The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

My previous post introduced the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, a future polity in the west of England where about a fifth of the working population are engaged in producing their own agrarian subsistence. In this post, I aim to start filling in a few details of what this might look like.

Let’s begin with a bit of geography and demographics. My state of Wessex encompasses the present English counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall (which as was pointed out under my previous post, scarcely corresponds with the medieval state of Wessex, or even with Thomas Hardy’s 19th century update. This is just one of my many departures from tradition – I don’t call it ‘neo’-peasant for nothing). The present population of Wessex is 5.3 million, which constitutes about 10% of England’s population, and about 8% of the UK population as a whole. So far as I can discern, the Office for National Statistics provides future population projections only as far forward as 2039, and only at country, not regional, level. It projects a population increase for England of about 10 million (20%) between now and 2039, comprising roughly half natural increase and half in-migration.

Let’s assume that the ONS predictions prove accurate and apply the 20% increase to Wessex. This yields a 2039 Wessex population of 6.3 million, which I’m going to use for my baseline population. And I’m going to define working age as 18-65. ONS figures suggest that currently 57% of the total population fall into this age group nationally – and again I’m going to apply this to my Wessex figures, yielding a pool of about 3.6 million working adults in my future Wessex. It seems likely that the ratio of working to total population in 2039 will be higher than now, but this is just one of several areas in which I’ll try to load the dice slightly against my analysis so that the results seem plausible rather than over-optimistic, so I’ll keep the figure at 57%.

Assuming as per my previous post that 20% of my Wessex population are self-subsisting, neo-peasant farmers, that gives us a total of just over 710,000 Wessex working adult peasants in need of a farmstead, with an additional 550,000 dependents (children or retired parents) to provide for. I’m now going to wave my magic wand and abolish the Duchy of Cornwall along with a few other feudal landholding relics in order to provide homesteads and farmsteads for my modern peasants on a little over 40% of the existing agricultural land in the Wessex lowlands. Then I’m going to divide this land area up (on average) into 10 hectare (25 acre) holdings, each of which will be allocated to ten working neo-peasants and their dependents. Alternatively of course, it would be possible to divide it up into 1 ha holdings at a peasant apiece. But I prefer to think in terms of a 10 ha holding with certain tasks shared, and certain ones conducted privately by individuals and families. Not dissimilar to many peasant societies, in fact, including historic Wessex. I’ll talk some more about the social dynamics involved as this exercise unfolds.

Another past practice I’d like to revive is that of the agricultural apprenticeship – or of being ‘in service’ in the older parlance. The idea of agricultural service now has negative and inegalitarian resonances, though the work of historians like Peter Laslett (The World We Have Lost) suggests that it was often more benign than might be supposed. Anyway, I’m thinking of it more as a kind of apprenticeship in the modern mould, or possibly as a form of WWOOFing, in which young people could learn farming skills and get a feel for whether the neo-peasant life was for them, perhaps backed up by some appropriate labour legislation to keep everyone honest. So let’s throw in a couple of apprentices on each 10ha holding.

Now, as per some of the comments under my previous post, I’m thinking of these 10ha peasant holdings as geared essentially to furnishing the food and fibre its residents need, not for cash-cropping. So it’ll be necessary for some of the residents to earn money off the holding. Let us assume that the 10 adult neo-peasants on the holding are living as five couples, with one member of each couple working full-time on the holding, and the other member working a quarter time with the rest of their time earning money off the holding. Let us further assume that the children and retired folk on the holding contribute one full-time equivalent portion of labour between them (something that will vary in practice over the demographic cycle). And then of course we have our two apprentices. So in total that gives us ten full-time equivalent workers on the holding, and twenty mouths to feed – which amounts to half a hectare or just over one acre per person.

Joe Clarkson, who objected to one of my earlier forays into the issue of redistributing agricultural land for reasons that I still don’t really understand, wrote “Your suggestion of one acre per person cannot be serious. Are you really going to show us how a family of four can live on four acres of “average” land? One third would be non-agricultural, one third would be rough pasture and only one third would be arable, and that’s without a place to live and roads to get to each parcel. Your division of the Duchy of Cornwall into 20 acre farms is closer to the mark.” So let me now answer, ornery soul that I am, yes – I am going to show you (or at least attempt to persuade you) how a family of four in the southwest can live off about four acres of agricultural (not ‘average’) land, or at least how twenty people and ten workers can live off 10 hectares (whether it’s four off four, or twenty off twenty is basically irrelevant). And then I’m going to show you how the other 80% of the population can live off the rest of Wessex’s farmland.

But to do that, we first need to look more closely at Wessex’s farmland. Current agricultural land use in Wessex and in England as a whole is shown in Figure 1, which is derived from DEFRA’s regional statistics. Unfortunately, there are some significant internal discrepancies with these statistics, and nor are they comparable with the more detailed land use breakdown DEFRA offers at a national level since the latter is UK wide, whereas the regional statistics are for England only. I did write to the DEFRA official responsible asking for clarification, but got no reply. Probably, she’s too busy working with her new boss Andrea Leadsom on dismantling the entire edifice of British agriculture. Anyway, the figure below gives us some rough figures to work with, and it’ll have to do.








The figure shows that, compared with England generally, Wessex has proportionately less cropland, slightly less rough grazing and a lot more permanent pasture. I’m going to take the rough grazing out of the reckoning, treat is as a proxy for the uplands (which in the southwest refers to the big moors of Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps to parts of the hillier areas such as the Mendips), and deal with it in another post. As a starting point, I propose to keep Wessex’s cropland and permanent pasture proportions pretty much as they are. In a sense, that’s an arbitrary decision. Historically, the boundary between cropland and grassland has varied through time in response to circumstances. But there are various reasons why I’d like to aim at something like the current level. For one thing, I don’t want to give ammunition to the ecomodernists by suggesting that in a neo-peasant scenario we’d need to start ploughing up grassland in order to feed ourselves. And for another, that’s something that I think indeed is best avoided. It’s possible to overegg the argument that grass/ruminant farming is climate friendly, but sparing permanent pasture from the plough whenever possible seems a wise course of action on both carbon and biodiversity grounds. And since the moist, temperate climate here in Wessex is especially well suited to growing grass, there’s a lot to be said for the grass/ruminant option, particularly in a self-subsistence situation where, at this latitude, there are essentially no options for producing fat other than animal-based ones. The downside of grass/ruminant farming is that it’s not a very efficient way of producing human food on a nutrients per hectare basis – but again that helps to load the dice a little against my analysis, which is no bad thing.

A couple more bits of dice-loading: I’m going to assume that one in every 20 of my 71,000 ten hectare holdings produces nothing. This builds in a margin for such things as seed-saving and raising breeding stock, as well as perhaps making allowance for the odd stereotypically lazy peasant. I’m also going to aim to grow all the food in Wessex organically, which means its farming is likely to be less productive on a per hectare basis, other things being equal. I’ve always farmed more-or-less organically myself and I’m supportive by inclination of the organic movement. But not zealously so. I don’t have a problem in principle with the use of synthetic fertilisers and other non-organic amendments, but I’m inclined to think that they should be used as a method of last rather than first resort, when it feels necessary to push the envelope of productivity after all available biotic avenues have been explored.

So to recap: my future neo-peasant Wessex has a population of 6.3 million (up from today’s 5.3 million). Twenty percent of its working-age population plus their young and elderly dependents live on a little over forty percent of its farmland. The adult neo-peasants devote about two-thirds of their collective labour to subsistence activities on the holding, using organic farming principles by default, with some extra help from apprentices and the young and old. The rest of their time is spent on income generation off the holding. And, on average, the land use on productive holdings (one in twenty aren’t directly productive) corresponds roughly with existing land use in Wessex, with ruminants on permanent grassland somewhat over-represented relative to the country at a whole.

So that, I hope, sets the scene for looking in more detail at what happens on the ten hectare neo-peasant holding. And I’ll turn to that question soon. But first we need to clear a couple of other issues out of the way, which are raised by the emphasis on grass/ruminant farming.

37 thoughts on “The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

  1. I’m currently reading Frank Landis’ ‘Hot Earth Dreams’.
    I’m not sure a severe cold helps with the digestion of the material presented in the book, but…it is one that needs to be read. Probably by all of us. Before we go any further. Just sayin’.
    (The wealth of individual topics is just staggering; it provides the “deep background” to everything we’re discussing here.)

  2. I thought the current state of research indicated that organic farming could have higher average yields/hectare (averaged temporally) in a number of regions but more labour was required under this approach. I vaguely recall seeing various academic studies and FAO reports to this effect.

    While having more labour is problematic for industrial farming the neo-peasant model would perhaps have a higher labour/hectare input than current industrial farming?

    On a related note, I’ve just spent two weeks in Ubud. I visited a few family compounds supporting family groups via home-garden and rice plots. You can see why thiw works in the tropics and why food-forests are a challenge for temperate regions.

  3. I was not expecting this approach. I thought you would attempt to rough out the carrying capacity of the region first, then work toward the resulting population, since it is the dependent variable. Interested to see how your thought experiment unfolds.

  4. Thanks for those comments.

    Michael – looks like an interesting book. This exercise is assuming political choice, an orderly rebooting of our economic culture. I want to show that this is compatible with many contemporary goals, and could be a coherent political project. But of course it’s possible that a peasant society of the future may arise in much more disorderly circumstances, and quite likely that it only *would* arise in such circumstances.

    David – yes, I’ll certainly be assuming more labour/ha. But not necessarily assuming higher organic yields/ha except inasmuch as more labour can create more edge. However, I’d be interested in seeing the FAO/academic studies you mention, if it’s possible for you to recollect them less vaguely?

    Steve – Interesting. The problem I perceive with determining an a priori carrying capacity is that whatever assumptions you make there’s always an argument to lower it in order to build in greater resilience and diversity, but as the difference grows between the actual population and the projected carrying capacity, so the political plausibility of the programme diminishes. Better I think to start with where we are and see what it looks like.

  5. Interesting thought experiment. I’m sure we could all find things we’d want to tweak slightly differently – how much land per person, the balance between pasture and crop land etc. At this point what really interests me is the sort of political and cultural formations that would support such a future and the chances of making those changes in a peaceful and orderly way – I wish I was more hopeful. No doubt you’ll come to such things in future post which I shall look forward to.

    • Thanks Bruce. Those indeed are the trickier questions. Which I’ll be coming to. Soon. Honest. Just as soon as I’ve figured out the answers…

  6. Could you answer some questions? Because I have a few problems with this model.
    1) The estimate of the labor pool in the specific 25 acre plot is likely to be high. There are “10 workers and 20 mouths to feed”. Your model assumes that 57% of the population are working age and you pad that out by getting a bit labor out of the collective pool of the retirees and young children, which is good. . . except you generally don’t get much farm labor out of young children or retirees. There are also likely to be fewer physically able-bodied working age people, let alone retirees, by 2039. Of course there will also be fewer children as we make our way into a neo-peasant society. By 2039, the people born today will be entering the workforce (they represent the pool of the most able). Today’s 40-year-olds will be leaving the work pool. Birth rates are already down and immigration is likely to taper if not be forcibly halted; there really is no reason to assume population growth. The Global North will very likely see population declines, most particularly in the work force. Add to this the likelihood that chronic diseases and cancers remain on the increase, and the retirement age is likely to be lowered as well as the average age of death. In short I don’t think an average combination of 20 people is going to be able to support 10 full-time farm laborers. (Farm labor largely being extremely hard work.)

    2) These people are only feeding themselves and providing most of the fiber they need. So there need to be jobs for the working aged people who are not farm laborers in this model. Specifically, half the working age folks need to be gainfully employed. Obviously, this would entail a large increase in regional industry because presumably half are not going to be able to commute to London (and etc) for wages. There will need to be land allocations for this industry then, and resource allocations, and probably infrastructure. Of course, with an aging population and with 20% of the population working as farm laborers, health care is likely to be a needed industry. So many people can work there. But where do the resources for building hospitals and treatment centers come from? How does an agrarian society afford to treat cancer? There are also many other goods and services that will be needed — from smelting to cobblers. But how many of those jobs will actually produce surplus income for each family unit — presumably necessary if there are needs such as health care? Most of the sorts of jobs producing household goods barely cover the costs of the industry; they aren’t big revenue generators. And how will this society fund common goods and services like transport, energy, education, communications, a legal system, etc.? There doesn’t seem to be enough capital or revenue potential to make this work.

    3) Where do the things that can’t be locally produced come from? Without a large amount of surplus income/revenue/capital how will this society buy health care infrastructure or energy systems technology or even basics like fuel (assuming that coal is not an option for heating and the current 12.9% forested land in the UK is not going to be able to provide enough firewood)? You talk about using fertilizer as a last resort, but where does that come from? Especially as most (all?) synthetic fertilizers are petrochemicals and will therefore be severely limited in quantity if not altogether gone by 2039. Where do even organic fertilizers come from? Because how are bulky things like manure and seaweed transported in this model society? Where do the trucks come from; how are they powered; how are both the trucks and the fuel paid for?

    4) How is climate modeled? This isn’t just a snarky question. There are real problems with using today’s climate to predict tomorrow’s potential food yields. Rainfall patterns will be very different. Temperatures will be very different. The growing season may be split into two shorter seasons on either side of a very hot dry summer that grows nothing. Right now we have no idea what we’ll be growing and how much nutrition we’ll reliably be able to produce in a given area.

    These are just four problems with this neo-agrarian society. I would genuinely like to see answers to some of these questions. Because there are many places that are trying to create a blue-print for societies that will work in this future we’re facing. Many of us have reached the conclusion that farm labor is going to have to increase substantially to feed humanity and our dependents in a lower-energy world. So there is going to have to be a re-population of the countryside. But how do you do that and provide health care, shoes, transport, or even the basic nutrition that a neo-agrarian society is supposed to produce in a world where infrastructure, resources and populations are highly concentrated — and running out of fuel and time to implement the needed changes? (Note I’m not even addressing the issue of how we feed cities. . . . probably not a small issue.) We are working on these problems and not coming up with many long-term solutions as far as I can see. Nobody has addressed the basic problem of how to move all the infrastructure and the people and how to fund it in a smaller, local economy.

  7. Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. I’ll try to answer a few of your questions briefly here, and some more of them in the future as I work through this exercise. Some of your questions I probably won’t be able to answer in much detail, if at all. But I appreciate you asking them, as they certainly help to prompt further reflection on the issue. Of course, I’d be interested in reading responses that any other readers on the site might have.

    First, a generic point. I don’t see this exercise as what you call a ‘model’ or a ‘blueprint’. Nor do I think the world I’m construing very likely to happen. I agree that there are numerous uncertainties & obstacles. I don’t need much persuading to foresee a wholly darker future unfolding. But what this exercise amounts to is a small back-of-the-envelope (or at least sprawling spreadsheet) analysis by an individual farmer/blogger addressing the question of whether small-scale, labour-intensive organic farming can feed the population under current plausible estimates of yield and population. Regrettably, I have no funds and only my own spare time to do this in, so inevitably the analysis will tend to the superficial.

    OK, now to address some of your questions under your 4 heads:

    1. You can get quite a lot of farm labour out of older children/young adults, and out of recent retirees – less out of young children and old retirees. This is the demographic cycle examined by Chayanov in his Theory of Peasant Economy. One FTE out of 10 dependents seems to me reasonable on average. As Vera pointed out on here recently, you also get different kinds of work out of children (eg. gleaning), which adds to efficiency.

    If future population turns out to be lower than current ONS projections, then great – it’ll be that much easier to feed people from the available land. If the relative proportion of elders is higher, then of course that’s a harder problem – but why not wait and see first how much surplus my analysis turns out? Given that ONS projects a 2039 population with 10% natural increase on the present, it seemed to me reasonable to assume a similar (if not better) dependency ratio to the present. I’ll try to follow that point up in more detail and come back to it, but from what I’ve seen I’m not convinced that there are good grounds for assuming the dependency ratio will be hugely different. Nor am I sure of the basis for your contention that life expectancy & retirement age will be lower and chronic disease higher in the future. These seem to me slightly curious assumptions (and in any case possibly compatible with a better dependency ratio). Nor do I go with the ‘extremely hard work’ stereotype of farm labour. I’d agree that it can be quite hard work, though – which is a good and health-promoting thing.

    2. Interesting questions, which of course would all have to be figured out in some detail in a real-world peasant republic, but with respect I’m not really in sympathy with how you pose them. You write “Most of the sorts of jobs producing household goods barely cover the costs of the industry; they aren’t big revenue generators.” Well, why is that? I used to be an academic and now I’m a farmer, producing household goods and earning probably about a quarter of what my former colleagues now earn. Is that because being a college professor is so much more useful, or so much harder than what I now do? I don’t think so. In the present economy, politically dominant non-producers reward themselves excessively, with negative consequences for other people and the environment. Whenever possible, they also financialise their assets – this is a key problem in Britain today, with speculative land values making housing extravagantly expensive. You ask where the resources for building things like hospitals come from. I’d hazard a guess that the major cost is land value. Labour costs are essentially a positive, and material costs are not that high. On the rare occasions when peasants and/or other producers have come to political power, economic reward is restructured in favour of producers – the result is usually higher prices for products and lower prices for land, services and infrastructure. In relation to employment, I find David Graeber’s little piece about what he calls ‘bullshit jobs’ quite thought provoking. Personally, I don’t find it too difficult to imagine trimming 20% of the jobs out of the labour market in its current form with little net diminution in human wellbeing. But I agree that in a neo-peasant society there would be a lot of jobs in health care, caring professions generally, construction, and other labour-intensive industries – the kind of things that Tim Jackson has argued for in his Prosperity Without Growth. My feeling is that in a neo-peasant society the burden of ill health would be less, not more, than it is now. And it would also most likely have less fear of death, and so be less inclined to devote something like a third of its entire health budget to people in the last six months of their lives. I think it’s true that a neo-peasant society would have to make do with less stuff, and it would have to focus on the stuff it really needed. I don’t think this is particularly a bad thing, and I don’t think finding the space or the money to do it are as problematic as you do. There are plenty of historic and contemporary societies with more people in farming, less income and quite reasonable human wellbeing indices. I think the main problem is not how to generate enough wealth in a society with 1 in 5 farmers, but in ensuring that the other 4 (or 3, or 2, or 1 – basically whoever is in charge and deems themselves above productive work) don’t arrogate the wealth to their own unproductive ends. Regarding what you call common goods, many of the ones you list are fairly labour-intensive and energy light (legal services, education, communications). Transport and energy less so (see below). But what’s your point here? If the future turns out to be heavily energy-constrained in the way you suppose, then wouldn’t a neo-peasant society of labour intensive local production be a more rather than a less plausible response?

    3. Let’s put these questions the other way around. Can a neo-peasant society feed, clothe, shelter and amuse itself? I’m hoping to show that yes it can, quite comfortably. So then the question is what non-local things does it need, or at least want? I’m not saying that there are no such things. But I suspect they might be fewer than you’d think. And obviously they’d have to be carefully prioritised out of the society’s collective resources. So I suspect no tomatoes in January, patio heaters, flights to Orlando, expensive and over-complicated cars etc etc. But yes probably some metals, plastics etc. Before I concede your point and accept that my neo-peasant vision is unworkable because of its import dependency, I’d first like to see your list of imports that you think it will depend on.

    On energy, I guess I’ll try to write something about this later in the cycle. What I would say is that the need for fossil energy on a neo-peasant holding is pretty minimal. I used more fuel driving to and from a family celebration in Scotland last month than I’ve used on the farm all year. I use way, way more fossil energy delivering my produce to customers than in producing it. If energy constraint is going to be a major issue in the future, then surely the only hope will be a society like the one I’m describing?

    On fertility, I’m planning to do a rough nutrient budget for the farm and write about it in another post. If you live on a farm and don’t sell produce off it, it’s not the hardest thing in the world to have a more or less closed nutrient cycle (think clover, grass, straw, wood, human and animal manures). Cities, it’s true, are resource sinks. I think there’d have to be less of them in your energy-constrained future. But with some ingenuity I think it would be possible to keep some city dwellers ticking over in a neo-peasant society, so long as they were making themselves useful. Synthetic nitrogenous fertiliser doesn’t require petrochemicals, it just requires energy. Quite a lot of it. But still only about 2-3% of current global energy use, I believe. Maybe a bit more using non-fossil energy. A neo-peasant society that felt the need for synthetic fertiliser would have to prioritise its energy use accordingly. And also treat it as a sign that it was getting something wrong and take corrective action. I agree with you on the poor energy economics of transporting bulky organic matter, though. So that’s another reason to opt for a labour intensive local food economy.

    4. Climate. Just to be clear, I’m not really trying to predict food yields in the future. I’m looking at present organic small-farm productivity and applying it to some raised future population predictions in order to make it harder for myself to (hopefully) show that in fact it’s not all that hard to grow enough food locally and organically to feed plausible contemporary populations. As I said at the outset, I can easily be easily persuaded that the future is bleak. You’re asking me what would happen in my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex if seriously bad climate change scenarios came to pass? I think it would be screwed. I’m not a magician. It would probably be a bit less screwed than all the business-as-usual Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton/Theresa May type polities. But still screwed. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but it’s about as far into the realms of future climate change modelling as I’m inclined to go.

    Anyway, thanks for engaging. As I said, I hope to work through some of these points in further detail as I continue this cycle of posts, so of course I’d welcome your further comments.

  8. Chris,

    we have discussed these before but what about the ‘large gardeners’ 0.25 acres or so selling their surplus’s possibly situated on the urban/village fringes and earning their ‘cash’ elsewhere. For example by working on some of the farms you talk about

  9. Chris, thank you for mentioning Chayanov. A quick run through the internet seems to suggest that his intriguing book My brother Alexei’s journey to the land of peasant utopia was never translated from Russian. Would be a worthy deed if someone took it on… to be able to actually immerse oneself in a peasant utopia would be a gift to us, and to have this work live on would be a gift to the memory of a kindred spirit who perished in the gulag.

  10. Excellent scene-setting Chris – whetting my appetite for what’s to come!

    If we take seriously the notion that the feeble human neocortex is not, in fact, capable of predicting the complex details of a complex future, and at best we can only sort of try to get the broad strokes roughly right, based on historical and cultural understandings coupled with a kind of first-order analysis, then this sort of exercise, and going about it in the way that you are, makes a tremendous amount of sense, as you don’t get bogged down in specific what-if details involved in this or that prediction.

    I see it as a part of what Greer terms dissensus – the idea that we really have very little idea what will prove adaptively ‘fit’ in the future, so let’s get busy dreaming up all sorts of useful exercises like this! Well done and can’t wait to see how this fleshes out…

    – Oz

  11. This, ” I think the main problem is not how to generate enough wealth in a society with 1 in 5 farmers, but in ensuring that the other 4 (or 3, or 2, or 1 – basically whoever is in charge and deems themselves above productive work) don’t arrogate the wealth to their own unproductive ends.” was what I had in mind when thinking about cultural and political structures that might make a neo-peasant society sustainable. Money is power and if there remains a higher tech/higher value section of society running alongside the small scale peasant one it seems almost inevitable that the small scale will lose out. The only circumstance in which that seems unlikely is one in which food becomes more valuable than money – which may happen – with 4 degrees warming seeming likely by the end of the century yields of wheat and maize are predicted to fall by upto 40% and rice by 30%.

    Reading Elizabeth’s questions (apologies if I’ve misread you) much of it seems to be asking how we maintain the benefits our current affluence in the future that Chris is sketching out. Of all the frivolous (as opposed to necessary) technologies that we have the one I’d most like us to carry into an energy/resource constrained future is the internet. But I doubt it’s feasable. These things sit at the top of a pyramid of economic structures that are unsustainable and largely undesirable – I suspect our ability to cherry pick those parts we’d like to keep is severly limited by the interdenpendence of the parts of those structures. Health care may be an exception to some extent as modern health care is mostly about (very) marginal gains and a focus on prevention might be a better path to pursue. Something I believe Cuba did quite effectively. A secondary benefit of taking such a path (and of a smaller scale agriculture) is that we may reduce dependence on antibiotics and thus antibiotic resistance. It seems to me that the two major health issues that the sort of society Chris envisions might face are high infant mortality (reasonably easily remedied) and untreatable bacterial infections.

  12. Thanks for those further responses.

    Oz – yes, ‘broad strokes’. I’m glad you’ve grasped the spirit of this enterprise and expressed it so well. I’m already getting bogged down in ‘it’ll never work’ or ‘we’re all doomed’ type discussions, which are really a bit of a waste of time.

    Bruce – agreed on the problems of a dual peasant/non-peasant economy. Somewhat like the previous discussion with Clem on ‘political sealing’. Hopefully at some appropriate level of agricultural participation the peasant dog wags its own tail. But how to reach that level is of course a challenge. Agreed also on health care. My feeling is that high tech modern medicine probably has fairly little effect on health outcomes society-wide (in fact I think someone – McKeown? – showed this in a study back in the 70s). You can go an awful long way with clean water, a healthy balanced diet, exercise and social cohesion, backed up with a bit of first aid and hygiene knowledge. And further still with some low cost, labour intensive medical specialism. Agreed bacterial infection could be problematic in the future – but probably so regardless of how we farm or live.

    John – I decided to leave this out of the analysis, essentially as another margin or odds-tipping consideration in my disfavour. But yes there are lots of gardens and green spaces beyond existing agricultural land, and in a sensible agrarian society we’d make better use of them.

    Vera – yes a translation would be good, but not something unfortunately I’m equipped to provide. My feeling is that Chayanov’s historic influence already outstrips Stalin’s. He doesn’t quite get the name recognition yet, though…

    • Chris, I hope I’m not contributing to the ‘we’re all doomed’ meme 🙂
      I wish I had a way of summarizing the description of what Landis calls the High Altithermal for our purposes, and then list the appropriate adaptive strategies. He has a blog, though.

      • No I wouldn’t say so, really. Or if you are, at least it’s in some interesting ways. I’ll probably add the Landis book to my reading list. But in the meantime I plan to carry on calculating potato yields…

      • Fascinating stuff, Vera. Thanks for posting the link.

        Text at the link states: “Equally critical to the “natural family economy” is the presence of children, and Chayanov assumes a robust peasant fertility. Indeed, his whole theory rests on what Daniel Thorner calls “the natural history” of a family, as rural couples marry, bear an average of nine children, settle those children on the land, and then retire.[45]”

        Assuming the author of the link has the correct interpretation of Chayanov’s work, 9 children per couple would represent a massive population increase rate. This would put enormous pressure on land availability and other resources consumed within PROW.

      • Vera,
        Thanks for the link. I ran across him in an anthology on Russian Intellectuals back in the early eighties. But as I was reading your link I kept thinking, I’m going to plug Allan Carlson again. Then, lo and behold, he was the author. But here it is again: Third Ways: how bulgarian greens, Swedish housewives, and beer-swilling Englishmen created family-centered economies-and why they disappeared.

  13. Well I’m enjoying this, both post and comments. A couple of points have occurred to me in trying to get my head round it all.

    First, a quick look at Natural England’s Landscape Character assessments suggests that a fairly significant portion of Wessex’s current cropland comprises large prairie fields on chalky downs. I would have thought these are particularly hungry for fertiliser and would be hard to maintain on an organic regime. Indeed, historically these areas were predominantly used as pasture, and were no doubt useful in topping up the fertility of arable fields in the vales via the dung of the animals grazed on them. I do wonder, therefore, if you would find it rather hard to maintain the current ratio of arable to permanent pasture; you might have to reduce the arable. Of course, the 40% for the neo-peasants might mostly be located in the vales, where the current ratio can more easily be maintained, but you’ll have to account for the downs at some point.

    I’m a lot less sure of my second point, as I’m not strong on maths! This may just be an issue of clarification. Your apprentices presumably represent members of the neo-peasant class. So, if they are under 18, then they have removed young labour from other holdings, and would also be hard pressed to represent one FT labourer each. If they are over 18, then each pair on one holding represent 2 hectares on another holding that are not being farmed, and if every holding has two apprentices, then every holding would also be two neo-peasants down. Have I got that right?

  14. Vera, thanks for the link, I’ll look at it in more detail soon. Re David’s point, I don’t think Chayanov’s model *relies* on a fertility of 9 children per couple – that’s an average fertility figure, which I suspect stems from a situation of minimal mechanisation, poor contraception and a surfeit of land relative to population. The latter is not of course a luxury available in the PROW, so I’d suggest a contraceptive industry could be one of the things that the non-farmers find work at.

    Re. Andrew’s points, yes interesting point about the chalky downs. Historically, these were indeed fertilised by sheep in immense numbers – what I’m not sure about is the ratio of grazing to arable in this sheep-arable system and how it compares to contemporary agricultural land use figures. I suspect there was an additional margin of ‘wild’ land (which brings us neatly to the topic of my next post…) On the other hand, as per my previous post, the chalky arable areas are mostly in the east of the area in the counties with the highest population densities – and ideally I’d have liked to exclude them from my nominal ‘Wessex’. So I’m not sure of the consequences here: perhaps we could have a lot of sheep outside the extant agricultural area? Or we could shave off some arable from the area, but then perhaps shave some people off from it too?

    Regarding the apprentices, I guess I’m seeing them as young adults from the non-peasant population who are thinking of becoming peasants. So they’re not depleting labour from other peasant holdings, but their nutritional needs are being supplied by the peasant and not the commercial sector. In practice they might also come from other peasant holdings, but then at the whole sector level it would just be a case of shuffling the cards, a zero-sum game. Obviously in real life things wouldn’t be as neat, but all this exercise does is generate some rough summary figures.

    Any further comments on these points welcome…

  15. Thanks for the reply. I’m afraid I can’t provide any figures for historic ratios of arable to grazing in sheep-corn systems, but I imagine the total area cropped currently on the downs is significantly larger, and could not be maintained under an organic regime. That said, much of the current crop output probably leaves the area, and the population figures you are using no doubt include a pretty sparsely distributed population across the downs, so reducing the arable coverage may well not be much of a problem – I guess we’ll see when you’ve crunched the numbers! Reclaiming some downland for upland grazing might be interesting, but I’ll wait to see what you have in mind for uplands more generally in your next post…

    As for apprentices, sourcing them from outside the neo-peasant class solves the problem I raised. We could then ask questions about life cycle, and presumably the desirability of a ‘steady state’s society wherein the rate of retirement equals the rate of new entrants, whether from existing neo-peasant families or outside. I guess it’s not desperately important to the calculation of whether a specific farming regime can feed a certain number of mouths at a single point in time, but it’s one of the tensions that the society would have to deal with somehow. Life cycle issues appear to be something Chayanov looked at – another book I’ll have to get hold of!

  16. I find I’m somewhat sceptical of the idea of agricultural apprentices. I think my scepticism comes from my very ambivalent attitude to wwoofing and conservation holidays. I appreciate the former may be the only way organic farms can get the labour they need at a price they can afford but both seem to undermine opportunities for paid work. I appreciate that I’m bitching about a symptom and not a cause here.

    I also wonder what % of a population would have to be involved in agriculture before everyone had a relatively close family member involved in it and knowledge of it’s practices became virtually universal.

    • This is a bit of a bunny trail, but my vision has been of everybody involved in food production part time, either in primary (milk) or secondary (cheese) production. I don’t think the whole full time specialization meme is a winner. It makes people unwell — some are outside too long, and some not at all, sitting at some desk job et al. It makes the society unwell too, because it encourages 1) ignorant disregard of the needs of the land, and 2) exploitive social relationships Chris hinted at.

      • I wanna add that I am not saying this to alter your exercise. In fact, I was thinking you would entirely avoid those annoying comments about what the future REALLY will be is to set it into the present. This is what it is. This is what it could have been…. which would tell us a lot about what changes need to be made to made tomorrow.

        And here I am, telling you how to alter your exercise. Woops! Bunny running off into the scrub.

    • Bruce, I understand your scepticism but you’re right that it’s a symptom and not a cause. And I think it’s important that farming (or farm ownership) isn’t only an option for those raised in farm families or the super-rich, which is pretty much the case today. So it’s necessary to devise a system in which people can learn the skills, sample the lifestyle and somehow get an in. I’d see apprenticeships as part of that.

      Vera, I think you’re right that setting it in the present, and probably not using the ‘p(easant)’ word would save me some bother. My aim with it isn’t to predict the future – mostly just to build in some raised population figures, and acknowledge the fact that the kind of society I’m describing is scarcely on the cards at the moment…so it has to be construed for the future.

      Maybe I’d generate more enthusiasm if I called it a proposal for extending productive allotments. People would say ‘great’ and sign up for one. Then I’d tell them that they’re now a peasant and have to grow all their own food…

      …but I agree that part-time is good, at least when you’re not producing commercially, and I’ve built in some flexibility along those lines into the model

  17. Glad to see you briefly raise the apprenticeship factor. And, while not on topic for the current posting, I’d like to see you outline at some point how an agricultural apprenticeship program might work.

    Also glad you are putting kids and the elderly back to work. Any real appreciation of an agrarian community finds value in all the inhabitants. I recall my two elderly grandmothers sitting on the porch in the evenings talking quietly and shelling beans for hours. They felt valued and included in the family. Don’t let anyone give you shit on that score.

  18. Chris to you ever wish you’d just kept your ideas to yourself and so avoided all these people picking at them 😉

    I do understand the need to learn skills etc and possibly an apprenticeship is the best way to do that – In fact I think at their best apprenticeships were about so much more than simply learning particular sets of skills. But I wonder how much of an apprenticeship you had? I’ve been reading Curtis Stone’s book “The Urban Farmer”. He admits to making many mistakes and offers his book as a way for others to make fewer but he’s still been remarkably successful. Thinking about my prior comments I think much of my feeling about the whole apprenticeships thing is based not in the imagined world you’re sketching out but in the one in which we find ourselves. I can’t see a lack of skills as the thing that’s stopping young people entering farming, it’s lack of land. I can’t see a neo-peasant society working based on rented land so I’ll put my scepticism aside and assume in this imagined world there is access to affordable land for those that want it.

  19. Thank you Brian, well said.

    Bruce, do I ever wish I’d kept my ideas to myself? No, not even in my darkest moments…

    I agree that access to land is a more important issue. And also with your implication that you learn the most by starting up and doing it. But I still think there’s a role for practical education – certainly as things stand it’s not easy for the would-be small-scale ‘alternative’ farmer to know whose advice to listen to. Of course, there are a lot of books around – however, I think too many of them are by self-appointed gurus with a particular line they want to sell (and often indeed it’s the selling that’s their strong point). Better perhaps to go and work on a farm where the work is just somebody’s daily calling. The Soil Association have much sought after apprenticeships which are paid at rates above the minimum wage…so only quite large-scale commercial growing operations can really afford to offer them, which maybe prevents knowledge spread of some more offbeat approaches. I think the Groundspring network is trying to compile info on more informal apprenticeships.

    For what it’s worth, I wrote this piece about WWOOFing a while back –

    Still, I don’t think I fundamentally disagree with you.

  20. I would like to sketch out my experience of Hungary (read: much of Eastern Europe) as a resilient subsistence model that eases the burden of actual farmers by putting more land into production.

    The garden plot of a typical Hungarian village house is 1000m2 (maybe less for single urban dwellings, or an acre or more in the countryside). Just under 60% of Hungarians (pop. approx..10 million) live in the countryside.

    There’s a token flower border by this average house. The remainder of the plot feeds family. A few trees will be nut or fruit bearers (eaten fresh, preserved, distilled as schnapps, shelled and sold (walnuts for approx. 4GBP a kilo, a mature tree often dropping 30kg annually – almost an average month’s salary there)). Also soft fruit bushes for jams, conserves, beverages, a strawberry patch. The veg plot occupies most of the garden. Some seedlings are started indoors in winter (anything that rewards a longer season); gardening outside is from spring to autumn (potatoes, brassicas, beans, parsley, carrots, lettuce, various culinary herbs, melons, breadseed poppies, sweetcorn, alliums, those tomatoes and pepper plants). Snow curtails gardening in winter, so a lot of produce gets conserved. There will be a few chickens, and/or rabbits. Rarer now is the fattening piglet(s) in a tiny sty (someone nearby knows how to butcher).

    This garden-smallholding keeps at least one person busy, often a grandmother. A high percentage of young leave to earn in cities/abroad (I know of several washing cars in London). Some families within a neighbourhood keep a small vineyard nearby. Friends and relatives help the harvest for wine year-round. Any shortfalls in a personal harvest, say peppers for making a year’s supply of a dish called lecsó, are bought at market. The housewife (it generally is) knows exactly what she needs to put by to feed the family each year. Each house will have a cool cellar and racks in the attic for drying things like maize for chickens.

    Fertility comes from chickens, wood ash, humanure, compost and even synthetic fertiliser (no one appears to be die-hard organic – here that’s a largely urban/young/concerned/bourgeois phenomenon – nor are they immune to the temptations (pesticides etc) of the marketplace).

    Other details of this aging rural population (the only generation that still uses the word peasant with a deep sense of its value, but which has nevertheless become a derogatory term otherwise) include routinely seed saving, mending everything, seldom disposing of anything useful.

    Want to join in before it’s too late? Well that’s, I would argue, the functional side dealt with. For dysfunction see the aforementioned lack of jobs, low incomes and generally tightened circumstances, the drinking culture, long distance from the market, community disintegration (What if your ambitions go beyond feeding, clothing and housing yourselves? Or you simply can’t stand your community?). Investment in essential services, as elsewhere in Europe, is dropping. Then there’s Hungarians’ notoriously high suicide rates.

    Within living memory villages such as the several-hundred strong one where I live, according to the village museum, was practically self-sufficient: it had its own mill by a stream, flax was grown to make plain work clothes, charcoal was made and sold, all bread was sourdough, families dug and baked their own mud bricks, quarried rocks, built their houses and knew how to find and slake lime to whitewash them. Electricity arrived in the Sixties and water was from the garden or municipal wells until a decade or so ago.

    Today the rural areas are dying out, so it’s mighty quiet (a recent guest from Warsaw described the place as ’a rehab from civilization’). Local wages are low compared to European averages (10GBP a day for a farm labourer). Family elders tend to receive care at home within the family, though this pattern of settled lives in small communities is fragmenting as people move out. The most popular goal of the young hangers-on appears to be ownership of a black BMW, but who among us didn’t entertain similar dreams in our youth? Lamentably, the elegant scythe is losing out to the two-stroke strimmer, a fitting metaphor methinks.

    I moved here a decade ago after years of office work in London, to learn about a more food-secure life by taking part. I still feel like I’m playing at it (ie we’re self-sufficient in Jerusalem artichokes). But I have no objection to such play, and like others reading this blog I’ve even idly considered scaling up for market gardening (back in the English Midlands – everyone’s far too self-reliant here), but after much contemplation I believe this subsistence approach the most workable route for us. I’m a bottom-up thinker and so my experience here is a continuing education to me, even though today’s economic system is geared towards incentivising career paths that lead away from staying on grandma’s plot.

    • Thanks for that Simon – very interesting. It underscores the point emerging from some of the other comments. Industrial, non-peasant society is problematically profligate. Peasant society is problematically poor. And a mix of the two is problematically unstable. Solutions…?

      • Defining these problems is so much easier that working out any sort of solution. I suspect we may all have some sort of solution thrust upon us when we reach the point where the economic laws that currently structure our society come up against the laws of physics.

        Beyond that this seems like a problem of values. The profligate/poor dichotomy seems to grow out of certain human traits that have always existed – greed, envy, a desire for status and the symbols of status – the desire to show the other that I have what he/she doesn’t. In many traditional cultures being fat was a sign of wealth, in China a man might grow an excessively long finger nail to show to the world he didn’t need to do physical work. Throw in some ridiculously cheap fossil fuel energy and it’s not hard to see how we’ve got to where we are.

        So if we’re dealing with values and aspects of human nature then the solution would appear to lie in the field of religion. That feels horribly like looking for the solution at the bottom of a can of worms but better men than me (Snyder, Wendell Berry, the economist Herman Daly to name a few) have suggested that may be where we have to look in order to avoid the imposed solution.

          • By ‘technologies’ do you mean degree of mechanisation or something more general? At present I’m fairly open-minded about it, but I’ll probably have to confront the issue of energy more directly at some point. My feeling is that on farm energy input in this situation can be pretty slight and that this won’t affect yield per hectare very much, but it will affect yield per worker – ie. the less mechanical energy that’s available the harder my neo-peasants will have to work, various limits and conditions notwithstanding.

        • Agreed, the spiritual and/or cultural issues are much the most challenging ones. I’ll be coming to some of these issues presently. For now though, I’m just focusing on the more prosaic question of whether it’s feasible to feed ourselves through a neo-peasant agriculture.

          • What technologies will you include in the PROW toolkit, Chris? This has a range of implications for agricultural productivity.

  21. … A couple of sleepless nights as all my solutions beget further problems somewhere down the line, and vice versa, ad infinitum. So this morning I asked my wife, who laughed and said ‘the maize is for pigs’. Over to you Chris!

Leave a Reply

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