What’s in a number?

Chapter 11 of A Small Farm Future is predominantly a number-crunching exercise showing that Britain could feed a population of 83 million people using organic farming methods with locally generated fertility when yields are generally assumed to be 10% lower than the lowest bound of current organic crop yields, and with minimal fossil fuel use on-farm. The kind of analysis I did will be familiar to readers of this blog who followed my posts about feeding the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, but in this case I applied the analysis to the whole country. I didn’t apply it to the whole world, however, and this is where I need your help (see below).

The basic take-home message of the analysis as I see it is that it’s possible for Britain to feed itself even with these stringent assumptions about population, yield and energy. So barring major climate tipping points or socio-political meltdown (both of which are possible, of course), I don’t believe that our food supply problems are ones of basic ecological carrying capacity. This is consistent with various mainstream studies, though not with the narrative that only capital-intensive, hi-tech, output-maximizing agricultures are capable of feeding us. Other organisms, if they’re capable of such thought, might take the view that their food supply problems are one of basic ecological carrying capacity as a result of human encroachment, but that’s another issue that I address elsewhere in the book – and, in passing, below.

I chose the population figure of 83 million – around 17 million more than the present UK population – on the assumption that Britain will be a destination for climate refugees in the near future. I plan to write more on this topic soon, but for now I’ll just underline my previous observation: even with a considerably enlarged population, Britain can feed itself with low impact and low yield methods. At the enlarged population of 83 million, this would involve a land take of 0.4 acres per person, with some slack in the system but with more land than presently devoted to cropping rather than grass. It’s tight. It involves potatoes. But it’s doable.

In the course of my analysis in Chapter 11, I mentioned that the agriculture I was proposing would require something like 15% of the working-age population to work directly as farmers (and more to serve the farm workforce indirectly). This number got picked up by various readers and reviewers and – as generally seems to be the way with bold quantification – prompted a certain amount of comment.

I think 15% is defensible, but to some degree I plucked it from the air on the basis of various assumptions that could be questioned, so I certainly wouldn’t defend it to the hilt. Arguably, the true number might be more. Conceivably, it could be less – though I doubt it. But what are the implications? What’s in a number?

One implication, I think, is that my analysis is sociologically plausible in the grand scheme of things. If it had turned out that the ratio of workers to consumers was close to or greater than one, then I would have had to conclude it’s impossible to feed ourselves with low impact methods, but I don’t believe this to be the case. As I mention on p.161 of my book, the 15% figure would put Britain in the company of countries such as Tunisia, Mexico and Ukraine today. There’s no strict comparability between what’s happening in these countries now and the kind of future scenario I’m describing. I make the comparison really just to suggest that 15% is not some outlandishly implausible figure.

People often point to the low proportion of the British labour force employed in agriculture (around 1%, currently) as if it’s an impressive historical achievement, rather than a source of past and probably future pain. But it does need noting that the true labour force involved in producing the country’s food and fibre is much higher, because we export the responsibility to grow labour-intensive products abroad, or else import from abroad temporary labour in those sectors, and this isn’t captured in the 1% figure. If you throw in all the processing, logistics and retail jobs that exist in the present food system but probably wouldn’t in a more self-reliant small farm future, then the 15% figure might start looking quite run of the mill. Indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post, it’s likely we’ll soon be in a situation where a lot of people will be looking for work to feed themselves at a time when many of the employment sectors that people have come to rely upon in modern society to provide for their needs will be contracting. So a plausible response to my analysis in Chapter 11 might be – “Just 15%? Couldn’t it be more?” The good news is, yes it could.

If 15% of people worked as farmers, that means on average that around one in six adult workers you know would farm, and the majority of families would probably have a personal connection to agriculture. It’s interesting to speculate how that might affect the standing of agriculture in society. One suggestion that’s come my way is that its standing would remain low, and the 15% would be dominated by the other 85%. It’s certainly possible, but I’m not sure it’s a matter of the simple numbers. There have been many societies historically with much higher proportions of people working directly in farming where the social standing and political opportunities of the farmers are low. But an interesting aspect of the epoch of modernity – manifested especially in the politics of populism – has been the idea that as citizens, individuals or humans, we are all of equal standing. It will be interesting to see how that issue plays out in the turbulent politics that are upon us.

One criticism I’ve received concerning this analysis is that showing how Britain can feed itself – even with numbers swelled by climate migration – is all very well, but it doesn’t prove that we can feed ourselves with local low-impact methods worldwide. On page 153 of my book, I give some reasons why the British case may not be wildly unrepresentative of the global one, but the criticism is a reasonable one all the same. I took the view that it was hard enough – and the assumptions were heroic enough – even to do a Britain-wide analysis. Trying to do a worldwide one would have been a step too far.

But maybe I can call on some external help in this regard. Greg Reynolds recently jotted some thoughts here about farm productivity from his US experience, and it looks like Jan Steinman might have some Canadian data up his sleeve. The main spirit of Chapter 11 was not fundamentally about me showing that the world could feed itself sustainably but about inviting people to think about their localities or regions and address their food sustainability for themselves. So … if anybody would care to do that – in whatever way they deem appropriate – I’d be delighted for them to send me their results via the Contact Form. I can’t promise that I will publish them or necessarily do anything with them, but if some sufficiently interesting analyses come my way I will try to make something of it.

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, I’ve received some semi-aggressive feedback along the lines of “It’s absurd for you to think my locality could be food self-reliant. I live in a city/desert”. Aside from noting that interesting final conjunction of words, my first blush response to this has usually been something along the lines of “Well, I’m sorry to hear that but, er … that’s not fundamentally my problem”. Ultimately, though, it is my problem as much as it’s anyone’s, and this is why I built a margin for climate migrants into my modelling for Britain. To be blunt, if your own modelling suggests your present local population couldn’t easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present high numbers. If, on the other hand, your modelling suggests your present local population could easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present low numbers.

A final observation. I’m writing this post on a sunny late May evening in the first spell of dry weather we’ve had after three cold, wet weeks. For two days, all day long and well into the night I’ve heard the distant whine of tractors in neighbouring fields busy playing catchup making silage. When they’re done, I know what the fields will look like – shaved bare as a skinhead’s pate from boundary fence to boundary fence.

When I think about my own site, with its mix of woodland, rather underused grassland, its small extent of heavily cropped gardens, its houses and outbuildings, I’ve sometimes felt guilty that we’re not maxing out the productivity like our neighbours. On the other hand, when you step from those fields into ours, the first thing you notice at this time of year is the sudden birdsong and the buzz of insects. You notice the large number of people living, working or playing on the site. You might notice the large diversity of its products – in addition to the meat and wheat furnished in such quantity by the surrounding fields, there’s wood for building or burning, fruit and nuts, a proliferation of vegetables, and quite a bit of wild food too. We could, if necessary, ramp up the per acre food productivity a little, especially if we brought more people onto the site to live and work. And we could probably do it without compromising too much on the birds and insects. But I don’t feel too guilty because, as I said above, I think Britain can feed itself well with low impact, low energy and low yield methods. The main problems lie elsewhere.

45 thoughts on “What’s in a number?

  1. Given the current level of unemployment/underemployment in the UK and of course the number of people who are interested in working on the land, I dont think 15% of UK Population working in agriculture is unreasonable so long as we can get acceptable working conditions, which is clearly a major issue at the moment.

  2. So, I have a question. I live in Sweden. In the year 1900, there were about 5 million people here, and now we are 10 million. We have a low population density compared to Britain (though higher in the south). Around the year 1900, the farmed area was the largest it’s ever been, and people were farming also on some more marginal lands in the south (at least, I have read these things, but of course they may be wrong!). Many areas that are forested now in the south were used as fields/meadows/pastures back then, and also forest was being used for grazing livestock.

    But now we are twice as many. Given that by your calculations Britain could feed 83 million, I assume Sweden could feed at least 10 million with non-industrial farming! But how does that square with the area of farmland being so large in 1900? Is there really twice as much farmland available as was farmed in 1900, to provide for the doubled population? Or could we do it with less farmland per person?

    Maybe Gunnar Rundgren will see this and reply. : )

    • Without going back to find the relevant pages of SFF, if I remember correctly the significant variable that Chris is building these assumptions around is a much higher percentage of total calorific + nutritional intake coming from vegetables in this scenario over and against grains/ meat/ dairy, as in 1900s northern Europe.
      But your question is precisely the one that western societies need to be asking, and similar stats apply to other parts of the western world, not just Sweden. In the UK, grain imports and then importation of fruit, meat etc started to make a significant difference to the food landscape and dietary intake as early as the 1840s. So in a UK context, making a case that the country could feed itself has two centuries’ worth of history, experience and politics to contend with. Political will aside, a lot of this is going to come down to a) people’s attachment to familiar diets, b) people’s willingness to see the landscape change and c) the UK establishment’s willingness not to exploit other countries for food supplies.
      Sadly, I’m not holding my breath. But the case needs to be made – thanks for making it.

    • Here are some interesting (to me) statistics for Sweden in 1900:

      Even though 55% of the population made their livelihood from Agriculture and Fishing, and the annual production of cereal crops was 475 kg per inhabitant (about three times the figure for Great Britain at the time), Sweden was a net importer of agricultural products (in total).

      More money was spent on net imports of “unground corn” than any other type of agricultural product import. All categories of ag products, with the exceptions of “butter and margarin” and “live stock”, were net imports.

      During the later decades of the 19th century, there had been a transition to cattle rearing and dairy farming, which could be more lucrative than growing cereals. About half of the country’s annual cereal harvest was used to feed the livestock, in addition to the hay and the 400 million kg of potatoes and other root crops fed to the animals (about 60% of the value of the total annual agricultural produce of the land).

      Of the 338,416 farms, the average had 10 hectares of cultivated land, and 23% had less than 2 ha. Not included in the number of farms are the 167,452 “crofter’s allotments and other small holdings.”

      The total number of livestock (cattle equivalent) per 1,000 inhabitants was actually lower in 1900 than in the years 1571-1850. The total “reduced number of cattle” was counted by considering a sheep to be 1/10 of a head of cattle, a goat = 1/12, a pig = 1/4, a horse = 3/2, and young horse or young cow = 1/2.

      Year, “Reduced number of cattle” per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 1,189
      1805 — 833
      1900 — 688

      Horses per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 187
      1900 — 103

      Cows per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 467
      1900 — 344

      Sheep per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 622
      1900 — 246

      Goats per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 172
      1900 — 15

      Pigs per 1,000 inhabitants
      1571 — 300
      1900 — 157

      “Sweden, its people and its industry” 1904
      Tables 55, 60, 65, 75

      • I chip in a bit on the Swedish case below. I believe the 1950s shows a situation where Sweden still didn’t use a lot of fertilizers (but admittedly importen protein feed already) but was self sufficient in most food and probably a net exporter on an energy basis. By and large I believe politics and international market relations determines this much more than productive capacity.

  3. This post reminds me of one of my concerns with your calculation assumption in chapter eleven. You used the lowest organic crop yield figures for food production, but in my experience, organic production is still highly dependent on fossil fuel inputs, as well as the mechanization enabled by a healthy industrial economy. I wonder if yields wouldn’t be considerably less than your assumptions if this was taken in to account. Farm labor portion of the population would also most likely be larger than 15%.
    several interesting graphs and maps here, but the farm population % ( second chart) tells a story.
    Where might we fall on this graph with virtually no fossil inputs? Lots of variables and changed conditions, but 15% seems like a low bound. I actually think that’s a good thing. A fully realized small farm future would help provide a living for all the workers that will be left stranded as the current economic system unravels.

    One more comment- calculation of a human carrying capacity assumes that we would then rationally plan for a local population that matches said number. I think chaos will unfortunately rein, and Gaia will then step in and assign us our population.

  4. This is a trivial comment, compared with the high standard of everyone else here … but I v. much liked “sociologically plausible” – a phrase that I will be using myself as it catches something important.

    I also liked “semi-aggressive feedback”, which describes the basic currency of much online discussion.

  5. Considering that in the past, even with the help of fossil fuels, there was much higher percentage of the population than your 15% living in rural areas, I think you need to clarify your expected population distribution.

    Are the 15% of the population who are actually farming the only rural residents? If farm households are families (perhaps even multigenerational families) are all the people in the household considered farmers or just the folks working in the fields full time?

    I seriously doubt that 85% of a non-fossil-fueled population could avoid having anything to do with food production.

  6. Thanks for the comments. Given that the post was partly about not getting too hung up on headline numbers like my 15% figure … well, I’m not going to get too hung up on it!

    But there are many interesting points made above. I’ll address a few of them, quite briefly.

    To Elin and Carwyn’s points, indeed I suspect that part of it – as discussed here recently – is that with relatively scarce labour and abundant land, more extensive livestock-based options will be pursued, whereas with scarce land and abundant labour, an intensive horticulture approach commends itself, which can feed a lot of people per acre.

    Other considerations include the fact that crop yields are now quite a bit higher than they were in the past (three cheers for plant breeders – maybe Clem might care to weigh in on that…) and nutrient cycling options are potentially good. Another point is that so much of recent history over the last 1-200 years has been about amplifying global food network connectivity and flows, with local food producers being increasingly subordinated and sidelined by this process. But I think this is set to reverse in the future.

    To Steve’s point, my take would be that per acre productivities of a total diet are not necessarily higher with modern fossil fuelled agriculture, whether organic or ‘conventional’. Indeed, in some situations they’re demonstrably lower. Per worker productivities certainly are higher – but that’s not a variable to maximize in the scenario I’m envisaging. Otherwise, I generally agree with Steve’s points and qualms about how this might play out socially – we’ll be coming on to that in this blog cycle soon. Perhaps I’d just sound a note of caution about the generalizability of US historical labour figures. A territorially expanding settler-colonial country with a strongly export-oriented agricultural sector is a very different beast to the kind of society I’m describing. So, hopefully, is a premodern-style peasant society with a predatory aristocracy lacking in the moral economy we were recently discussing. The latter remains a possibility, but not a stable one.

    To the queries about the 15% figure itself, a note on what it encompasses and what it doesn’t. This is 15% of the working age population (16-65) working full-time and ‘professionally’ as farmers, growers or homesteaders. It doesn’t include backyard or allotment/community gardeners, volunteers, or the work done by children or family members who aren’t working full-time on the farm, and it doesn’t include foresters or fisherfolk. So the actual rural population would be a lot higher, especially when you include all the additional crafts and trades supporting farmers. I lay out the labour intensity assumptions on p.156 of the book (Table 11.1) – basically 2 workers per horticultural hectare, 1 worker per homestead hectare, 1 worker per 2-3 mixed farm hectares, 1 worker per 5 dairy hectares (all including leys & fallows). Possibly a bit tight. I don’t assume they have no machinery, but nor do I assume they have a lot of heavy fossil-fuelled kit. So I’m sympathetic to those who say that the 15% figure is on the low side. In some ways, plumping for a figure of this sort at all cuts against my larger arguments in terms of self-reliant, amateur production and the continuum between part-time and full-time food production.

    Good to hear Martin’s appreciation of my phraseology. To wrench it a bit further I think this labour input is sociologically plausible agriculturally, if you see what I mean, but whether it makes for a plausible vision of a society writ large is another question again, to which I will address myself in future posts. To those who say this isn’t a plausible picture of how our present crises will actually play out, I’d likely agree. Nevertheless, when we come to discussing how and why it might play out in any number of different scenarios I think my analysis is useful background information. If enough people really wanted it to play out as a set of relatively peaceable small farm futures, it could probably do so. It’s a big if. But my point is that it’s not an already foreclosed option. And I think this is quite important, because it requires us to explain rather than simply assume why it *wouldn’t* play out like this. I aim to say more about this a couple of posts down the line.

    • Other considerations include the fact that crop yields are now quite a bit higher than they were in the past (three cheers for plant breeders – maybe Clem might care to weigh in on that…)

      How does one ignore an invitation like that?

      Sorry for the recent quiet from this corner. It seems that to be considered a plant breeder one actually has to do some plant breeding from time to time. It is a very busy time of year here.

      I’m not a mathematician, but we plant breeders do spend a good deal of time measuring, and analyzing, and predicting, and measuring some more. Numbers come with the territory. So “what’s in a number?” is a pretty catchy thought.

      Yields have indeed increased very markedly over the years. Plant breeders can parse a bit of credit for this, but let’s not forget the contributions of other scientists (many as collaborators in the breeding effort), and also practitioners, engineers, and well… gulp – even some politicians. Yield increases have also come from industrial advantages like Haber-Bosch for N-fix (widely discussed here). Other industrial yield increases from chemical pest control technology deserve mention. Food technology contributes in the guise of transforming less desirable raw materials into tasty nutrients; this giving us a chance to raise more acres of the highest yielding crops and then process them into foods we prefer (and realizing a net increase in caloric yield per acre in the bargain). It is also worth noting there are animal breeders out and about – making increases in meat, milk, eggs, something to go along with better plant yields.

      The increases mentioned here come with tradeoffs of course, and some of the expense for some of the supporting tech is likely to change as we go forward (less fossil fuel for instance). Some of the supporting tech is not industrially dependent. Accumulated knowledge as an example. Our forebears were amazing folks, they faced challenge upon challenge and did so with a fraction of the knowledge we have today at our fingertips. Yes, they had fewer mouths to feed. And they also made their own marks on the landscape (some not so pretty). But they passed to their immediate offspring sufficient knowledge to keep our species in the mix.

      What is the future of domesticate breeding given we may well be in for a real small farm future? Not enough time or space right now. But I will offer that if you are young or know an ambitious youngster in need of a trade with certain future – learning the science and art of breeding our food domesticates is hard to beat.

      • On the topic of learning the science and art of plant breeding, and at the small farm scale, I would recommend Carol Deppe’s book “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties”. The subtitle is “The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving”.

        Carol works on developing open source / public domain open-pollinated vegetables (including beans). Her latest major project involves tomatoes and “crossing major genetics for late blight resistance as well as resistance to other major diseases into a large repertoire of heirloom varieties. My basic plan is to cross resistant hybrids to each of a couple dozen heirlooms, backcross once to the respective heirlooms, choose the offspring that carry an appropriate repertoire of late blight and other disease resistance genes, take those to the F2, OSSI-Pledge these lots as breeding material, then distribute that material far and wide for hundreds of gardeners and farmers and seed companies to use to select hundreds of new varieties of heirloom-quality open-pollinated OSSI-Pledged tomato varieties with late blight and other disease resistance combined with heirloom-quality flavor. I hope in this fashion that we can replace all the current heirlooms with equally delicious late blight resistant versions before the late blight situation gets so bad that our current heirlooms become ungrowable.”


        • I’m not sure where you are at with this but I have some Peron Sprayless seed that survived a run in with late blight. I would be happy to send you some if they would be useful.

          They are the product of a simple selection process – save the seed from the best looking plants at the end of the season.

          • Thanks Greg. While I’ve met Carol Deppe and given her scything instructions at her place, I don’t know the current status of her projects.

            I suggest you contact her at caroldeppe at gmail dot com.

  7. This is a pointer rather than data, but I understand the Amish population in North America has been expanding lately; Mennonite, too, though perhaps to a lesser degree. I don’t love everything about their way of life (or claim to know everything about their way of life!), but many of their farms will have lower fossil fuel inputs and it may be worth having a look at that data for a picture of what life could be like in a North American small farm future. It would be particularly interesting to look at whether such communities make use of off-farm labour during peak times.

    I suspect that Joe is right that it won’t be as clear-cut as 15%. I can envision a situation where, say, 85% of people have work that isn’t food production (but may well be fibre processing or medicine extraction or something else), but at harvest time for certain crops other work slows down while everyone helps with hay baling or getting the oats in or lifting potatoes or what have you. I think school holidays used to accommodate this, at least in Canada.

    I’ve applied for a second allotment plot; the waiting list now is very long so it may be years before I get it. But when I do my plan is to have some larger patches to rotate between grain, soup peas, squashes and maybe popcorn or sunflowers — all of which I can essentially plant, water in (or let the rain do it), and then mostly ignore to survive or not. If I do this, it will be at planting and harvest times that I need extra help from other members of my household.

    Of course, one advantage of horticulture is that you can stagger harvest times to a degree simply by diversifying crops. By this principle my own bramble fruit schedule goes tayberries, then black raspberries, then Japanese wineberries, then blackberries (though I tend to forage these, having not settled on a cultivar I like enough to give allotment space to), then autumn-fruiting raspberries. It’s true that I get less of each fruit than I would if I only grew one kind, but on the other hand I have berries all summer and, if the weather holds, into autumn; and I’m never completely overwhelmed by fruit (I did forage “too many” blackberries last summer when it was too hot to make jam but the wine is excellent).

    I think this diversifying principle probably also applies on larger farms, especially if there is a shortage of manual labour. The farm that has to get people in for tayberries (or whatever) early in the season could, with a bit of planning, keep those same workers for most of the summer and into autumn. The farm that only does blackberries has a much shorter season and may not be able to get enough workers in a year where there are either bumper crops or labour shortages due to some other factor (hi, Brexit).

    I can’t live on berries, though. I suspect that calorie crops, whether wheat or potatoes, necessitate seasonal increases in labour. The exception might be things like parsnips that can be left in the ground to freeze and harvested gradually over the winter.

  8. Perhaps what we need is to encourage people to move from urban centres to semi neural or rural areas to engage in farm work. The necessary factors would be providing housing/schooling/medical for them. An analysis of how poorer people who are struggling to feed their families in urban settings and could be encouraged to move to rural areas to provide the required labour might be interesting.

  9. What happened to Rural Resettlement Ireland?

    Might be a model worth looking at, ditto The Land Settlement Association.

  10. In 1920 about 30% of the US population lived on farms, indicating that the 15% number might be on the low side. Two people per hectare is about right. In that case (given you haven’t dropped a factor of 2 somewhere) the 15% seems about right. The devil is in the proverbial details but I still don’t want to dig up an acre by hand.

    At that time (1920) the entire US population as 106 million and fossil fueled mechanization was on the rise. We have since learned a lot about composting, cover cropping, variety selection, etc. At the same time all the small and mid scale food processing infrastructure has disappeared and all farming has become very dependent on fossil fuels.

    How much fossil fuel is assumed to be available ? The 70-85% of people not living on farms are going to want to eat. Farmland is farther away from the city center now. On this side of town nearly everything twenty miles out from the center of Minneapolis is completely filled in with houses, making deliveries, at best, an all day round trip with a horse.

    Transportation and refrigeration make food accessible and consume a lot of energy. Moving big loads with battery power is not a practical option. Less fuel available means a higher the percentage of people living on farms.


    • I agree entirely , living here in the marginal land of TX near all ” veggies ” are trucked in from CA and it’s getting to the time of year that cool climate veggies don’t grow , hell English peas wont grow at all , I love parsnips , forget it ! Anywhere much further West of DFW does not get enough rain for veggie gardening without irrigation untill you reach California so with out trucking cities like Abelene , San Angelo Midland Odesa are dead ducks .
      Much of the western world has built over their best land , where I used to live there is a industrial belt where we grew potatoes and sprouts , the rest of the farm is gravel, poor grade 3 land only good for grass .

  11. Obviously there are biological limits. But there is also a lot of slack to consider. I am currently busy making a carbon cycle mapping of the Swedish food system. The net primary productivity of the agriculture lands is around 20 million tons of carbon, the final consumption is less than 1 million tons….
    In the end the discussion of how food self sufficient a country is or was is no good measure of its potential. In the case of Sweden, as discussed above, it was mainly economic factors that determined the substantial imports of (American) wheat around 1900. Just some thirty-forty years earlier Sweden was a big net exporter of oats to England…..It was and is international competitiveness that determines how much is produced in a country. England itself is an obvious example.
    “England became a large net importer of food. Up until 1842 all its meat was from the British Isles (including Ireland), but by the end of the century 40% of all the United Kingdom’s meat was imported. As a result of the inflow of cheap grain from United States and wool from Australia and New Zealand, production of wheat, barley and wool dropped to more than half and more than 5 million hectares of plowed land became pastures, heath or forest. From being almost self-sufficient in food production in the early 19th century, by the onset of WWI Britain imported almost two thirds of its food and around four fifths of its bread grain” (quoting myself in Global Eating Disorder).

    Basically, if you export a lot you also have to import a lot, especially in times when currencies and investments were much more regulated than today.

    As Chris has pointed out, his proposal is a labor intensive horticultural system which clearly can produce more food than more extensive arable systems. I think history shows us that people can produce the food they need if they are given the right social and economic frameworks.

    • As Chris has pointed out, his proposal is a labor intensive horticultural system which clearly can produce more food than more extensive arable systems. I think history shows us that people can produce the food they need if they are given the right social and economic frameworks.

      Labor intensive is a complicated mix as well. There has to be sufficient increase in caloric yield to compensate for the additional calories to support the labor. I’m not suggesting there isn’t – but it doesn’t serve us well to imagine all labor intensive horticultural production per unit land is ‘better’ than an extensive production achieved with fewer calories expended. This holds true in calculations where animal labor is used to substitute for fossil fuel based machinery. And one might also consider the energy investment in preservation. Tomatoes don’t can themselves, and fresh tomatoes during the winter at high latitudes are difficult to justify. Perhaps a better metric to consider is net caloric yield.

      Ruben likes to point out that if an animal expends more energy to capture it’s food than the energy obtained… it isn’t long for this world. And I have to agree with him on that one 🙂

  12. The net primary productivity of the agriculture lands is around 20 million tons of carbon, the final consumption is less than 1 million tons

    Assuming that net primary productivity (NPP) has already reached an equilibrium (carbon is not accumulating), taking 5% of NPP doesn’t seem like much, but if the carbon and other nutrients removed are not replaced land productivity will rapidly decline.

    One of the biggest advantages of high-labor intensive horticulture is the ease with which nutrient cycling can be accomplished. We small farmers should paraphrase the Las Vegas motto, “What happens on the farm, stays on the farm”.

  13. 15% seems, in some ways, not enough, which makes it odd that it gets pushback. I imagine in a scenario that has us scrambling for a small farm future there will be surplus of people looking for work, of any kind. So, unless we want to get all Mr. Scrooge, we get to work.

  14. Thanks for the further comments. Much to agree with and nothing much to add…

    The 15% figure is prob too low, but as per above I’m not going to get too hung up on it. At one point I had a little section on how job sectors may change in the future. I don’t think I’m going to go there right now, but there’s definitely a case for a more joined up analysis of how the 15 – or whatever – % would relate to the 85%.

    Essentially, I think folks need to apply their minds to how to optimise low-energy input, local provision of food & fibre in situations where proportional labour force participation in agriculture is not a limiting factor, but labour conditions are. I think that would generate a small farm future grounded in locally appropriate cropping choices with a minimum necessary of hand dug acreages in many places, and in other places where such an outcome isn’t feasible out-migration to places where it is. So a small farm future all round.

    Making that future inclusive & congenial in the short-term is a big challenge – Monica has charted some of its outlines.

    • Looking forward ten years or so the government want to ban petrol burning cars , therefore the unemployed will easily fill the 15% , refinery ,tanker, gas station and garage mechanics will not be needed there must be at least two million there , electric cars need virtually no maintenance a,wash every now and again, a few tyres and perhaps the odd bulb , lots of skilled ,thinking , people who are not scared of getting their hands dirty .

      • Newer cars tend to come with LED lighting units, which unlike lightbulbs, cost much more to replace when they finally do go. Probably a job for a garage mechanic.

    • We are having an early season heat wave. Working hard in 90F is not a lot of fun. Labor conditions on a small farm can be rough in good weather.

      Just a thought – old tractors will run on almost anything.

      One bushel of corn will produce 2.8 US gallons of ethanol. which contains about 2/3 the energy of gasoline. Three gallons of ethanol is more than enough to plow up one acre. It takes 1/60th of an acre to produce a bushel of low input, low yielding OP corn.

      I would bet that more of that kind of math could make farm life a lot less labor intensive. At first blush, it looks more efficient than a horse.

  15. Thanks for the further comments. Just to say that the calls on my time off blog have ramped up a notch of late, so please forgive me if my responses to comments are even more exiguous than usual. But do please keep commenting – it’s what keeps this blog going, and I do read and think about every comment, even if I don’t always reply 🙂

    Just a couple of brief points to throw out there for now. Clem is clearly right that one can’t simply assume that increased labour intensity always equates to increased EROEI, but there’s a pretty strong empirical relation along those lines in many studies – not too surprising when you compare the energetics of few people feeding many from large farms versus many people feeding themselves from small farms. There’s also the question of where the additional labour is coming from. If people are producing more new people in order to help on the farm, then Clem’s point about the extra calories needed to support the labour might indeed weigh heavy in the denominator. Whereas if the extra labour is redeployed from other economic sectors … corporate law, let us say … then the equation is a happier one, albeit not necessarily for said lawyer.

    Regarding horses, there’s the new horses/new tractors issue mentioned by Joshua. And also various other biotic forces which potentially favour the horse – grazing, nutrient cycling, transport, co-products and so on. Again the speed/labour issues tend to favour the tractor in high energy, fossil fuelled societies. But that may change.

    • I am really hoping the technology to make bicycles (and keep them in running order) continues to exist. My understanding is that on a calorie basis they are more efficient at moving things and people than either horses or engines. One of my back-burner side projects is getting one of my bikes set up to be as low maintenance as possible: single speed, solid tyres, coaster brake. It will be a little less comfortable than my other bikes, but also nearly indestructible.

      Also wheelbarrows, for that matter. Though a simple bicycle isn’t a lot more complex than a wheelbarrow… if I had to choose only one for the allotment I think the wheelbarrow might win.

      Bicycles are a relatively recent invention; there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into how they can be used for small scale domestic or farm labour, because fossil fuels were already the Big Thing. As a non-driver with joint problems they are an absolute lifeline for me in terms of transport and expanding my notion of “local”. But pedal-powered clothes washing machines are pretty neat, and pedal-powered threshing machines have been built, and I think it’s worth at least considering those over fossil fuel machinery. Once you have a pedal-powered drive train you can probably run all sorts of things on it. Right now that’s the realm of hobbyists, and in many places bicycles are seen as a niche sideline even for transport.

      I wonder what other “sidelined” technologies exist that would improve the caloric efficiency (or just the pleasantness) of labour-intensive farming over what it has been.

      As for preserving — fermentation, salting and dehydration can be done without applying heat, though the latter may need some specialist equipment in a humid climate. Hot water bath canning does take more fuel (and the right jars, etc), and pressure canning safely more still, but then the contents last for years and can be eaten without cooking. In the US at least, there is a pretty big home kitchen pressure canning culture. In the UK I couldn’t buy a pressure canner at all (but eventually found a pressure cooker large enough to be safe to use; and it has a weight rather than a gauge, so doesn’t have to be checked yearly.) I will certainly miss my chest freezer, but I don’t see it as essential to my survival.

      • As Joe and others have pointed out, perhaps salvage will become increasingly important in the future.
        For simplicity’s sake, and to approach low-to-no maintenance for personal transport, years ago I assembled a fixed-wheel bike with a single front wheel ‘roller’ type hub brake. Eventually you do need to replace the chain (you can slow a fixed-wheel bike a little bike by resisting the forward motion of the pedals, but this also puts extra strain and wear on the chain links). The single 14?-tooth sprocket is next to wear out – a metalworker could feasibly make a replacement, but the internal thread would ideally require a tap and die set. After they’ve done that they could perhaps make a new 36?-toothed chainwheel.
        To simplify further, one could go without the chain and gear altogether – something resembling a Finnish kickbike, which is basically a kid’s scooter for adults who perhaps don’t mind appearing slightly eccentric. The efficacy of the design was brought home to me during a 1,200-kilometre bike ride open to all forms of human-powered transport (the four-yearly Paris-Brest-Paris audax). The event has a 90-hour time limit, and the only kickbike rider in the event successfully completed it.
        The kickbike uses two bicycle wheels (larger ones generally have lower rolling resistance), with a platform between them to stand on, a handlebar and a brake. The bearings that allow the wheels and handlebar to turn are perhaps the highest tech bits. I’ve often thought of making one out of wood or salvaged bike parts, but could only envisage a role for it on a farm if the farm was vast and I was in a hurry and the ground was smooth. Though I love riding my bike – it was my freedom tool du jour in London – I now have less time for it working on a small plot in a small village, and find myself increasingly eyeing up the donkey for future transport, once I’ve overcome my fear to train and castrate him (I jest in part).
        Interestingly, on the Wiki page for kickbikes, it mentions that the Amish occasionally use them “in preference to bicycles since bicycles involve gearing mechanics and can be seen as a source of vanity.”
        Here’s a kickbike.
        I too share the hope that bicycles, salvaged or otherwise, are with us long into the future, though learning how mend and make shoes might also be appropriate, or else become a kind of farming Zola Budd.

        • I like the simplicity of a scooter/kickbike, but I can’t imagine hitching a trailer to one and getting any distance at all uphill. If you can keep a bike maintained you can probably knock together a trailer (there are free plans online, the CarryFreedom one is pretty good I think, but honestly it’s not all that difficult to envision anyway). And there are people building bicycle frames out of bamboo, albeit with some pretty specialist adhesives involved.

          Larger wheels help a lot with comfort and rolling resistance on rough ground and I ride my bike on dirt paths a fair amount. The larger wheels aren’t as strong as smaller diameter wheels, though, and the dirt paths can be pretty impassable after heavy rain (but that applies to kickbike and wheelbarrow wheels too, and indeed donkey carts and foot traffic).

          Salvage is definitely already part of my approach to horticulture, I have a rather typical allotment with mismatched water tanks pulled out of skips used as giant planters, and shipping pallets used to construct compost bays. When I do buy tools I favour things that are maintainable — with replaceable wooden handles, for example.

          I suspect that within the context of a healthy local economy, salvage works better on a small scale than a large one, but I wouldn’t like to say for sure.

          • I’m sure you’ll work it out. Most folk where I live use a simple, cheap singlespeed bike and somewhere knocking about they’ll have a trailer that either they or someone they know welded up for them – kind of a rustic CarryFreedom. Very practical, and I wish I had one too at times. But even if some of these ideas never leave the drawing board, they certainly stimulate creativity in a way that simply shopping, and to a lesser extent, shoplifting, does not.

        • Ah, shoes… those could be an issue, yes. But humans have been wearing shoes for longer than we’ve been using fossil fuels, so I’m less worried about them simply ceasing to exist. And we’ve given ourselves a huge supply of old car tyres to cut up for use as soles 🙁

      • I read somewhere that the most ( efficient ) wheelbarows is the Chinese type with a huge central wheel and” panniers / shelves ? ” .

  16. If you have a stroll around YT you can find lots of holiday / phone type video of poor country farmers working using technology from circa 1910 , ancient huge single cylinder engines running on who knows what driving thrashing machines , grain grinders , chaff cutters, water pumps and some I don’t recognize , one even had a generator , and that engine is driving many (2/3 ) machines at the same time, through shafts and belting that would cause OSHA to have a heart attack , no waisted fuel ! , machinery over a century old still in daily use looked after with care .

  17. Thanks for these discussions on low input farm efficiency – very informative. Y’all make me feel a bit of a fraud by being so far ahead of me in your various efforts towards self-reliance despite my small farm future shtick – as you’ll see from my next post.

    A question I perennially struggle with is how much time to spend trying to live a small farm future and how much time to spend trying to write about it.

    There are also interesting questions about where to focus one’s ‘prepping’ efforts in relation to assumed future system changes…

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