Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

I think it’s about time I paid my next visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But first, news of another publication from the Small Farm Future stable – a piece entitled ‘Why Britain should protect and cherish its small farms’ published by the insurance arm of everybody’s favourite farming union, the NFU. When asked why the tone of the article was more moderate than that usually to be found here on this website, Small Farm Future CEO Chris Smaje replied, “Because NFU Mutual pay better than the punters on this blog. Though, since you mention it, the donate button is…oh, you know where it is. Next question.”

Anyway, let’s get back to Wessex. On my previous voyages there, I’ve learned that the republic’s population – some 20% higher than the region’s current one – can provide for their food and fibre needs using organic methods and tractive agricultural energy from home-grown biogas. Which is quite something, I think. But agricultural energy is the easy bit. Can the republic provide sustainably and indigenously for its wider energy needs?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to define both what sustainable energy production might look like and what the population’s energy needs are. On the first point, I guess I’d say that it really ought to be a low carbon source, which pretty much rules out any kind of fossil fuel. Ideally it would also have to be locally available and at a cost appropriate to a substantially agrarian society, but I’ll come on to that soon. It’s possible of course that by the time the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex comes into being circa 2039 there’ll be a whole new generation of hitherto unheard of clean energy technologies available. But I don’t think we can count on it. As a starting point, then, I propose to look at how much energy we can produce locally from existing renewable technologies.

To address the issue of how much energy we need – well, no doubt we could debate that endlessly. Let’s start by looking at how much energy we use currently – and the answer is 2.85 kW per person directly consumed in the UK (and, I shall assume, in its Wessex subdivision). Or, to put it another way, something like a domestic washing machine rattling away on its full power usage day and night,  year-round for each and every one of us.

Can renewables realistically furnish us with that level of energy? I think there’s a clear answer to that: no. We often get excited about the possibilities for generating electricity with renewables and perhaps with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear, but we tend to forget that electricity only constitutes about 10% of our total energy use. Currently, fossil fuels power a good chunk of our electricity production and the vast bulk of all our other energy usage. I think it’s realistic to replace existing non-renewable electricity generation with renewables. I don’t think it’s realistic to replace the entire energy economy with them, barring some major technological breakthroughs.

So if we’re going to have a hope of a sustainably-powered Wessex we’re going to have to make some energy cutbacks. Let’s take a look at where the energy is used currently in the UK and see where we might wield the knife.

This is displayed in the pie chart below. The largest component of our energy use is transport, of which the largest component is domestic transport (at 20% of total energy usage), with 9% devoted to air travel. So there’s the easiest initial hit – I can’t really see much of a role for aircraft in the Peasant’s Republic, except perhaps for a few scientific and meteorological drones and the odd air show to remind us of more profligate times, so I think we can lop 9% off our total usage straightaway. It’ll be a fillip for the tall ships industry that used to thrive here in the west country.

Energy use



Personal domestic transport looms large amongst the rest of the transport energy use. I think we can trim that pretty savagely. Farmers are never that keen to leave the farm anyway, and we can try to beef up rail and bus services a little. So let’s reduce car journeys by 80%. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or perhaps in fact we’re not getting anywhere much. But maybe if electric cars catch on, the 80% reduction in energy won’t have to correspond to quite such a dramatic fall in actual journeys.

A lot of commercial transport energy is devoted to transporting food, which will be locally available in the republic, so I think we can make some savings there. It’s often said that long-distance commercial transport has a low energy cost, which is true and is reflected in the figures here. But it’s still higher than if you don’t transport food long distance at all, so I’d suggest that some savings can be made. Besides which all sorts of frivolous items get freighted around these days. Hell, there’s no time for all of that on the farm. So I propose that we can cut commercial transport energy by at least 30%.

The next hungriest energy user is people’s homes, which command 29% of total usage – mostly in the form of space and water heating. My proposal is that we can reduce this by about 60% – firstly by investing properly in retrofitting insulation for older properties, secondly by using more efficient combined heat and power stations for energy supply (which lend themselves well to renewable feedstocks) and thirdly by using pricing structures and general exhortation to encourage people to conserve hot water, turn the thermostat down and just put a bloody jumper on if they’re cold. Investing more in solar hot water systems may also be a good idea.

We now come to industry, which uses about 17% of total energy. At 23,600 ktoe nationally, this is only about 40% of the industrial energy the country used in 1970. The improvement partly comes from the fact that industry now produces about 17% more product per unit of energy input than it did fifty years ago, but mostly from the fact that Britain no longer has a significant mining, steel, car or shipbuilding industry as it did in 1970, and so now effectively imports a good deal of energy in the form of industrial products bought from abroad. On the other hand, in 1970 Britain’s heavy industry was to some extent an export industry, and given the agrarian nature of the People’s Republic of Wessex (many fewer fancy cars, remember) the need for 1970s levels of industrial production is debatable. So it’s difficult to determine an appropriate figure for industrial energy use. My proposal is to leave it exactly at its present value.

To give an idea of what that might look like, I’ve plucked some figures for the energy embodied in various materials from the internet and constructed the following table to indicate the sort of material resources that an abstemious farm household might use. The table shows, for example, that a four person household might have five tonnes of wood in their farmhouse and associated buildings, which they’d expect to last for 25 years. And so on down the list, including a 2 tonne tractor to furnish their own needs and that of forty-odd customers for 40 years (my own tractor has another three years to go before celebrating its 40th birthday), and a car or small van shared between two households (which, as it turns out, has by far the heaviest energy take). Perhaps some of these materials could be recycled at the end of their expected life, but I haven’t taken that into account.

Table: Lifetime embodied energy costs

  Emb. energy (MJkg-1) Mass (kg) Users Expected life (yrs) Energy use per person per year (MJ)
Wood 2.3 5,000 4 25 115
Plastic 13.8 10 1 1 138
Glass 32.3 50 4 25 16
Steel (tractor) 55.30 2,000 50 40 55
Steel (car) 55.30 1,300 8 12 749
Total         1,074

At about 1,100 MJ per capita, the direct usage figures assumed in the table for the Wessex population constitute about 7% of the total industrial energy budget I’ve construed of 23,600 ktoe allocated out on a per capita basis (apologies for jumbling up the units – I blame my data sources). Obviously, the industrial energy budget also needs to supply various intermediate goods, including the replacement of stock, and public goods as well. Is the 93% margin here sufficient to cover that? I’m not sure – I’d be interested in other views. I think it probably is. Indeed, perhaps these figures suggest the industrial energy budget could be trimmed a little. On the other hand, maybe we should allow our household a bit more plastic, a few more trinkets…my vote as an organic grower would be for extra Enviromesh.

The final component of the total energy budget is services, constituting 14% of total energy. A mere 6% of this services component is devoted to agriculture, which just goes to show how relatively energy-light providing food is. The other main components are retail (19%), warehousing, hotel/catering, and education (all 13%). I’m figuring we can make a few savings on the shops, warehouses and hotels – so I propose to reduce the services budget by 25% overall.

If we trim energy use in the manner I’ve described above, we can reduce per capita energy use in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex by a little more than half its present value – down to around 1.3 kW per capita.

Now that we’ve got energy demand down to something halfway sensible let’s look at what methods of generation are available and see if we can meet it.

To start with, we have about 700,000 hectares of woodland that could be managed for fuelwood in Wessex, comprising the woodland areas on the neo-peasant holdings, woodland edges on field boundaries and non-farm woodland. Assuming a sustainable yield of 3 tonnes of fuelwood per hectare per year, that gives us just under 50 GJ of fuel energy per hectare – or about 8% of our total energy requirement. Some way to go!

Well, we can throw in the biogas from silage anaerobic digestion that I looked at in a previous post – that gives us another 6%, and every little helps.

Looking at current sources of renewable energy provision in the UK there are a few other relatively minor sources we can add – biogas from human sewage, energy from waste combustion (which I’ll assume will be half its present value, as I think there’ll be less waste in Wessex), geothermal heat (too expensive, I’d think, to significantly expand on present values in Wessex), and wave/hydro energy, which I’m assuming we could at least double (see further comments below). Adding all that together, we get another 4% of our total requirement.

Turning to wind energy, the UK is well provided with wind although it currently only furnishes about 3% of our total energy use. This is partly because of government foot-dragging, but also because of the huge dominance of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix mentioned above. I’m not convinced that the massive expenditures and engineering feats required of offshore wind installations will be feasible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there are no major offshore wind installations in the southwest at present), but onshore wind is another matter and is now relatively cheap. I think it should be possible to expand onshore wind tenfold in Wessex from the current per capita level for England (a lesser figure than the UK as a whole, which is inflated by high levels of wind energy in Scotland) – in which case we could furnish about 17% of the energy requirement from wind.

Totalling what we’ve got so far takes us to just 36% of our (already greatly trimmed down) energy requirement. At this point my hands get clammy and an insurgent thought pops into my head: “Oh my God – the ecomodernists are right. Renewables are a delusion! We need to go nuclear.” Well, let’s at least look at a nuclear option. After all, the current government has, in its wisdom, chosen to build a huge new nuclear power station in the heart of Wessex, not forty miles upwind of where I now sit. Hinkley C is projected to produce 3.2 GW of power at a minimum cost of £30 billion all in. If it’s built, I doubt we Wessexers will be able to keep all that energy to ourselves, so let’s allocate it out to the UK population on a per capita basis. And if we do that we’ll add, as a maximum, the grand total of 4% to meeting our energy requirement.

I guess you could argue that nuclear isn’t as limited by space and natural energy input considerations as other low carbon forms of supply, but at £10 billion+ per gigawatt – plus decommissioning costs and various other downsides – I’m really not sure how well this stacks up. You could argue that after the capacity-building exercise of Hinkley, future installations will be cheaper. Or, after watching EDF scrambling around and potentially bankrupting itself in its bid to build Hinkley, you could argue that in the context of a chronically sluggish UK economy, Hinkley probably won’t get built, and even if it is there won’t be any more Hinkleys after that. Phew! The ecomodernists are wrong after all – we greentards can rest easy.

Another grand option would be a tidal barrage across the River Severn. Going the full monty on this could furnish about 10% of our energy requirements. But it’d be another massive and prohibitively expensive engineering project. The Severn is a handy and scandalously underused bit of local topography for energy generation, and I’m sure there’d be scope for getting something from it with more modest schemes (as very conservatively projected above), but perhaps – like the government – we should leave big tidal projects on the back burner for now.

The other main way to go, as mentioned in an earlier post, is photovoltaic electricity. Suppose we put 15m2 of PV panels on the roofs of Wessex’s 3.15 million-odd households (the panels wouldn’t necessarily have to go on every roof – perhaps we can just imagine 15 m2 x 3.15 million = 4725 hectares of panels on brownfield sites generally). Assuming a yearly energy input of 5.4 Wm-2 that would give us about 30% of our energy needs. Well, we’re beginning to get somewhere now, but we’ve still only met 66% of our needs. Maybe we could meet the rest of them by putting PV on farmland. We’d need about 54,000 ha, which we could take from our permanent pasture. We could run sheep on the solar farms, rather than dairy cows. I’ve seen it claimed that 95% of the grass on a solar farm is still accessible for grazing, but since photons can’t simultaneously energise both panels and grass, we’ll surely have to reduce the productivity of the grazing. I’ve been unable to find a figure for how much, but I guess there’s going to be a fair bit of incident and reflected light on the grass at different times of the day. So could we say 50%? On that basis, we can still feed Wessex’s population just about adequately and meet our energy target. It’s quite a PV dominated solution, with about 2.5% of Wessex’s land surface covered with panels (you could, I suppose, put them out at sea as Miles King suggests for a solar-hydrogen solution – though since the main enemy of PV panels is water, I’m not sure if this is such a great idea).

Of course, there’s an energetic cost to manufacturing and replacing panels – as indeed there is to all the other forms of generation. Assuming an embodied energy of 4070 MJm-2 and a working life of 30 years, we’ll need to devote 8% of the energy allocated to industry to panel manufacture. Sounds doable?

Well, there you have it. It looks to me like the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex might just about be able to get by with a tight but tolerable per capita energy availability. There’s probably too much reliance on PV in the model I’ve outlined above in view of problems like intermittency. I think this can be overstated, and there are various evening-out technologies in the pipeline – but in the meantime, it’s probably best if we Wessexers aim to do our smelting and welding in the summer. Countries that, unlike Britain, aren’t stuck in a permanent swirl of cloud somewhere not far from the North Pole may find the PV approach more congenial.

There are other possibilities like crop biofuels. The issue here is competition with food crops (and lower per hectare energy output) – possibly remediable with such emerging technologies as algal biodiesel. Ultimately there are a set of rather complex tradeoffs between energy descent measures, energy cost per joule, energy productivity per unit area, embodied energy costs and various specifics such as engineering complexity, decommissioning costs etc. It looks to me like they might be resolvable – just – through a mix of solar, wind and tidal energy with some biofuels thrown in and strong downward pressure on usage. What seems to me more likely in practice is that the government will persist with a high energy route of fossil fuel and nuclear with a smattering of renewables until it runs out of road. Well, never let it be said that Small Farm Future wasn’t here pointing it towards the path of righteousness…

An English Berry?

There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:

“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”

“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.

I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).

Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.

Hmmm, well the Distributists may have been an odd bunch, but I’m tempted to say that modern advocacy for small-scale agrarianism only seems intrinsically reactionary if you buy into the hokum that ‘progress’ inheres in ever larger fields and tractors. And surely UKIP can stake a good claim for being the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK. But leaving that aside, agrarianism’s political lineages in different countries does strike me as an interesting topic.

Lenin distinguished between what he called the American and Prussian paths to capitalism – respectively ‘bottom up’ in a country of settler pioneers without aristocratic landownership (albeit neglecting here the issue of the aboriginal population), and ‘top down’ in a country dominated by such landownership. This idea was developed by later scholars such as Terence Byres and Barrington Moore1. But in Britain, or at least England, a primary and indigenous capitalist development bridging the aristocracy and the wider populace intercedes between these paths. England, stereotypically, was “a country of shopkeepers” – and latterly perhaps one of spivs, wide boys and even aristocratic wheeler-dealers. Could this explain the muddying of conservatism and leftism that Taylor identifies in the Distributists and perhaps for that matter across England’s history of rural radicalism in the likes of Blake, Coleridge, Morris, Lawrence, Orwell and so on – an undertow, at once politically radical and reactionary, to the grubby business of turning coin?

I don’t know, but it’s a theory… For my part, I’m not averse to embracing some of the conservative elements within that tradition, just as I’m not averse to embracing such elements within Berry. Still, I always feel a bit sceptical of that conservative tradition in Britain, and suspicious of its motives. Could Berry’s beautiful article on the ‘agrarian mind’2 have been written by an English conservative? Maybe, but I suspect not without a patronising accent or two, a consciousness of where real social standing lies. At the same time, the leftist instinct to dissolve everything into social relations – nature as mere politics or social process – has its own limitations, illuminating as it sometimes is. Perhaps a ‘bizarre coalition’ of radicals and conservatives is no bad thing?

Such, at any rate, are my immediate thoughts on these matters. I’d be interested in other perspectives. Any suggestions for an English Berry, or what one might look like?

Meanwhile, since my letter in the Guardian Review doesn’t seem to have made it online, I’ll reproduce it here. Revolutions have been built on less…

“DJ Taylor’s review of Wendell Berry’s collected writings (Review, 4 March) evoked wistful memories. When I first read Berry twenty years ago I was a progressively-minded urban intellectual and, like Taylor, I instinctively tried to pigeonhole Berry’s thought as conservative, reactionary, utopian etc. Like Taylor, I failed – those elements are there, but only as one part of a supple and humane moral vision. I now work on a farm, and advocate for egalitarian agrarian populism however I can. The world needs Berry’s voice more than ever.”

I haven’t read any of Berry’s stuff for a while. Doubtless it’s not above criticism. What I remember liking about it is the impossibility of assimilating it to the dreary dualism of progress (ascent to a future golden age) vs. regress (descent from a past golden age). It may be that the future, like the past, will involve a larger proportion of the population working on small, labour-intensive farms than is presently the case. There’s no necessary implication there that the future will be like the past in other ways, or that it ought to be. But it’s worth thinking about how the way we have to or ought to farm conditions the other possibilities of our lives. Maybe I should write a blog about that – I could call it Small Farm Future…



  1. Moore, B. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; Byres, T. 1996. Capitalism From Above and Capitalism From Below.
  1. Berry, W. 2002. ‘The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind’ in Kimbrell, A. (Ed) The Fatal Harvest Reader.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  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.

Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.


  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.


  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)


  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.


  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.


  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.


  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.


  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.


  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.


  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.


  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.


  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.


  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.



  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).

Dress like a woman, say sorry like a man, comment like a friend…

There’s just time in my busy current schedule for this brief ‘holding’ post to signal a switch in focus from my last few posts, which have concentrated on the furies of Trump and Brexit. The next few will concentrate on more practical agricultural matters, before I return to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

But some kind of linking image is called for to signal the switch…and also to fill up some space on the page in order to make this post seem like it’s longer than it actually is. Aha! Here we go, a photograph of my dear wife and business partner, La Brassicata, doing something practical and agricultural – viz. preparing one of our fine new worm composting bins for action. And also, in relation to previous posts, doing something political – viz. dressing like a woman. I guess her already vanishingly small chance of getting a job at the White House has just taken another hit. Shame.


Attentive readers may have noticed that, for protection, La Brassicata is wearing a chainsaw helmet. It’s the farm’s old one, not the spanking new Petzl helmet that I’ve reserved for my personal use while wielding the chainsaw. Hey, nobody said that patriarchy would be defeated overnight.

Talking of gender issues, I feel the need to do something that men are stereotypically quite bad at – namely, apologising for obvious mistakes. Though, if I flatter myself, I’m not so bad at it around the farm. Especially when La Brassicata has the Skil saw in her hand. Anyway, the apology I need to make is that in the welter of comments that I’ve recently received on this site, a few of them got held up in the moderation queue and escaped my notice. So – sorry to those whose words remained too long unpublished. I’ll do my best to keep a better eye on the comments queue. But if you don’t want to place your faith in me, try not to paste links into comments – that way they find their proper niche in cyberspace more easily.

And, finally, talking of comments, of course it’s a delight for any blogger to see the numbers in their comment column regularly ticking into three figures, so perhaps I should just be grateful. On the other hand, sheer number of comments does not a quality blog make. My instinct is to take a hands off approach to comment moderation and allow people to write more or less what they like, so long as it’s not personally abusive – which has sometimes been a close call of late. On the other hand, I don’t want folks to be put off this site by too many long and angry rebuttals or counter-rebuttals. I have a few rules of thumb, honed through the years, about when I think it’s worth engaging with someone with whom I disagree online and when it isn’t. I’m happy to spell them out if anyone wants, but for now I’ll just say that for me personally there’ve been one or two more ‘isn’ts’ than I’d like creeping onto this site recently – and that I’d welcome other people’s views about how best to go forward from here.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. There seems to be a rising tide of ‘either you’re with us or you’re against us’ thinking these days, the politics of black and white. I prefer more shades of grey. And on that note, I guess my final comment for now on the Trump-Brexit phenomenon is that I readily acknowledge there were people who voted Brexit and (somewhat less plausibly) Trump out of opposition to neoliberalism and support for localism. Indeed, I seriously contemplated voting Brexit myself for the same reason. However, to suppose that what you voted for is what you’ll actually get seems to me in this instance to greatly underestimate the power of neoliberalism and greatly overestimate the power of liberal democracy.

Addendum and credo

Well, the comments on my last post just keep rollin’. Thanks to commenters new and old for your informative views, and apologies that I haven’t had the time to respond to various points more fully. I take the point Joe Clarkson made – at root, this blog is supposed to be about farming. The trouble is, the shape of farming is driven by politics (we’ll know that agrarian populism has succeeded when and if it’s the other way around…) so inevitably writing about farming involves writing about politics. And politics interests me, so I could write about it endlessly.

But it can quickly become a rabbit hole (easy now, Clem) from which escape is impossible. So here I’m going to make a few closing comments regarding the previous post, answer a few questions posed to me about it in the form of a kind of gnomic political credo, and then leave it at that for now. But do carry on discussing if you wish. Small Farm Future is nothing if not generous with its bandwith. There’s plenty more I’d like to say about politics, populism, migration and the way the world is shaping. But I’ll aim to come back to it later in the year after more on farming, more on the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex and its environs, and more on history.

Meanwhile, I’m halfway through Colin Hines’s new book, Progressive Protectionism, which bears upon much of what’s been discussed. Among other things, Hines berates his fellow lefties and greenies for not embracing sensible anti-immigration policies. What is it with all these radicals at the moment, turning their guns on their colleagues? Splitters! Ah well, Hines argues that “today’s large scale migration is bad for democracy, internationalism and the environment” and hopes that his writing will help convert more ‘progressives’ to that view. The trouble is, the case he makes is weak on several key points. Still, I think there is a case in there somewhere, and I’d like to think about it some more. Though I’m not sure it’s a great time to be making ‘progressive’ cases for immigration control right now, as the shutters come down in the USA on refugees and the president’s own personal basket of deplorables, while Mrs May continues to dither. I’m moved by these words from Kapka Kassabova,

“If you live long enough in the corridor of distorted mirrors that is a border zone, you end up seeing your likeness in the image of your neighbour. Sooner or later, you end up meeting yourself. Which makes it all the harder to tell exactly where the barbarians are: pushing at the gates, already among us, or inside our heads….Is it unavoidable that we would enter an era of building hard borders, again? No – it is only desperately unwise. The reason why new borders haunt us is because we haven’t listened well enough to the stories of the old ones. It is because the barbarians are here, not just among us but inside our heads, tirelessly tweeting hatred.”

And, from the same periodical, another interesting article bearing on the topic of my last post from Sarah Churchwell: ‘It will be called Americanism’: the US writers who imagined a fascist future. Much to mull over – so I plan to simmer down for a while and think about populism, politics and migration while getting back to some farming issues over the next few posts.

In the meantime, in response to various comments on the previous post let me try to lay out briefly where I think I’m coming from politically with a few positioning statements, in which I’ll try to use a minimum of ‘isms’.

  • I think any political position or political programme involves contradictions that are difficult to resolve.
  • I like the idea of people owning their own property and taking responsibility for providing for themselves and their families from it.
  • I like the idea of individual and local self-determination.
  • I don’t think individual people or families can successfully provide for themselves without relying implicitly or explicitly on many other people. Robinson Crusoe was just a story. And even he managed to create a racial hierarchy.
  • I like the idea that people can voluntarily join larger groupings and collectivities of people.
  • I don’t like the idea that people must forcibly join larger collectivities. Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable – we’re born, live and die in wider communities over which individually we usually have minimal influence. And these collectivities shape our thinking.
  • I like the idea that people can buy and sell things with limited interference from the state, especially the closer that the market thereby formed approximates the impossible dream of what economists call a ‘perfect market’. This puts me at odds with some characteristic positions in left-wing thought. It also puts me at odds with contemporary corporate consumer capitalism, a command-and-control economy which has little to do with the ‘free’ market.
  • I like the idea that people can choose the way they want to live their lives, including taking or leaving new technologies, whether material or social.
  • I like the idea of people striving to extend and develop their skills and their knowledge of the world. I also like the idea of people not striving to do that if they don’t want to. I like the idea of figuring out a way in which everyone can pursue or not pursue such goals as they wish. I don’t think that’s easy.
  • I like the idea that people can stay in the same general area where they were born and find an acknowledged place and role there.
  • I like the idea that people can move to a different area from where they were born and find an acknowledged place and role in their new surroundings.
  • I think that if there are strong restrictions on people moving from their natal areas or strong limitations on them remaining in them then the conditions are ripe for tyranny.
  • I think wealth, influence and power tend to accumulate in small sub-sections of society unless positive steps are taken to prevent it.
  • I think wealth, influence and power also tend to accumulate in small sub-sections of the global political order – the system of national states is a system of centres and peripheries.
  • I think small inequalities, small centre-periphery relations, are unavoidable and in some respects enabling. But I think that great inequalities cause much needless suffering, limit human achievement, stem from the self-interest of the few against the many, and are ethically unjustifiable.
  • I think self-interested power tends to disguise itself by staking claims about how it reflects the natural order of things.
  • In western societies, I think power has disproportionately been held in the hands of old white men in every social class. And while I’m hurtling towards membership of that particular category myself day by day, I don’t think it’s a good thing.
  • Power concentrates, by definition, in the hands of ‘elites’. There are different kinds of power and different kinds of elites. Some elites advance their interests by making alliances with non-elite actors against other elites. Generally, I think that ‘business elites’ have had more power than ‘professional’ or so-called ‘liberal’ elites, and their power is currently growing stronger still.
  • I think it’s possible to overstate the extent to which history is driven by class struggle.
  • I think it’s possible to understate the extent to which history is driven by class struggle.
  • I think ‘class’ involves cultural as well as economic components.
  • I don’t think any one class or its members are usually better or worthier than any other, or repositories of some kind of world-historical truth that transcends its enmeshment in the politically immediate. Obviously, that would apply to the ‘middle class’. Obviously, it would also apply to the ‘working class’.
  • I think most complex modern states or polities involve class alliances of some kind which reach beyond the idea of self-interest towards some notion of general interest. But not always by very much, and seldom as much as their proponents think. These alliances are usually quite fragile.
  • I don’t think human societies have a natural tendency to move in any particular political or ethical direction through history. Not even a cyclical direction.
  • I think it’s worth trying to articulate universal principles of human conduct and to seek consensus between people around them whenever possible. I don’t think this can ever work in practice. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be attempted.
  • I think it’s worth looking sceptically at how all principles of conduct, global and local, work on the ground. What are the gaps between ideal and reality, articulation and implementation? Who wins from them and who loses?
  • I think that political actors who strongly pursue ‘I win – you lose’ strategies run a high risk of ending up either in an ‘I lose – you win’ situation or an ‘I lose – you lose’ situation.
  • I think it’s good for political actors to pursue ‘I win – you win’ strategies where possible, but these are harder to come by than people often think. The next best thing is to pursue ‘I’m doing OK-ish – you’re doing OK-ish’ strategies, which are much under-emphasised in global politics.
  • I think that humanity is squandering its natural capital, that technical fixes probably won’t succeed in getting it off that hook, and so globally we won’t be able to keep on living as we do now indefinitely.
  • I think the best way of resolving all of the points above is by developing local polities with small farm ownership widely available to everyone.
  • I think that that resolution raises a host of virtually insurmountable problems. And so do all the other possibilities, only more so.

Left agrarian populism: a programme

I was aiming to take a January break from blogging, but various whisperings (and the odd shout) in my ear prompt me to put this one out into the ether right now. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts. But on the upside you won’t hear from me again for a couple of weeks after this.

What I mostly want to do on this site over the next few months is resume exploring the alternative world of my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But there’s a case for taking a step back, putting that exercise into a wider context, and laying out something of a programme for the year – especially in the light of some comments I’ve recently received. So that’s what I’m going to do here.

The first comment was from Vera, who took exception to the fears I expressed in my review of 2016, A Sheep’s Vigil, that we may be witnessing an emerging fascism. She also questioned my advocacy for agrarian populism:

“maybe he is not really interested in building an agrarian populist movement — maybe, he is only interested in building an agrarian faux-populist progressively-politically-correct movement. In which case I am out. Maybe it’s time he stopped pussyfooting around and made things clear.”

Well, I’m not sure I can clarify everything in a single post, but it seems worth trying to set out as best I can what I understand left agrarian populism to be and why I support it. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time if their politics lie wholly elsewhere…

Left Agrarian Populism: So then, three key terms – ‘left’, ‘agrarian’, and ‘populist’. The last is much the trickiest. For many commentators, ‘populism’ refers to little more than the unscrupulousness of those politicians who’ll say whatever they calculate will make them most popular with the electorate. We’ve had way too much of that recently, and frankly ‘populism’ has become such a toxic brand as a result that I’m half inclined to wash my hands of it. The reason I don’t is partly because there are historical and contemporary peasant movements I support which fly under the banner of populism, and partly because there’s an important aspect of populism which differentiates it from most other modern political traditions.

Let me expand that last point through some admittedly gross over-simplifications of three such other traditions. First liberalism, which believes that private markets, if allowed free rein, will deliver optimum benefits to humanity. Second conservatism, which believes in defending the established social order and fostering progress through the cultivation of individual character. Third socialism, which believes in organising human benefit on a collective, egalitarian basis through politically-guided planning. There are elements of all three traditions I’d subscribe to, but I can’t wholly identify with any of them. A feature they share is a rather totalising normative vision of what a society should be like and how individual people ought to fit into it, and a willingness to bend the world hard to fit that vision. Populism, by contrast, doesn’t really have a totalising normative vision in this way. It’s a politics ‘of the people’, and all it expects of people is that they’ll do their people-like things: be born, grow up, secure their livelihood, raise families, live in communities, die. That’s pretty much it. I prefer it to the stronger normativity of the other traditions.

But it only takes a moment to realise that things aren’t so simple when it comes to implementing a populist politics. Who are ‘the people’? They’re any number of individuals and groupings with endlessly jostling identifications, hostilities, aspirations and conflicts. ‘The people’ don’t exist as an undifferentiated mass any more than ‘the community’ does in your town. So you can be pretty sure that when a politician says they’re acting in the interests of ‘the people’, they’re really acting in the interests only of certain people, a group that probably includes themselves (and may well not include the group they claim to be acting for). You can be doubly sure of it if they say they’re acting in the interests of ‘ordinary people’, ‘real people’ or ‘the silent majority’.

I think this problem for populist politics is virtually insurmountable in highly monetised, consumerist societies characterized by wage-labour and riven by class, ethnic and national differences. Political movements do arise in these societies under populist banners which purport to represent the interests of ‘the people’, but to my mind their claims are invariably spurious, papering over class, ethnic or other interests. And that, I think, is pretty much where we’re now at in the UK and the USA, among other places.

An aside on ‘political correctness’, the ‘alt-right’ and class. Let me go with that last sentence for a moment before returning to my populist theme. I’ll recruit for the purpose some help from John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, albeit with some trepidation. Its mishmash of half-truths and flat untruths – in which we learn, for example, that the New Left forgot social class was important until a working-class champion by the name of Donald Trump came along and took up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, and in which Trump’s appointment of Goldman Sachs executives to his administration somehow becomes evidence not of his own hypocrisy but that of his critics – is truly a document for these post-truth times. In environmentalist circles Greer increasingly seems to resemble some weird kind of alter ego to Trump himself – no matter how superficial, ridiculous or outrageous his pronouncements, his fanbase only seems to grow. Still, there are a few nuggets in his piece that make a good foil for my analysis, so I’ll proceed.

Greer correctly notes that Trump garnered a lot of support from working class voters who felt disenfranchised by politics-as-usual. But he then imputes leftist horror at Trump’s election largely to class hatred from the middle classes against those who put him there. Even Greer can see some of the contortions involved in making such a bizarre argument stick. He tries to shore up the edifice, but what he fails to do – and what he’s consistently failed to do throughout his writings on the 2016 election – is to see that a politician who gains class support and a politician who acts in class interest aren’t necessarily the exact same thing.

The missing ingredient in Greer’s recipe is a concept of ideology – the insight that ideas about society are both systematically structured and selective, and that the relationships between things, words and actions are complex. It’s an insight that social scientists and political thinkers have developed in numerous ways in recent times but we now seem to be in danger of forgetting. Greer could certainly have done with remembering it when he wrote this:

“The Alt-Right scene that’s attracted so much belated attention from politicians and pundits over the last year is in large part a straightforward reaction to the identity politics of the left. Without too much inaccuracy, the Alt-Right can be seen as a network of young white men who’ve noticed that every other identity group in the country is being encouraged to band together to further its own interests at their expense, and responded by saying, “Okay, we can play that game too.””

I mention this because it’s relevant to the issue of ‘political correctness’ that Vera identified in my thinking. Although I deplore the censoriously ‘PC’ excesses of essentially insignificant bodies like student unions in their calls to “Check your privilege!” as much as the next man, or perhaps I should say as much as the next gendered subject, I think the concept of political correctness lacks any real political traction. It stems from the kind of right-wing mythology peddled here by Greer, which posits an equivalence between different ‘identity groups’, all supposedly competing on the level playing field of life. One of the few things I have first-hand experience of is what it’s like to be a straight, white, middle-class man – and I’d have to say that, from where I sit, alt-right politics based around that identity indeed looks to me a lot like ‘playing a game’. I’m not sure that’s always so true for people in other situations.

Somebody wrote this to me in relation to the Greer passage I cited above: “Women, Mexicans, Muslims, and LGBT folks such as myself have been working for many years to be treated fairly and respectfully, something that has been lacking in my lifetime.  None of us in these categories wish to treat “young white men” the way we have been treated.” Quite so. In contrast to Greer, I’d submit that the horror many people feel at Trump’s election arises not out of hatred, but out of fear.

There’s often a fine line between explaining a phenomenon and justifying it. To my mind, it’s a line that despite his occasional distantiating turn of phrase Greer has unquestionably now crossed – his political writing has become little more than an apologia for Trump and the alt-right. But that’s by the by. I want to take my discussion back towards agrarian populism via the issue of class with a final quotation from Greer:

“According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution is led by the radicalized intelligentsia, but it gets the muscle it needs to overthrow the capitalist system from the working classes. This is the rock on which wave after wave of Marxist activism has broken and gone streaming back out to sea, because the American working classes are serenely uninterested in taking up the world-historical role that Marxist theory assigns to them.”

There’s certainly some truth in that – and it’s why left populism appeals to me more than Marxism or socialism as such. Note, though, Greer’s slippage from ‘Marxist activism’ as an unqualified and therefore presumably global phenomenon, to its specific grounding in America (actually, the USA). The tendency to see the USA as a synecdoche for the whole world is a mistake often made by US citizens and by the country’s overseas admirers, but I imagine it’s one that will be less commonly made in the future (when the US president says “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” it does, after all, drop a big hint to the remaining 96% of the world’s population about how to order their own priorities). So, wrenching our gaze momentarily from the USA, perhaps we should ask if there are any countries where socialist revolution has been successful, at least in the short term. Well, it turns out that there are. Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba spring to mind – all countries with large peasant populations at the time of their revolutions.

The story of how Marxism co-opted peasant revolutions – populist revolutions – to its own purposes can’t detain us here. But I want to note that, in contrast to the inherently contradictory populisms of contemporary industrial-capitalist countries, populist politics has made some headway in societies where there are a large number of poor farmers and a small, wealthy elite. Here, populists have sometimes succeeded in clawing back some of the surplus produced by the farmers and appropriated by the elite, and more generally in validating the agrarian lifeways of the farmers as something important and worthy of respect. And I further want to note that, in these countries, there’s been a basis for populism in social class.

Back to populism: So I’d argue that populist politics remains relevant in the many parts of the world where peasantries still exist in significant numbers. I think it may also be relevant in ‘post-peasant’ parts of the world such as Britain, where I live, inasmuch as various looming crises in global consumer capitalism may propel us towards more local, land-based and low energy forms of living. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘agrarian’ part of the populism I espouse. A nice thing about it is the promise it holds out that this local, land-based, low-energy style of life can be a rewarding way to live, even if we have no choice about living it, rather than being a disastrous reversal in the progressive unfolding of industrial modernity.

But it can only be rewarding if everybody has a decent chance to live it. The agrarian populism I espouse is therefore a left populism, for two main reasons. First, even assuming a fair initial distribution of land and resources, through bad luck or bad choices some people inevitably end up less well endowed with the capacity to provide for their wellbeing than others. If these differential endowments are inherited down the generations, then the evidence is pretty clear that before long we’re back with a downtrodden mass peasantry and a small, wealthy elite – which is to nobody’s long-term benefit, including the elite. So a redistributive element is necessary that prevents the accumulation and defence of unearned inter-generational advantage – we can argue about the extent and form of the redistribution, but I don’t see good arguments against the fundamental need for it. Presumably that would be something on which for once John Michael Greer and I would agree.

The second reason is that while there’s something to commend the conservative trope of stand-on-your-own-two-feet-and-don’t-expect-the-world-to-owe-you-a-favour, all of us ultimately depend on numerous other people. We’re not the sole authors of our fates, and we all screw up in ways small and sometimes large in the course of our lives. So I favour an approach to others based wherever possible (though it’s not always possible) on empathy and generosity of spirit rather than censoriousness or status competition.

And that in barest outline is how I’d characterise left agrarian populism. There’ve been places in the past where something like it has prospered for a while, and I suspect the same will be true in the future. I think a lot of human suffering could be avoided if it were to be a norm rather than an exception. But I’m not too optimistic. What seems to me more likely as resource crises bite and the global capitalist economy hits the buffers is a slamming of shutters, a beggar-my-neighbour race for resources and an authoritarian policing of the body politic which seeks to root out any dissent from various nationalist senses of manifest destiny (“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first” etc.)

An aside on fascism. In view of various comments I’ve received, including Vera’s, I’d like to clarify my use of the term ‘fascist’ to describe my fears about that kind of future. It’s a word that, I acknowledge, comes with a lot of baggage. And history never repeats itself exactly, so there’s always a debate to be had about the relevance of past events to the future. On the other hand, history contains some useful warnings if we care to heed them. In invoking ‘fascism’, I don’t mean it as a generic term of abuse but as a reference to a fairly specific type of politics: the creation of an authoritarian corporate state grounded in an essentially mythical conception of a unified and exclusive ‘people’, in which various independent bodies that can hold the state to account such as parliaments, judiciaries and media are repressed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the EU, a good deal of the political discourse around Brexit in the UK has been leading in that direction. The lesson I draw from the 1920s and 1930s is that people didn’t take the threat of fascism seriously enough soon enough to prevent the first stirrings of nativism and discrimination – and indeed the kind of alt-right normalisation that Greer is peddling – from later turning into all-out war and genocide. There’s little I can do individually to stop the re-emergence of fascism if that’s the way the world is going, but I can promise to challenge it when I see it.

So when the Daily Mail calls judges ‘enemies of the people’ for deciding that parliament has to debate the Brexit referendum vote (in which, let us remember, 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and 35% voted to remain), the word for it is fascism. But my main point isn’t that we’re currently under the thumb of the fascists – it’s that I can’t really see many plausible future scenarios in which President Trump or Britain’s Brexiteers will be able to deliver what many of their supporters thought they were voting for. And those conditions will be ripe for fascism – though I acknowledge that we may get away with mere xenophobic right-wing authoritarianism. I pray that I won’t ever think the latter is the best outcome I can hope for. So let me be clear – I’m not using the word ‘fascist’ out of contempt for people I simply disagree with. I’m using it out of fear for what the future holds, and out of determination to work for something better.

Left agrarian populism, again: That ‘something better’ is left agrarian populism. But perhaps I’ve caught myself in a contradiction here. I emphasised above the actual rather than the normative basis of populist politics. Given that nothing remotely approximating left agrarian populism currently animates western politics except at its furthest fringes, a programme for realising it involves advocating for it normatively as an ‘ought’, a political ideal around which the world needs remodelling. So in that sense perhaps agrarian populism is no less normative or totalising than, say, liberalism. I can think of various ways to try to get myself off that hook – by arguing, for example, that our modern ideologies of progress have warped our thinking away from the honest actuality of making a living from the land, or by arguing that whether we like it or not the gathering crisis of global consumer capitalism is going to deliver us (if we’re lucky) into a world of local self-reliance, to which an agrarian populist politics is best fitted. There’s some mileage in such arguments, but ultimately they’re a bit lame. So maybe I have to argue that when all is said and done left agrarian populism is just a normative political ideology like any other – one that I happen to think answers the puzzles of contemporary human existence better than others, partly indeed because it doesn’t opine normatively too much on how people ought to live other than by saying, well, they do have to live, they have to do that by farming, and their farming should try to screw other people and the rest of the planet as little as possible.

In that sense perhaps my populism is rather impure, drawing on aspects of liberalism, conservatism and socialism. So maybe Vera is right that the populism I espouse is a ‘faux populism’ – though, if she is, then I’d venture to say that all populisms are ‘faux populisms’, since I don’t think there can be any singular, historically fixed or ideologically neutral conception of ‘the people’, still less ‘the people’s will’. All populisms reference other political ideologies. When I wrote about this previously, Tom Smith questioned the extent to which my position was different from socialism. I think it is different in the way it understands the relationship between peasants or farmers, states and historical change. But maybe not all that different – it is a left populism, after all. Suffice to say that it probably has more common ground with socialism than with forms of right-wing populism that consider the concept of ‘political correctness’ to be useful. But I’d hope that at least it lacks the disdain of Marxists and certain other flavours of socialism for peasants and the petit bourgeoisie. In fact, that’s exactly where I see the best hope for a left agrarian populism – as a class movement. The fact that, as I’ve mentioned, there’s virtually no extant peasant or petty proprietor class in western countries is therefore a bit of an inconvenience for my politics. I do have some cards up my sleeve on that front that I’ll lay out in later posts. Though I confess they don’t make for the greatest of hands.

Whatever anyone might think of the case for a left agrarian populism, it certainly won’t get far if it can’t furnish people with their basic needs. So the aim of the vast number-crunching exercise I’ve been undertaking over the past few months in relation to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex has been to check for myself, if for no one else, whether it can. It often surprises me that such exercises aren’t more commonly undertaken by government agencies with the funding to do them properly and the remit to secure the wellbeing of their populace. On that note, I was struck by the reasons Michael gave in a comment under my last post for why such exercises aren’t more routinely undertaken – “too divisive, nationalistic, fear-mongering”. I was also struck by the following passage in Georges Duby’s classic history of the medieval European economy,

“Wherever economic planning existed, it was seen in the context of needs to be satisfied. What was expected of manorial production was that it should be equal to foreseeable demand…It was not a question of maximizing output from the land, but rather of maintaining it at such a level that it could respond to any request at a moment’s notice”1

In that sense my mindset is medieval. The question that interests me is the same one, at whatever scale – can we produce what we need in the next period to see the people through? The modern mindset asks a different question – how can we produce the highest profit from these inputs? In modern society, the bridge between that question and the first one is usually provided, if it’s sought at all, by some kind of ‘implicit virtue’ notion in the tradition belonging to Mandeville’s fable of the bees, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, and Milton Friedman’s ‘capitalism and freedom’. What’s becoming increasingly clear – as other thinkers have long been warning – is that there is no invisible hand, or if there is its designs are forever being thwarted by an invisible foot which, just as the hand works yet another miracle, simply can’t help treading in the next bit of shit up the road.

So my programme for the year, aside from a few digressions and diversions, is to go on asking the question – can we produce enough to see the people through? And once I’ve addressed that as best I can I’ll continue by asking how we might organise ourselves socially and politically to help us do so. That’ll take me deep into the history and the politics of agricultural production and agrarian populism, wherein I hope I might be able to find some more productive ways out of the crises facing us than the dispiriting contemporary populisms of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their fellow travellers. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll be travelling in fellowship with me. But if not, I hope you get the politics you want from the other paths you tread – so long as it doesn’t involve selfishly trampling over other people. Ach, me and my danged outmoded liberalism…


  1. Duby, G. 1974. The Early Growth Of The European Economy, Cornell Univ Press, p.92.

A sheep’s vigil

I said I’d swear off blogging for a month, but I thought I’d just drop by to note the appearance on the Dark Mountain Blog of my review of 2016, called ‘A sheep’s vigil’. And, since I’m here, I might as well sketch a little bit of extra context for that piece.

A view I’ve long charted on this site is that people’s health and wellbeing will ultimately best be served by an economy strongly grounded in the productive capacities of their local landscapes. My feeling is that the seismic political events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump etc – have taken us still further from that already remote possibility, and the notion that they represent a move towards anti-elitist localism is illusory. Therefore the overall mood of my analysis is pessimistic. On the other hand, had the gods ordained that 2016 should be the year of Bremain and Clinton, we would scarcely be much closer to my aspirations. So perhaps it could be argued that when the false dawn of 2016 becomes more widely apparent, it’ll turn out at least that these events were staging posts to a more genuine egalitarian localism. Trouble is, from where I stand, I can’t really see it – what comes to my mind instead is a Tom Waits line: “They say if you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home. Well I’m at the station, and I can’t get on the train”.

So my piece mostly tries to chart what I see as a greater likelihood and a greater danger, that after Theresa May’s Brexit conservative government and Donald Trump’s presidency fail to deliver their undeliverable promises we’ll get something much worse. I got some stick on this site for talking about fascism in the context of the politics of 2016, and I’d concede that leftists do have the bad habit of yelling ‘Fascism!’ as a kind of reflex whenever they encounter resurgent right-wing politics. Still, the whole tenor of political discourse in the UK at the moment (perhaps it’s best if I avoid opining on the US situation, which I’m more remote from) is more proto-fascist than anything I’ve yet seen in British politics during my lifetime, with all its talk of ‘enemies of the people’, the revolt against ‘liberal’ elites, the scapegoating and the ressentiment. To compound it all, as I’ve charted on this blog, various voices among radical greens are, at best, content just to rub their hands at the gory spectacle of it all and, at worst, are cheerleading the slide towards nativism and state corporatism. Shame on them.

But, hey, it’s a new year, and if I can’t find a few rays of sunshine to penetrate the gloom in the salad days of January then I’ll be surpassing even my own championship levels of lugubriousness. So here’s a few positive thoughts, based largely on the books I read during the recent holiday:


I belatedly got around to reading Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Christopher McCandless, who gave all his money to Oxfam, and wandered the western USA before unfortunately dying in Alaska as he sought truth in the immediate and the wild. Most cultures historically have found a place for world-renouncing transcendence and have valued people who seek it. Ours regrettably does not, but there’s no lack of people nowadays who nonetheless feel its pull. The McCandless story has influenced many people – some of whom try to repeat his exact trip and end up needing rescuing from the Teklanika River, or worse. So what’s the moral here? That people find some dumbass ways to get themselves into trouble? Well for sure but I’m looking for positives, remember? So I’d say it’s this: much as our society likes to peddle the myth that everyone wants to be rich and famous, it’s not actually true. But most people are quite suggestible and tend to tread the paths (literal or figurative) where others have gone before. So maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to divert a lot of them to a worthwhile path of transcendence. And the choice we face isn’t between either a six-figure salary in Manhattan or hunting for food in Alaska and dying a lonely death. You could try gardening, for starters.

The over-industrious revolution

I also finally got around to reading Jan de Vries’ article ‘The industrial revolution and the industrious revolution’ – one of the seminal contributions to the ‘industrious revolution’ debate that I’ll be discussing in later posts, and full of implications for sustainable agricultures and societies of the future. One of de Vries’ points is that the industrial revolution of Victorian England didn’t just come down from on high as a result of fossil energy capture and was then promulgated around the world to a grateful populace (which is kind of the ecomodernist version of history). Rather it arose substantially through a series of marginal decisions made by ordinary people living in pre-industrial households about how best to spend their time, with results that they could have scarcely imagined. And the moral of this story for me is the following answer to those who say that the rise of capitalism and its huge amplification in the quantity of material things was bound to happen, and is what everybody wants: no it wasn’t and no they don’t. A short answer, I’ll admit, but one I propose to expand on in due course. The positive message I draw from de Vries is that major historical change can happen from the bottom up without a coordinated political plan. So it’s conceivable that people will come to think that the revolution we’ve had these past two centuries has been a tad over-industrious, and will start finding some other ways of organising their time than wage labour to fund the industrial production of commodities.

Collapse in slo-mo

Next on my reading list was End Game: Tipping Point For Planet Earth? by palaeo-ecologists Anthony Barnosky and Elizabeth Hadly. I’d recommend it as light holiday reading. No seriously. Maybe I just don’t get out enough. Anyway, despite its lack of depth I thought there was a lot of good stuff in the book, and the palaeo-ecological angle comparing present circumstances to past climate change and extinction events was particularly interesting – a useful corrective to the aforementioned ecomodernists’ favourite ecology book, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden.

I didn’t always agree with Barnosky and Hadly, and I was particularly irked by their failure to consider low tech and small-scale rather than hi tech and large-scale approaches to agriculture. Still, in chapter after chapter on population, resources, food, water, pollution, disease and war they lay down a set of sombre markers for the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. The positive message? Oh damn, I’d forgotten about that. Well not, I think, the falsely upbeat final chapter in which the authors get way too excited by the fact that California governor Jerry Brown is interested in their analysis, much as I empathise with the Stockholm syndrome that many of us exhibit when IMPORTANT PEOPLE occasionally choose to listen to us. It’s more about the nature and speed of the impending collapse that Barnosky and Hadly delineate – something that we’ve been batting around a bit in the comments section of some of my recent blog posts. Their analysis leads me to think that there will almost inevitably be blood, war, hunger, and immense human suffering in the years ahead – just as there have been for many in the years behind – but what there probably won’t be, even in some pretty bad ecological scenarios, is an immediate and total collapse of global civilisation. So that’s a comfort, huh?

People are people: I spent new year’s eve at a youth hostel in southern Portugal (it’s a long story), among a mixed crowd of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian and Germans, among others. A Lithuanian accordionist played the guitar, and sang cheerful American songs in English, English songs in Lithuanian, and Lithuanian songs in Spanish, I think. The Europeans made fun of the English for trying to pretend that we weren’t really European, and a fine old time was had by all. It made me think that for all the bitter political rhetoric and social media trolling, when people from different countries actually meet and talk to each other they’re often able to find ways to get along.

China sleeps: on new year’s day I came down with a bad cold. The shops were shut and I couldn’t get any Nurofen. Lying groggily in bed I realised to my horror that the only unread book in my possession was one primarily concerned with tax policy in early modern China. Cursing my intellectual pretentiousness – why hadn’t I brought a crime novel like a normal person? – but with few other options, I proceeded to learn more than could be reasonably expected of a man on his sickbed about the long-term machinations of the middle kingdom. A day or two later I saw the news of Donald Trump’s latest online China-baiting. And armed with my newfound knowledge, I took comfort from the fact that while Chinese regimes through history have certainly done their fair share of bullying and strong-arm stuff, they haven’t as a rule tended to go in for quixotic acts of military adventurism overseas or to lash out in revenge for slights – in contrast to, well, just as a wild example, let’s say, hmm, the USA. So that, I think, is another bit of good news as we contemplate the four years ahead.

Rationality: in other news, the former chief economist of the Bank of England has apologised for the bank’s overly pessimistic forecasts concerning Britain’s post-Brexit economic performance. Andrew Haldane said that the bank’s models were based on the assumption that people behaved rationally, but this turned out not to be the case. And the good news here is that Britain’s economy has emerged strong and triumphant in spite of all the doom-mongering over Brexit? No. We haven’t even left the EU yet – it’s far too early to tell. The good news is that senior economists are finally admitting that their models aren’t based on how people actually behave – something that thinkers from other disciplines (like him, and him, and even him) have been telling them for years. Even so, there’s something slightly pejorative about Haldane’s language of rationality and irrationality – maybe the real irrationality here relates to a discipline so fond of building behavioural models that aren’t based on how people actually behave. But perhaps I have to tread carefully here, since – to bring this post full circle – my critique of fascism is based largely on the fact that it’s irrational. I guess what I’d say is that politics is always unavoidably a matter of beliefs and values, and the belief that politics should be based on reason is at least as defensible as any other. That indeed was a key point of my Dark Mountain piece – that a liberal public sphere now has to be defended as a value. Economics, on the other hand, generally purports to be a value-neutral discipline that understands how humans behave. Clearly, however, it doesn’t. And the fact that the news is now out is…good.

Right, well that really is it. Happy new year. See you in February.

A farewell to the year

And so I come to my final blog post of 2016, and what a year it’s been. I’ve been asked by Dark Mountain to write a retrospective of it, which I hope will be up on their website soon. I’ll be offering some thoughts on the larger events of the world in that post, so here I’m mostly just going to offer a few nuggets focused on my specific theme of small-scale farming, and its future.

But first I thought perhaps I should take a leaf out of John Michael Greer’s book and make some predictions for 2017. I got a certain amount of stick on this site earlier in the year for the dim view I took of Donald Trump’s politics, and of Greer’s (deniable) enthusiasm for them. I was told that Trump’s speaking up for the working class, his focus on domestic politics rather than global power politics, and his anti-corporate/neoliberal agenda promised fresh departures. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced now that the president-elect has stuffed his team with Goldman Sachs bankers and assorted billionaires and foreign policy eccentrics, while baiting China and the Arab world.

So my prediction for December 2017: Trump’s presidency will have had a minimal to negative effect on improving the lot of the US working class, a negative effect on international relations and tensions, and a positive effect on the entrenchment of corporate power. Something to reflect on in a year’s time… The history of global power politics suggests that the rise of one power and the slow decline of another, while scarcely going unnoticed, often reaches a flashpoint where the starkness of the reversed fortunes is suddenly revealed, as if unheralded – the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War spring to mind in the case of European history. I predict a future flashpoint in which the supremacy of China over the US is revealed, though probably not in 2017 unless Trump really surpasses himself. I hope he doesn’t – I’d prefer it to happen under a steadier pair of hands in the White House.

Anyway, let’s talk about farming. Back in October I went to the small-scale farming skill share day organised by my Land Workers’ Alliance friend Rebecca Laughton, in association with her interesting research project on the productivity of small farms in the UK. My train was delayed and I turned up late to the event, walking in to the middle of a session on small-scale grain growing just as an audience member asked the session leader what variety of wheat he grew. “Maris Widgeon,” he replied, to audible intakes of breath through the pursed lips of the assembled participants.

I sometimes think that in Britain, more than in most countries of the world, the cause of small-scale farming is, alas, a lost one. So I somehow found it cheering that there are still people around in this country capable of tight-lipped disapproval at the thought of someone growing a variety of wheat that most other people have never heard of.

That event was held at Monkton Wyld, where the inestimable Simon Fairlie and Gill Barron keep a small herd of Jerseys, sell scythes, and run The Land magazine, which celebrated its twentieth issue this year – a small ray of sanity in a crazy world. It was great to have a look around Simon and Gill’s operation, including its traditional small milking yard. As Simon pointed out, there used to be thousands of these around the country. Most are now gone, but as the margins for milk production narrow and the inputs of robotic mega confinement dairies broaden, there are some glimmerings of a return to low input micro-dairying of the kind that Simon and Gill practice. Another reason to be cheerful.

Simon is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance – still probably the best single-volume examination that I’ve read of what a small farm future might entail. And talking of meat, alternative farm guru Joel Salatin has recently been taking on all comers in defending the cause of ‘sustainable meat’ – notably against a New York Times op-ed by James McWilliams called ‘The myth of sustainable meat’, and in a debate here in the UK with, among others, Tara Garnett, head honcho of the Food Climate Research Network.

Salatin makes a lot of good points, and generally gets the better of McWilliams in his response to the NYT article, which recycles the usual weary old shibboleths about the superior ecological credentials of intensive confined meat operations. But on one point I find Salatin evasive. Critiquing McWilliams’ figures for the amount of land needed to finish an animal on grass, Salatin writes that these figures “are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures….Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.” What he doesn’t say is how many acres an animal needs with these exponentially augmenting space-age methods, and how many acres you’d need to produce the same level of nutrition from exponentially-augmenting space-age technology applied to food crops grown directly for human consumption rather than to forage crops. Because the fact is, there’s a cast iron ecological law of trophic levels which shows you can’t produce as much meat from a given area as you can of vegetable matter.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for livestock on the farm, or that there isn’t a case for scaling up ‘sustainable meat’ – issues that Simon Fairlie looks at in some detail in his book, and that I’ve been looking at in my blog cycle on sustainable farming in the UK. But let’s be honest – except in highly marginal environments, you’re never going to produce human food via the intermediary of livestock with the same land-use efficiency as directly edible crops. Tara Garnett is undoubtedly right that levels of US or UK meat consumption aren’t globally sustainable, however the animals are raised. And in any case, ruminants are a sideshow in global meat production – the real issue is pork and chicken, which compete more directly with humans for cropland.

Western levels of meat consumption may not be globally sustainable, but they could still be locally sustainable. I’ve spent a lot of time this year crunching numbers on a projected future ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ here in southwest England where I live, with a view to comparing it to the imperium of London in the southeast. On the grassy expanses of Wessex I’ve found a role for animals in feeding the populace. But I’m not sure those assumptions will play out so well in the case of Londinium, which I’ll be coming to. My aim has also been to discuss the politics and sociology of a shift to contemporary neo-peasant societies in ‘developed’ western countries. I’ve made much less progress on this than I’d hoped to by now, but hey I’ve got a farm to run as well. And there’s always next year – I hope.

On the upside, my neo-peasant exercise seems to have prompted some wider interest. This has been the year when Small Farm Future went…well, not exactly viral, and maybe not even bacterial, but certainly amoebal, with over 1,100 comments on my posts here at Small Farm Future alone in the course of the year. Some of them weren’t even written by me. So thank you very much to everyone who’s commented, and apologies if pressure of time has sometimes meant that I haven’t been able to reply as fully as you might have liked. I’ve learned a lot from the comments I’ve received, and getting feedback is certainly an encouragement to continue blogging.

Indeed, Small Farm Future was even mentioned in dispatches by an academic study called ‘Is there a future for the small family farm?’, funded by the Princes Trust and with a foreword written by lord somebody of somewhere-or-other, so here at SFF we now have true blue aristocratic pedigree. Admittedly, the mention we got was somewhat backhanded:

Others lament the decline of the small farm in a global context. Chris Smaje, who runs a website called Small Farm Future, writes:  

“From the brief high-water mark of pro-peasant populism in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the possibility of founding self-reliant national prosperities upon independent small proprietors has slowly been eroded through land grabs, global trade agreements and agrarian policies favouring capital intensive staple commodity production over local self-provision, regardless of the consequences for small-scale farmers.” (Smaje, 2015) 

The close association between advocacy of small-scale farming and advocacy of radical organic alternatives to conventional agricultural systems (see Smaje, 2014; Tudge, 2007) often serves, in fact, to keep the size issue on the margins of mainstream debate. This is unfortunate in our view as there is real scope for positive interaction between alternative visions for agriculture and the concern at the challenges facing more conventional mainstream family farms.

Ah well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I’m not sure it’s lonely voices in the wilderness like mine that are keeping the issue of farm size to the margins of mainstream debate, and I can’t really see how a serious case for small-scale farming as anything other than a minor complement to high input, specialised, large-scale agriculture can be made in the absence of advocating for radical (if not necessarily organic) alternatives to conventional agricultural systems. The report is certainly interesting in its analysis of the role of small-scale farming within the lifecycle of the mainstream farm economy, and in bringing a little (though only a little) data to bear on this under-examined sector. But ultimately I’d have to say that, no, there isn’t a future for the small family farm in the UK unless somebody shouts out for it politically long and loud. What a lucky break for the world it is that Small Farm Future is here to do some shouting for it…

…but not for a month or so. All this blogging of late has left me behind on my farm chores and other writing tasks. So while some opt for alcohol-free Januaries, I’m going for a blog-free one in order to catch up in some other areas of my life. And so…thanks for reading, all the best for 2017 – and I hope to see you again on the comments page sometime around February. Ciao!

Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.


  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.