Home is not the house but where the garden is

My title is a quotation from archaeologist Francis Pryor’s book about ‘prehistoric’ Britain, but it serves well enough as a summary of the general argument in my own book about our likely global future, and the need to refocus the household from a place of economy to a place of ecology1. Pryor suggests that early farmers in Britain grew mixed crops including vegetables in small provision grounds from which livestock were fenced out, provision grounds that were associated with small houses accommodating a handful of people. In fact, he argues that small-household sedentism stretches far back into the pre-agricultural Mesolithic in Britain, and we know that it’s been a common arrangement in agricultural and non-agricultural societies globally down to the present.

I’ll discuss in later posts the social and political implications of such household arrangements. Here, I’ll just raise a few points about their ecology that I touch on in my book, mostly in Chapter 7 (‘The apothecary’s garden’).

There are basically four reasons why I think a garden homestead commends itself as the habitation of the future (and, apparently, the past). First there’s an input-output circularity that’s ecologically efficient. The food and some of the fibre and medicines that the household occupants need is conveniently right there outside the house, and the waste products of the house – food scraps and human waste – are conveniently located as inputs into the garden to build its soils and organic matter.

Second, the garden requires a lot of human labour, which is most efficiently and effectively delivered when it’s associated with where people live. There are various dimensions to this – for example, noticing what’s going on in the garden and what the crops’ needs are because you’re there most of the time; finding time to deliver extra crop care at odd moments in the domestic round; the ability to protect the crops from the unwanted attention of human and non-human organisms because you’re on the spot; and of course reduced commuting and transport costs.

Third, talking of transport costs, it’s possible to grow a wider variety of crops in the home garden than in the commercial field. Produce that’s too bulky to transport long distances, that won’t keep long, that can’t easily be processed for final use without fiddly work, or that can’t easily be protected from pests – all of this becomes possible in the home garden, potentially increasing variety, nutrition and resilience.

Finally, production in the home garden is potentially self-limiting. You grow to meet household needs, then stop. There is no inherent external dynamic coaxing you to produce more in order to live well that results in over-exploitation of your local ecological resources. And, if you do overstretch productivity, the negative consequences will soon be directly apparent to you and likely remediable.

I’m not particularly suggesting that all households should be like this and that all farming should be of this sort – we’ll come to some quantifications around this presently. But, for the reasons just outlined, I do suggest that this is a promising direction in which to move our farm ecologies generally.

There are a couple of further points about small-household farming that I’d like to make. First, there’s been a long-running and sometimes fierce academic debate about the widespread finding that poor, small-scale, household farmers in low-income countries gain higher per acre yields than richer, larger-scale commercial farmers – the so-called inverse productivity relationship (IR). The main reason the debate has been long-running and fierce is that it contradicts the dominant narrative that larger and more capitalized is always best – and of course carries the implication troubling to various strands of ‘development’ theory that support for and land reform in favour of small-scale household farmers may be the optimum economic strategy. So people have spent a lot of time trying to disprove it.

The issues underlying the IR are interesting, but I’ve written about some of them before and I don’t want to plunge into them here (I touch on them lightly in Chapter 7 of my book). I think it’s possible to make too much of it on both sides of the debate. On the one side, Marxists and other proponents of mainstream economic development have tied themselves implausibly in knots trying to prove that the IR is either illusory or symptomatic of extreme poverty, and therefore not challenging to their depeasantization/industrialization narrative. On the other, the fact that small household farms can sometimes be a bit more productive than their larger counterparts isn’t ipso facto an argument for a small farm future, and only becomes relevant within larger social and agronomic contexts. Nevertheless, the existence of the IR does help underline the point that a world of small-scale farming is not likely to be one that fails to meet the challenge of feeding the world by virtue of farm scale.

Onwards to my final point. Going back to Francis Pryor’s description of fenced Neolithic provision grounds, it’s worth remarking that some of the productivity of the small farm stems from intricate and labour-intensive terraforming and internal differentiation. A small farm with a garden and some goats sited conveniently close to a river can greatly surpass the productivity of a farm with only goats, or only a garden, or with no reliable source of water. But to realize the productivity, a lot of work needs to go into creating internal flows and, by the same token, internal boundaries.

While the manure from the goats might usefully flow (hopefully in a more figurative than literal sense) into the garden, the goats themselves need to be kept out of it, and the flows of water from the river likewise need to be under the farmer’s control. I once did some fencing and ditching on my farm with the reluctant help from a visitor inclined to a more hands-off approach. To him these were unnatural linearities imposed on the organic world – “I don’t like to see fences. What are you trying to exclude, and what are you trying to contain?” Well, in the example above, I’m trying to exclude the goats and the river from trashing the garden, and I’m trying to contain – or just get – a tolerable harvest. Like the different parts of a cell separated by membranes, sometimes things only work well together when they’re kept somewhat apart. The route agriculture has often taken is to keep things radically apart – goats in the desert, leafy greens on the hydroponic urban farm, rivers dredged and canalized. But the ecology of the small, low-impact farm involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture.

I suspect also that the sociology of small, low-impact farm society involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture, but that’s a whole other issue that we’ll come to presently.

Notes

  1. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home. Penguin.

34 thoughts on “Home is not the house but where the garden is

  1. Speaking of boundaries and terraforming, I’ve spent a few days one winter at the Sherpa village of Dingboche in Nepal. where the valley floor was over 14,000 feet elevation, and stone walls divided the flat land into 50 or more farm/garden plots. There were no terraced hillsides this high up. I learned that potatoes grew fairly well at this elevation. The farming situation there in the Khumbu region seems like a case study for what a small farm future could be like in a remote area.

    “Khumbu agriculture is based on private land ownership and subsistence farming by nuclear households.”

    Although the region is remote (requiring a week or more of walking from the nearest road, or perhaps several days on foot from the nearest airstrip), the government still demands taxes and imposes some regulations on land use.

    “Since the early nineteenth century, and possibly for some time before that, Sherpas have paid tax in cash to Kathmandu on both land and houses. Khumbu families also had to contribute unpaid agricultural labor (wulok) to the local pembu, which amounted to three to five days’ work per year, usually met by women working in the pembu’s fields.”

    Chris wrote, “You grow to meet household needs, then stop.”

    Tax obligations (payable in currency) might coax the farmer to produce a surplus to sell for cash, but the Sherpas could find other ways to get money.

    “In 1939… day labor paid less than half a rupee per day and… land taxes that averaged perhaps eight rupees per family thus were substantial. Most Sherpas would have met them with the profits from trans-Himalayan trade, by working as porters for wealthy traders, or by agricultural day labor.”

    “In some societies similar tax policies have been employed by governments to pressure farmers to cultivate cash crops and they sometimes have led to indebtedness and loss of land. In Khumbu tax collection has not been used as a tool to influence crop selection.”

    Quotations are from the book “Claiming the High Ground: Sherpas, Subsistence, and Environmental Change in the Highest Himalaya”
    by Stanley F. Stevens, University of California Press, 1993

  2. Proximity of home and garden is one of the big pulls, for me, of trying to find a smallholding. Pie in the sky for now, for reasons I won’t go into here. But the allotment is a mere two and a half miles away and this is far enough that I don’t get there as often as I’d like. My response has been to try and add as many “creature comforts” as I can: a folding toilet seat in the shed so I don’t have to use the nasty chemical portaloo in the carpark, a storm kettle so I can make a hot drink, a small barbeque, a mouse-proof tin for biscuits, a greenhouse (a gift this autumn for a Significant Birthday). I aim to get there three times a week; most weeks it’s closer to once or twice, but at least once I’m there, I can stay for the day. Joint problems and associated fatigue mean I do need to take lots of breaks. But even with this, I grow my French beans in the back garden instead so they’re right there for the kitchen. I can put the water on to boil, pick my beans, top and tail them and throw them into the pot.

    I think internal differentiation — including boundaries — usually also increases biodiversity, and not just because one only needs such internal boundaries if the goal is something other than monoculture cropping, but because of the habitat provided by the boundaries themselves. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but land with a ditch will have more varied wildlife than land without; ditto land with a hedge. Even a fence provides a bit of habitat for something. And that, too, may contribute to the variety available for humans to use: more fungi, more help with pests, and of course the hedgerow/water/etc plants themselves.

  3. I’m catching a resonance here with the permaculture concept of zones, where the parts of the food system needing more attention are set closest to the home, and those needing less, or have intentionally been left more unaltered are further.

    The whole nutrient cycle between plants and animals also benefits from proximity, especially when fossil input will become more rare.

    I was reading an excerpt from an old John Deere magazine (“the Furrow”) from 1900, and it described an arrangement in the city of Glasgow where the city gathered refuse and used it in a 900 acre municipal owned farm, providing jobs, a nearby food source, and a place to send waste instead of the river or a methane producing landfill. I was wondering if you’ve heard of this bit of history and can confirm or expand on it.

    This scheme appears to be a notch up from small farms being internally balanced, but might be a model that can be used for a small town scale food system.

    Point being, this is not rocket science, and one doesn’t even need to go to neolithic times to verify the soundness of nutrient cycling and local food systems that don’t need fossil inputs or phosphorus from Nauru.

    It will be a fraught journey, but backing out of our dead end alley has plenty of past examples to draw from as a guide to choosing a rational end goal.

    • Vital, Social, and Economic Statistics of Glasgow, 1885-1891
      page 163

      The street sweeping of the city is chiefly done by horsedrawn sweeping machines. This work, as also the removal of the detritus and the collection of night soil and general domestic refuse from ashpits, bins, etc., is for the most part done during the night. The whole of the heterogenous city refuse is carried to the several Despatch Works and Stations where special mechanical and other appliances have been provided for summarily dealing with and disposing of it. The result is that by 10 o clock every morning, the whole night’s collection has been despatched in one form or other to the country in railway wagons, 700 of which are owned by the department. The larger portion of the material goes as prepared manure direct to farmers. A cheap statutory rate enables the department to send this manure to railway stations scattered over fourteen counties.

      The macadamised road detritus and surplus manure are sent chiefly to Fulwood Moss farm. This farm was reclaimed from bog in 1879 when employment was scarce in the city and it is profitably cropped by the department.

      At the Despatch Works the rougher rubbish screened from the refuse is burned. The clinkers from the furnaces and other unsaleable refuse go to make up moss lands. The increase in the number of water closets and the more frequent removal of domestic refuse have gradually lowered the manurial value of the refuse. This fact, taken in conjunction with the agricultural depression and cheap prices of ammoniacal and other chemical manures which has prevailed of late years, has seriously reduced the revenue from city manure. Public health is however the first and chief consideration of the committee on cleansing.

      https://www.google.com/books/edition/Vital_Social_and_Economic_Statistics_of/Fpk_AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA163&printsec=frontcover

      • Great find and follow up. You are a research animal!

        huh, so the term “night soil” is found in Scotland also. Good to know.

        As I suspected, “water closets” and synthetic inputs ended the arrangement.

      • Glasgow’s first sewage treatment works began operating in 1894. Starting in 1897, some of Glasgow’s sewage sludge was dried and marketed as “Globe Fertilizer”. 32,500 tonnes of it were sold in 1911, but production ceased in 1935. Undried sludge was pumped into special ships for “marine disposal”, a practice which didn’t end in Glasgow until 1998 (after the EU banned the dumping of sewage at sea).

        http://engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=1250

        • The last Glasgow Steam Sludge Boat – SS Shieldhall is now preserved in Southampton – I sailed on one of its last ‘Dumping’ trips and the books about the ship and its fleetmates say a lot about how things were done in Glasgow

          https://ss-shieldhall.co.uk/

          Its a good day out, I made a fatal mistake though and allowed middle son, then 4 to blow the Typhoon Steam Whistle. Thats why you need to shout to get me to hear you.

          I also remember an old farmer who talked about ‘The Sewage Farm’ which – pre WW1 was just that with the effluent used to irrigate farmland and then grow excellent crops.

  4. About to fence off my “provision ground” from said goats and some sheep. We also have a grass in the subtropical north of New Zealand, kikuyu grass (introduced), which I’ve spent 20 years battling to keep at bay from gardens on our house section. We joke that if not mowed (at this time of year, once a week is necessary) it would grow over our house. The same grass grows on newly acquired 1/2 hectare of leased land over our back fence. I’m hoping with fence on the perimeter of new “provision ground” the animals will munch away at the edges and prevent the kikuyu grass from growing into the garden. The realisation that a fence would achieve the twin goal of keeping animals and kikuyu grass out has got me thinking that I’ve invented the wheel or something, so pleased am I at the prospect of no longer having to get down on my hands and knees to pull kikuyu runners out of the ground.

    My other realisation relevant to your post above is that being at home all the time is the only way to garden, farm, harvest, prepare, preserve, and eat food. Juggling it around working away from home (as unfortunately I still have to do) doesn’t work very well. You just miss doing things when they need to be done, and are easily done. Also, there’s the temptation to buy coffee and lunch to reward yourself for your boring day at work! The self-rewards are different at home, and not requiring the immediate handing over of money.

    • Good luck in your battle against kikuyu; it is something I must also endure (I live in the subtropical “north” of Hawaii, i.e., at 2300 ft elevation).

      My best technique for gardening in kikuyu ground is to till lightly, pick up and throw out as many pieces of runner as possible, mulch with wood chips and then cover the mulch with an opaque, woven ground cloth and let it sit a couple of months. My beds are roughly 9 ft by 100 ft, so the 10ft wide cloth covers the whole bed. The cloth comes in 300 ft rolls.

      When I want to plant, I just roll up a few feet of cloth, drag back the mulch with my hands and plant into the tilled soil. This works for my staple-carb root crops, taro and sweet potato.

      I have had some luck with broadcast seeding of clover into the tilled ground (no mulch), but I have to till two or three times and cross my fingers that the clover gets established before the kikuyu takes over, which it eventually does anyway, but the clover hangs in there for quite a while.

      I once tried to kill the kikuyu by covering the tilled soil with opaque cloth and letting it sit for several months. I tried to get clover to grow on the weed-free soil several times, but it just didn’t take. I think that covering the soil for so long destroyed the soil structure and ‘sterilized’ it, but that’s just a guess. Covering chip-mulched soil seems OK. The sweet potato slips and taro starts grow vigorously. I fertilize everything with dilute urine.

        • Please remember to use woven covers, not polyethylene film covers. The woven covers allow water and air to penetrate and only keep out the light.

          Because bricks don’t punch a hole in the fabric, I use bricks (or rocks) to keep the cover in place rather than staples. If left intact, the fabric can be used over and over for many years.

          Between uses as a cover, I roll the cloth up on a short length of 3″ plastic pipe, which makes it easier to handle.

  5. Thanks for the comments & interesting links – I always appreciate it when people illustrate themes from my posts with their own personal experiences or with historical examples. I’m particularly interested just now in further examples worldwide like Steve L’s Khumbu one in terms of household/family/land tenure styles & relationships with the state.

    Not much to add to what folks have already said. But the Glasgow example is interesting. Here in the UK we still use the term ‘dustbin’, harking back to the time when household waste mostly was ‘dust’, ash and other potentially useful organic matter. Imagine spreading the contents of the average domestic bin on the garden today…

    Vaughan’s point is salutary for those of us who do live on a landholding and don’t go out to work elsewhere. I have a post on that coming up soon. Coffee is a hurdle for me, however…

  6. For the household to be a place of ecology rather than economy it’s sensible to pay some attention to the layout of house that sits on the land. The average Hungarian/Eastern European village house sits on a roughly quarter-acre plot, and the houses generally have root cellars, and loft space for storing food, hung over a rafter away from rodents. There are often other external structures for keeping farm animals, storing firewood and going to the toilet. Most households grow food and the style of gardening here is closer to forest gardening in that fruit and nut trees are part of the garden. In contrast, to self-provision from a typical city apartment block would be basically a non-starter: 50m2 three flights up doesn’t make keeping a wheelbarrow full of tools a practical option. As previously mentioned, it’s very useful to live on the plot.
    On the face of it the Hungarian state appears to facilitate household provisioning and small farming. Regarding land tenure, as things stand any Hungarian or EU citizen over 18 can purchase up to a hectare of land (10,000m2). Anything larger than that – up to 300 hectares – requires a degree in farming/forestry/agronomy or similar, or attending a state-run course (which I read here is a Govt. racket: https://hungarianspectrum.org/2015/11/13/do-you-want-to-buy-hungarian-agricultural-land-pay-up-for-a-sham-course/).
    Once you become the owner, you do then have to work the land – if you bought a pasture, for example, the requirement is that it is used as such for at least five years, after which the land could be put to another agricultural use if so desired. Agricultural buildings are allowed to occupy 3% of the land (on plots above 1000m2) and ponds/watering holes up to 50 cubic metres do not require planning permission. Finally, for a small annual fee (around a tenner) a grower can officially sell their produce, with certain restrictions (along the lines of ‘no processing’ into jams, preserves etc).

    • Meant to add that the five-year period on purchased land precludes the landowner renting out the land during that time, presumably to stop speculation along those lines.

  7. Does it have to be coffee, or will other caffeine sources do? I know tea will grow in some regions of the UK. (Chocolate, alas, not so much…)

    More seriously: nobody who injects insulin, uses a dialysis machine or relies on a steroid inhaler to breathe is going to manage 100% self-reliance, no matter how many streams or hedges or fences are on their land. (And it’s not just the insulin, it’s syringes and test strips and allsorts). That aspect of an unevenly retracting, supersedure state scares me a lot more than food production does (even though many more people need food than dialysis); but not having a solution for that isn’t a reason to abandon the idea of growing what food I can, and medicines too where that’s possible (I can’t grow synthetic insulin at the allotment, but meadowsweet and chamomile are on the cards). Autonomy-inclined individuals might be interested in the work of Four Thieves Vinegar and their EpiPencil, though it doesn’t look like their website has been active lately.

    But our interdependence is simply a fact all living beings are subject to, and believing we can be entirely self-provisioning and isolated from others if we have exclusive access to a piece of land is as much folly as believing we are self-provisioning if we use money to pay others for everything. So I’d say buy the best and fairest coffee you can afford, perhaps grown on part of a small farm somewhere, and grow the best food you can manage, and hope that as a species we manage to keep enough interconnectedness and specialisation ticking over that nobody will die in childhood for want of insulin. Maybe while we’re at it, we can work to abolish the systems by which people are impoverished by medical debts or land rent…

    Now, all of that is definitely well into tangent-land and probably not entirely what you meant by “coffee is a hurdle”. But I remain convinced that it’s better for more people to do some small scale mixed-use farming/gardening imperfectly than for one or two to try to be entirely self-provisioning. Maybe that means one household member is at home more and “looks after” the farm, which another takes some paid work to cover other needs and helps out with farm labour when they can; this wouldn’t be a new arrangement, and one of the strengths of a househood-based system is that there is some flexibility in how the balance works out at any given time.

    Meanwhile, not much goes in our domestic bin: most of the packaging goes in the recycling bin or gets composted (cardboard and paper), and we compost absolutely all our food waste in a hot composting bin that, so far, hasn’t had rodents. The main bin is dust from the hoover (too many microplastics for me to bear putting it on the garden, not much we can do about the landlord’s carpets) and the smaller-by-the-week amount of packaging that cannot be composted or recycled. There are enough issues with plastic recycling that we try to use alternatives where we can, though, and the more of our own food we grow, the less packaging comes inside in the first place.

  8. John – thanks for that interesting further info. Sorry to read about your hearing loss. I guess it does make sense for a boat carrying sewage sludge to have a powerful whistle…

    Simon – indeed, farmhouse & outbuilding layouts are a fascinating topic. And thanks for the interesting info on the ways of Hungarian smallholding. Are the rules & regs about land use actively enforced by the powers that be – how does that work? And is public sentiment in rural areas supportive of these rules, such that local gossip and social pressure helps reinforce them?

    Kathryn – for sure, I’m not proposing complete self-reliance – just a degree of decommodification from mainstream market routes. I’ve wrestled with this issue over the years, but I agree with you that purism isn’t the be all and end all and that whatever steps people do take count for something. I don’t always measure up to my own ideals … but it’s worth embracing the inevitability of that as best we can, as I argue in Chapter 16 of the book. I think I’ll leave medical and welfare issues aside for now until we get to the relevant place in this blog cycle – but I don’t see easy answers…

    • I am at least a little it encouraged by the likes of Four Thieves Vinegar; I agree there are no easy answers. The welfare issues (people impoverished by rent) are central, I think, to land use in general and therefore how we might (collectively) organise a small farm friendly future; but these issues feel much more intractable to me than “well, can I grow some food, here and now?” I feel like if I can do that, then when the context shifts at least I’ll have some experience and enough knowledge to tell a leek from a winter squash. This is also not an easy answer, but it is at least an attractive one.

      Perhaps the intractability, at least from my perspective, of medical (and medical-ised) issues and issues around access to land for growing food is also why so many of my tangents are in that direction. Perhaps it is just that I am anxious. Either way, thank you for your continued patience!

  9. John’s sewage sludge boat sticks in the memory – those boats sure must’ve been honking.

    As an occasional coffee substitute, I’ve found Barley Cup-type roasted grain and chicory drinks ok. While they lack the pleasure of coffee’s bitterness and caffeine hit, later in the day I can live with that (and I’m told that, once decaffeinated, I’m far less prone to fly off the handle).

    For land use rules/regs, our experience is that yes, they are actively enforced. Below a hectare there are no subsidies, so official inspection of landowner activities likely won’t be as rigorous as with larger operations, which might be physically inspected annually, with requests for records covering the past three years. The vetting process for ‘bona fide’ farmers purchasing land takes a few months in which one assumes the i’s are being dotted and the t’s crossed. Subsidies can be sluggish, as in 2018’s support paid in 2020 (tends to work more briskly for smaller farms). The suite of subsidies appears symphonic, and my wife describes their eventual payment as ‘rhapsodic’.
    My impression is that people living rurally who aren’t involved with farming don’t really pay much attention to the small print of land use rules. However, as locals here do use their rural locale for leisure, foraging, getting to and from the vineyard/fishing area/woodland etc., attention is paid to what is going on under the nose, locally, which tends to have the effect of keeping things in line. A neighbour recently worried, for example, that as she is unable to get to her vineyard now owing to her advanced age, she might be penalised for not removing ragweed (through someone reporting the fact, most likely). Compared to the UK I’d say people here are generally less laissez-faire about such ‘rules’, in part maybe because more people live in the country, often in slightly higher densities and in a historically ‘tighter-knit’ way than somewhere like the Cotswolds, say. Another upshot of that is that any disputes may be sorted out among those involved rather than through more official channels that cost money. The mood I detect from the older folk is supportive and informative if you are trying something farming-related in the garden or small plot. They can talk about country ways till the cows come home (many kept a cow or two in their younger years). So, ‘public mood’ has links to scale in terms of conviviality among the actors. And yet in all this liveliness, beware the wiliness – I don’t wish to paint too rosy a picture.

  10. Thanks Kathryn & Simon. I’m interested if anyone has local tales to tell that illuminate Simon’s ‘yet in all this liveliness, beware the wiliness’…

    I’m also interested in the Hungarian ban on processing produce. What’s the rationale – food safety? And is it possible for small producers to gain permission somehow? Not a problem home gardeners faced in the Neolithic, I suspect…

    • The sanitation and food safety laws here are extensive, and more tailored to the anonymous link between commodity producers and consumers, BUT, as food systems relocalize and become a bit more interpersonal, food safety will still need to be acknowledged and recalibrated.

      Wisconsin only just recently passed a law that allowed some baked goods to be sold from home, but much value adding food processing is still regulated and costly to do at small scale.

      Not sure if this is what Simon was driving at, but as far as “wiliness”, here’s an example I can relate from the local farmer’s market. Rules for the market include that produce sold must be from the vendor’s own farm, ( seems reasonable, right?) but I’ve seen a stand or two that have such a wide range on offer, and at times of the year that it stretches credulity and one wonders. Over time, I imagine the truth will out, but even at small scale, bit of caveat emptor is wise.

      • In an attempt to clarify (whenever rules are explained to me I just switch off) the trifling annual fee I mentioned permits sales of non-processed foods, eggs, even animals and seeds (both of which surprised me) but not chutneys etc. To sell processed food at the farm gate or market, as Steve mentions, Health&Safety comes in to play, with an annual inspection of the place where food is being processed for sale, and this entails higher costs (haven’t looked in to exactly how high on this one). Likewise, as per Steve’s example, one can’t sell another vendor’s produce.
        As for wiliness, the comment by the farmer’s wife in the video I linked to above – “I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl!” – hit home. But I was really only thinking of always keeping on one’s toes in the community, alert to the fact that all may not be always as it seems. Often when miscreants work behind the scenes here it’s shrugged off as the work of ‘two-legged wildlife’ – things like walnuts going missing, apple harvests disappearing, wine being stolen – so hardly hair-curling stuff. Bad things do happen here of course – it’s Eastern Europe but it sometimes feels like the Wild West – but in general life is more like one long Carry On caper (cue Sid James’ laughter).

    • Not wiliness so much as parochialism, but when we joined the allotment society I had a good read through the rules, and follow them carefully in letter and, I think, in spirit. And I’m never sure what to say when I see committee members breaking those same rules, but then I get told off for things which are not listed in the rules at all… My instinct is to say nothing, but further reduce my reliance on communal infrastructure. (So we now have 2100 litres of water storage, and I care a lot less about people washing their tools in the communal dip tanks, and I’m looking forward to not being scolded for my water use by people who are certain they know better than I do when and what to water).

      I’ve been putting some of this social friction down to pandemic boredom and/or stress, and the usual small community stuff. It doesn’t help that the main “gathering” — when the trading hut is open and so on — is at a time I consistently can’t attend, so I’m not seen as much of a joiner except by those plot neighbours who are around when I am. And I know which committee members I’ll think twice about voting for when the time comes.

      That said: I know of no stolen produce on the site, and even tool theft is relatively rare, so I consider the governance model “annoying but effective”.

      But… I can imagine arguments around governance and shared resources getting quite a bit more fraught than this, on a larger scale, even if most people are sensible and considerate. Rather than making me think living in the city is all right if I can have an allotment, it makes me think that actually, buying land where I have more control should be a priority, not so much because of the social friction, but because the rules are relatively restrictive. (It’s also completely out of reach right now, but that’s another tangent.)

    • They haven’t got us over a barrel yet, Diogenese… The future of vertical farming was discussed yesterday, on a farming wireless programme. A Scottish company, Intelligent Growth Solutions, has a warehouse designed to be operated by robots tending growing towers, each tower with approximately 380m2 of growing space, in which I estimate each plant could grow no taller than about 12cm before it hits the roof (the LEDs and growing tray above it). The company, started by a self-professed serial entrepreneur a few years ago, still appears to be looking for its niche of “sensible integration with existing farming”, ideally as near as possible to renewable energy sites and warm old coalmines, to make the operation viable.
      There was some eye-rolling business-speak. The drawbacks of having to provide and control all the energy and other inputs small greens and herbs need to grow was not seen as an Achilles’ heel but “a key driver” of the enterprise. There was talk of “playing around with the biology”, “dialling up the nutritional content”, even providing humanitarian aid, from the very low-calorie and costly garnish produced.
      In the wake of Brexit, perhaps the two near-term, slightly more realistic options for the business were producing home-grown seedlings for the farming industry and replacing imports of leafy greens like Pak Choi. It seems abundant nuclear energy is the hoped for key to unlock this particular airlocked warehouse door, which is why I expect it will hit the buffers before long, along with a lot of other similar technocratic agendas. Thanks for the link – I’ll see what Ice Age Farmer has to say.

      • Colorado is the strange / worrying thing , Chris as all farmers know keeping animals alive for 25_% of their lifespan is financial suicide , hens can live twenty years cattle the same , pigs around thirty talk about tough ! , this piece of legislation if passed would destroy much of CO county incomes which IMHO is the whole reason for their legislation , to further remove the population from the land .

  11. Thanks for the further comments. Sorry, short on time to reply right now but all duly noted! Hopefully, I’ll get another post out over the next week 🙂

    • A comment of mine failed to post, which I thought could have been due to its length, so I tried again with the first half of the comment, to no avail. Flagged as spam or something like that?

      • Hmm, strange. I can’t see them anywhere. There was a brief service interruption a few days ago due to SSL certification. Maybe they fell down that hole? Perhaps try to repost and if it doesn’t work, send me the comments via the Contact Form.

        For info generally, if you post more than one link in a comment it gets held for moderation.

  12. Comment below from Steve L that failed to post. If anyone else has problems like this posting, do let me know.

    ***

    Romania seems like an interesting case regarding subsistence farming and government influence during recent decades. At the time it joined the EU (2007), subsistence farming was a major form of agriculture there. In 2010, 90% of the farms were less than 5 ha.

    “After 1990, families in Romania were awarded farmland according to number of members, the rule being one to two hectares per person, or five to 10 ha per family. With good connections, to local politicians for example, the land area per family could sometimes be doubled. No official land registry meant area entitlement of families was only registered per ha of total village area and not specifically according to field map… Food supply mostly came from domestic sources: nearly everyone in the countryside had gardens for food production and there was a lot of village-near land farmed under informal systems, grazing a few cows or steers or cropping with cultivations by older small-horsepower machinery.”

    “Only since the mid-1990s have there been secure jobs in industry and commerce, administration and service industries in Romania. And since that time, a wide range of food began to be available on a retail basis: a combination that quickly weaned folk from growing all their own food. From then on it was also possible to rent or buy farmland. Starting in 1997, foreign investors were allowed to buy land, mainly because local farmers had little or no access to capital themselves. Now (2018), around 40 % of Romanian farm and forest land is managed by foreigners with up to 80 % of this actually purchased.”

    The above quotations are from “Romania: From subsistence to agribusiness”
    https://www.dlg.org/en/agriculture/topics/dlg-agrifuture-magazine/knowledge-skills/romania-from-subsistence-to-agribusiness

    Romania joined the EU in 2007, when subsistence and semi-subsistence farming were “still the major type of agriculture in Romania both in terms of surface area and number of farmers involved (MARD 2007). Around 3.5 million agricultural holdings (90%) farm on less than 5 ha of individually-farmed land (Institutul National de Statistica 2010). As a result, Romania has the highest number of holdings per capita in the EU, linked to the large rural population in Romania.”

    “For these families, the possibility of keeping livestock and thus survival as smallholders is contingent on their access to common pastures to supplement their own land. Common pastures therefore represent a major economic resource for small-scale farmers, but are also a source of non-economic benefits for the community.”

    Starting in 2007, the EU’s CAP subsidies were a major influence. “Initially many Town Halls applied for the subsidy payments,” but “the subsidy money was not effectively benefiting either the users or the pasture quality,” so “the Ministry of Agriculture tightened regulations to prevent Town Halls from applying.”

    “Many farmer or grazing associations were thus formed in order to take advantage of the subsidy payments. In one of the study villages, the association used the subsidy money to invest in improving the pasture quality or facilities, such as agricultural machinery, for the local community. Such examples of collective action to achieve greater collective benefits from the money are, however, few, and several interviewees said the associations simply divided the amount among the active members who used it to supplement their income.”

    “At one end of the scale there are well-functioning farmer associations consisting of the majority of farmers in the village, and an organisational structure with different administrative positions. The other, more frequently encountered, situation is that the association is a shell, only existing formally in order for its members to be able to receive subsidy payments but with no willing participation of or interest from the members. In one village without an association, one interviewee rented part of the common pasture as an individual and let village animals graze in an informal agreement, by-passing the formal rules of commons use. Lack of unity and organisation among the users means that decisions about the common pasture mostly continue to be driven in a top-down manner by the Town Hall. This has no strong vested interest in the quality of the pasture or the livelihoods of its users, unlike the farmer associations.”

    “Whereas previously ecological sustainability was key to producing the fodder that farmers depended on, in many areas today the primary product of the pasture is the cash that they receive for just ensuring the pasture meets the minimum standards prescribed by the payments agency. This provides incentives for people outside the community, and even those with no livestock or link to the area, to rent common land but not necessarily to use it.”

    The quotations above are from
    “Pastoral commons use in Romania and the role of the Common Agricultural Policy”
    Sutcliffe et al.
    International Journal of the Commons
    https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.367/

  13. Thanks to Chris and all the commenters for all they’re doing to advance this important idea.

    On a light-hearted note, there were advocates for such an approach back when I was coming of age in the late 60s. Recently deceased (from Covid) American troubadour John Prine wrote a song he called “Spanish Pipedream,” a puzzling name since the “pipedream” becomes reality within the lyrics of the song.

    The first chorus:

    Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
    Go to the country, build you a home.
    Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
    Try an’ find Jesus on your own.

    And by the third chorus:

    We blew up our TV, threw away our paper
    Went to the country, built us a home.
    Had a lot of children, fed ’em on peaches
    They all found Jesus on their own.

    This was a common theme of the 60s rebellion in America from music like the Steve Miller Band’s “Going to the Country” and Jefferson Airplane’s “The Farm” to movies like “Easy Rider” to publications like the Whole Earth Catalog. Timothy Leary envisioned “tribes” of people tuning in, dropping out and heading to the country during the “Houseboat Summit” held with Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

    For at least most of these people, the motivating factor was not trying to counter ecological collapse but to regain their humanity against the threat posed by a society in love with technology, hierarchy and violence. The counterculture would have been an ardent ally of the small farm future back then, and its remnants will be today.

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