Three acres and a cow

My title comes from a 19th century English song, which includes this verse…

If all the land in England was divided up quite fair / There would be work for everyone to earn an honest share / Well some have thousand acre farms which they have got somehow / But I’ll be satisfied to get three acres and a cow

…but more immediately, it comes from a great evening of folksong and storytelling I heard recently in which Robin Grey and Katherine Hallewell told – well, not quite the history of the world in 10½ blog posts so much as the history of the fight for access to land by ordinary people in Britain in 11 lovely folk songs. If you get a chance to see the show, I’d thoroughly recommend it (and for those in my neck of the woods, it’s returning to Frome on 10 March). It’s not quite as comprehensive as my recent historithon here at Small Farm Future, but it’s a darned sight more tuneful.

The main aim of this post, though, isn’t to talk about the show so much as to pick up on a couple of themes hanging over from various previous posts and post cycles. In particular, I want to address a point that Ruben made in a comment concerning the need for a sustainable post-capitalist society to produce an agrarian surplus in order to fund a division of labour and thus a viably diverse social order. I want to marry it with what I called my 99/1 test (in which a food-farm system is defined as sustainable if it can persist with 99% of food sourced from within 10 miles of any given retail point and with fossil energy use set at 1% of the current level). Clem suggested a 90/10 test might be more apposite, so I propose to (roughly) split the difference and apply a 95/5 test – though actually in the analysis here I’m going to ignore retail provenance altogether, implicitly assuming that it’s 100% local.

In later posts, I’ll discuss the sociological aspects of what such low energy post-capitalist farm societies might look like. But here I want to revisit my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex analysis and consider what such a society might look like out in the fields. Somewhat like three acres and a cow, as it turns out. Or at least three acres and a quarter of a cow.

I’ve identified two sources for current levels of in-field fossil energy use in British farming. This one reckons it at 17 litres of diesel per hectare per year, and this one at 127 litres – a rather alarming discrepancy. Ah well, let’s take the mean (72 litres) and then reduce it by 95%. That gives us about 3.6 litres of diesel to grow our crops each year on a nominal hectare. I’m going to assume two people working full-time year-round producing a basic range of crops appropriate to the southwest English climate to feed themselves and anyone else they can, given those diesel and labour parameters. And I’m going to assume they’ll be growing organically (no sneaky additional energy embodied in fertiliser). On that basis, what I’d probably do is grow a grass/clover ley which I’d till in with a small 2-wheel tractor and grow potatoes as my main staple crop (in reality I might grow some wheat as well, but my personal experiments with small-scale wheat growing haven’t amounted to much, and I don’t have good local yield figures for such systems). I know tillage isn’t exactly the flavour of the month at the moment and I’ll be talking more about that in my upcoming post on carbon farming, but my feeling is that in a super-low energy situation it’s probably the optimum solution to the equation of land, labour and yield. If you think you could do as well with a no till system, then fine – you can use your diesel for something else…such as hauling around all the compost you’ll most likely be making.

Anyway, so much for the tillage. The rest of my production would be done with hand (or foot) tools (I’m ignoring energy embodied in small tools, and the various bits of agri-plastic I’d undoubtedly be blagging for mulch). Plus whatever animal or human help I could muster. Note that my focus here is on producing a healthy subsistence, and not on high value leafy crops as is the present lot of most small-scale market growers.

OK, maybe I’m pushing the limits here but on that basis I think I could probably cultivate about a quarter of an acre (0.11ha) of potatoes as part of a seven course field rotation with a two year ley. I’d also grow a garden with six 20m beds, including one ley. I’d have a small fruit orchard of a little under 0.1ha, with some grazing beneath the trees. I’d have a 300m2 strawberry patch, a few bee hives, and a few hens. I’d also grow some mushrooms on logs. If that was pretty much the extent of my holding I wouldn’t have enough grazing for a dairy cow, but my orchard and leys would be enough for a quarter of a house cow so I’d share one (and the associated calf meat) with three other farmers. In practice, I’d probably grow a somewhat more diverse mixture of things (rather than, say, 300m2 of pure strawberries), but I think the above will do as an illustrative example.

So there we have it. That little lot should keep me and my beloved busy enough over a year.

If I plug all that into my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex spreadsheet, which has been sitting around looking reproachfully idle on my desktop for many months now, then we get the following expected average yields: about 2 tonnes of potatoes, 4 tonnes of cabbages, 0.2 tonnes of drying beans, 4 tonnes of carrots, 4 tonnes of squash, generally around 100kg of various garden vegetables, 0.5 tonnes of apples, 0.2 tonnes of strawberries, 67kg of hazels, 1250 eggs, 800 litres of milk, 70kg of beef, 10kg of chicken and game, and 25kg of honey. Perhaps a little too much to expect of two people with minimal fossil fuel inputs in an organic system, but I think possibly doable in a well-established and well-managed system. Comments welcome.

Adding up the total land take of the setup I described above turns out a figure of 0.92 hectares (2.3 acres). So if you added some space for a house, outbuildings, tracks, hedges and perhaps a bit of woodland, you’d be close to Robin and Katherine’s 3 acre figure, though sadly you’d only have quarter of a cow.

Setting those productivity figures against recommended yearly intakes across my five chosen nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) the surplus productivity of my two farmworkers varies across the indicators – the surplus is highest for Vitamin A, where they produce enough for the adequate nourishment of 209 souls, and lowest for energy, where they produce enough only for just over 11 people (11.5).

So taking that lowest figure of 11 per hectare as the productive limit of this system and assuming that all arable land is cultivated in this way we find that the system could feed 91% of the current population of the southwest and 75% of the current population of England as a whole. If we extend it into all the farmland currently down to permanent pasture (but not rough grazing) we could feed 310% of the current southwest population and 147% of the whole England population. This excludes the extra potential productivity from rough grazing, domestic gardens and other currently non-agricultural green spaces. In other words, feeding the country in this way is a doddle. The reason it meets nutritional requirements so comfortably in comparison to my previous ‘Peasants’ Republic of Wessex’ exercise is because in the latter case I went with a livestock-heavy system based on the existing balance of grassland and cropland, whereas here I’ve gone for a more George Monbiot-friendly system with minimal livestock. Though, unlike George’s preferred approach to meat, at least my livestock have legs – or one leg, anyway. To be honest, I think the kind of setup I’m describing here would be more likely to occur in low energy future scenarios than the livestock-heavy approach I previously took, though there’d still be a lot of room around the edges of it for domestic poultry, neighbourhood pig clubs etc. There’d probably need to be, since there’s not otherwise much usable fat or oil in this three acres diet. And rather than courting controversy as I did last time around by trying to produce a non-fossil fuel full energy budget for such a society, I’m drawn to the simplicity of this one. Assume 5% of current energy use across all sectors and go figure…

But I’d like to make a couple of brief remarks on how I’d go figure it. Farmers, like everyone else, generally take the easiest option available under the constraints they face. In situations where land is plentiful but labour is constrained (labour constraint being effectively the same as energy constraint) the easy option is meat-heavy pastoralism. In situations where land is constrained but labour is plentiful, the easy option is grain-heavy arable. In situations where both land and labour are constrained, as here, the easiest option would probably look something like what I’ve just described – a meat-light mixed cropping approach with as little arable as you can get away with, which would probably be a lot more than you’d ideally like.

Vaclav Smil writes that no country with an annual energy consumption under 5 GJ/person can guarantee the basic necessities of life to everyone, whereas some societies oriented to egalitarian resource distribution can provide for an adequate life at around 40-50 GJ/person1. If the UK’s total energy consumption was decreased by 95% it would put us at around 4.5 GJ/person.

The 95/5 test would seem to suggest a wicked, twisted road ahead. Maybe it’s too stringent? I’m somewhat agnostic about the shape of humanity’s energy future, but it never hurts to plan conservatively…

In terms of the farming population, two people feeding 11.5 people would give us 17% of the population directly working in farming, but if we calculate it on the basis of present labour norms with those aged <18 or >65 excluded from the labour force, the figure is about 31% in farming. If such a situation came to pass in practice I think we could relax the 18-65 active labourer definition a little, so perhaps we could assume farmers would constitute about 25% of the population – similar to current levels in countries like Iran, Ecuador, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The current level in the UK is about 2%, though this isn’t really a comparable figure because we export a lot of the responsibility for producing our food to farmers in other countries. Still, if we decided that we should produce all our food in this way, we’d have to start shifting about 23 people out of every 100 from their current employment into farming. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

Incidentally, I shall be on internet detox over the weekend so no further comments or responses from me until next week.


  1. Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.358ff.

54 thoughts on “Three acres and a cow

  1. “Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.”

    Bureaucrats. Administrators. Useless academics. People on the dole. That’s a lot of folks!

    Btw, been thinking about the recent side discussion about approaching the problem from the political angle, and approaching it from the cultural angle. I think that unless the cultural angle is worked in too, it’s no use… If you can’t show your own kids that the agrarian lifestyle is a cool culture worth continuing themselves, well… ?

  2. How wide are those 20m beds, Chris?
    With regard to the cow idea that might not have a leg to stand on, is there any good reason why a small farm farmer wouldn’t choose a small farm animal like a mini Jersey in such a scenario? I’ve long entertained the idea of our very own Small Mixed Farm animated with such a fleet-footed dwarf animal or animals while also growing (petit) pois, (baby) carrots and the like. Mind the chihuahua at the gate! Thanks again, and enjoy the detox.

    • I think you’re onto something Simon. Small is beautiful, as they say. And wait… let me scratch the noggin’… I think rabbits might fit. Where have I heard that one before? 🙂

      • Toy dogs, why not toy rabbits? Nice lean meat. For understandable reasons (rising price of battery eggs, relative expense of industrial meat, intermittent supply of locally hunted boar and venison) chickens and rabbits appear to be coming back into fashion in backyards in my neck of the eastern European woods. They do fit nicely into a simple self-provisioning food system, even though most folk purchase feed from the mobile vendors.

    • “Petit pois”, you wouldn’t happen to be from Louisiana, would you? Though I suppose they might call little sweet peas that in Quebec or France too.

      • Hi Lee. You get the little peas labelled in French in the UK too, from where I hail, though in Hungary, where I am now, they’re called zsenge borsó, or young/tender/early peas. I once cycled across the Texas Panhandle and encountered the fiercest winds there. Hard country. Good luck with your homesteading plans.

        • Thanks Simon! I went to a jonior college in the panhandle. The wind sure is fierce there. I’m in central TX now a dozen miles from the capital building. I think I’m most likely to head northeast 30 miles and try to settle on the edge of a small town. It’s a tough choice though. My brothers and parents migrated from south Louisiana to avoid more hurricanes and because they are blacksmiths. They went where there’s more horses. I could afford more land up there, but the social scene/world view is quite different up there. On the other hand sustainable agriculture is actually getting into the community colleges up there after farmer’s markets have done decent in those mainstreet towns. Tough choice.

  3. Any suggestions as to which job sectors the Ministry of Agricultural Redeployment in the Peasants’ Republic should concentrate on will be gratefully received.

    Didnt the golgafrinchans have a similar problem?

    Seriously though I suggest that there may be quite a few people up for a voluntary rural resettlement scheme such as the Land Settlement Association (Rural Resettlement Ireland?)

  4. When I first read this post I was skeptical. I first thought that your production spreadsheet must be out of whack. After all, there has never been a low-energy society that was fed everyone with only 25% of the workforce. The United States didn’t get to a 25% farm worker ratio until about 1920, which could hardly be considered low-energy, since per capita energy use was about one-half of today’s level.

    I checked out a couple of per-acre production stats, which were indeed correct, so I assume that all of them are right. It then occurred to me that the problem was not with the production numbers, but that by concentrating on possible food per acre production, you were isolating food production from its integration with the rest of society. Here are a few issues that might be problematic:

    1. Food transport- If 80% of the population lives in urban areas (or anywhere not on the working farms), the food must be transported to them. By abandoning commodity production and turning to small farms, food transport energy costs will be even higher than they are now. It would be impossible for every farm to be on a canal or rail siding, so just imagine millions of small trucks making pickups at small farms as the harvests come in and trucking the produce to the city.

    2. Farmer motivation- Why would a small farmer raise 4-5 times the amount of food they need? They would presumably sell the surplus for cash, but what would they buy? Are you assuming the rest of industrial society is also subject to your 95/5 rule? If so, there would be little to purchase. And I know that if I had a perfectly functional small farm, I would only grow enough to feed my family and a small surplus to sell for the few things I needed to purchase.

    3. Non-food agriculturals- Where is the cotton, wool, and animal feed going to come from. People need clothing and shoes, among other things that come from farms. And if the transport sector is also subject to the 95/5 rule, transportation will depend on a lot of horses. If so, the whole population distribution would need to change to get people closer to their food supply and the horses they would need, which also need to be fed.

    4. Communication- Are you assuming that all the food production and distribution will be organized by high speed communication with central markets and transport companies? If not, imagine every small farm walking to the nearest telegraph office to notify the trucker that a load of potatoes is ready for pickup.

    5. Storage and packaging- The great thing about having most people living on small farms is that they can integrate the production, storage, processing and cooking of food on the farm. Once you need to move food from a farm to a city, the food needs proper storage and packaging all along the supply chain. Are you assuming every farm has refrigerated storage for their surplus milk and vegetable production?

    I think that if one is going to propose a significant change to one sector of society, all the other sectors need to be changed to maintain integration with it. Switching from commodity food production (for most calories) to small farms can’t be done without changing everything in the rest of society too.

    It was only by increasing energy throughput that we were able to decrease the number of people living on farms. There is a direct relationship between a society’s energy-per-capita use and the number of people able to leave farm country.

    A high-energy society could certainly feed themselves from multitudes of low energy farms if it wanted to, but I doubt it would. Since human labor is far more expensive than farm machine labor, food prices would be much higher. Urban workers would be unlikely to want to subsidize such a scheme.

    But if all of society is low-energy, then almost everyone has to move back to farm country and get all their needs for water, food, energy, shelter, and clothing met there. To do all that requires far more land per capita than is now available.

    • Think I agree with that analysis Joe, except for the very last paragraph. I can’t see that land is the main constraint if you trust Chris’ calculations (they seem plausible to me at a frist look and I have been doing small scale farming for forty years now – can’t get why he would have the 300 square meters of strawberries though). Why would the production go down if you have even more people back on the land?

      • Gunnar,
        I agree that 3 acres can grow the amount of food Chris is projecting. More workers on that three acres would just make production easier per person.

        My point in the last paragraph is that the three acres is insufficient to produce much of the other necessary resources (transportation, communication, spare parts, electricity?, building materials, fencing, heating fuel, etc.) that the farm would presently get from the industrial society in which it is embedded. I just think that if the entire society was low-energy, it would take a lot more land per person to provide those kinds of resources too, in addition to food.

        I live on a 16 hectare plot in the tropics. There is no way that it could support 53 people without any outside inputs, no matter how low the living standards might be.

        A good reference point would be the medieval manor, which had about 3 acres per person and could be almost entirely self contained.

          • How many people do you envisage 16 tropical acres could support, Joe? I’d guess firewood for heating would be the least of your worries. And out of curiosity because I’m considering buying one, have you/do you use a solar parabola to cook/bake bread/reheat food? (Midsummer highs get to about 38C where I live).

          • Simon, (no option to reply directly to your comment)

            I think our land could support about 8-10 adults and a few kids.

            Only about two acres of our hilly land is arable, ten acres is good pasture (including under an acre of fruit trees) and the remainder is woodlot, buildings and driveway/parking.

            We do need space heating about 30 days a year. I have the wood heater going at the moment. At 2300 ft elevation, the temperatures can get into the low 50s F on the coldest nights of the year, like last night.

            I use solar for water heating and electricity, but not for cooking. I can use wood for cooking in an outdoor cookstove, but mostly we use a propane range. So wood supply is important. If we used no propane, our wood consumption for cooking would put a fair dent in our woodlot.

            I also use wood chips a great deal as mulch, but that will last only as long as there is fuel for the chipper. I have seen banana leaves used as weed suppressing mulch and we do have plenty of those.

            Almost all of our utility infrastructure, (electricity, water catchment system, roads) was developed using modern industrial stuff. It is very nice to have piped in water under pressure, not to mention the clothes washer. Our challenge would be keeping that equipment going without industrial civilization. I think it can be done for a few decades before it disappears forever. I’m hoping to find out about the first decade or two soon.

        • Point taken! I think Vivi is on the same thing in her comments.

          Of course, everything will change. That is something that amazes me when some people (not you guys here) think they can “keep” one good technology and change all the rest. E.g have some kind of primitivist society – with the internet. Or stem cell therapy.

          • Thanks Joe. So a couple of people per acre or thereabouts? That sounds doable, realistic, nothing too excessive. Though the question of space is important, it’s easy to get bogged down in it, forgetting that time is of the essence: work needs to be done. This is where extended families living together in one household, as some of my neighbours do, have an advantage. Likewise intentional communities. Still, my children, aged 2 and 5, show interest in the garden and the eldest already recognises all the emerging seedlings better than I do; hope springs eternal.
            (Reading your reply about cooking with wood outdoors and living up high as, by strange coincidence, the radio played Jerome Kern’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes followed by The Folks Who Live On The Hill. Go figure! And may you too enjoy ‘the kind of view that seems to want to be seen’.)

    • As for farmer’s motivation: Those “few things you need” would be a lot more expensive than they are today, if they are produced using very little fossil fuels and locally (i.e. not in countries where people have no choice but to tolerate child labour, no safety standards and near-slavery wages). Hand-crafted clothes, furniture, farming tools, pottery, metal objects, etc. cost much more than the industrial (fossil fuel ‘slaves’ replacing much more expensive human labour), mass-produced (“economies of scale” make individual items much cheaper), globally shipped items of everyday need we have access to today, simply because there are many more labour hours involved for the artisan, who after all has to be able to afford all these things as well, and the food you’re producing on top of it.

      Besides, there would be essential services (like doctor’s visits and the services of the apothecary who’d have to make medicines from scratch again in the shop, insofar that’s possible at all, like in my grandfather’s day; or access to some sort of information distribution system if only for the weather forecast) which would also rise in price with the amount of labour hours involved for the service provider (and whatever debts they have to pay back for their lenghty education), school fees for your kids (no publicly funded schools without a large economic tax base or at least Church tithes – there’s a reason this is a big part of the cash needs of subsistence farmers in developing nations), and of course you’d have to pay some amount of taxes still, to pay the people in the administrative class, who hold the power and control the army, even under ideal (communist) circumstances where there aren’t any actual landlords who want to make a good living out of leasing you those 3 acres.

      And Heaven help you if you break a leg and have to hire a farmhand just to make sure you bring in your harvest that year so that your family doesn’t starve. Or if there’s a serious weather problem (flooding; forest fire; summer hail storm destroying your grain crop and squash plants; or a sudden disease epidemic like a new strain of potato blight; etc.) and you have to buy your food for the rest of the year because you can’t start again once the few weeks’ sowing window has closed. The latter risk is getting ever worse with climate change, of course. [Under a less dire economic collapse situation than back to what things were like until the 19th century – when something like that would likely have forced your family to sell the farm and to join the mass of urban poor or landless ‘vagrants’ – there might still be some national system of crop insurance. But that sort of system needs national-level organisation to work – so any weather calamity won’t affect all the insured farmers at once – and you’d need the cash to pay for your premiums, of course.]

  5. Your figures for the carrying capacity of England seem really high when you compare them with actual history. Regarding food production in England, there are approximately 12,500,000 acres of arable – crop growing – land remaining in England. About a third of the land area of England. The reason for using acres is the rule of thumb that one acre of arable land is needed to support one person. This would mean that England should be able to support a maximum population of around 12 million people. Which, in fact, was the population of England in the 1830s; after the agricultural revolution but before industrialised farming – especially artificial nitrogen and fertilisers. But the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 to allow the mass importation of cheaper North American wheat and – since then – England has been a net food importing country.

    Therefore, post mass food imports, my assumption is that 12 million would also be roughly the maximum possible post industrial population of England.

    However, during World War Two, farming in England was able to feed about twenty million people and the other twenty million were fed by food imports from overseas. But this was only possible because of massive imports of artificial fertilisers, plus winter animal feed that enabled hay meadows to be used for crops and diesel fuel for tractors that enabled pastureland for horses to be used for crops. These would probably not be available in a post industrial world.

  6. I wonder whether you considered in your calculation that a farmer who does most of the labour by hand (plus stuff like chopping lots and lots of wood for cooking and heat; and I suppose you also plan on forcing women to spend a few days per week of backbreaking labour again just to keep everyone’s clothes clean and the floors scrubbed? Without an industrial system to provide the replacement parts for washing machines and any technology you might still be using to produce electricity, I mean.) needs about 4000 kcal per day, not the 2000-2500 kcal considered sufficient for the average adult today.

    Also, with no industrial rubber production (or mass-produced hormonal drugs), and with free farm labour being a benefit to any farmer again (You can bet that people would work on that peasant farm well before they’re 18. My father – born on a prosperous old faily farm / mill during WW2 with several older brothers and some paid farm hands – started being roped in for light but daily labour (watching over the cows, feeding the small flock of chickens, weeding the kitchen garden) when he was 4 years old. And what do you think those 2-month-long summer school holidays were for originally? The kids were needed during the grain harvest and hay making. It was all hands on deck to get the work done while the good weather holds.), you can expect women to be pregnant again most of the time (or nursing), and therefore eating for two. And your family size is likely to rise beyond what you thought you’d have to feed on 3 acres – at least in terms of small children. (Vaccines and antibiotics need a huge industrial system to keep researching and producing in ever new forms to keep up with pathogen evolution. Without that system, 50% of children would die before they’re 5 years old.) Of course, all the men could decide to have vasectomies after 2 kids and hope for the best that they don’t die before the parents have died of old age (no public pension system without heavy taxation). Yes, that seems likely…

    By the way, 100 kg mixed vegetables sounds ridiculously low to me, both in terms of the size of the vegetable garden described and in terms of what even a small family needs for a year. Unless you mean that all of that squash and cabagge would be grown in that vegetable garden. Still, if I substract the few experimental potato plants, the fruit, berries and 5-10 kg of squash from what I grow in my home garden, then I still produce some 50 kg of vegetables per year. And that’s just by dabbling around with two raised beds (one the size of a desk, the other the size of a wardrobe) and a bunch of large and small pots and planters. And most of those vegetables I sow don’t even grow properly, because I’m still learning, I have a very shadowy garden, and because I have crap soil and refuse to use a lot of artificial fertilizer. Mostly, the weight is from the water in the 30+ kg tomatoes I get from just a dozen potted plants (unprotected outdoors plants, so I only have about 6-8 weeks of harvest before the weather gets too cold/wet and they die of blight). Maybe 10 kg of leafy greens like salads and swiss chard. And some green beans, and small amounts of various other stuff.
    Still, aside from those 50-60 kg worth of specific vegetables (green beans; long-storing winter squash; in-season and canned tomatoes; frozen chard; fresh salads and herbs, which I refuse to ever buy, for a number of reasons) I still buy in the vast majority of the vegetables my 2-person household eats. And that amount is much larger than what I harvest myself. Especially onions, carrots and shelling peas I could not possibly grow in the large amounts that we need them. Nor the much-used arable crops beyond grains, like lentils or kidney beans. Or enough linseed / sunflowers for our cooking oil needs, even if I could be bothered to press the stuff myself. And some things are just too damn difficult in the kitchen garden and better left to an expert who has better soil than I and can manage pests by means more efficient than controlling each individual leaf by hand every few days, as is the case with the half-dozen heads of cabbage we’d need per year.

    • Three acres and a cow? William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821) takes a similar tack when he considers, among other things pertaining to family self-sufficiency, a quarter-acre and a cow (and loads of turnips). Different times, fewer people, nevertheless interesting lessons even today.
      For a modern take on Cobbett, look no further than to see what yields appear feasible from the same area of land. According to this French market garden’s three-year study, touched upon in the book Miraculous Abundance, one full-time market gardener was able to earn 30-50,000 euros selling organic produce to market (one might assume said worker was also able to feed at least his or herself with all the veg and eggs they could stand). The trick to a large part is all the crap they put on the soil: this quarter-acre benefits from much manure from a neighbouring equestrian centre.
      Personally, I find with all these models there’s the temptation to expect the bold claim to be some kind of once and for all answer, silencing all doubts and worries one may have about the state of the world and our response to it going into the unknown. It can be disappointing to find, yet again, such peace of mind isn’t so easy to come by. Those two books are worthwhile reads though, if like me you’re drawn to doing as much as possible with as little as possible, for as long as possible, whenever possible 🙂

    • Thanks for the link. Some more traditional hand craftsmanship can be found at Mr. Chickadee on YouTube. Very fascinating.

      As I was watching the bucket come together, I thought about all the steps that went into the materials and tools to make the bucket. The wood, the charcoal for making the steel, the hemp for the rope and the flax for the linseed all require land for their production. Multiply that by the materials required for the smithy, the cabinet shop, the carriage works and other crafts and the totals mount up.

      But even more important is the transportation of all those resources to their end users. Mostly that would be done by horse and wagon. Feeding the draft animals needed for resource transport can take up a huge amount of acreage, perhaps more than that required for human food. In the nineteenth century there was about one horse per four people in the US.

      I know from personal experience that if our little farm had one horse, it would need 4-5 acres of pasture. Fortunately for us, the grass grows all year (though less in the winter) and we have plenty of rain for growing grass and food crops. In temperate climates, one might need even more land for hay for winter feed.

      • I’ll look up Mr. Chickadee.
        I was also considering the facets of hand crafting something as simple and essential as a bucket, as the cooper fashions it. With all these things – if I can get a little smithy up and running – I’d only be looking to supplying myself, first and foremost, followed by any requests (“Leaky bucket, anyone?”). I could already do something bucket-like on the pole lathe, at a push. This is a medieval device you could knock up yourself, and it turns wood very well indeed. The trickiest part might be the cord that drives the mandrel. Leather strips work well, perhaps something woven from flax, though in 2018 I’m still using a 4mm nylon cord. Some use bungees and dispense with the long ash pole. As you point out, there’s much to be gleaned from the medieval period. The cutting tool is carbon steel rod. Any simpler than this and you’re looking at carving out a bowl with a knife – excellent work can still be achieved. Make it stout enough and you could confidently award it a 30-year guarantee.

  7. That would be like something out of Clifford Harpers visions!

    Some thoughts:

    How about small scale aquaponics to make sure that all those vitamin a’s are put to good use? I suppose that restocking all the streams would also be a good idea. Here in Norway salmon and trout supposedly ran in the streams and were a common staple for the peasants and serfs. I read that they ate so much of it they tired of it. Imagine that.

    Walking around the countryside I’m always baffled that all the edge zones (fields,roads etc) are not cultivated. Why not put in herbs,berries,fruit and nut trees? More fat,more proteins,more vitamins – more wildlife! And also the deliberate planting of hedges and forest strips to accommodate wildlife and for fodder for livestock.

    Stephen Barstow is on something of a crusade what edible perennials are concerned. Planting them along edges would perhaps be a good idea. If these edges where to be managed, I would imagine that they would offer a vast treasure trove of everything from medicinals,edibles to material for all sorts.

    Local seed growing. Used to be that the agriculture departments ran local research stations where they also grew and developed seeds. Home growing of seeds are good for certain things, but impractical for others.

    Marc Bonfils adapted Fukokas grain growing to the Pyrenees. I’ve never tried it, but I would certainly like to. I’ve also read about an anthropologist who tried swidden cultivation of rye as was done in the border region between Norway and Sweden, with impressive yields.

    Susane Lein of Salamander Springs has also developed impressive ways to grow small grains/pulses (no till).

    Have you read “Just Enough” by Azby Brown? Good examples from the Edo period of Japan.
    I’m personally very inspired by the whole concept of Satoyama.

    How about making alcohol for fuel? Another on my to do list, but those with a knack for engineering could probably comment on whether that is a possibility or not.

    I think that efforts along these lines, which doesn’t take up space as such, or is not detrimental to the cultivated spaces, would vastly increase food security/sovereignty/autonomy (pick your preference). I also like to think that that these sort of things offer more of a peoples solution to the current mess. Not to mention the positive effect for our non-human neighbors.

    Should be plenty of opportunity for a neo-cottage economy if we changed the landscape. Utensils, clothing, packaging, most could come from woodlots and hedges. And perhaps we could rid ourselves of all that nasty plastic if we did? It seems quite a lot of the micro-plastic ends up on the fields through the use of sludge…

    PS! I hope you native English speakers can look past my grammar!


    • Alcohol for fuel is good, but if you use it for cooking and heating and live in a humid climate, everything will mold. It releases moisture into the air.

  8. I am using my fathers spade, fork and watering can which must be 50+ years old.and still in good order. I dont think I have looked after them as well as I could but I suspect that my sons will be using them should they be so inclined.

    I think that the spade and fork are almost certainly of the best quality but in terms of resources I doubt if they took any more resources than something of lower quality

  9. Thanks everyone for keeping a debate going in my absence. I’d like to make a couple of general comments, then pick up on a few of the specific points that have been raised, and end by addressing some factual points.

    General comments

    #1 – I largely agree with Joe about the implications of this exercise. If it shows anything, it’s that the problems we face are not fundamentally agronomic but social, political and economic – not that they’re any less intractable for all that. I suppose that’s basically become the mantra of this blog, and this analysis is another way of making the point. The 95% test is very stringent, but I think it’s useful as a thought experiment, and yes it would imply radical change in all other sectors in ways incompatible with current patterns of urbanisation, transport and communication. Smil’s figures cited above make a similar point in a different way, suggesting how difficult it would be to create human flourishing at these sorts of energy levels. However, we’ve rarely had polities in the past that have prioritised support for local farmsteading, and we’ve never had ones that prioritise staying within planetary boundaries. Such polities are what I think we now collectively need to try to bring into being. Like Gunnar, I don’t necessarily agree with Joe’s final assertion. I don’t necessarily disagree with it either. I think it’s unproven. I’ll address it in a little more detail below.

    #2 – I don’t need anybody to persuade me that a smooth and peaceful transition to a sustainable low energy society is unlikely. But I think it’s worth imagining nonetheless, and I see exercises like this as ways to help with the imagining. I find it useful to get feedback that probes questionable assumptions or data. I don’t find it especially useful to get feedback of the ‘that’ll never work’ or ‘that society sounds awful’ variety, and I’ve found such feedback to be common with this kind of analysis for some reason. So, Vivi, if I could make so bold, some of your comments to my mind fit the useful feedback rubric, while some I find questionable (on which more below), but your somewhat scornful tone baffles me a little. Perhaps I failed to make it clear that this isn’t some idealised future peasant utopia I’m trying to construe but the outline of a society struggling to adapt as best it can to almost insurmountable difficulties in relation to things like rising energy costs, climate change and political-economic marginalisation (as many countries already are). I’m open to other ideas, but I see no easy solutions here.

    Specific points

    Non-food agriculturals: Joe mentions cotton, wool, animal feed, horses, spare parts, electricity, building materials, fencing, heating fuel. So, under the model above 30% of Britain’s current agricultural land and 21% of its total land area would be sufficient to feed the existing population. That leaves the remaining 70/79% for everything else. We can’t grow cotton here, but in my previous exercise I made provision for growing hemp and flax for fibre. I don’t think this is a major omission in the present exercise since, as Simon Fairlie nicely put it, everyone except supermodels eats a great deal more than they wear. However, I’d make a pitch for prioritising the manufacture of synthetic clothing (and condoms) in the 95% reduced petrochemical industry. There’s no additional animal feed required in this model. I’d certainly want to see cattle, sheep and maybe horses on some of the spare grassland. The other stuff – well, not all of it sounds very agricultural to me, but I’m open to suggestions about its manageability. In relation to fencing, maybe in this scenario there’d have to be fewer fences and more shepherds and cowherds – more commons, in other words.

    Why produce a surplus? I can think of 3 reasons. Because you’re compelled to, because you need inputs you can’t produce on the farm or because you’re a motivated citizen of a society that emphasises collective service and supports those who provide it. As detailed in numerous previous posts, my preferences incline away from the first and more towards the third. But the sociology of this agroecosystem is properly the topic for a different discussion. Suffice to say for now that urban workers would not in my opinion be the ones who are subsidising this scheme – it’s them who are the subsidised.

    What would the farmers buy with their surplus? Well, indeed no one can produce everything onsite that they need to run their farm optimally. Beyond that, if it were me I’d want to buy some specialist non-farm human service labour time – health care, social care, education. Like farming, these are for the most part labour intensive, energy light pursuits and I’d want to devote as much non-farm labour as possible to them. Again, I think the discussion of relative prices is for another time, but I see no intrinsic reason why the labour of doctors should command a greatly different price to the labour of farmers.

    Health, illness, fertility. Vivi, I don’t really get where you’re going with these points, but here are my thoughts. Speaking as a sometime medical sociologist (so I’m biased) I think people are apt to overestimate the impact of medical care – particularly high tech modern medical care – on overall population health. Clean water, a good diet, social connection, relative social equality, exercise, hygiene and basic primary health care may be pretty much all such a society could offer, but it would be enough to deliver historically high standards of population health. The end of the antibiotic era seems to me highly likely however the future pans out, so yes there’s likely to be more illness and mortality at all ages but especially among the very young and old. Fifty percent child mortality sounds way over the mark, however. I’m struggling to find historical examples where it’s even close to that – maybe in war or lethal epidemic situations? You seem to be suggesting that increased childhood death from infectious disease will lead to population increase, but I’m not sure why. Vaccines and antibiotics are rather different beasts, but I’m not convinced either of them are the decisive factor in reducing child mortality – I think that accolade has to go to clean water to prevent diarrhoeal diseases. Generally, I don’t see human fertility as endogenous to the farming model outlined here but connected with the social order writ large, and I propose to discuss it another time.

    Medieval manors, World War II and ‘miraculous abundance’: I’m not really convinced of the utility of these examples for the issue at hand. No doubt there are some lessons to be learned from things like the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign, but clearly the priority of the war effort wasn’t to establish a sustainable, low energy agriculture. In relation to ‘miraculous abundance’, there are numerous much-feted examples of small market gardens that make a lot of money (I wrote about one of them at Impressive though they are, I don’t think they have many lessons to teach about food provision in an energetically constrained world.

    Aquaponics and perennial edges: yes, there’s enormous potential for increasing per acre productivities by applying human labour ingeniously to it. Existing models based on low labour inputs don’t capture this.

    Small livestock. Yes, a good way to go. I’ve been thinking about trying Dexters – apart from anything else, they’re genetically closer to the extinct wild aurochs of Britain than any other cattle breed, which is kind of cool.

    Land Settlement Association – now you’re talking. On that note, perhaps I’ll relate the story of my little trip to the Houses of Parliament last week sometime soon.

    Factual Points

    – the 20m beds are 1m wide, in terms of growing space

    – the reason I projected growing so many strawberries is because I didn’t have good organic yield figures for other soft fruit. In practice, as I mentioned above, I’d grow a wider range of soft fruits

    – the 100kg of various garden vegetables was 100kg for each type of vegetable. In total, I’m projecting about 14 tonnes of vegetables from the field rotation and about 600kg from the garden.

    – Gavin, I’d question some of your facts and figures. According to DEFRA’s ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2016’ there’s about 15,000,000 acres of cropland currently in the UK. There’s an additional 25,000,000 acres of grassland and, as discussed above, if we extend the cropping just a little into the grassland then we can easily feed the current population within the parameters of the model described above. With current organic wheat yields at around 4.5 tha-1 by my calculations an acre of organic wheat could provide the calorific requirements for about 7 people. Wheat is by far the largest commodity produced on Britain’s cropland by land take, and the country is currently a net exporter of wheat. However, it’s a net importer of food by money value. The five food commodities where the country has the biggest net trade deficit are (in order by money value) fruit, wine, vegetables, poultry meat and cheese. The commodity in which it has the biggest net trade surplus is whisky, followed by wheat. If you rerun that exercise by weight it goes fruit, veg, wine, cheese, poultry meat on the deficit side, with wheat the largest net weight surplus item. I probably don’t need to spell out the implications of these facts. I don’t see any particular reason to endorse your assumption that Britain could support no more than 12 million people in an autarkic situation.

    – Vivi, I don’t know why you suppose that I plan on forcing women to spend a few days a week of backbreaking labour, but just for the record no I don’t plan on it. However, it does strike me as a plausible direction the future might take. Trying to prevent this outcome is one reason among many why I continue to defend the ideal of a liberal public sphere.

    • With a Dexter, Zebu – any such miniature breed I’d expect to be relatively uncommon – would there be an issue with insemination (if keeping one as a milking cow) or would you need keep a bull of the same breed too?

    • In evaluating whether Britain could feed itself, your import/export analysis has great potential. But the unit of comparison should always be calories, not weight or monetary value. If Britain exports more calories than it imports, including animal feed, then it is clear that there is enough land available to grow the calories its population requires. This kind of top-down analysis could help corroborate the bottom-up calculations you present in this post.

      The next big issues are whether Britain exports more nitrogen than it imports to grow those calories and the nature of the source of that nitrogen and its long term sustainability. It might be prudent not to count on calories grown with imported nitrogen or on even on indigenous nitrogen from rapidly depleting sources like North Sea gas.

      If the vast majority of Britain’s calories are produced with imported or depleting nitrogen, then a top-down analysis won’t help much. If so, a hypothetical organic yield per acre study may be the best one can do.

  10. I’ve been reading this with interest – I doubt very much there are any utopias in our reasonably near future and the intersection of climate change and a rapidly shrinking energy supply could, it seems to me, propel us towards dystopia quite rapidly – so imagining alternatives seems a vital beginning – so thanks for your work Chris.

    I read recently that at the end of the 18th century somewhere between 2/3rd and 3/4 of those working in agriculture were in some way not free – they were slaves, serfs or indentured labour. Unfortunately there was no reference to follow so I’ve no idea as to the accuracy of the claim – but it did make me think about just how a society with little fossil fuel energy, a need to meet more of its needs more locally and concentrated land ownership might operate.

    I’m writing in the UK where access to land is out of reach for most of the population. So if we accept that in the absence of large doses of fossil fuels societies are going to be more agrarian in nature then much of our population is in a vulnerable position. To me it seems the politics of that are far and away the most important consideration and it’s going to be very easy to devolve into a situation of aristocratic privilege where for most of us what to grow and how to grow it are questions considered beyond our pay grade.

    • The physical requirements of a sustainable future that minimizes death rates are daunting, but easily described; industrial civilization needs to be de-industrialized and de-urbanized as quickly as possible by moving large numbers of people out of cities and on to agricultural land, on which they produce their own sustenance and enough surplus for a relatively few non-farmers.

      Now just imagine that description as a the headline of a manifesto from any existing political party or leader.

      Hah! I couldn’t do it either. Even Mao just wanted temporary tours of the collective farm for the urban classes. He had no intention of abandoning industrial production. I just don’t see any current political leader even considering this predicament, much less leading the rich and powerful along. Just bringing the subject up would be like casting swine before pearls.

      I keep hoping for visionary private wealth to jump-start the process. Where is the Elon Musk of agrarian peasantry, someone who puts billions into colonizing Wessex rather than colonizing Mars? Certainly Wessex would be far easier, even for Musk.

      And if philanthropy doesn’t come to the rescue (at least by providing an example of what is possible), how do we get non-wealthy young farmers onto the land in numbers? Getting the grassroots some grassland is going to be very, very hard.

      I fear we will wait until extreme hardship descends on urban populations before considering sending them elsewhere to live, if they even get that much consideration. And the longer we wait, the more likely dystopia becomes.

      It’s all very frustrating. I guess I should concentrate more on my Stoicism.

      • The reply I made last night seems not to have arrived so I’ll try again.

        Getting “non-wealthy young farmers onto the land in numbers” seems really important – I think there are plenty of such people out there – when I was younger I might have considered myself as such but the lack of opportunity led me elsewhere. Land ownership is incredibly concentrated in the UK and for the most part the its owners are pretty good at holding on to it – the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Estate is founded on land grants made by William the Conqueror and undoing such entrenched privilege is going to be very difficult.

        But there are places we could start – Allotments were originally created with the ‘Allotments and Smallholdings Act’ – the smallholding part of that could be reinvigorated and doing that is probably politically possible. It might make three acres and a cow possible for a larger number of people.

        In the post war period council houses were built with allotment sized gardens – planning rules could be changed to ensure that new houses came with an allotment of land of that sort of size that couldn’t be developed or sold separately from the associated house – the houses need not be built on a plot that size but a new development could have land on its margin – not everyone would want to cultivate their plot, they might want a croquet lawn or they might want to rent to someone interested in market gardening – Curtis Stone runs his market garden business on that sort of model.

        I’ve just come across this – a book written by Rees-Mogg’s father and widely read by the libertarian tech billionaires apparently – a dark future in which they are ‘freed’ from political control and are able to profit from the implosion of liberal democracy, which means the rest of us become essentially their subjects. Rebuilding well managed commons is the best antidote to such a future that I can think of. Despite having sold off vast amounts of land the UK government still owns considerable amounts, I’m not sure how much is suitable for agriculture but it might be a place to start. I think the commons of the future will be different in character to those of the past but the common thread will be the replacement of ownership of resource/land with rights/responsibilities to resource/land.

        Private wealth is never going to jump start this because any move towards creating commons is a move away from the philosophies underpinning private wealth creation.

        • Just read O’Connell’s article in the Guardian about Thiel and other sovereign-individualistas and their fascination with New Zealand. I haven’t read the book behind it all, but the whole notion of governments crumbling (while the industrial backbone of civilization carries on), allowing plutocratic wealth to carry on unimpeded by democracy, seems far-fetched to me.

          I disagree about private wealth. There is a long history of people making or inheriting lots of money and then giving much of it away for worthy causes that are in no way connected with wealth creation. Carnegie, Gates or even Hawaii’s own Pauahi Bishop are examples. I see no reason why a billionaire who sees what is coming for industrial civilization wouldn’t contribute a few million to the establishment of an agrarian peasant community.

          All we need is one or two and it will become a fad among the wealthy (just like New Zealand boltholes). Intentional peasant communities will pop up everywhere. Some with no electricity at all; some with solar panels. The rich can brag about their sustainability projects to each other and how they just last week planted potatoes with their very own hands!

  11. Chris, I will second Bruce above, both in praise of your efforts to imagine possible futures, and in agreement with Bruce’s worry about land politics.
    On an admittedly much more far-fetched note, I have been reading. Recently a few narratives about the contact between Europeans and some of the people they ran into in the 15th through 17th centuries. Currently I am reading Rory Stewart’s ‘The Marches’ where he walks along and around Hadrian’s wall in northern England. One thing these readings share is a glimpse into other ways of living, and I have been struck by the fact that many societies have regarded clothing as an expensive luxury, or in the case of the Fueguians, downright unhealthful.
    I don’t expect clothing to fall off the list of essentials any time soon, and I myself am much too shy and cold intolerant to be any kind of vanguard, but I take our unclothed history as a reminder that what we consider necessary is often a cultural construct rather than biological necessity.
    As I said, this is a bit far fetched, but I think it is good to try to grasp just how broad our options might be when the life that we currently consider normal becomes prohibitively expensive.

    • The aborigines who used to live on Tasmania also discarded clothing as inessential, though the climate is temperate if I understand correctly. Also harpoons, not sure why. Maybe the fish were so plentiful weirs were enough.

  12. Thanks for the interesting further comments. Some quick responses:

    “Getting non-wealthy young farmers onto the land in numbers” – I agree that this is critical, and difficult. I aim to devote a post to it soon.

    Commons. Bruce, that book by Rees-Mogg pater is a fascinating find – it certainly helps clarify why Rees-Mogg filius is so enthusiastic about Brexit (oh my God, I’m writing in Latin…the infection spreads). The fact that so many relatively poor and landless people give him their support is real head in hands stuff. But in relation to commons – a point I’ve made before – perhaps we come to two meanings of the word. I agree that there’s a need for widespread and secure collective access to land, which you could call commons in some sense. But for me the fundamental need is for people as individuals, families or intentional groups to have that access – whether in the form of private property or other secure forms of tenure. I think true agricultural commons will best emerge as an after-effect of that process and not as its progenitor. But more on that another time, perhaps. I certainly agree with your suggestions about allotments, smallholdings, planning policies and so forth.

    Landlordism and unfree labour – indeed, this is a great danger, and one being enthusiastically purveyed by the Rees-Moggs of this world. Your 18th century figure wouldn’t surprise me, Bruce, with chattel slavery and serfdom at its height and imperialism beginning to take off. It’s the skeleton in the cupboard of the Enlightenment and modernism. Of course, the same period saw the emergence of liberation ideologies that we badly need to hang onto now. Who knows whether unfree labour might return on that scale – the shameful neo-imperialism involved in current fiscal and migration policies doesn’t bode too well.

    Import-export analysis – I agree with your comments Joe. I wasn’t citing those stats to suggest that Britain is in an easy position in terms of long-term food autonomy. But I often hear it said that Britain hasn’t been food autonomous since the early 19th century as if this somehow proves that it couldn’t be so in the future. The truth is, food autonomy has never been a policy aim in this country since then, and – as I think reflection on the nature of our trade in wheat, wine, whisky, vegetables etc suggests – the current food and farming sector in the UK is completely dominated by the relative prices of energy and labour and by consumer demand for luxuries. I think those parameters will change, and the food and farming landscape will then start looking very different.

    Dexters – it wouldn’t be feasible to keep a bull, or I think necessary. But there’s already enough Dexter herds around to make breeding relatively easy, and I think the possibilities would increase in the future scenario here. Traditionally, it was common for the lord of the manor to keep a bull and a boar to serve the commoners’ herds. Since he’s local to me, one small consolation of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Brexit is the opportunity it might afford me to ask him if he could serve my cow. Not sure about Zebus – I’ve always thought of them as fairly large cattle typical of hotter climates.

    Stoicism – yes, the times are right for Stoic philosophy, both as an inspiration for the future and a consolation for the present. Marcus Aurelius (and Lawrence Becker) survey me austerely from my bookcase.

    Clothing – very nice point, Eric. But indeed where I live – and I imagine where you do – clothes do have a certain functional value.

    William Cobbett – I failed to pick up on Simon’s point about Cobbett first time around. Cobbett, and specifically his disdain for the Irish and for potatoes as the ‘root of slovenliness, filth, misery and slavery’ was the subject of my very first blog post, which now seems to have vanished into cyberspace. But I’m not as well versed in Cobbett as I probably should be. With a lifetime published output in excess of 30 million words, I think I’m going to have to be selective. I’ve been dipping into ‘Rural Rides’, infrequently. Perhaps I should try ‘Cottage Economy’ instead.

    Contraception – a propos that part of the debate above, re-reading my notes on Banerjee & Duflo’s excellent ‘Poor Economics’ I was interested to note that they report little correlation between availability of contraception and fertility rate.

    • Cottage Economy is fine. But, his Advice to a Lover is grand, where he informs you to make sure to have your beloved cook some mutton chops before committing to matrimony. He reads a lot of character flaws into a burnt chop.

  13. Thanks for clarifying the 20m bed widths, Chris, and the follow up on the Dexters. I was thinking of the miniature Zebu cow, a 300-400lb animal I read somewhere typically gives around 5 litres of milk a day, half that of a Dexter.
    The quote you give from Cobbett comes from Cottage Economy – maybe he was given to repetition. It is a rollicking good read.
    Looking forward to reading about the House of Commons trip. Kudos.

  14. Hi Chris – I’d heartily agree with the need for secure tenure. I think I’m focused (obsessed) on commons as opposed to private ownership simply because it’s too easy for private ownership to lead to the amassing of large holdings and the power structures implicit in that. Given that the politics of all this seem central to the creation of an agrarian populist future the avoidance of such structures seems important. Perhaps, in place of ‘commons’ I need another word that carries no baggage. Or maybe I just need to refine my ideas somewhat.

    • Bruce, I can sympathise with the quest for better terminology, but I think a word that carries no baggage would have to be a neologism. I think you’re right about ‘commons’ being inappropriate for the ideas you’re exploring – you seem concerned with the form of ownership here, whereas a commons is more about the management regime.

      I wonder if a word with more appropriate baggage for your purposes would be ‘trust’. It implies ownership contingent on some pre-defined purpose, rather than the freedom of the private property owner to do whatever s/he wants in a quest for personal enrichment. Pre-fix it with ‘community’ and you have an explicit reference to the beneficiaries of the trust. I’ve been reading around Community Land Trusts recently, and wondering over possibilities…

      • I am thinking a lot of being in private ownership on the land but being part of a managed commons regarding the underlying watershed. Getting people into meetings, however, is an intimidating task nowadays…

      • Hi Andrew

        Hi Andrew – You’re right that traditional commons were defined by management rather than ownership – but that’s only because there was un-owned land available for such management. We now have no such land and so creating ownership structures that allow land to behave less like private property and more like commons is necessary (and difficult). I’ve looked a little at community land trusts and although they seem almost exclusively used for house building schemes they have a lot of potential I think.

        The real point is to ensure that ownership/use/benefit remains within and spread reasonably equitably among the local community and that individuals are unable to subvert that. I do also think that management is important – that we move away from the idea of ownership of land bestowing upon the ‘owner’ the freedom to do with that land what they please to thinking in terms of owning rights (and responsibilities) to particular pieces of land. Fishing rights for trout and salmon on many UK rivers are still sold in that way – there are catch limits, catch and release clauses etc so the idea isn’t really new.

        • Bruce, I agree with much of what you say, and certainly about the need to move the conversation towards shared rights and responsibilities in land. I still think you need to move your idea of ‘commons’ away from ownership though – historically, commoning regimes existed within areas of land owned by manorial lords, it’s just that the lord’s ownership was not conceived as an exclusive right in the same way it is today. Perhaps I’m quibbling (it wouldn’t be the first time…)

          It would be useful to lay out different elements of ‘ownership’ according to their purposes – it all seems to be about control of one kind or another. For example, the right to control day-to-day, year-by-year aspects of the agricultural regime on the land (the farmer’s interest, basically – and he interest of a commoner in a commoning regime); the right to control the passing of that responsibility from one farmer to another, either at career’s end or on death; the obligation to provide certain products of the land, or a share in them, to the community as a whole; etc, etc. All are packed into a single idea of ownership at the moment. The key, as you indicate, must be to crack this concept open somehow.

          The river fisheries you describe look like a good example of a commoning regime – stinted access to a shared resource. I agree we need much more of it!

          • A better example might be coppice woodland – ttraditionally the standing wood was sold with the contract including some maintenance work, such as repairing the coup boundary banks, replacing dead stools etc, to be carried out by the buyer. In a coppice with standards stand the contract might have the buyer felling selected standards of which they would keep the branch wood with the timber being kept by the owner, which would typically have been an estate.

            I guess my ideal might be a similar model with the estate being replaced by a Community Land Trust or Community Interest Company. That would provide a community ownership structure that might be able to provide some centralised services – machinery, processing etc and which could use any profits to improve or enlarge their holdings.

            An ‘owner’ such as this might mandate land use policies aimed at conserving/building soil, it might stipulate rotation lengths, proscribe the use of agricultural chemicals, perhaps even set maximum field sizes – I was listening to Farming Today this morning and they were discussing agro-forestry. Not so very long ago field sizes here in the west country were really pretty small with plenty of full size trees growing in the hedges (Dutch Elm disease played a role in changing that ) and I found myself wondering just how close those small fields were to the mix of trees to open field that agro-forestry now aims at – I digress.

            The most important thing to my mind would be to limit the maximum size of holding that any individual could lease. Small farms, even really small farms are more conducive to community – Dmitry Orlov has written about this in relation to the Amish whose whole approach to work and technology is driven primarily by their desire to keep their communities strong – I digress. In all this what I think is important is that the ownership is such that it can take a long term view of both the health of the land, those farming it and the wider community – and in a CLT or CIC those things could be written into the aims of the entity.

            The real fly in the ointment is the cost of aquiring land (I just had a quick look on Savills and it made me wince, especially the prices for smaller parcels, but even larger parcels were offered at auction with estimates near 10k per acre), really small farms are never going to offer sufficient return on capital to make borrowing an option and how do you get people to put large sums of money into an asset that won’t be theirs to sell or pass onto their kids – where’s Elon Musk when you need him.

            Oh yes a question for Chris – do you know of any peasant society where where the peasants have had to buy their land on the open market – I appreciate that the market for land is a relatively recent invention and so this might not be a fair question – but to me peasant suggests someone without a great deal of spare cash – and so creating any sort of peasant class in a country with outrageous land prices seems like its going to require something quite radical.

          • All sounds very sensible to me. I think the open market is a dead end here. Funnily enough Labour’s energy policy – nationalise and put into the hands of local publicly accountable companies to manage it – would perhaps tend in the right direction if applied to land. Given the close link between energy and land and the importance of both to household provisioning, it seems truly strange that nationalising one forms an important part of the manifesto of a large political party with strong public support, and yet nationalising the other would seem beyond the pale to most people. Yet that’s where we are…

  15. Hi Chris,
    firstly, my figures for land area are for England only rather than UK because I made the assumption that as “things fall apart” in the future due to declining energy supplies, that will also include political federations like the UK.
    Secondly, my figure for arable land needed per head is taken from “Food, Energy and Society” by Dr David Pimentel of Cornell University, who came up with the figure of 1.2 acres per person in order to maintain current American dietary standards. But this standard includes a great deal of meat, fat, and sugar in amounts that are probably excessive if today’s obesity rates are any indication. Although men working by hand in the fields all day in a post industrial farmscape would probably require many more calories than current office workers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated in 1993 that “the minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person.(1.235 acres). However, this figure is for food production only; not including any arable land for extras such as cloth and cord, or bulk vegetable oils for lighting and cooking.

    • Yes, I’m sure those figures would be right in respect of diets similar to current western ones, but what I’m modelling above is something different. It also depends on one’s assumptions about labour inputs. Not many analyses I’ve seen assume a 25% farm workforce. In terms of worker energy requirements, 3 hours a day of moderate activity year round would translate to a daily calorific requirement of 3,300. I don’t see this or non-food crop requirements as fundamentally challenging to the model above. I’m not trying to suggest that this model is easily achievable – indeed, I’ve said the opposite above. But I don’t see your objections to it as decisive.

  16. I really enjoyed this entry Chris. It hits home for me as I’m trying to decide where I’ll buy a homestead in Texas, and how much land will I stretch for. I currently do a bit of homesteading on a rental place. I work for the owners company and am well liked, so I have a better deal than most peasants can probably count on arranging. I keep 3 horses on ~ 15 acres of low land savanna and deciduous forest. My mustang ponies are thrifty, but I don’t think I can buy land for 3, plus crop area.

    I’d generally say I’m going to buy a minimum of 5 acres and hopefully closer to 10, but I would love to be on the edge of a town. There are very few affordable 10 acre tracts on the edge of a town.

    Would you consider writing about farm location and how it may affect social life. Have you already? I’m a single guy that would like to marry, and the social scene in rural Texas looks bleak to me since I date liberal women. I’m feeling pretty stuck. The farm that I’m renting on is on the edge of Austin, but continuing to rent into retirement is unlikely to be the best homestead choice for me.

  17. Thanks for the further comments. Bruce, I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘open market’ but I agree that the prospects for creating contemporary neo-peasantries in the context of capitalist land markets aren’t good. I don’t think I like Andrew’s idea of nationalising land (it’s rarely played well with peasants when it’s been implemented historically…) but certainly some kind of government manipulation of land prices is necessary. Something to carry forward into future discussions, I think.

    Interesting comments, Lee. I hadn’t been planning to write about farm location but maybe I’ll try to cue up a post on that in the not-too-distant, as I agree with you that it’s a significant issue.

    And thanks for the Cobbett snippets, everyone.

  18. Thanks Chris. I’ve dug all over the Internet and in books for opinions on where to locate a homestead or small farm. A lot of people that migrate to rural areas have a family and are fed up with living close to lots of people, so they can handle living in isolated rural locations for longer than I can. Yet, I need enough to grow a surplus on, and not just of high value greens, as you’ve pointed out.
    I’ve mostly been growing night shades, greens, and okra in my current garden, but I’m moving towards including legumes and wheat. I’m quite interested in keeping a bit of grain in my rotations.
    As for the horses, I may buy 3 acres and try to rent pasture outside of a village. Ideally that rent would be by barter, but I’m flexible.

    I’m also a no dig proponent, where possible. Otherwise minimizing tillage. I sure hope it isn’t a passing fad. I think there are many conservation benefits, including reduced weed pressure and conserving labor. I haven’t grown any grain besides a few corn plants though, so I’ll see how little surface tillage I can get by with.

  19. Joe, just a note on your list of challenges:

    This article says, “in the 1850’s, prior to refrigerated transport, New York City supplied all its food for a population of over a million from within 7 miles of the borders of the city. (It wasn’t worth the cost of horse feed and time to go further than 7 miles to export food into the city).”

    And Chris, I think “the outline of a society struggling to adapt as best it can to almost insurmountable difficulties in relation to things like rising energy costs, climate change and political-economic marginalisation” makes for a fine masthead for the Peasant Wessex Almanac.

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