Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

In this post I’m going to sweep up some issues left hanging from comments under my last one, along with further issues lurking within Part II of my book A Small Farm Future, and all wrapped up inside a larger point of contention. Each of these issues on its own could fill several posts, so we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Let’s start with the larger point of contention. In the face of contemporary environmental and agricultural problems, there’s a danger of succumbing to magic bullet, techno-fix thinking without paying attention to trade-offs and deeper complexities, or to socio-political issues. This applies of course to mainstream ‘light green’ or ‘ecomodernist’ thinking, with its enthusiasm for nuclear power, GMOs, smart cities, vertical farming and all the rest of it. But it also applies in the ‘alternative’ sector when ideas like regenerative agriculture, perennial grains, permaculture or intercropping (or, for that matter, solar panels, veganism etc.) are touted as one-stop solutions to our problems. Likewise, I think, with social solutionism. There’s no single or simple way of organizing society that ticks all boxes.

Over the years, I’ve set out my stall in straightforward opposition to mainstream techno solutionism, but also in what I’ve intended as friendly scepticism toward alternative solutionism. Alas, some of the debates prompted by this latter position haven’t always been that friendly. I don’t really want to go looking for arguments with anyone working broadly within alternative agriculture, permaculture or human-centred economics – though I’ve learned the hard way that people have different judgements about the boundary between ‘looking for discussion’ and ‘looking for arguments’.

One of these arenas is regenerative agriculture, discussed (all too briefly) in Chapter 6 of my book, where imaginations sometimes run wild with the idea that tweaking tillage and cover-cropping practices will enable farmers to feed the global population long-term without fundamental change to the organization of farming and society, while sequestering all our carbon emissions stably in the soil. As Gabe Brown has it, “Naysayers often question whether regenerative agriculture can really heal our planet while producing nutrient-dense food”1.

There’s quite a moral loading there on the ‘naysayers’, and a certain vagueness around what ‘healing the planet’ and ‘nutrient-dense food’  might mean. So I’d rephrase the sentence as follows: “It’s worth asking whether various specific regenerative agriculture practices could, if generalized, prevent soil erosion and soil nutrient depletion while sequestering human greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and providing enough food to feed expected human populations long-term.” And, whatever the associations with being a ‘naysayer’ might be, I think it would be wise to entertain the notion that the answer to this question might be no.

I talk about some of the emissions and food production issues implied here in more detail in A Small Farm Future. In terms of soil nutrients, Joshua Msika nicely summarizes the regen-ag approach as a focus on carbon as the limiting element: “Carbon provides the energy the soil micro-organisms need to mobilise the other nutrients: The energy to fix atmospheric nitrogen, the energy to mine locked-up phosphorus, etc.”

I find this plausible, including Joshua’s use of the word “mine” to refer to phosphorus and other non-gaseous plant nutrients – suggesting both the creativity of regen-ag thinking and the dangers of it falling into dogma if it’s presented as a simple techo-fix. For all the sound and fury of regen-ag advocacy, I’ve seen no estimates within it for the rate of this mining – and certainly not in the places where my critics told me to look. Happily, Clem Weidenbenner rode to my rescue under my last post, suggesting that currently there’s enough phosphorus for us to mine from the soils for about 100 years. This doesn’t seem to me an awfully long time, civilizationally. When you place it alongside looming energy scarcity I think it suggests not so much that regenerative agriculture can heal the planet while producing nutrient-dense food but that folks would be well advised to invest in compost toilets, cycle organic matter, move out of cities and learn how to garden organically.

It’s curious to me that alternative ag types who are generally quite wised up about the dangers of depleting resource pools and the benefits of ecological cycling seem so defiantly insistent that farmers can keep conjuring minerals out of nothing. To be fair, I did my share of defiant insisting myself some time ago, indeed to an embarrassing degree, so I guess I can understand the power of wishful thinking. The more so because modernist culture does like to insist on its ability to escape from limits (just so boringly ‘Malthusian’), to the extent that clever and well educated people like Pascal Bruckner can dismiss environmentalist enthusiasm for composting human waste as a crazy ‘scatological fantasy’, an ‘epiphany of the excremental’2, rather than, er, an attempt to cycle scarce and vital minerals through the agroecosystem.

So … count me in with carbon farming, nutrient dense food, healing the planet, cover cropping and soil protection. Also with cutting out fossil fuels, deurbanization and rural settlement, closed loop nutrient cycling, labour-intensive horticulture and compost toilets. I can’t really imagine a lasting ‘regenerative agriculture’ without that second list.

Another area of alternative agriculture where I’ve exercised my contrarian muscles over the years is in questioning an over-emphasis on perennial over annual crops. Don’t get me wrong – I think more perennials and fewer annuals is a necessary step. I continue to think that Mark Shepard goes way, way over the top when he writes “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one”2, and I still think it’s high time people in the alternative agriculture movement stopped demonising annual crops as some kind of original sin, and stopped over-promoting the labour and yield benefits of perennials. Nevertheless, we surely do need to embrace more perennial agricultures and try to transcend the tyranny of annual ‘staple’ crops – the ‘arable corner’ that I discuss in Chapter 5 of my book. Perhaps in the past I didn’t sufficiently acknowledge that the pro-perennial boosters have their heart in the right place. So mea culpa and note to myself: yes to more acorns, hazels, sea buckthorn, pendulous sedge and beef in my diet. Whereas sourdough? Maybe see you next week.

Finally, a word about intercropping and polycultures. On page 121 of A Small Farm Future, I write “Attempts to prove that diverse crop polycultures yield more biomass, calories or other nutrients acre for acre haven’t been conspicuously successful, except in the special and non-generalisable case of legume mixes”. Is that true? Well, maybe or maybe not – I’m interested in your opinions. The more important point, I think, is one that I go on to make on pp.121-2:  “[mixes] of annual and perennial food crops, orchards, pasture and woodland [work] as reasonably integrated whole with complementarities that support human livelihoods on the farm and in the nearby town, while lowering external dependencies for energy and other inputs.”

Whatever the optimum mix or non-mix of crops might be at plot or field level in relation to desired outputs like yield, I suspect that at the township, farmscape or foodshed level, a small farm future will be a crop diverse farm future.

In summary: two cheers for regenerative agriculture, perennial cropping, intercropping and naysaying. Now let the argument discussion begin…



  1. Gabe Brown. 2018. Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green, p.186.
  2. Pascal Bruckner. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. Polity, pp.150-3.
  3. Mark Shepard. 2013. Restoration Agriculture. Acres USA, p.xix.

56 thoughts on “Alternative agriculture: a polite discussion

  1. On the relative value of mixes in agriculture… count me as one who’d suggest “it depends”. There is plenty of evidence to back both sides. Andy McGuire’s piece fits nicely with our longer run experience using blends of different varieties of a single species (monoculture… one species, but a blend of different varieties). There was a time when blends of different soybean varieties were used commercially… but this is very seldom employed any longer. Deploying the best suited single variety today holds the upper hand in more circumstances than not. The planting of soy in the vast majority of landscapes is in alternate years within a rotation with an annual grass (corn, wheat, or rice… sometimes in a double crop with a winter annual like wheat, or barley). These rotations have been practiced for over a generation now – such that even the most senior farmers would have a hard time recalling an agriculture without such rotational opportunities [this is not to suggest that such ‘burnt in’ methods are superior to any challenge… just that any challenger will have a seriously difficult path to trod]. And not for nothing – I am not ignoring the benefit such rotations gain from fossil fuel use. These rotations will provide ecosystem services in micro scale deployment as well.

    But to the value of long term use and the enormous scale of arable cropping with a mere handful of species (but a great plethora of varietal diversity in those chosen species)… there is now sufficient choice of varieties to deploy and historic knowledge of the likely challenges an individual producer may experience that blending varieties is typically not beneficial (will not produce as much as the best choice).

    On the other hand, where habitats have been degraded, or where external forces are in flux (and market volatility can be such a force) – then the opportunity for blending varieties (and blending species) makes more sense to me. BTW, thanks for the Pixel blending ref… neat stuff. Cover crops added to rotations for regeneration purposes seems very appropriate. And if said cover crops can also add to current use strategies (as opposed to just extending the diversity of species on a site) then even more benefit accrues. Tillage radish is edible, as are turnips… and grasses can be grazed. Mixes certainly have some value. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that plant breeding of the species in the mixes could enhance the values expected.

    So as for most items before us – there is contextual sensitivity. Each grower should avail herself of the dominant opportunities and challenges she will face at her cite and deploy the mix or rotation that suits both her needs and preferences and enables the longer run sustainability of her holding.

    Finally, help me understand what you meant about sourdough.

    • I agree regarding diversity and context — but from a small horticulture perspective, the context is “I don’t know what the weather is going to do, and there’s a limit to how much I can irrigate, and an even bigger limit on what I can drain if we get floods”. But in this context, I can do species diversity as well as varietal.

      To spell it out: I’m growing seven varieties of peas this year, three soup peas and four shelling peas; it will be interesting to find out if the ones that did well in my suntrap of a back garden do well in the frost pocket that is the allotment (-5.9ºC one night last week, while the back garden hovered around freezing). I might grow some mange tout as well but space and time are both tight, so it depends if I end up having a crack at some autumn peas. I’m growing nine varieties of garlic, and about the same of potatoes, and I think four of broad beans. But I’m also growing beets and chard and celeriac and celery (OK fine these two are the same species) and carrots and squashes and luffa and leeks and spring onions and chives and shallots and lettuces and lamb’s lettuce and spinach and kohl rabi and red orach and parsley and basil and dill and tomatoes and peppers and tomatillos and and and and — and this is just what I’ve already got sown, there’s still parsnips (need to get a move on) and quinoa and corn and sunflowers and beans and nasturtiums and all sorts to be getting on with, plus the perennials (Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, various soft and top fruit; I’ve added a self-fertile hardy kiwi, and I’m going to try to perennialise some of the chard, and I want to add scorzonera too). My motivation is partly interest — even in London I don’t see red orach in the shops much — and partly that if the weather is really screwy, I’ve got a greater chance that *something* will make it. And so, planning on some small-scale grain growing starting this autumn, of course I’m looking at wheat AND oats AND barley, and preferably varietal mixes of all these species. The allotment is… somewhat degraded, I guess? The level of the plot when we took it on was significantly below the surrounding path, suggesting it’s had several years of regular digging, with not enough organic matter added to the soil to make up for what was removed as crops. Now, in this dry spring, there are visible cracks in the clay where it’s exposed, mostly around the garlic. (I’ve been shoving bits of manure and half-rotted compost down them. May as well.)

      I’m not selling to a financialised market — indeed, we aren’t allowed to sell any of the allotment produce — so there isn’t a big enough bonus for having high yield of one variety to make up for the chance of it just failing. Turning the whole allotment to one species or one variety of one species would just be too large an emotional gamble in the event of crop failure, and in the meantime it’s no more work to care for seven varieties of peas than one. Of course, the gamble has much higher stakes for someone who can’t go to the shops and buy potatoes if their crop fails.

      It does mean that I probably can’t grow enough wheat on my plot to be able to bake bread every day. Perhaps that’s what Chris meant about the sourdough.

      I suppose the thing about arable crops is that they store so well, that you can kindof spread the diversity through time rather than space, if (and only if) you’re growing them on a large enough scale. I’m not sure how to tease out the effects of financialised markets vs those economies of scale, though.

      • Hi Kathryn,
        What are you planning to do with the oats and barley ? Will your varieties thresh free ? If so, what are they ? Dehulling small grain is a real stumbling block here.

        • I’m going to try for ‘naked’ barley and oats, yes. And cook them the way I currently cook rice. We’ll see how it goes.

          Worst-case scenario is I feed the rats and mice and produce a lot of dry carbon material for the compost bins …

  2. One of the advantages I currently see in perennials is that once they’re in, I don’t have to decide where to put them, or whether to grow them this year, or how many to grow. If I do want to make those changes then I’m not completely stuck — grafting is a thing, and younger plants can be moved if necessary. But the damson we were given as a wedding present just lives n a (really big) pot in the back garden, and we don’t have to decide whether to have damsons this year.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a relatively new gardener that I find this helpful. The calculations around how much we’ll eat, how much space I have, expected yield, crop survival and so on are not yet intuitive to me, and “oh, the rhubarb is up, I guess we’ll eat rhubarb this week” is easier than all the planning. Of course, the only reason I can get away with lack of planning for perennials too is that we aren’t totally self-sufficient in food: if I haven’t preserved enough, we can go to the shop. If I were trying to collect chestnuts or acorns in the autumn to eat when that year’s potatoes ran out, I’d probably want to do more planning.

    Conversely, I’m mindful that at the allotment so far we have added asparagus, strawberries, elder, rhubarb, wineberry, tayberry, lovage, comfrey, several raspberries, a hardy kiwi and five fruit trees, with plans for more. Many of these we grew from cuttings or seed or were given by friends, but it’s still a considerable investment. If we leave London — as we hope to someday — many of the plants will be too well-established to move, and while cuttings and grafting are possible, they do take time. Annual seeds are wonderfully portable, which seems like it might be a good thing in a volatile climate and unstable political context.

  3. Thanks for the informative comments from both ends of the scale.

    Certainly there’s a lot to be said for perennials. I advocate what I’ve called elsewhere a ‘weak perennial vision’ involving – diversity again – perennial/annual mixes. Most traditional agricultures have found a place for both, for good reason, I think.

    Regarding sourdough – apologies, bad joke. I simply meant that if I was going to switch to a largely perennial diet I’d have to be quite creative about my local edible species, and I’d have to hold back a bit on some of my favoured regular foods like sourdough.

    • I like my sourdough as well. And while I’ve not tried them yet myself, I am thinking one can use many of the various cereal grains to make it. So perennials may still satisfy a larder bent on offering flours for sourdough. Experimenting with resources at hand is one thing our species is very good at.

      Hmmm, corn flour sourdough… (and there is a perennial corn – sort of).

  4. When I read Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture” I was puzzled as to how he was going to manage harvesting the production of all his inter-mixed perennial crops. Remember, he is touting perennial crops as a subsitute for annual crops in a commercial ag setting. Finally, near the end of his book, he admitted that while all the crops he was growing were suitable for a mass market, there was not yet any competitive way to get them there. Shepard notes that, “Most of the crops grown in restoration agriculture systems are already mass-market crops. This helps. The equipment needed to handle and process them already exists. However it exists for those who grow these crops as monocrops. We will need to invent harvesting, maintenance and processing machinery for use in polyculture systems.” Easy peasy!

    If anyone is aware of the existence of harvesting machinery that can traverse a polyculture farm and pick those crops that are ready for harvest while leaving the crops that are not yet ready totally unscathed, please let me know. My belief is that the only ‘machine’ that can do the job is the human body.

    Polyculture can be very productive, but maintenance and harvesting are bound to be very labor intensive, something that might be perfectly suitable for the small homestead farm, but will be a nightmare for someone trying to make a go of a commercial farm. Perhaps a small U-pick operation would work, but I can’t see how a polyculture farm can fit into a commodity market system.

      • I watched the video. Without looking at his books, it appears to me like he is making most of his money selling trees rather than tree crops. That’s great, but I still don’t see how his farm is going to join the supply chains that feed cities.

        He says his crops are machine harvestable, but the video doesn’t show any examples. The only machine I saw was the tree planter. Perhaps I missed something.

        What is clear is that he has created a permaculture system that could feed lots of people if they came and lived on his farm. That’s great, because people will need to move back to the land eventually and it would be nice to have something that they could live on as soon as they get there. Whether mixed tree crops and agroforestry would be more productive than a properly managed, muscle powered, small farm is another question.

        But the question Shepard was trying to answer is whether perma-poly-culture can be a direct substitute for monoculture in commercial agriculture. I still think the answer is No.

    • Easy peasy! Joe says. And he’s right. Not exactly the low hanging fruit.

      Low hanging fruit… another metaphor to trample for effect (sorry, can’t resist).

      Necessity is the mother of invention (more clichés available on request). So when faced with a difficulty, we have a few choices. Fold up our tent and decamp. Bitch and moan about our desperate fate…. OR, roll up the sleeves and invent a solution. Not easy, as indicated, but it beats the alternative(s).

      I want to offer that artificial intelligence (AI) is making great strides – even though techno solutionism tends to gather odd glances in these parts – there might be space for a discussion to begin. Most of AI vision systems I’ve seen of late are getting pretty sophisticated. There are robotic weeders, color sorters for cleaning grain, and many other applications.

      Our next question comes to the longer term availability of such tech. If these devices can’t be manufactured and/or maintained in fossil fuel diminished future, then we’re faced with a different matter.

      But before we get visions of the Jetsons scooting around in jet packs, lets go back to the low hanging fruit metaphor. There are several ways to get more apples from a tree. Build ladders, make extension poles with fruit grabbing baskets, or… well – breed apple trees that aren’t so doggone tall in the first place.

      Plant breeders have long been tasked with modifying our domesticates so they can be harvested with the machines we have to hand. Not so easy peasy, but it can be done. And to their credit, there are engineers capable of modifying current kit to allow harvest of domesticates that are less amenable than the major grains. There are also agronomic methods we can bring to bear – modifying how we grow a crop (spacing, timing, etc) that will impact how easily we can harvest a crop.

      So yes, this isn’t an easy ask. But faced with rough alternatives we might be well placed by rolling up the sleeves and getting on with it.

      Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

      [Clichés R Us has made a donation to the Soy of the Future Fund]

    • Yes Joe,
      That is what I keep coming back to when I try to imagine a perennial polyculture – the harvest. If all the species aren’t mature at the same time, or their maturities aren’t widely spaced on the calendar, some of them will be wasted with machine harvest.

      It was a revelation to me when I started doing hand harvesting how much time and labor it took. The planting & growing is the easy part!

      Also, partial as I am to perennial tree crops, it is a struggle to get the same return of calories per acre as you’d get from grains or potatoes.

  5. I think I am close agreement with you on both the positive and the negative of many of the alternatives. I am also disturbed by the frequent claims that you can feed to world with meat from holistic grazing. While I am a defender of grassfed ruminants and their positive role in the agro-ecosystem (representing one of the best ecological adaptations of human agriculture), I am disturbed by the unreasonable claim that 8 billion people could eat a predominantly grass-fed beef diet, apart from the fact that I am not convinced that a carnivore diet is so extremely healthy. 8 billion people * 300 kg of beef (what you need for your food energy) is 60 times current beef consumption (10 kg carcass weight per person, which is around 5 kg meat on the plate) and some 20 times total meat consumption. With 2 billion hectares of grassland it would mean a productivity of 1200 kg pure meat (double carcass weight) per hectare, which is many times (three or four?) higher than even the most productive Irish beef. In many places grazed beef rents some 10-20 kg carcass weight per hectare and year, let say global average 50 kg carcass weight per hectare. Even if we took 4 billion hectares and 100 kg per hectare (double productivity) we would “only” get 50 kg per person, or 25 kg on the plate.

  6. I do, however, have some issue with the very simplistic nitrogen argument against carbon sequestration in soils. I think it fails on several counts:
    1. It often mix up crop nutrient demand with crop nutrient removal
    2. It doesn’t take into consideration free living nitrogen fixation and other dynamics in soil ecosystems
    3. It draws too much on stochiometry of fresh organic matter and takes not sufficient consideration of the stochiometry of old organic carbon in deep soil layers, where most long-term sequestration occurs.
    4. It probably underestimates the opposite effects of nitrogen fertilization.

  7. Re: the Mark Shepard quote: “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one”

    That’s funny.
    It could be shortened: “Every human society has collapsed. Every single one”

    Excepting the currently extant, which haven’t quite collapsed yet.
    Do we even have any human societies any more that don’t rely on annual staple crops?

  8. Part of me is puzzled by this conversation about “feeding the world.” The very statement implies a continuation of the present commercial labor stratification, specialization, and globalization that has wracked the biosphere. Who is doing the feeding? Who is the world? Feed them what?

    It is the hubris of homogenizing imperialism that requires an answer to the question of how we will feed the world. The converse of that (in some ways noble) concern, I’ve found, is a social articulation that leaves one ignorant of the knowledge that one’s neighbor just died of complications from diabetes. Whose responsibility was it to feed them? And not just nutritionally?

    It is through practicing a disciplined ETHIC–not necessarily a particular agricultural technique– of regeneration, consuming a lot less, and figuring out how to live in more cooperative, interdependent local polities/communities (without stabbing each other), that the world will feed itself. Hopefully reviving the cultural practices that sustained us in a pre-fossil-fuel world, and utilizing the technological/scientific fruits that make sense. But I think there have to be some form of collective, local hermeneutics for making these difficult choices (with local ecosystems having a seat at the table too!)

    Thanks everyone for your thoughtful commentary.

    • Yes, I agree with your reservations about the ‘feeding the world’ narrative. In some ways my title, a bit of an afterthought, was ill-chosen – though in other ways I think sometimes there’s something to be said for accepting the terms of someone else’s framing and working through it. I think I’ve written (and certainly spoken) elsewhere along similar lines to your 3rd paragraph – ‘cultivating’ (in the widest sense) locally is the best way to ensure global wellbeing, provided we pay some attention to scalability and avoid the ‘I’m all right Jack” mentality.

  9. Thanks for the typically thought-provoking further comments, which push on towards the themes of two upcoming posts on livestock & farm labour/energy issues, so I’ll mostly hang fire (again … apologies) until those.

    A few quick points in the interim …

    Agree with Gunnar on the over-promotion of livestock in the regen-ag narrative. I’ve (almost) given up trying to have opinions about soil nutrients and carbon sequestration and am more inclined to do what seems wise on my own holding and see where that debate goes. Though as per my post above my residual remaining opinion is that yes we probably can magic up the nitrogen we need with the help of our microbial friends, but not so much the other non-gaseous elements…

    Regarding annuals, staples and society, my rephrasing of Shepard’s take might be “Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. They were then succeeded by people who grew – annual crops. However, the ones who rely less on annual ‘staples’ and grow a more diverse mix of annual and perennial plants probably last a bit longer”.

    Regarding automation and perennial polycultures, I’m pretty much with Joe and Eric … and I think Joe’s point about on-farm residence vs commercial production for offsite consumption is an important one, to which I’ll return.

    All the same, props to Clem for raising the issue of hi tech harvesting. My take is, first, yes I’m doubtful that we’ll see this tech manifesting because of the energy, climate and capital crises that are upon us. But it’s a good thought experiment to imagine a world in which it DID manifest. Humanity eats from the tree of knowledge and builds intelligent robots to wander around the rest of the forest garden doing all our cultivating and harvesting for us. So, then, what is it that people are doing that’s more important? What kind of lives do people ultimately want to lead…? The robots are also beginning to eliminate human work in the fields of medicine, law, maybe music, literature and so on. Who do we want to be? I fear there is an Eloi problem here.

    • When the machine stopped .

      Now there is a dystopian view down the road that we seem to be heading !
      There is a headlong rush to a techno world but it needs energy , a lot of it , that we really do not have , plus as you say what do we want to do with our lives , seems that becoming couch potatoes / vegetables is on the agenda

    • Hmmm – that’s an interesting twist to where I was going. But I suppose one can make a case there are signs many of us are already headed toward an Eloi’ist’ future.

      A golf course was built just north of the farm where I grew up. One corner of it reached down to meet our fence. My father used to shake his head as he picked lost golf balls from his hay field and toss them back onto the course. The whole notion of walking a pasture hitting a little ball was so foreign to him. And that the pass time was largely reserved for the wealthier members of society – that chafed as well. I don’t want to paint a picture of our family as Morlocks… but I have noticed there isn’t much golf being played on moonless nights.

      Now gyms do a great business in providing exercise for those whose own employment offers none.

      But above when I referred to some of the AI systems and other tech in development I was thinking more of the efficiencies and quality improvements some of these machines offer. There is a color sorter at our plant which provides a service not done previously (i.e., no one’s job was sacrificed). The quality of a finished product is increased and the value is likewise increased. It can be reasonably asked whether this increase in quality is necessary – the previous product was quite edible and thus serviceable. At the end of the day, market forces push this. Have a listen to Big Yellow Taxi if I’m not making myself clear.

      There are other advantages of modern tech, and while market forces may spur the upfront investment in their pursuit, the eventual benefits serve more than labor avoidance. Health care comes to mind here. Who wants to complain about the rapid development of new vaccines? Similarly, there are new tools that allow a soybean breeder to more rapidly develop new and improved varieties of soybean. These improvements could eventually be realized by older methods, but why wait?

      When I wrote the earlier comment about AI and newer tech developments I was more expecting some version of the Jevon’s Paradox to be tossed back. From a Morlockian perspective, the Jevon’s Paradox appears to be an Eloi problem – so I guess Chris has it gauged well after all.

    • I don’t know about your source, but I searched the Oregon legislative site for bill IP13 and came up blank.

      Here are all the Oregon bills since 2009 that include the word “livestock”. Many of them promote livestock raising, including one that let’s ranchers sell direct to retail customers. The only recent bill that I could find that was at all problematic for ranchers had to do with permits for watering cattle from surface sources.

  10. I wanted to let this simmer for a few days before I made a comment, and I have not read all the previous comments yet.

    Perennial crops are great, it is just that nobody eats them. The gardeners and seed savers of 10,000 years ago selected and ‘bred’ annuals. They might have been on to something.

    Kernza as a perennial wheat is a hot topic here. I’m confident that I can produce more grain and build soil faster with a well selected annual wheat variety and two years of cover crops.

    Techo solutions always seem to ignore the unintended consequences. RoundUp Ready crops promised wonderful things but really delivered herbicide resistant weeds. That led to the use of more problematic chemicals. Nuclear power. Cars. High speed internet. They are all great but…

    Having said that, I love fossil fuels. With my 1940 H Farmall and a two bottom plow I can work up a couple acres (~1 hectare) of rye / vetch cover crop or old mulched tomato vines in 3-4 hours depending on how tangled the vetch gets or if the tomatoes are too tough for the coulters to cut through.

    A young guy like you could probably swing on a shovel handle for 8 or 10 hours straight. To work up those same two acres, burying nearly all the trash, would take you about 5-6 weeks of 10 hour days if you didn’t stop because it was raining and miserable. Or stop to plant any of the ground that you had worked up.

    Horses could do the work but you have to dedicate about 25% of your land to pasture and hay. And they are not going to be as fast. In this climate you will get to feed them all year and bust ice out of water buckets every morning in the winter. The tractor sits quietly in the barn unless it gets called on to skid dead trees for firewood or push snow out of the way.

    A small farm future is a daunting task. Thanks for thinking about it.

    Greg Reynolds
    Riverbend Farm
    Delano, Minnesota.

    • Greg, apologies – I failed to notice your comment sitting in the moderation queue. Thanks for those interesting thoughts. Any responses anyone? Especially on kerzna vis-a-vis annuals & cover crops. An important debate! Likewise with horses vs tractors – something I hope to write more about presently.

      I don’t think I’m so young any more – having just spent 3 full on days of hard physical farm work on end, I’m all in – even though some of it involved a tractor 🙂

      More people working on horticultural scales, including perennial polycultures, is part of the answer IMO. But yeah, farming can be hard work. Like a lot of other jobs in that respect, though maybe sometimes in different ways…

      • Hello Greg…
        Welcome and I’m very glad you decided to comment. Where to start??

        I’m guessing you’ve already grown some Kernza on your farm? And have also grown winter wheat and some cover crops? If yes, would you be willing to share some numbers from your experience?

        There is a decent sized grant now in play – organized at U Minnesota – to look into Kernza production, marketing, extension, new varieties, and so on. I’m also guessing you know this, but for the others here check out:

        With no personal experience growing Kernza I’ll not add anything on that aspect. I would like to chime in on the value of old steel, and the comparison to human labor or animal power. Your ’40 Farmall H has my Allis Chalmbers D-17 by a good 16 years… but if needed I could hitch a slightly bigger plow to her. But that’s not the comparison I want to make. The horse approach does come unglued the farther north (or the farther into shorter growing seasons) one travels. Oxen might compete with the horse from a multi-use perspective, but still suffers your timeliness and back breaking shortcomings (timeliness should get a bit more attention here, BTW)

        But I’m curious about steam? What portion of a holding (or a local community for that matter) needs to be given over to coppice or other wood production in order to fuel a steam engine? I really don’t know. 25%? Even if it did require the same set aside, you don’t need to feed a steam engine during the long cold winter, break ice from the water trough, and make sure the weather doesn’t take your critter to the grave. Steam from current biomass is not using fossil fuel…

        There is still the question about tillage in the first place. But on this matter I do have a bit of experience. At my age, hoeing weeds is fine for an hour or so. As a day long effort – not so much.

        Finally – Delano, MN… one of my sons lives on the opposite side of the Twin Cities – a bit over an hour from you. A small world.

        • I have not grown Kernza but know some of the people at the UofM who are involved in the project, a friend out in Madison (Minn) grows quite a bit of it and one of our restaurant customers got involved using it early on.

          My understanding is that Kernza yields about 1/3 what to typical wheat crop would give and it dies out after about 3 years.

          I do grow winter wheat. It threshes free and I can sell it to my restaurant customers with minimal clean up. All the small scale processing has disappeared around here so with less than a semi load, you are on your own.

          I think the problem is that they are harvesting it with a modern mindset to try to get the maximum production. Let to its own devices it would simply continue to reseed itself.

          Regenerative agriculture is all well and good until perennial weeds (quackgrass and Canada thistle here) get established. Tillage is a good way to beat them back. The problem is that our sandy soils need all the organic matter they can get and tillage just burns it up.

          Steam is an interesting idea. On a mass basis wood has about 1/2 the energy content of gasoline if I’m reading this right

          so it could be a contender if you have a big enough wood lot ( have not done the calculations for that). I burn up about 300 (US) gallons of gasoline per year in my tractors, about 1800 pounds. A cord of dry firewood weights around 3500 pounds. Doesn’t seem like enough.

          Sneeboer hoes are the way to go. Expensive, but worth every penny. Other than that, tune up your Allis and bring it over. You can hook on to one of my JD 44 2-16 plows.


          • Steam is not a renewable energy source , it’s full can be but the machine itself no , you need a lot of technology to make cylinders ,boiler tubes to stand 300 psi ( twice working pressure ) and l lube that will put up with heat , steam boilers need major repairs at around ten years old , so steam is really no answer .

      • Another interesting debate on which I hope there’ll be more here soon.

        Timeliness is a lot about social context. If everyone is cultivating with draft animals, they’re timely enough. If some people have tractors, then perhaps not.

        There are definite advantages to the tractor sitting quietly in the barn, but then again a tractor is a huge concentration of capital/energy, so sitting in the barn is a cost. Meanwhile, the horse’s life processes continue while it’s in the barn – which is a cost to the farmer, but also a benefit.

        So … as with many things here … it’s complicated …

        • A couple of thoughts.
          One, it appears that virtually everyone is this discussion assumes that high density energy sources, particularly fossil fuels, will be available forever. I can’t prove that to be wrong, but I find it a dubious assumption. Besides drilling / pumping / transporting, there is refining / storing / cash.
          Maybe it will work forever, but personally I don’t see it.
          Next, my experience has been that a tractor magically sitting at rest in the barn all winter doesn’t necessarily wake up well and healthy in spring. Mine don’t. It’s easy to take note if the daily obligation to feed and clean up after animals, and simultaneously assume that tractors just work whenever asked to.
          Again, not mine. YMMV.
          There is also the “horses need too much grass…” Some of my ground is happier growing grass. I can’t eat it.
          I don’t use horses, I use donkeys, and that’s another whole issue I’m going to ignore for the moment except to point out that donkeys, while slower than horses, are also more energy efficient per unit of completed work. They do not require as high quality hay, nor as much water, as horses, again per unit of completed work.
          It is true that tractors can operate on edible oils as well as on fossil fuels. Obviously, part of our concern regarding overpopulation could be reworded as “There are too many people here for me to grow the fuel my tractor needs.”
          I find the assumption that our high energy, high speed, highly urbanized, cash based commercial agriculture requires tractors to be dubious at its roots. Perhaps the whole system is failing?

          • Jeff:
            In my experience a fossil fuel future gets much less credence here than most places one could traverse on the web. I think the majority of us here are concerned not just about availability of fossil fuels, but the also the attached consequences of burning it.

            My experience with bringing a winter stored engine back from its hibernation seems much easier than what you’ve described, so yes, the mileage does seem to vary. There are several things one should do to make the wake up go better – draining gas (or topping off fuel tanks with weatherized diesel). Taking batteries from kit to a warmer station. These bits of extra care do require a little time… but a couple extra hours in the fall, a couple extra hours in the spring seem to compare favorably to hours of care all throughout the winter. And if something should go sideways, our local mechanics make a fraction of what our local vets make (though I will admit, that latter fraction has been climbing).

            The learning curve for tractor use vs. working an animal? One can certainly get injured using either, but in my experience the former is safer.

            When you suggest:
            I find the assumption that our high energy, high speed, highly urbanized, cash based commercial agriculture requires tractors to be dubious at its roots. … ‘requires’ – then I have to agree, a tractor needn’t be required. But for moment they’ll continue to have their adherents.

          • Thanks Jeff. Well, there’s much more for us to discuss about tractors, horses & donkeys but this is a good start. I love your reformulation of the population problem as “There are too many people here for me to grow the fuel my tractor needs”!

          • I also look forward to hearing about working with donkeys, we’re just starting out in that direction. Your site appears a good place to look, Jeff.

          • Just as a very sideways though , I wonder what the difference in acarage is between growing ethanol / biodiesel and feeding horses ?

          • About the same in the UK agricultural situation according to Simon Fairlie – ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’ pp.144-6.

          • While it is nice to contemplate different fuel supplies, what about the machines themselves? We will run the current tractors into the ground, and then what?

            The nice thing about tractors is that many of them are fairly simple machines; built tough, but not terribly sophisticated. Greg’s Farmall was built with *pre-war* industry.

            So that is good.

            The energy required to power all this is still significant, and must be delivered in specific forms. So, whereas distilling ethanol happens at below the boiling point of water, and making woodgas happens with a fire, smelting iron for an engine block requires 1200C/2200F.

            I might fret about the raw materials needed, but I think we will be salvaging for centuries. Which is good, because we mined all the easy ores a couple of hundred years ago. Mining and refining is itself a very high-tech process now, since the raw materials are found in such low concentrations. And so then you need the massive machines to harvest those resources, and 1200C heat to pour their engine blocks…

            It is a pain to put up hay, and to break the ice in water buckets, but there are no guarantees we will have a choice. At least animals are self-assembling.

          • It’s an interesting debate. And the material and energy costs/flows of machinery manufacture are an important part of it. Another interesting aspect is the effect of the technology – both horses and tractors help to de-intensify agricutural labour input but not necessarily to intensify land output. I hope to discuss this a couple of posts down the line.

        • Chris said: Timeliness is a lot about social context. And I’ll go along for bit… the logic is OK so far as it goes. But there are other contexts to imagine. Environmental contexts for instance. At higher latitudes growing seasons tend to be shorter (not everyone has the advantage of an island climate at the tail end of a Gulf Stream). Raising one’s daily bread (such that a whole year’s needs might be met) must be accomplished in a shorter window.

          Monsoon climates, rain forest, mountain shadowed steppe (low rainfall) all impose time constraints on production practices. Once local environmental conditions are accounted, the relative significance of social context will increase for matters of timeliness.

          • I certainly agree that environmental factors independent of social context condition agricultural possibilities. But, perhaps mistakenly, I took your original point to be one about the relative timeliness of different human technologies, viz. mechanized vs non-mechanized ones. Here, I think social context counts for (almost) everything – each can be timely in their own way, but on a strict comparison of labour time on the farm, the mechanized technology always wins.

            Still, there are so many other issues implicated in the comparison – farm size, employment structures, energy, capital, and other social, economic & environmental consequences etc that the question of timeliness gets swamped in numerous other questions.

  11. Just briefly on the tech side of things, I think we only get into Eloi problems if the robots harvesting our perennial polyculture farms are as cheap as chips and everyone has one (with a farm to accompany it). Otherwise we have more familiar problems of capitalism (hey, it’d be cheaper if we put all the blackcurrants in a row … so what if those folks have no jobs … let them eat rice … OK, let them eat Vitamin A enhanced rice etc.) But yes also Jevons problems. Of which maybe Covid vaccines are one. Intensive meat industry, wilderness encroachment, mass global travel, new virus, pandemic, new vaccine, then back to intensive meat industry, wilderness encroachment, mass global travel, new virus, pandemic, repeat. The tech itself isn’t particularly the problem. It’s great they developed a vaccine. But maybe we have a deeper cultural problem here.

    As to the Oregon initiative, whatever the outcome this kind of thinking does seem to be on the rise and, as I see it, it often ironically manifests an alienation from rather than an affinity with the biosphere. Another cultural problem, perhaps.

    • The tech itself isn’t particularly the problem.

      [Wow, how wonderful to hear that here]…

      But maybe we have a deeper cultural problem here.

      [Indeed, and it’s often presented in an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy]

      A professor I had while at University used to suggest that what mankind needed most was another egregious World War, or a major pandemic – the goal of either to voraciously thin the herd. He wasn’t totally serious, though I did have the impression he wouldn’t have been completely depressed by the occurrence of either. No, this wasn’t Paul Ehrlich (though they were of a similar chronology). He was a biologist, and one for whom human flourishing was a goal to pursue. I found his internal conflict something curious.

      I relate that anecdote to offer another tangential observation –

      Simply this: not all cultural problems might sprout from an ‘us vs. them’ debate. Sometimes the conflict is right there between our own temples. And sometimes these internal conflicts are gifts and not punishments. In order to walk in the footsteps of another we need to wear their shoes – to witness the role of a ‘them’ from the perspective of an ‘us’.

      • Not sure it’s that unprecedented on this site for me to write that the tech itself isn’t particularly the problem. By the same token, I’d venture the opinion that the tech itself isn’t particularly the solution. There are always social and cultural contexts to technology, and it’s those contexts that are ultimately generative of our problem & solution consciousness.

        I think I agree that there are numerous us v them problem framings, ways of transcending them, and ways of internalising them individually. But I don’t think I understand exactly how you’re relating them to the present set of issues.

        BTW, forgot to say earlier – thanks for pointing out that you can have perennial sourdough. It makes my joke even lamer. Still, as I’ve always said to my kids in the face of my string of bad puns, if you don’t keep putting them out there you’ll never land one…

        • But I don’t think I understand exactly how you’re relating them to the present set of issues.

          I’ll take the Oregon initiative matter for example (at least from the perspective of a Midwesterner…and not a fellow Oregonian – so from the distance I’m may be missing some relevant points). It appears from here that Oregon’s politics have become very progressive. A ballot initiative of the sort indicated above would meet with serious scorn in the farm belt. In fact several heartland state legislatures have already taken measures to push back against HSUS and some of their animal rights policy endeavors. But how is it that wishing to play nice with animals has become a lightning rod or a political football drawing folks into another ‘us vs them’ framing in the first place??

          I don’t have an answer. Perhaps a sociologist can help me make sense of this.

          There is a population of individuals – a VERY large population. We are spread far and wide such that there also exists a VERY large number of communities. The realities on the ground in these disparate communities will impact how people relate to them (think grassland, vs rain-forest, vs fertile plain). Even the scale and scope of the trade-offs we measure in one place will differ from those in another. At the same time, there is only one planet, one atmosphere to be shared by ALL communities. The context sensitivity, the complexity of interactions, the variability in how trade-offs are valued in one place vs another – these complications matter.

          So further up Chris said (in reaction to the Oregon matter): “…as I see it, it often ironically manifests an alienation from rather than an affinity with the biosphere.. And I too see the logic of Chris’ interpretation. But in the last two sentences we’ve employed singular pronouns. Neither of us will be voting in the Oregon situation. Another ‘them vs us’ where I for one have a tough time understanding where the ‘them’s are coming from. How might I find the shoes they wear so I might walk in them long enough to understand?

        • Ah OK, I’m with you. Indeed, there’s much to be said for trying to transcend us v them framings. A problem with farming is that so few people are involved in it (something that’s strangely celebrated), and those that are often operate on vast scales, wafer thin margins and often enough with ecologically questionable practices. Then they’re first in the firing line for criticisms of the dysfunctional food system, quite unfairly IMO. So yes, a real need here to overcome the us v them framing. I think if people better understood low energy agroecosystems, some of the antagonism would abate. But then that’s my own particular framing…

    • There is also the dismissed or ignored , yup there’s methane as a minus poop contains nitrogen and other plant nutrients plus it feeds a myriad of fauna and flora , ( my grandkids were entranced watching a tumble bug roll up a pellet of cow poop roll it off and bury it ) replacing poop with synthetic fertilizer and the pollution entailed doing this is ignored .

      • Re, sources of phosphorous, don’t overlook bat roosts. Church steeples here are often littered with bat droppings, which are annually shovelled into buckets by hazmat-suited bat researchers, who obviously get first dibs. Might be worth bearing in mind, depending on local bat habitats where you live.

  12. While they may be trite phrases, we need to keep in the forefront as we deliberate, that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (tanstaafl) , and it’s all about tradeoffs. The current energy pulse we are enjoying will be centuries paying off. As we relearn our niche in circular ecological cycles, our challenge is identifying a good path instead of simply not recognizing all the costs for that choice.

    As far as Mark Shepard and harvest efficiency, while the video might leave the impression of a cacophony of plants and animals, large sections of his farm are set up as linear rows of hazels, or apples, or chestnuts. Down the road, it may well all be done with muscle power, but I think of his arrangement as in between monoculture and random wild gathering. The primary point is that he’s trying to model perennial food crops at scale, enough to feed more than the farmer.

    He’s also working with this group in working on figuring out the small scale nut growing/harvesting/processing.
    check out the various homegrown and improvised equipment folks are working on.

    There is a ways to go, and it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

    • All good points – and indeed it’s the trade-offs that must be kept in mind, rather than the presentation of perennial agriculturess as a trade-off free cornucopia. Experimenting with commercial perennial polycultures is a fine thing, provided one doesn’t overpress the claims…

Leave a Reply to Greg Reynolds Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *