Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

Nearly twenty years ago, we planted seven acres of woodland on our holding with help from a government grant that stipulated the trees must be native woodland varieties. Among the ones we chose were crab apples, which we planted along the rides and woodland edges because of their growth habit, sourcing the saplings from a nursery specializing in native woodland trees.

As the trees developed, it became clear they weren’t just ordinary crabs – I guess they’d crossed with cultivated varieties to produce large, juicy, dessert-apple type fruits. The fruits were still pretty unappealing to the human palate but not so, I discovered, to the porcine one. Over the years, our pigs have been happy to chow down on them without limit. In the last month or two of their lives, the two pigs I raised this year ate little else.

But since the apple trees are spread around the holding along the rides and it’s not really practicable to let the pigs range at large, this bounty involves us picking or collecting most of the apples for them. Recently, I’ve been going out at least a couple of times every day with a large trug, filling it with the not-quite-crabs, and taking it to the pig enclosure. After a while, a distinctive apple browse line developed on the trees at my 5’10” plus an arm length height. From then on, I contrived various tricks – jumping for apples, shaking them off the high boughs or pulling the branches down with my shepherd’s crook. When my son and his girlfriend visited, she sat on his shoulders and threw apples down from on high, one at a time into the trug.

The pigs went to slaughter this week, and I’m already missing my daily apple-wrangling walks, zinging arms from the nettled brush around the trees included. As rather occasional meat-eaters, the two pigs should keep my wife and I ticking over with chops and sausages for quite some time. As I mentioned in A Small Farm Future (pp.190-1), I think the relatively free-ranging woodland lifestyle of my pigs along with their mixed diet of mostly fresh wholefoods like the crab apples gives their meat a quality you’re unlikely to find in any store-bought pork. But if I were raising pigs commercially and trying to earn a living wage, you can be sure there wouldn’t be much jumping for crab apples in my business model.

There are four wider points I want to draw out from all this.

First, within every human ecology – including every farm – there is almost always some extra bounty available that can increase the flow of food or fibre, but it will probably require additional inputs, often human labour. True, we might have saved ourselves work had we planted the crabs in the pig enclosure from the outset, although we couldn’t have known in advance how bountiful they would prove, and they do other work where they’re sited. Plus, there’s other forage for the pigs in their enclosure – with pigs, the fodder footprint invariably exceeds the fencing one.

Someone cleverer than me might be able to calculate an energy return on investment figure or a kind of counterfactual trophic analysis. If we left the apples, let the birds, rodents, insects or microbes eat them, and fed the pigs on something else, how might the balance of labour input and food output on the farm look then? In the absence of such data, I’d suggest that given the excrement from the pigs who eat the apples and from the people who eat the pigs stays on the farm, and given the improvement in the mental and physical health of the farmer and his family gained from their apple walks, it’s a fair bet that collecting up the crabs brings a positive return. So, whatever the ins and outs of our crab apple story, I think the broader point remains. There is bounty on the farm, but you have to work for it. Those who espouse ‘land sparing’ or ‘intensive’ agriculture will hopefully agree that the labour intensification on my farm enabling me to substitute apples for fodder grown on cropland elsewhere is a good illustration of their point.

But – and this is my second point – while it’s feasible to wander around a smallholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two pigs, it probably isn’t feasible to wander around a largeholding with a trug looking for apples to feed two hundred or two thousand pigs. So there are diseconomies of large scale to the ecological efficiency of the farm’s unbidden bounty.

Still – third point – this kind of ecological efficiency or land-sparing intensification is costly in terms of human labour time, and we seem deeply opposed to labour intensification in modern life, particularly when it relates to farming. Almost uniquely among the sectors of the labour market, in modern times we celebrate when jobs are lost from agriculture, not gained.

The main reason for this is that it’s easier to generate a larger hourly wage in other sectors, and nowadays we tell ourselves a story that a larger wage equates to larger happiness. No doubt there’s some truth in that, although as the fossil-fuelled growth engines of the global industrial economy palpably begin to splutter, it seems destined to be less true of the immediate future than it’s been of the immediate past. But besides all that, it is to a large degree just a story that we tell ourselves. I’m all in favour of the occasional, quietly contemplative, hands-in-pockets country walk but, well, walking the known routes of my farm, trug in hand, to collect apples to feed the pigs to feed me is ultimately more meaningful, and more fun.

Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one. Well, I concede that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But plenty of people already see through these myths, and their numbers are only likely to grow as it dawns quite how unappealing the alternative brews on offer increasingly are. How people choose to live and what they value are not fixed on tablets of stone, but respond to the circumstances they experience and the stories they’re told. Both are changing.

Walking around a holding with a trug choosing the right crab apples to deliver to the pigs can be spiritually rewarding, but it’s not especially taxing intellectually or physically. Even so, it’s a task that’s currently beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated of robots. But consider this thought experiment. Suppose a renewably-powered robot is invented that can achieve this task as precisely as you, at a price that you can afford by selling a few joints of pork or other smallholding products. This seems to me an unlikely happenstance, but just suppose. What would you then do? Possibly, you could tend the robot that tended you, but it’s unlikely. With a bit of instruction, most of us can learn how to keep a basic heat engine of the kind you find in an old tractor more or less ticking along, but the engineering involved in such a robot would be quite beyond us.

With this robot, I think we would have created a simulacrum of ourselves that would steal meaning from our lives, while possessing none of its own. And we would mooch around our smallholdings, hands in pockets, envying our busy robots. Or more likely mooch around our urban parks, wondering at the meaning of life and whether this is really all there is.

Or we could forget about labour-saving robots and just go out and pick some freaking apples. Then in our spare time, we could do things like writing blog posts enthusing about the job-creating possibilities of the smallholding life. Or pamphlets anyway.

But, and here I come to my fourth and final point, this latter possibility comes with a necessary precondition. We can only realistically do this if we can exercise substantially autonomous choice over our livelihood-generating and self-provisioning strategies. We can’t do it if we’re under external pressure to raise our output levels and lower our input costs. In other words, we probably can’t do it if we’re under consistent pressure from market or state forces to improve our economic ‘efficiency’ – and, by that token, probably diminish our ecological efficiency. Which is to say that we probably can’t do it unless we have strong proprietorial rights over our smallholdings.

And this brings us to the question of tenure and property rights, which I will be examining in my next few posts.

64 thoughts on “Pig apples: or, why small farmsteads are efficient and effective

  1. Taking advantage of the “surplus” on our farm has always been a challenge. One that has been framed by the larger economy where we find it “more convenient” to purchase feed inputs than to engage in the extra labor. We always tell ourselves, that if push came to shove, then we could do much better out of necessity. And that is true, for us as for you, working in that smaller framework of a small and diverse farm. Like you, we are limited to being able to bring the livestock to an additional food source. On occasion I’ve raked up a tub or two of acorns for the pigs. But I could do much much more….

  2. Regarding the last point, I’ve been reading Henry George in depth in response to some debates with a friend. Have you ever read him? A central thesis is that true land ownership is impossible because land is a gift of Nature/God, not created capital, and that the community also has a prior right to the value of the land, because the value can be increased by adjacent population density and infrastructure improvements (roads, bridges, etc) to which the land owner need not contribute. Unrelated to George, I’ve also encountered a lot of ecology arguments that dispute private property in land because they associate with enclosure and the “right” to over-exploit an environmental system which is common.

    My counter to George is mainly that he’s right about the dynamics of land value in urban cores, and his land value tax could be applied in cities, but that the same dynamics aren’t as problematic in rural villages. Historically, as I understand, there was little to no “land market” among peasants because of inalienable familial rights to land which no one desired to sell. Regarding the environmentalist argument, I think that one can agree that peasant farmers shouldn’t have “abusus” (the right to destroy) in their bundle of rights, but that the state/community still shouldn’t have an underlying right to their property: namely because I would trust an inter-generational family who depends on the land for survival, more than the present political authority, to care for the long-term ecology health of the land. And of course, placing certain resources in the commons plays an important role alongside private property.

    One interesting question, which I hope you’ll comment on, is whether peasants—as we move towards a stable Distributist future—should have the full right to buy/sell/gift land. If so, how does this avoid the pitfalls of a free market in land, where foreign/urban capital can disrupt communities and concentrate wealth. If not, is the only alternative to have generational semi-feudal familial bonds to land? (i.e. being more or less bound to one’s parcel of land but without being ruled by a feudal lord.) What would this mean for climate refugees wandering in to “stable” proprietor-peasant communities?

    • Henry George was mentioned by Chris in these earlier posts, and maybe more:

      A taboo and a talisman
      How capitalism started, and why it still matters
      Complicating the commons
      Turkeys do vote for Christmas

      • Good catch. I’d love to see a more extended treatment. Chris’s worry that “weak support for farming coupled with an over-enthusiasm for land value tax could easily nail British farming to the wall” (May 13, 2015) is definitely connected to my suspicion of those who oppose true land ownership from Georgist or deep ecologist arguments that it is philosophically or morally impossible to fully own land. That line of reasoning, while coming from well-intentioned concern about the housing or ecological crises, could easily undermine the legal/philosophical basis for a small farm.

        • Hi Sean:
          Like many others here I’m anxiously looking forward to the coming round of posts on land issues. We’ve walked some of this earlier (as noted), and I believe there are plenty of angles we can fruitfully embrace.

          You wrote the phrase: “to fully own land”… and I’m curious to see exactly how you envision a contemporary human “fully” owning a piece of the Earth. I’m for property rights, and I’m usually opposed to government ‘takings’ when it comes to property – but I can satisfy myself that there may sometimes be good reason to protect a greater good by limiting an individual’s (or small group’s) absolute authority over a plot of land (or water).

          For me then, property ownership takes on a sort of continuum from none to full. Zoning, restrictive covenants, mineral rights, etc. – how these and other issues affect land use and protect a future for ourselves and our children – these I’m looking forward to discussing more here.

          • That’s a great question. I’d say that, as a Catholic, I don’t think anyone can /absolutely/ own /anything/, because there is always divine and natural law which may make demands on property (for example, if a starving beggar asks you for bread you made, you owe him the bread because his life is more important; this could also apply to prohibiting extreme pollution, as I said above, no one should have the right to “abusus”, ie destruction, of land in particular). Here’s a brief essay on the topic: https://tradistae.com/2021/05/18/private-property/

            But, that said, I think /full /ownership is still very possible, and by that I mean that the property is non-alien able by the state/community. This is mainly important in the case of generational/family land which can serve as a stable basis for peasant proprietorship.

          • Thanks for that link. Concise.

            I think many of the points made there fit well with the overall directions considered here at SFF.

          • Thanks for the link Sean. I’ve also come to the notion of inalienable private property rights undergirded by community interest from a secular direction as critical for a small farm future – but more on this soon.

  3. Great post.

    By coincidence I participated in a panel chaired by Tim Lang the other day, and he challenged me on “efficiency”. I find it very unfortunate that also the environmentalist have adopted the view that efficiency is something desirable per se. Of course, the word can be used in many different ways and mean different things to different people. But by and large I believe the kind of efficiency stimulated by market competition often leads us in astray. The pandemic has also demonstrated that efficient often means the opposite to resilient. It is also very strange in a world where the number of people is ever increasing and natural resources are depleted that we are still obsessed with labour efficiency/productivity which is upheld by use of those dwindling resources.

    • we are still obsessed with labour efficiency/productivity which is upheld by use of those dwindling resources.

      So true

  4. Beautiful, Chris. This is a lovely example of why my wife and I talk about the Small and Delicious Life—picking apples for the pigs is a deeply hedonistic act, one that brings immeasurably more pleasure than running on the hamster wheel of urban glamour.

    “Modern society has built a vast cultural edifice of anti pastoral, anti ‘romantic’, pro urbanist myth-making to negate the idea that the rural smallholding life is a meaningful one.”

    Shots were fired recently, when Charles Hall, the old silverback of studying energy return on energy invested, wrote that maybe cities are not so green after all.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-myth-of-the-sustainable-city/?fbclid=IwAR25P0YRNx-RCwDdRKs6s2nC54QFr9-oB9ROsvzihB_lMxKk2VhHejX4Hh8

  5. With a dodgy back and limited time I’ve really, really appreciated the scrumping stick (a fruit picking pole) I purchased this summer. It changed my usual “I’ll pick a few of those Mirabelle plums and perhaps some apples from various local trees, if the ones I can reach are still there, and we’ll have some crumble or jam” to a substantial harvest of plums (various), quinces, apples and pears. We’ll be in jam and wine for a good while, there is still more fruit in the freezer (yes I know, but in the event of an extended power cut I can do a bunch more canning, outside on a fire if necessary), and after a pretty bad year for tomatoes I’m glad of it.

    Is there anything stopping you taking some cuttings from your apple trees and growing them on, eventually planting them out in such a way that they overhang the pigs’ enclosure?

    These strike me as two ways to reduce your labour input without necessarily needing to scale up the number of pigs you keep; a different sort of efficiency. The scrumping stick makes lighter work of harvesting from high branches, though you still do have to physically visit the trees and carry the apples around. Taking cuttings from your trees now will provide a cushion should the existing trees suffer damage or senescence. (I don’t know how long a semi-sweet crab apple tree survives, but I know they do eventually get old.)

    I’m sure you don’t need my practical advice on apple tree matters; my point is more that it is often possible to reduce our labour inputs without resorting to the robot automaton scenario or even to fossil fuels. On a philosophical level, while I enjoy and find some meaning in physical labour, I don’t believe it’s necessary to make things harder in order to reap these benefits. I will use a trowel rather than a pointy stick, because planting out seedlings isn’t morally better if I do it the hard way. I do use a broom handle instead of a dibber, because the less time I spend bent over the happier my back is.

    I wonder how much of the anti-pastoral myth-making rests on the assumption that using a trowel (or a dibber or a broom handle or a scrumping stick) is something conceptually equivalent to rooting around in the dirt with sticks. Is it really anti-pastoral, or is it simply inaccurate, a situation where a pastoral life is painted as much more primitive than it actually is? Or is it more that people who aren’t involved in growing some of their own food and aren’t thinking about fossil fuel use don’t differentiate much between my broom handle and my allotment plot neighbour’s petrol roto-tiller or the large car they drive around London in? All of these are, after all, labour-saving devices.

    I think if I had to draw a line in the sand, I’d say I am in favour of tools that increase my labour efficiency when they allow me to be more autonomous and locally-oriented than I otherwise would be able to manage, and don’t commit me to ongoing running costs. I don’t have space for many fruit trees in my (rented) back garden, and the ones on the allotment are not yet well-established, so foraging from parks and a semi-abandoned former community orchard near the allotment is the most autonomous way for me to get top fruit — but the scrumping stick is what makes this anywhere near viable. If/when the scrumping stick breaks I may well build another, because having used a factory-made one I am convinced of the benefits. I’m also willing to accept a certain amount of external interdependency in something like a bicycle or greenhouse, where spare parts will probably be needed down the line (and I can get some spare parts in advance) and the benefits are substantial; but I won’t make myself dependent on personally running a combustion engine for moving myself around day-to-day or for tilling the soil. And that same refusal to be dependent on fossil fuels for personal transport makes it much harder for me to get out of the city, at least for now.

    • A long thin wand from a hazlenut tree, or similar, topped with a (could be homemade) ‘long-sock’ apple picking ‘claw’, definitely does bring more fruit within reach (and can really pump those deltoids!).

      • Yes, it wouldn’t have been impossible for me to make my own. Next time, maybe. Though with the exception of the sock (which is pretty flimsy but will be trivial for me to replace with a sturdier version from fabric/yarn I already have), this one should last a good while, if this summer’s experience is anything to go on.

    • Thinking about it, in addition to wanting my tools to extend rather than compromise my autonomy, I also want any resulting increased production to do the same.

      I don’t sell my jams and wines, but if I did, the very worst thing I could do would be to get into a position where I had orders to fulfil but hadn’t picked the fruit yet.

      This means any tools I acquire need to be bought without going into debt or otherwise putting myself in a position where I have contractual production obligations that must be met (rather than the priorities of subsistence, the wellbeing of my community, and good stewardship of the earth.)

      So: I habitually ride a bicycle to the allotment, but I *could* walk if I had to, and I don’t want to get myself into a position where I have to cycle in order to meet other demands. I’d have to adapt some of my practice, sure, and probably give up some other activities, but if I couldn’t cycle there I would still be able to grow food. (This is a silly example because I’m not allowed to sell allotment produce anyway — but the same principle would apply if I had access to other land for horticulture.) I have the scrumping stick, but if I didn’t have it, I would spend more time and effort on producing and preserving food, but it would also be different food: less fruit would necessitate more prioritisation of leafy greens for vitamin C; less *preserved* fruit would mean more prioritisation of seeds and legumes for sprouting on the kitchen windowsill in winter, or foraging different fruits like rosehips, for similar reasons (yes I know vitamin C isn’t all that heat stable, but there is at least some in things like rosehip syrup). So the bicycle and the scrumping stick are good tools in my current context because they enable me to have a higher (or tastier) “return” on my labour, but *also* because I didn’t have to commit Future Me to doing a certain amount of labour (or producing a certain amount of value for someone else) in order to acquire them.

      In mainstream investing advice there is often a principle of “pay yourself first” — put money into savings (or debt reduction) first, then figure out how to meet your ongoing needs from what’s left. I think an important component of the SFF vision that Chris describes in this post about pigs and apples is a sort of corollary to that, perhaps “feed yourself first” would be the best way to describe it. Sort out your own provisioning of food, fuel and fibre as much as you can with your own resources and within your own community, before you market your produce (or your labour) to others for money. What “as much as you can” means will vary depending on your skills, access to land, and other circumstances, of course. I wonder whether an 80%/20% split would be a good thing to aim for, though really I’m just pulling those numbers out of the air.

      I don’t grow everything we eat — perhaps even with the allotment I’m closer to growing 20% of our nutritional needs — but to me it seems obvious that growing food to sell to other people and then using the money to buy food is inefficient, as well as not all that resilient. But this is very often what happens when someone has 200 or 2000 pigs; and they probably have contracts to meet, as well, and they may well have borrowed money against the future value of the pigs in order to buy the piglets or the feed or the enclosures or whatever else. At that point a scrumping stick isn’t going to help that much (even if they have enough apples on their property), they’d need to pay some labourers, but now they have another set of contractual obligations… what a mess, and what a lot of waste when those pigs are culled instead.

    • I don’t know how long your rows are but if you don’t have a Sneeboer push hoe you are in for a treat. I can cover a 1/4 acre in 45 minutes in good conditions. Not cheap but ours have lasted 20+ years.
      Greg

  6. You paint a wonderful picture here, Chris – some people would give their right arm to throw a crab apple into a trug!
    Thanks for the blog link, Michael – a really interesting resource.

  7. I was out with my three sons yesterday.

    Firstborn (19, fit 6ft 3) gave last born (11, small) a piggy back but he could only manage a few minutes so respect to your son who had an adult woman on his back

  8. “why small farmsteads are efficient”

    Looking at “efficiency” in a similar way, the wonderful children’s book “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg” is based on something Henry Thoreau wrote about being able to walk to Fitchburg in less time than it would take him to earn enough wages to buy a train ticket.

    In the children’s book, Henry and his friend have a race to Fitchburg, with Henry setting off on foot while his friend goes to work for part of the day. As I recall, Henry had a lovely walk enjoying the natural beauty and wonders, while his friend toiled for hours before hurrying to the train station.

    In a modern setting, Henry’s friend might need to work some more to pay for a gym membership, and work even more to pay for occasional holiday escapes where he could reconnect with nature.

  9. Thanks as ever for an interesting set of comments. A few quick responses.

    Regarding the notion that the Hog Tree idea is a more efficient way of doing things, I think this somewhat misses the larger point. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular example I discussed, the point is that there are invariably unexploited margins on a farm that can be put to service, but with an input trade-off usually amounting to additional human labour that the farmer may or may not wish to deploy – but deploying it may suit her or him for reasons that go beyond market valuation of labour. I doubt a farm exists anywhere where every possible margin is fully employed at minimal labour input and without other trade-offs.

    Like Brian, I do have some scepticism about the Hog Tree idea – for one thing, as I said above, I think the fodder footprint of pigs always exceeds the fencing footprint. Or as Brian puts it, pigs eat everything and destroy even more. So even if it works as planned, an external apple margin of the kind I discussed could be welcome. There are various reasons why it might not work as planned, but for sure there’s a lot to be said for experimenting with animal self-forage systems. Sheep or beef cattle are the tried and tested ones in that respect…

    To Kathryn’s points, yes much to agree with concerning tools and efficiency. I do have some apple trees and grafts coming along in the pig enclosure that I established a year or two ago as part of my own pig forage experiment (and there’s plenty of other stuff in there for them too). But these apple trees aren’t producing anything yet, and in the meantime the crab apples elsewhere on the farm are prolific. There’s a slight difference between picking crabs for pigs and picking dessert apples for people, but I agree with your general points.

    Thanks to Sean for a series of well posed questions on landownership and Georgist taxation – and thanks also to Steve for curating my own blog far better than I could! I prefer to hold fire on answering Sean’s questions until I’ve worked my way through landownership issues in the next few blog posts. It should be easier to address them in the light of that upcoming material. But feel free to come back to them if you think I’ve failed to address them adequately, because these are crucial questions.

    Agree with Gunnar (and Steve) regarding the siren song of ‘efficiency’, which is never a goal in itself, only an incidental goal once an end is defined. If the end includes ‘enjoying a walk around my farm to pick apples and feed them to my pigs’, assessing efficiency gets difficult!

    Thanks Ruben for the Charles Hall link. Could you say more about the shots that were fired?

    To John’s point, well she wasn’t on his shoulders for all that long but a life of fishing, farming and mountaineering has made him a hardy lad!

  10. Your Apfelnehmenspazieren (couldn’t resist using a word from my high school German in context, probably for the first time in my life) points out an important aspect of the effort to maximize use of “unexploited margins”. Because any smallholding has numerous tasks that can be performed by the very young or the very old, a multi-generational household can take advantage of assets that might be a waste of time when pursued by adults, but can use the labor of young children or the elderly to good effect.

    I grew up in a city and only experienced farm life when visiting my grandparent’s farm during summer vacation from school, so the first time I saw people of every age directly and materially contributing to the household economy was when I was in the Peace Corps in the early 1970’s.

    I lived in a small village on a tropical atoll. The day began with young children, mostly girls, collecting all the leaves that had fallen on the coral gravel yards surrounding village houses to keep the yard clean. Young boys would climb coconut trees to collect drinking coconuts and coconut flower sap. Care of babies could be assigned to anyone older than four. Old men and women would work on fabricating mats or cordage. Entire families would collect and process coconuts for making copra. There was plenty of leisure time, but needed work was distributed to everyone of every age except babies.

    Picking apples to feed to pigs is an example of a task that could easily be done by seven or eight year olds, freeing up time for adults such as yourself to do the heavy work that only adults can do well. This is the essence of small farm efficiency. Chores and farm work are performed by those who are just capable of doing them.

    This also means that people who start doing farm chores as young children, and then progress through tasks of gradually increasing levels of effort and complexity as they grow older, end up knowing how to do just about everything by the time they are grandparents. Grandparents become the expert reference encyclopedia of farming knowledge for succeeding generations. It’s very efficient to have an expert on site and on call around the clock.

    • Great memories Joe.

      And I think this division of labor is well worth considering further in the larger sense of a convivial community.

      I did have the advantage of growing up on a farm, and like Joe we had varying chores as children growing up. Working with cattle waited until one was physically larger and ready for the responsibility. But picking vegetables began as early as one might discern ripe/ready from not yet ready.

      Further out from the immediate family connection would be the neighborhood cooperation around haymaking, butchering, maple syrup steaming and so forth. A classmate from a neighboring farm would come to ours (or I would go to theirs) when an extra set of hands made bailing move more quickly.

      We didn’t have Grandparents close to hand where I grew up, but many of my cousins lived ‘down the road’ from Grandpa and could expect him to help with peach harvest or share the wisdom of how to skin a calf without cutting one’s own limbs.

      In these particulars the notion of generational wealth takes on a whole other meaning. And as such a meaning that $ can’t touch.

        • It’s not for everyone. But if not producing one’s own food, then some other pursuit is necessary. And as there are so many other pursuits, folks who don’t wish to farm have plenty of options. If many of the alternate options available rely too heavily on means of production likely to be curtailed in the future then farming may end up on more peoples plates.

    • Even as a city kid I remember being sent out to pick peas, carrots and raspberries in my grandparents’ back garden, picking crab apples in my father’s back yard, and foraging for Saskatoon berries in early summer at my uncle’s cottage. I loved it. (And the only time I can remember my grandfather ever being really cross with me was the time I pulled up 27 “little onions” — actually sets he’d only planted out a few weeks before… oops.) I’m sure this is part of why I was always keen to do at least some gardening, even if moving every couple of years didn’t make it easy to get very far; it’s certainly part of why I was confident to take up more widespread foraging in adulthood.

      I don’t claim to have anything like the knowledge and skill now that those same grandparents had when they were young adults, of course, and I’m certainly not a “young adult” at this stage. I will probably never catch up. But it has taken me until the last few years to realise just how unusual my own experience — occasional berry picking and back garden vegetable growing in childhood — actually is. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that potatoes grow under the ground, that carrots are feathery on top, that raw peas are delicious. It’s not a lot of exposure, not a lot of knowledge, but I think I must have picked up at least a bit of the mindset too: a patch of green has never just been “plants” to me, and even if I don’t know the names or uses of any of the plants I very soon begin to recognise them. I’m grateful for that, even if it’s not much.

      My spouse, on the other hand, despite having a parent who grew up on a farm, didn’t have that kind of casual childhood involvement in growing things: he is basically learning from scratch at the allotment, and only started doing any foraging after he met me. The gap in knowledge and skills is quite something.

    • Yes, good points – and another measure of the mountain we have to climb in repurposing some of our contemporary ideas about education and childhood. Also interesting point from Kathryn about the individual variations involved.

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  12. Good timing on this piece too, Chris. Last week’s Farming Today, ‘pig week’, looked at the various problems on bigger UK pig farms (Robert Wyatt’s track ‘Pigs’ paints the picture here) – shortage of butchers, pigs having to be culled on farms, fewer small abbatoirs etc. No good news, unfortunately. And this week, ‘apple week’, seems almost like a re-run – shortage of harvesters, apples having to be culled on farms… you get the picture. Cheers for bucking the zeitgeist.

    • Just wondering where stuff is going to come from , nowhere on the planet is operating at anything like capacity , store shelves have limited quantities world wide , imports to the UK are going to be squeezed , there’s a shortage of wine bottles round here , and a shortage of plastic gallon cans to put oil in . everything is being affected ,western governments idea that if you throw enough money at things it will miraculously appear is a recipe for starvation .
      I am informed that in smaller town’s closer to the border the small grocery stores will only sell to people that live in that county , border crossers are refused service , their deliveries are sporadic and only half what they order , another month like the last one they will close .

      • Good question. It seems ‘a shortage of’ has become the new collective noun for many things food and farming related at the moment.
        Good job it’s autumn, with an, er, ‘an ample sufficiency’ of windfallen fruit.

  13. I haven’t read all the comments yet so maybe you have responded to these remarks. If so, please ignore them. November is coming and we have had a long warm fall. It has been an incredible amount of work but it has also been very good for farm income.

    Rides = field roads ?

    Point 1) If you feel good about feeding the pigs apples, it is worth it. Not everything has a dollar, err, sorry, pound value associated with it. Part of living on a farm is dragging your aching back out of bed, in the dark, and watching the most beautiful sunrise you have every seen light up your fields. If the pigs taste great, that’s a plus.

    Point 2) Factory farmed pork smells like ammonia, not to mention that it is dry and tasteless. Is our food system so dysfunctional that we have to eat those poor animals ? They have never seen the light of day or felt the sun on their backs. It is a sin to keep animals that way and worse to eat them.

    Point 3) Grrr. Reducing labor on farms is okay when you want to produce the most bushels of yellow stuff but when it comes to food it is huge mistake.

    I would be happy to supply references – our carrots are sweeter than anything else out there. The California Tent Pegs sold as carrots are not even recognizable as the same vegetable. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, arugula, good lord, winter squash, are all noticeably better to our customers and their customers than anything shipped in. Bar None. It is a lot of work.

    Are we so desperate that we have to eat food that is spiritually, culturally and flavorfully dead ? I don’t think so but if we are, there is something massively wrong with our economy. More eyeballs per acre is a good thing.

    Robots ?! Hahaha. No.

    Urbanism is making a virtue out of necessity, at best. Remember, most of those people can’t feed themselves.

    Point 4) Tune in, Turn on, Drop out has been an idea around since the 60s. The words may not mean exactly the same as when Timothy Leary said them but the idea is still radical. Step off the treadmill. None of the productivity gains of American agriculture have stayed with the farmer. Farmers have worked themselves to death for short pay, for nothing (okay, that is a good reason to get off the farm). American Farmers aren’t feeding the world, they are feeding the rich world’s livestock. And going broke. Farming the government is not a joke.

    The food system is very broken. Broken beyond fixing. But it is very efficient. And you get to eat pork that was never a pig…

    • I live close to a transloading company emptying rail cars delivering to daries / feed lots , ( I use their product ) nothing they move is fit for human consumption , gluten meal is the top mover , followed by corn hulls , beet pulp , distillers grains ( ethanol byproduct ) , cotton seed ,the only whole grains they get have been rejected by the human food processor , they need grinding , most farmers don’t have the equipment to do that , none of it is any good for humans ya have to be a ruminant . Water is also a supposed problem well yes cattle drink they also piss the claimed water loss / waste to animals is a spurious argument by office bound morons that don’t understand and do not want to understand , the majority of animals world wide drink from rivers / ponds your basic stores rain water not city water supplies . The anti meat brigade don’t know what they are talking about .
      https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/john-deere-strike-and-supply-chain-woes-has-farmers-worried-rcna3207
      Considering most of the world’s bulk food comes from big ag ( I don’t like big ag ) a sudden change in methods is bound to cause problems / shortages / price rises this kind of reset can’t happen overnight , small farms can do it , but only if it is introduced slowly , breaking up large farms will end up with most of it standing fallow .

      • And just as an add most of what we feed cattle today was sent to the dump 50 years ago , price has forced farmers to use products that were seen as waste not that long ago , today there is very little waste in the food chain .

        • Beef producers are losing money even feeding garbage to their steers. Dairy farmers make money one in every five years. Pork producers landfilled a generation of hogs last spring. Poultry producers saw flocks gassed when the commercial markets dried up.

          It was the farmers who took the hit. And now livestock producers are struggling and retail prices are high. What’s with that ?

    • Diogenese10

      WOW!!! That is an interesting link and something I have never considered before regarding oil.

      I’ve often wondered if the energy generated from renewables exceeded the inputs required to manufacture the wind turbines/ solar panels, batteries in the first place. Not just the final manufacturing process, but right from the mining of materials, shipping, processing etc. But I’ve never thought that the same may be true of oil.

      Interesting times ahead!!!!!!

          • Joe.

            WOW! WOW!
            That was a very interesting link. Think I’m going to have to read it a couple more times to get my head round the maths, but I got the general gist of it.

            Makes me think that, in the unlikely event that we do manage to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, then the “State” will have to take a central role.
            I can’t see “market forces” leading the way.
            We are going to have to use the remaining fossil fuels to make the transition (literally “make”) and cut back on other economic activities to conserve the fossil fuels as long as possible.
            Only the State can conserve and allocate the fossil fuels and create the funds to actuate the switch and create all those renewables.
            The people who will no longer have employment because the energy will be removed from their economic sectors, will need supporting. Again, only the State will be able to do this.

            The other big issue going forward is economic growth or the lack of it. At present, the economy needs to keep growing, so the demand for energy also needs to keep growing. Even if we switch to renewables we are still going to need to keep increasing their number indefinitely as well as replacing the existing ones every 40years.
            If we are looking at a sustainable economy then, wow, things are looking very different!!!!!!! The whole model of finance and banking would no longer exist. In a zero growth economy, the amount of money in the economy must stay constant and not grow. This would put an end to interest bearing loans and the whole banking model.

            One upside of the decline in fossil fuels is that the world’s “war machines” will grind to a halt though!!!!

          • John,

            You’re right about everything except the last sentence, “One upside of the decline in fossil fuels is that the world’s “war machines” will grind to a halt though!!!!”

            Some war machines might grind to a halt due to lack of fossil fuels, but the war machines that last longest will become even more dominant. It is the social version of the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), which, according to Howard T. Odum is: “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.” This principle is found everywhere in the natural world and is the foundation of evolutionary success.

            This is the reason why it is difficult for a country to reduce energy and material throughput. A society that minimizes power intake is one that can easily be dominated or destroyed by a society that continues to maximize power intake. And even if there weren’t any other countries to worry about, intra-country politics follows the same principle, groups that maximize their power use prevail over others that do not. No politician can be elected who promises their constituents less power (affluence).

            This is one reason why a small farm future will be difficult to establish pre-collapse. Until the time at which small farms are the structures that maximize power for the vast bulk of the population, they will be selected against by the MPP forces that drive cultural evolution.

          • Joe.

            Interesting point about power.

            I just think it would be hard for a country such as the US to undertake a “mission” such as Iraq or Afghanistan without fossil fuels.
            I guess the US will prioritize it’s militaries use of fossile fuels over creating renewables, but this will only be for a relatively short time. The “energy trap” will catch up with them in the end. I can’t see any overseas operations being possible.
            (However, the nukes use very little fossil fuels in return for a big impact. Literally a ” very big bang for your buck”)

            In fact, if the US prioritized renewables over the military now, it may be in a better position to hold onto it’s military dominance in the future, but the longer they hold onto their dominance now through fossil fuels, the weaker they will become down the line.

            Interesting times ahead.

        • Wow! Did you see that at the top of the linked article there is another link to Tom Murphy’s free download textbook: “Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet”

          I’m happy that he has kept up with the topic even after he hasn’t been updating his blog.

          Thanks.

  14. http://www.surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com is always worth reading.

    So since 23 March 2020 is http://www.dailysceptic.org, if you suspect that what governments have been telling us is not entirely truthful. The comments below the articles are sometimes invaluable.

    From some of the articles linked to here, I found out that the most interesting group in its reaction is possibly the Amish. They basically ignored COVID; well, some of them got it in spring 2020, but hardly anyone went near a hospital, then by May 2020 they returned to life as normal.

    • Thanks Norman.

      Yet another interesting link!

      I’m am going deep down into this particular rabbit hole but enjoying the journey.

    • Owing to the lamentable lack of critical thinking on the virus/vaccines in mainstream media, I’ve largely ignored it of late. I did however recently find some interesting info clearly presented by this Dr of genetics and biochemistry, based in Canada, which caught my ear – here’s the latest, you might find it of interest too, this one concerning a Swedish study into the spike protein’s effects on DNA:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Unt03UBhbU

  15. There is a old saying Joe ,
    those that beat their swords in to plough shares plough for those that did not .
    That is the crux of today’s problems , energy rich countries like Russia that also have western industrial capacity will be the ones left standing . The rest will bleed to death buying their energy .
    Chris is lucky with his apples ( no Apple sauce needed lol ) round here it’s acorns that fatten the Christmas pig !

    • Diogenese10.

      Russia may be the last to fall but it will also get caught in the “energy trap”.

      Russia may actually take longer to make the transition to renewables because it has big oil reserves and won’t feel the pressing need for the transition.

      A collapse in global markets will hit Russia the same as everyone else.

      We are all in this together!!!!! Or should I say, we will all collapse together. There will be no winners.

      • Just a good thing Russia is no longer communist , just think how bad it would be if Stalin was in this position .
        Yup there will be no winners but there will be some real bastards before the dust settles , look how easy it was to make covid zombies , small farms like Chris for sees will have to hunker down and ride out the mayhem , I had hoped for a long slow decline , watching energy supply in general it looks like a fast crash is ahead .

  16. Thanks Norman.

    Yet another interesting link!

    I’m am going deep down into this particular rabbit hole but enjoying the journey.

  17. Pingback: Property ownership in a small farm future - Resilience

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