Of peasants, pigs, permaculture and Patel…

Christmas is over, I know, but this week Small Farm Future brings you a veritable Santa’s sack-full of snippets from the alternative farming scene.

First up, the latest issue of the brilliant The Land magazine is hot off the press – including an article by one Chris Smaje entitled ‘Peasants, Food Sovereignty and the Landworkers’ Alliance’, which defends contemporary peasant agricultures and the concept of food sovereignty from the derision of Marxists, free marketeers and eco-panglossians. Sounds like my sort of chap. And many of the other articles are almost as good, including a penetrating analysis by Simon Fairlie of the crazy bio-security regimen around pig farming that I mentioned in a previous post, which seems basically intended to squash backyard pig-keeping as a default livestock strategy. I’ll be posting something soon on a new pig project at Vallis Veg.

Second, and sticking with The Land, there are various responses in the current magazine to the criticisms of permaculture made in the preceding issue (No.14) which are relevant to my own little outburst about permaculture in my previous post on this site. They include comments by permaculturists I respect like Deano Martin, Tomas Remiarz and Martin Crawford. Deano makes some nice points about perennial and annual crops which complement my discussion about this with Tom in my previous post. And of course, being Mr Perennial, Martin Crawford weighs in on that issue too. But since this topic is a favourite hobby horse of mine, I’ll come back to it in more detail in a future post.

Tomas says “If the target is poorly thought out, painting-by-numbers permaculture, then I’m all for it”. This is the key issue for me – I don’t have a problem with permaculture itself, so much as the tendency of the PDC process to inculcate various idées fixes in its graduates. To be fair, the result of all forms of education is often a somewhat coarsened parroting amongst its students of whatever its teachers have said which tends to diminish over time as one is enriched by other inputs, so perhaps what’s really important is to subject the claims of permaculture to practical experience (perhaps the problem here being the ‘pyramid selling’ aspect of PDCs alluded to by Tom). In her comment on my previous post, Louise made the nice point that it’s easier to apply given techniques than to go through the full process of observation, feedback and modification. And in The Land another good comment from an organic veg grower called A Grower (what a remarkable coincidence!) described how “being so convinced that it was all the gospel truth, patently obvious failures and untruths, such as the numerous projects claiming to be highly productive that very obviously weren’t, were totally invisible to me through some form of cognitive dissonance”. Which underlines both the importance and the difficulty of that ‘observation, feedback and modification’ stage.

The important thing I think is to be open to critical reflection, which is where the “you’ll obviously never understand permaculture” kind of reaction I got on the Permaculture Research Institute site was so disappointing (research, RESEARCH for crying out loud!) I think the Exit, voice and loyalty framework developed by the American economist Albert Hirschman may be relevant here – when your views come into conflict with the orthodoxy of an institution with which you’re associated you either say ‘bugger this’ and leave, or you decide not to rock the boat and keep schtum for what you perceive to be the greater good, or else you voice your concerns. I guess I’m in the voice camp.

Third thing: and talking of Americans, I’ve been pitching in to more American blogosphere debates on organic farming, this time on Steve Savage’s always informative but usually irritating Applied Mythology site. Steve’s objections to organics seem similar to the ones aired on the Biology Fortified site I mentioned in an earlier post – essentially the somewhat less than purist approach taken by large-scale commercial organics. I can understand conventional farmers bridling at a perceived ‘holier than thou’ mentality among organic farmers which is not necessarily well founded. But it seems to me these anti-organic folks doth protest a bit too much about corner-cutting in one particular section of the crazy corporate world without providing much analysis of how crazy corporateness in general breeds corner-cutting, and without much analysis of the basic agronomic wisdom of much in the organic approach. So I was a bit disappointed that Steve didn’t pick up on this in his reply to me. Ah well, we’ve all got better things to do than hurl our worthless opinions into cyberspace, right?

Fourth thing, and still talking of Americans, I’ve just come across the work of George Lakoff on political metaphors, which I think may hold the key for me in my battles to understand the strange psychopathology of the eco-panglossians. More on that soon.

And finally, tying together such of my themes as The Land, American academics and psychopathology, I bring good news to close in the form of this tweet by Raj Patel, one of my favourite food writers, whose brilliant book Stuffed and Starved is the best single overview I’ve come across of the dysfunctional global food system. Patel has just discovered and endorsed The Land magazine. And given that he’s been identified as the messiah, I reckon that’s bound to help its circulation. Apparently, his family refute the messiah tag and describe him as a very naughty boy. Pah! Pure denialism, as Mark Lynas would say.


5 thoughts on “Of peasants, pigs, permaculture and Patel…

  1. If the less fortunate of the peasants will have us…

    But peasant or 1%, one might imagine that peace and justice are better served when we talk about issues with each other; without the bombast, the finger pointing, and the dismissiveness that has become so popular. And so I’m glad to see such elegant writing here.

    Thanks for pointing to articles in The Land. And thanks too for pointing out Raj and his work – not sure why I’ve missed it thus far.

    I have an interesting piece about reduced tillage and cover crops in conventional cropping here in the States that I need to send you.

    Pretty cold over here at the moment. There is plenty of snow, but it hasn’t been constantly in place. The winter cereals may be having a tough go of it.

  2. Hi Clem, yes there are dangers of spreading the ‘peasant’ net too wide and burying the differences between the truly poor and landless and small landholders in wealthy countries like me – on the other hand, I think there are commonalities as well as differences in our experiences and there’s much to be gained by building solidarity between peasant and family farmers. It’s an issue that I hope to track some more.

    I’ll be interested to look at your piece on reduced tillage and cover cropping – no till is something of a challenge to large-scale organic farming, though I believe there are things happening.

    On this side of the pond it’s been a pretty warm winter so far, but a very, very wet one. Dreading to see the site this morning after another 24hrs of solid rain – I think our polytunnels will be submerged again, though the salad mustards in them seem almost indestructible.

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