Decision time

There can only be one topic for a blog post today, as a great country stands poised to make a momentous decision with potentially global repercussions for decades to come. I refer, of course, to the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, and the issue of how it will feed the 80% of its population who are not active farmers. For indeed it is high time that we returned to that happy nation and, even if the rest of the world should lose its head, tarry amongst its denizens to ruminate upon the intertwined fates of the human tribe in all its miraculous diversity.

The last time we visited Wessex we saw that a ten hectare holding housing twenty people, ten of whom were full-time workers, could feed its people pretty comfortably on the basis of a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy and with only a little in the way of starchy staples. A pretty good way to live, and a pretty good way to farm, I think, especially if on-farm energy is in short supply.

But I was generous with my land allocation, donating fully 40% of lowland Wessex’s farmland to the nominal 20% neo-peasant portion of its population. When it comes to thinking about how then to feed the rest of Wessex’s population, three main possibilities present themselves:

  1. Decide that everyone, or almost everyone, in Wessex should farm like this, and adjust the republic’s population downwards accordingly.
  1. Trim back the allocation to the neo-peasants so that it’s exactly proportionate to their numbers: 20% of farmland for 20% of the population.
  1. Stick with the 40% land allocation to the neo-peasants, and intensify production on the remaining 60% of the farmland in order to feed the remaining 80% of the population.

If we go for Option 1, then simple arithmetic suggests that 100% of the farmland will provide for 50% of the population. But we have some rough grazing not previously accounted for (about 83,000 ha, to be precise) which I reckon could feed about 18,500 people. And we also produced a food surplus of at least 10% on our neo-peasant holdings. Prudence might suggest that we hold onto that for a rainy day, but since I built in so many conservative assumptions into my food production figures I’m happy to make that 10% available to the non-productive population. If we do that, we end up with a total Wessex population that could be sustained by the projections I previously outlined of just over 3.9 million people – which amounts to 74% of its current population, or 62% of the projected 2039 population. So in this scenario, up to 2.4 million people would have to go and find somewhere else to live.

Drawn though I am by the neo-peasant lifestyle I’ve been outlining, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in arguing for an agrarian system that requires more than 2 million people not to exist. Similar ideas have often been mooted in recent times by people sincerely convinced that all would be well with the world if only the odd few million people could be dispensed with. When such thinkers have got hold of political power things haven’t generally worked out too well. So let’s not go there. Though I suppose we could bear the figure in mind as a long-term population goal to aim at for an agreeable neo-peasant lifestyle in Wessex.

On the face of it, Option 2 would seem to be the fairest, although for reasons I’ll soon come to I don’t really think it is that fair. But let’s crunch some numbers on it anyway. Can we double the productivity on our neo-peasant holding in order to feed 40, not 20, people from our 10ha? Well, maybe we could start by trying to increase milk production in order to retain our traditional Wessex love of grass and avoid too much extra spiking of our soils and blood sugars. The only real margin we have on the holding to do that, though, is the woodland. If we pinch about 1.4ha of it for grass to get some extra dairy cows (we’ll worry about the knock on implications of losing the woodland another time) we can get an extra 4,600l of milk…which isn’t nearly enough to feed another 20 people.

There’s nothing for it, we’re going to have to grow more potatoes. It turns out that if we turn all of the woodland over to cropland, take another 0.75ha of cropland from the pasture (although we do get some of it back as a grazable ley), lose our dairy-fed pig (so we eat the whey and buttermilk directly), keep everything else the same but grow about 2.2ha of potatoes on our 4ha of cropland then we can just about feed the 40 folks on the holding (again bearing in mind my very moderate yield assumptions). In this scenario, we exceed our calorific requirement by just 3%, while exceeding all our other nutritional targets much more comfortably. But we fail Proposition Paul, getting 63% of our calories from carbohydrates, the majority from the simple carbohydrates of the starchy staples. And, looking at it in terms of labour drudgery, the amount of cropland devoted to staple crops that’s going to have to be worked increases from about 500m2 per full-time worker to about 1,300m2.

Well, maybe that all sounds like a bit of a stretch. But see what we’ve just done? We’ve fed the entire population of 2039 Wessex – numbering a million more souls than at present – with a reasonably diverse and nutritious diet, using exclusively organic methods at low yield assumptions, and without expanding the existing agricultural area. For that, I think we deserve a round of applause.

OK, quieten down. Because here’s the thing: I’m not so keen on Option 2, really. In the UK we currently import most of the fruit and a lot of the vegetables that we eat, and we devote most of our farmed area to growing cereals – the most energy and protein dense of crops and the least labour intensive, albeit only if you replace human labour with copious fossil fuel inputs. So it wouldn’t really be fair to insist that the 20% neo-peasant fraction of the population produces its livelihood in its entirety from an exactly proportionate land area (possibly with constrained energy access), while continuing to farm the rest of it as we presently do. And really the whole point of constructing a society with such a high level of small-scale landholding is to encourage and celebrate the fact that this local and somewhat laborious way of life is a good way to live, and perhaps indeed a necessary one in view of the manifold problems in the world. So I’m not inclined to make it compete on even terms with a mechanised commercial agriculture. Instead, I’d like to put the shoe on the other foot to the way we tend to think about farming today. So for that 80% of the population who don’t farm, my question is…why not? Oh look, I’m just kidding. Don’t go – you don’t have to justify yourself to me. I’m sure you’re making a good contribution to society in other ways. But you’re not out there day in, day out earning your livelihood from the land, are you? So let’s allocate 60% of the land area to you and see what we can grow. On that somewhat limited area, agriculture will have to be quite starch-intensive – but that’s no different from the present, so nothing to complain about there. Still, we’ll try to vary the diet for you with a bit of meat and eggs, along with some fruit and veg. And if you’re not happy with the fare that you get from your 60% land share, then get yourself an allotment or start up a community garden. In neo-peasant Wessex, a faint air of disrepute hangs over those who make no effort to involve themselves in growing food.

How productivity turns out on this 60% land share depends a bit on the assumptions we make about energy use. I suppose I should have covered the issue before I started this cycle of neo-peasant essays. Instead I’m going to come back to it in more detail towards the end. One problem is uncertainties over likely future energy scenarios. But I suppose the two extremes would be to assume either (i) business-as-usual, with readily available fossil fuel (or, better, clean, renewable equivalents) in agriculture, or (ii) peak oil apocalypse, with no fossil fuel available at all. The general implications of the latter scenario are endless and profound, and I can’t follow them through here. But in an agricultural context, the obvious thing to try in that situation would be biodiesel. And in the UK the obvious biodiesel crop is rape (canola) – more obvious than eating the damn stuff at any rate. So, minimally, we could build a scenario in which we grow an oil crop to power our agriculture, and to transport its products to the towns. Whether we could retain 80% of the population in urban and/or non-agrarian settings in a full-on biodiesel economy is, at best, debatable. But the Lord God gave us Excel spreadsheets in order to mess about with improbable scenarios, so let’s give it a whirl.

But not now. I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. Plus I have to go and write a talk about the evils of urbanism. And there’s an election to watch…

27 thoughts on “Decision time

    • Ah, sorry about that – I did read your post, but I didn’t really clock the title, except perhaps subliminally. Either that, or an extraordinary coincidence that two such original minds as ours should opt for the same title.

  1. Interesting as ever Chris. Regarding biodiesel for fuel, there is also some thinking that, while most battery-powered electric cars suffer ‘range anxiety’, that wouldn’t be a factor on small farms for small tractors/power tools, if used. You’d still need power stations to charge up, or else a pretty large local array of photovoltaics, plus a steady supply of exotic lithium for the current cell technology etc.

  2. Hm. I think that the population issue deserves better than being dismissed. No matter how well Wessex solves its food needs for the time being, constant population increase is a dead end.

    It was Ishmael that pilloried the strategy of just growing more and more food to feed more and more people as the unwinnable “food race”. And if population is to hold steady, what needs to change in Wessex?

  3. Indeed, an election to watch… and I have the dubious honor of getting to vote in this one. Vitriol, if not yet a word,would have to be invented to describe the gush going back and forth between our choices.

    Pondering the aphorism that we get the government we deserve makes this one pause. Recalling all the sacrifice of those who’ve gone before us and have given us not just a right to vote, but also an opportunity to be free, makes for a warm and fuzzy feeling. These same patriots and noble ancestors have also passed to us an obligation to carry the torch and pass it along to future generations. Looking at the situation from afar must be cause for head scratching.

    Once you measure out a way to feed the PRW, will you move on to a notion of how the PRW might govern itself?

    • While you’re still having breakfast, why not log onto your favourite social network to listen to so many of my fellow Europeans admonishing a few hundred million Americans to ‘not screw this one up’?
      I still have to somehow come to terms with the fact they’re really, really using that #imwithher hashtag…

      • Hmmmm. Michael, you’ve left me all mixed up. First, cold as it may seem, Europeans admonishing a few hundred million Americans doesn’t seem to come off well on almost any level. But let’s not get our knickers in a bunch. Let’s instead have a look at more than just the simple pick between the 4 candidates (THE 2, and the other 2) that is finally going down as I type this… This has been a long march to get to this point in the process. Lots of erstwhile interesting options have been cast to the cutting room floor. There is much to dislike about what remains, so one might argue that the ‘screwing up’ has already been accomplished.

        But even this curmudgeon can spend a few minutes to hunt for silver linings. But until the ballots are counted I’m going to keep my powder dry.

        There are so many “down ballot” races that are going to influence how much the next President will be able to accomplish (or screw up). The Republican party is going through some serious soul searching, and for that matter there are rumblings among Democrats as well. We should be in for an interesting winter on this side of the Atlantic.

        Gotta run – polls close in about 3 1/2 hours where I vote.
        Still trying to decide if I’m for Brexit or not 🙂

        • Europeans admonishing a few hundred million Americans doesn’t seem to come off well

          Very true. Though possibly no worse than the number of online americans who “congratulated” us on our recent referendum result 🙂

          [That narked me no end – at least I now have an excuse to say so – I generally try to stay out online mudfights]

  4. What about a more ‘Chinese’ style agriculture (OK, as you have already said to me, horticulture) with intensively worked small plots?

    Also, while I understand the labour implications of growing grain or potato’s is there any other reason why you have gone easy on them?

  5. @Simon: yes, PV is another option, something I hope to look at more closely soon. Though I’m not sure how well electric tractors would fare with big-scale arable farming. Hydrogen fuel cells supplied via PV perhaps? Any thoughts?

    @Vera: I’m not dismissing the population issue in general. I’m just saying that to propose a human ecology that would displace 2 million people from a small region in the course of 20 years stretches even my own quite well-developed capacity to suggest radical alternatives to the status quo. But constant population increase isn’t really to the point – probably the best way of reducing the population of Wessex to agreeable levels long-term would be to implement the kind of economy I’m proposing.

    @Clem: some head-scratching, yes. But there’s plenty to scratch the head over in British politics right now too. Yes – I’ll be coming on to the politics of PROW pretty soon. My opening gambit has me as supreme leader, with the public happily voting me a huge farm estate as my personal demesne in gratitude for my sagacious statesmanship. But I may have to work up the details a little more.

    @John: well, the Chinese-style horticulture is essentially what the neo-peasants are doing. It can certainly be intensified via starchy staples as per the analysis above. But I think that makes for less pleasant work, landscapes and diets, and probably poorer nutrition too.

    • If Toyota appears to be cooling off on the idea of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles then I won’t be holding my breath. As for big electric tractors, you’re right, they might be even heavier than the diesels. Personally I see simple, fixable hand tools as more befitting peasantry.. but in 2039? We might all be 3D printing meals by then. Hope not.

      • As per my comment to Joe below, I agree that hand tools (mostly) befit peasants. But here it’s farming for the other 80% of the population that I’m worrying about.

  6. A hard working human’s mechanical efficiency is about the same as a tractor, with a lot more fine discrimination for crop manipulation. It’s true that a tractor doesn’t need fuel when it’s not working, but I think you will find that you can keep more people alive by feeding the canola oil to human workers rather than to the tractor.

    • No doubt that’s true, but here I’m talking specifically about how to feed the proportion of the population who aren’t feeding themselves, which is where the tractors come in. As that proportion diminishes, so too would the amount of tractors/biodiesel. I don’t think I’d be easily persuaded by the politics if not the bioenergetics of manual production for others’ consumption.

      • If tractors are to be operated with biological fuels, wood would be far better than food oils. Wood can produce either steam or pyrolysis gas, both of which have fueled tractors in the past.

        Some may worry about the potential for deforestation in an economy where wood is the main source of heat energy. In the past, wood was overused mostly because it was the only source of carbon for smelting iron (until coal-coke came along). Now that we will have an abundance of salvageable steel on hand, we might have enough wood to fuel a peasant style economy.

        Even so, it seems to me that you need plenty of woodland, especially in a peasant Wessex, for both fuel and building materials. Please don’t assume you can convert all woodland to crops.

        • I’m hoping that Chris will address the wood question in his exploration of energy needs in PRW.
          I would argue that deforestation is not directly linked to wood being a primary source of energy, at least not when that energy is being used by the local community (here’s looking at you, Drax). The majority of deforestation in Western Europe has happened as a result of demand for agricultural land rather than wood. In Britain, the charcoal iron industry in most cases protected rather than destroyed woodland. It’s actually a very interesting study of how resource change allowed a paradigm-shift into capitalist thinking. An average 17th or 18th century blast furnace required over 10,000 acres of coppice to continue functioning at capacity, with some furnaces in Scotland actually running huge afforestation projects in order to provide for their needs. The economic model employed by the ironmasters was one of stability within the limits of its resources rather than constant growth. This is one of the reasons why coke took such a long time to really catch on, the culture of the industry being unprepared for the implications of limitless* supplies of fuel. This isn’t really going anywhere other than to highlight the role of cultural paradigms in energy consumption. Which is a discussion yet to come, so I’ll shut up now.

          • Though while its on my mind, I will also mention the fascinating role of woodland in Japanese peasant agriculture, that other hub of intensive coppice culture. Because of the paucity of livestock which create large quantities of manure, and the nutrient-demanding nature of an intensive peasant agriculture, woods were coppiced not just for the wood, but also for the leaves, which became an essential part of the fertility cycle. And contributed to the productive, diverse “satoyama” landscapes, which I’m sure would not look out of place in PRW.

          • If you have not done so already, you might like reading A Forest Journey by John Perlin. It’s subtitle is “The Story of Wood and Civilization”. Excellent book.

          • Yeah, it’s a great one. I think the section on British iron production is a little bit selective with the facts in order to fit neatly into the theme of the book, but generally it is brilliant.

  7. The most energy dense foods are fats and oils, both energy/kg and often energy/acre. Sunflowers for seed oil (about 1,000 liter/ha in N. Dakota) might outproduce potatoes in terms of calories/ha–and at the same time give you something to fry the potatoes in. Hazelnut oil from plants deliberately integrated into the woodland could be another source–hazelnut oil is delicious.
    Electric tractors are in use here in California. Typically these are small, low power cultivating tractors–Farmall Cub or Allis Chalmers Model G– retrofitted. Electric motors have high torque at low RPM, making them quite appropriate for tractors.

  8. Have you considered the use of draft animals Chris? A single horse or oxen could do a huge amount of the work on a 10ha farm plus it could take surplus produce to market, transport people, etc. If you are growing potatoes a draft animals is ideal for working between the rows. A single draft animals could increase the farms productivity significantly.

  9. Thanks for those further comments – it’s all boiling up into another interesting discussion.

    On wood: I’ll have to educate myself a little more on the relative merits of wood or oil based fuels before commenting further. But in this eventuality I think we’d probably be looking at a smaller scale, more local and peopled agriculture – and so the boundary between the neo-peasants and commercial farming for the non-peasants would weaken. To be honest, I think this is probably a political necessity anyway, so perhaps I’ll need to reframe the analysis along these lines.

    On woodland: re Joe’s point, bear in mind that the land areas we’re talking about here are limited to existing farmland, which is only 5% wooded. If we want to start using wood more intensively again, it’s probably best not to look first at farmland as the source. But current levels of farmland aren’t set in stone, of course, and Hywel’s right that it has grown at the expense of woodland. Hard to imagine providing for the population on much less farmland, though. I also agree about the relative sustainability of woodland-based industries, to the contrary of the ecomodernists’ nonsensical maxim ‘coal saved the forests and oil saved the whales’.

    Perhaps I’m going to need to intensify the arable production using non-organic methods. Interesting issues.

    On oil: not sure how viable sunflowers would be in Wessex as an oil crop. Or indeed hazels to compete with cereals or potatoes on a calories per acre basis, though they’re certainly a good component of the diet and I’ve provided for them in the neo-peasant diet. (Non-organic) rape produces about 2000 litres/ha here, I think.

    On horses: I haven’t really considered this, mostly because I don’t have any good figures for the land-take of a horse or ox. Simon Fairlie talked about it a little in his book – I’ll have to reacquaint myself with his analysis. Given the high allocation to grass in Wessex, there’s something to be said for it. Though it would reduce the meat production of course. And, again, it seems more conducive to the neo-peasant side of the equation than to feeding the non-producers.

    Anyway, thanks for all these comments. Quite a few things to think about.

  10. Hello Chris

    Long time no speak for me on your blog. I find this a fascinating series of posts, which I am catching up on, in a rather haphazard order, such is the way I’ve found them all through links within each blog. I started a while back writing a novel set around 2050 along similar lines, aiming to envision what future society might look like in my part of the world. My very early vision for it has many parallels with your PRW – mine being Gorllewin (Welsh for West).

    If you don’t mind, a comment for one of your older posts, regarding dairy yields. I would say 4000L from a British Friesian milked twice a day on 1ha would seem reasonable. We have a few Jersey’s 100% grass-fed – for which when they’re at their peak we’re expecting 8-10L/day average yield on once a day milking, on a 300 day year. But that’s once a day milking (far more civil than twice a day!) and they’re not as high yielding as a British Friesian which is another breed that does well 100% grass-fed. Ours aren’t particularly high yielders either. Would there be enough grass to fatten the offspring too? Might it be better to slaughter at 1 year as veal? Might be a bit tight to have 1 cow and a 24 month steer/heifer on 1 ha, but wouldn’t be far off. I think an extra half acre would probs just about do it. Would the hay needed for them have to off that ha too? If so I’d probs allow for 3 acres to be more conservative.

    How Mark Shepherd can come up with 20,000L is beyond me! That’s ridiculous! A high-yielding Holstein would do about 10,000L? So that means two Holsteins – and they need bucket-loads of grain and soya! The 1200 KG of meat I can see where that comes from, running different species on the same land – 500 chickens would give what 750KG of meat, plus you could throw a few pigs etc. But of course that’s not accounting for the ‘ghost-acerage’ of grain etc.

    Looking forward to seeing how you provide for the other 80%. I’m tempted to say, let them eat cake, but then I suppose that’s not entirely fair… How much of their diets could be provided from their own gardens, community spaces etc? A few chickens in the backyard, victory gardens and all that.

    On another unrelated note if I may. I very much welcomed your critique of John Michael Greer, I felt disquieted for a while with his recent series of posts, but you and the commentariat helped put words and thoughts to my dissatisfaction. Thank you.

    And finally, congratulations on getting the planning permission, that must feel like a weight off. As for us, we moved in a few months ago into our place in Pembrokeshire and are currently cracking on with it…

  11. Thanks for the references on wood methanol & horses – I’ll try to follow up on those.

    And thanks for your comments also Alex. I’ll input your stuff on dairying into my milk yield spreadsheet aggregator! Sorry that my Wessex stuff is a bit scattered. I’ll pull it all into one place in due course. Hope your holding is going well…

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