Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

From the furies of Brexit, let me turn to a saner and more achievable political project: restructuring Britain into a neo-peasant society. Actually I think the one may lead to the other. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing? I’ve long felt that many of our political and environmental problems can best be tackled by means of a more peopled and localised agriculture, but I’ve never been able to dream up any plausible mechanisms for driving such change in contemporary society, other than bleak end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it type scenarios. But now, thanks to that friend of the peasantry Boris Johnson and his merry band of Brexiteers, some real possibilities are emerging. Though whether they’re distinct from those bleak end-of-civilisation type scenarios remains to be seen.

Anyway, we’ll come to all that. What I want to do in this post is pick up the threads of the discussion about mega-cities in general and London in particular that I left hanging a few weeks ago. If a government emerged that was strongly committed to small-scale agriculture I think it would be entirely possible for it to organise the nation’s farming accordingly and provision large cities with its products. But that’s not the way the modern world has gone. It was on the cards at the moment of decolonisation in various countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the carrot of western-style development and the stick of western-style economic domination conspired against it. And when all’s said and done there is something of an affinity between urbanism and the agricultural status quo of heavily mechanised grain farming. So although it would be possible to ruminate on how to feed London’s 8 million from a world of encircling smallholdings, the idea doesn’t really inspire me.

Instead, what I propose to do is consider the possible shape of regional neo-peasant agricultures in England, and of one such regional agriculture in particular. When I first started thinking about this not so long ago it seemed like an appealing mental exercise, though not one that carried much political weight in the real world. But since then we’ve had Britain threatening to quit the EU, Scotland threatening to quit Britain, London threatening to quit England, the Labour Party threatening to quit itself, and all manner of other intrigue besides. In short, in the present moment of British politics everyone is threatening to quit everyone else if they don’t like them. So the secessionist implications of my analysis, which only recently seemed entirely far-fetched, are suddenly in step with the zeitgeist. What I’m going to focus my analysis on, then, is a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England. Let us call it the state of Wessex. And I’m going to contrast it with various agricultural possibilities in the east and southeast, or Londinium as I will call it in order to capture the deep history of that city’s status as a greater or lesser centre within a larger imperium. As a sometime dweller of both Wessex and Londinium, I have to admit that my political sensibilities were mostly forged in the latter. But I hereby disinherit myself from it and throw my lot in with the neo-peasants of Wessex. Of course, many of my fellow Wessexers probably hanker more after the lifestyle of the contemporary Londoner than the kind of neo-peasant west country vision that I’m about to outline. If so, my message to them, one fully in keeping with the politics du jour, is: screw you. I’m perfectly happy for Frome to secede from the rest of the southwest if it has to. And as for those uppity east-side Fromies, they can take a hike too if they don’t like what I have to say…

In the light of the Brexit result, no one can surely claim any longer that people won’t voluntarily surrender their short-term wealth and wellbeing in service of larger aims, long a bugbear for any kind of contemporary peasant or agrarian populist activism. So let me push the Brexit experiment a stage further, and now formally announce the division of southern England into the Peasant Republic of Wessex and the Euro-imperium of Londinium. We could set up a border checkpoint in, say, Chippenham, announce a brief amnesty period in which people on either side of the border are permitted to migrate freely across it, and then settle down to observe the two-way traffic. What a fascinating sociological exercise that would be…

Anyway, let me now start putting a few parameters around my suggestion of a neo-peasant Wessex. When I’ve undertaken exercises like this before to construe a rebooted, smaller-scale agriculture, I’ve generally still thought in terms of commercial farming, albeit a more peopled one, furnishing the necessities of life for the wider population. But when I think about what prevents me from making my own holding both more productive and more ecologically benign, it’s the lack of human labour and/or the impossibility of securing the right kinds and quantities of labour (or, to put it another way, the impossibility of securing the right price for my products relative to the price of labour) when running the operation commercially that trips me up the most. I also think that the skill-set required of a sustainability-minded commercial farmer is a highly specialised and unusual one. There are far more people capable of doing a good job growing for themselves with sustainability in mind than there are who’ll do a good job growing for others in that way. So I think I agree with Ralph Borsodi, who others have mentioned on this site (I have to confess I’ve not yet read him – hopefully I’ll put that right), that it’s generally best for the smallholder not to rely on selling their produce.

At the same time, I’m not really in favour of a society comprised entirely of self-reliant smallholders. Looking at it in world-historical terms, I’m happy to go with the notion that the division of labour and the specialisation of agriculture isn’t any kind of existential advance on the life of hunter-gatherers or ‘subsistence’ agriculturists. But looking at it in terms of my already rather left-field advocacy for peasant-style living here in England in 2016, I think proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society face the problem that such a life would be deeply impoverished by any reasonable contemporary standard. While much that passes for wealth in the present world seems to me spurious and I consider a materially simpler life to be desirable, I don’t think those truths are best served by demanding that everyone grow their own parsnips. Another problem faced by proposals for a ‘pure’ subsistence society is that no such society has ever existed – but that’s something I’ll look at in further detail in a later post. Where this leads for now in terms of my neo-peasant exercise is making an essentially arbitrary judgment about how many self-reliant ‘peasants’ and how many commercial ‘farmers’ there might be, albeit that the categories admit to some overlap. And my answer is (at least provisionally, I haven’t yet finished crunching the numbers) – around 20% of working age (18-65) adult ‘peasants’, which would put my neo-peasant society on a par with countries such as Poland, Mexico and Iran. Though I’m open to other suggestions…

I’m going to reserve discussion of all the social, political and economic implications of my neo-peasant Wessex for later. For now, I just want to focus on what a neo-peasant agriculture might look like on the ground. What would it produce, how would it produce it, and would it be enough to feed the population? Anybody going about an estimation of this sort needs to make a lot of assumptions and plug in some plausible productivity data. I’m going to outline a lot of these assumptions in detail in my upcoming posts in the hope that somebody or other might read and challenge them, thus helping me improve my estimates. But I’ll mix a few jokes in with the stats, just to make it worth your while ploughing through it all. If even the prospect of my rapier wit doesn’t enthral you, I’ll aim to write a summary analysis when it’s all done and dusted so you can get to the bottom line without wading through the detail.

My general bias is towards underestimation rather than overestimation. I think there’s a tendency in the alternative farming movement to be overly optimistic about what we can produce, and I prefer to be the pessimist who gets a pleasant surprise than the optimist who gets a nasty shock. So if you think my estimates are too low, I won’t be too bothered (though I’d still be interested to hear from you). If you think they’re too high, that’s more of a concern.

My baseline data comes from DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the English regions’ dataset. My personal definition of the southwest is limited to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, whereas official classifications also include Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset – counties with a higher population density (252 people per km2 as compared to 183, since you asked) and also arguably a more eastward-oriented arable agriculture historically. But there you have it, I can’t unpick the data, so I’ll just have to make do with my six counties of Wessex. When it comes to Londinium, I’ve amalgamated the southeast and the east regions as part of its hinterlands, encompassing Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Bucks, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – which luckily for those resource-guzzling city-slickers encompasses a decent chunk of the best agricultural and horticultural land in the country.

But that’s probably enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll visit me again soon and let me introduce you to the people, food and farmsteads of Wessex.

41 thoughts on “Of Wessex and Londinium: a tale of two city-states

  1. I’m starting to rehash my smuggling skills.
    try catching me on the wessex and londonium borderpost.
    I’ll be smugling the illegal dandelion siroup for the weak & unhealhy londonium inhabitants and ….well i cant figure out waht for the wessexers.

    I’m looking forward to ur future posts in the subject as it seems to be the topic I always wanted to dive into.
    I expected to get some numbers from a webinar “food in the world after fossil fuels” given the PCI fellows
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imaOKFCPG9M but there wasnt much of them in it… so..
    may U never get a cramp in your …fingers… 🙂

  2. Hello Chris
    I’m sure the Cornish would seek their own succession, particularly as it was Wessex that brought them under English rule in the 9th Century in the first place. Gloucestershire was part of Mercia historically not Wessex, the border is the river Avon. And why give up Wessex’s ancient heartland of Hampshire, with the Capital of the kingdom at Winchester, or Berkshire for that matter? Would you rather live in the “Ancient Kingdom of Wessex” or under the Merchant Bankers of London? I know which I would feel more pride in (and have less debt slavery from), I’m sure some minor royal could be found to do the meeting and greeting at public events, while us peasants got on with the serious business of food!

    To address your main point in the article about the balance between subsistence farming and commercial farming; just because you are a subsistence farmer (grow your own food) does not mean that you are not doing other things. As an example, historically commoners would have a cottage on the edge of the common with a garden, and grazing rights for livestock on the common, and often wood cutting rights as well. The household would only require part of their time to produce their subsistence from the resources they had. The rest of their time would be used to obtain a cash income from seasonal labour to local commercial farmers, work in local industries, craftwork/piecework at home, out workers at the Country Houses, droving, carting, or other minor commercial work of their own. Commercial farming on its own is a lot riskier than subsistence farming plus other cash generating economic activities, they both work as insurance for the other. Most country people in the past would have mixed the subsistence and cash economies, its todays economists cult of the efficiency of specialisation idea that thinks that is a bad idea because it does not maximise output, but it does maximise survival. Well, until the economist great idea led to the enclosures!

    I have to go off and cut some wood now, doing my bit for the subsistence economy!


    Philip Hardy

  3. I’ve just finished scything my way into the cricket’s kingdom, so I might as well go next.

    We apparently have to go back to an ‘Ancient Kingdom’ these days to find a comforting focal point of what collective entities used to look like when borders were still a thing to be respected, not shouted down by the rationalism du jour.

    (Speaking of which: https://fee.org/articles/michael-oakeshott-on-rationalism-in-politics/ )

    Philip, the “efficiency of specialisation idea” in ‘pure subsistence’ circles is of course a symptom of rationalism getting hold even of those who think they’re farthest from it.

  4. I’m am very curious about the rest of your posts because they correspond quite nicely with what we are trying to do here in Flanders Belgium. At the beginning of John Seymours book ‘the complete book of Self-sufficiency’ E.F. Schumacher writes in 1976 : “We can do things for ourselves or we can pay others to do them for us. These are the two “systems” that support us; we might call them the “self-reliance system” and the “organization system”. The former tends to breed self-reliant men and women; the latter tends to produce organization men and women. All existing societies support themselves by a mixture of the two systems; but the proportions vary.”

    The book has been a guideline all my life and it is exactly figuring out this variation between the two systems that is the difficulty in pursuing a neo-peasant life.

  5. Thanks for those comments. To respond very briefly, I’ve been thinking in terms of ‘Wessex’ mostly because I recently read J.H.Bettey’s ‘Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900’ where he made the point about the arable east of Wessex serving the nation’s wider grain demands and the grassier west involving smaller-scale and more self-sustaining farming. I find older boundaries interesting up to a point because of what they can tell us about economies that were more locally self-sustaining than present ones, and to a lesser extent because of their cultural content. But I don’t intend ‘Wessex’ or any other such designation to be taken too seriously as a contemporary political entity. And I agree that if it did become one, Cornwall would want to secede from it immediately…

    The issue of doing something other than subsistence in a ‘subsistence’ economy is a very important one – or ‘organisation’ vs ‘self-reliance’ as John Seymour puts it via Rudy. I plan to look at it in more detail at a later point in these ruminations. But do keep reminding me…

    Jura, I may just have to join your dandelion juice smuggling operation, sounds like too good an opportunity to miss. And thank you for your blogger’s blessing – my fingers may be cramped for the next week or two, but some numbers are coming your way, I can promise you…

  6. “ and is it enough to feed the population?” I guess that is always the quandary with such exercises. So will you work with the data based on current population levels or projected levels after a controlled descent? Looking forward to the new posts. But I want to know up front if Uhtred of Bebbanburg has a place in defending the small-holders of Wessex. Or, is that a matter best taken up with the Witan?

  7. I’ve just finished Graham Harvey’s ‘Parkland’.
    The peasant-mosaic-landscape-movement would certainly gain any number of allies among those in conservation calling for a reversal of the fragmented nature of today’s old wood pasture and forest habitats.

    While they’re still in office.

  8. Let me offer a pertinent figure from my experience as a neopeasant. My wife and I farm twenty acres with no outside help (but with help from three tractors). Assuming a diet of 2,000 calories per day, then in 2015 we harvested food with a caloric content sufficient to feed 44.6 people. That could have been increased if I wasn’t growing so many watermelons. The fossil fuel requirements of production (ignoring for the moment embodied energy) could be met with about one acre of dry-farmed safflower converted to biodiesel. This is in the Sacramento Valley (California) where good soil, warm temperatures, and high light intensity (no clouds) probably support higher productivity than what might be typical of Wessex. Nonetheless, the numbers (one neo-peasant farmer feeding about 20 people) give a hint as to how much of the population needs to be farming.

    • Mike, interesting to hear your numbers. Based on a 2400 cal/lb figure for dry field corn (which I found with a quick internet search and don’t know how reliable it is), your 44.6 people would translate to about 12 acre/bu field corn, if you grew all corn. I imagine other grains like wheat would be pretty comparable in terms of calories per bushel. Of course, you’ve already stated that you’re growing things other than grains, and I don’t know if you’re even growing any grains at all, although assuming you’re eating a normal diet including plenty of grain (or grain-fed animal product) calories, I think growing one’s own staples would be very important to being a neo-peasant. Things like grains (especially grains other than corn — I’m also an American, so I mean corn in the American usage) and oilseeds I think get very complicated for the neo-peasant when it comes to harvesting and post-harvest handling, processing, and storage, though. Apart from more or less keeping pace with the modern scale of production or using old technology (like pull-type combines), which is becoming more and more difficult with time, it seems nearly impossible to grow small grains or oil seeds with an efficiency that even hard core aspiring neo-peasants can accept and completely impossible to do efficiently enough for any customers at all to be willing to pay for. Even with such “old” (+/- 1950’s/60’s) technology it seems very marginal even for capable would-be neo-peasants. These kinds of issues make me very skeptical of the compatibility of things like bio-diesel, especially on a 1 acre scale. One could theoretically share more specialized equipment (for something like bio-diesel) with neighbors, but finding sufficient numbers and concentrations of such neighbors is at odds with the sorts of specialization (especially fresh produce…) that characterizes most small farms making a living for their owners. In other words, farms that are all competing for just a very marginal part of their customers’ total caloric intake are going to be correspondingly limited and therefore cooperative ideas will also be very limited. In the meantime, growing more substantial quantities of one’s own calories seems extra important to developing and advancing neo-peasant agriculture.

      I’m curious how you came up with such a precise figure as 44.6. I hope you’ll point us to a more detailed break-down if you ever compile one you’re willing to share. It would be interesting to hear about what you grow, how you market it, and what other inputs you depend on (feed, fertilizers, plastics, water…)

      • Thanks, Eric. Actually, I wasn’t proposing to grow one acre of safflower, which makes no technological sense–just pointing out that I could in theory cover my energy inputs without greatly impairing the productivity of the farm.
        I don’t grow grains, and we have a fairly grain-free diet based on the local agriculture: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, fruits, and vegetables. I even feed my chickens on melon seeds. Half my land is in olive trees, and I process the fruit on site for olive oil, which is a highly energy-dense food. This is a water-limited region, and corn (maize) is unjustifiable, but a soft red winter wheat (non-irrigated) is grown in rotation with tomatoes.
        As you point out, technologies are scale sensitive, and this is a major issue that the neo-peasant has to figure out. If you’re going to substitute labor for machines, then the price of labor becomes a critical factor. All my crops (olives, figs, apricots, persimmons, oranges, melons) are unmechanized and are everywhere based on hand labor, so that I am not competing with a machine in the marketplace, a competition I surely would lose.

  9. Perhaps a bunny trail. I just read a book called Kiyo’s Story, by Kiyo Sato. It is advertised as a story of the Japanese internment during the second WW, in the US, and its aftermath. But what strikes me deep into my heart is the way this family farmed (parents and 9 kids). The father can do just about anything… when they are too poor to buy shoes for the kids, he makes them from old tires. And so on. The way he farms though… he farms as though farming is an art. The book, otherwise hard painful going in many places, is well worth it just for that. They have 20 acres; strawberries, then other berries, then walnuts and many other fruit trees, and grapes. Besides all the veggies the family eats.

    Very painfully, the farm in the end is sold to the developers… because, of all the 9 children, and the countless grandchildren… she proudly lists their occupations… not one became a farmer. Not one. That is the biggest wound the book opens.

    One other thing… they learn as they go.

  10. Thanks for those additional comments. I’ve had to relocate temporarily from the kingdom of Wessex to the kingdom of Northumbria for family reasons, and I won’t have much chance to engage with this for another week or so. But in a nutshell – Brian, population-wise all will soon be revealed. Mike/Eric – very interesting discussion, thanks. My envy at what you can grow in California is only slightly tempered by your comment that ‘this is a water-limited region’ – certainly not something I could say of Somerset. On the matter of staples, agreed, and this is a significant impetus in the neo-peasant vision. It makes no sense growing crops like wheat or potatoes (and perhaps many other things besides) for customers on a small scale, unless the customer is yourself, in which case everything starts to look a bit different. I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting as I work through this issue in future posts, because I’ll be addressing some of these points and I’d be interested in your comments. Vera, thanks for that, very interesting – agree with your two big points: 1. peasants or small farmers are too often derided when their multi-skilled adaptability should be celebrated, and 2. it’s understandable why in so many places in the modern world so few people have stayed in farming or wanted to stay in farming, but you’re right that this is a wound

    • As to why the next generation has so often not stayed in farming, I think it’s very important not to under-estimate the impact of state-run school systems. If you look at a community like the Amish, who run their own schools that only go through the 8th grade (about 14 years old), it seems and I’m pretty sure that a very healthy number of children continue in farming and often even farming that’s not at all keeping up with the scale of modern farming. (Of course, it helps that they have lots of children, too.) On the other hand, I can’t see how you can take a child, structure his days and that part of his life that is considered and explicitly called his education to include no manual labor or training in manual skills at all (or hardly at all), provide that all of his teachers are college graduates in full-time white collar positions, and really not even teach him anything about farming in the abstract, and then expect there to be any kind of odds that the child will proceed from that education and those implicit values into farming (or to have success if he does try to get into farming.) If we give our children over to the school system shaped by Bill Gates until they’re 18 years old, they will forge their way in the world with his values to guide them, especially as it relates to work and the economy.

  11. Chris says ‘No sense in growing crops like wheat . . .unless the customer is yourself.’ It’s true, if you’re out scything your barley and gathering hops just for yourself you have removed your labor from the cash economy, and can be as inefficient as you please. More power to you! But I think there is a danger here in falling into the idea that the unit of self-sufficiency is the individual farm, when it seems to me that the unit of self-sufficiency should be the community. So maybe one guy in the community has a modern combine that he drives around and harvests everyone’s wheat, even half-acre plots, perhaps in exchange for a share. And another guy has a dump truck and a backhoe, and he does the trenches and footings. And a woman is a good soap-maker, and we all depend on her. And another guy is a poor farmer but a good musician, and we try to figure out how to support him. This is not the Ohio River Valley in 1810 when a farm truly was self-sufficient; this is post-industrial neopeasantry. It seems to me that we can embrace the virtues of neopeasantry (small scale, autonomy, local economy, sound ecology) without having to throw out modern technology.

    • Mike, my concern with the vision you set out is that it shuns what I believe are necessary steps to ever making your vision a reality (except perhaps in extraordinary and irreplicable circumstances and then only with respect to very limited types of crops/food), thereby ensuring that the food/farming movement we’re talking about remains dependent on other styles of farming for these staples and ensuring that the movement’s impact doesn’t include crops that are hugely important by a lot of measures. I would guess that field corn or wheat alone is over 10 times as important as all horticultural crops put together measuring by acreage or calories in the US or the UK or in the average American or British diet (either today or 300 years ago)? I don’t see the example of the modern combine combining half acre plots of wheat as at all realistic or even more economical than hand harvesting.

      As an aside, I had a very interesting visitor from Mali last week, a farmer, who showed me a video of the rice harvest on his farm. It was a large field — I’d say at least 40 acres. There were about 40 people harvesting the grain with sickles. They’d just drop as many handfuls as they could easily drop together (loose/not bound) in a pile and then move on (to be gathered later.) There were two xylophone players playing very homemade looking xylophones (which included some kind of gourds) to keep the harvesters in good spirits. One of the workers took a break from harvesting the rice to take a call on his cell phone. It was a fascinating video. The farmer said the field was prepared by tractor. I can’t remember very well what he said about threshing, but I’m pretty sure he used a fairly modern threshing machine, manufactured for sale in minimally industrialized countries like Mali, possibly shared between farms.

      But to get back to the modern combine is a modern combine with a 30′ head even going to be able to maneuver around small farms with 1/2 acre plots of wheat? Will the gateways be big enough? Will there be enough room to turn around? If the farmer wants to save seed from his own wheat, will he be able to keep it pure enough? Will he, for example, be able to clean out the hopper more than once, so that any residue from the previous field is flushed out with the first clean-out and he can save his seed from a subsequent clean-out? If his wheat is larger or smaller or taller or shorter or the field contains different weeds, will it be possible to make corresponding trial and error adjustments to the settings on the combine or will the combine be so “efficient” that half the crop will be cracked to pieces or blown out the back before there’s an opportunity to make adjustments? How would one even get 10 bushels of grain out of the hopper of a modern combine? Wouldn’t you need at least a 100 bushel receptacle to be able to use the auger to empty the hopper? I can’t imagine getting grain from the auger outlet (which is 20′ high and probably comes out really fast even on the slowest setting) directly into feed sacks or something the size of 55 gallon drums.

      And even if all these details can be provided for, what’s the dollar cost going to be? How many acres of grain does it normally take to minimally justify the cost of a modern combine? A thousand? By the time a modern combine has its head loaded on a trailer, drives to a 1/2 acre plot, reattaches the head, maneuvers around all the small farm obstacles, cleans out the hopper multiple times, etc., how many acres could it otherwise have harvested? 20? 50? 100? What’s the equipment cost of harvesting 20/50/100 acres and the fuel cost of moving this equipment between farms? A quick internet search says something like $35/acre, so that would be an opportunity cost of $700/$1750/$3500, just for harvesting and threshing something like 10-30 bushels of grain, no? If my estimates are reasonable, that’s a low end figure of over $20/bushel just for harvesting, and I don’t think that covers labor. And then there’s the cost and hassle of the logistics of all these farmers and their 1/2 acre plots. It seems totally impractical and unrealistic to me.

      And even then 1/2 acre of any given grain is probably more than the average modern family is going to eat, even with low yields and even if they prepare all their meals at home from scratch (i.e. never eat out, never buy prepared pasta or tortilla chips, etc.) and never eat non-local grains (as rice, for example, doesn’t seem to be practical for most US or UK locations.) If the farm family only eats 1/8 acre, how would it market the other 3/8? What consumer is going to understand and appreciate the differences enough to pay the necessary costs, especially if we’re talking about a specialized economy where most people have jobs doing things like engineering or manufacturing or marketing combines? The less self-sufficient the economy, the more disconnected from the land most of the people will be, and the less ability or inclination the people will have to worry about the differences between 1/2 acre neo-peasant grain production and conventional modern grain production.

      All of this is to say I think more self-sufficient farmers harvesting grain with sickles looks a lot better when we consider the options more realistically (or at least what seems more realistic to me.)

  12. Hi Chris et al — I can’t remember if I’ve linked you in to this new volume before or not, but we just put out a book on subsistence — one might think about it as a book about subsistence new & old: http://www.mqup.ca/subsistence-under-capitalism-products-9780773547001.php

    My chapter is “Alternative agriculture, the vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating subsistence as the sustainable development of human rights” (https://agroecopeople.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/new-bookbook-chapter-out/). Abstract:
    “The question of how to provide for so-called “sustainable development” is increasingly coming up against similar questions of how to address the global problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental toxification and rapid depletion of natural resources. Despite commitments from world governments to halving the number of hungry in the world by 2015, the number of acutely malnourished people rose past 1 billion during the 2009 food crisis, wiping out much of the modest progress of the past decades, and not including the continuing plight of the 2-3 billion humans suffering from micronutrient deficiencies (“Hidden Hunger”). Even amidst worldwide production sufficient to feed the present and likely future global population, the focus of governmental rhetoric and much of academic discourse remains on production and yield, even among many environmentalists and ecologists who look to further intensification and “land sparing” to generate space for sustainable agricultural development. In contrast, in the present work, I propose an approach to sustainable development focusing on equality rather than production, the provision of human rights rather than economic development, and the integration of agroecological agricultural methods with subsistence and locally-focused agriculture rather than export and cash crops. These ideas will be examined specifically through a case-study of the literature dealing with Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement.”

    I don’t have a free copy to post as of right now, but if you want to email me, I can personally send you a copy. There are many other great pieces in the book, so I think it’s worth the money, though I’m of course not unbiased 🙂

    • Hi Jahi, sounds very interesting. I’d certainly like to take a look. Are you in the UK yet? Hope to meet up with you one of these days.


  13. Thanks for the interesting debate. I was going to reply to Mike along similar lines to Eric. My interest isn’t in throwing out modern technology but in reckoning with its social consequences. If it’s cheaper/more efficient for everyone to rely on the local guy with a bigger combine, then inevitably it’ll soon be still cheaper/more efficient for them to rely on a non-local guy with an even bigger combine. And then, unless there’s a strong community-wide commitment to resisting that logic, pretty soon there’s no local self-provisioning, which is the situation we now find ourselves in. I’m not against the idea of community self-reliance as an alternative to individual self-reliance (no individual can ultimately be self-reliant anyway), so I’d be interested to hear more ideas about how this might play. But you then need to look very carefully at the loading you place on ‘the community’ and its boundaries. The problem isn’t technology, it’s the social logic of efficiency. I like Eric’s story about the rice harvest in Mali as a challenge to that logic, and not to technology as such.

    Also agree with Eric’s previous point about education – very interesting. James Rebanks’ book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ is good on the negation of agricultural life in the educational system.

    • Although Rebanks, who’d probably be out of sheep farming were it not for his Oxford credentials leading to a job at a multinational “conservation corporation” isn’t perhaps the ideal model for the future, but rather for the present or recent past – let’s call it ‘petting zoo ag’, where farming is in fact the sideshow to the real moneymakers.

      “Social logic of efficiency” – yes, more on that please!

      (There are of course secular religions in the field of nutrition claiming grains are our downfall.)

      • I think it’s a bit over the top to imply that upland sheep farming is ‘petting zoo ag’, notwithstanding Rebanks’ side job. What comes out strongly in the early part of his book is the disdain of the educational system as he experienced it for people of his background, unless they subscribed to a particular model of social mobility. I don’t dispute that upland sheep farming is now economically marginal, or that Rebanks’ voice probably wouldn’t have been heard without his later educational career, but those are different points.

        I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts on what you call the secular religion regarding grain.

        Actually, I’ll be posting soon on both sheep and grains…and later, on the social logic of efficiency.

  14. Quite right, Eric, a modern combine with a thirty foot head is not going to be useful on a half acre plot. There’s a lot of wheat breeding in my neighborhood (UC Davis) and they have a modern combine that is small, with an 8 foot head, for harvesting germplasm plots. I assume that it’s designed to thoroughly empty the hopper after each plot is harvested. That would be the appropriate technology for a community-based harvest.
    As another example: Most farms here have olive trees as a roadside hedge or around a house. I own a modern olive mill (four tons of beautifully machined stainless steel) that represents considerable investment in machinery and education. People in the community bring me olives to mill. I also barter olive oil for things I don’t produce myself (avocados, wine, veterinary care). A huge industrial mill would not be appropriate, but high tech/small scale certainly fits a neo-peasant economy. Surely no one would suggest returning to old-tech of a blind donkey walking in a circle turning a big stone wheel to crush the olives. That’s the challenge, to find high technology on a small scale.

    • Mike, why wouldn’t people in an age of decline prefer a donkey and two scrap metal millstones to a 4t high-tech machine? It doesn’t have to be blind; a piece of cloth will suffice.

      Chris, I was just looking for a general term, not directly for his upland farm, but for the people like that lone regional berry grower in a recent Farming Today episode who can’t survive on 200 acres of fruit but has to rely on his camp site to generate extra revenue.

      I recently mentioned Village Farm and the things they’re doing differently. If for some reason a farm managed like that can’t be adapted to upland farming, then upland farming is in danger of being lumped together with those fancy grouse shooting estates as the reason for erosion and lack of carbon sequestration. And those two terms can be quite dangerous if you’re trying to survive as a subsidy-dependent business.

      • The short answer is that the old technology (donkey and millstone) was very inefficient at extracting the oil from the olives. The longer answer starts by noting that there are two units for accounting the farm’s performance: dollars and carbon (which measures ecological virtue). Someone with an independent income can manage their farm as an interesting experiment in maximizing carbon virtue, and that might dictate donkey and millstone, sickles and marimbas. But for those of us who depend on our farms as a sole source of income, we are forced to reckon in dollars, and in that scenario higher tech almost always wins. Surely my four ton mill with its thirteen electric motors represents huge embodied energy from fossil fuels, and I regret that, but my economic reality is that that is the only reasonable choice. I recognize that high tech is subsidized by a heap of negative externalities (oil wars, climate change, etc etc), and that if these were accounted for, then simpler technologies might be the better choice. But I have to live with the reality of 2016.
        I also kind of disagree with Chris’s remark above, to the effect that if you start to depend on a local guy with a small combine, then pretty soon you’ll depend on a non-local guy with a big combine. I think that once you hit the sweet spot of appropriate technology, there it will stay. In my neighborhood there’s a guy with a small portable saw mill who cuts up trees into boards for the farmers. His technology exactly fits the demand. There is no likelihood that some non-local guy is going to come in and set up a big sawmill.

        • Just to clarify the point of this exercise, I’m not saying that people should be stopping farming the way they are right now. And I agree that high technology can be compatible with small scale, or indeed with low technology (like the people I know who use horse drawn nylon brush weeders). I don’t really agree with the idea that technology stays once you hit a sweet spot of appropriate technology, though – not at any rate without an awful lot of political work, which ultimately it’s the point of this exercise to highlight. Yes, there are some people around who’ve hit upon a relatively enduring niche with local-scale technology, but this shadow local economy is dwarfed by its non-local counterparts – I’d guess that for every locally felled and milled ton of timber in my local wood economy there’s at least a hundred tons of wood coming from Russia and other exotic locations via gigantic operations. The history of capitalism doesn’t bear out the notion of a sustainable economic sweet spot. But if a significant portion of the population were pursuing strategies of local self-provisioning, then the chances of creating such a sweet spot are much higher. Perhaps that’s my key point. But I don’t think the political work of achieving the sweet spot is best served by talking in terms of technical efficiencies, externalities, dollar-carbon tradeoffs etc. I think it’s best achieved by articulating a vision of a good life in which those tradeoffs are already sealed politically.

          Regarding Michael’s point about the non-sustainable economics of local farming, that’s indeed true although it doesn’t only apply to small operations – many large-scale conventional commercial farmers are also reliant on non-food or non-basic production enterprises and/or subsidies. High time for a reformed agrarian economy…

          • May I pester you to point to a specific tradeoff you imagine might be advantageously “sealed politically”?

            In my experience tradeoffs are frequently context sensitive. I would be afraid that ‘politically sealing’ such would eventually lead to another difficulty downstream. Perhaps developing a politic within a community capable of recognizing tradeoffs for what they are in certain situations… and dealing with them as necessary.

            I like half of Michael Madison’s assessment above that technology will seek a sweet spot (but I’m not convinced it will stay there once arrived).

          • Clem, well ultimately of course nothing can be sealed politically. But what’s currently about as sealed politically as it can be is the notion that private markets optimise all trade-offs, so the trade-off local self-determination vs unlimited access of global businesses to local markets is strongly tilted towards the latter. So long as this remains the case, and sticking with the example of the local wood economy, then Russian/Baltic wood is always going to dominate the market here (and local sawmills are only going to be minor ornaments to the larger wood economy) until labour and energy prices or wood availability changes, whereupon imports will shift to wherever else in the world (if anywhere) can provide wood more cheaply. If we were to decide for whatever reason that it made sense for us to favour our local wood resources, then we would need to ‘seal’ this decision politically – perhaps through import tariffs, or subsidies, or some other means – rather than assuming that the economy would naturally fall in with our decision and create a sweet spot favouring local wood. Of course, a problem here is that there’s a lot of legislation, as well as less formalised political pressure, which prevents towns, regions or countries from ‘sealing’ their decisions in this way. Doubtless the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers have gained some of their support from people who’d like more scope to seal such local decisions. If I thought they had the slightest intention of genuinely moving in that direction I might be inclined to support them too…

        • as to “by a heap of negative externalities (oil wars, climate change, etc etc), and that if these were accounted for, then simpler technologies might be the better choice. But I have to live with the reality of 2016.”
          I’m just wondering what shall be the mill spare parts cost. to make it economically viable.
          Just an imagination training. The world of no cheap FF based energy and externalized costs
          and caveat U are able to repair and maintain it with your own hands.
          IMHO all of ones $ profit is sb’s externalized environmental loss.
          I’d also preffer to be sorry about externalities but still live in the sunny state not in Niger delta.

  15. Your key point has the advantage of not only being one of those positive narratives all sides are searching for these days, but also of articulating a political vision that’s currently being left to the extreme right to make hay with and doing it in a way that demystifies our collective future of not-so-big machines and not-so-paved-over motorways by not scaring the urban populace away with luddite angrytalk, but giving them every chance to feel needed, included.

    And to come back to Farming Today: About the only people you’re clearly antagonising are represented by that big veg representative who didn’t break his smooth talking stride mentioning that his company was “in Senegal”, too, and if they had to source consumers’ cheap produce from there because of complications with UK farmers, they would feel duty-bound to do so.

    (Consumer unit: A little light in a big circuit.)

  16. Re secular religion:
    I was referring to the whole PaleoThisAndThat business, dominated since its inception by people claiming that once humanity started growing grains as staples, they got sick and short and only modern medicine restored a semblance of health to them.
    It is more complicated, of course. People got sick because grain growing allowed cities to swell, leading to problems with sanitation and disease outbreaks. Once the PaleoUpperClass had been told that this part of their theory had holes in it, the new encyclical stated that if the world was (sparsely) populated by Any Rand-fondling libertarian tech entrepreneur homesteaders from California living on coconut oil like them, all would be well.

    Any yet…as a symptom, you can beat grains. The dream of arcadia, the landscape recognition purportedly implanted into our genes, the limitlessness of the world turning into a nightmare and demanding a return to pastoral ways of proper field boundaries that can hold a sheep; weird stream of consciousness, but somehow coming together – those quintessential commodity crops make such lovely targets.

    • as to: “People got sick because grain growing allowed cities to swell”
      Aren’t we in a deep need of the process going the opposite direction?
      (yes I’m one of those for whom population matters)

      Could you please point out the holes in this paleo theory? I kinda agreed with it

      • The birth rates already are going in that direction; “needs” in that respect are problematic: you’re not ingratiating yourself because you’re looking like you’re fond of using “saturation blame” in the direction of anyone refusing to eat the bread of wisdom.

        The paleo theory isn’t a theory, but dogma.
        Grains are the root of all evil, therefore we believe they cause the diseases of civilisation. And of course they do, but so do open sewers and having sex with close relatives.

  17. Without meaning to flog this issue (appropriate technology for grain harvest) to death, I would point out the situation in Japan, where agriculture is almost all smallholdings. There is a variety of miniature combines (some only one meter wide) in use for rice harvest. It seems that the technology will evolve to fit the landscape.

    • I’ve heard of miniature combines in places like Japan, but I’ve never heard of anyone importing one to the States. I have, however, heard of Americans importing threshing machines for close to $10,000. It would certainly be interesting to hear how much the miniature combines cost in Japan, how many bushels/year they’re typically used to harvest, and what farmers earn for their rice (and whether there are rice subsidies, property tax breaks, etc.) I’d also be curious how well they would work for wheat or other crops, if at all.

      As far as the idea of 8′ plot combines being shared between very small farmers in the US, though, I strongly suspect that that wouldn’t even come close to making dollar sense and that such seemingly easy solutions will serve only to convince people its not worth pursing the more labor-intensive and old-equipment-frustrating options that might actually be realistic, thereby serving to maintain the farmers’ dependence on industrialized commodity agriculture. From what I understand, a plot combine costs at least $100,000 new. If you could keep it running for 20 years, going with that low end figure, that would average out to $5000/year. If it were shared between 10 farmers (which seems wildly over-optimistic), that would be $500 per year per farmer. If each farmer harvested a total of 50 bushels (perhaps by growing a half acre each of a few different combine-able crops), that would still be $10/bushel in equipment cost alone for harvesting, and that’s before counting fuel costs, transportation costs moving the combine between farms, and maintenance and repair costs, besides labor and all the other costs of growing the crop and post-harvest costs. If it could be done economically, that would be great, but I’d hate to bet the small farm future on the feasibility of it.

    • Hi Vera, thanks for your concern. Yes, unfortunately it got hacked and it took a while to get sorted. Hence the need for the additional security features, unfortunately.

  18. Glad you are back also. Regarding appropriate scale and tech machinery for localized small holdings, I would again point out the Amish model here in the U.S. I watch them harvest small grains with a combination of low tech, horses, “old tech” threshing machines, and community team work.

    Grain fields are anywhere from roughly one to ten acres ( .4 to 4 hectares) and part of a mixed crop rotation on each farm. The distribution of threshing machines is a function of grain acreage density and distance they are willing and able to transport the thresher.

    I don’t know about what happens to the grain, what market it supplies, and how it compares to the cost of bulk commodity grains, but then, part of that is how much value you put on their labor, which is a great deal more per bushel. Something for me to investigate.

    • I once read an Amish woman say that there are very few foods they buy… but I think she said flour, sugar and salt.

      I am betting much of their grain production goes to feed the horses, chickens, pigs.

  19. Have to echo Vera and Steve’s relief to see the site back up.

    The tradeoff and sweet spot comments we got into above may deserve some further inspection. I tend to favor market solutions to command and design solutions. Perhaps I’m too much a “trust your neighbor, but cut the cards” sort. The real value I see in considering small farm efforts (at odds with a marketplace spitting upon them) is in maintaining a cadre of experienced craftspeople – folk capable of bringing produce forth from the earth with less reliance upon resources which may be far more expensive in the future (or not available at all). It is one thing to have a history we might read to inform how it used to be… but its quite another to actually have seasoned hands picking beans or berries in the present. The tradeoffs that stood in front of Irish peasants when their potatoes began to rot in the field are very different from the tradeoffs that face a vegge grower in Frome today. And because of this I’m ready to imagine that some future agrarian will face still different challenges as other technologies come on line; resources change their relative values; or human value systems evolve (think fashions, security matters, etc.). The answers we find most attractive now will likely fill a dustbin at some point downstream. But having these conversations, challenging ourselves to live well with less, these are positive things whether today’s market wants to reward them or not. Today’s market is merely that… today’s. You’re all about the future. Sealing things politically just seems counterproductive to me.

    So I’m not a fan of tariffs, but I am a fan of local self-reliance. If the only way we can have the latter is by instituting the former, then I might grudgingly sign on. But I will continue to turn the matter over in my head looking for a better solution.

    In the meantime I’m glad the site is back up.

    • Clem, there’s much I agree with there, possibly the main difference being that I don’t really see the market and command/design as being mutually exclusive, so in that sense every economic arrangement is one that ultimately is politically sealed. But let me essay a free market approach to creating sustainable local agricultural communities with this four point plan:

      1. Abolish all agricultural subsidies
      2. Create a global free market in labour (ie abolish all immigration controls)
      3. Prevent monopolies by breaking up any enterprise that gains more than, say, 0.01% of global market share
      4. Internalise pollution externalities by charging producers of carbon, nitrates etc the full costs of reverting the world to the status quo ante


  20. Perhaps I need to do more imagining to come to a point where I can fathom a system of command and design that is a combination of democratic, market sensitive, and relatively free from corruption. And would Homo sapiens be capable of such…

    To your four points for a free market approach:

    1. I like the ideal of no subsidies. I imagine it is a goal we should strive for. I doubt we will achieve this anytime soon. My reason for doubt rests on a couple issues. New technological approaches seem to need a period of trial whereby they might prove themselves – come to scale as it were. With no support (artificial or otherwise) new approaches may well end up on the scrap heap. True, many new approaches likely belong on the scrap heap. But the brutality of a truly free market likely misses opportunities that are not revolutionary at first blush. Perhaps the compromise to work toward here is to have a sunset date for subsidies – or a scaled system where a subsidy is reduced over time to its eventual elimination.

    2. Yep, this seems to work quite well. The residents of a certain island nation in the NE Atlantic have embraced it whole heartedly and have set an example for the rest of us. Oops, sorry, that was true earlier this year. Silly sniping aside, I hear you, and imagine there is merit in the thought… the implementation may elude us in the near term.

    3. Liking this notion very much. Not convinced the bar need be set so low – I might allow individual enterprises a slightly larger bit of global market share… but I would be willing to listen to arguments for setting such a limit. There are (for me) respectable counter arguments couched in terms of scale and benefits derived from such. So I envision it necessary to really dig in to the political will (or enforce very small political subdivisions) in order to pull this off. Persuade me otherwise.

    4. This is perhaps my favorite… I think the difficulties we witness with free markets is that we haven’t set the goals in the right places from the outset (or agreeing to move them once we realize the current goals will eventually kill many of us). If all the costs we can conceptualize are indeed accounted for as a price of doing a certain business, AND all participants in a given market enterprise must address these costs then I expect competition will ultimately favor those who come to the market with the best solution. Allowing inferior solutions amounts to kicking the can down the road (and eventually off a cliff? chalk or other)…

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