Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.

As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.

But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.

The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.

There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.

First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.

Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.

But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.

Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.

The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.

Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.

Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.

With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.

Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.

But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.

And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.

How I grew, and lost, a rainforest

And so I’ve come to the end of my posts concerning Part II of A Small Farm Future and I shall soon be moving onto Parts III and IV, which are the ones that have generated most of the discussions and disputations over the book. I include this post by way of a deep breath, reflecting back on the ground we’ve recently covered and forward toward what’s to come.

Let me begin by reprising the tale of our woodland here at Vallis Veg, which I’ve previously discussed here, among other places. Between 2004 and 2007 we planted seven acres of young saplings on our site, which have now grown into some pretty hefty trees providing numerous benefits – constructional timber, firewood, food, wildlife habitat, wind protection and recreation among them. I’ve discussed before the debate about whether it’s better to allow natural regeneration, or to force the issue by planting saplings, as we did. In any given situation there can be arguments either way, with the balance of them perhaps usually favouring the low input natural regeneration route.

But I’ve come to think of this debate as rather pointless. Given the human dominance of the farmed landscape, what really matters is the decision to opt for trees. If you take the natural regeneration route, you’ll probably lose several years of potential tree growth – which could be significant for humans on our short-run timescales, but not really significant on forest time. In our woodland, wild trees and herbaceous understory plants that we never designed into the system ourselves are beginning to make their presence felt. In a few decades, I don’t think it will have mattered much to anybody but ourselves during a few head-start years how the trees came about. Aside from the possibility that climate change will get the final word, soon enough the only thing that will matter is whether the people who are stewarding the land after us suffer the woodland to continue or not.

Campaigning eco-journalist George Monbiot makes a good case for reconsidering parts of Britain’s woodland cover as rainforest, a resonant word that might make us re-evaluate the way we think about our trees. He defines rainforest as forest wet enough to support epiphytes such as mosses. In the same article, he goes on to make a slightly less good case for preferring natural regeneration over tree-planting on various grounds, including the notion that a plantation “takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest”.

So let me present to you Exhibit A – a tree we planted that’s now encircled with epiphytic moss. And Exhibit B, a view of part of our woodland shot from behind Vallis palace that I’d suggest arguably does at least ‘resemble’ a natural forest. Reader, I grew a rainforest in fifteen years!

I don’t want to go out of my way to annoy George, but I can’t resist also presenting Exhibit C – ovine silvo-pasture. But, talking of livestock, let’s go back to Exhibit A. What is that unsightly gouging in the soil around my moss-encircled rainforest tree? That, my friend, is the work of two pigs I’m currently raising. Which perhaps is problematic, at least if you follow the advice of my fellow Chelsea Green author Steve Gabriel in his interesting book Silvopasture. Steve argues that the rooting of pigs too easily disturbs the soil around trees, threatening the long-term survival of the trees to the extent that pigs are not a great choice for agroforestry livestock, despite their woodland origins.

It’s not my intention to pick a quarrel with Steve, who I’m sure knows a great deal more than I do about agroforestry systems. In the case of my own particular system, I usually raise two pigs over six months out of every two years in about two acres of mixed woodland, grassland and cropland with supplemental feeding, which I think keeps the habitat pressure relatively low. Even so, it’s possible that the depredations of the pigs seen in Exhibit A will prove lethal in the medium term to that tree (the pigs seem to home in on particular trees and grassland patches, leaving others undisturbed). So perhaps I will be guilty of destroying a rainforest not long after growing it, though the likely death of its ash trees seems a weightier matter, and one that’s beyond my control.

But I can’t summon an awful lot of anxiety about the pig damage. People have learned a lot in recent times about the intricate complexities of old growth forests and the extraordinary symbioses between their plants, fungi, animals and microbes. But I fear this too easily generates a misplaced snootiness about younger growth woodlands and the simpler, more aggressive interactions they contain, where trees have the role of what forester Peter Wohlleben calls ‘street kids’, prematurely left to fend for themselves in a risky, live fast die young lifestyle.

Wohlleben himself shows in his book The Hidden Life of Trees that even in the absence of human intervention the road to old age for a tree is strewn with dangers, with most never making it. And why in any case should the absence of human intervention be a relevant datum? Humans, like pigs, play the ecological role of patch-disturber, holding up ecological succession and introducing greater mosaic diversity into the landscape. This is not in itself an ignoble role, even if the number of people and the number of pigs in the world today has made us more than ‘patch’ disturbers. Organisms that cause trees to grow or not to grow and cause them to fall before their time are another part of woodland ecology.

Simon Fairlie wrote a fascinating chapter in his wonderful book Meat about the trade-offs between grassland and woodland in agriculture that he called ‘The struggle between light and shade’. This speaks to an open question in our farming systems that we can never quite get right – how much patch disturbance and how much succession, how much labour input and how much nature’s way, how many perennials and how many annuals, how much grass, how much woodland, how much cropland? As my pigs root among the trees, I’m conscious that this question is forever open – and I’m only one of the protagonists in it, who doesn’t necessarily get the final word.

But as I turn my attention in forthcoming posts to the more political and social aspects of farm systems, I want to interpret the ‘struggle between light and shade’ more metaphorically. So much of our thinking invests itself in totalizing dualities. Right versus wrong, good versus evil, truth versus error, ‘science’ versus ideology, righteousness versus sin, or light versus shade. As I prepare to wade into the partial and messy world of human affairs and opinions, in which I hold some pretty firm ones of my own, I want to pause for a moment in the forest’s dappled glades that the pigs have opened up. Neither right nor wrong, neither light nor shade. This is not a vapid argument that the ‘middle ground’ is always best. Perhaps it’s just an argument for a bit of intellectual patch disturbance, to follow the pig’s way, without pre-commitment to the benefits of either light or shade.

Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

After the Anthropocene: notes from a distempered winter

Most of my outdoor this work this winter has involved felling in quantity the European ash trees on our farm. Another species stricken by a new pathogen, one seemingly far more deadly to it than the SARS-CoV-2 virus currently afflicting humanity. In this case it’s the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus that’s killing somewhere between 70 and 90% of ash trees across Europe.

I’m not especially sentimental about trees, and the task hasn’t felt unduly sorrowful. If we survive our own affliction, we’ll make use of the felled wood and replant with a wider mix of younger trees, improving the vitality of our woodland. Even so, the loss of the ash troubles me. And, as I fell them, there’s cause to wonder at these silent creatures we planted just sixteen years ago, when our own children were young, now dwarfing my height and weight many times over. In winter especially, they seem hardly alive. They make no complaint intelligible to human senses as the chain bites into them. Yet beneath the smooth sheen of their bark there are life processes of immense complexity, not too unlike the ones in my own body, that I’m bringing to an end.

I doubt I’ll ever be an expert woodsman, but this winter I’ve felt comfortable with the chainsaw in my hands – no longer a novice tiptoeing nervously around the machine’s raw danger, but holding it close and feeling relaxed. It sounds absurd to call chainsawing meditative, but that’s how I felt about it – devoting my mind to the tangible facts of gravity, planning my cuts, judging the tree’s fall line, attuning myself to the minute physics of compression and tension in the fallen tree as I sliced and diced its tissue, feeling my sweat and the acrid exhaust as the residue of real work, and taking small pleasure in a modest competence. At this point in my life, modest competence is about as much as I can hope for from my jack-of-all-trades smallholding career.

The chainsaw is almost a cliché of industrial society’s brutal onslaught against nature, yet that onslaught has now reached the stage where a person toting a chainsaw in the woods is far too quaint and human-scaled a proposition for commercial forestry to turn a profit. Nowadays, giant forwarders and feller bunchers that topple trees like ninepins in remote upland plantations are the only realistic business model. But I suspect those days will pass, and a time will come again when we’ll keep our trees close by, and our saws and axes will be tools of considerate husbandry.

As I work in the woods I notice small signs of self-willed nature that we never included in our planting plan. Elder, birch and even walnut sprouts where we planted only ash. Grey squirrels – that indomitable American import – scamper overhead, building their dreys. Wrens and long-tailed tits flit among the brash piles. Moss encircles the ash trunks. A spider, perfectly camouflaged against a trunk, crouches motionless until I unwittingly brush it and it scuttles away. Most of this would be flattened by someone operating a feller buncher without them even noticing.

And then of course there’s the Hymenoscyphus that’s sickening the ash – no small sign, this – most likely the outcome of too much human trafficking across the bounds of biogeography, much like our own troubles with SARS-CoV-2. In these northerly latitudes we have so few tree species, I feel we can’t afford to lose these ash. We have few tree species, and just one great ape. I mourn their losses too, for – as I said in my last post – they are me.

But what a strange world we apes have made for ourselves! A perennial issue for the small farmer is how to adjust to the dictates of bureaucracy – too big in scale to easily adopt the below-the-radar stance of the private householder, too small in scale for many of the one-size-fits-all regulations to make sense. My intended operations on the ash brought me just within the lower limits of the need for a felling licence, so I decided to apply for one – but when it emerged that a rare species of horseshoe bat was roosting in the semi-natural woodlands near our site my application was held, pending a full ecological assessment before I was allowed to touch a tree.

There are some ironies here. The reason the bats are rare is because most of our native woodlands have been razed for agriculture. But while there’s no requirement for farmers to restore any woodland on their fields for bats or other reasons – in fact, under existing regulations, there’s a large disincentive – those of us who take it upon themselves to create more mixed habitats anyway chafe under restrictions arising from this wider neglect.

Eventually, our licence came through. We were told that, if managed carefully, our proposals wouldn’t disadvantage the bats and may even bring them benefits. I’d like to take a lesson from this respectfully back to the person who wrote on this website some years ago that our new woodland planting was of ‘no ecological value’. I think I can now safely demur, with a paper trail from the Forestry Commission as my evidence, for it seems our woodland planting has ecological value vis-à-vis horseshoe bats, at least. But what is ‘ecological value’? And who gets to quantify it? Horseshoe bats? Ash? Hymenoscyphus fraxineus?

Meanwhile, around the same time as our little local horseshoe bat issue was going on it’s possible that, in another part of the world, another species of horseshoe bat was harbouring a virus that jumped over to humans and started laying waste to many of us. It’s started laying waste, too, to many of the established social arrangements through which we’ve come to think of ourselves as creatures quite above the cut and thrust of the ordinary biology affecting other organisms. Workplaces. Salaries. Airlines. Capital. Well-stocked supermarkets.

Where this story ends it’s far too soon to tell, of course. Some say that with Covid-19 nature is sending us a message. I guess that’s true, though I’d add that nature has always been sending us messages, every second, every day. Many of them we don’t need to notice, while some of them we probably should notice when we don’t. Some of them are small and some – like Covid-19 – are big.

I’d also add that while nature may be sending us a message, there are numerous ways we could answer it – and nature doesn’t much care which answer we choose. So my guess is that everyone will find ways to interpret the pandemic as somehow confirmatory of their pre-existing philosophies. For my part, I’m hoping that we’ll hear a little less in the future about the Anthropocene – the notion that humans now condition earth systems so deeply and so one-sidedly to our advantage as a species that we can name a geological era after ourselves. Because what it’s felt like to me this winter as I’ve worked within the woodland is that I’m not a master of my world but a dweller in the land, acting on it according to my designs and being acted on by other organisms according to theirs, whether it’s ash or elder, horseshoe bats or Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, Forestry Commission bureaucrats or a tiny package of invisible RNA that may yet fell me before the year is out as surely as I’ve felled my ash.

Equally, I expect Anthropocene aficionados and enthusiasts for ecomodernism will double down, concluding from the pandemic that humanity needs to further escape its animal constraints – perhaps initially by developing a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (I’d be with them on that) but ultimately by escaping our embodied, earthbound existence and trafficking with the gods among the byways of the universe (not so much).

I’ve learned there’s little point in arguing with these dreamers, but I hope the pandemic might make a few folks otherwise apt to fall for their siren song pause and take stock. Humans are mighty architects of nature for sure, but so are other organisms – and maybe we’d do better to find a seat at the table alongside them, rather than scorning their presence. In the longer term, I think it might help us find that seat if one message we take from Covid-19 is along the lines of Rob Wallace’s writings on agribusiness and the political economy of disease that people were discussing under my last post – writings that point, I think, to a small farm future.

Ultimately, the song of nature is call and response. It’s a collective game of gambits and counter-gambits that doesn’t have much truck with uppity soloists. So while I half agree with this website’s go-to agronomist Andy McGuire that there’s scarcely such a thing as a ‘balance of nature’, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we humans have no need to seek our own kinds of balance. Maybe chainsaws but not forwarders. Maybe vaccines but not spaceships.

My fallen ash trees now lie piled up in the woodland rides. Soon I plan to cut them, split them and stack them in the woodshed. Some warmth to see me through another winter, I hope, with another set of challenges. More songs, more stories.

The case for planting trees

So many possibilities to choose from as a subject for my first new blog post since May, now that I’m free of book-writing duties… Maybe a report from my time last week at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London (and at the City of London Magistrate’s Court watching my dear wife being committed for trial)? Or the ongoing, pointless debacle of Brexit and its oh-so-predictable descent into constitutional crisis and incipient authoritarianism. But that’s all quite raw and I need something gentler to ease my way back into the blogosphere, so I think I’ll talk instead about trees – and in particular about the case for planting them vis-à-vis allowing natural woodland generation, as discussed by George Monbiot in a recent article.

I’ve made something of a habit in recent years of writing blog posts criticizing various positions of George’s so let me begin by stating once again that this isn’t because I think his writing is especially wrongheaded but on the contrary because he’s virtually the only mainstream journalist in the UK who consistently focuses on issues that really matter with a depth that merits critical discussion. And in fact there’s not much that I disagree with in his article. But I’d like to elaborate on a few points.

In his article, George decries

“conservation woodlands” that look nothing like ecological restoration and everything like commercial forestry: the ground blasted with glyphosate (a herbicide that kills everything), trees planted in straight rows, in plastic tree guards attached with cable ties to treated posts. It looks hideous, it takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest and, in remote parts of the nation, it is often the primary cause of plastic litter.

He argues instead for natural regeneration of woodland, and suggests that government woodland grants should be devoted primarily to funding it rather than to tree-planting initiatives. In this, he’s on message with a strong current of thinking in the permaculture world – don’t plant, regenerate!

Now, if I was an environmentally-minded person in possession of a parcel of land and with no other particular objectives for it I’d probably go along with the natural generation advice. But I’d like to raise a couple of broad issues that complicate things.

First up, having planted seven acres of woodland myself fifteen years ago I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be quite as awful as George suggests. Here, for example, is a photo of part of our plantation taken about ten years ago in George’s ‘looks hideous’ phase, plastic tree guards and all, looking down upon a part of our establishing market garden.

And here’s a photo taken from the same viewpoint two weeks ago.

Bearing in mind that most of the trees in the picture are notoriously slow-growing hornbeams, I’d suggest that our plantation isn’t doing too badly in ‘resembling’ a natural forest, and maybe ‘a decade’ rather than ‘decades’ is a more accurate timeframe to hold in mind for the process.

I removed the plastic tree guards visible in the first picture, reused some of them for other plantings, gave some of them to other people, got some of them back and reused them again, then finally put most of them in a skip a couple of years ago. They definitely come with an environmental price tag, but there are ways of reducing it. And they do a job which still has to be done with natural regeneration. Yes, brambles and blackthorn may protect establishing trees from deer, rabbits, voles, sheep and suchlike – but not always very effectively or quickly.

Here’s a shot of our woodshed from a couple of weeks ago, with a fraction of the thinnings I’ve cut from our plantation getting readied for use. We’re now producing winter heating and hot water for two buildings from our plantation, with enough left over for some modest income from firewood. Meanwhile, we’re getting numerous other benefits from the woodland – not least in terms of wildlife. The trees and the herbaceous layer beneath them have become a favoured haunt for numerous birds, insects, mammals and even reptiles in marked contrast to the arable field you can see at the bottom right of the aerial shot of our farm heading this website.

Therefore, to anyone who’s contemplating planting trees on a piece of land because they have specific goals for it, as we did – wind protection, privacy, nitrogen fixation, firewood and timber, amenity value, fruit and nuts, even wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration at a stretch – I say don’t be put off by the permaculture purists who insist on natural regeneration. Go for it.

Another aspect of permaculture purism concerning trees is the notion that they’re a low value land use best avoided on decent agricultural land and relegated to the furthest reaches of one’s property or, at landscape scale, to far off wastelands. It’s interesting in the light of that to look at Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s The Isolated State (1826), which was based on a careful geographical analysis of the costs and benefits of zoning different crops in a substantially pre fossil-fuel agrarian economy where land transport costs were high, and so were urban demands for firewood and construction timber. In that context, von Thünen placed the woodland zone serving his hypothetical settlement close to it, second only to gardens and dairies, while placing production of grain and meat further out from the settlement. Having basically hand logged a proportion of my timber and hand harvested my grain over the years I can attest to his wisdom. Another case for ignoring received wisdom: put the woodland close to home.

A final and rather unhappy thought on the case for tree planting. Where I live the main pioneer tree that you see regenerating everywhere is ash, which is currently being hammered by ash dieback disease with mortalities reportedly between 70 and 90%. More generally, the trajectory of climate change is such that trees regenerating now may not prosper some years hence. Though I usually subscribe to the doctrine that ‘nature knows best’ when it comes to organizing wild biodiversity, human fiddling has now taken us into realms where there may be a case for a bit more forward planning (i.e. further fiddling) on our part. Don’t worry, I’m not turning full ecomodernist and claiming that we now need to bioengineer the entire world. But I do think there’s a case at the margin for some thoughtful human tree planting in service of present objectives with an eye on the future. It probably adds to the biodiversity…

Turning just briefly to the second broad issue, I also have some reservations over George’s enthusiasm for government grants to fund natural woodland generation. In fact, though I’m far from a free market ultra I have some reservations about government grants for most things because I think the potential for perverse incentives is high and they prompt questions about the market or social/policy failures that underlie the need for the grant-making. For his part, George has campaigned tirelessly and for the most part persuasively against the implicit grant of EU agricultural subsidies that reward landowners simply for owning land. Grants that reward landowners for simply owning land and allowing trees to grow on it strike me as only a small notch further up this scale, so his advocacy for it surprises me a little.

A further issue is monitoring and compliance. Under the old Woodland Grant Scheme the Forestry Commission took no interest in the plantings they funded after ten years – but at least they ensured that grant-holders had first gone to the trouble of establishing a viable plantation, and it’s unlikely that anyone who’d done that would uproot all their hard work a decade later. With natural generation, on the other hand, a decade of nature’s work can easily be undone in a few minutes with a flail mower. Who would monitor this? For how long? With what sanctions? And at what cost?

I’d prefer to go von Thünen’s way. An old saying has it that “the wood that pays is the wood that stays” – what we need to do is figure out how to start developing a woodland estate that ‘pays’ us by serving long-term human needs in an age of climate change and energy descent. These needs include wildlife and natural biodiversity but aren’t restricted to them. This seems to me preferable to spending precious public money now on paying landowners to let their land run wild for a few years before other priorities doubtless insinuate themselves. To do so, I’d place more emphasis on wider social change than on grant-making.

Songs from the wood

We shall soon be turning to weightier matters here at Small Farm Future, so let us pause for breath and take a stroll around the woods of our home turf at Vallis Veg this fin(ish) morning. Here, have some musical accompaniment, and relax.  After all, it’s not as if there are any other important political events to discuss today.

It was nearly fourteen years ago when La Brassicata and I bought our little eighteen acre slice of Somerset. At the time, it comprised permanent pasture in its entirety, with just one mature tree on the site (plus a couple of hedgerows). I was very enthused by the idea of planting trees in those days, after a brush with the law (Ben Law, that is), and over the next four years we planted more than seven acres of the blighters – fruit orchards, nut orchards, short-rotation willow coppice, alder/hazel windbreaks, hawthorn and blackthorn hedges and – most of all – large blocks of mixed native deciduous trees.

A few years after that, I read some of the critiques of arboricentrism that were arising within and without the permaculture movement – Patrick Whitefield’s strictures against the carefully-curated facsimiles of ancient woodland springing up around the countryside like so many out-of-place lollipops borne aloft on ugly plastic sticks, and Simon Fairlie’s broadside against permaculturists for turning agricultural grassland capable of producing high value food into low value woodland1.

These, I think, were worthwhile critiques – people can indeed get a bit over-enthusiastic about trees, and it’s always good to ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ of any farming choice. But ultimately I have few regrets about doing what we did (well, maybe the blackthorn…) The ugly lollipop phase only lasts a few years, and nothing gives me more pleasure on our holding now than the beauty of the well-established young woodland mantling the site.


Patrick himself admitted that the entire British countryside is a largely human fabrication, so I see no particular reason to take umbrage at the ‘artificiality’ of tree planting. Perhaps there’s more merit in Simon’s critique, but the per hectare productivity of purely grass-fed livestock isn’t that impressive. A vegetable garden with a few rows of potatoes of the kind we’ve planted here more than compensates nutritionally for the loss of productive pasture to the trees. Besides, it’s possible to stack functions as the English commoners of old did with their wood pastures – a practice I’ve mimicked here with my sheep in and around the woodland.


The woodland we’ve planted has brought various tangible and less tangible benefits. Fruit and nuts, tree hay, wind and sun protection, privacy (which surely helped in our successful planning application for a dwelling), children’s dens, and wildlife habitat – I can’t prove anything on the latter front, but the bird and invertebrate life in our woodland does seem to me richer than that I’ve observed in the surrounding arable and pastoral fields. The woodland has also proved a hit with our campers, who like their individual tree-dappled pitches – not a venture we anticipated when we planted the woodland, but one that certainly supplements the unpromising economics of food production, and that we probably couldn’t have done without the trees.

But I guess the main economic contribution of trees is their wood. With older woodland than ours, and with the requisite skill and machinery, of course it’s possible to make construction timber – which we’ve already done in a minor, homespun way around the site. An easier use, touched on in recent debates here about sustainable energy futures, is to burn it for space or water heating, or for mechanical power.

The original idea of our planting back in 2005/6 was to cut a large part of it for fuelwood (and, perhaps, craft-wood) coppice, in time-honoured local fashion. But for various practical and aesthetic reasons we’re not so keen to coppice it now. Almost all the trees were originally planted on a 3x3m spacing, as required by the Forestry Commission contract under which we did the planting. So now the time has come to start thinning them – this past winter of 2016/17 being the first one in which I did any appreciable amount of it. The picture below shows your humble blog editor posing in front of this winter’s thinnings.



And this one, the same wood after a few minutes’ madness with the chainsaw (I wouldn’t recommend the resting position in the picture to anyone but a seasoned woodsman like me).


Now then, a quick bit of home economics. Our current palatial residence comprises a prefab wooden cabin c/w woodstove, along with the static caravan that furnishes the stunning architectural backdrop to the last picture. The woodstove provides space heating in (most of) the cabin and hot water via a back boiler throughout the winter (hot water in the summer comes from solar tubes). The caravan is only used as a bedroom, which we heat in the winter with a butane stove – just a quick burn before we go to bed to stop our breath from misting too much as we dive under the bedclothes. Still, I know what you’re thinking. Butane! Plus the insulation in the caravan is almost non-existent, so it feels like all we’re really doing is adding another little bit of entropy to the universe. Ah, such are the vagaries of the British planning system and its insistence upon ‘sustainable’ development. But we only get through about one 15kg butane cylinder each winter (plus about half a dozen 19kg propane cylinders for cooking through the year – another candidate for a wood-burning solution). We’ll be building a permanent – and properly insulated – house to replace the caravan this year or next, so I suspect there’ll be another wood-burner. But how best to heat the new house with it – masonry stove, central heating, underfloor heating, or the same warm living room surrounded by chilly bedrooms that we’re used to? What’s that you say? Passive house? Yeah, OK, OK.

Anyway, I reckon the pile of wood you see in the picture should pretty much be enough for our heating and hot water needs over next winter. I’ll let you know next year whether I turn out to be right. In addition to the wood pictured, I cut a 44m row of willow coppice, displayed on the back of the tractor in the next photo (well, strictly pollard rather than coppice – deer and rabbit pressure being what it is, I generally cut the poles at 4 feet).


I have a six year rotation of willow, comprising Salix viminalis in 6 x 44m rows (sorry about mixing imperial with metric measures…it’s only going to get worse as our confusion in Britain about which side of the Atlantic we’re on intensifies). This is the eighth year I’ve cut it (so the wood in the picture was the second cut from the second row). I cut it a bit late, at the end of March, and left it stacked outside through a pretty warm, dry spring as whole poles until last month when I finally got around to sawing it up – at which point it weighed 240kg in total. So would it be fair to guess a final air-dry weight of at least 140kg? That’d work out at about 6 tonnes per hectare of air-dry wood – quite low for short-rotation coppice where yields of up to 20 tonnes per hectare are reported. Though to be fair my willow coppice gets the full force of the strong prevailing southwesterly winds on the site (it doubles as a windbreak) and has never had any appreciable added fertiliser.

Next year, I’d imagine we’ll be cutting a lot more thinnings than the amount shown in the picture above. And I’d guess that if we had a mature coppice system established we could probably get more out still. I’m aiming to plant a bit more fuelwood coppice in my upcoming agroforestry project. Meanwhile, I experimented with cutting a micro-cant of ash pollards in the pig enclosure (pictured, first just after cutting in early March, and now in June with the regrowth).








I’m not sure if it’ll work on that scale – it’ll be interesting to see (the light shade cast by ash will surely help…) But the point I’m moving towards here on the basis of the experiences described above is that I think a reasonably well-wooded smallholding like ours can probably grow enough wood to provide heating, hot water and cooking for a household, maybe two households. There may be a bit left over for construction and farm timber, and for providing mechanical power such as the steam engines we were discussing here a few weeks ago – but I suspect not a whole lot. So there may be a significant limitation there in terms of my self-sufficiency aims for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, in the absence of abiotic forms of energy capture such as photovoltaics. That, at any rate, is my proposal for debate. Britain is a densely populated country, but it has a lot of farmland – probably enough to feed the population tolerably well, as I’ve argued in my cycle of Wessex posts. The corollary, however, is that it doesn’t have much woodland – maybe enough for heating, cooking and hot water, probably not enough for construction or energy.

I reckon I probably used about 10 litres of petrol in the small chainsaw pictured above to fell, limb and then cut up all the trees pictured above (I’d probably have used a little less if I wasn’t such a laggard with the file…) Next year I’ll try to measure it properly. All the trees were hauled out by hand to the track bisecting our property and then taken up to the house by tractor, using a pretty negligible amount of diesel. I might use Spudgirl’s pony next year for some horse-logging and make him earn his keep a little more. Anyway, even with the chainsaw it felt like a lot of damned hard work (perhaps the more so now my bones are a little creakier than they once were). The thought of doing it with a bowsaw makes my hands go clammy. I know, I know, I’m not a proper populist and I’m not a proper peasant either. Still, the lesson I infer for the latter-day peasant republic in Britain is that if we want to fund even a low energy input agrarian society with renewable energy, I think we’ll need to be looking beyond biomass and towards technologies like wind and photovoltaics. These technologies are now cheap enough, and I’m not persuaded that the trapped asset argument on the radical green side of the political divide makes a whole lot more sense than the foot-dragging of the fossilheads on the right. Still, in the short-term every peasant household in Wessex gets a ration of 25 litres of petrol per annum for its chainsaw and 2-wheel tractor, and until our economic policy wonks have figured out how to develop a local import substitution industry, we’ll be prioritising trade deals with Germany and Japan so that Mr Stihl and Mr Honda can ease our aching arms.

PS. I’m going to be hunkered down somewhere well away from any internet connection over the next few days, so if you’re kind enough to comment on this post please forgive me if I don’t respond until some time next week.


  1. Whitefield, P. 2009. The Living Landscape. Permanent Publications; Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Permanent Publications.


Gardening or Forest Gardening?

It seems likely that in the coming years climate change will make parts of the world increasingly uninhabitable and their lands increasingly uncultivable, leading to population movements towards the remaining cultivable areas. At the same time, energy prices will probably continue to rise, resulting in a situation where more people have to be fed from less land using fewer inputs. What would farming look like in that situation, and what kind of societies would result from it?

An army of technocrats and associated cheerleaders are hoping to engineer their way out of this troubling situation. Who knows, maybe they’ll succeed – at least temporarily. In the mean time, permaculturists and many in the alternative farming movement are focusing on more homespun small-farm solutions involving labour intensification, close resource husbandry (soil, water, energy) and the like. But of course we don’t really know if that will succeed either.

Maybe we can get some kind of inkling about the likely ecological and social shape of a future intensive small farm society by looking at examples of such societies from the past. Like colonial Indonesia, for example, as analysed by Clifford Geertz in his book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. It’s an old book, first published in 1963, and I have to admit it’s one of those classics that I was supposed to have read in college but never did. Still, only about twenty years later I’ve put that right, and I think what Geertz says is of interest when applied to our contemporary predicaments.

Geertz contrasts two indigenous forms of Indonesian agriculture – the swidden (‘slash and burn’) agriculture of the forest and the sawah agriculture (wet rice paddy) of the cleared terraces. Swidden involves cutting and burning primary forest, and then reseeding the cleared area with a complex interplanted polyculture of annual and perennial root, leaf, seed and woody crops, using leguminous crops and the ash as fertiliser. After a few years of production, the cleared plot is left to return to secondary forest before being cleared once more after a lengthy fallow period. Swidden was often regarded as an irrational and destructive agriculture by earlier generations of western analysts, but Geertz and other anthropologists of the 1950s and 60s showed that it was subtly adapted both to the needs of the farmers and the ecology of the forest – it was “a canny imitation of the natural landscape” in which “a natural forest is transformed into a harvestable forest” while retaining the same basic form of the natural ecosystem. In other words, its logic was a lot like that of the temperate forest gardens that have been popularised by the permaculture movement.

Of course, the two aren’t identical. For example, swidden is mobile because tropical forest soils are generally poor with the majority of ecosystem nutrients being held in living biomass which has to be unlocked through burning. Mature forest trees also need felling in order to establish more manageable and useful woody crops. Forest gardens, on the other hand, can take advantage of nutrient rich soils in temperate climes and of modern dwarfing rootstocks. But both are ways of mimicking early woodland succession to preserve perennial polyculture while diverting it to human ends.

One problem with swidden mentioned by Geertz is that, despite its complexity and its preservation of ecosystem properties, what he calls its ‘equilibrium’ is a lot more delicate than that of natural forest. Managed badly, swidden easily leads to ecological deterioration, and the replacement of forest cover by invasive grasses that create ‘green deserts’. One way this occurs is through population pressure – if the fallow period is excessively shortened, or the system is otherwise overdriven to divert more of the nutrient cycle into extra human mouths then productivity decline and ecological deterioration result. In other words, the system isn’t expandable.

Not so with sawah, according to Geertz. The stability of the rice terrace as an ecosystem, he says, means that “even the most intense population pressure does not lead to a breakdown of the system on the physical side (though it may lead to extreme impoverishment on the human side)…the sawah seems virtually indestructible”. The output of the rice terraces can be “almost indefinitely increased” by what Geertz calls “careful, fine-comb cultivation techniques”, in other words by intensive gardening (horticultural) rather than agricultural techniques: pregermination, transplanting, exact spacing, careful composting, meticulous weeding and harvesting.

Perhaps we could express these contradictory tendencies of swidden and sawah in the jargon of economics. A lot of jobs can be more easily completed when there are more people to help (“many hands make light work”).  Indeed, often each extra (or ‘marginal’ in economic jargon) person contributes as much or even incrementally more to the final result – there is constant or increasing marginal productivity of labour. But there comes a point when adding yet more workers starts to have a proportionally lower effect (“too many cooks spoil the broth”) – there is diminishing marginal productivity of labour. That point of diminishing returns is reached quite quickly in the case of swidden, to the extent that adding more workers (ie. experiencing population growth) threatens the very ecological viability of the system. But with sawah marginal productivity doesn’t seem to decrease– you can achieve constant returns to labour.

It’s interesting to apply this marginal labour analysis to growing methods in drier, more temperate climates such as here in the UK. So for example forest gardens are often extolled for their abundance and designed redundancy. You’re never going to pick all their fruit, all their edible leaves and other goodies. But it doesn’t matter – it’s there for the picking if you want it, and if you don’t it’ll fill the belly of a bird or a beetle and somehow cycle its way back through the system into a future crop.

I think that makes a lot of sense given the nature of the present UK economy. Most of us don’t need to grow food for subsistence, but most of us don’t have much spare time either, so if we’re going to grow food it makes sense to opt for a low input system like a forest garden (besides its ecological advantages over other growing systems). Suppose, however, that we face the situation mentioned at the outset of rising food and energy prices and a rising local population. Growing space is now at a premium, and you have to start looking to your forest garden as a real source of subsistence. You used to harvest its best-looking apples and plums, grab a few welsh onions, snip the occasional herb, and then pretty much leave it alone. Now you go back to it, looking to reap more of its abundance. The wineberries are pretty tasty, but crikey it’s a lot of work fiddling about with all those little fruits. How many orache leaves do you need to pick for the family lunch? And where exactly has that walking onion wandered off to? I strongly suspect that, as with subsistence swidden, diminishing marginal productivity of labour will quickly kick in, and the cleverly redundant abundance that you designed into it might start to seem more redundant than abundant.

Let me be clear that this is in no way intended to be an argument against planting forest gardens, but it is an argument – or at least a hypothesis – about the returns to labour that forest gardens may furnish. Temperate forest gardening is still in its infancy, so maybe people will come up with forest garden designs with good marginal labour productivity. But only if we think about the issue – simple advocacy for abundance too easily neglects it, and this is an important omission in David Holmgren’s discussion of the ‘maximum yield fallacy’ in his influential book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (p.159).  For while he’s right to criticise mainstream approaches for focusing too narrowly on single yields at the expense of considering secondary yields, without considering marginal labour productivity those secondary yields can all too easily turn out to be rather theoretical. Holmgren asks us to contrast a high energy input monoculture with a low energy input polyculture to suggest the superiority of the latter. But Geertz’s analysis suggests that in situations where low energy input is a given, high labour input monocultures or near monocultures may sometimes outperform low labour input polycultures in terms of marginal labour productivity.

So would the same hold true for a future low input UK agriculture? If the forest garden doesn’t yield enough, can you bend your back a bit more in the intensive vegetable garden to make good the deficit? I suspect our temperate dry-land staple crops don’t offer the extraordinarily constant returns to labour that Geertz reports for sawah.  I haven’t yet located any useful data on marginal labour productivities (either on a per unit area basis or otherwise) – and indeed Geertz himself is a bit coy on the hard numbers when it comes to Indonesian sawah. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with some relevant figures. But in the absence of proper data, here’s a few factoids:

  • The highest reported rice yields are 5.21 times higher than global average yields, whereas the corresponding global figures for wheat and potatoes (the two key UK staple crops) are 5.03 and 5.06 (source – trusty old Wikipedia).
  •  Average UK (arable) wheat yields have increased fourfold since the 1880s as a result of technical developments such as synthetic NPK fertiliser, dwarf cultivars and fungicides, currently averaging around 7.8 tonnes per hectare (but each subsequent yield-increasing technique is likely to offer incrementally less).
  • In his excellent book Small-Scale Grain Raising Gene Logsdon reckons that a small grower in the temperate USA can grow about 6 tonnes of wheat per hectare, enigmatically adding that “a really good wheat grower with a little luck” could double that yield (apparently the world record wheat yield is 15.6 t/ha by a New Zealand farmer).
  • John Jeavons, doubtless a really good wheat grower – and one who has the luck to live in Southern California – reports wheat yields for his biointensive methods of 12.7 t/ha.

Actually, given that Jeavons’ methods are highly labour intensive, maybe a comparison of his maximum yield figures with national average yield figures might give us a handle on marginal labour productivity (though of course his methods don’t only involve applying more labour). Taking the ratio of Jeavons’ maximum productivity to average US productivity (derived from pages 143, 151 and 153 of his book How to Grow More Vegetables…8 edn) his figures are as follows:

  •  Potatoes    9.3
  • Rice             6.3
  • Wheat         4.9

So maybe rice meets its match with potatoes as the temperate staple to focus labour intensification around (though presumably his rice figures are based on dry cultivation, not paddy). Well, I hate to say I told you so, but millions of Irish peasants can’t be wrong (…or can they?) Actually, I find some of Jeavons’ figures rather curious. And few organic gardeners I know in the UK manage to match the average arable potato yields here of about 45 t/ha, which – to put it mildly – is some way below Jeavons’ maximum yield of 382 t/ha. I’ll try to come back to this topic with some better data in the future.

So where does all this lead? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but inasmuch as climate change and rising energy costs might force us to intensify agricultural productivity with low input methods in the future, I’d predict that in the UK we might see relatively little use of techniques like forest gardening, more use of techniques such as orchard silvo-pastoralism, more people working harder to produce smaller yield increments of staple crops (potatoes?) and a worrying convergence between actual demand and theoretical maximum supply for such crops. In other words, we might see a UK farming landscape that doesn’t look too different from the traditional small-scale mixed farming of our forebears. Which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising since indigenous agricultures have generally figured out better than anything how to feed local populations maximally in the context of energy constraint.

In the past, Europeans managed to revolutionise local food availability by various means: technical innovation, exporting people or importing food through colonial or trade relationships. I suspect that none of those options will be so easily achieved in the future, which will mean people may have to work harder for less reward to earn their bread. A big issue that this raises – and that Geertz’s study also touches on – is what society would look like in those circumstances. But that I’ll leave to the next post.

Seeing The Wood For The Trees…Again

I posted a while back about the relative merits of grassland and woodland for food production. Here’s a little addendum to that post.

Suppose you can produce 170kg of beef from 1 hectare of grassland annually – quite a generous supposition, I think, if the cattle are being fed from the grass alone. That amounts to something like 1,960MJ of food energy.

Suppose alternatively that you have two oak trees and two crab apples on your hectare of woodland, producing something like 160kg of acorns and 100kg of crab apples annually. In practice, you’d probably have more than that, or at least you’d also have some other trees or shrubs producing something of food value, but frankly harvesting it all would be a pain so let’s take those figures as a realistic achievable harvest. That would yield something like 2,680MJ of food energy.

Now, I’m not saying that this crude exercise tells you anything very significant about whether you should choose woodland or grassland in any particular situation. And there are lots of additional factors to consider – other nutrients, processing inputs, fertility inputs and outputs, joint products, management issues, system redundancies, and palatability to name a few (a plate of roast beef or a plate of acorns – I know what I’d choose). Still, on the face of it this suggests to me that choosing to plant a woodland may not necessarily be inferior nutritionally to retaining permanent pasture, which is interesting.

In my earlier post I hedged my bets a bit, but I suppose my general drift assumed that a mature woodland was of less food value than permanent grassland. But now I’m not so sure that this is necessarily the case.  Well, that’s the beauty of a blog, I suppose. Yesterday’s thoughts disappear off the bottom of the page, and are easily replaced with today’s entirely different ones. And nobody will notice and give me any grief about it, with the possible exception of Paul Hillman. But I don’t expect he’s looking.

Seeing the wood for the trees

I mentioned in my last post the coppice woodland at Vallis Veg – now officially ‘non-coppice woodland’ courtesy of the Rural Payments Agency, as I explained. That seems to lead naturally into a discussion of woodland at our site – or more specifically into the vexed question of the relationship between woodland, grassland and cropland – which I shall probably have to explore in more detail over time.

To start with, let me outline the different land usages on our site. When we bought the land (around 18 acres altogether) it was 100% permanent pasture. We now have about 2 acres of cropland (though some of this is down to temporary grass leys), 5 acres of permanent pasture and 10 acres of woodland. The woodland in turn breaks down into orchards (2 acres); forest garden (1 acre); ash, hornbeam and willow coppice (3 acres); and amenity woodland (4 acres).

I’ll assume that the orchards and forest garden are fairly uncontroversial forms of land use – I’ll probably post more about them in the future. What’s getting increasingly contentious these days (not that you’ll read about it in The Sun – though maybe one day you will…that’ll be when we know we really have blown it ecologically) is the balance between woodland proper, permanent grassland and cropland.

In his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie writes “There is a fringe of the green movement which has managed to reduce the complexity of nature to the formula ‘trees good, no trees bad’….If such people get hold of an area of grassland, often the first thing they want to do with it is plant trees all over it. The fact that someone, a long time ago, went to a lot of trouble to get the trees out, and that generations of people have spent energy making sure that trees stayed out, is lost on them” (p.239). In contrast to the products of the grassland a tree trunk, says Fairlie, is “a triumph of inedibility” (p.233).

Incidentally, I keep referring to Fairlie’s book on this blog, calling it ‘excellent’, and then disagreeing with it…and I’m now going to do it again. But it is excellent – the most comprehensive and nuanced case for global small-scale agriculture that I’ve come across.

Fairlie’s point is that woodland is a low value, fairly unproductive land use, whereas good agricultural land is best reserved for higher value agricultural use – particularly as we look forward to a time when we may have to make more effective use of every bit of farmland we have. The tree fetishists, on the other hand, have more nebulous – perhaps even spiritual – ends, like creating nice treescapes for human repose. Such dilettantism cuts little ice with Fairlie – “Woodland today,” he says, “is often planted according to the whims of people whose material livelihoods are more or less unrelated to the rural economy, so if these plantations meet the needs of future generations, it will be more by luck than design” (p.242).

Now, we did plant the amenity woodland at Vallis Veg with some of these vaguer aims in mind. Certainly, despite their inedible trunks, people seem to have a spiritual affinity for trees rarely felt for the annual herbaceous plants that actually feed them, with the possible exception of wheat (we had no trouble recruiting people to help us plant trees at Vallis Veg, whereas volunteers for my onion-weeding events are thinner on the ground). We also planted trees for what seemed at the time more practical objectives – future timber, privacy screening, wind protection, biodiversity, carbon sequestration. We didn’t feel able to manage livestock on the whole 18 acres, so woodland instead of grassland seemed like a good idea.

Reading Fairlie’s analysis has given me pause for thought. Support for it comes from woodland expert Oliver Rackham’s formidable (and excellent) book Woodlands. Rackham points out that woodland plantation on farmed grassland doesn’t usually add much biodiversity, mainly benefitting wildlife that’s already thriving like deer, pheasants, rooks and squirrels (oops…) And you don’t ever get a woodland ground flora if you plant on farmed grassland – you just get tussocky, weedy grass (though actually that is quite good for a lot of wildlife, though hardly very productive agriculturally). Rackham also dismisses carbon sequestration as a worthwhile objective for UK woodland plantation. “Exhorting people to plant trees to sequester carbon dioxide is like telling them to drink more water to hold down rising sea level” (p.439), he says, which is probably a fair point, and not a bad analogy inasmuch as tree-planting and water-drinking are essentially both parts of short-term cycles, whereas the real issue with carbon is our exhumation of long-sequestered reserves laid down in coal measures and oilfields.

So can a case still be made for farmed grassland wood plantations? I think so, if it’s done with proper care. For starters, I’d make the following two points:

  • because energy is currently so cheap, wood can be economically imported from almost anywhere for almost any use, including low grade ones like firewood. In the future, that’s unlikely to be the case. Demand for local firewood, craft wood and other forms of coppiced wood is likely to be high, so there’s a case for establishing local plantations – certainly not on all farmland, but possibly on some farmland. In this respect, I disagree with Fairlie’s view that people who aren’t tied to the current rural economy will make worse decisions when it comes to woodland than those who are. Rackham says “The landscape is full of trees grown for obsolete reasons, and probably always will be” (p.361). There have been times in history when coppice woodland fetched more per acre than arable land – the tree fetishists may yet prove to be right!
  • the main alternative to woodland is usually permanent pasture with grass-fed ruminants, and this is a low productivity system. With a bit of ingenuity, woodland systems may be equally productive. To make ruminant systems more productive would involve ploughing up permanent pasture and adopting grass ley/arable farming – but this has drastically negative environmental consequences, and most of the yield benefit would probably come from a one-time cash-in of the fertility accumulated in the permanent pasture.

The crux comes I think with the ‘ingenuity’ I mention that’s required to make woodland as productive as permanent pasture. Having watched my plantation ecosystem develop for a few years now, and having read Fairlie and Rackham’s thoughts on the matter, I’ve come to think that we probably do need to intervene more actively to balance some of our original goals with a greater emphasis on productivity. Here are my current three favourite ideas:

  • wood pasture: both ruminants and woodland are low productivity systems, so hey why not put them both together and graze ruminants on the grass between the trees? There are lots of practical issues to sort out here – the tendency of the animals to eat the trees rather than the grass (which probably indicates that all pasture ought really to be wood pasture), the competition between trees and grass (what Fairlie calls ‘the struggle between light and shade’) and so on. But there is a long and noble history of wood pasture in the UK, now sadly neglected in the face of intensive modern agriculture. Time perhaps to bring it back?
  • pigs, chickens and people: all edgeland creatures to a greater or lesser extent, happiest neither in deep forest nor treeless plain. So perhaps we can structure our woodland for our mutual benefit – acorns, crab apples and beech mast for the pigs (in addition to some fodder crops, of which more another time); invertebrates and perches for the chickens; birch wine, rowan jelly, acorn bread and hammocks for the people. Sounds idyllic.
  • forest gardening: this is catching on quickly, aided by publications such as Martin Crawford’s recent Creating A Forest Garden – the third and final excellent book that I need to mention in this post. But most forest garden designs are quite intensive, involving lots of fruit and nut harvesting amongst other things. Perhaps there’s also scope for lower input, more foresty forest gardens, involving…what exactly? Ah well, that’s a topic for another time.

In this post I’ve talked mostly about woodland, but really it needs to be looked at in the context of grassland and cropland as well so I’ll try to post some more on that soon. In the mean time, I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on tree plantations, particularly if you’ve created a plantation yourself, so do please post your comments – I know you’re out there reading this, because I have the website stats to prove it!