The bugs and the bees

A brief post this week on the bugs and the bees – well actually, mostly bugs. In fact, not really bugs either, strictly defined. Hell, I’ll just get on with it.

Like most growers, I keep a keen eye out for certain insect pests that tend to plague the crops at predictable times of the year, like flea beetle, carrot fly, aphids and cabbage whites. But I’ve also noticed over the years cycles of various other insects and invertebrates that don’t impinge so directly on the crops.

Early in the spring, the garden beds are rife with small wolf spiders (useful little critters) and the air is filled – briefly – with hawthorn flies (aka Bibio marci, named after St Mark’s day when the adults emerge – apparently they’re potentially useful pollinators).  Later in the summer it’s the turn of the cardinal beetles, Pyrochroa serraticornis – predators of flying insects, so also potentially useful. And pretty little things to boot, as you can see.

In the autumn, the orb web spiders seem to come to the fore – or is it just that their webs are more noticeable in the dewy mornings? Voraciously insectivorous things – how useful!

This autumn I’ve also witnessed huge numbers of crane flies (Tipulidae spp), whose larvae – leatherjackets – eat crop roots, so definitely not useful. And then just recently as the crane flies have dropped off, a plethora of harvestmen – also generally insectivorous, and therefore useful.

Whether these species consider me to be useful in turn is something I have been unable to ascertain, although I suspect that the leatherjackets are keen followers of my horticultural activities.

This year there were far fewer hawthorn flies around than usual, but far more crane flies and harvestmen, which I hadn’t noticed en masse previously. Presumably, most of them only make themselves noticeable to me when they’re putting themselves about in the mating season – that’s certainly the case with the hawthorn flies, but I’m not so sure about the others. Amazing really how little most of us know about the things going on under our noses.

Having observed our Vallis Veg site (albeit not very systematically or actively) over the past ten years, it does seem to me that it’s getting more insect-rich as we’ve diversified it and indeed left quite large parts of it pretty much alone – on a hot summer’s day there’s certainly an audible buzz as you enter the site that you just don’t hear in the surrounding fields of arable and ryegrass. Of course, there are extensive ecological debates about this sort of thing, including the so-called ‘land sparing vs land sharing debate’ which until recently seemed to come down against the view that any kind of farmland was of much ecological use, fuelling the notion that we need intensive industrial arable farming and then as much undisturbed wilderness as possible. Quite why people think that intensive industrial arable ‘spares’ land is beyond me, particularly when about 40% of the calories it produces go for stock feed and biofuels – but it doesn’t stop the New Scientist printing pictures of giant American combine harvesters under headlines stating that this is the greenest way to farm. Anyway, some recent research suggests that agro-ecosystems may not be so ecologically useless after all. The studies referred to tropical agroforestry systems, but I wonder if it may also prove to be true of temperate mixed farming or agroecology. Not really, according to an interesting talk I attended by David Bohan: small islands of biodiversity in a sea of monoculture have no effect (though it may be otherwise if everyone started farming agroecologically).

Ah well, what do I know, I’m just a bloody peasant (…on which topic, more soon). Objections to our recent planning application included the comments that our activities had made the site both unkempt and bad for wildlife. But I kinda like our mix of hedgerows, trees, wild tussocky grass, weeds and the odd kempt bit. And, though I can’t really tell, I think the wildlife does too.

Unpublished and be damned

Well, it’s been a funny week and indeed a funny year for the Small Farm Future publishing empire.

Having scaled back my farming activities this year in order to fight our planning application, I’ve also had more time to do a bit of writing around alternative and small scale farming systems. Encapsulated therein is the main contradiction of my life, which I fear I’ll never resolve: as a grower and small-scale farmer, I love producing useful stuff for people to eat, working outdoors and figuring out as best I can good practical ways of trying to farm – against which all the chatter and opinion in the media frequently seems dispiriting and irrelevant. But as a sometime university academic, or ‘clever interlexyouwell’ as Tom put it in a recent comment, writing and analysing stuff and trying to make the case for better ways of living and better ways of farming out in the wider world also seems worthwhile (particularly on days when I’m digging parsnips out of the snow…)

So, which way to go? On the upside this year, my article about our veg box scheme ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Culture (more on that in another post), and the article I wrote on quinoa that I mentioned in last week’s post has gone viral, or at least gone biodiverse, having been the subject of a blog post by Jeremy Cherfas on the excellent Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

On the downside, I’ve toiled long and hard this year on a journal article about perennial staple crops emerging from an earlier post I wrote on the topic, and I’ve just heard this week that it’s been rejected by a supposedly multi-disciplinary sustainable agriculture journal that I will refrain from naming. Now, I’m not one to whinge (OK, that’s wholly untrue – but the whingeing that you’re about to witness has a higher purpose, so please read on) but for me the experience raises interesting questions about the way forward.

Peer reviewed publication is often held up as a kind of gold standard for credible research and analysis – as per George Monbiot’s endless and quite valid complaints about the way that crappy climate change denying opinions are often equated in the media with proper climatology research. But I think anyone who’s submitted themselves to the curious business of peer-reviewed publication can attest what a capricious process it is. Referees’ reports are often replete with the same kind of personal hobbyhorses, low insults, specialist arrogance and bizarre misunderstandings that you’ll find down the pub or down the blogosphere – and suffer from the same drawbacks of anonymity as the latter.

I wish I could publish some referees’ comments from a selection of my papers to illustrate the point, but unfortunately they seem to be copyrighted for no good reason that I can discern. Suffice to say that the process as I’ve experienced it is a complete lottery – I’ve won a medal (yes, seriously) for one paper I wrote that was a complete load of b______s and yet my undeniably superb analysis of perennial staples is now languishing on the editor’s spike.

Anyway, the point of all this really is just to ask myself where to go from here. Now that I’m no longer an academic, I gain no career advancement or financial advantage from writing papers in academic journals. But I suppose I still implicitly harbour the notion that for all the absurdities of peer review, if I get stuff published in them it gives me some kind of status and self-respect which is unattainable if I just bang out my worthless opinions into the blogosphere like everyone else and their dog…and probably a wider readership too. On the other hand, now that I’ve attained the requisite bureaucratic sanction to start farming again (more on that in another other post) pretty much simultaneously with the journal rejection, perhaps the message from the gods is that I should focus on the practical farming instead of trying to be an intellectual. OK, so here’s my plan. I’ll have one more shot at getting the perennial paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If it fails I shall publish it and be damned on this blog and then turn away forever from academic publishing. Let the blogosphere be my witness – henceforth I shall dedicate myself to practical farming and use this blog as my publishing outlet, where my words of wisdom can jostle for attention with all the YouTube memes, dating websites and Facebook updates in a cold, uncaring world. But if you’d like to comment on any of my posts, so much the better. Please…

Beyond ideology: making the case for small-scale farming

I keep coming across the notion currently that ‘ideological’ support for small-scale farming is problematic and that no particular level of farm scale can be regarded as optimal – ideas which are obviously at the heart of this blog. I’m inclined to respond with the thought that there is no such thing as an ‘unideological’ position – it’s a cardinal error to assume that the mainstream way of doing things must somehow involve less political baggage. And if indeed it’s true that no particular level of farm scale is optimal, then surely the time has come for a massive investment in small-scale farming, since it’s historically been so starved of funding and influence compared to its industrial-scale counterpart.

Matthew Fielding of the Stockholm Environment Institute recently blogged about the superiority of larger-scale commercial farms over small peasant farms in dealing with the problem of climate change in low income countries. He was kind enough to respond to me when I challenged him over the evidence for some of these claims, suggesting that you can’t compare low tech smallholder farming with high tech commercial farming – in which case I’d argue that he shouldn’t have done precisely that in his original post!

It’s true that such comparisons can be tricky (especially because the multiple and sometimes intangible benefits of small-scale farming are often harder to demonstrate than the benefits of larger scale farming) but there is a need for them, because otherwise it’s too easy for the ‘unideological’ proponents of the industrial farming status quo to dismiss small-scale farming as an irrelevance – as for example in the shocking refusal of Mid Devon council to entertain the Ecological Land Coop’s planning application for smallholdings at Greenham Reach on the basis of claims such as smallholdings are not ‘serious farming’.

An interesting paper written by Peter Rosset over ten years ago now suggests the following benefits of small farms compared to their larger scale counterparts:

  1. diversity
  2. environmental benefits
  3. empowerment and community responsibility
  4. places for families
  5. personal connection to food
  6. economic foundations
  7. better overall output and factor productivity

According to Rosset, small farms in both high income and low income countries can bring greater social and environmental benefits, as well as turning out more product and more money per hectare than larger farms (by the way, I use the word ‘can’ in that sentence with no compunction, in just the way that ‘unideological’ mainstream commentators often say things like “produce grown abroad and shipped here can be less ecologically damaging than homegrown produce”).

I’d be interested in any comments on Rosset’s list – any things to add, any things to take away or qualify? For me the three overarching categories of local food cultures, local or human-scale economies, and output are key, as indeed are future energy and climate change scenarios. What would a large-scale farm in a situation of major energy constraint look like? Two obvious historical precedents are the medieval manor and the slave plantation – neither of which, I’d suggest, are inspiring models for the agrarian future. In any case, I’ll try to fill out some of the points on Rosset’s list with both further reflections and further research results in future posts.

A little trip to Oxford

I just spent a couple of amazing days at the University of Oxford at a workshop on agrobiodiversity. For me it felt like a true “university” with anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, archaeobotanists and farmers coming together to share their skills and knowledge.

I learned so much in such a short space of time that I feel a bit overwhelmed. It’ll take me a while to digest it all, if I ever do. Many of the themes that I’ve previously raised on this blog loomed large – farm scale, labour inputs, perennial versus annual crops, biodiversity. I don’t think many of my basic perceptions on these things changed much (well, prejudices are hard to break) but I learned plenty to help me think about them more subtly. Things that particularly resonated for future thought and practice were:

  •  the possibilities for growing small-scale, low input wheat as outlined by the inspirational John Letts – and why permaculturists should perhaps be less dismissive of this distinguished grass
  • the implications of the Neolithic farming package that spread with such apparent rapidity and uniformity across Europe from the Fertile Crescent
  • the complexities of biomimicry, as described in Doyle McKey’s fascinating work on chinampa systems (not to mention the equally fascinating things he told me over dinner about ants)
  • the role of homestead biochar

I learned quite a lot about date palms too, which might prove useful if the climate hots up and my wheat experiments don’t work out.

Listening to various presentations about indigenous small-scale farmers around the world (not least in France) I was struck by how – unlike here in England – these people have so often managed to retain their standing as what I would call “proper farmers”. A proper farmer in this definition is somebody who retains their own capacities to enhance the diversity of the agroecosystem, including the genetic basis of the crops they plant, and who produces food and fibre in sufficiency without making themselves functionaries of commercial systems that furnish them with exotic inputs but ultimately undercut economic and ecological wellbeing.

The irony here is that while we commonly think of European colonialism as destroying the indigenous cultures it met around the world, it may turn out that it wreaked its greatest destruction upon itself in undermining a proper European agriculture. The result, I suspect, may well be the one that acts of hubris usually encounter.

My thanks to Laura Rival and Patrick Whitefield for enabling me to attend such a wonderful event.

The Diversity Of Life

Here’s a couple of thoughts on E.O.Wilson’s book The Diversity of Life, which I’ve just finished reading – another in the long list of excellent tomes that I should have read years ago.

Wilson – Harvard biologist and founder of the term ‘biodiversity’ – doesn’t have all that much to say about farming in his book except that it tends to encroach on wilderness. It’s this habitat destruction that’s the No.1 cause of contemporary species extinctions, which are proceeding at such a high rate that it seems we’re now entering the sixth major extinction spasm in geological history, the last one being the KT event that did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This one, it seems, is entirely the result of human activities, and past history suggests it takes the biosphere about 10 million years to recover from such spasms and return to something approaching previous levels of biodiversity. Food for thought.

And who is responsible for this dreadful destruction? Well, according to Wilson one of the main culprits is, er… small-scale farmers. He mentions in particular swidden cultivators of the tropical forests, and smallholders moving into and clearing those same forests at the head of an expanding agricultural frontier.

But let’s unpick this a bit. I discussed swidden cultivation in a previous post, and to my mind Wilson’s comments are basically confirmatory of the conclusions I drew in that post from Clifford Geertz’s work. Swidden, practised well in situations of low population density, can be just about the most sustainable form of agriculture possible. But when it’s done badly or in situations of population pressure, it can be disastrous. Either way, it’s not going to play a major role in global agricultural futures so perhaps we can put it to one side.

Smallholder expansion into the forests is a different matter. But what’s causing it? To take Brazil, a key tropical forest country, land concentration is enormous – sources suggest the largest 10% of farms hold 85% of the agricultural land area, or the largest 1% of farms hold 45% of the area, while some 5 million families remain landless (as at 2002 – Raj Patel, Stuffed And Starved p.204-5), and 30 million rural workers have lost their land in the last 25 years. So perhaps the destructive smallholder frontiersmen in the forests are simply the head of a wave originating in the soya and beef heartlands of Brazil’s big agri.

Closer to home I paid a sad visit recently to a 120 acre former dairy farm turned mixed farm and market garden, but now cultivating only an acre or two of its beautiful south-facing edge-of-town land while the rest was going to rack and ruin. If I’m honest, my own land is now similarly underutilised – not because I can’t grow useful crops for people locally using sustainable methods, but because I can’t do it profitably in the topsy turvy world of the present distorted economy (by ‘profitable’ I mean something approaching the minimum wage). It wouldn’t be hard to tell a story that started with doomed and homeless rainforest species, proceeded via homeless smallholder farmers clearing the wilderness and soya barons in countries like Brazil, hopped over to dirt cheap supermarket meat and eggs in countries like Britain, and thence to recreational landownership in the UK and good farmland lying idle here. Worth thinking about the next time you hear somebody say we need GM crops to intensify agricultural production so we can feed the world without encroaching on the wilderness.

A completely different issue raised in Wilson’s book is his emphasis on the extraordinary evolved complexity of wild ecosystems, above all those of the tropical rainforests. I think that raises interesting issues for those of us concerned with complexity in our artificial agro-ecosystems. But perhaps that’s a topic for another time.