Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

34 thoughts on “Mixed messages

  1. Hi Chris,

    I’m flat out at the moment so I don’t have much time but I’ll jot down a few points re my earlier comment regarding what I see as a lamentable recent focus on contemporary politics on this blog … and I’d also like to comment on what I see as an even more lamentable doom-and-gloom cohort of apocalypterati (possibly a neologism that I can claim after first using it on SFF some months ago, as a quick WWW search revealed Apocalyptica – the Finnish cello metal band!!! and a dictionary entry for apocalyptica but nada for apocalypterati) that’s bobbed up here over the last 6 months or so with a load of tired, irrelevant, nonsensical, paranoid cant about fast energy descent/imminent grid demise/lack of genuine sustainable futures with some level of recognisably industrial society using renewables/etc, which sentiments appear to be largely channeled from glib polemics on WWW sites such as ADR that IMO lack demonstrable expertise in or understanding of relevant areas such as economics, energy systems, technology, renewables, finance … but I don’t have time 🙂

    First thing is that as I’ve said previously it’s obviously your blog so you can say what you want. What attracted me here in the first place was a refreshing mix of social science erudition and practical smallholder sustainability. Totally agree with you that building more sustainable and equitable societies will critically depend on social structures, markets and politics.

    So as a slight digression why I am so busy at the moment? Because I’ve been working on a range of projects focused on reducing energy consumption and decarbonising the residual demand. Two in particular stand out. One is a proposed largish residential development that uses onsite renewables and storage combined with Passivhaus construction in a community energy grid to remove dependency on the external grid. The project as currently planned will have a grid connection to export excess (renewable) generation from the onsite PV and possibly wind. And there’s the potential to do some clever stuff with a small amount of despatchable renewables and storage to provide improved local external grid resiliency.
    The 2nd project is underway at a site using a lot of gas and electricity where we’ve already cost-effectively knocked off over 25% of their grid consumption using energy efficiency and an initial installation of onsite PV. The client is very pleased. We’re just starting the next phase which is tackling their thermal energy consumption. And we’re proposing a bunch of other stuff that all going well should get their grid reliance for gas and electricity well below 50% of their previous consumption as well as hefty reductions in their overall consumption. After 30 years of technology projects I’m conservative by nature when making these sorts of claims but I think some very ambitious targets are achievable.

    This is all off-the-shelf, well-proven, commercial technology which if correctly deployed can be cost-effective even without considering externalities like trashing the atmosphere. This is stuff that can be done at scales from individual houses up to regions. As I’ve mentioned previously at SFF, PV is most suited to 40 degrees north and south of the equator but can have a role at higher latitudes. And solar thermal can be valuable at quite high latitudes due to summer insolation over long days. But there’s a bunch of other renewables that can be deployed depending on the characteristics of the site and energy demand.

    And yes there are valid criticisms of PV manufacturing processes, feedstock supply for woody biomass systems needs to be carefully managed to avoid destroying forest fertility and habitat and so on. But everything we do has an impact back to when we started hunting animals. Short of an extinction event that wipes out humanity the challenge appears to be to do what can be done to minimise environmental footprints while regenerating where we can.

    So what’s that got to do with my lack of interest in discussing conventional politics? I’ve met quite a few politicians. They’re often in my experience very decent people. But when they get caught up in party politics etc they’re essentially sock puppets for various interests. Unfortunately, many of these interests are either indifferent or even inimical to issues like improved social equity and measures designed to drastically reduce environmental footprints/achieve long-term sustainable outcomes.

    Where politicians can be useful is when they want to show progress on something that’s obviously a major concern within the electorate. Remember, they want to be re-elected. So demonstrable, well-documented, quantified systems that can deliver outcomes of relevance to their prospects of re-election and which are hard to deny – at least using rational arguments – are IMO well worth pursuing. And afford at least the prospect of fruitful engagement with politicians. And will also attract interest from other parties even if the pollies are reluctant.

    So IMO rather than discuss the finer details of the ongoing puppet show, or spend time in delicious schadenfreude about just how awful it’s going to be in some mythical future while basking in the glow of being an initiate of the Inner Wisdom as revealed via TOD etc (and I want to make a point of saying that I don’t think this includes Chris and many of the readers/commenters here but there is IMO a distressing tendency in many parts of the WWW along these lines), why not get on with building systems that embody improved social equity and genuinely sustainable outcomes?

    Less talk, more informed action.

    My two bob’s worth


    • even more lamentable doom-and-gloom cohort of apocalypterati…that…lack demonstrable expertise in or understanding of relevant areas such as economics, energy systems, technology, renewables, finance

      Oh, lamentable me.

      I am indeed in the doom-and-gloom cohort, but when has it been shown that any “demonstrable expertise” has been lacking here on anyone’s part, including my own? I think that the level of informed and technically sophisticated discourse on this site is appropriate to the subject matter. After all, this is a site about small farms, not a site for extensive discussion about the details of energy technology and engineering.

      More importantly, if you believe that being a member of the apocalyterati (though I prefer the less pretentious “doomer”) is an automatic demonstration of ignorance of energy systems or renewable technology, you would be mistaken.

      As someone who has spent more than 25 years in renewable energy research and project development and 8 years in conventional combined cycle power plant management, I feel perfectly competent to cast doubt on whether energy sources of any type are genuinely sustainable and how long and under what circumstances they can be kept operating.

      Getting “on with building systems that embody improved social equity and genuinely sustainable outcomes” is why I read and comment on this site. There can certainly be differences of opinion on what “genuinely sustainable” means, but I believe that small subsistence farms fall squarely in the middle of that category and occupy the vast majority of its space.

      Assuming that modern renewable energy technology is sustainable also requires assuming that our modern industrial economy can be sustained long enough to continue on indefinitely with renewable energy sources and without fossil fuels. I do not assume the latter, hence my concern over the consequences of the failure of that economy. That’s why facilitating the creation of multitudes of small farms constitutes the very essence of “informed action” to me.

      If small farms continue to be regarded by the “sock puppets” of conventional economic interests as a merely faddish alternative for affluent greens, not many will be created. Only if enough powerful people believe that they are necessarily the best alternative to a faltering business-as-usual, will there be any chance of moving large numbers of people out of cities and onto small farms.

      I submit that only by convincing people that a thing like “largish residential development” is a dead end, no matter how the development is powered, will there be any hope of creating a peasant’s republic of small-holders. And I fail to see how the convincing can be accomplished without plenty of talk about the limits of our present situation, i.e. doom. There clearly hasn’t been enough to convince you, David, so I wonder what motivates your interest in agrarian peasantry?

  2. Talking about genuine sustainability…. I just went over some old comments on my blog where there was quite a discussion about whether it’s possible to garden or farm without stealing fertility from somewhere else.

    I maintained that it must be possible because 1) nature does it (for example, the prairies with their bison), and 2) the ancient Amazonians did it with their magical terra preta which is said to grow if left undisturbed. On the other hand, goes the argument, if you harvest and remove that harvest, even with great care to compost, to apply your critters’ manure, and to green-manure, you are never going to be able to balance things out without stealing some other place’s fertility as well.

    John Jeavons has made some claims about it, and Cornell has been experimenting with recreating terra preta. Also Yeoman’s form of plowing has its claims about rapid soil growth, as have some Australian farmers (re Christine Jones).

    By now, I am leery of hopeful hype, leery of lectures and books, and am looking for people who really KNOW and can demonstrate how to garden or farm while maintaining or even increasing soil fertility despite harvests removing it. Do you know how to do this? Do you know who does, honest to goodness, in practice?

    • Jenny Hall and Ian Tolhurst describe a system they are using in Growing Green . They devote land to growing nitrogen synthesizers and then make use of the nutrients produced over the entire farm.

      • Do they compost it all, or plow in, or what?

        It seems that Jeavons devotes 60% of his land to compostables of various kinds, some nitrogen catchers, some carbon heavy, and some with long roots bringing up deep nutrients. He claims that it takes care of the fertility of the entire piece of land (even with small amounts sold off) but provides no data.

        • They prefer to cut and mulch, either in situ (best) or elsewhere on the farm.

          I till in my clover cover and mulch with wood chips from other areas on my property. I recycle all crop debris as compost or till it in. I still lose a lot of fertility by selling crops off the property, but still barely maintain productivity.

          If all crops were eaten on the farm and all manures (including humanure) were returned to the fields, it would be relatively easy to maintain soil fertility enough to feed the farm residents.

          In the same vein, if the waste from the consumption of the products sold off the farm were returned to the farm, soil fertility would be far easier to maintain.

  3. Thanks for the comments. A quick reply before I go off-grid for a few days.

    On the politics issue, my take is that it’s a good idea to get on with practical projects of the kind David mentions that help to bring about the kind of world we’d like to see. But political decisions can help to propagate or restrict the compass of such projects at the stroke of a pen that goes far beyond any one individual’s power. If the political winds blow against you, I agree that at some level it’s still a good idea to get on with the practical projects and not worry too much about what David calls the puppet show. When, however, the Daily Mail publishes articles calling judges who rule that parliament has to deliberate on a plebiscite decision ‘enemies of the people’, my ears are pricked. If that kind of thinking propagates, then we’re drifting towards fascism – and there would come a point in that drift where if you were to say ‘well, I’m just going to get on with my practical projects and avoid the puppet show’ I’d reply that you’re picking the wrong battle and that you’ve become one of the puppets. At what point? I don’t know. That’s why I don’t think it’s wise to avoid the ‘puppet show’ altogether. More generally, I’d say that – like actual winds – political winds can blow in various random directions at any given time, but beneath the surface chaos there’s an underlying order. To make much headway in our practical projects we ultimately need to understand that order, and we can only really do that by looking at the winds.

    On apocalypterati, I don’t want this site to get too bogged down in unknowable presentiments about the future, but one’s views on this do somewhat affect where to put one’s energy. We all seem to be quite comfortable talking about ‘sustainability’, which suggests to me we acknowledge that there are contemporary practices that are ‘unsustainable’. What does ‘unsustainable’ mean? That it can’t carry on into the future… So what does the point at which it has to stop look like? Might it look like ‘a collapse’? Maybe we’re getting too hung up on words. Both David and Joe seem committed to the idea of low impact small farms. Maybe that’s more important than the words we choose to apply to our presentiments for the future. Though since a lot of this debate turns on energy futures in which I have little expertise, I’m always interested in hearing people’s thoughts. Ruben was singularly unimpressed with my PV-heavy projections for a future ‘Wessex’ but I haven’t been able to progress my understanding of this issue much further than ‘yes it is/no it isn’t’ arguments about the feasibility of PV (though thanks for the link, Joe). Anyway, thanks for the debate – I hope I’ll keep learning.

    On farm sustainability, I guess every ecosystem has inputs and leakages but it seems to me the general lesson from nature is to keep the nutrients tightly bound. If you can do this, the system is ‘sustainable’ to all intents and purposes until the parameters change. It seems to me feasible to achieve this in agroecosystems – though it certainly helps if you live on intrinsically (or extrinsically) fertile soil and recycle all the nutrients, which is kind of where my thinking is at in terms of a ‘small farm future’.

    Tolly’s system mostly involves 2 year green manure leys for the field crops in a 7 year rotation. The leys are cut and mulched and then tilled in at the end of the 2 years. He also uses wood chip imported from offsite and composted. He has a pretty impressive market garden operation…I wouldn’t call it ‘sustainable’ as such, though it’s a darned sight better than most. But then he’s selling a lot of produce off the holding…

  4. We have an absence of large roaming animal herds/swarms to move nutrients around and up in the landscape.
    Humans on the other hand are both more mobile and more concentrated than ever.
    Therefore, humans currently have to do the moving of nutrients until that configuration has changed in both respects.
    End of.

    You’re right Chris, regenerative agriculture certainly isn’t the enemy.
    I’m really enjoying watching Richard Perkins’ work in Sweden f.e.

  5. Chris, I wonder how many acres you foresee people using as a “smallholding”? You’ve probably mentioned this on a previous post. I haven’t read here consistently.
    I definitely like the discussion of subsistence farming, and not just aiming for high profit small scale production. I’ve been encountering a lot of material to help people make profits. On the plus side, some of these profitable small farmers are using terrific growing methods, and that’s something I love reading about.
    I understand your distaste for gurus, but if I may recommend some people that are hitting it out of the park with no till and getting high yields, here’s a few people to look up.
    Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Singing Frog Farms in Sebastopol, California. They have 3 acres of veggies in permanent beds (no edging) and happy employees that stay from year to year. They don’t have a book and haven’t been trying to be gurus, but they’ve been keynote speakers at conferences. They started off cultivating with a tractor, then a few years later a walk-behind tiller, and now they don’t till (just a broad fork here and there). Oh, and most importantly, they put native plant hedge rows at intervals.
    Patrice Gros of Arkansas. I’ve only found him on one podcast. He has no material out or anything. He farms similar to the Kaisers.
    The late Amelia Hazelip of France (Youtube vids about her by someone else). She studied Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution and began to plant in permanent beds. No doubt there was/is a history of planting in beds in France.
    Then, finally a guru. John Martin of Quebec. Author of The Market Gardner. He practices no-till and now on a bigger farm that an investor funded, they have put in hedge rows to provide habitat for beneficial predators, as the Kaisers have done. He’s big time about profitable production though.
    Well, there’s a few examples of people using regenerative practices in a high yield situation.
    As for myself, I’m currently renting about 20 acres out of a 120 acre place. My 3 horses have the run of most of the 20 acres. 15 of that is wooded, some of it a young woodland. On the remaining 5 I have a small no-till garden of 30″ wide rows, and 2 feeder pigs of a heritage breed.
    I work full time and fund this, but I want to purchase 5 to 15 acres in a lower priced area that is closer to my family and make the change to a higher subsistence lifestyle and possibly part-time work off the farm. I’m currently busting my tail landscaping and I’d rather work that hard at home for myself, mostly.
    I’m looking forward to reading more of your ideas around subsistence farming in future posts.

  6. Thanks for the further comments. Quick responses:

    Vera – nice post. Seems to me that it’s more or less possible to close the cycle at the individual farm level, but much harder society or civilisation-wide – the main examples being riverine situations which are creaming off the nutrients from vast hinterlands or the kind of careful and highly labour-intensive cycling described by King for China. As you suggest, energy (and nitrogen) seem less problematic than the physical soil and the other major & minor nutrients it contains. I like your scepticism on some of Jeavons’ pronouncements – keep those guru alarms well primed!

    Michael – agree on the human side of things. I remember the ironic reference in the Humanure Handbook to a publication that remarked it’s hard to get manure in cities because there are no large mammals there. Doh! On regen ag – no, certainly not ‘the enemy’, but I’m still suspicious of some of the claims. Like with keylining – not sure of the evidence on returns to input, eg. http://onpasture.com/2013/06/17/keyline-plowing-what-is-it-does-it-work/ Seems to me an area with too many gurus offering off-the-shelf ‘solutions’. But I’ll keep listening. In the meantime, I’m happy to keep playing with old-time mixed farming methods.

    Lee, thanks for that. Perhaps I’ll try to follow up on some of those folks – my question with no till closed loop systems is where does the fertility come from…unless it’s from housed livestock/pasture? Regarding smallholding size, my Wessex projections were based around 20 people (adults & children) living on 10 lowland hectares.

    And on the matter of the ‘apocalypterati’, I’m just reading Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ book at the moment, in which she writes “in the early 21st century we have transgressed at least four planetary boundaries, billions of people still face extreme deprivation, and the richest 1% own half the world’s financial wealth. These are ideal conditions for driving ourselves towards collapse”. I’m interested to know what people think of this. Do these comments place her among the ‘apocalypterati’? If so what is she and others of her tribe missing that renders her views exaggerated? And if not, what’s the difference between what she’s saying and what the apocalypterati are saying?

    • Chris, I agree, closed loop is best.

      What I’m aiming for is part-time confinement of livestock. So, my ponies what have a dry lot or spend winter nights in the barn. Hair sheep would sleep in doors.
      6 hours of turn out is a good minimum for the horse’s mind.
      If there were not too much predation, chickens and ducks could spend their days loose, otherwise a rotation of small pens might work.

    • You are right, Chris, in large scale situation where the produce gets sold, the issues are major. Collecting humanure would be feasible if the entire sewerage system got redone to a vacuum one… The Swedes pioneered collecting urban urine but I have not heard how that is going. The other closing of the nutrient cycle brings in the dead. Composting both largish animals (it is already done on a large scale in NY with road kill), and composting humans. Using the remaining bones for phosphorus-rich bone meal. (Folks wanting to inter their dead could do it with the skull, no?) I would certainly volunteer… what’s the point of putting the body 6ft under where it only pollutes the groundwater, or burning vast amounts of natural gas and pulluting the air with it so that we are all breathing bits of cadavers? Sorry, once a in a while I just can’t help myself and blurt it out.

      But this civ does not hear about it. Would the Republic of Wessex take a real look?

      Lee D., Check out the book Orlov helped put out recently for a guy who is imitating the Amish in his approach to small farming (and some other important issues) — it’s a small book but well worth it for those just starting out. Prosperous Homesteading by
      Jeffers, Greg. Lots of luck!

      I think doomers are those who keep dwelling on the horrors many which are certainly real enough. Some, like McPherson, like to even go past that and really dig into panic mongering. I don’t want to be among that lot any more. I want to spend the rest of my life living…. not amidst gloom and doom.

      • Thanks for the book suggestions, vera. One couple I’ve been enjoying reading about, mostly for motivation rather than techniques, is John and Sally Seymour. They wrote a lot last century about homesteading on the British Isles as an economic choice, especially for freedom from factory employment.

        I’m always happy to learn of good homesteading authors that write about the philosophy of it. I subscibe to The Small Farmer’s Journal and it has articles about homesteads that usually have a surplus to sell above subsistence, but the exports are small. Like the Amish, they promote using draft animal traction as well.

        Chris, about the 20 hectares, that’s a very practical size. That’s 5 acres per person. It gives room for livestock, woodlot, and possibly small wild areas for wildlife. All this of course depending on the climate region and diet of the families. In east Texas, this would be very ample acreage.

          • Ouch, you’re right. I didn’t read back closely before writing my thoughts and the number 10 was fresh in my mind. 20 hectares being about 50 acres, I think.

            John Seymour suggested about an acre per person in his writings.

  7. Lee, as well as Fat of the Land, Seymour’s Forgotten Arts and Crafts a fascinating and useful book too if you haven’t read it (https://archive.org/details/forgottenartscra00seym).
    Vera, I haven’t yet read Kourik’s Roots Demystified, though surely some roots make it into the 2-metre zone of the dead? I agree though that what we do with cadavers could do with more creativity than at present; I remember Tom Waits once saying that rather than be cremated he’d like to be creamed when he goes.

  8. The overall figure I’ve been working with for the southwest in 2039 with a projected population of 6.3 million is 0.7 acres per person (the current population is 5.3 million with 4.5 million acres of agricultural land in the southwest, so that equates to 0.86 acres per person). A larger per capita acreage of course would be preferable, but I decided to go with what’s likely in practice rather than what’s ideal in theory.

    On body disposal – yeah, Tom Waits “We’re chained to the world and we all gotta pull, yeah, we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground” …I never realised this was a protest song about mortuary practices.

    But I’m not sure how significant a source of nutrients this would be. Here’s a rough calculation: about 600,000 deaths annually in the UK, assuming an average weight of 65kg, N/P/K proportions in the human body of 3.2/1/0.4% and about 17 million hectares of agricultural land in the UK, that gives us NPK per hectare of 80/25/10 grams. Ah well, every little helps I suppose.

      • A modern take on Zoroastrian ritual exposure practices should work to distribute the NPK, but it might lead to a population explosion in carrion eaters.

        • I really appreciate with folks pitching in with the disposal of the dead. I just had a brainstorm: memorial orchards! You dig a shallow grave, line it with some absorbent biodegradable material, and lay the body in, wrapped in an old fashioned linen shroud.
          Then you plant a tree seedling on top — preferably a long lived nut or fruit tree. A small memorial plaque nearby. Nothing else needed… and the family would have the comfort of the beloved deceased’s body being transformed into a lovely tree… there for generations. And providing fruit or nuts or acorns for people and wildlife.

          Well. I used to think I’d walk into the hills and offer myself to the coyotes or cougars. But that presumes a lot of oomph… which most dying people lack. After pondering this one for years, the orchard idea is my best take. — Those who want to read my exhaustive treatment of the topic, see https://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/compost-me-please/


          Chris, what if you add all the road kill and farm critters not fit for food, and pets unnecessarily cremated? How would the numbers crunch?

  9. Can you say a little bit more about this: “Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste” – do you mean that everything needs to be layer feed now because ‘helicopter parenting’ doesnt want fatty/sweet/salty kitchen scraps to go to chooks?

    • Yep, that’s pretty much it. Though I believe the justification is more in terms of disease transfer than nutritional optimisation. Which is slightly (though not very) more understandable in the case of pigs. I’m not so sure about chickens.

  10. Curious how mention of a Scythe Fair leads to a thread in part concerning the dead. You describe some fascinating options Vera, the memorial grove being the loveliest. A farmhand I occasionally worked alongside on a smallholding wandered off into the Hungarian hills sporting a nasty head wound following a fall after too much alcohol. The wild animals would have had their fill, though the tourists who later found the body were slightly traumatised by the find. This got me thinking of the writer WG Sebald’s meditation in part concerning burial customs on the island Corsica. Until fairly recently the landed were buried on their property, the landless either tossed into a ravine or else ‘buried’ alongside other landless workers in doorless, windowless stone buildings called arca. You can read more about it here: https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/campo-santo
    He notes the artificial flowers placed on graves in the Piana cemetary, as they often in central Europe too. The local florist informed me that a fresh cut flower and a plastic one sell for exactly the same price, which surprised me. Almost everyone buys plastic she told me. It reminded me of a quote by the same writer, something along the lines of ‘how keenly we seek redemtion and how cheaply we seek to buy it’, which kind of sums up my feelings towards renewables. I would have liked to have related the quote to the florist but I can barely recall it in English and would no doubt have denuded it of all beauty and meaning in Hungarian.

    • Ceasing to seek redeption at some point in the future would perhaps enable us to recognize that plastic-flower-ness we have evoked all around us, in the valley of the living and long before any graveyard comes into view.

      • I think on various levels we already do all recognise it Michael. It is perplexing, but the juggernaut it seems has no brakes.

        • I’d argue that most people don’t; shifting baselines are tricky business.
          The most hideous development of all is of course the professionalisation of understanding – a bureaucracy tasking itself with caring (for money) so you don’t have to.
          Ah, interpassivity at its best.

    • Thank you for writing back, Simon! Those Corsicans… must be hard to dig on that island. Plastic flowers? Never! Not when I still lived in central Europe. The florists did a good business with large lovely chrysanthemums at All Soul’s Day.

      Well, of all the options, I am now firmly sold on the memorial orchard idea. Plant an apple in me. That’s it! 🙂

      I think Chris is right and the nutrients lost to the dead who are not returned to the topsoil are not that large, relatively speaking. (Still, it’s part of closing the nutrient loop.) It’s when you start counting humanure that the numbers begin to beggar the imagination!

      To close with a sad story: the Parsis in India used to do sky burials in their tall Towers of Silence. Now that custom is passing… because some idiots (calling themselves sapiens!) poisoned all the vultures.

      • Free the radicals I say, that’ll sort those sapiens out 🙂
        You’re right, Eastern European folk do pull out the stops with real flowers on Nov 1 (All Soul’s Day) when droves are drawn like moths to the candlelit graveyards. I was looking in to the possibility of flower growing for a change next year, and was relating what one local florist (who is also the shopkeeper, hairdresser and ‘plastic fingernail’ wizz while she’s awake) told me, though we do live in what is supposedly the poorest county in the country.
        Michael, you could win me over.

  11. Thanks for the comments. As ever, I marvel at what I learn when I send a post out into the world: Zoroastrian mortuary practices, East European floristry and interpassivity. Please keep it coming…

  12. Hello Chris,

    Hope Summer is treating you well – it comes intermittently here, but it’s nice when it does. As usual I’m about 2 months behind on your blogs, so you may wish to ignore this comment but if not….

    Regen Ag – thought I’d comment on this seeing as I spend a fair bit of my time learning from this field. I’m no unsympathetic to your scepticism – the bolder the claim the more I doubt it, too. It seems to me though that there really is quite a bit of ‘progress’ in the realm of soil science in recent times. (I use the word progress hesitantly because I’m generally fairly opposed to the concept). Particularly biology. The more I learn about the importance of AMFs the more I’m trying to find ways of increasing their presence. Like you say, a bit of balance needed, the odd bit of tillage, the odd bit of set stocking etc. is fine – but the more we can protect the soil, and therefore its life the better. From visiting farms that practise Mob Grazing that focuses on grazing tall grass (there are many using mob grazing as just another way to squeeze more production out of the soil, relying on high inputs of N to maintain it) I can see clearly that it’s an effective system of growing good grass, increasing biodiversity, and leading to healthy animals – in a pretty much zero input system – only inputs coming from moving the animals every 2-3 days. I’m also coming round to the idea too that we should be seriously looking at all tactics to store more carbon in the ground – particularly the re-integration of sheep and cows into arable rotations, and the protection of permanent grasslands in the more upland regions. Combine that with more trees and I think it can play an important role in helping to mitigate the worst of climate change. Notice, I don’t say ‘save us’ from climate change, like many might say, as I’m too sceptical of those claims.

    I can sympathise re. electric fencing – not because we have sheep – but because our little 3 month heifer calf has very little respect for them! The bull calf is fine – he learnt on day one to respect them, but she’s always been a bit more adventurous. Definitely many people managing to mob graze sheep with electric fencing – different breeds are easier than others though from what I’ve read. I can’t see any other simple, economical way of limiting their access to pasture, and thus protecting the re-growth, root system and mycorrhizal network etc. Anyway if you’re interested I recently summarised a presentation I watched on the importance of grazing tall grass: https://medium.com/@AlexHeffron88/why-tall-grass-grazing-is-important-d3f0b9e1273a

    Keylining? Not convinced it’s necessary. Silvopasture? Makes sense. Chicken tractoring? Nothing new about that and makes sense. No dig gardening? We do it on a home-scale – makes sense to me theoretically, but then I don’t have to grow veg for a living!

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