A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.

68 thoughts on “A small farm future

  1. Will there be a Kindle edition? If not I’ll pre-order the hardcopy edition now, otherwise I’ll wait. Thanks.

  2. Looking forward to the book, especially in the hope of finding a good explanation of how we can manage the politics of making it obvious that “people need to spread out across the landscape” as well as manage making it possible for people to do so. I see a hint of a trend that way in the attitudes of young people toward farming, but nothing like the groundswell that’s needed.

    For a long time, I have had a sense of foreboding that the only thing that might prompt de-urbanization is increasing hunger. Desperate measures are often far less than optimum and far more chaotic than necessary, so I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

  3. Hi. Just pre ordered the book and looking forward to it.

    Just wanted to say a quick thanks for a great blog and also to the many excellent commentators- good work everyone.

    I often find myself inclined to weigh in but as a small farmer myself, (crofter actually) running some stock and a veg box scheme, and with young kids, I just never seem to find the time to get my thoughts in order enough to share them. … maybe one winter I’ll get round to it (although the hallowed quiet winter after a hectic summer rarely actually materialises).

    Off topic I know, but I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on crofting one day. For me, if the system were regulated and the rules enforced properly (live withing 30 miles of your land and actually work it to keep it), crofting could act as a great blueprint for a land tenure system. It’s based around ‘small farms’, enshrined yet contingent (work it, live near it) land tenure laws, could (with enforced rules) keep land values down and might seed local resilience and permanent, stable abundant food systems.

    Anyway keep up the good work.
    All the best

  4. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

    Or might it be possible that because these crops have enjoyed a remarkably long history of domestication – being familiar and reliable food sources for many millennia, shaping cultures, time and again successfully moved about into varied climates along side the migrating humans they feed… might it be that humans have chosen to find ways to process these same crops??

    And from a slightly different tack – modern ultra-processing techniques such as freeze drying, solvent extractions of oils, and newer milling techniques can be easily applied to many other species. So the assertion that just these nine crops are the significance they’ve become is due to their processability seems something of a stretch.

    BB’s point that processing rather than source material seems fair enough to me.

    Great to hear the book is on its way. Looking forward to the finished product.

    • Hi Clem,
      I will agree that there are other species that can be ultra-processed. It seems to me that the amenability to processing is less the issue than the amenability to large-scale mechanized monocropping and mass long-term storage. Commodification, in other words.

      The reason those major crops are major (aside from their food value) is because it is possible to store them in bulk, and there is a profitable market for large quantities of them – the processors.

      This is why we will never see commodity zucchinis.

      Also a number of the world’s major crops must be processed at least a little bit just to be edible. Nobody (human) eats mature field corn or soybeans straight out of the field.
      And once you start processing…

  5. Hi Chris,
    Congratulations on the book!
    I poked the pre-order button.

    Thanks too for the ongoing quality of your blog posts.
    And thanks for the ongoing quality of your commenting community.

    As I recall, you have rebutted similar articles as the one you rebut here with this post.
    Their argument sounds familiar – at least I am having a reaction that I find familiar.

    The first part of that is these writers sure do seem to be writers, not farmers.

    The local farmers I know around where I live are all small farmers, whether ‘conventional’, organic, economically viable, or not. So I can’t say that I have any knowledge of large-scale farming.

    What I have observed though, could be put this way: Organic (or small family plot) farmers are growing food. Those that I know eat the food they produce, and take an interest in where their produce is delivered and how it gets used.

    The ‘conventional’ farmers are growing edible stuff, but they don’t eat it. Not directly, anyway. They are really growing money. Commodities. If they grow food, it is a separate operation in a garden patch, usually cared for by the women and children. The exception being livestock or dairy farmers who may take a small percentage of their production for home use.

    So when I see someone extolling the benefits of large-scale agriculture of the current model, what I hear is a defence of the current capital markets. I have trouble believing these writers care more about who gets fed than they care about who gets paid.

    Thus what I believe is the truly dangerous bit about the Small Farm Future. Distributed self-provisioning takes power away from the urban center, and gives it back to people living throughout the country.

    I don’t see that devolution of power coming without major disruption.

  6. Thanks Chris for the post – interesting as usual. I look forward to receiving your book. In terms of cost of food and “staples” – (staples needs a strict definition). The cost of food needs to be broken down into food types (including staples), since there is no doubt in my mind (no citation) – that industrially produced “staples” (wheat, corn, soy) can be “cheaper” ignoring “externalities”. It’s what industrial ag does best – cheap commodities taken by food processing and made into junk. I think we need to move away from staples and move into macronutrient targets – protein (I’ll use meat, eggs and dairy here, and no succumb to the “plant advocates”), fats (animal), and carbs (and selective use of these things). Sure, I’m a keto-ish diet advocate, hence my ambivalence of carbs (esp white – or so called Irish (!) potatoes). We need our local mixed, farming systems to focus on nutrition and not “staples”. Perhaps conceding BB are right for “staples” (shit food) but very wrong when it comes to carrots, all things considered?

  7. Thanks for the comments. Brief responses:

    @Gunnar – thanks!

    @Rick – Yes there’s an ebook version, which I believe will be available around the same time or slightly before the print version is published mid-October.

    @Joe – well, I do my best in Part IV of the book to answer your questions, but you’ve been reading this blog long enough to know that I lack magic bullets. One point I do make in the book is that the modernist thinking that’s got us into our present mess has a peculiar fondness for magic bullet solutionism, whether it’s the profit motive, class struggle or simply ‘technology’. So I guess part of my answer has to be that any solutions are going to involve a long, slow, difficult and uncertain grind.

    @Hanno – nice to hear from you, and appreciative that anyone who’s farming (and parenting) finds the time to read this blog, let alone comment on it. I agree that crofting is an interesting model and it would be good to write about it. I did post a few thoughts about it here some years ago – https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2015/12/goldilocks-in-the-highlands-some-notes-on-scaling-resilience/ but it would be good to develop them more. I try to do this generically in the book in terms of managing economic trade-offs to create a ‘Goldilocks’ small farm economy. But it would be interesting to probe a little more into Scottish history to address the circumstances in which that’s feasible. I’d be interested in any reading recommendations you might have…

    @Clem – what you say about those crops is certainly true, but it’s also true of many other plants. I’m not sure that the preponderance of the big three, the big ten or wherever one draws the line is driven more by their biology than by the course of humanity’s industrial ecology. But perhaps I do conflate too much in the concept of processability. Cheapness/industrializability may be the necessary complementary concept – witness the rise of rapeseed from 26th place among crop areas in 1961 (6.3 million ha) to 8th place in 2018 (37.6 million ha). However, I don’t think this undermines my basic point…

    @Peter – …which Peter addresses forthrightly. There are three chapters in the book ‘The Arable Corner’, ‘The Apothecary’s Garden’ and ‘Can Alternative Agriculture Feed Us’ which address (alas, all too briefly) these dilemmas. Carbs from wheat (214.3 million ha harvested globally in 2018), potatoes (17.6 million ha) or carrots/turnips (1.1 million ha)? Suffice to say I’m a carrot fan, but I think in view of where we’re at it has to be tempered with a touch of potato or wheat-based pragmatism.

    @Eric – you’re right, it’s a familiar argument. And I probably need to move on from it. Soon. Ish. It’s just that it’s so darned recurrent… I find your distinction between farming food and farming money useful. Part of my argument in the book is that we need to focus more on food than money. But money has some properties that make it useful…though highly dangerous. Unlike food (unless it’s over-processed?)

    • Cheapness/industrializability may be the necessary complementary concept – witness the rise of rapeseed from 26th place among crop areas in 1961 (6.3 million ha) to 8th place in 2018 (37.6 million ha).

      I appreciate your example on a couple fronts – for the rise in use of rapeseed follows right onto the appearance of Canola which can be used for human consumption. Canola can be industrialized and is relatively inexpensive… so it fits your argument. But the species it follows from – an industrial oil not suited for human consumption – also fits the bill. Thus “Cheapness/industrializability” in and of itself doesn’t explain the increase. Use as food does, however. And even though the vast majority of the current Canola crop is grown on large holdings, there is nothing in the biology or in the oil processing that cannot be accomplished on a small holding.

      The plant breeding required to accomplish the change in erucic acid content is not a GMO approach (though much of the Canola on today’s market is GMO) – so there is the opportunity to have a non-GMO Canola and raise it organically. A nice dive into Canola development and history of rapeseed is available here:

      Thus I don’t think the rapeseed example really helps your basic point.

      I agree there are many other plant species that may one day join the ranks of the big nine (or ten). And some of these may well get a boost from a market where fossil fuels are exorbitantly expensive (or unavailable). But features like wide adaptability, ease of culture, resilience in the face of stresses – these are characters that will mean more (and in a sense then bestow some element of inexpensiveness for their production).

    • Clem, as I see it – rather along the same lines as Eric – I think the rape/canola point illustrates my point pretty nicely. The processed food industry requires cheap edible carbs, protein and oil. With rape you got the oil and the cheapness but not the edibility until canola was developed, so it was of limited mass agricultural interest. Then when breeders figured out the edibility you get that leap in production.

      But mass agricultural interest isn’t an unmotivated concept. Of course you’re right in your earlier comment that crops shape cultures, but cultures also shape the complement of crops they grow, which is kind of my point about processability. Our culture puts a lot of store on cheap and industrially processable crops – sometimes it works (canola), sometimes it doesn’t quite (butter). I’d argue we should try to be more of a zucchini culture, a carrot culture, a butter culture and less of a canola one.

      • Let’s focus on the butter vs canola dynamic for a second. And no, I’m not proposing it has to be an either/or split. But if we do a little cogitating on the externalities, short term and long term effects we have butter with a shortish shelf life (and for ease of comparison, I’d stipulate that margarine made from canola has no longer, or shorter, a shelf life). To have a consistent annual supply of butter you have to have a goat, a mare, or a cow… all year round. You have to feed (or pasture), water, and husband the critter all year round. And you have to make butter from the cream. You also have to make margarine from canola oil, and I’d stipulate that might be slightly more involved, but not onerously so. One crop of canola, put up very easily will store for more than one season. Make oil and margarine at your leisure – say a rainy day when you’d rather not be out in the weather. Then let us compare the land requirements for the provision of the two. Canola fixes carbon from the atmosphere, and bossy belches and farts. See where I’m going?

        We danced around a similar topic earlier on the matter of making hay by hand. And I’ll agree there are still fair arguments to made for some livestock. But if ease, predictability, and reliability mean anything…

      • “my sense is that you’ve somehow decided that the difficulty we find ourselves in today follows from the potential of these crops, and not from human behaviors in the deployment of said crops.”

        Well, not really. I place more emphasis on the human behaviours (as in my 3 causes of global ecocide piece recently). But I do think there are certain crop properties that are a necessary, though not sufficient, precondition for an urban-industrial growth economy, and it’s not surprising that these loom so large in said economy today.

        “We want the most yield for the least effort” – yes, I think that’s widely true. But in making it the driver of our whole way of life, contemporary civilization inevitably narrows its focus on the few crops that best deliver.

        I agree with you that carrots and zucchini aren’t going to replace cereals and pulses in our diets. But I think we should grow more of them and their fellows, and less grains…which isn’t quite saying the same thing.

    • Clem, I think we basically agree on the lie of the land here but we’re each pushing the flipsides of the same argument. People have tried to industrialize dairying with 10,000 l/yr cows in sheds with robots etc. but read the ingredients on a packet in the supermarket and almost always it’s going to say rape or palm oil, not butter. And normal time/money accounting undoubtedly suggests it’s easier to buy a cake made with rape oil in the supermarket than to raise a family cow and make one with butter at home. But where we came into this – leaving any health issues aside – is industrializability or processability, and we seem to agree that rape and other such crops come out on top here … which has been the main point I want to make.

      Where we may or may not agree is that while this world of giant-scale arable seed crops along with giant-scale energy use makes our modern urban industrial world possible, this world that we’ve created is not an unmixed blessing and may not endure. If that’s so, then maybe the family cow and home-made butter and cakes come back into play. As you said previously, it’s eminently possible to grow wheat, soy and other such crops on backyard or homestead scales, as well raising cows. But that’s not how the world we now live in works for the most part, for reasons that are potentiated by those crops and actuated by a human culture pursuing ends with which I’m largely out of sympathy.

      • Yes, I think the main trust here is agreed on both ends. But my sense is that you’ve somehow decided that the difficulty we find ourselves in today follows from the potential of these crops, and not from human behaviors in the deployment of said crops.

        If the salvation of our species does indeed depend upon moving out of urban centers and back onto the land, onto small farms (which I’m not arguing against here) – then there will still be a suite of domesticates (both plant and animal) that will dominate the ledger. The ledger will look different from place to place (as it does right now), but certain characteristics of domesticates will continue to come to the fore.

        There is a reason that zebras are not used as pack animals, but other members of the horse family are. Perhaps zebras could be domesticated – I’m supposing they’re tasty and nutritious… but we’ve already domesticated jacks and horses. There are relatives to many (all?) of our domesticated crops, but our ancestors (the domesticators) have handed down to us those members of such genomes as they found fit for purpose. We can dip back into the crop wild relatives (CWR) for genetic diversity, and as a soybean breeder I’ve done a good bit of this. But we always come back to some relatively basic patterns. To some extent the modern (read industrial) agricultural systems DO make an impression on a few of these patterns… but they DON’T force the whole picture. In the end we tend to prefer those patterns and domesticates that are easiest to deal with. We want the most yield for the least effort. If we can’t substitute fuel for labor we’ll really be searching for any and all labor saving angles from whatever resources we continue to have at our disposal. Tradeoffs we currently make within the systems used today will need reexamination – and many will induce changes in the breeding goals for domesticates. But it’s my opinion that we’ll make most of these modifications with those domesticates we’re used to, have the longest history with, understand the best. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t work with other species – in fact I’d suggest we’re foolish if we overlook them. But I am arguing that just because someone somewhere can deploy a diesel guzzling 15 ton behemoth of a combine to harvest winter wheat in North Dakota doesn’t ipso facto make winter wheat the bad guy. And perennial wheat? Keep up the efforts in Kansas… but it’s not likely going to change the world for anyone alive today eating bread or other wheat products.

        You mentioned zucchini, carrots, and butter above. All nice foods in their own way. They have potential. But I can’t imagine them displacing cereals and pulses on the ledger lists mentioned above. Not enough protein, and preservation is more difficult. Providing 70% of the calories for 10 billion humans within 20-30 years probably won’t come from an orange root.

  8. I Agree farms are going to have to be local , the problem is emptying cities to get people closer to the food , sea level rise will help , driving people from the coasts but places like DFW Pheonix ,Denver are all too big for local resources to cope feeding them , to dry and barren , then where to put the people when over the last fifty years the build out took all the recources of a reasonably active economy , furure recources will be short demand will be high , and ya cant canibalise high rise for materials , even carpenters are going to be in short supply , then there is criminality in cities ( dont want to go there , its a wasps nest )
    There are a enourmous number of variables that imping on this , how much energy will there be ? , fuel fo excavators to build housing dig foundations , water pipes , electricity cables, infrastructure of all kinds ?
    we live in intrestibg times !

  9. The BB article was typical ecomodernist optimism. While I am not subscribed to Nature, and could not access some of the most pertinent links, there were several cases of logical malfeasance in the essay itself to weaken their case.

    A couple:
    They ignore soil loss, antibiotic resistance, other costs which have been externalized in making food cheap. The bill may not have come due yet, but they are deficits which will eventually impact us.

    The straw man that cheap food in and of itself is criticized. It is the various reasons it is cheap that is the problem.

    The foods that are cheap are not an unmixed blessing. U.S. covid deaths have been argued as contributed to by the obesity, diabetes, and other comorbidities caused by our diet of subsidized empty calories.

    However, the overarching disparity in perspective is their assumptions on how the future will extrapolate with regards to availability of fossil inputs. When this is considered, even organic farming as practiced today is only a short step toward sustainable agriculture. How does one calculate efficiency when the numbers are only a snapshot in time, but looking long term, it is a dead end?

    Add the cost of transitioning off nonrenewable inputs at the last minute, instead of with as much lead time as possible, and then see how the numbers compare.

    I ordered your book.

  10. Urban life in an Eastern European flat during the pandemic seems to be propelling many housebuyers to relocate to the country, judging from the ongoing activity in my locale. Whether it leads to folk reacquainting themselves with food production is too early to say, but when you live on a quarter-acre or more it tends to require at least some engagement from the dweller. It may also demand driving longer distances to the workplace of course – swings and roundabouts. Will be ordering your forthcoming book along with Get Your Ass to Work, from the same publisher as it seems the fates are allowing us a donkey, and I for one firmly believe you should never look a gift donkey in the mouth.

  11. I’m late to the party as usual … never mind – it’s triffic that your book is on the launchpad – you must be heaving huge sighs of relief.

    I know someone who has already received a review copy …

    [it does occur to me that a small farm future would also be a small city future. Something to think about]

    • Yes, perhaps I sometimes neglect talking about towns and cities in a small farm future … then again, they get enough coverage as it is!

      I do talk about this a little in Chapter 15 of the book. As I see it, it’s about towns and cities serving their near rural hinterlands, and vice versa, rather than breaking the link with them and adopting a basically colonial model of resource extraction. But there’s much more to be said about it than I can squeeze into the book, or the blog…

      • Goodness, I meant it was something for me or other people to think about – I do appreciate the necessity for authorial specialisation! 🙂

        Schumacher suggested half a million as the maximum size for a city – where the good bits of urbanity aren’t outweighed by the bad bits. That’s more or less the size of Bristol (depending on what you include) where I’ve been living for over a decade now – no financial possibility that I could see of moving anywhere rural. I’m pretty close to the centre of town but I can see countryside from the end of my street …

        • Ah OK, gotcha. I’ve spent too much time debating with ecomodernists and getting twitchy about inferred criticism…

          • Funnily enough I am Bristol Born & lived there until 1998.

            I went there today with my family as my youngest had a hospital appointment.

            These days Central Bristol & the routes we went in & out on -the A4 & A36 were not that impressive to say the least

  12. Thanks for the further comments, congrats & questions.

    To John’s question, yes Covid permitting I’m hoping for a launch event at Hunting Raven and probably one or two other local events. I’ll also be doing some online presentations. I’ll keep the ‘My book’ page of this site updated with upcoming events and info on the book.

    Alternatively, send me a message if you want to be on my mailing list and you’ll get much the same information straight to your inbox (not too often…)

  13. As a plant scientist I’m most often looking at the world through chlorophyll colored lenses. Above I took on the cow vs Canola for an oil/fat source of nutrition in the human diet. And I’ll stand by that comment – so far as it goes.

    Animals (and not just the ones we eat) deserve their place on the planet, and as an animal ourselves we seem pretty pathetic when we displace them. So to offer a bit of balance against my plant based bias I’ll offer a link to a paper that just crossed the screen here at my end of the http://WWW...

    The abstract is nice and succinct:

    If we use farm animals for what they are good at – converting by-products from the food system and grass resources into valuable food and manure – they can contribute significantly to human food supply, while at the same time reducing the environmental impact of the entire food system. By converting these so-called low opportunity-cost feeds, farm animals recycle biomass and nutrients into the food system that would otherwise be lost to food production. Rearing animals under this circular paradigm, however, requires a transition from our current linear food system towards a circular one. Here we present a biophysical concept for the role of farm animals in a circular food system, essential for meeting dietary recommendations within the boundaries of our planet.

    The whole paper is available here:


    [Spoiler alert – insects get some love 🙂 ] And there are some comments about animal breeds, productivity, resource use efficiency of some selections vs. others… sort of like the plant domesticate remarks I made above. (see esp. section 2.4).

    • Hmmm… it seems if someone types three consecutive w’s the software automatically assumes it’s a URL. My apologies for the first “link” above – it goes nowhere.

  14. There’s a recent article in The Land magazine about how to grow wheat organically without rotation, and without using manure or leys. John Letts accomplishes this using diverse populations of heritage grains, and his yields are more than double the output of a rotational organic system.

    “Over the past decade, I have experimented with a more natural, low input approach on a small farm in Prestwood, Buckinghamshire. Relatively poor, stony and alkaline fields have yielded three tonnes per hectare of high quality heritage grain every year for six years – almost three times the output of a rotational organic system – using a stockless, Continuous Grain Cropping (CGC) wheat-growing system. This has been achieved without incurring any problems with disease and while building organic matter in the soil and biodiversity both above and below ground…”

    This has some some notable implications for a small farm future:

    “Heritage grains, however, offer many advantages, particularly for smaller growers:
    – they are hardier than modern varieties, and can be grown on soils now considered unsuitable for growing grain, or not included in arable rotations.
    – Since there is no need for a clover-grass ley to be mown and ploughed in, much less land is needed to produce a wheat crop of a given size, and no equipment is needed for operations such as mowing and ploughing in the ley.
    – Fields previously considered too small for growing modern varieties within a rotational system could grow heritage cereals every year, without animal or green manures. Small producers could make a significant contribution to the local grain economy whether they operated mixed farms or stockless systems.”

    Continuous Grain Cropping

    • It’s worth mentioning how John Letts has developed “a genetically diverse and constantly evolving population of traditional varieties of wheat.”

      “The resilience of a CGC crop depends on growing populations of heritage varieties with high genetic diversity, created through what is known as “evolutionary plant breeding” (EPB). Whereas conventional plant breeding concentrates on manipulating and improving individual lines of plants, EPB focusses on the entire crop community… the most suitable lines are mixed and grown together in the same field… In the first few years a new population will lose many lines and change significantly depending on growing conditions and selection pressures…”

      “Heritage cereals have larger root systems commensurate with their tall stems, and are able to extract nitrogen, moisture and other nutrients from deep with the soil, and are particularly good at surviving drought. This allows them to thrive, and produce top quality grain, in the driest British summer.”

      Continuous Grain Cropping

    • Thank you for the link. It was a very interesting paper.

      It is strange to think that Letts needs to worry about too much nitrogen building up in his soil even with continuous cropping. He points out that medieval farmers with similar methods (except perhaps without the under-planted clover) needed to combat nitrogen depletion with rotational leys because they removed most of the straw from the grain fields so it could be used for other essential purposes.

      This difference in straw use is yet another indicator that true sustainability must look at the whole of a culture’s methods for supporting human life. Continuous Grain Cropping is only possible because modern societies have other sources than straw for roofing and energy supplies. And while CGC may be possible in areas with relatively poor soils and in relatively dry climates, will people be able to provide for their other needs in those places, where water might be scarce, for example?

      CGC sounds like a good idea and I am glad that Letts has succeeded in proving that it can be done. Perhaps it will become one reliable color in the palette of various techniques that will need to evolve in order to sustainably support human life.

      • Good point Joe, re roofing. However, somewhere in an internet article about John Letts I’m certain he mentioned selling his (Heritage Grain) straw for roofing, so perhaps at some point on his journey he found it not absolutely verboten to use the straw for things other than mulch.
        Other plants’ stalks can also be pressed in to use for roofing of course – sorghum cane was used in Eastern Europe, where straw wasn’t available. Whatever thatch gets used it must remove fertility until it gets returned to the soil at the end of its life on a roof. The types of rooves from the Small Farm Past I’ve seen out here (over privvies, coops, kennels, small grain stores etc) all lend themselves well to thatching with what’s to hand, as do the walls (woven willow, sunflower stalks wired together… ), and all as compostable as a terracotta tile albeit over different timescales I’d imagine. Most roof tiles today that look like clay are a cement-based aggregate.
        Finally, last time I looked Hungary had approximately three thatching companies, with a thatched roof professionally installed running to almost five times the cost of a ‘conventional’ tiled roof. Meanwhile those artisans familiar with wooden roof shingles all now reside in Romania. Not too long ago, whatever material got used, it was a DIY job for all the family. Apologies for the long-windedness but with the hailstorms we’re getting I’ve had to look in to these things.

        • Thanks for that, Simon – interesting.

          Hail seems to be a big thing where you are… Sounds challenging.

    • Chris wrote… “It’s not quite clear to me how [John Letts] establishes the wheat, but the article perhaps implies tillage in the row? Where I’d beg to differ from him is in his rather negative appraisal of organic ley farming. The kind of analyses I’ve done of it previously on this blog and also in my book suggest to me it’s much more productive than he allows.”

      Some information from another document:

      “Seed is broadcast into the tall stubble of the previous crop, and the stubble is chopped to create a mulch which prevents bird damage and helps with germination and establishment.”

      “The field is never cultivated… a zero tillage regime…”

      “An apparent challenge is the low yield – 3.0 t/ha – which is 40% lower per hectare than that [5 t/ha] achieved by most organic farmers who practise fertility-building rotations and intensive weed control (by tillage). But the usual organic rotation produces a wheat crop only once in every 4-6 years, whereas the system used here produces a wheat crop every year – tripling the output of grain from the farm.”

      “… nitrogen levels rise naturally if only 3 tons of grain is removed from the agro-ecosystem every year.”

      ” A major challenge is, however, that none of the seeds are of varieties appearing in National Lists and so trade in the seeds would be illegal… Formation of a heritage grain cooperative is being considered to avoid problems of legislation which prevent selling or distributing seeds directly to other farmers”


      • Thanks for that, Steve. If it’s fully no till that’s quite revolutionary … although then again the Adam Payne article argues that no till mightn’t be everything it’s cracked up to be…

        My objections to John’s characterizations of ley farming as inadequately yielding remain, however.

        But I’m interested to learn more from him. I must try to visit his farm in Prestwood. It’s where I grew up, after all. Never thought it would be the epicentre of an agricultural revolution…

      • “Seed is broadcast into the tall stubble of the previous crop, and the stubble is chopped to create a mulch which prevents bird damage and helps with germination and establishment.”

        Well, that scheme might work where John Letts is, but not here Wisconsin. I did a trial of hand sown winter wheat, which worked reasonably well, but the timing for the next season’s crop would not match the timing described above. My wheat crop did a reasonable job of suppressing weeds, but at harvest, as the wheat was drying down, weeds began sprouting, such that I had a pretty full stand of grass and etc.. after harvest. Also, planting time for winter wheat is much later in the season than the harvest time, so it gives the weeds a good two to three month window to establish further. If I tried to plant right in to the stubble, the wheat would grow too much and die in the winter instead of going dormant.

        While I found the article interesting ( and had hight hopes!), it just doesn’t seem workable here without tillage.

        • I should also note that winters here can get to -30F/-34C and I did not have the tall heritage varieties that might suppress weeds a bit better.

          • At the other end of the spectrum, the intersection of wheat growing, vertical farming and local provisioning was touched upon in the first five minutes of this morning’s BBC Radio4 Farming Today, via an indoor hectare wheat trial in New Jersey with a claimed 600x yield advantage over the global average.

          • This sentence in the research report is a bit of a dampener though: “However, given the high energy costs for lighting and capital costs, it is unlikely to be economically competitive with current market prices.”

        • Thanks, Steve – interesting comment. The timings may work better here, but I’m intrigued about how he gets good establishment into a clover sward. Possibly easier in the colder, dryer east of the country than here in the west. I don’t have much expertise with cereal growing, though, so I’d like to find out more.

  15. I wonder if you have a sense of how much land is “really” grown organically. I assume the 1% is certified organic. For instance, as far as I’m aware the land take of livestock farming is so high because a lot of it is extensive (essentially no inputs, low output), and thus essentially organic (because the essentially no inputs includes essentially no fertiliser or pesticides). My sense is that the majority of agriculture is and has always (i.e. for about 12,000 years) been organic. ( And hence my pet peeve of the word “conventional” for something that has been around for about 70 years and is practised by a minority of farmers and possibly on a minority of the land. )

  16. Congratulations, Chris! I know it must be exhilarating to have the book wrapped up and ready for launch (the cover design is fantastic, by the way). The highlight of my Monday was placing my pre-order. That was the same day that I dug my mid-season potatoes and discovered my best ever yield, so that’s saying something!

  17. Yet more interesting threads…

    – John Letts is an interesting character … his research on premodern grain biodiversity based on analysing the under-layers of thatched roofs is fascinating. And his CGC system is interesting … I’ve been trying to get some of his wheat off him for a while! It’s not quite clear to me how he establishes the wheat, but the article perhaps implies tillage in the row? Where I’d beg to differ from him is in his rather negative appraisal of organic ley farming. The kind of analyses I’ve done of it previously on this blog and also in my book suggest to me it’s much more productive than he allows. I asked him if we could compare notes but, as the article hints, I think he’s quite a busy fellow…

    – There’s also an interesting article by Adam Payne on tillage and carbon sequestration in the same issue of The Land. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available online. Note to self – write a post about this soon. Note to others – please remind me if I don’t.

    – To Erik’s points: you’re right of course that those 1%/70% figures are in a sense misleading, though I still think the kerfuffle about organics is misplaced vis-a-vis meat. I’m afraid I don’t have any more inclusive figures to hand, but it’s something perhaps I’ll look into. But we can get into some tricky problems if we define organic farming as anything that doesn’t use synthetics. Complex, legume-rich rotations with attention to pest control and irrigation gets us closer, which is why organic-ish farming in poor countries (eg. Zero Budget Natural Farming in India) often prompts yield increases. There are some analogous issues on the extensive/livestock side. OK, I need to cue another blog post to get into all this properly… Meanwhile, I share your peeve with ‘conventional’. I always try to put it in inverted commas.

    – Thanks for your comment on the book Ernie, and congrats on your potato harvest. My harvests have been right down the past 2 years. Well, a lot of the book is about trade-offs and I’ve found that there’s quite some trade-off between growing an abundant garden and writing books about growing abundant gardens. It’ll all be better next year, as I’ve found myself saying quite often through my farming career.

    – On the matter of interesting links. A propos the discussion with Clem above, there’s this – any thoughts? https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10460-020-10077-x

    • Thanks for this link Chris… interesting indeed. And as a landowner on the edge of “Midwestern U.S.” – and a corn and soybean farmer it works right into my wheelhouse.

      There are several assertions made in the opening paragraph that need better establishment… particularly on a timeline. But if the point is to suggest there may be a better way, then I’m on board – there may be many better ways.

      Getting there from here is likely going to take more than this virus, more than some research and extension, and to their credit they did mention some other areas needed in the final paragraph.

      Another area they passed over that I consider as much or more important – land tenure, ownership, leasing… essentially, access to land and the financial patterns in the marketplace for land access. If you purchase land on credit, your creditor will have requirements about how you manage the asset so their loan will be secure. Raising 50 acres of zucchini and carrots on Midwestern US “corn and soybean ground” can be done… but I’ll not be signing up to try so long as I’ve the opportunity to continue raising corn and soy with all the secondary infrastructure that is in place (crop insurance, stable markets in front of and after my place in the supply chain). Now COVID-19 does make “stable markets” something worth scratching the noggin over. BUT… I can still get necessary inputs, have access to end use markets, insurance, and other necessary infrastructure.

      Farmer’s markets in the Midwest have suffered far more than I have this summer. The virus is responsible for this. And given that dynamic, it will take even longer and more fiddling with market dynamics to change attitudes for Midwestern US corn and soybean farmers. This is not to suggest the linked paper is wrong, just that the hill they want to climb is steeper and higher than it appears.

      Where an operator is an owner – and by “owner” I mean someone with more than 80% equity in the property – then he/she has more latitude to try different approaches without a creditor’s influence. His/her personal risk tolerance will also matter of course, but where I’m headed here is that the proportion of Midwest US corn and soybean ground that is operated by this sort of owner is a pretty small number. I’m still 5 to 7 years from being at that point myself… and I’m not trying to survive from just farm income (the 5-7 year estimate assumes current farm income trends continue to finance the purchase – if the world as we know it melts down, I could rearrange matters to pay off most of the small farm from other assets, settle in and raise my own food, then zucchini and carrots could occupy some of the ground).

      So there very well could be better ways to do things, and the authors of the linked paper have some fair ideas. But this virus by itself won’t make it happen. I’d suggest a world with $10 per gallon diesel fuel, properly priced (accounted) externalities, and lots more people willing to brandish a hoe would give us a much better chance at change.

        • There apparently is a market for squash in general, and summer squash acres in the US are slightly ahead of winter squash acres (37,449 vs. 32,740, respectively)… this according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture (link: https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/usda-thanksgiving-vegetables-112019.pdf )

          To be clear – these stats are for total harvested acres and not for market use per se. But there wouldn’t be this much effort if there weren’t some opportunity.

          The table compares 2012 to 2017 to give a slight nod to trends (squash are up a little over the 5 years). And there were over 300 farms nationwide with more than 50 acres of squash. Mine was not among them (and I did fill out the 2017 Census of Agriculture).

    • Re: the Springer article;

      “The urgency of transforming the Midwestern U.S. landscape into more than corn and soybean”

      I am often confused by how ‘The Midwest’ gets defined,
      but since I grew up on the west coast (of the US), I consider Kansas midwestern.

      I have a friend who gave me some apple trees that he’d been researching & tracking down and propagating. These apples had been selected about 100 years ago by Missouri State University for their suitability for Kansas commercial apple growers.
      There was also a thriving wine grape industry in northeast Kansas about that time (before prohibition).

      I have read about buckwheat, flax, and potatoes being grown here commercially.
      My friends and I have good luck with sweet potatoes, okra and rhubarb.
      I know people at Kansas State University who know the variety of crop support programs that were done there in days of yore.

      So, it seems to me that there is plenty of habitat for crop diversity here.

      This phrase though, made me laugh:

      “…consider who we want to be as a society and what we value most.”

      I know the answer to that. It is how we got into this predicament. Money.

      I agree completely that our agriculture is an expression of our values as a society. Pretty tall order changing that…

      • Eric – I too have had fits at times over the definition of the US Midwest. Just a couple weeks ago I was talking to someone in Oregon about the soybean business and made a comment about Ohio and the Midwest. The Oregonian says, “Wait a minute – you consider Ohio part of the Midwest?”. My reply was that at least the western half of Ohio has to qualify, its part of the corn and soy belt… But if you take the US Census’ word for it, then all of Ohio is in the Midwest. See:

        And Kansas is also part of the Census’ definition of the Midwest, regardless of what Dorothy wants Toto to believe.

        The US Midwest is a virtual grain belt on steroids. The planet has several ‘grain belts’… enormous expansions of land suitable for intensive grain production by one particular invasive species. There’d be a lot fewer of us if intensive grain production were not a thing.

    • “I’d suggest a world with $10 per gallon diesel fuel, properly priced (accounted) externalities, and lots more people willing to brandish a hoe would give us a much better chance at change.”

      Yep, I’d second that. Along with underlining Clem’s point about the importance of tenure.

      “There’d be a lot fewer of us if intensive grain production were not a thing.”

      Well, that’s probably true but it would be interesting to look at the implications of the kind of locally differentiated agricultures Eric mentions prior to the Midwest becoming a ‘grain belt on steroids’ and the other kinds of crops that have lost out in recent years to King Wheat and King Corn – potatoes, sorghum, oats, sweet potato etc. What’s certain is that there’d then be a lot fewer of us living non-agrarian, urban lives.

      • Yup thrashing with a flail and cutting with a reaping hook picking potatoes , getting used to food only at times it is in season would find lots of jobs ( and bad backs ) .

  18. Funnily enough I am Bristol Born & lived there until 1998.

    I went there today with my family as my youngest had a hospital appointment.

    These days Central Bristol & the routes we went in & out on -the A4 & A36 were not that impressive to say the least

  19. Some conversation starters:

    In the future, a big cereal farm may grow as many as 50 acres of wheat. And a big commercial market garden may have as much as one-tenth of an acre down to zucchini.

    In the USA, the boundaries of the Midwest continue to be hotly contested, while in England people question whether Bristol or even Frome properly count as being in the west country. As wealthy Londoners increasingly fly over them to their holiday homes in Cornwall, somebody suggests that they should be called the Midwest…

    …though as both the US and the UK break up into supersedure states, these geographical designations become moot. Frome becomes an eastern outpost of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, famed for its market gardens where visitors can stock up on real vegetables before heading into the urban wastelands further east where the only food available is industrially-manufactured eco-gloop in fifty different trademarked flavours.

    • do you see us going back to pre industrial farming with no binder reapers and steel ploughs or early industrial using century old victorian sturdily built machines ? clipping sheep is a bitch with hand shears but its fleece will be valuable with no oil based fabrics , even roman britain had watermills to grind cerials .
      ecogoop can only happen in an industrialised economy with huge chemical factories converting real food feedstock into ecogoop .

      • I think we need a lot more people working smaller farms in low carbon ways to serve more local markets. Beyond that, I try to stay agnostic about exactly what technologies farmers would use…

      • A lot of the ‘Victorian’ farm tools like reapers and drills are very durable – sadly however traction engines need coal

  20. Hi Chris, Steve C and others… I’ve just come across this very interesting discussion site. For the last few years, for reasons unconnected with wheat, I’ve not been able to ‘set out my stall’ as regards heritage grain and the COGC ‘Continuous Organic Grain Cropping’ system that has worked for me. I hope to change that in future. I’ll address a few of the points you’ve raised here, and look forward to discussions in vivo in the future (Chris, I think you know where I am so please drop by!).
    1. I used to grow thatching straw – the grain was a by-product! – but I have very limited storage and decided to focus on grain instead. I think it is possible to grow both, although perhaps not every year and from every field. The straw clearly removes NPK and organic matter, so it may be necessary to take a break every 2-3 years and grow clover to maintain N levels in particular. I don’t know this for sure as I haven’t tested it. My hunch is that there is enough N around to take a thatching crop off the field every 2-3 years without compromising yields. Well applied thatch should last 30+ years. Sadly, modern triticale, chemical-grown wheat straw (which is the traditional thatching material in the UK), and cheap imported water reed are rotting away in 15 years today. Wheat grown with chemicals has thinner stems walls and less wax on the stem, so decays more quickly.
    2. Establishment of the grain is key. It will establish when broadcast into stubble/clover and mulched (or not mulched). I am also experimenting with direct drilling, which works better in some situations. Tillage encourages weeds, damages soil biology, and stimulates over-rapid decay of organic material – and the more often you drive over the field the more compact it becomes. However… I don’t like thistles and docks, and there are situations where tillage may be necessary – but as a prelude to establishing clover, which will suppress weeds. I don’t claim to have the final answer all this. I have reported what works for me, and works, in my view, in an ecological sense.
    3. I do not condemn ley farming outright. We need to feed people, and grazing animals are the best way of producing food in many areas where it is hard to grow arable crops. Animals produce half the protein per acre of heritage wheat (at 1 ton of grain per acre) and 1/3 of the calories (I will publish this info soon). Chemical grain production is destroying the planet. I want to feed people in the UK without using chemicals. Rotational ley farming does not produce enough grain, and never will – for genetic, ecological and agronomic reasons. In the UK organic farming is all about animals, not grain. Continous cropping triples grain output compared to rotational organic farming. It’s a simple calculation – we can feed the UK the grain it needs organically only if we 1) use continous cropping systems, 2) stop feeding so much grain to animals, and 3) waste less food. I am not ‘against’ ley farming. I am ‘for’ feeding people and reducing the use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, growth regulators, etc.
    4. Wisconsin… just a hop, skip and jump from where I grew up in Ontario. I think there is a way of using COGC in Wisconsin Steve. There are tall stemmed heritage varieties available to you (and I know how cold it gets being from Canada). There are hardy tall-stemmed heritage winter wheats that will grow where you are, but they are all buried in the national gene banks of the world. They are not available commercially. True winter wheat can be planted anytime from late July onwards, and will produce only grass (and tiller like crazy) until the winter… and will then vernalise. The key is to have a well established understorey of clover to drill/broadcast into, not just dry, dead stubble. In this system the land is not barren for 2-3 months after harvest, which would allow weeds to grow. As Fukuoka (One Straw Revolution) and many others have said , the land should never be naked.
    5. I have grown my heritage wheat blend in Ontario in conditions very similar to Wisconsin. Half of the UK wheats didn’t survive the heat – but the other half did. The rye did better, as rye is more genetically diverse and adaptable. This is exactly what the first settlers had to go through. Varieties like Red Fife get all the attention as ‘heritage’ wheats, but there are many others that I think would grow in Wisconsin. Red Fife is actually very narrow genetically as the entire N American crop is descended from just a couple of seeds (if the stories are to be believed). The key is to collect a wide range of tall stemmed, truly winter wheats together from gene banks, plant them together in a field in August, and then bulk up what comes through the next spring. Its what our ancestors did. Its call evolutionary plant breeding. We will never ‘breed’ and ‘select’ our way out of the climate challenge that is coming our way. I think we need to use science where we can, but also not ignore the wisdom of our ancestors. They key is to build more genetic diversity into our crops.
    I’m very sorry to have written so much… I got carried away!
    Best of luck in your growing efforts.
    John Letts

    • Thanks much for the new info- I hadn’t thought I was at the beginning of a multiyear process, but that’s ok. I’ll think through the clover, timing, and be more methodical. The local mill only had one variety of winter wheat but I will do some searching. I need to step up my game!

    • John, thanks very much for your illuminating comment – sorry I’ve just been a bit too busy offline of late to respond properly (and still am…)

      Your work is fascinating and so important, and I’d certainly like to visit and find out more about it (as well as revisiting the old stamping grounds of my youth) … someday soon, I hope.

      Where there still seems to be some difference between us is in your judgment of the productivity of organic ley farming, which in my analyses (as, for example, in Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book ‘A Small Farm Future’) is a much more promising basis for feeding the country – probably most countries – than you suggest. Some time, I’d like to get to the bottom of our different assumptions here…

      • Hi Chris. I look forward to seeing you in person and talking through the issues. If I’m wrong about the grain output of the system I’m advocating vs traditional rotational organic systems then I need to be corrected. I have no doubt that in some situations a mixed farm and rotational system might be more suitable, esp. in areas with less arable potential. But productivity is different from profitability and means different things to different people, and varies depending on the growing environment. My thinking about this is been rooted in
        the UK. How it applies abroad is something I’ve only started to explore – but I think the same principles apply. I look forward to a chat soon.

    • Thanks for the very detailed comment!

      I live in a rainy part of the tropics. I have never considered raising wheat or any other grain, but I will investigate whether one will grow here (perhaps rice). Clover does fine, though it is hard to establish against rapid weed growth and in intense sunlight.

      But I want to focus on your Item 3: I think there is a difference between maximizing land caloric productivity and maximizing labor productivity per calorie (I don’t mean labor productivity as in buy a bigger machine and use more exogenous energy but rather least use of human/animal muscle when that is all that is available).

      If land is scarce in relation to the caloric needs of the population, caloric production must be maximized even if it takes more work per person. However if land available is ample, then labor productivity becomes the priority. My experience with pasture land is that a great amount of high quality calories can be raised, processed and supplied to the table with very little work. I don’t have the calories in/calories out ratio, but it subjectively seems very favorable to me. To get more calories, just have more land grazed. I think aquatic food sources would follow similar rules, too.

      It also seems to me that as human population density has increased historically, production and diet have shifted to be even more plant based and less animal based. This supports your caloric analysis, but also supports my labor efficiency conjecture.

      Of course, if land is vastly ample, little to no farming is done at all; calories are gathered from the wild. Hunting/gathering must therefore be the most labor efficient of all, which seems to be supported by anthropological reports of large amounts of leisure for people who live that way. Pastoralism is then be likely to be in an intermediate efficiency zone between hunting/gathering and agriculture.

      • “If land is scarce in relation to the caloric needs of the population, caloric production must be maximized even if it takes more work per person. However if land available is ample, then labor productivity becomes the priority.”

        You’re probably already familiar with it, Joe, but for others who might be interested: Smallholders, Householders by Robert Netting documents how this principle operates in actual farming communities. It’s a *really* fascinating book (hat tip to Chris, who originally brought it to my attention).

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