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.

It isn’t nice to block the courtroom…

A bit of news from the home front here at Small Farm Future, and a few reflections based around it. Today, my wife received a suspended prison sentence for disrupting a court as an act of protest against government inaction on climate change. Here is a short video she made explaining her behaviour and making the case for radical action beyond business as usual, with her own vision focused around small-scale farming. Please share it with your networks if you’re minded to – pebbles, ripples and all that.

At an earlier court appearance, she was troubled to be told by a magistrate that her right to protest climate policy had to be balanced against the right of people such as car drivers to go about their business. In her view, this encapsulated the distorted priorities of our decisionmakers in effectively trading off present niceties with the very stability of Earth systems that enable human and other lives.

Here’s an excerpt from the livestream of the court disruption, and here she is talking outside the court after her sentence with Shel, her partner in non-crime, with some good points well made by both of them, in my opinion.

I don’t know if her course of action today was the right one. She and I have discussed many times the choices to be made in the face of the world’s present looming crises and the limited powers of individuals, including the individuals in government, to effect change. I don’t think there can ever be clear answers to the question of what is to be done. But I’m pretty sure that we do need to do something orders of magnitude faster and deeper than current climate policies if we’re to meet the challenge. So why not glue yourself to a courtroom? It’s not as if anything else is working much better.

And it’s not just climate change. Globally, we face a whole series of intersecting crises that include climate change, energy descent, biodiversity loss, water stress, soil stress, economic stagnation, political fracturing, social inequality, violence and refugeeism – as copiously discussed on this blog over the years, and also in my book. It’s possible to dream up various responses to these issues, but I haven’t yet seen any plausible suggestions as to how to solve the whole caboodle in real time without the most wrenching social change, and probably not even then.

But wrenching social change is barely on the table in current public discussions. I guess I’m singing to the choir on this blog, where often enough I’m chided for my overly sunny presentiments for the future – but in the wider world it’s rare to find people thinking seriously about the unhappy collision of biophysical and social problems that’s upon us. Even among climate scientists, such as some of those who comment on Ken Rice’s excellent …and Then There’s Physics blog, I find a sometimes troubling degree of scorn for the ‘doomers’ who allegedly overstate the climate impacts to come. No doubt some folks do over-dramatize the negative impacts (while far too many others surely under-dramatize them), but I’m not sure that climate scientists always appreciate how fragile the web of connections is between stable climate, abundant energy, stable politics, renewable soil, renewable water, growing prosperity and non-destructive social inequality in our present world.

To be honest, I don’t think social scientists necessarily appreciate it either. The physicist Robert Davies made the nice point to me that while physics is a ‘hard science’, sociology is a ‘harder science’, because understanding the behaviour of matter is as nothing compared to understanding the behaviour of human beings. Nobody can possibly say how these complex intersecting crises will pan out. For sure, nobody can say that they’re certain to pan out well.

So, what is to be done? As a sociologist-farmer I potter along with a doomer optimist webinar here, a gene editing one there, a spot of small-scale farming along the way, and a few little bits of politicking, policy-ing and writing. Who knows if these are the right things to do? Maybe I should glue myself to a courtroom instead?

In the short-run, the right thing for me to do is try to step up into the very large hole in the work of my household and my farm that my wife’s absence has created. Happily, since she wasn’t actually jailed as we’d anticipated, this will be less onerous than I’d been preparing myself for – so more blog posts are imminent.

It just remains for me to salute my wife’s fighting spirit. And caring spirit. Cordelia Rowlatt, you are a force of nature. My only complaint is that I’ve had the jingle of that darned song in my head for days now, with no sign of respite …Oh, it isn’t nice to block the courtroom (fade)

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.

For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

Since nobody seems to be talking about anything except COVID-19 at the moment I thought I’d join the crowd and, in a change to my published program, write a blog post about the pandemic.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the Jürgen Klopp gambit of refusing to talk about things you know nothing about, but I propose to take the opposite tack on the grounds that (1) while indeed I know very little about anything, as the proud owner of a 25 year-old master’s degree in health planning with a quarter-helping of epidemiology in the mix, I humbly submit that I’m at least as well qualified to talk about it as most of the other blowhards who’ve been weighing in online; (2) the outbreak bears directly on many themes of relevance to this blog, and; (3) if the blogosphere was designed only for the dissemination of expert knowledge, it would be a very different beast to its present shape. Possibly a better one, but that’s another story.

So, without further ado, here are Small Farm Future’s five take home (and stay there) messages concerning COVID-19.

1. What if we only ate food from local farms? This was the title of a recent post of mine, in which I critiqued TV botanist James Wong’s view that in this scenario, we’d starve. I argued in that post that if we continue to romanticize global trade we’d be more likely to starve, sooner or later. And now, all of a sudden, sooner seems more of a possibility than later as the precariousness of long global supply chains in the face of even minor system perturbations begins to bite.

True, COVID-19 isn’t directly a food crisis – though it may turn into one if the rather elderly cohort of people still foolishly involved in the underpaid business of growing food for humanity succumbs disproportionately to the virus, or if our much-vaunted ‘just in time’ automated supply chains turn out to be less automated and not quite as in time as we thought. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and on that front our small market garden has been inundated with new customer enquiries in the last week from people who’ve clearly come to a view that local supply mightn’t be such a bad way to go right now.

Good news for us, I guess, except where I live – and where most people live in the rich world – we’re not remotely capable of meeting current food or other needs renewably from local supply at present, in large measure because we’ve resolutely championed the ‘efficiency’ of global supply chains and enthusiastically undermined local land-based skills and infrastructures. Meanwhile, most of us live crowded together in vast cities which can only be kept healthy by large inputs of (fossil) energy – maybe we can ‘self-isolate’ briefly in these circumstances, but not long-term. For numerous reasons long expounded on this blog, long-term we need to create predominantly rural societies that are geared to renewably skimming their local ecological bases. Maybe COVID-19 might prove the shot across the bows we need in this respect?

Like many long-term advocates of such localization I’ve had to put up with a certain amount of scorn over the years for my errant views. I don’t want to peddle too much reverse scorn right now, and I want to do what I can personally to help see us all through this crisis. But I’m hoping that COVID-19 might encourage some folks to be a little more open-minded about small farm localism in the future. What if we only ate food from local farms? Maybe James Wong might now consider amending his tweet thus: “We’d starve – it’s as simple as that. So let’s see what we can do to rebuild local agricultures.”

2. Follow the money. After the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government introduced strict containment legislation that outlawed feeding livestock anything that had been in a kitchen, however it was treated, apparently on the grounds of potential contamination from imported food bearing the infection. A more reasonable and energy-efficient policy would surely have been to accept the low possibility of infection by this route, promote good biosecurity and contain local outbreaks (which would be easier with local foodsheds and farm infrastructures). I can’t help feeling that this didn’t happen because the more stringent policy created financial benefits for large-scale meat exporters, fodder producers, middlemen and tax collectors, while the main losers were small-scale farmers with no political voice.

Then with COVID-19 the government’s initial response was the exact opposite – it’s going to be endemic, so let’s not overdo containment and isolation, but build herd immunity through letting the infection run its course. The problem with this is that it meant a lot more people would probably die, and that health services would be overwhelmed. When this became apparent, the government dramatically changed tack and adopted drastic containment – but probably not soon enough to avoid deaths that seem preventable had they been more willing to learn from other countries. Herd immunity is hard to sell to the herd when it means a significant proportion of its loved ones will die. And whereas small farmers don’t have much political voice (livestock even less), the human herd does still have some call on political decision-making.

While the government chose the opposite strategy in the two cases, the common thread is that both were the options that least disturbed the economy’s capital-accumulating dynamo, despite the negative human impacts – minor in the former case, probably major in the second. Of course, these decisions are difficult, and a smooth-running global economy is itself a human benefit – though to some people far more than others. Ultimately, though, what seems to have happened in this crisis is, to put it crudely, that human society has trumped the human economy. I think the consequences could be profound, and I hope people will notice this and try to work it through.

***Addendum: farming minister George Eustice has just warned that “buying more than you need means others may be left without”, neatly encapsulating a universal truth that goes curiously unrecognized in orthodox economic theory and in the standard case for the superiority of the capitalist political economy undergirded by private market solutions. Eustice’s easy distinction between needs and wants as something that’s apparently self-evident is worth cutting out and keeping for when the orthodoxy has regained the confidence to reassert itself ***

3. OK, boomer – our problems are structural. Coincidentally, just as the discussion under my last post on population highlighted the point that a considerable part of our ‘over-population’ problem stems not from the fact that too many babies are being born but from the fact that people are living to much older ages, here comes a disease that disproportionately fells the elderly. At the same time, as William Davies has elegantly argued, trends in employment and property prices in the rich countries have effectively created a class divide between entitled older generations and disinherited younger ones. Generationally, compared to a fiftysomething like me, I’d say people coming into adulthood today have a rougher time of it than I did (yes, I know the world is supposed to be getting better and better all the time, but that’s another chart-topper I’ve never been able to dance to).

I’ve seen a bit of online schadenfreude at the plight of the elderly with respect to COVID-19 – not especially pretty, yet maybe understandable in small doses in the light of these generational inequalities. Clearly, though, moving wealth down the generations a little sooner than it might otherwise have happened doesn’t materially alter the nature of our class divisions. Which underscores another point I took some pains to make in my previous post – we badly need to stop thinking about the problems we face as aggregates of our individual decisions and behaviours, and think about emergent system structures instead. Our ecological problems won’t be inherently eased by a smaller population. Our economic problems won’t be inherently eased by old, rich people dying sooner. And so on. Please.

4. Will the real tough-talking politicians stand up? In recent years, global politics has thrown up a series of divisive, showboating, self-aggrandizing politicians who talk tough to camera – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to name but two. To me they seem like media constructions who lack the moral fibre to deserve to be called ‘tough’. Real toughness involves telling citizens hard truths they may not want to hear, but empathically, organizational ability and shouldering responsibility rather than trying to offload blame onto ‘Chinese viruses’ and the like. But maybe that’s just me. If figures like Trump and Johnson manage to bluster their way through a crisis like this with their popularity intact, I think it’ll be time for me to give up and tend my own garden … well, I hope to tend it either way, but you know what I mean. But maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us, and the kind of issues we need them to confront.

5. No wo/man is an island. This is a time when I think we’d do well to remember John Donne’s ageless wisdom: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But how we best enact this is more open to question. Inevitably, many of us will see in COVID-19 the mirror of our preferred politics – as in those right-wing commentators pointing to the empty supermarket shelves and economic misery as exemplary warnings of what would happen under socialist or green regimes, while ignoring that, actually, they’ve happened under right-wing, capitalist ones. But I’m no exception. I think the crisis underscores that old saw of green politics – ‘think global, act local’. The first part is maybe easier – no more talk of ‘Chinese viruses’ – but the acting locally raises intriguing issues. In times of crisis, especially in urban situations, a lot of the usual individualist concerns drop away and people create ingenious new commons to get by, ‘paradises built in hell’ in the resonant phrase of Rebecca Solnit. But I’d argue the longer and larger task is to dwell less on this transient commoning and focus instead on building the conditions in which people can create their own livelihoods renewably and locally as individuals-in-communities. So we need a sense of subsidiarity from the global to the local and thence to the household and the individual. More on that shortly…

Well, more on that shortly, I hope. If I don’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure writing this blog over the years and interacting with its readers. Santé!

Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

Happy holidays – but not TOO happy, please

And so another year of blog posts comes to an end. It’s been a rather sparse one, I fear, with a mere sixteen posts, as compared to my usual output in the 30s and 40s. Well, I have been writing a book – and regrettably I’m still deep in that process, a tale that perhaps I’ll tell another day. So the lean patch is set to continue into next year. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Which brings me to my holiday message. Perusing the small section of current affairs titles in my small-town independent bookshop the other day, I came across a plethora of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel books: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists – all bearing the canonical ecomodernist glad tidings that we’ve never had it so good, and things are only going to get better. What’s with this strange publishing phenomenon? I wouldn’t mind seeing the odd such volume on the shelves as a counterweight to the general doominess of our times, but this doominess scarcely seems to have made it into mass non-fiction. On the face of it, the way these kind of books are cornering the market in popular futurology would make you think that after years of misery we’re on the brink of a golden age.

The face of it isn’t the right place to look, though. Human orneriness being what it is, well-grounded presentiments that the good times are about to end seem to have spawned a thriving market for latter-day prophets to reassure us otherwise. And where there’s a market for people’s hopes, there’s sure to be a crowded field of hucksters ready to tell them what they want to hear – spirit mediums or Harvard psychology professors, hearing voices from beyond the grave or divining future plenty from graphed data (on this latter point, Jessica Riskin has recently published one of the better critiques of Steven Pinker’s screed, in which she emphasizes Enlightenment as self-critique – an uncomfortable message that doubtless we’d all do well to heed. A bonus of her analysis is that she’s one of the few people writing about the Enlightenment these days who actually knows something about the Enlightenment).

Perhaps part of the problem here is our modern emphasis on the importance of that fleeting emotion, happiness. So often nowadays, we’re told that people want upbeat narratives and happy endings, not doom and gloom. Which of course is what ecomodernism provides in spades. There’s a double irony here, since the notion that people want upbeat narratives seems to be something of a modernist affliction, and one that we’d probably be happier without. When we spend too much time or money pursuing ease and simple self-gratification, happiness often eludes us. If, on the other hand, we accept that we won’t always be happy and instead dedicate ourselves to working with other people on difficult long-term projects that motivate us for reasons beyond individual happiness and with uncertain chances of success, then often enough something like happiness bubbles surprisingly upwards out of our actions and interactions.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that people really do just want happy stories or anaesthetics like ecomodernism. But I accept that we do all have a tendency to avoid self-criticism, making us easy prey for those ready to reassure us that modern life does no harm, when it very clearly does. And a tendency to submit to powerful myths that are not easily overturned, such as our modern myths of progress.

Ah well, trying to overturn them and tell a different story is a difficult long-term project to which I’ve dedicated myself. And in doing so I’ve gained a certain amount of happiness along the way, not least through engaging with other people on similar journeys through this blog. But let’s face it, happiness can only get one so far – there are few convincing substitutes for cold, hard cash. And since I’ve dedicated myself so wholeheartedly this year to writing, I’ve come up a bit short in the latter department. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mrs Small Farm Future, who’s expecting a bit more small farming and a bit less futuring from me next year.

So you know what I’m going to say. The ‘Donate’ button is top right. I’ll readily admit that I haven’t showered you with bloggerly riches of late, but I’m hoping that the bookshops will be selling at least one volume next year that twists the stick in a different direction to the ecomodernists – if only I can keep up with my lonely literary discipline. To paraphrase Wikipedia – if all my readers in their impressive multitudes were to donate just £2, I’d be able to… I’d be able to… I’d be able to afford the bus fare to my next XR demo, possibly with enough left over to part-fund the trip that would doubtless result to the magistrate’s court. So please dig deep.

Whether you donate or not, I hope to see you here again in the new year, as soon as my other duties permit. In the meantime I wish you happy holidays. Though not, of course, too happy – there are more important things to be getting on with.

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.

A marginal farm anniversary

It was exactly ten years ago today that I and my co-conspirators at Vallis Veg sold our first veg box, as good an anniversary as any to define the point that I became a farmer (perhaps I should say ‘grower’ or ‘market gardener’, but I dislike the way the word ‘farmer’ is policed – a familiar motif in the last decade has involved people of various stripes telling me that I’m not a ‘proper farmer’. To which my considered answer is – Yes I bloody am. And so are you if you grow any food.)

Anyway, I thought I’d indulge myself on my anniversary with a brief memoir of my farming life and the non-farming life that preceded it, if only to try to explain to myself how on earth I ended up doing this. (Apologies for the autobiographical tone that’s crept into these last two posts – normal service will return next time). This post is modelled loosely after another autobiographical essay, Wendell Berry’s ‘The making of a marginal farm’1 – sacrilegiously, perhaps, since I daresay Berry is a considerably better farmer than I am, and a better writer to boot. And yet there are some overlaps and dissonances between his story and mine that interest me. So here goes.

As I related in my previous post, I had a semi-rural/semi-suburban childhood in a village about thirty miles from London. But, unlike Berry, farming or even gardening had a minimal role in my youth. There was a little farming going on in the area, and a handful of farm kids, but farming never really presented itself to me as a viable career option, and wasn’t presented as such by my elders. Though farming didn’t appeal, historically there’d been a furniture industry in the area where I lived, which manifested as large remnant beech woods, full of mysterious bodger’s hollows. As a teenager, I’d go for long solitary walks in the woods and feel some kind of spiritual peace in them that felt lacking elsewhere. For me, the natural world – however trammelled by human hand – figured largely as an arena of escape.

The truth is, despite a happy-enough childhood in a pleasant-enough part of one of the world’s richer countries, I never really felt from a young age that the kind of society I was growing up in made much sense or answered to people’s fundamental needs. It’s taken me a long time to find a way of being that does make sense and does answer those needs, and I’m still not sure I’ve found it. But I do sometimes think there’s a kind of unbridgeable divide among people in the modern world. Some, like me, can’t understand the appeal of a suburban, salaried, satrapped life, while others slip gladly into its flow. The risk that’s run by my kind is romantic illusions about other kinds of society, a persistent and pervasive sense of alienation, and all manner of grass-is-greenerism that sends us off on one wild goose chase after another. But our great advantage is a perspectival depth that means we shall never, ever write a sentence like this one from Anthony Warner: “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”. And for that, I am truly grateful.

My path out of adolescence took me into an anthropology degree in London where, under the influence of my mostly Marxist teachers and of Michael Taussig’s neat but problematic book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I conceived a somewhat overwrought interest in peasant societies as resistant to the modernist logic of capitalism – an interest I pursued to no great effect in brief attempts to be an anthropologist in Mexico and Jamaica before realising that the singular skills of the field ethnographer were permanently beyond my grasp. Perhaps my attempts to get to grips with peasantries wasn’t helped by my ignorance and general lack of interest concerning what peasantries actually do, namely farming. Still, the thinking that I’d done about peasant societies sowed a seed – to coin a horticultural metaphor – that has been important to me later in life.

I then spent ten years trying to fit myself around more-or-less unsuitable jobs in London and environs at the end of which my roles in life were husband, father, and alienated lecturer in sociology with a self-respect that was diminishing by the day. Berry hints at his own alienation as an academic in New York, and his life-changing decision to go back to his native Kentucky. Kentucky, says Berry, was his fate. But for me there wasn’t really anything or anywhere to ‘go back’ to. There was no pre-manufactured ‘fate’ beyond urbanism or suburbanism, no authentic touchstone for my life except what I invented for myself. As per recent discussions on this blog, I honour small farm societies like Berry’s that have retained such a thing, but without surrendering too many of my critical faculties to the lure of tradition. Berry, to be fair, does the same, to some extent.

Around this time my wife went on a permaculture design course and insisted I do likewise. Two weeks at Ragman’s Lane Farm with the late lamented Patrick Whitefield proved revelatory, supplying something of that missing touchstone – farming, gardening, a human ecology wrought from a natural world neither friend nor enemy, a deep entangled history of humans and landscapes opening beneath my feet on the land I’d walked unknowingly for years. More recently I’ve largely parted ways with permaculture – I’ve found the movement around it too given to fixed ideas, complacent dualities and a strident sense of purity. I argued with Patrick, usually amicably, in the early years of this blog about such matters, but I’ve found too many others in the movement less supple in their thinking. Still, for me it was a key to another world and I’ll always be grateful for that.

We spent a couple of years transitioning into agriculture, much of them in Canada, strangely enough. Then in 2003 we bought eighteen acres of pastureland in Somerset. Berry describes his good fortune in having learned how to run a team of horses in his youth, just before the skill receded into history, which established the course of his farming career. I wasn’t quite that lucky, but my wife and I did enjoy one stroke of generational good fortune. We’d bought some property in London in the early 1990s at a time when a young couple doing average-ish jobs could more or less afford to do so – something that would be quite impossible now. That purchase, along with a certain bloody-mindedness, has enabled us to carve out a kind of semi-independent smallholder life that we probably couldn’t otherwise have achieved.

For the first five years of our tenure as rural landowners we did very little on the site except plant trees (a story I’ll relate in another post), grow a little veg and raise a few pigs. We had young children, no house on the site and non-farm work to do to keep the wolf from the door. I fancied myself as a Berry-like figure and dabbled rather ineffectually in creative non-fiction writing. One agent said they liked my manuscript, but I didn’t give enough of myself in it. Another agent said they liked my manuscript, but nobody wanted to listen to a non-entity like me banging on about myself. I decided to give up on my literary pretensions and start a market garden instead.

I’ve rarely been so happy as I was in the early stages of establishing that garden. But it proved to be a fragile happiness. I went about it wrongly, too manically. Having turned my back on a secure professional career to the bemusement of friends and family, I was desperate for the market garden to be successful, naïve about the forces ranged against it, too unskilled and – how easy to see with hindsight – still in mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance. One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life. One of the problems of many pre-modern cultures is that they placed too little emphasis on it. Independent smallholding cultures are better, I think, at navigating between these perils. Something that working the land has taught me is that the individual person is basically unimportant, but just important enough – and that to a considerable extent the importance is objectified in the particular transformations of the farmed landscape itself. I still have bad days, when I slip into thinking that my life has some kind of higher purpose or distinctive signature that I’m failing to embroider as I should. But mercifully fewer as the years on the land pass by.

Anyway, for five years I grew vegetables and sold them – still living in a house in town some distance from the site. In comparison to the lives that many small farmers lead, I had it easy. But living like this it was hard to make the business and other aspects of my life work, and it took its toll. I don’t think the life of the market grower suits many people, and I wouldn’t unequivocally commend commercial horticulture as a career. Perhaps I should have read my Wendell Berry more attentively:

“it is possible for a family to live on such ‘marginal’ land, to take a bountiful subsistence and some cash income from it and, in doing so, to improve both the land and themselves. (I believe, however, that at least in the present economy this should not be attempted without a source of income other than the farm….To attempt to make a living from such land is to impose a severe strain on land and people alike)”2

Amen to that. Though I’d add that an advantage of commercial husbandry is that it teaches you more quickly than you’d probably learn otherwise about the true costs of human labour and other inputs, the miraculous but Faustian power of fossil fuels, the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead, and the dismal economics of the food system. By working as a commercial grower, I learned that I’m not an especially good one. Still, the world has more need of second rate farmers than of second rate sociologists…and I also learned through doing it that, whatever my limitations, the struggles of farmers and growers to stay afloat don’t arise out of the fact that they’re not good at what they do. This has stood me in good stead for looking unflinchingly in the face of the endless claims one encounters about new ways of farming that are supposedly better for the environment while making more money too, and also in the face of the endless claims that farmers doing bad environmental things are bad people.

Since 2013, I’ve no longer been the main commercial grower at Vallis Veg. But we do now live on our land – a struggle documented on this website – which has eased many former burdens. My roles today encompass tractor driver, mechanic, stockman, woodsman, fencer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, subsistence gardener, purveyor of stale urine and general éminence grise in the market garden – though the current growing team are doing a much better job than I did running the show, so I fear it’s more a case of grise than éminence. I wouldn’t say I’m especially competent at most of the roles I listed, but I’m more competent at them than when I first started, and I daresay more competent than I would have been if I’d stayed a sociologist – and I get some satisfaction from that. The truth is that I burned myself out a little trying to run a market garden as I did. But looking back on it now, most of the relationships I have that matter to me feel like they’ve been strengthened through some tempering in that fire, and I feel happy that I’ve helped to create a thriving homestead flowing with people, livestock and wildlife, out of modest beginnings. I’ve encountered a little carping of one sort or another about what we do and how and how we do it. Ah well, there’s plenty that we’ve done or failed to do worth carping over for those who wish to carp. But there’ve been a lot of positive interactions too, and for all our errors I feel a sense of achievement that we’ve somehow kept a small farm business on the road for a decade.

Ah yes, errors. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance again. But we haven’t made many head-in-hands mistakes that cause me to lose much sleep. The commonest mistakes fall into four main categories, 1. Not knowing what I’m doing, 2. Following someone else’s advice without devoting enough thought to whether it’s right for me and my land, 3. Taking on too many different things, 4. Over-dominating a job with too much fossil fuel.  Perhaps all but the last of these categories are reducible to the first, but the worst mistakes have involved all four. Like Berry, probably my worst one was digging a pond that didn’t really work. But I can’t quite summon the Homeric levels of tragic self-critique that Berry does over his failed project. I used less fossil fuel in making it than I’d have done on a frivolous trip to London to see a friend or see a show, and I’ll get it to work somehow next year. Or the one after. Probably. I also console myself with the thought that people who use fossil fuel and don’t know what they’re doing probably cause less damage in the world than people who use fossil fuel and do.

Talking of fossil fuels, the basic reality of global farming today is that those with access to them can produce food more cheaply. This drives a global division of labour: capital-intensive mechanised farming in the rich countries, labour-intensive less mechanised farming in the poor countries. Which explains why there isn’t much market gardening in Britain, and the country’s biggest food trade deficit – around £9 billion – falls in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Berry concludes his essay with these words,

“To spend one’s life farming a piece of the earth…is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming”3

Wise words, no doubt – but to love the farming in a global economic context that writes its economic bottom line in diesel is not only a hard thing, but a conflicted thing. I can’t claim to have extracted myself from those dismal economics but my good fortune is that, on the ground and on the page, at least I’ve found some opportunities to try.

Finally, a dedication:

To Cordelia, for sharing the journey

To Moon, for picking up the baton

And to multitudes, for lending a helping hand

Notes

  1. Wendell Berry. 2017. ‘The making of a marginal farm’ in Paul Kingsnorth (ed) The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin.
  2. Ibid. pp.44-5
  3. Ibid. p.47

Mixed messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.

oOo

  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.

 

  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)

 

  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.

 

  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.

 

  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.

 

  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.

 

  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.

 

  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.

 

  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.

 

  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.

 

 

  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).