard people say, or thoughts I had while listening at the conference. So I don’t necessarily agree with all of these assertions, some of which are mutually contradictory anyway. But that’s fine. Most of the time, I don’t even agree with myself. Anyway, here goes.

oOo

The biggest name at the conference was secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs (and arch-Brexiteer), Michael Gove. Quite a coup for the ORFC to get him not only to attend, but to agree to an unscripted Q&A session.

The audience listened in increasingly open-mouthed astonishment as Gove critiqued the inequities in the subsidy system that rewarded wealthy landowners, bemoaned the poor state of agricultural soils under the existing agricultural regimen, restated his opposition to neonic insecticides, critiqued the economic externalities involved in cheap food and emphasised the importance of supporting farmers for delivering environmental benefits.

There are numerous reasons to be sceptical about Gove’s agenda. Undoubtedly, the Tories are trying to re-position themselves as environmental champions again, probably because they’re aware that hardly anyone under the age of about 45 voted for them at the last election (remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky moment, before he switched to ‘green crap’). And Gove is probably trying to resurrect his career after the long knives of the Brexit campaign.

Still, maybe it’s still better to have a DEFRA secretary at least saying these kind of things than, as before, saying the opposite and/or steering well clear.

Unlike Owen Patterson, Gove doesn’t hail from the landed wealth wing of the Tory party. As a famous doubter of expert opinion and trasher of professional lobbying, DEFRA – much more than the Department of Education – could be just the place where his talents can be put to best use.

The debate in the Tory party at the moment resembles the 19th century debate over the Corn Laws between landed capital, manufacturing capital and financial capital.

The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.

Gove was equivocal on glyphosate. Expect chemical no-till farming to become the new green.

Everybody now seems to accept that the writing’s on the wall for large-scale landowners pocketing public money via farm subsidies – even the Country Landowners Association (sorry, now the Country Landowners and Business Association) who were in attendance. One positive outcome of Brexit, I think, that I predicted some time ago…

…but while this change will probably have some marginally beneficial consequences for social equity in the country at large, the money is unlikely to be redeployed in farming, but removed from it entirely. So probably tough times ahead for the already struggling medium-scale farm. Example: there are plenty of holdings that keep 2 breeding sows and plenty that keep 2,000. There are very few that keep 200. Is this a problem? I think so.

Farmers have four options: Get big, get niche, get out or get bankrupt.

Gove said there’d be support for upland stock farmers. Good news for James Rebanks. Bad news for George Monbiot. Relevant reading: another brilliant article from the pen of Simon Fairlie, ‘Return of the shepherd’ The Land, Issue 22.

The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).

No it doesn’t (CLA)

When Britain quits the EU, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles written into EU law won’t be transferred to British law.

When Britain quits the EU, there will be a regulatory gap, both in terms of legislation and regulatory staff.

Brexit is a great opportunity for Britain to set more appropriate local standards for food and farming.

Any post-EU trade deals Britain makes after a hard Brexit will potentially shatter local standards for food and farming, particularly a trade deal with the USA.

But any post-EU trade deals will have to be ratified by parliament, so if our elected representatives don’t like them they can throw them out.

If only it was as simple as that.

US farm animals are dosed with twice as much antibiotics as British ones.

Economic protectionism is a good idea, but only within a wider consociation of essentially amicable states. Otherwise the risk is the kind of trade-war bellicosity of the 1930s, potentially lurching into actual war. But presently there’s no global mechanism to achieve local protectionism and global consociation.

A system of cheap food depends on a system of cheap labour.

Britain currently imports a large part of its agricultural workforce from Eastern Europe, partly because of economic demand for labour from the weaker east European economies, but also because East European workers come with a range of agricultural skills that are in short supply in Britain, mostly through the running down of a proper framework for agricultural education.

In the context of Brexit, the supply of East European workers is dwindling.

Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.

Allotment gardens available for student use at one agricultural college were derelict.

When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.

Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.

Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.

Nobody wants to work on farms any more.

Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.

Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.

We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.

The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.

New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?

Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.

Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.

But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.

There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.

The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.

Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.

Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.

We need shorter food chains.

France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

The number of farm holdings in the UK is reducing at a rate of about 2% per annum.

There is a precipitous decline in biodiversity and wild species numbers in Europe – and it’s largely due to farming practices.

The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.

We tend to think of tax as a source of government revenue or for incentivising behaviours. We should also think of it as a means for preventing patrimonial, anti-democratic wealth accumulation.

Landowners capture the majority of the uplift value associated with turning land over to residential property development.

No they don’t.

Yes they do.

Traditional landed estates should be preserved because they’re a good way of handing down agricultural land through the generations.

No they’re not.

It took a war to reform Britain’s antiquated systems of property ownership and social security.

Brexit is like a war. But hopefully with fewer casualties.

Yes, hopefully.

Somebody at the conference I’d not met before had read my paper on perennial grains. They even agreed with it, and felt the Land Institute’s response missed the point. Validation! By Jove, it was all worthwhile…

A spade is a spade is a spade, but a perennial is not a perennial is not a perennial. Seeds are seeds. Fruits are fruits.

No they’re not.

Yes they are.

Etc.

24 thoughts on “An Oxford education

  1. “…, because of the human lack.”
    I like that one.

    Food democracy vs. food control – or ‘why the middlemen are now wearing hip beards and sneakers’.

    “Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.”
    A guaranteed minimum income will solve this particular problem by mindlessly extending the subsidy to every peasant and non-peasant alike. Solved that one for ya.

    “The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.”
    Can ag land even be recognized as a public good if those seeing it are certain they’ll never eat anything that was grown ‘there’ because, like, everything anywhere is being grown for export?

  2. Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.

    And so long as the UK can get Ph.D. Sociologists to be farm workers, this will not change, IMHO.

    Sorry, the devil made me do it.

    Here might be a place to insert exactly how the British education system is structured (for the Yankees and other knuckle draggers in the audience). What sort of training exists past the primary and not on a University track? We have Junior Colleges, Technical Schools, Apprenticeships… (and immigrants from agricultural backgrounds) on this side of the pond. I was going to suggest Eaton open up a composting unit (especially as a good number of their grads will enter politics where some familiarity with handling manure is sure to be a wonderful asset), but then I was also wanting to make a horrible pun about Eaton being some sort of Food Science academy – but I won’t go there.

    • I was also wanting to make a horrible pun about Eaton being some sort of Food Science academy

      That is funny – though it’s “Eton” not “Eaton” (just had to be the first to say it. Pedantry-Peasantry – virtually the same thing …)

        • “…E(a)ton open up a composting unit”, and deliberate on which temporal requirements the respective graduated unit to be composted has regarding circumference, gender and headgear.

  3. When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.

    Ag. R&D managers will do this too. Machines don’t loaf, complain about the weather, will work all hours. This may not be a socially acceptable observation, but faced with budget restrictions, and competitors eating your lunch if you don’t prevent them… it’s not easy to turn that coin over and invest in labour beyond some necessary level (those things not yet mechanized). And it also rains upon the socially conscious who might like to invest in some labour – and then finds the investment involves teaching skills and lessons one might presume would be covered in a basic education. I know a certain soybean breeder who had to teach a young person that the hemispheres on planet Earth tip toward and away from the sun in different seasons. As a result it is summer in the southern hemisphere when it is winter in the northern hemisphere. Fool was I to imagine an 18 year old American might actually understand this. Our tractor doesn’t know this either… but I’d never expected it to.

    Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.

    So true. Fun fact – some plant breeders spend an inordinate amount of time and effort breeding crops so that mechanical harvest is facilitated. Want to deflate a mechanical engineer who has designed the latest and greatest enormous piece of agricultural machinery (such as a combine… and because of this imagines his engineering prowess is unbelievable in stature)?? You can do worse that to wonder aloud how his design might work in the wild – with undomesticated crops.

    The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).
    No it doesn’t (CLA)

    Have to say I think DEFRA is right on this one – at least if there is any land marketplace (turnover) whatsoever.

    • There’s a heap of agricultural kit available at various scales from hand-tools upwards. There’s still a lot of small-holdings in Asia and parts of Europe that provide a market for smaller scale gear. The challenge is getting local distributors and support for kit at a price point that’s affordable.

      IMO there might be some significant opportunities in this area to take advantage of what has become very cheap CAD/CAM, CNC kit, distributed manufacturing/design, 3D printing etc to do a commercially focused Slow Tools startup. There’s a heap of very informative Open Source and small-scale manufacturing stuff on the WWW. Specific to farm tools, I posted a link a while ago on SFF for a company making a simple 20HP tractor. There was a Slow Tools initiative based out of that demonstration farm in NY with some of the features I mention above. Although I think that has become moribund. And there’s the enthusiastic communities at http://opensourceecology.org/ and http://blog.farmhack.org/

      As with any project work, what these initiatives need is what a very capable project manager I worked for 20 years ago described as People, Process and Technology. And capital thereof. But they also need some solid definitions of kit to design and build.

      Where a community like SFF could help is defining characteristics/requirements for various tools at scales suitable for smaller farms.

      Maybe this is a bit Two Cultures of me in a CP Snowian sense but I think that stuff could have more direct impact than no doubt very enjoyable discussions of conventional politics.

  4. Thanks for the comments and links. I think I’ll stay mostly in listening mode here.

    But brief answers to Clem – on sociology PhDs, well quite. The difference is that ones of my generation can set themselves up as gentlemen peasants and dabble in writing, whereas ones coming through now may well find themselves toiling all day in packing sheds. But at least they’ll be able to turn out a sophisticated critique of the political economy underlying their situation. And that counts for something. I’m serious.

    On UK education tracks. I have to admit I’m embarrassingly ignorant of the details myself, but essentially there used to be universities for academic education, polytechnics for a bit of the former and also more vocational/professional training, and a college system turning out National Diplomas and other such qualifications in various practical trades, including agriculture. Although the remnants of that system remain, there’s been a general trend to turn everything into a university offering academic degrees – eg. nursing is now a degree subject. That’s not necessarily all bad, but there seems to have been a waning of the practical diploma route – also perhaps connected with wider trends in the job market. Meanwhile, people who know how to handle big machinery can generally find better paid work in construction rather than agriculture, particularly with the abolition of the agricultural wages board. And the older skills, still relevant to a more ecological agriculture – grafting, pruning, hedge-laying, coppicing etc – are becoming ever more ‘niche’.

    • Many thanks for that reply…

      But at least they’ll be able to turn out a sophisticated critique of the political economy underlying their situation. And that counts for something. I’m serious. I’ve no doubt… as it should. Lucidity rarely flows from an untrained pen.

      On the evolution of UK educational tracks (as you appreciate them) – fascinating. I can see some parallels on our side, but there are differences as well. Most interesting to me is the former existence of an agricultural wages board. Had never heard of it, and it appears it was only recently (2013) abolished – so I have to imagine you were somewhat familiar with it (SFF got going in 2012).

      I found a BBC piece about how Labour argued against it being dissolved during the QUANDOs sacking:
      http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-22274739

      Do you suppose Labour’s prediction that farm worker wages would suffer has come true? Will Brexit make a difference?

    • There’s an increase in coppicing in the UK but from a very low base. One of the issues facing someone wanting to bring coppice back into production is the lack of attention since perhaps mid-last century or even earlier. This complicates stool management compared to more regular harvests.

      Pruning is used in UK (and Australian) agroforestry to promote production of clearwood.

      Orchardists tend to be focused on smaller, more closely planted trees these days to make the horticulture and picking easier. I think some orchardists here still do some grafting but at scale its easier to buy supermarket-driven varieties already grafted. And that means someone else is carrying the risk for successful grafts, knife injuries etc

      I think hedge laying is fascinating but if you compare the metres/day for hedge laying to what can be achieved using posts and wire it’s a big ask to get farmers interested in that approach. We had a local fencer do ~1km of conventional post and wire fencing in ~4 days. This would have taken months for hedge laying with consequent cost.

      I think coppicing has some useful broader commercial appeal as well as agroecological benefits. Leaving the stools helps hold the soil together in erosion prone areas and causes less disturbance compared to conventional clearfell. This can help with local authorities harvest permission. There’s no replanting costs other than replacing any stools that cark it. The new stems get a quick start from the existing root system. Eucalyptus globulus coppices well. I’ve seen good sized stems in a few years from stools of this species on a reasonable site in SE Australia.

      For durable posts from suitable species coppicing is potentially very attractive. We’ve planted some Class 1 and Class 2 durability eucalypt species with which we intend to pursue some coppicing trials aimed at producing durable poles and posts. Chestnut is used in this way in the UK although compared to Class 1 eucs it is considerably less durable.

  5. The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.
    Yup!
    But at least it’s a somewhat honest living, and you can probably go to your god(s) with your head held high. That’s something, too.

    • Yes, this exactly. Farming as an expression of values counter to the dominant Money-is-everything. Like respect for the living world, maybe.

      Though this obviously does not describe life inside a Tyson chicken factory. Some people are just doing what crappy job they can get.

      I am not worried about any gods accounting, but I cringe at the idea of totaling all the hours I have spent in service to a system that doesn’t serve me. I only bother with it because it is coercive, and everywhere.

  6. Thanks for the further comments. Maybe I’ve time for a few quick responses to the above (procrastination tactic before I go out to brave the wind and rain):

    Michael writes: “Can ag land even be recognized as a public good if those seeing it are certain they’ll never eat anything that was grown ‘there’ because, like, everything anywhere is being grown for export?”

    SFF says: No, probably not. Which is why we need a SFF where people do eat stuff from the land that they see…

    Michelle writes: “It’s a somewhat honest living, and you can probably go to your god(s) with your head held high. That’s something, too.”

    SFF says: It is indeed.

    Clem writes: “Do you suppose Labour’s prediction that farm worker wages would suffer [as a result of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board] has come true? Will Brexit make a difference?”

    SFF says: we don’t have data to hand, but yes I imagine that if you effectively reduce the minimum wage then wages will suffer. The data certain suggests that wages in general have suffered in the UK in recent years. And Brexit will probably make a difference, but in as yet unfathomable ways. The AWB was the last remaining among numerous such wages councils that were established in the early 20th century and abolished around century’s end in the neoliberal bonfire. I note that John Michael Greer has been enthusing about fascism recently on the basis of its ability to get capital and labour to negotiate nicely with one another, arguing that social democracy arose in response to the popularity of socialism and fascism: https://www.ecosophia.net/introduction-political-economy/. So it may be worth noting that the AWB was formed by a Liberal government in 1909, six years before Mussolini founded the Fascist Revolutionary Party. To be fair, Greer is vaguely positive about social democracy, which is just as well. Why institute a warmongering totalitarian nationalist state in order to pay people decent wages, when you can just have a wages council instead…

    David writes: “Maybe this is a bit Two Cultures of me in a CP Snowian sense but I think that stuff could have more direct impact than no doubt very enjoyable discussions of conventional politics.”

    SFF says: our take on that is the figures alluded to above – the number of farm holdings in the UK declined by 1.5% per annum from 1950-1980 and more than 2% per annum from 2005-2015. This decline and consequent engrossment of farm scale has been a political choice. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of good agricultural kit available at all scales, but in our opinion there’s not much point in focusing on small-scale farm technologies and steering clear of politics when the politics is driving the extinction of small-scale farming. But thanks for the links – different scales of farm kit is certainly interesting, and something I hope I might find more space for here in future. Meanwhile, there’s always Practical Farm Ideas magazine: https://www.farmideas.co.uk/

    • That really is a good magazine for all sizes of farm and farming kit, though from a gardener’s point of view the regular section within it, Soil + Cover Cropping, is even more interesting. Well worth a look.

  7. Sounds like a fun-ish conference. The US has begun the process of weaning itself from the prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock. It used to be quite difficult to find commercial feeds that were not medicated. Now those are fairly restricted. Same for buying over the counter antibiotics. Of course, the downside of the latter is that we now have to spend money on a vet.

    Did someone actually say: France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

    Gawd, what a snowf…, er, I mean feathery ice crystal, typically displaying delicate sixfold symmetry.

    • >Did someone actually say: France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

      No, that was my shorthand – I used to be an academic sociologist, remember… And I’m still sitting at my computer, avoiding the Biblical-scale deluge outside. Well, you know what happens to snowflakes in the rain…

        • My cubit for 2017 measured a sad benchmark of about 2200mm of rain, followed by two recent storms which easily felled trees standing in the soggy ground.
          Building an ark for these conditions involves lowering trees to a manageable height.

        • Hmmm – Arks and hedges. Apparently hedge layers still use cubits when setting up a hedge. And while there haven’t been many arks built in recent memory, I’d wager a few hedges have been laid. One might be able to find a photo of a hedge layer showing how long a cubit is. The image might have an illustrative value.

          • I might actually do a brush hedge, once the ground has dried up enough for the foresters to begin felling the blasted (in more than one sense of the word) remnants of spruce plantation…I’ll have more than enough material.

            Brian, spring prep…rebuilding the roof yet again, ordering seeds, ordering grafted trees, hoping for dry weather, drinking cider (for research purposes of course); that’s about it right now.

    • Yes, and crabapples are at the forefront of cider in the US.
      Half of my domicile will be devoted to demijohns and the other will grow peppers, tomatoes, experimental squash, melons and cucumbers in plugs.

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