So you want to be a farmer? Thirteen words of wisdom from me to myself

I gave two talks recently at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. One concerned peasant agriculture, which I’m planning to come back to on this blog later in the year as part of a series on constructing a neo-peasant agriculture for contemporary times. The other was at a session inaugurating the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, brainchild of science writer and ORFC founder Colin Tudge.

Colin asked me to describe my experiences establishing a small, ecologically-minded farming business, the obstacles we’d faced and how we’d overcome them. I only had a few minutes of the floor, and I didn’t want to present my own fumbling efforts to learn how to farm as any kind of blueprint for others to follow, so I decided to present the talk in the form of thirteen maxims I’d like to have been able to pass on to my younger self at the point I started my switch into the agrarian life. The talk seemed to go reasonably well and so here, by popular demand (or three emails at any rate), I’m reproducing it.

  1. Make sure you live on the land you farm, however you do it, whatever it takes, LIVE ON YOUR LAND!
  1. Run a small, mixed farm – we need maybe 2 million farmers in the UK, equating to an average farm size of 50 acres or less depending on how you crunch the numbers with permanent pasture, so if you think your farm needs to be bigger than that you need to be able to convince someone else why theirs has to be smaller.
  1. Try to insulate yourself as much as possible from depending on open market prices – it’s not easy, but there are various possibilities. Be creative. Start a non-profit social enterprise if you have to, but if you do tread very, very carefully.
  1. Try to sell retail, not wholesale.
  1. Farming is full of get-rich-quick schemers, and people obsessed with a pet approach of one kind or another. Listen to what they have to say with an open but sceptical mind, then discard what’s not useful – which is usually most of it.
  1. Or to put that another way, there’s essentially no such thing as a low input – high output farming system. Modern farming is generally high input – high output. The safe bet is low input – low output.
  1. If you’ve learned farming via a traditional agricultural education, then consider diversifying. If you’ve learned it (as I did) via an alternative agricultural education like the permaculture movement, then consider un-diversifying.
  1. Focus generally on producing basic foodstuffs and ignore the advice to ‘add value’ by getting into processing as a way of making money. ‘Add money’ rather than ‘adding value’, possibly by growing a high-earning cash crop. The best high-earning cash crop is usually people – get them somehow to come to your farm and to pay you for the privilege.
  1. Hold on to your ecological idealism, but don’t kill yourself. Use some diesel. But imagine if diesel wasn’t available or it had a carbon price attached to it of, say, £50/litre – would it be remotely possible to continue farming as you do? If not, rethink.
  1. Be completely honest and open about what you do with your customers, and show them your genuine gratitude for their custom. But don’t toady to them – let them know subtly that it’s producerism and not consumerism that makes the world go around.
  1. Be as open and honest as you absolutely have to be, and no more, with anyone else, especially government bureaucrats.
  1. Don’t worry too much about the howling errors you’ll inevitably make – the only people who’ll really scorn you are people who aren’t actually running a small farm business themselves…
  1. Remember that every farm and every farmer are different, and that you’ll be different too as the years pass. Remember too, as I’ve already said, that farming is full of charlatans offering their unwanted advice. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said. Except maybe this – if you start a new small farm enterprise you almost certainly won’t get rich quick, or even get rich slow, but if you’re lucky you may just stay in business and you’ll be doing something more interesting and more worthwhile than many, many other things you could do.

The devil shops local

Veterans of this blog may recall that some time ago I had a fascinating discussion about the ‘balance of nature’ with a curious fellow who turned out to be none other than the devil himself. Well, blow me if I didn’t meet him again as I journeyed home from the Oxford Real Farming Conference. He was sitting in a shadowed corner of the train carriage, hunched over a thick pile of papers and books, but unmistakeably my old friend Nick. We had another very interesting conversation so I thought I’d write it down as well as I can remember it and publish it here:

Chris: Hello Nick! Long time no see…

Nick (shielding his papers with his arms): Shhh! Don’t let anyone know who I am.

Chris: Oh, sorry. The devil in disguise, huh? What are you reading there?

Nick: As a matter of fact I’m looking at some very interesting findings, and between you and me I don’t think you’re going to like what they have to say…

Chris: Oh yes? How so?

Nick: Well, it turns out that this local food thing that you’re so into isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Chris: Is that so? Who says?

Nick: Well, for starters there’s this very interesting book by a chap called Leigh Phillips.

Chris: Oh god.

Nick: Look, I do read your blog, you know. I realise that you’re not exactly Mr Phillips’ biggest fan. But it’s not just him. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) say much the same in this new book of theirs. And even someone that I know you rate very highly has written a sniffy article about local food.

Chris: Who?

Nick (triumphantly): George Monbiot!

Chris: Oh god.

Nick (grinning malevolently): You see? Just admit it, you’re onto a loser with this one.

Chris: Look, George is a busy guy, he can’t always get everything spot on. As to the others…Well, I’m going to be publishing a critique of S&W soon, and I’ve already done one (in fact, more than one) for Leigh Phillips. Anyway, let’s leave the personalities out of this. What are their actual arguments?

Nick (rubbing his hands together): I thought you’d never ask. Let’s get started with the concept of food miles. All the authors I’ve mentioned point out some problems with it. Turns out that food grown locally may have a higher carbon footprint than food grown further afield – for example tomatoes for the UK market grown in sunny Spain rather than in heated tunnels in the UK. What do you have to say about that?

Chris: Since when did the devil care about carbon footprints – I’d have thought an overheated world would be right up your street?

Nick: That’s not the point. Do I detect a bit of evasiveness here?

Chris: No. They’re right.

Nick: You what? You agree with them?

Chris: Yes.

Nick: So you don’t even support local food yourself then!

Chris: Let me try to unpack this as succinctly as possible. If you tomato-pick particular examples such as, er, early tomatoes, then you can sometimes show that the non-local product has a lower impact than the local one. It may have other impacts that you’re excluding from your analysis, such as the water issues involved in transporting watery tomatoes from arid Spain to rain-soaked Britain. But leaving that aside, yes if you feel the need to buy early season tomatoes in Britain in the supermarkets you may be better off getting Spanish ones. Favoured anti-localist examples like the tomato gambit aside, I’m not convinced that the globalised food commodities in the average British shopping basket in total turn out better than their localised equivalents, but maybe they do. Localism, however, doesn’t just mean buying local – the point of it is that it’s aiming for a transformation of the food system, a transformation of that basket, so that we move towards a situation in which people start eating mostly what their locales can actually provide at a sensible cost – cost here being measured in carbon, in soil retention and other such environmental measures, as well as financially, and socially. The consumerist mindset expects to get whatever food your money will command from wherever in the world can produce it most cheaply, with any additional considerations such as carbon intensity factored in. If you accept its logic, then you’ll be wowed by figures like the relative carbon emissions of a kilo of British lamb versus a kilo of New Zealand lamb. But if you don’t, you’ll be more interested in how much lamb your local agriculture can realistically and sustainably provide. The anti-localist might say “A kilo of New Zealand lamb sold in Britain may be environmentally better than a kilo of British lamb sold here”. The localist might reply “Fewer kilos of more local, more carbon intensive lamb may be environmentally better than more kilos of non-local, less carbon intensive lamb”. Substantial and sustainable local sufficiency is a long-term goal, though. More pressing currently is retaining small-scale and local agriculture in the first place, so that you have something to work with. I’m inclined to think that that’s more important at the moment than kilo for kilo, theoretical carbon audits of local and non-local products.

Nick: Well, you say that – but Monbiot points out that a kilo of lamb protein produced on a British hill farm can cause more carbon emissions than someone flying to New York. That’s a stunningly high carbon cost. And Phillips says that it’s better to import fresh granny smiths all the way from New Zealand during the English summer than keeping British ones in cold storage…

Chris: I think George is overreaching himself a little there – those crazily high figures derive from an outlying datum on farm-level soil carbon. Soils have highly variable properties as sources or sinks for GHG emissions for reasons not directly related to how they’re farmed, so I don’t think it’s really fair to say that upland British lamb is always worse than lamb from elsewhere, or indeed from arable products. Saying the carbon cost of local food “can be higher” prompts the question of how often it actually is. And Leigh Phillips – hmm, I think he’d be better off wondering why there’s been a massive diminution in apple varieties (such as long keepers) associated with the rise of the global food system, or even – now here’s a radical thought – contemplating the possibility of not eating things that are out of season.

Nick: Ha! Anybody would think you’re opposed to the notion of consumer sovereignty.

Chris: Yes I am, as elaborated in some detail in my writings. One advantage of localism is that it stops people from thinking and writing in terms of consumerism’s generic ‘we’, replacing it with a more specific one. So it’s not “where should ‘we’ buy our apples from” as some global supply-chain efficiency issue. It’s where should ‘we’ here in our town or village buy our apples from as part of our own self-provisioning. And if the answer is “nowhere right now” or “nowhere very easily, because we live in a city of 30 million people” it prompts a much more interesting and urgent set of questions about producer-consumer relations in the present political and environmental context.

Nick: But the implication of all this is that a local food agenda involves a top to bottom overhaul of the entire political economy.

Chris: Quite.

Nick: Are you some kind of dangerous radical?

Chris: Look who’s talking.

Nick: Keep me out of this. Anyway, S&W – who, by the way, are radical leftists – say that the problem with the local food idea is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of local-global. The bigger question, they say, relates to the priorities we place on the types of food we produce, how that production is controlled, who consumes that food and at what cost.

Chris: Yes, and those are exactly the questions raised in the local food movement. S&W’s critique is fatuous. It’s like saying that the problem with leftism is that it flattens the complexities it’s trying to resolve into a simplistic binary of left-right. Leftism. Localism. They’re just labels referencing diverse, dynamic and complicated movements. The point is that we ‘localists’ can’t see any plausible ways of tackling the profound problems we face in the contemporary world without a stronger turn to the local. S&W do have some interesting thoughts on this, and I’ll say more about them in another post, but the idea that localism only amounts to minimising food miles or buying artisanal bread or whatever is sheer nonsense. It suggests to me that the likes of Phillips and S&W just haven’t bothered to do much proper research into the local food movement.

Nick: OK, OK, but Phillips makes the interesting point that small-scale local production uses up more land than more technology-intensive agriculture because not every plot of land is equally well suited to all types of plant and animal. That’s got to be right – regional specialisation surely makes sense?

Chris: Phillips is mixing up a few different things here. The ‘uses up more land’ point sounds like the land sharing/land sparing debate which I and many, many others have written extensively about. I’m not going to dwell on it here, but much depends on what gross outputs the two agricultures produce, and also on whether ‘using’ land for agriculture turns out to be the same as ‘using up’ land. The other point about regional specialisation is more interesting. Of course it’s true that different locations are differentially suited to different products, and there’s been agricultural specialisation for centuries (such as dairy on the claylands and arable on the chalklands in my neck of the woods – chalk and cheese as they say). But specialisation operates at different spatial scales, and at larger ones it starts to get problematic. Some soils and climates are better than others for just about any crop, but beggars can’t be choosers – we can’t grow everything the world needs in the Ukraine or central California. Sometimes land that’s good enough to grow something is good enough. The real issue isn’t soil quality, but the logic of capital, which forces farmers to try to economise in every conceivable way. Finding the optimum soil for the crop is only one such way. Finding cheap and pliant labour is another. Developing large diesel-hungry machines to substitute labour yet another. Often enough, you get all of those combined – for example in East Anglian vegetable production, where vegetables are grown on deep, fertile, well-drained, stone-free soils, employing massive labour-saving and energy-hungry machinery and below-minimum-wage illegal workers furnished by criminal gangmasters. The soil I have isn’t as good for growing veg on, or probably as good for growing anything on, and I can’t produce vegetables as cheaply – but I guarantee that I can produce them at a lower carbon cost and without criminal labour exploitation. Talk of optimising agricultural production on global scales is all very well, but under conditions of globalised capitalism what that amounts to is basically soil-eating, labour-eating, climate-eating lowest common denominator consumerism. Substituting local for global production doesn’t necessarily overcome that in and of itself, but it’s a start. Localism negates the logic of unbridled capital accumulation.

Nick: Maybe so, but local agriculture has its own problems, doesn’t it? I mean, Phillips points out that customers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes complain about getting too many weird vegetables that they don’t really know what to do with and end up wasting them. So local agriculture isn’t necessarily very efficient, is it?

Chris: Would this be the same Leigh Phillips who thinks that the Earth has a carrying capacity of a hundred quintillion people?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he’s worrying that CSA schemes produce slightly more waste than conventional food systems?

Nick: Yes


Nick: You’ve gone all quiet. Are you all right?

Chris: Sorry I was just rendered temporarily speechless.

Nick: Here, sniff a bit of this brimstone.

Chris (gagging): Yuk – thank you, that’s better. OK, so here’s the thing – the difference between CSAs and mainstream retail isn’t that the CSAs produce more waste but that the waste in the system is borne by the consumer who pays for it, and therefore notices it. Surely that’s a good thing? There is literally no waste production on my farm. We sell what we can, and since our customers are resourceful types who know how to cook a twisty carrot we waste less on that front than the mainstream retailers. What we can’t sell we try to eat ourselves. What we can’t eat we try to feed to our livestock. What we can’t feed to the livestock we compost to help restart the growing cycle. All Phillips is pointing to here is the fact that food waste in local production has more consumer visibility, rather than being hidden within a huge supply chain. And that people don’t know how to make use of fresh, local vegetables. That’s supposed to be a problem?

Nick: Fair enough. Still, there are some big kit technologies that people need which are never going to be furnished by all you silly little wannabe peasants. Take some of the GM technologies supported by Phillips, like releasing transgenic mosquitoes to tackle malaria…

Chris: Is this the same Leigh Phillips who emphasised conservation biologists’ inability to predict what would happen when a few wolves were released onto a small Canadian island?

Nick: Yes

Chris: And he thinks it’s a good idea to release transgenic mosquitoes over vast stretches of malarial country?

Nick: It would seem so, yes.


Nick: More brimstone?

Chris (gagging): Thank you.

Nick: He mentions other food-related GM technologies too, and takes a well-aimed swipe at Séralini’s laughably flawed glyphosate study. Anti-GM types love latching on to Séralini because he’s a properly credentialed scientist who published in a credible journal. But his paper has now been retracted. In Phillips’ words, “Pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Science-y” ain’t enough”.

Chris: I’ve pretty much given up debating GM. One day the truth will out: I suspect that GM will have some kind of role to play once it’s been properly detached from corporate control – probably one that will confound both its strongest critics and its strongest proponents. I also suspect that glyphosate will turn out to be quite dodgy. Meanwhile, it seems pretty clear to me that publication bias is in play, with findings uncongenial to the GM case receiving way, way more critical scrutiny than their pro-GM counterparts, both in the research community and in the shouty realm of the blogosphere where such self-appointed biostatistical experts as Marc Brazeau – food writer, chef and trade union organiser – like to hold forth. I’m tempted to say that pointing at Séralini’s work and shouting “Look! Retracted!” ain’t enough either. However useful GM techniques ultimately prove to be, I’m not convinced that they’re a major point of economic transformation in the food system, which is still geared to the good harvest/bad return conundrum. Meanwhile, as Phillips himself concedes, we’re already starting to experience various social and agronomic problems with the current range of GM crops, such as the emergence of glyphosate-tolerant weeds…

Nick: Ah well, Phillips covers that – he points out that it can be tackled by various methods, including use of more locale-specific seeds…

Chris: How do more locale-specific seeds make any difference to weed resistance if they have glyphosate-tolerance built in?

Nick: He doesn’t say.

Chris: I don’t suppose he would. Ach, I’m done debating GM in general and Leigh Phillips’ take on the world in particular. Life’s too short to work my way through any more of his non-sequiturs and tendentious logic. Besides, I’m nearly at my station. Let me just summarise: we need to ditch the notions that food miles or the relative per kilo carbon intensity of given foods or the arguments in favour of so called ‘land sparing’ exhaust the rationale for local food production. We need to ditch tendentious and evidence-free notions about CSAs creating food waste, and we need to give scientific research around GM crops at least – oh, another century, I’d say – before anyone’s likely to be in a position to say anything with much confidence about them.

Nick: Gosh, well you’ve certainly convinced me. From now on, I shall be mingling with the tattooed and bearded twelve dollar marmalade-smearing kale botherers down at my local farmers’ market.

Chris: You’re just saying that, you old devil.

Nick: No, honestly…

Chris: So the farmers who live in your neck of the woods – are they mostly small-scale, local operators or big agribusiness types?

Nick: Big agribusiness types, on the whole.

Chris: Ha! I rest my case.

Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed

Last week I went to Rewilding: From Vision to Reality – a thought-provoking film and discussion panel with a group of people involved in the rewilding movement in Britain, played out in front of a packed and appreciative audience. George Monbiot, author of the book Feral and fellow-soldier in the battle against ‘eco-modernism’ was there, as was Colin Tudge, my colleague from the Campaign for Real Farming and wise voice in the alternative agriculture movement, along with various other interesting thinkers and practitioners. The event was filmed and is available here.

I came away from the evening thinking that what was being proposed could be really, really good. And alternatively that it could be really, really bad. Like almost everything in life, changes in one domain knock on to changes in other apparently unrelated ones, and in order to achieve the really, really good outcome changes in wildlife policy will need to be accompanied by appropriate changes in housing policy, tax policy, planning policy, food policy, farming policy and trade policy. A prime case for ‘joined up thinking’ in fact. I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot’s writing, and it’s to his credit that he writes thoughtfully and persuasively about all of these areas. The other participants, too, made a lot of subtle and convincing points. Nevertheless, I left with a few nagging doubts, centring mostly on the relationship between rewilding and agriculture, so here I want to work through them. I’ve got to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed on the rewilding movement – George’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for a while – but if you can’t think out loud on your own blog site, then where can you…?

Just the briefest of summaries of what’s on the table: ‘rewilding’ involves restoring to parts or all of Britain species that have been casualties of modernity – top predators like lynx, wolves, maybe even bears (a matter discussed on this site recently with Andy McGuire); keystone species such as beaver; and a huge variety of other organisms, birds, fish, invertebrates and the many plant species which have suffered huge losses as a result of modern fishing, farming and other land-use practices. George presented rewilding as a positive environmentalist agenda which ordinary people could rally behind, rather than the doom-and-gloom negativity of much environmental campaigning. He identified upland sheep farming as a particular problem: an environmentally-destructive yet economically marginal practice which is only sustained by EU subsidies. And he raised one of the greatest cheers of the evening with his attack on the EU farm subsidy regimen: a hugely regressive tax that rewards landowners the more that they own land. In the uplands, he argued, the subsidy incentivises ecological destruction, while in the more productive lowlands farmers don’t need it.

For his part, Colin inveighed against the fear-based productivist paradigm of mainstream (and indeed ‘ecomodernist’) agricultural policy in its obsession with raising productivity. We know how to produce enough food while farming in wildlife-friendly ways, he argued. And he raised a big cheer in turn with his comments on land reform and the possibilities for a people’s takeover of rural landownership through collective and commoning models to produce food and wildlife benefits locally.

I’m pretty much with them on most of that, but I think too glib an interpretation of these arguments can lead us astray and…well, those big cheers worried me a bit. Although I was impressed by the subtlety of the panellists’ thinking – none were arguing for a naïve rewilding uninformed by the needs of agriculture – I nevertheless sensed a possibly somewhat naïve anti-farmer and anti-private property sentiment underlying some of the proceedings. Most of us nowadays are so divorced from farming that it’s easy for misunderstandings to build up, and I for one have become less inclined to be critical of farmers since I switched from the lectern to the plough. Sheesh, it’s been an education. And while God knows there are farmers (and farm organisations still more) who deserve the opprobrium of anyone who cares about the land, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what we’re asking of our farmers – to be financially successful self-employed entrepreneurs, to produce healthy food at high volume and unprecedentedly low price, and to safeguard the environment, the landscape and its wildlife within those parameters. Is it any wonder that so many of them fail at some or all of those onerous demands? Or that there’s a recruitment crisis in farming, with a new cohort substantially failing to replace the old? As I’ve said before, a country basically gets the farmers it deserves.

So now let’s look at how a rewilding programme might pan out in a bad way. Over the next few decades, EU farm subsidies (Pillar 1…and Pillar 2?) are slashed to zero. Not a bad thing in many ways – it’ll end the scandalous subsidy of rich land speculators and have the effect George desires on upland sheep farming (I do have qualms about the upheaval in hill country pastoral traditions, but I think he’s right that things have got to change somehow). I haven’t looked in detail at the data, but I suspect however that without concomitant changes in food and trade policy it’ll also put paid to a lot of lowland farmers, including quite large-scale conventional ones, because I don’t really agree with George that lowland farmers don’t need a subsidy to stay afloat in present economic circumstances. Bear in mind that farmers are often selling below costs of production, working crazy hours and doing non-food production related things to stay in business. In this sense, in contrast to the wealthy landowner, the jobbing family farmer is not the real beneficiary of the EU subsidies. That honour goes to the processors, retailers and consumers who aren’t paying a realistic price for their food. Without subsidies or any protection from global commodity markets, agricultural margins will be shaved still further, putting family farmers out of business. Once in the hands of the corporates, I suspect that local agri-environmental outrages of the kind recently identified by George may diminish. Global agri-environmental outrages, however, will surely increase.

The ending of subsidies may disincentivise land speculation, but not too much – without wider land reform, rural landownership will still be a pursuit of the rich. Doubtless some landowners will be happy to rewild their estates. Doubtless too there’ll be local community buyouts. But if the lottery’s Local Food programme is anything to go by, these projects will likely do a much better job at making their lands wildlife friendly than at producing much food. It’s noteworthy that social enterprises set up with complex community management structures under the programme are now seeking individual entrepreneurs to make the farming work. In that sense, while I agree with Colin that it’s not so hard to farm in productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly ways it is quite hard, and to be sure of success it involves a lot of hard work from people with strong personal motivations and incentives to do it over the long haul. I’ll wait to read Colin’s new book on these issues with interest, and I’ll talk in more detail about tenure systems and sustainable farming in future posts. For now I’m inclined just to say that anyone contemplating the establishment of a community food-producing social enterprise will probably find that obtaining the land is the easiest part of the struggle. And also that while commoning and collective land tenure systems can be very effective, things are more complex than ‘common good, private bad’. Let me put it this way: would the cheers that evening have been quite so loud had the suggestion been to socialise private home ownership rather than private land ownership?

Still, it won’t really matter if agricultural productivity in the UK goes down. There’ll still be high intensity farming in parts of the country that are well suited to it, which will gladden the hearts of the ecomodernists and the ‘land sparers’. The rest of our food we can buy from abroad. It may be produced in ecologically vulnerable regions (notably the semi-arid continental grasslands, of which I’ve written previously) and by economically vulnerable people, but that’s not really our problem. Or at least not for the moment it isn’t. The main driver of food production will still be price. Without reform of housing and planning policy, most people will remain crippled with massive expenditures to keep a roof over their heads and so will be looking for savings in other areas, such as food. The land-sparing, labour-shedding, capital-intensive model of agriculture will win out. Indeed, perhaps an omission in the discussions around agriculture at Vision to Reality was the issue of arable cropping, and even horticulture, in contrast to pastoralism which is probably an easier form of agriculture to rewild within extant agricultural thinking, but makes a relatively minor nutritional contribution to overall agricultural productivity. How should we rewild and reform lowland arable farming?

There’s always been a loose confederation of folk with an interest in keeping the hoi polloi out of the countryside and the result of the ‘bad rewilding’ that I’m imagining here is that the re-wilders will throw their lot in – deliberately or not, knowingly or not – with rich landowners, housing speculators, ecomodernist ‘land sparers’, agricultural ‘improvers’, rural heritage geeks, crusading planning departments and seekers after pliant urban wage labour to keep people out of the countryside, living in expensive and dysfunctional urban housing, eating cheap and questionably produced food, but at least with the opportunity to see more wildlife in the British countryside than presently on their occasional visits there.

However, I can also foresee a much more positive way in which rewilding might go if other policies move with it. To do so policymakers will need to place joint emphasis on food sovereignty, social equity and ecological restoration. In this scenario, housing and planning policy are reformed, partly along the lines admirably sketched by George here, to make housing more affordable, end land market speculation, revitalize market towns and small villages, and sponsor appropriate rural development. Agricultural emphasis shifts to the sustainable production of most food needs as locally as possible, with appropriate price supports, agricultural extension and so on, rather than being dictated by world market prices. What this looks like on the ground will be quite varied, but generally speaking it will involve a shift towards smaller scale, more labour intensive, more agroecological and more mixed farming methods, probably producing less meat, less simple carbohydrates and less food waste than at present, all of which would be no bad thing. The return of small fields, arable weeds, hedgerows, fallowing and cover cropping, small farm native woodlands and the like will be what Ivette Perfecto et al1 have called the agricultural ‘matrix’ which is a necessary complement to wilder wilderness. In this sense, the land sparing vs land sharing duality will come to be seen as a false and ideologically-driven opposition: as I argue here, as George argued at Vision to Reality, and as Joern Fischer argues in this nice essay drawn to my attention by Jahi Chappell, we clearly need both ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ simultaneously.

But all this will require more people living and working in the countryside. On that point, I feel obliged to note with some concern that one of the distinguished panel members at Vision to Reality objected to my planning application for residence on my small mixed farm on the grounds of its wildlife impacts. I think instead he should have supported it for that very reason. So I think there’s a job to do in steering the rewilding movement away from ecomodernist affectations concerning urbanisation and decoupling, and towards a rethinking and re-peopling of agriculture. More farmers in the countryside are needed for the sake of both rewilding and sustainable agriculture.  They’ll come if we create the right policy and economic environment. They’ll provide the demographic injection that farming needs. They’ll learn how to farm productively but sustainably. They’ll be deeply grounded in the life of their land, and they’ll become a keystone species opening a new niche for knowledge about wildlife, farming and the countryside in the wider society, which will run much deeper than if rewilding is only a matter of urban tourists going off on jaunts to look for wolves in the Scottish Highlands.

I think rewilding will probably work best long-term if it’s built upon that backbone – cheaper housing, dearer, better food, local food security, more labour-intensive, agroecological production and wider societal knowledge about both farming and wildlife. It may be difficult to set up the incentives correctly to discourage speculative landownership while encouraging productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming. But economists are good at figuring out that sort of thing. We just need to get them working on problems like that, rather than on setting economic policy itself – something that, for wildlife, for farming, for social justice, and for the reasons set out in my previous post, is much too important to be left to the economists.


  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.


Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…

Turkeys do vote for Christmas: A Small Farm Future Election Special

I don’t make a habit of discussing party politics on this blog, but I guess a few comments on the recent British elections are in order.

Farming was basically a non-issue in the election, but the result has certainly disproved an old agricultural adage. Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Well, now we know that yes, sometimes they do. I’ve often despaired of the way that people so often vote out of unenlightened self-interest. But now that the people of England have voted out of unenlightened non-self-interest I find that my despair is not lessened. There was a turnout of 66.1%, with 36.9% of that figure voting Conservative. I think it’s safe to assume that more than 24% of voters will be hurt by Tory policies. Turkeys. Christmas. Why?

Maybe this story will help shed some light. I make a regular visit to a farm just to the south of Bristol. My journey starts in Frome, a town long past its industrial prime but enjoying a second lease of life as a quirky, arty, post-industrial sort of place. During the election campaign, Frome was green on black: a massive preponderance of Green party political posters against the darkness of the houses. I soon leave Frome and drive ten miles or so to Radstock, and ten miles or so out the other side. These twenty miles of countryside were blue on green: Conservative party posters against the green of the fields. Radstock itself was (mostly) red on black: Labour party posters in the houses, Radstock being a somewhat less post-industrial town than Frome, its last coalmine closing only in the 1970s.

Take a look at the electoral map of the country as a whole, and it seems my journey is pretty much a microcosm of national politics – Scotland excepted. Labour was the party of organised industrial labour, but this support base no longer exists, except in a few remnant and memorialising patches. Labour’s current leftism isn’t radical enough to appeal to the urban sophisticates of the postmodern city, and perhaps too radical to appeal to the regular middle class. But you would have thought that the Conservatives might have lost their support base too. We’re no longer a nation of toffs and aspirant working-class Thatcherites, after all. So those Conservative posters in the fields do puzzle me a bit. What are the Tories offering farmers that makes them so attractive, apart from a few sideshows like the badger cull that was so ludicrous it pretty much cost the Environment Secretary his job?

Partly perhaps there’s a grey area between farmers and landowners, with farming basically being a landowner’s hobby – and I can see that there’s much about the Tories to appeal to self-interested landowners. But I think it also comes down to political metaphor. We’ve become used to politics by soundbite, and maybe the Tories’ ones play better to an electorate long starved of an ability for extended political rumination: stability, hard-working families, fiscal prudence, self-sacrifice, immigrants, Englishness, all of which resonate in our sense of countryside and agriculture. A Tory-friendly press helps too. I think it’ll be a long, hard road to replace that narrative with a more credible one but I guess we have to try.

Oh well, there’ve been a few bright spots. In the simultaneous local elections, here in Frome every single one of the town’s 17 elected councillors came from the ranks of the Independents For Frome – surely an unprecedented result, and based on their solid good work over the last five years. And even the Death Star of Mendip District Council, though regrettably still Tory, now has three infiltrators from the Green Party within its ranks. The bigger national story is the astonishing result in Scotland for the SNP. It’ll be interesting to see how that one plays out, but perhaps the hopeful message is that an anti-austerity localist message can find a receptive audience given the right context. The relative failure of UKIP is also encouraging, the relative failure of the Greens less so. The farce of the first-past-the-post electoral system looms large in the face of the votes to seats ratio of the last three parties mentioned: perhaps the winds of change will have to start blowing on this one.

Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a quick peek at what the major parties did actually say in their manifestos regarding agriculture. Well, that’s easy in the case of Labour – virtually nothing, so perhaps those blue posters in the countryside and the red ones in the old industrial towns become more understandable. There’s nothing whatsoever in the SNP’s manifesto either, which makes it a bit harder for me to enthuse about their David v Goliath localism. The Conservatives say more – mostly about boosting the UK’s competitiveness in food exports and bringing back fox hunting. Not much succour for the small farm or the local food agenda there. It really is a landowner’s and agribusiness charter.

By contrast, there’s lots of stuff on agriculture that I can sign up to in the Green party’s manifesto and, er, in UKIP’s. The Greens were proposing a land value tax to partially replace income tax – quite right too, and long live Henry George. Though speaking of self-interest as I was earlier, as someone with a fair bit of property but not much income I’m not quite sure how this would have played out for me personally in the unlikely event of a Green government – their policies on a sustainable local farm economy look good on paper, but are rather vague. Weak support for farming coupled with an over-enthusiasm for land value tax could easily nail British farming to the wall. But the chances of the Tories introducing land value tax are precisely nil, so for now that problem is wholly theoretical.

As for UKIP – well, they’re surprisingly supportive of organic farming and other earth-stewardship approaches for a party that not so long ago was proposing to ban Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth from schools. You’ve gotta give at least half a brownie point to a party that mentions rare livestock breeds in its manifesto. And though the EU’s farm subsidy gravy train is a soft target, they load, aim and fire at it appropriately enough. Not quite sure who’d be doing all the hard work at the bottom end of the food system once UKIP had sent all the foreigners packing. But I must admit, I’m slightly drawn to their EU exit policy. EU agricultural policy is a real brake on retooling ourselves for a more sustainable small farm future, and exit would also have a salutary effect on all those little Englanders who consider Britain to be a cut above continental Europe – once we realised, too late, what an insignificant little country we really are and how much of our wealth is based on the unearned privilege of messing with other countries’ money, we’d have no option but to throw ourselves back on our own parochial resources, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of sensible agricultural policy. But if it came to a referendum, which I guess it will, I’m not sure I could abandon my internationalism enough to side with the nostalgic imperialist dreamers.

Bottom line message – roll up your sleeves, there’s political work to be done. It’s just that I’m not quite sure what it is. So perhaps instead I should forget about the politics and just focus on producing my veg as best I can. And maybe some turkeys too.

PS. …and talking of birds, I thought I’d put a new header image up since the old one of my farm was so out of date it bore little relation to present circumstances. So here’s a picture of starlings flocking over Vallis Veg’s winter treescape.


Just another bloody day: thoughts on ‘Liberty’s Dawn’

A few thoughts in this post on historian Emma Griffin’s recent book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution1, which touches on many themes relevant to this blog.

From a close study of memoirs and autobiographical texts written by ordinary people caught up in the British industrial revolution, Griffin argues that industrialisation did not deskill and impoverish working people – as in the still-popular ‘dark interpretation’ of the industrial revolution associated with such figures as E.P. Thompson2 – but on the contrary raised incomes and provided fertile conditions for them to develop forms of religious and political association that enabled them to organise around their interests and help create a national public sphere as active participants rather than as a passive lumpen mass. Griffin’s autobiographers display no conspicuous nostalgia for the world of rural agriculture they lost, but instead embrace the new world of urban, industrial opportunity emerging around them.

This all sounds like an unpalatable history lesson for those like me who advocate a less industrialised, small scale farming society as a solution to many of our contemporary ills, and perhaps it is – it’s a compelling book in some ways, and I don’t want to try to shoot it down simply out of narrow partisanship. Still, there are a few gaps and question marks over Griffin’s analysis that I’d like to raise. Perhaps more positively, I’d like to find a way of incorporating her insights into a better small farm vision for the future.

So first the gaps and question marks, many of which Griffin herself acknowledges. Most obviously, however humble their origins the people who wrote down their memoirs were probably atypical members of their social group and had likely steered a more successful personal course through their turbulent times than those who left nothing to posterity, even if ‘success’ here might mean nothing more than being a stalwart of the Sunday school or the local reading club. Though Griffin acknowledges this, I’m not sure she takes it seriously enough in generalising from her findings. But let’s put such tedious methodological quibbles aside and for the sake of argument assume that her autobiographers speak for the majority in their sunny tales of industrialisation.

Another issue, which again Griffin acknowledges, is that the main working class beneficiaries of industrialisation were adult men. For children pressed into earlier and harsher industrial service than their rural farm counterparts, industrialisation was, in Griffin’s own words, “a disaster”3. The story for women is complex, but although young women in the industrial areas were beneficiaries of factory work, marriage usually ended their tenure as independent wage labourers and reallocated them to the familiar role of dependent domestic workers. Griffin often pauses her narrative to insist she’s not saying it was all a bed of roses, but even so for me the notion of industrialisation as ‘liberty’s dawn’ rides pretty roughshod over the evidence that Griffin herself is presenting in instances such as these. And this is doubly true for the fact that her analysis never strays beyond Britain’s shores: consider the half million slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century producing sugar for the British working man’s tea, and consider also the unsavoury details of how that tea came to him4. As Britain began to flex its muscles as a global superpower, its liberty dawned an awful lot brighter for some than for others – and a good deal of evidence suggests that Britain’s industrial takeoff was funded in large measure by the toil of its colonial dependents5. This question of globalisation presages another issue that Griffin touches on but scarcely discusses: the more that you’re tied in to a global economy, the less control you have over your economic circumstances. The boom times are great, but what about the busts? The weaver William Thom took to the roads with his family in the 1830s when “in one week, upwards of six thousand looms in Dundee alone” fell silent6. Not much liberty there.

Coming more directly to the issue of farming, Griffin argues – convincingly in my opinion – that working people at the dawn of the industrial revolution were glad to see the back of a rural farm life involving chronic underemployment and subjection to the rural landowning classes. But let us be clear what rural life involved in eighteenth century Britain. Capitalism began in the English countryside in the sixteenth century7, and by the eighteenth agriculture was a thoroughly capitalist affair, with an essentially landless rural proletariat engaged in wage labour for landowners themselves pressurised by the vagaries of the market into cutting input costs and shedding labour wherever they could. The new urban proletarians were not trading in a life of jolly peasant autarchy for the cold discipline of the factory – they were trading in one kind of dependent wage labour for another, and better paid, kind.

I suppose you could go looking further back into history to try to find the jolly peasant autarchs, but it probably wouldn’t be wise.  Raymond Williams effectively satirised the search for the real, authentic countryside at some ever-receding point into the historical past in his book The Country and the City8. So let me accept Griffin’s history lesson and agree with her that there’s little to be gained other than a sense of wistful romanticism in supposing that preindustrial society holds a complete template for our future wellbeing (not, of course, the same as saying that jolly peasant autarchs have never existed, or that there’s nothing useful to be learned today from preindustrial times). But let me also point out, as I’ve done on this blog before, the dangers of a reverse romanticism in the ideology of ‘progress’, which identifies an axial point in the past to which we owe our present success and our future greatness. Griffin wholly falls into this trap, arguing that “It has been a very long time since the critics of industrialisation could plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth” (p.16) and  that, in the future, “Each generation will live longer, enjoy greater levels of material comfort, eat a more varied and exotic diet, and have more possessions” (p.241).

Well, to my mind it’s actually rather easy to plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth. And to project limitlessly increasing wellbeing, material comfort and material possessions betrays an alarmingly ahistorical failure to appreciate the limited trajectory of the very particular modern economic ideology associated with capitalist industrialisation. How can we mock those who imagine a perfect past and a miserable future, and then simply invert the temporal ordering of this ideology to imagine a miserable past and a perfect future? But I shall leave all that aside for now, because I want to return to ideologies of progress more explicitly in another post.

Industrialisation was different from what went before it, and Griffin does a good job of describing the new working class cultures that emerged in its wake. But maybe one can overstress the significance of industrialisation per se. The main story Griffin tells of industrialising Britain is the story of economic growth. In fact, even that is controversial: other historians such as Jan de Vries and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that the evidence for economic growth in England’s early 19th century industrial revolution is surprisingly thin, and that the disciplining of labour (Thompson’s ‘dark interpretation’) was a more salient driver for its restructuring of work9. But leaving that aside, is Griffin saying anything more telling than that in times of economic growth and full employment things can go pretty well for the ordinary working person, and specifically the ordinary working man? I’m not sure that she is. Even so, that story in itself raises tricky questions for a contemporary agrarian populism of the sort I espouse because I think Griffin could be right that it’s difficult to generate all that much of an economic surplus in agriculture alone, even in capitalist agriculture – let alone non-capitalist agriculture. And perhaps she’s also right that it’s easier to achieve working class self-organisation in the unified public sphere potentiated by industrialisation and urbanisation than in rural farm society. That also seems to be David Satterthwaite’s main argument for the benefit of urbanisation in poor countries today10.

I’m not so sure that the relative ease of political organisation in towns is the greatest argument against small scale farming. And I’d argue that the public spheres which emerged in urbanising early modern economies aren’t entirely positive, because they easily give rise to nationalisms and other such mystifying ideologies. Small farm life historically has indeed tended to be materially spartan and inequitable, an inequity that has presented considerable challenges to rural working people in organising to achieve their goals in the face of landowner power. But it’s not as if peasants have always and everywhere failed in the pursuit of these goals, as the work of people like James Scott attests. Scott writes that the peasantry is

“a class scattered across the countryside, lacking formal organization, and best equipped for extended, guerrilla-style, defensive campaigns of attrition. Their individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital”11

Others have even argued that such forms of peasant agency can create new and more sustainable forms of labour-intensive capitalism – an argument that I want to explore in more detail in another post12.

The peculiar social structure of eighteenth century Britain at the point of industrial takeoff reflects the outcome of prior class struggles which had already created a class of vulnerable wage labourers without significant access to land and self-provisioning. It’s not surprising that some of them at least were enthusiastic about the new economic opportunities that then came their way with industrialisation. But to me this hardly deserves the sobriquet of ‘liberty’s dawn’. Quite apart from the travails of people elsewhere in the world who toiled in servitude to fulfil British interests, and quite apart from the busts that inevitably attend the booms when global capital imbues everyday economic relations, the economic uptick of industrialisation (if indeed that’s what it was) was surely just another bloody day in the long historical standoff between capital and labour. And in the global long run it has still led to wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and the ecocidal consequences of endless economic growth. The challenge for a contemporary agrarian populism is to map out a society where there can be wellbeing without excessive economic growth, a focus on sustainable agrarian production and social equity in the means of that production. It’s not an easy task, and Griffin teaches us that we shouldn’t look to eighteenth century or preindustrial Britain for a good model of how to achieve it. But what she fails to show, in my opinion, is that such models themselves are not worth aiming for.



1. Griffin, E. 2013. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale UP.

2. Thompson, E. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

3. Griffin, op cit, p.83

4. Blackburn, R. 1997 The Making of New World Slavery, Verso; Mintz, S. 1986 Sweetness and Power, Penguin.

5. Heller, H. 2011. The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.

6. Griffin, op cit, p.39.

7. Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

8. Williams, R. 1975. The Country and the City. Oxford UP.

9. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge UP; Voth, H-J. 2004. Living standards and urban disamenities, in Floud, R. & Johnson, P. eds. Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol.1, Cambridge UP.


11. Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance Yale UP, p.xvii

12. Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

The agribusiness fail

An interesting discussion occurred on my blog during my summer recess, which I thought I might address briefly in this post. It concerned inter alia the difficulties of earning a living through ‘alternative farming’, the pronouncements of Vandana Shiva, and the promise of sustainably synthesised fertiliser. I’m going to leave the last of these issues to a future post, and say a few words about the other two.

So, Brian Macmillan drew attention to this interesting article which argued that farmers using alternative approaches such as permaculture are struggling to stay afloat economically – a deficiency that author Frank Aragona provocatively called ‘The Permaculture Fail’. Unlike Tom, I found much of the discussion beneath the article quite interesting and well reasoned, though I do agree with Tom at least in part that the peak oil-collapse of capitalism-billions will die nexus can easily be overdone.

I’ve made plain on this blog before that I’m amicably sceptical about a number of permaculture’s sacred cows and, as Brian pointed out, Aragona’s article covered pretty similar ground to my own blog post on some of permaculture’s limitations. But, as I also made clear in that post, I’m not planning to throw out the baby with the bathwater: ultimately, I reject Aragona’s concept of the ‘permaculture fail’ for reasons that are well covered in some of the comments beneath his post. The most telling one, I think, is the simple point made by ‘onoway’: so called ‘normal’ farmers aren’t making any money either. Here in the UK, the Commission for Rural Communities found in 2010 (shortly before the government abolished it) that a quarter of farm households lived below the poverty line, and you can be pretty sure that most of them weren’t permaculturists.

Aragona writes “we have focused all of our energy on biological production techniques, many and most of which are sound, effective, and replicable, yet we have done so on top of a broken socio-economic model”. Well, speak for yourself: personally I only focus my energy on biological production techniques by day. By night I write this blog, in which I tirelessly fix broken socio-economic models. But sheesh, then somebody comes along and breaks the damn things again and nothing seems to change. The fact is that however anyone farms they do it on top of a broken socio-economic model. The alternative farming movement – for example, my colleagues in the Land Workers Alliance and Via Campesina – does a pretty good job of articulating exactly how the model is broken. A better job at any rate than ‘normal’ mainstream farming organisations such as the NFU, who are servants of that model (witness George Monbiot’s mischievous but telling comparison of the NFU’s address – 16 Smith Square, London SW1 – with DEFRA’s address – 17 Smith Square, London SW1). We alternative farmers are hardly alone in wishing to derail the present neoliberal juggernaut without quite knowing how.

Still, I think it’s true that permaculturists are often over-susceptible to illusory get rich quick schemes. The article mentions somebody who supposedly earns $90,000/acre from his farming. Well, I’m sure with skill, luck, hard work and a relentless focus upon non-essential products that might be possible, but with the help of that infallible oracle, Wikipedia, let me now demonstrate mathematically the impossibility of all farmers following suit:

(1) Total area of agricultural land globally: 12.07 billion acres

(2) Total economic output of this land area @ $90,0000/acre: $1086 trillion

(3) Actual total global economic output: $59 trillion

(4) Theoretical total agricultural output as a percentage of total global economic output: 1841%


New ideas emerge in farming for sure, but if you’re aiming to produce basic foodstuffs I’d argue there are few shortcuts: you need to input either a lot of fossil fuel and fancy chemicals or a lot of your own/animal labour to get a financial return, and either way the return won’t be very much. You could argue that we shouldn’t be aiming for a financial return in the first place, as some of those commenting on Aragona’s article suggest. Fair point, though I think permaculturists can also be a bit over-susceptible to some confusions about money. But I’ll spin that particular yarn another time.

Aragona’s wider point is surely right, however – we need to develop some different socio-economic models. Of the various resources bequeathed us by history to do so, I find agrarian populism (leavened with a judicious quantity of Marxism, a touch of neo-Stoicism, an exotic hint of Taoism, a pinch of civic republicanism, and the tiniest half-pinch of liberalism) to be the most promising. And since Vandana Shiva is probably the highest profile advocate for agrarian populism around these days, I suppose I should leap to her defence in the light of the outrage caused by her GM/rape analogy. Or perhaps I should chide her and plead for less inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate. But when you have the likes of Patrick Moore tweeting to GM Watch “You are murdering bastards and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins” I just can’t help thinking “Go get ‘em, Vandana!”

Perhaps that last paragraph wasn’t the most spirited defence of a political stance ever mounted. Truth be told, I don’t think there’s a useful parallel between GM crops and rape (though when you look at what Shiva actually said, it wasn’t in fact quite such a direct analogy). There are certainly some troubling issues around seed sovereignty and violence, however. And though I find myself in disagreement with quite a lot of the particulars of what Shiva says, I like her  capacity – and the capacity of agrarian populism in general – to outrage the comfortable worldviews of Marxists and liberals alike. The mainstream media will wax with outrage and scorn for Shiva until it finds some other outside-the-box opinion-former to demonise. Meanwhile, the quiet and necessary work of articulating a left agrarian populism continues. For what it’s worth, I think Shiva does tend to romanticise peasant farming a little, though to be honest why the hell shouldn’t she? We’ve had two hundred years of shameless romanticising of the urban, and if Stewart Brand can get away with writing “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant” then I demand my right to my jolly nature-loving peasants.

Truth be told, the cupboard of agrarian populist gurus is looking pretty bare these days – Shiva, James Scott, Philip McMichael, Paul Richards, maybe Colin Tudge? I might file an application myself. But whatever my specific disagreements with their respective oeuvres, I think they’re right in their basic contention that the best solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems are to be found from the ground up, and if small scale farmers and small scale communities are allowed to get on with the business of feeding their bodies and spirits, perhaps with a little bit of help from central governments rather than with their active hindrance, then those problems start to look less insurmountable. It’s what you might call the agribusiness fail.

Of authenticity and independence

An unexpected benefit of having now almost fully moved to live permanently on our farm site (well, ‘permanently’ at least until our next reckoning with Mendip District Council, on which topic more soon) is that I no longer follow the news too much. Living in our town house, I just couldn’t help performing a morning ritual of flicking through the newspaper and listening to John Humphries wittering away on the Today programme, whereas now when I get up, checking on the sheep, or the seedlings, or the battery monitor, or the rain gauge, somehow seems more important.

Still, old habits die hard. The big political news last week of the Scottish independence vote could hardly escape me, and I even found myself listening to Radio 4’s You and Yours on my wind up radio while packing the veg boxes. ‘Wind up radio’ is the apposite term, because the programme featured a food historian called Dr Annie Gray, whose extraordinarily obtuse intellectual position amounted to the argument that because we in the Old World use foodstuffs in our cuisines like chillies and potatoes that hail originally from the Americas, there can be no such thing as ‘authenticity’ in a cuisine, and therefore anything should go – her preferred example being the joys of eating spam and creme egg toasties. Well, eat what you like, but by parallel logic I’m offering my pig sty as additional operating theatre space to my local NHS trust since it’s impossible to create a completely aseptic environment anyway. Of course, there’s an interesting debate to be had about what ‘authentic cuisine’ might mean. In some people’s hands, perhaps little more than a status-aggrandising opportunity to best those who don’t know that proper pasta is always eaten al dente. For Michael Pollan, it’s what your grandparents ate (so perhaps, worryingly, a spam and creme egg toastie might qualify). For the palaeo diet people, it’s what people ate before the big Neolithic blunder.

I guess my general line of argument would be that it’s never possible to place authenticity within unambiguous boundaries, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try – you learn more from the attempt than you do from shrugging your shoulders at the whole idea and throwing another creme egg in the toaster oven, which ends up enforcing its own faux demotic concept of authenticity anyway. It reminds me of the endless circularities involved in debates about what’s ‘natural’, which culminate in the absurdity of people like Graham Strouts arguing that there is no such thing as natural limits, because there’s a natural tendency for people to supersede them in this best of all possible modern worlds. One teleology succeeds another. I think a farming rather than a culinary perspective would help when it comes to the matter of authentic food: the question is not what makes an authentic dish, but what makes an authentic relationship to the world around us.

I guess I just have to accept in these neoliberal times that attempts to define cultural or economic boundaries invite mockery, and the economic devastation worked by organisations like the WTO will be complemented by a cultural devastation worked by ignorant food writers like Jay Rayner, Steven Poole and Annie Gray who really ought to know better. Oh well, hopefully a few will survive this onslaught and be able to create properly considered local food and farming cultures in the future. At least there are some positive forces already rallying against eco-panglossianism and even some voices of ecological reason such as Ford Denison on this very blog. In the mean time, best I think to turn off the radio and get back to transplanting my Texel greens.

Oh, but how could I avoid following the Scottish referendum? As the great, great, great grandson of a Scottish crofter I was a little miffed to be denied the opportunity of having my say on this critical constitutional matter. Well, since the vote tellers didn’t ask my opinion I’m going to vent it to my blog instead – I would have voted ‘yes’. A yes result in Scotland would have nicely set the cat amongst the pigeons regarding local subsidiarity in the British Isles. Soon we would have realised that the ‘national interest’ was really just the interest of London, the southeast, bloated city fat cats, and their fellow travellers amongst the international plutocracy. ‘England’ would have become a rump state centred around London, and the rest of us would have happily seceded, breathing new life into more natural – even, perhaps, more authentic – smaller polities in the manner so cleverly articulated by Leopold Kohr in his book The Breakdown of Nations. We would have had to learn that our materially privileged former lifestyle – the cars, the instant broadband, the expensive foreign holidays, the property nest eggs – had been propped up by the privileged London elite we so despised, but that would be no bad thing. Back to the land we would have gone, and built a new, more materially sustainable small farm future.

Hang on a minute, though. An independent Scotland wanted to retain the pound, and EU membership? And voters were cowed by such terrible threats as having to pay more for their TV licences? Or perhaps were more rightly cowed by the football terrace rhetoric of separatism, its ugly 90 minute sectarianism. Meanwhile, in regionalised Britain the kind of faceless government bureaucrat who gave Vallis Veg planning permission for an agricultural residence would be swept away, and instead of inept Westminster government we would have the streamlined local responsiveness of Mendip District Council as our only arbiters?

I awake from this nightmare vision and tick the ‘no’ box. Perhaps we are not yet ready for a small farm future. But how badly I still want to tick yes. Yes – no – yes – no. Like a Democratic presidential candidate in the line of a Republican media feeding frenzy, I flip and I flop. Let us not be surprised in the coming years at the prospect of all sorts of strange and troubling but perhaps also enabling political realignments that make fools of all the pundits. As a callow graduate student in anthropology in the USA in the 1980s I was told by one of my professors that the Soviet Union had solved the problem of its ethnic and nationalist discords. And if you think it doesn’t matter what nonsense ivory tower academics might spout, let me tell you that the same fellow will shortly be the next president of Afghanistan. The problem of nationalism has been solved nowhere – not in the Soviet Union (if you don’t know where that is, just look on a map – so long as it’s 30 years old), not in Britain, and not in the USA. Which brings me on to the subject of nationalism, a small farm future, and the problems of agrarian populism. But first I really do have to go and transplant my Texel greens.

Scientists Behaving Normally: Junk science, Nonscience and Bias

I was all set to post as previously threatened another screed about golden rice in the wake of my spat on Steve Savage’s website with some of his commenters, when all of a sudden Steve releases a new post on the somewhat related issue of scientific evidence, which is perhaps of more general interest. So I think I’ll hold off for now on the golden rice and go with the science/evidence theme. In other news, I’ve been tangling with the former poet laureate on the Guardian letters page and with proponents of the pig swill ban among other things over at the Food Climate Research Network. Goodness, am I really that argumentative? Probably, alas. What a good thing I’m confined to this little window in the blogosphere (click x, top right).

Anyway, Steve’s argument is that science is a conversation which only begins with publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and that the system is hijacked when scientists aggressively move their findings into the mainstream public conversation before the scientific conversation has reached a consensus.  The basic lines of his argument are hard to fault, I think, except that the tendency for scientists to grandstand their conclusions for personal or political reasons is hardly new (think Edison vs Tesla), and ‘scientific consensus’ can often be an elusive destination. But the funny (actually, quite predictable…) thing is that all Steve’s examples of this deplorable practice are ones that have emphasised the negative effects of the mainstream food and farming system he champions. For many of us more sceptical of this system than Steve, the deplorable practice runs at least as much in the opposite direction, as for example in aggressively favourable public prejudging of golden rice by folks that Steve happily links from his blog.

Part of the problem, I think, is that because science has been so successful at unteasing causalities and informing technological developments we invest unreasonable expectations in it to arbitrate between different views of how the world should be which are ultimately rooted in politics and philosophy and which therefore cannot be resolved by scientific experiments. Steve wants there to be scientific conversations, but he doesn’t want Séralini’s study linking GM maize to cancer in rats to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even though it’s apparently made it through the peer review process twice and was retracted in circumstances that were opaque at best.

That doesn’t seem very conversational of him – surely it’s better for these things to be available in the publicly-accredited scientific domain so that the conversation can truly begin. No doubt the study is flawed – almost all studies are flawed somehow or other. But the Séralini affair and others of its ilk does make me wonder whether there’s some publication bias going on in the world of GM research. If one or a few studies suggest a link between a GM crop and disease, it doesn’t mean that the case against GM crops is closed. A single study rarely proves anything. But you might expect to find the odd study in the scientific literature linking a GM crop to a negative health outcome of some sort even if only on the grounds of simple probability – the fact that there seem to be none (and the fact that those like Séralini and Pusztai who’ve attempted to suggest one have been so relentlessly hounded in ways quite alien to disputes in less politicised scientific arenas) is to me suspiciously redolent of publication bias, or worse. And not just to me – a study published in Environmental Sciences Europe argues that there have been ‘critical double standards’ in the evaluation of Séralini’s study as compared to the feeding studies conducted by Monsanto on their maize.

From publication bias to confirmation bias – one accusation among several levelled at me on Steve’s site by David Röll. My exchanges with Röll have led me to think that he’s basically a wind up merchant and I’m probably taking his comments way more seriously than I should, but hey let’s try to derive something useful from his windy rhetoric. So I’ll admit it, yes, I suffer from confirmation bias. And so, manifestly, does Steve Savage. And everyone else, surely. We all come to particular views over a period of time as a result of various direct and indirect influences and experiences, but the world’s complexity generally exceeds the neat lines with which we seek to organise it. When we encounter scientific research that appears confirmatory of our worldviews we latch on to it gleefully, again I’d argue in part because of the somewhat excessive cachet of science-as-truth in our culture. And when, inevitably, we encounter plausible research that challenges aspects of our worldviews, we look for flaws and rationalisations. And why not – that’s surely all part of ‘the conversation’. Nobody abandons a slowly accreted worldview overnight. Though hopefully addressing its contradictions and contrary evidence allows us to get more nuanced in our understandings.

The Berkeley physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn built an influential theory about the history of science around the notion that confirmation bias is part and parcel of the scientific process – a philosophy that can be summed up by the old cliché that you can determine the eminence of a scientist by the length of time they obstruct progress in their discipline. But the great thing about science – almost uniquely among human endeavour – is that its procedures ultimately enable it to overcome confirmation bias and the passing opinions of influential savants. As someone trained in social science rather than natural science, the misery of my discipline is that we just don’t have the same procedures available for escaping ideological blinders. On the other hand, the joy of it is that – economists aside – for the same reason we’re not so prey to the hubris of supposing that our convictions exist above the messy world of politics and argument, issuing instead like some fount of sweet water from the uncorrupted well of pure knowledge. Which is why I consider misguided the shrill appeals to ‘reason’, ‘science’ and ‘logic’ for deciding in favour of agribusiness-as-usual as a solution to contemporary problems promulgated by the likes of Graham Strouts and David Röll and, albeit less aggressively and more informatively, Steve Savage (though that’s not to say that there’s no role for these qualities in addressing such problems).

Science can overcome confirmation bias, but the process of this overcoming is neither fast nor simple. What particularly worries me is the apparently growing use of the label ‘junk science’ to summarily dismiss from consideration research or analysis that isn’t consonant with the supposed consensus asserted by the person deploying the term – the surest way for science to forget the radical questioning that gives it its edge over other modes of thought and to become just another church intent on dispatching the heretics. George Monbiot has shown how the junk science label arose out of corporate efforts to deny the scientific evidence on the consequences of tobacco and, more recently, on climate change. On a much smaller stage, the way that David Röll sought to dispatch my scepticism over golden rice was cut from the same cloth – it’s so much easier to dismiss your opponent for junk science, Gish gallop, conspiracy theory or whatever than actually engage with their arguments.

Well, there are those I’ve accused of Gish gallop myself – time is pressing, and why work through a foot-thick tissue of questionable assumptions and dodgy evidence (especially when the person concerned is only likely to respond with ad hominem abuse). But if you don’t engage with the specific arguments, it opens the door to your own confirmation bias and certainly gives you no right to consider your case proven. In many situations, science does not speak with one voice, and cases of outsider science becoming mainstream are legion. Much as I despair when someone says exactly this in justification of earth vibrational essences, perpetual motion machines or other nonsense (I’m thinking more of things like plate tectonics, the Alvarez hypothesis and the symbiosis in the eukaryotic cell), that fact remains. And in any case, all this talk of ‘the science’ in relation to essentially political commitments on food, farming and society is misleading – the advantages and disadvantages of different farming futures do not only or even mainly lie in what ‘the science’ tells us, but in what kind of social worlds we wish to inhabit. Which was pretty much my position in the FCRN debate, and is a recurrent theme on this blog. So thanks for coming back for more.

Who owns the future?

Following on from a recent post of mine and from Clem’s comment therein about thinking of food and land in terms of private property with protections through the rule of law, I’ve been musing a bit on this issue and thought I’d mention a few things here that touch on it.

One of them is an interesting article by Guardian journalist John Harris called ‘The Tories own the future – the left is trapped in the past’. Leftwingers of the Twitterversity were quick to brand him a traitor to the left but I thought much of the article was bang on, even though I’ve got to say that it seems to me the Tories are trapped in the past too. Disclaimer: John is a near neighbour of mine here in Frome and a tireless campaigner for a relocalisation of the economy, but I don’t know him personally and carry no particular torch here.

I won’t dwell at length on all the implications of John’s article. What particularly struck a chord with me was his argument that the Conservative party is embracing a notion of trying to keep up in the ‘global race’, in which the industrious, the supple and the adaptable will be rewarded, while the lazy, staid and complacent will be punished. Witness Nick Clegg’s repeated derision for what he calls the ‘stop the world I want to get off’ view (OK, I know Clegg isn’t strictly speaking a Tory, but c’mon, let’s not split hairs). This plays to a common national self-image of hardworking, go-getting, self-reliance, in contrast to the moaning about welfare rights and protecting public services associated with the traditional left. It’s a more modern and globalised take on the way Margaret Thatcher pinched the working class vote from Labour in the 1980s by appealing to everybody’s inner shopkeeper (of course, there’s something of an affinity between shopkeepers and peasants, the latter being this blog’s favourite kind of people – shame that Thatcher lost touch with her inner peasant, and opted to help usher in neoliberalism rather than neopopulism).

One major problem, though, is that Britain’s chance of winning the global race, or even getting a sniff of the podium, is zero (some other nice articles in the Guardian recently, such as this one and this one have pointed out contrarily how working people generally are very well aware of this, and pursue other goals when possible). Ha Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism explains why quite effectively. And David Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital, which I’m currently reading and will post something about soon, explains why we probably shouldn’t be trying. Whatever the case, the Coalition’s lack of a Plan B means that we’re skating on thin ice.

In terms of my personal politics, I like the traditional left’s emphasis on civic amenities, its ethic of community-wide care, and its recognition that it’s morally wrong (as well as politically short-sighted) to condone major and persistent inequalities. But I’m also drawn to somewhat more rightwing sensibilities: shit happens, you have to make the best of it without trying to find somebody to blame and the best way to do it is to cultivate your self-reliance. I’ve found my current occupation as a self-employed farmer highly educative in relation to this latter set of values, and I think it would be good if a lot more people did it. I’m under no illusions that I’ve achieved a significant degree of self-reliance, but farming has certainly helped me both develop my capacities of self-reliance and appreciate my limitations in respect of them. To obtain protection from weather, clean water, a healthy and fertile soil, a stock of domestic animals and plants, fuel and machinery, and, ultimately, food and fibre for myself and money for other things by selling food to others is no easy thing, and it ties me to the labours of so many other people living and dead.

My suspicion is that many people with well paid jobs and grid-connected homes in thoroughly domesticated neighbourhoods who talk about the virtues of self-reliance really have very little clue about what that truly means, and how the kind of anti-collectivist policies they advocate render self-reliance impossible for a huge swathe of humanity. Many such versions of ‘self-reliance’ really are nothing of the sort: they’re a distorted culture of narcissism, as discussed with a remarkable prescience towards my analysis by the late American cultural historian Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism. And the pro-globalisation, anti-‘stop the world’ rhetoric represents an almost millenarian belief in ‘progress’ as an ideology, a kind of true and only heaven: a concept of mine again astonishingly prefigured by Lasch in his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. Harvey is also very good on the rhetoric of liberty, self-reliance and privatisation masking what he calls the “incredible centralisation of wealth and power observable in all those countries that took the neoliberal road”. But, as I say, more on Harvey soon.

So when, inevitably, we lose the global race, when we find that the global bus indeed has not stopped for us, what then? Harris talks of the demise of steady wage labour, the ageing of the population, and the increasingly problematic reach of the central state as key problems for the left to confront. It’s interesting to put them into the context of a relocalised food economy and a repeopled farming sector. I’m noticing youngish, well-educated thirtysomething people wanting to get into farming because they sense that it’s an issue for the future and because they can already see that the writing’s on the wall for notions of a steady and fulfilling career as employees in the information society. A young guy here in Frome is setting up a herb business, because there’s no other way he can find work. One of the problems for we latter day agrarian populists is that it’s difficult to argue for a mass people’s movement of farmers, when less than 1% of the population is in farming. But maybe running and then losing the global race will hasten the emergence of a repeopled farming community. It won’t be easy trying to wrest the farm estate from landed wealth, and then insulating ourselves from free trade ideology without thereby giving it back to the landed aristocracy by the back door. Still, I’m hopeful that these young people or later generations of them will succeed, be able to farm, and be able to judge the success of their on-farm actions in relation to their wider social projects, as per the ideas of Paul Richards I mentioned in another post.

Anyway, I think I agree with Clem’s instincts that private property with protections through the rule of law generally isn’t a bad way to go – not because private property is universally desirable, but because it’s a model that we understand well here and that has certain benefits so long as we make sure the legal protections are good and we don’t put the economists in charge. On this front, I had an interesting little discussion recently with Ford Denison on his Darwinian Agriculture blog about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept. As I suggested there, my feeling is that left-leaning enthusiasts of common property regimes are way too romantic about what those entail in practice, but right-leaning enthusiasts of private property regimes are way too romantic in their turn about the capacity of private property to deliver public goods – they also tend to mythologise concepts such as competition and efficiency, though both have their place. I subsequently came across Simon Fairlie’s brilliant historical analysis of common property regimes in Britain (after which Hardin modelled his influential but misleading ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept) and their destruction through enclosure. The ‘Private Interest and Common Sense’ section towards the end is especially thought-provoking. So yes, private property with protections through the rule of law undergirding a people-intensive farming sector is something I’d like to see, but as a way of delivering community welfare, not as an a priori economic ideology. The difficulties and contradictions of realising it is something I’ll try to come back to in future posts – and the unfulfilled promise of 19th/early 20th century agrarian populism in the USA touched on by Clem and Brian’s discussion is a key legacy to reckon with.

In the mean time, here’s a novel thought in answer to the Cleggist programme of trying to win the global race:

the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.