On the efficiency of my scythe

The time is nearly upon us when the feature-length version of my musings here will be released upon an unsuspecting world – A Small Farm Future (the book) will be available from 15 October in the UK and 21 October in the US. Various launch events are in the offing, and I’ll be gearing the blog for a while to come to riffing on various themes from the book. So watch this space…

Meanwhile, I have one final bit of outstanding business to attend to before turning my attention to the book – though in many ways this post serves as well as anything as an introduction to its themes. Whereas my last couple of posts addressed the politics of an agrarian localist future, this one addresses farm scales, styles and technologies in such a future. Again, it comes in the form of a critical engagement with a specific individual, in this case grower and small-scale farmer Seth Cooper, who I debated with a little while ago online. I promised I’d respond further to some of his points, hence the present post. Apologies if my excerpting of his comments and interpolation of replies seems combative (I’m going to try to stop doing this kind of thing!) – hopefully it will also be illuminating, and my thanks to Seth for drawing out this discussion.

Our debate focused in large part on the kind of tools and equipment appropriate to farming, small farming in particular, so I’m going to go with that in this post – but hopefully it’ll work obliquely as an entry into wider issues. Even more specifically, we talked about the virtues or otherwise of the scythe. Here, I find myself in a somewhat false position, since I’m far from an expert scythesman and I don’t use one all that much – whereas I do have a tractor (which I don’t use much either – mostly just for compost management, which I’ll come to in a second…). But I’ll happily speak up for the scythe over the tractor, and this is the direction my farming is going. For his part, Seth finds little place for either scythes or tractors in his agrarian vision:

“A tractor could be dispensed with in all fruit and vegetable cultivation that I’m aware of…Proof of this is all the people growing food for market without tractors in developed countries (where tractors are abundant).”

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of any unit of production (a farm, a factory, a household, a town, a country) you need to look at the energy and material flows ‘upstream’ that provide it with its inputs, the ones in-house that enable it to generate its products, and the ones ‘downstream’ that carry its products and its wastes to their final destination.

I know plenty of small horticultural operations that don’t themselves have a tractor in-house (or similar fossil-fuel intensive equipment – I don’t think we should get too hung up on tractors per se). But all of them make implicit use of them upstream or downstream (importing compost, manure or fertilizer and exporting produce to market). The energy and material dynamics of most small commercial farms in the rich countries are not at present that different from large farms in this respect.

But in future I think there will be a lot more people working in agriculture or horticulture on small farms, serving more local markets (starting with their own households), with much less of this extrinsic, implicit fossil energy at their command. My guess is that in this situation, there’ll be a lot more people using scythes.

Seth again:

“whether a scythe is more “efficient” than a tractor regarding grain production should be an empirical, not theoretical, question.”

No quarrel there. I drew Seth’s attention to a little bit of research I did on the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of different mowing technologies I conducted on my holding, in which the scythe comes out top. Seth wrote:

“your experiment 1) ignores the time required to master proficiency with a scythe — I’m sure you know using it is harder than it looks — in comparison to using a machine and 2) has nothing to do with grain production, which is the example I pointed to and which involves much more than mowing.”

We can go down these routes, but there’s only going to be one winner. Sure, let’s figure in the time (or, better, energy) it takes to be proficient with the use and maintenance of a scythe. And let’s add the time/energy it takes to make the scythe and the food that fuels it, or to earn the necessary money. Now let’s figure in the time/energy it takes to learn to drive a powered vehicle, add in learning the extra skills of tractor-driving, learning the extra skills of maintaining and fixing the tractor and its machinery, and then the time spent earning the money to buy the tractor, its spare parts and its fuel.

The mechanized route isn’t going to turn out optimal here on anything except labour input per unit output. It won’t beat the scythe on time input, EROEI or capital input. The reason that you see farmers nowadays with combines and not with scythes is because energy and capital are cheap, labour is dear, and most people don’t work the land. Like it or not, I think all this is going to change in the future.

Regarding grain production, on a small scale I usually find cutting cereal stalks with a scythe easier than cutting grass because it’s less dense, with less silica, though I can’t speak to the practicalities of hand-harvesting grain on anything bigger than garden scale. And yes, there’s more to grain harvesting than mowing. There’s also more to hay-making than mowing. But mowing is what scythes do. We could extend the analysis to rakes, wheelbarrows, flails and so on and compare the energy efficiency to combine harvesters, grain trailers, seed dryers etc. It would be a bold punter who’d bet the combine would come out on top.

But I’d like to turn the issue of grain production back around. Sure, intensive market gardeners don’t need tractors or (probably) scythes on their holdings. But they’re doing something pretty specialist. Take a town or a region and suppose that it has to produce almost all its food and fibre, and the inputs for them, locally, with minimal exotic inputs like steel and diesel. It’ll need to produce more than high value vegetables locally, and it can’t easily afford tractors. Suddenly the scythe – probably among the most energy-efficient tools ever invented by humankind – starts to seem like a worthwhile part of the local agricultural toolkit.

But why imagine this kind of self-reliance? Seth writes:

Suggesting I should imagine my farm with zero fossil fuel inputs isn’t exactly a useful place to start thinking about sustainable farming. While I have no tractor, I use some battery-operated tools, reusable plastic tarps, containers, and irrigation tubing, and a gas-powered push mower…I don’t see a world in which we don’t have greenhouses, irrigation, and power tools with plastic components. On the other hand, if we convert most to all food production to no-till, we could reduce the need for tractors and plasticulture almost entirely.

Whereas I’d say on the contrary that imagining a farm with zero fossil fuel inputs is an excellent place to start thinking about sustainable farming. Not an excellent place to start doing it within the present economy, but certainly an excellent place to start thinking about it, because it concentrates the mind on the dynamics of the whole system, and its vulnerabilities and external dependencies.

Here, we come to the crux of the whole debate – which is similar to the one I had recently with Maarten Boudry. If you think that the present climatic, energetic, economic and political structuring of the world is destined more-or-less to endure long-term, then Seth is probably right – scythes will mostly be museum pieces, and small-scale farming will be all about innovating small, efficient niches around the mainstream global food and farming system.

But if, like me, you don’t think those things are destined to endure long-term, then it’s probably worth imagining your farm with zero fossil fuel inputs as a starting point for thinking through how resilient it might be to future events. It may even be worth investing in a scythe. It’s probably also worth pondering the possibility that no-till won’t survive beyond the fossil fuel age, except perhaps at domestic scales. But that’s an argument for another day.

Seth writes:

I’d like to see needless toil reduced, without sacrificing humanity. [In] small farming as it actually exists in developed countries [t]here is toil, but also much effort to reduce that toil with sustainable and low-capital innovations. In my opinion, an eco-socialist future gestates in these developments, not in some fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants.

I’d also like to see needless toil reduced, but on this point we’d probably need to spend time unpicking both our respective definitions of ‘needless’ and our respective definitions of ‘toil’. We’d also need to take a global perspective – as I see it, there’s an awful lot of needless toil among poor people, especially poor people in poor countries, as a result of the toil-reducing technologies in the rich ones. So visions for a toil-free, sustainable, eco-socialist future need to provide a plausible account of its underlying energetics, economics and politics at a global level of a kind I’ve not yet seen (except in ecomodernist visionings … but I don’t find those ones plausible). Otherwise, I’m going to stick with my less fantastical vision of sustainable and low-capital innovations (scythes) in the hands of free and semi-autonomous political actors (neopeasants).

I can’t help feeling that scythes are less widely used in gardens and small farms than is warranted on strict cost-benefit terms because they have an image problem of the kind that stalks through Seth’s phrase “fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants”. The scythe seems redolent of agrarian ‘backwardness’ – something I wrote about a few years back in this post on the iconography of my scythe and discuss in my forthcoming book. But this issue only arises because of our modern culture’s hang-up with notions of progress and backwardness. Ask not whether your scythe looks modern, but whether it cheaply and successfully mows the darned crop.

Here, and (almost) finally, we come to the issue of innovation. In response to my grumbles about the modern obsession in the agricultural sector (and in fact in every other sector) with this troublesome concept, Seth writes:

Why wouldn’t farmers want to innovate their cultural practices? Farmers knew nothing of microbiology a hundred years back. Now they do, and if they’re smart, they can adopt techniques that harness microbiological processes to increase yields, pest resistance, etc

This is all true, and I’m not against innovation as such, provided the pros and cons, the winners and the losers, from the innovation are reckoned honestly. The mythology of innovation in our present capitalist society is that it saves people from work they don’t like to do and makes them richer. That’s sometimes so, but the other side of that coin needs more emphasis: innovation removes people from work they do like to do and makes them often poorer, or unhappier, and certainly less autonomous. Innovation in capitalist societies basically involves figuring out how to cut labour, destroy the competition or persuade people to buy more stuff. If we need innovation, we now need to innovate in some fundamentally different ways.

On this point, Seth writes, interestingly:

Every “advancement” in conventional modern agriculture has served only to decrease labor-inputs… at the expense of crop quality and social well-being. [T]he big ag paradigm has been marketed as less “backbreaking” … than traditional small-stead farming. Thus, big farm = less labor, small farm = more. For me, that’s a big ag narrative and modern market gardening proves that it’s untrue.

I agree with that, except for the last sentence. Small farm does equal more labour per unit area and per unit product (which is why most rich countries import a large proportion of their horticultural produce … and why modern diets involve too much refined carbs and oils, and not enough fruit and veg). The challenge is to show that this (along with less energy, less carbon, less water, less soil loss, more product and more fun per unit area) is precisely what makes small farming the wave of the future.

45 thoughts on “On the efficiency of my scythe

  1. I am very much with you here Chris. Some forty years ago, I had the belief that it was possible for small farmers to “compete” in the market place, i.e. produce as “efficiently” as big farms. It was only a question of being innovative and smart and use new methods. But after a life of small scale farming as well as working with small scale farmers as a consultant, I have come to the conclusion that small farms can’t compete in modern markets and that the possibilities to develop modern small scale machinery etc. are limited, but obviously NOT non-existent. Sure, you can be a “small scale” farmer and depend on others with economy of scale as you point out; our hay is mowed by another farmer with a huge tractor who cuts and bale our 8 hectares in a few hours, instead me schything. (Coincidentally I harvested barley with a scythe the other day because I grow some 50 square meters for my son’s brewing…).

    Anyway, I have seen all those double-digging, permaculture, toil free small horticulture operations come and go, or convert themselves to educational sites, tourist operations or full time project consultants. The truth is that there is a lot of hard, but rewarding, work on a small farm and that it can’t sustain a “modern” life style.

    Still, the question of scale is hard to grapple with. Have done it for decades and can’t say I found the answers. Hickel and Kallis wrote the following in a recent paper:
    “Another fundamental reason why efficiency might be coupled with scale is that as we know from biology and ecology, the metabolism of a larger organism, say an elephant, is more efficient than that of a smaller one, say a mouse, but this is because the elephant is bigger (Polimeni et al. 2008). It is true that relative resource or energy decoupling often accompanies the growth of an economy – but this might simply be an artifact of scale. And it does not follow that more and more relative decoupling will amount to absolute decoupling. The U.S. economy, like an elephant, could not be so much bigger than others were it not also more efficient, and it is big because it is efficient – but this doesn’t mean
    that by getting bigger and bigger it will burn less energy, just as an elephant does not burn fewer calories than a mouse. All this does not amount to a theoretical refutation of absolute decoupling,but it shows that there might exist a more fundamental mechanism that links the scale of an economy to its throughput that is worth exploring.”
    Their discussion is about “decopupling” and efficiency, and after all what you are discussing is also efficiency. What I think is almost always missing in the analysis is what all the other people will do when farming has become more efficient, and when mining and steel making also has become more efficient etc. In the end all those people being made redundant will get new things to do and more resources to burn. The modern farmer is incredibly efficient in man-hours per unit of production, BUT s/he is an elephant using enormous quantities of oil, steel etc. One person can almost single handedly run a 500 hectares of grain farm, but s/he will use some 50 tons of diesel per year.

  2. In Eastern Europe you still see scythes in regular use, most of them ancient tools now, handed down the generations and peened/whetted to around an inch wide; even those who don’t bother with them, opting instead for a motorised strimmer, have some respect for scything, as one tends to for anything that granddad did.
    On the iconography, the only on-the-face-of-it disparaging comment I’ve received came from a visiting Englishman who, upon seeing me carrying the tool over my shoulder, shouted “Oi! You look like Death!”. I guess that’s even more dreadful than looking like some kind of mowing anachronism.
    From a design point of view I always marvel at the perfection of the scythe: there’s nothing left to pare away, though variations in snath (handle) do exist, and somewhat typically the Eastern European type is simpler than the Austrian one in that it dispenses with the upper grip and has a simpler grip midway. This seems to lend itself to a more ‘muscular’ mowing style, whereas the Austrian scythe feels easier to use ‘sweeps’ the meadow with slightly more ergonomic ease in my opinion.

    • On the perhaps generally overhyped ‘speed/efficiency’ angle comparing motorised strimmers with scythes in a real-world (though not farming) setting, I often see small squads of three council workers mowing the roadsides – one strims (the powerful tool sending small pieces of gravel and other roadside debris flying hither and yon at colossal speeds) while the two other workers hold a large board to stop the flying grit damaging the passing traffic. They move along at around the same speed as a single person scything, but unlike the latter the strimmer practically shaves the ground right back to bare soil.
      Be interesting to see how grazing animals might fit into this scenario as another means to mow. As for scything grains, that used to be a community effort here, just still on the cusp of living memory.

  3. Great post that zeros in on the key question of how to respond to the potential for dramatic change in the adaptive fitness of industrial agriculture (actually, industrial everything). Using huge amounts of exosomatic energy and machinery to grow almost all of the calories eaten in industrial countries is a high-risk adaptation to the availability of lots of energy, mostly fossil fuels, but for now it rules supreme over all it surveys.

    While that adaptation still works, I suspect it will be impossible to compete in any market by using mostly human and animal muscle energy but there is a small (but certainly non-zero) risk that high-energy systems could fail rapidly, even within days, if key systems underpinning industrial culture stop working. It’s spooky how many single points of failure there are in the systems that coordinate industrial activities.

    I have never used a scythe on a regular basis, but I own one and all the needed appurtenances. I’ll practice more in the future because its always good to have a Plan B in the background if the current plan stops working. Smallholdings are the perfect Plan B for dealing with any failure of industrial food production, which to me seems more likely with every passing year.

    It’s kind of surprising to me that we moderns don’t hedge our all-in bet on industrial ag by keeping a fair number of non-industrial farms around, just in case. I guess ‘efficiency’ always trumps prudence in a modern industrial economy. But burning through our one-off energy supply as fast as we can without a thought to the future is like eating up next year’s seed just because it’s easily available. It’s just folly.

    And then there’s the imprudent impact of all our industrial waste, including CO2. Some decades or centuries from now, surviving smallholders will scratch their heads and mutter, “What were they thinking?”.

    • The farm i lived on in the UK has a facinating history , hacked out of the crown hunting forest around 1610 , owned by lord Stafford , in 1760 it had 14 men six horses and ten oxen to work it , it was a mixed farm that grew everything needed , inyrestingly their first crop of potatoes was in 1800 replacing turnips and parsnips . mabpower increased during harvest and four men were kept busy all winter thrashing grain then came the thrashing box and steam most workers became part time .
      Barley , oats , and mutton was the main income up untill the collapse of farming around 1880 , when the workforce had dropped to four , it had to be sold to pay death duties around 1930 as the heir had been killed in the first war , by the second war workers were back up to seven then came the first tractors by the end of the war they were down to three one of which was a full time dairy man .
      while I lived there there were two workers , 70 milking cows 250 sheep and the rest to oats , today its a part time job for one worker , no livestock three tractors and a lot of assorted machinery , the Elizabethan farmhouse is rented to city folk and the farmer lives in one of the cottages .
      There was over two hundred years of account books listing everyhting , good and bad summers , dead horses and the price of replacements , foot and mouth outbrakes and anthrax , profit and loss , one good year in four kept it running .

  4. The efficiency of scythes can actually reduce the significant amount of “needless toil” which currently exists on farms around the world.

    “On most of India’s dairy farms, labourers use sickles to cut the daily fodder for feeding the cows. This is a very slow and labour intensive task. Using a scythe for this application is a simple alternative which is up to ten times faster. The labourers hired for this job are not paid by the hour, but by the amount they cut… One member of the family with a scythe can accomplish in a half of the day, what would take several members with sickles a whole day.”

    From this 1:48 video by Alexander Vido, which compares sickles and scythes for cutting berseem clover:

    Sickle or Scythe for cutting Berseem 2

  5. Thanks Chris,
    This post goes right along one or two particular interests of mine.

    Thanks also Gunnar for the comment above. I have often wondered at the various permaculturists that I know. To me, their operations seem large on theory and fairly small on harvest.

    I also had a re-look at the mowing technology study linked at the beginning of the post.

    In my very limited experience, the real benefit of using a combine on grain is not the speed of cutting, but the fact that it threshes and separates the grain all at the same time. More than mowing, in other words. Getting rid of all that straw while making the pass through the field is a huge benefit.

    Also, and I’m not sure about this, but I have a hunch, and some real farmers here could tell me no doubt, but I have the feeling that by cutting, threshing, cleaning and storing the grain crop all in one day, or two at the most, the insect pests don’t have as much chance to get established in the grain bin.

    Wheat is what I have experience with. I was talking with my friend who does his wheat harvest by hand, then flails it over the next few weeks. I said something about some wheat I’d had in a barrel for 3 or 4 years, and he was surprised. He said that he can’t keep wheat longer than a year because it gets too buggy.

    I have done a variety of methods, but mostly I use a 60 year old Allis All-Crop combine pulled by a 40hp tractor. Harvesting 3 acres of wheat will take the better part of a day, and use 4 or 5 gallons of diesel.
    I haven’t done the math, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an energetic break-even between diesel and grain calories. But I live in America, and we don’t worry about that kind of thing.

    I was pleased also that in your mowing study, you mentioned the energetic cost of smelting steel. Interestingly, with my 60 (or was it 70?) year old combine, I didn’t pay that energy cost, because the farmer I bought it from had fully amortized it. He sold me the combine for $100, and he thought I was paying too much.

    But that combine certainly won’t last another 100 years. It needs serious work right now. So I think that if we are talking about a long future, we need to recognize that large scale steel smelting has never been done sustainably, and never will be.

    A blacksmith making a village worth of scythe blades and nails can operate on charcoal, and if the blacksmiths aren’t too busy, the wood coppice can keep up with them.
    But there is a reason we didn’t have locomotives or tractors or steamships before the 1800’s.


    Anyone who would argue about this has never melted any amount of steel. It takes a lot of heat.
    Yes, steel can be melted electrically. But I would be really surprised if the value of the steel melted through the lifetime of the electric smelter was greater than the cost to build it. I am not interested in doing that calculation, but I’d be impressed if someone else did. Bearing in mind that your hydroelectric dam will be built with charcoal fired concrete too…

    What this all means to me is that the long future will be very different from the present.

    I wonder if our descendants will even wonder what we were thinking. Seems to me that we will be so foreign to the people of the deep future that they will barely recognize us as related to them.

    • insect pests don’t have as much chance to get established in the grain bin. ”
      Grain stored in a airtight bin will fill up with CO2 as a byproduct of storage it does not have to be completely tight a few small holes dont matter but its enough to kill vermin and most of the bugs .
      EU intervention grain stores that are realy second world war aircraft hangers hardened to take the weight are filled with grain then a semi load of CO2 is pumped in , it was rotated out every eight or nine years .

    • As regards smelting and many other industrial operations that require heat (they talk about low, medium and high (over 400°C) temperature requirements of industrial heat). Many (most ? all ?) of them could potentially be satisfied, albeit seasonally, by using the sun’s heat. We are so used to converting energy from one form to another (and losing energy in the process) that we too aften forget that the major part of the energy used in industry is heat, and that the energy that the sun provides most efficiently is heat. I am convinced this is a desirable future, but not that we are developing industrial heat fast enough.

    • Toward the end of the previous post Chris commented “It does seem to me that our inability to think our way out of our contemporary ecological impasse is deeply grounded in culture histories with spiritual and religious roots.” It seems to me we can think our way out of it, and furnish those thoughts with whole screeds of nuance if needs be, while actually doing, on the whole, next to nothing about it. I personally conclude it’s the way our brains are – the train wreck of wicked problems we are causing and experiencing is just too big for us, but we’re not big enough to accept that. Still, can’t knock us for trying… and good luck to protest and to movements like XR; it has grand aims, yet appears little more than a pop-up circus in a madhouse.

  6. Appropriate technology will be different for short, mid, and long term futures. Fossil fuels will be a significant input for decades, but not centuries. Metal artifacts if used wisely, will be with us quite a long time. I have refurbished an old fanning mill, and it is mostly made of wood, with only the gearing and critical stress points made of steel. Increasing ( or returning to!) this frugality be the norm in the future.

    So should one work on developing and learning to use tools that are short term focussed, or skip steps and work on long term solutions? I guess we need people doing both.

    One step on the way, or choice that has not been mentioned yet is horse drawn equipment. Maybe your book will address? The Amish near here seem to make it work. Human population density has to accommodate that, but local carrying capacity will also govern whatever tech we choose.

    Regardless of time frame, the EROEI will still be the arbiter of any choice, as long as energy inputs are carefully assessed. The current discussion of tractor vs scythe is moot once fossil fuels wane.

    I think an area of urgent research is design and development of farm scale ( and muscle powered) technology for growing food, and it’s a shame that the land grant colleges are still myopically focussed on tweaking industrial ag processes.

    Finally, I’ll make a pitch for perennials again ( nut and fruit trees), and predict that the amounts of calories obtained from annuals versus perennials will flip as things progress. An EROEI comparison of these two choices would be another good area of research.

  7. I believe that the value of EROEI sometimes is overstated, or least the conclusion that an EROEI above e.g. 5 is necessary for any energy source to be “sustainable” or to carry a civilization. I believe it depends on context. I think the relevance of EROEI is linked to the availability of the energy resource in question, and the efforts needed to get the resource.

    The photosynthesis has a paltry EROEI, after all we only capture a few percent of the solar energy invested in growing crops. Another example is swiddening where wood “fuel” corresponding to a ton of oil or more per hectare is used to clear land for sowing.

    • photosynthesis has a paltry EROEI, after all we only capture a few percent of the solar energy invested in growing crops

      You are right about the photosynthetic efficiency of energy capture, but that is not the same as EROEI from the standpoint of humans. From the farmer’s point of view the EROEI is the return on energy invested by the farmer in the crop vs the return of useful energy from the crop. As long as the return is greater than 1.0 the farming can continue.

      But the efficiency of energy capture by plants does set an upper limit on how fast energy products can be sustainably withdrawn from the environment. We should look at the total stock of photosynthetic plants as our capital and the efficiency of photosynthesis are the maximum rate of return on capital. When we attempt to maximize EROEI by taking more than that rate of return, we are just drawing down capital, a process that cannot be continued for long without risking bankruptcy.

      So the maximum EROEI by humans depends on the plant capital stock per person and the minimum energy expenditure required to gather in the net products of photosynthesis from that stock. If energy availability is true wealth, we become wealthier by having more plants and using them more efficiently.

  8. The outstanding problem with a scyrhe is speed , a good man can cut an acre a day ( i am old enough to remember old men doing this ) the problem is you want 5 acres of hay thats five days work and each days cutting needs turning to dry , and the UK weather window is rarely longer than that , being able to get the crop in a timely manner without weather damage is paramount .

    • For a small farm, this 3-minute video shows how one person (in Eastern Canada) can make hay in one day, with hand tools, by using a scythe between daybreak and sunup, and then every few hours tending to the drying of the grass.

      For a larger quantity of hay in one day, more people can be involved.

      Hay In A Day – Part 1

      • For a drier climate, a study in Africa (Chad) showed that during 4 hours of mowing in the morning, one person can scythe 350 kg of hay (stored weight), which means that in 3 days, one person can produce more than enough hay required for supplementation of a dairy cow for 6 months.

        • well i keep three nurse cows seperately , from the rest , they eat a half tonne bale of hay every nine days during winter .

  9. Thanks as ever for a set of very thought-provoking comments. I’ll just home in on a few points that caught my eye, without beginning to address many other interesting issues you’ve collectively raised.

    Indeed, there is a permaculture route to wisdom, which starts with “clever modern permaculture design means we can produce lots of food with low impact methods and hardly any work” and ends either with “those hard-working peasant farmers of the past knew what they were doing” or with a retreat centre. I only hope we can do a bit of interpolating between modern innovation and old-time hard work. But I’m not convinced that even old-time hard work was necessarily harder than the unseen hard work in the modern global economy.

    Your point about what happens to people when their work is ‘economized’ out of existence is important, I think, and I do touch on it in my book. The answer often enough is that they enter miserable unemployment or underemployment, or they get richer and draw down more non-renewable resources. A large part of my argument for a small farm future is that neither of those options are a good long-term bet.

    As to Jason & Giorgos’s elephant & mouse example, I’m a great admirer of their work but I think I must be missing something in this analogy. Elephants are more efficient than mice? Do they mean lower surface area to volume ratio, so slower metabolism, and therefore less food as proportion of body weight (assuming constant nutritional content of food)? But a mouse with the metabolism of an elephant would instantly die, which is not a very efficient life design. And there are a lot more mice than elephants, which is surely relevant to humanity’s present predicaments…

    @Simon #1
    Nice points, and surely a neat illustration of the late lamented David Graeber’s arguments about bullshit jobs, which takes us back to Gunnar’s points about energy and employment.

    Indeed, why don’t we hedge our bets? Is it because capitalist economics selects for maximizing returns to capital, just as natural selection does for reproductive success?. Kind of how dodos became flightless, which improved their fitness – for a while. Unlike natural selection, human culture isn’t indifferent to the future. And yet…

    @Simon #2
    …this is surely why, as you rightly say, we can think our way out of problems but not act our way out of them, because of institutional – and cultural – inertia. Maarten Boudry, for example, clearly thought it was fanatical on my part to suggest that a lot of people were going to have to eat less meat and devote themselves more to skimming resource flows rather than drawing down on biotic capital. Whereas…

    @Steve L
    Thanks for a timely reminder of the vastly differential technologies employed in global agriculture.

    It’s long been a badge of honour to me not to be a ‘real farmer’ so I couldn’t opine about cereal pests. But it’s an interesting point. As are your points about long-term energy futures. Much, of course, turns on how these play out … on which, a little more soon, I hope.

    @Steve C
    There was a long section in the first draft of my book about energy, technology and farm scale. It didn’t make the final cut for various reasons, one of which perhaps was that I don’t think I’ve really nailed this issue. But I do mention horse-powered agriculture briefly in a few places, and I think we’ll see more of it in the future. Not least because it satisfyingly connects fallowing versus cropping in low energy input/high EROEI farming.

    Indeed, there are a lot of downsides to scything an acre or more, perhaps in England more than most places. Which is one good argument for a small farm future where you wouldn’t scythe so much. And also for a typical low energy farming arrangement of private hayfields and common pastures.

    • For me the mouse and elephant discussion was about the link between scale, efficiency and the absolute use of resources.

      What most proponents of “efficiency” normally miss is that when you increase scale to reach higher efficiency you are actually using more resources and not less. So in the case of farming, when the mouse farms are developed into elephant farms they increase their labour efficiency tremendously, but per person, the elephant use a lot more resources than the mouse. There is only space for so many elephants in the field. The other mouses have to do something else than farming, so they pick up shoemaking, welding or construction. And there, the same logic apply and they either become elephants in their new trade or in yet another trade, If we assume more or less full employment, this strive for efficiency (which is driven by the capitalist market economy) will mean that we are all elephants with a very, very big footprint, far bigger than if we had stayed mice….something like that.

    • Hi Chris, you write “there is a permaculture route to wisdom, which starts with “clever modern permaculture design means we can produce lots of food with low impact methods and hardly any work” and ends either with “those hard-working peasant farmers of the past knew what they were doing” or with a retreat centre”

      Yep. I certainly followed that route and ended on your first outcome; though I would probably write “those peasant farmers and indigenous people of the past and the present knew and still know what they are doing but there’s less of them now”, but it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue. Luckily, being of the cautious persuasion, I did not throw myself headlong into trying to develop a “permaculture business” and managed to get to my present state of knowledge by observing and learning from other people’s experiences.

      And yet I still call myself a permaculturist and find the movement’s founding ideas useful.

      Like I wrote in my comment on your previous post, I see value in the permaculture 3 ethics and 12 principles (a la Holmgren) because they provide a mental short-hand for assessing a system’s potential sustainability. Especially the ethics: Does it care for the soil? For people? Does it set limits to its own growth and re-distribute the resultant surplus? If yes, it’s sustainable/permanent, if no, it’s not. The principles resolve some of the ambiguities that arise in the interpretation of the ethics.

      I’m probably a bit heretical when I suggest that permaculture is best used as an adjective, rather than a noun. I don’t think it’s very useful to describe a farming system, or land-based enterprise or entire culture as permaculture or not permaculture. I prefer to say that it is more or less permaculture-esque, if it ticks more or less of the boxes.

      Of course, the whole concept is only useful for people who actually need to think it all through. For people who already have a strong affinity for natural systems through experience, there is no need for a set of principles. Or maybe there is? Indigenous people across the world maintain a body of legends, myths, proverbs and taboos that help to pass accumulated wisdom from one generation to the next. Permaculture is an explicit attempt to recreate some proverbs and thought-patterns that are relatable to people having grown up in industrial modernity – with some success.

      • Yep, nicely put and I have no quarrel with any of that. The permaculture homesteader-householder renewable cycling model is closer to my way of thinking about a congenial future than any other model ‘out there’. So I probably shouldn’t make flippant jokes about it, but I think Gunnar makes a good point that you and I both acknowledge too about some of the more errant directions the movement can go in.

        I’ve debated things like no till, polycultures and perennial cropping with various people who identify with the movement over the years and often come away thinking that dogmatic espousal too easily trumps contextual thinking … but I suppose that’s true in many walks of life.

        Anyway, I’m giving a talk online at the permaculture convergence in a couple of weeks, so I guess I’m still a permaculturist too…

  10. Kinda sorta on topic……
    Kris DeDecker has a new post up, and it’s germane to sustainable land use/farming.

    I suspect this sort of topic/synergy might be mentioned in your book?

    And this is fully off topic- Gunnar- You mention barley for brewing; does this mean your son has figured out how to sprout and roast barley? I’d be interested in any leads on this topic if you don’t mind. I’m still learning, and have done some all grain brewing from purchased ready to brew barley, but thought it would be informative to do the full process here at home.

    • @Steve c we are talking about learning by doing here, even though I did make my own malt forty years ago, with a very varied result. My son takes brewing a lot more seriously, so I will let him do the research of how to do it. We have som written manual in Swedish by a Danish guy who has been making his own farm ale for decades, with very good results.

      I hope Chris is ok with this diversion from topic. Thinking of it, the pros and cons of own beer brewing is probably one of the best examples to study if one want to understand the miracle of scale and division of labour!.

      • To keep things on the low-tech ag topic: I read recently (http://www.fao.org/3/v8380e/V8380E05.htm) about a farming community that was using swidden agriculture (shifting agriculture) so successfully that they could convert one third to one half of their maize crop to alcohol.

        Most people stayed drunk much of the time and from an early age. They thought it gave them “strength” to work in the fields.

        Perhaps the prospect of lots of booze to drink can be used as an incentive toward creating a small farm future.

        • From that linked FAO article about Bhutan: “There is a heavy consumption of ara (local liquor distilled from maize), which farmers believe gives them strength to work. Most rural people above the age of 12 consume substantial amounts of alcohol…”

          Another part of the picture:
          From 1950 until the mid-1980s, Bhutan’s life expectancy at age 10 indicated an expected death at age fifty-something. This is somewhat comparable to the USA and the UK in 1850.

      • Scythers and other labourers during the harvest of hay and grains in 19th-century England would receive allowances (sometimes unlimited) of beer or cider.

        “During harvest time, most farmers allow a liberal, and in some cases unlimited, supply of beer or cider to all their labourers, in addition to their pay…” (p. 329)

        For the five southeastern counties, “The only allowance in this district is that of beer, which is generally given at the hay and corn [grain] harvest, the quantity varies between one and four quarts per man, daily.” (p. 332)

        From “On the earnings of agricultural labourers in England and Wales, 1860” by Frederick Purdy

        • I remember in Sigrid Undset’s trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in medieval Scandinavia, people drank beer as a staple food, often all day long. I don’t know how historically accurate the novel was, but it seemed like a reasonable way to both preserve grains and make them enjoyable to consume. I don’t have any idea of the alcohol content, though.

    • Thanks for the link to the article on traditional woody biomass production. It has a good explanation of why traditional wood burning methods can easily be sustainable. Great photos, too!

      Here in the wet tropics, almost every tree species will re-sprout from a stump. Some trees will sprout from a chunk of limb just lying on the ground. And when they do sprout, they all grow like crazy. Many small farmers and ranchers here can spend a lot of time keeping their over-abundant growth of wood suppressed (in favor of pasture or crops).

      One would think that biomass production from trees would be encouraged in places where production can be so prolific, but no, just like in the comments referred to in the article, lots of people here think that once a tree grows, it can never be cut, or if it is, never be burned for any purpose.

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  12. Thanks for the further comments – I was a bit too wrapped up in book stuff to reply. But always happy to host a few side debates here at Small Farm Future.

    Interesting discussion of agricultural wages paid in beer (or I think cider here in Somerset). Am I right in thinking that this was what they called ‘small beer’, with a low alcohol content?

    • Regarding alcohol content by volume, the Small Beer brewery in London makes this approximate distinction:

      Table beer (2.8-3.8%)
      Small beer (0.5-2.8%)
      Non-alcoholic beer (0-0.5%)

      From another reference:
      “In the mid-eighteenth century, a ‘well-employed’ family might have drunk 16 gallons of small beer and four gallons of table beer per week, providing an additional 767 calories per day to a child and 1,314 per day to the man…”
      “Strong beer might provide about 600 kcal per pint, table beer 400 kcal, and small beer 200 kcal.”

      Nutrition in the English agricultural labourer’s household over the course of the long nineteenth century
      The Economic History Review
      Vol. 66, No. 3 (AUGUST 2013), pp. 757-784

      From an interesting paper, Cider as Wages in Devon, by John Torrance:

      “A farmer near Tiverton told the Western Times that tea was just as good a lubricant as cider:
      ‘I let my grass to be cut at five shillings an acre, and nine quarts of cider, and this quantity was drunk by a man in doing the work in a day. And I employ a teetotaller who gets 18p for his allowance, reckoning the cider to be worth 2d a quart, and the mistress supplies him with tea to his contentment. He stands to his work quite as well on tea as on cider.”


  13. Chris and others, you may have come across this factoid but I’ll repeat in case any haven’t.

    There’re several mentions for how labor in ag and elsewhere is replaced by machinery and fossil fuels.

    Nate Hagens reckons that the energy contained in one barrel of oil is equivalent to a human working for 4.5 years (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800919310067).

    Oil is currently around $40/barrel. Around 60% of the world live on less than US-$7.40 per day, the global poverty line. If you paid someone at that rate to work for 4.5 years, it would cost over US-$12,000.

    I’m not advocating for or against anything here. I just find this comparison astonishing.

    • I’m trying to put that factoid into the context of small farms. The “4.5 years” calculation can be misleading.

      The 4.5 years result is based on the assumption that “humans are 2.5x more efficient at converting energy to work.” Yet, as Nate Hagens wrote later in the article, “Most technological processes requires hundreds to thousands of calories of fossil energy to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually…. Although modern industrial output is energy inefficient it is extremely cost efficient because fossil energy is much cheaper than human energy. ”

      Let’s look at a diesel tractor on a small farm. “Diesel tractors deliver an average of 13.0 PTO-hp-hrs/gal” [Ref. 1].This converts to 10 kWh delivered by the tractor, per gallon of diesel.

      Human labour output is assumed to be 0.6 kWh per person per day (according to the IIER report which Hagens references [Ref. 2]). At this rate, an output of 10 kWh would require 17 human workdays. Thus, one gallon of diesel (used in a tractor) delivers the same amount of energy to the field as 17 human workdays.

      However, simply comparing the daily wages of 17 workers to the cost per gallon of diesel (currently around $3 in the USA) doesn’t consider the other costs of owning and operating a tractor, such as the purchase and maintenance costs, the embodied energy, and the externalized costs to society.

      Moreover, it seems like the tractor would have further inefficiencies involved “to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually,” as Hagens describes it. The way a tractor plows a field is well-suited to the tractor’s limitations, but I believe that humans could do the job more efficiently than to simply take the place of the tractor, strapping themselves to the same implements and pulling them through the field. So, the “17 human workdays” is probably more than the actual work achievable by a gallon of diesel fuel run though a tractor.

      The IIER report looks at the inefficiencies involved when replacing human energy: “Travel by automobile requires 37 units of non-human energy for each unit of human labour that is replaced.” This 37:1 ratio increases to 53:1 when the infrastructure required for the use of automobiles is considered.

      A related issue concerns the availability and affordability of tractor fuel (which is taken for granted in these calculations), especially since, as Michael Pollan has estimated, every calorie of food produced in the USA requires (on average) 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce it.


      1. Estimating Farm Fuel Requirements, by H.W. Downs and R.W. Hansen, Colorado State University

      2. Low Carbon and Economic Growth — Key Challenges, IIER, 2011

    • Thanks for this very interesting turn in the discussion, Josh & Steve. I’d like to participate but can’t right now – hopefully I can come back to this in a month or two.

  14. I use scythe every year to cut a significant part of the hey I use. I also fall trees with handsaw and axes and split them manually. The idea i guess behind it is that it keeps me fit and increase my muscle power. It does probably does not mean a lot to the person you cite(seth), but having brought up in suburbian areas, i know that in the future awaiting us, being fit will (is) a matter of survival. Farming the old way is the cheapest way and the most efficient path to get the right muscles and strenght we’ll probably need (or our kids) in some years. Hipster food production with innovative technique will not be very usefull in world ruled by ruthless gangs.

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