An objector’s guide to the English rural planning system

Long-term readers of this blog will know about my bureaucracy-busting superhero alter ego, Spudman. While I’ve been farming by day and blogging by night, Spudman has for the past four or five years been locked in a fierce battle with the forces of darkness in order to win the right for us to live permanently on our farm. And I’m pleased to announce that he has finally prevailed, thanks in no small part to his long-suffering partner in crime, La Brassicata, and a merry band of local sisters-and-brothers-in-arms who have long given our project their unstinting support. With planning permission for a permanent rural worker’s dwelling hot off the press, we now have the green light to develop the farm long-term with security of tenure. Time, then, for Spudman to hang up his spurs, beat his sword to a ploughshare (or at least a small transplanting tool), and enjoy a quiet retirement.

But it strikes me that there’s quite a lot of ignorance about the English planning system as it applies to small-scale farming. For evidence, I cite the objection letters against our application sent in by a few local residents and, let me whisper it, also the views of one or two within the system who really ought to know better. So as his last contribution to the cause before slipping off into a quiet retirement, I bring you a question-and-answer session with Spudman himself, amounting to nothing less than an objector’s guide to rural planning applications.

  1. Spudman, why do people buy small plots of bare agricultural land and then try to get permission to build houses on them?

Essentially for one of two reasons. The first is that the price of housing in England (including farm housing) is so extravagant that unless you’re independently wealthy, the chances of being able to buy a farm and then service the debt from farming it hover between the remote and the non-existent. Therefore a lot of people who want to farm buy cheaper (but still not cheap) land lacking in any dwelling, and hope that they may be able to build a house on it.

The second reason is that, in view of the extravagant costs of housing and the relative cheapness of agricultural land, it’s tempting for people who have no real interest in farming but who would like a nice, cheap house in the countryside to buy some agricultural land in order to steal a march on the rural property market.

If people of the latter kind had their way, the countryside would soon be full of gimcrack mansions and agricultural land would cost the same as any other development land, making farming impossible. Therefore we have a planning system, which attempts to filter out people of the latter kind from people of the former. This is a good idea, except the filters it uses are so fine that they catch out a lot of people of the former kind too, making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone to establish a new farm business.

  1. How does this planning system ‘filter’ work?

In various ways – for the full local detail where I live, take a look at Development Policy 13 in Mendip District Council’s Local Plan. Essentially, you first have to get permission for a temporary house, which has to be completely removable. You then have just three years in order to move onto your site, establish your (temporary) home, develop your enterprise and convince the planning authority that it all stacks up business-wise. Quite a tall order. But after that you can apply for permission to live permanently on the site.

There are various other criteria that you have to satisfy too. Probably the two most important ones are, first, that your business is in profit for at least one of the three years of your temporary residence, and, second, that there is an agricultural need for you to be on the site. Both of these make sense in theory as a way of filtering out people who don’t really intend to run a business and don’t really need to be on site. But the devil is in the detail: it’s extremely hard to make any small business turn a profit after three years, especially an agricultural business in which the financial returns are invariably small. And it’s also hard for farmers with small-scale, labour-intensive enterprises to convince people in the planning system (who don’t usually know much about this kind of farming) that they really do need to live on their site. Planning officers (and local objectors) often go to town (quite literally) on the idea that small-scale market gardeners don’t need to live on their sites in order to make a reasonable living from growing and selling vegetables. This makes it plain that they’ve never actually tried it.

  1. So what definition of ‘profit’ is used to judge a rural enterprise?

Aha, well that’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe – like how to unify quantum physics with general relativity, and the precise whereabouts of Elvis. But I can tell you that last year Vallis Veg earned a shade under £19,000, that we’ve received permanent planning permission, and that ipso facto our business must be profitable. At one meeting, a local councillor said that our profitability was ‘marginal’. I pointed out that it was only slightly less than the national average farmer’s income (I should have added that it’s also been achieved on a paltry 18 acres, and with no EU farm subsidies, which account for more than half most farm incomes). He conceded that a lot of farmers would be happy to earn what we’d achieved. This is what I mean by the filters being too fine.

Various objectors to our application questioned on the basis of our profits whether our business was ‘serious’, one of them saying “it would be impossible to support a family on these results”. This suggests to me that a lot of folks really have no idea how squeezed farm incomes are. In fact, it suggests to me that they have no idea how squeezed incomes are in general around the world, since by my reckoning our returns exceed average global income on a purchasing power parity basis by about 50%. Which means that there are a hell of a lot of people around the world achieving the ‘impossible’ and supporting their families on much less income than us every day, something that I find worth remembering. Perhaps one or two others might find it worth remembering too.

  1. OK, I get it, I get it. But what’s the best way of me stopping someone from being allowed to build a house on my neighbouring farmland?

Well, first of all maybe you should ask yourself why you want to object. You’re living in the countryside, right? Are you farming it? No? So maybe you’re living in a dwelling that could be occupied by someone who is producing something useful from the surrounding land? And yet you want to stop them? Maybe you should think about that…

  1. Right, thought about it. I still don’t want somebody moving into my backyard and spoiling my quiet enjoyment of the countryside by producing vegetables and nonsense like that. So could you just tell me how to stop them?

OK, well it’s tricky but what I’d suggest is (1) do some research, (2) stick to what affects you, (3) avoid casual insinuation and spurious dirt-digging, and (4) don’t make things up. Otherwise you just sound like a Nimby.

  1. Could you break that down for me a bit?

Certainly. On the research side of things, you might start by finding out what local policies govern the application. If, for example, the Local Plan has a policy relating to “permanent rural worker’s dwellings” and the application is for a “permanent rural worker’s dwelling”, don’t write an objection letter that says “The title of the application is misleading – it says permanent rural worker’s dwelling but the supporting documentation shows that it is for a farm house”. Because, here’s the thing, everybody already knows that it’s for a farmhouse. It’s just that in modern planning-speak the word for ‘farmhouse’ is ‘rural worker’s dwelling’ – kind of the way that in modern school-speak the word for ‘library’ is ‘enrichment centre’. So what I’m saying is, don’t assume that the applicant is trying something sneaky just because they’re using phrases you’ve never heard of. They’ve probably just spent way, way more time than you have reading Mendip District’s Council Local Plan. Take pity on them.

Actually, the issue of our ‘farmhouse’ raises an interesting point that haunts the question of housing in modern Britain. The Local Plan states that the size of the dwelling should be commensurate with the enterprise, which is fair enough – if you run a small market garden, you shouldn’t need a leisure palace. But it’s reasonable, surely, to ask for enough room to house your family and visitors. Not according to certain objectors: “It is quite clear that this request is for a country house to suit the requirements of the applicants rather than a simple rural worker’s dwelling”, wrote one of them. I’m not sure if the adjective ‘simple’ in that sentence is qualifying the noun ‘worker’ or ‘dwelling’, but I think it’s telling either way. Here in outline is the same mentality which prompted the government to impose its notorious bedroom tax on social housing tenants deemed to have more space than they deserved. Another objector commented that our proposed house appeared to be “substantial” and “well designed” and therefore apparently “does not fulfil the function of a basic rural workers dwelling”. If you have the money, of course, there are huge rural properties on the market which you can buy and occupy (or else leave empty) however you damn well please. But heaven forbid that a ‘simple’ farm worker should be allowed a substantial or well-designed house. Might there be a trace of class elitism here, alarmed at the prospect of the hoi polloi getting the houses they want rather than what their betters are prepared to allow them?

Well, I couldn’t possibly say. But I can show you our existing house, much of which will be retained as part of the permanent dwelling. It doesn’t look much like any country house that I’ve ever seen, other than in the rather literal sense that it’s (a) a house (well, sort of), and (b) in the country.

vallis-veg-mansions

Perhaps I can generalise from these observations into my ‘stick to what affects you’ point. I’d recommend that you think about why you’re actually objecting. Maybe it’s because you share road access with the applicants and would prefer less traffic? Then you can just say so, without taking it upon yourself to go through the whole application with a fine-tooth comb looking for loopholes to try and shoot down the business they’ve been toiling away at for years, just so that you can have a marginally quieter life. Therefore, I’d suggest that you don’t write things like “It is recommended that Mendip District Council pay an unannounced visit to validate the viability of the Vallis Veg enterprise” – partly because they already do that as a matter of course during their evaluation process and it’s their job, not yours, to have opinions about the viability of the business, and partly because it makes you sound like a pompous busybody. Anyway, are you really that interested in the financial details of your neighbour’s business? Or is your interest more like the kind of interest in bat welfare that people objecting to large wind turbines often seem to develop quite late in life, which had hitherto lain entirely dormant?

On the spurious dirt-digging front, you may happen to know something about the applicants’ personal affairs. Maybe they own other property, or have other sources of income, such as this high-earning blog whose ‘Donate’ button is virtually worn out through overuse. Maybe you have extra sources of income too. What actually matters is whether the application meets the relevant criteria in the Local Plan. Nothing else. So don’t go there.

On the making things up front, maybe check what applications have actually been submitted for the site. This will help you avoid imputing phantom planning applications to the applicants that have never actually existed – for example for orchards, woods and market gardens (none of these are planning considerations) or for farm shops. If there’s a campsite on the application site which doesn’t accept caravans, then it’s probably best to avoid claiming that it’s used by caravans, huh? You get my drift…

  1. I do get your drift, but honestly some of these small-scale growers don’t even grow all their own vegetables. Some of it they buy in from other growers.

A point that some of our objectors made much of. And, well, readers of the Small Farm Future blog may crow in delight to discover that in real life the author of the fantasy novel Neo-Peasant Wessex, far from living an entirely self-reliant peasant life on his small farm, actually buys in and sells on produce as part of his evil capitalist business model. But the fact is, the present economics of commercial horticulture dictate that pretty much every box scheme does this. And remember, as per point 2. above, that said author needs to have a viable business in order to keep the farm intact so that he can dabble at being a neo-peasant in his spare time. But you could look at it this way: we buy in produce from other small local businesses and non-profits, the increased volume enables us to employ people to help with packing and increases the overheads we pay to some of the retail outlets we use. So what we’re doing is a net benefit to the wider local economy. A small net benefit, perhaps. Last year we paid out less than £2,000 for part-time help, for example. But again, that’s not bad going for an 18 acre farm just 3 years into full onsite production. We’re paying out more this year. And even small things can matter. “The part-time well paid work they offered me made a massive difference to me personally”, as one of our workers wrote. So before writing lofty dismissals like “Based on these results there is no opportunity to employ anyone from the local community, other than the odd part timer, so there is no benefit there.” I’d recommend finding out if anyone in the local community does actually feel some benefit.

  1. OK, thanks for your advice, Spudman. But, tell me honestly, if I write in to complain, what are my chances of getting the application rejected?

Well, if the application fulfils the criteria in the Local Plan and your only real objection is that you’ll occasionally be held up by a bit of extra traffic, then I’d venture to say that, happily, your chances are remote. Despite the fact that writing in and complaining to the authorities is something of a national pastime in Britain, the planning system doesn’t pay a huge amount of attention to letters of objection (or indeed of support) unless they raise an issue of planning policy that wasn’t already apparent. It’s ironic, really – a lot of people get into small-scale local agriculture because they dislike the money-and-market obsessed dysfunctions of the contemporary food system. But if they manage to establish a small business that stands on its feet – which is by no means easy – then the money-and-market friendly planning system will likely reward them for it in the end. The downside is that if you buy an acre or two of land to provide for your own personal subsistence, or let us say just as a wild example that you buy ten hectares of land to provide for your family’s subsistence and that of four other families who you wish to live with on your site, you haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of getting your project through the planning system. Which is why when I retire from farming and step into a senior governmental role within the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I’m going to have to tear down the entire planning system and build it up again from scratch. How? I’ll tell you another time. For now my take-home message is this: the world is a crowded place, and if we’re going to get through the various looming crises we face, a lot of us – me included, as you can probably tell from this post – are going to have to get a whole lot better at the fine art of living and letting live. A really simple way of starting that process is thinking about whether we really need to object to a neighbour’s planning application, and if so how best to do it graciously…

A farmer’s guide to Brexit

I promised a Brexit two-parter with a second post on agriculture, so that’s what I aim to deliver. It’s clear that the Brexit issue is going to reverberate for a long time to come, but I think I’d better start pressing the fade button on it for a while after this. Funny how quickly it’s flipped from a slow-burning issue of the disgruntled fringe in both main parties to a fast-burning issue of the disgruntled mainstream. Looking back at my pre-referendum predictions, I thought a Brexit result would cause strife in the Tory party, which it has. What I didn’t predict, though perhaps it’s obvious with hindsight, is that it would also lead to a full-on meltdown in the Labour Party. Compare the way the two parties have handled the fallout: on the right, the smooth and ruthless excision of Johnson and now probably Gove as a threat to Tory ruling hegemony; on the left, a massive and possibly terminal public brawl. Those who see Brexit as an opportunity to reshape our politics for the better, which includes me to some extent, have got their work cut out. I also failed to perceive how, especially outside Britain, many in the heterodox leftist circles where I usually find my inspiration would side with the neoliberals in heralding the Brexit vote as some kind of victory, rather than just another perplexing lurch in the long-term crisis. At issue, I think, are different notions of political sovereignty, on which I’ll have more to say later in the year.

Something that I did predict was the delusional excess currently parading across the country and its political talk shows: Britain is important once again, a great trading nation that now has a free hand to direct the flow of money and limit the flow of people. If the Brexiteers succeed in those dual objectives then it’s game, set and match for neoliberalism in the UK. But I doubt they will, so I feel reasonably relaxed about putting up with the current victory party. It’ll be over soon enough, and then things will get more serious. Perhaps the question is, as David Hare puts it, whether we’ll have politicians who are serious enough to cope with the aftermath.

Anyway, I’m just a humble farmer so let me leave all that aside and say a little about how this might pan out agriculturally. Policy wonkery isn’t really my forte, and neither is accurate prediction, so it seems. But let me hazard a few guesses about the agricultural landscape of a post-Brexit Britain…

The first point to make, along the lines of Tim Lang in this interesting commentary (interesting also for the mixture of wise and foolish comments beneath the article, including the good old vertical farming fallacy) is that food and farming are just about the biggest ticket items within the entire EU but got almost no coverage in the referendum campaign, except obliquely in terms of immigration issues. A case of “let’s quit the EU, and then start figuring out the implications”.

I think those implications are going to be quite troubling for farmers, consumers and Brexit negotiators. But a lot will depend on the shape of the Tory government that takes us out of the EU. My best guess (which on present form probably isn’t a very good one) is that the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers will be a more dominant hue in the post-Cameron Tory party. My predictions below are based on that assumption.

A brief statistical interlude – the following three figures are worth bearing in mind: The average annual earnings in the UK are around £25,500; the average annual farmer’s earnings are around £19,500; and, three-quarters of the latter comes from support payments1.

So let me now take a few wild punts on how all this will play out:

Small-scale farmers: plus ça change. Britain has the largest-scale and most straightforwardly market-oriented agriculture of any EU country. After the last round of CAP negotiations, the British government could have chosen to keep basic farm payments for small farmers, cap maximum payments for large ones, and use the CAP framework and other trading mechanisms to support local small-scale farming in other ways. But it didn’t. In that sense, small-scale commercial farmers who are still in business may be Brexit-proofed ahead of the curve. But we also mostly focus on high value niche products which are quite income elastic. So if the post-Brexit economy bombs, then so might we.

Large-scale lowland farmers. Despite all the promises of the Brexiteers, I can’t see basic farm payments lasting much beyond the 2020 election. Their days are probably numbered in the EU too, but here in Britain we won’t be able to afford them, they’re not in keeping with the neoliberal faith, and there aren’t many farmers anyway, so their votes don’t matter much (besides, who else are they going to vote for – Jeremy Corbyn?) On the upside, a lot of that meddlesome EU environmental regulation will probably go too, which will save a bit of money. Expect more dead fish in the River Frome, and in other waterways the length and breadth of the country. Fuel and fertilizer prices, grain prices – ooh, it’s a knife-edge, but I’m sure a lot of the big guys will pull through. The schmooze factor between Big Agri and the Tory government will increase exponentially (expect pedestrian disruption between Nos. 16 and 17 Smith Square due to pavement repairs). But I’m not sure it’ll make much difference in the end.

Big Landowners. In his article Tim Lang takes a gentle sideswipe at George Monbiot for overdoing his CAP-as-a-subsidy-to-the-rich schtick. I’m with Tim on this, even though George is right that the CAP does function as an outrageously regressive negative income tax for wealthy landowners. But George tends to underplay the fact that, within Europe, it mostly functions as a subsidy to consumers and retailers (note earnings figures above). In any case, with Brexit I think the big landowning wing of the Tory party will lose out to the swivel-eyed neoliberals. But I’m not sure how much it’ll care. Tenant farmers are a pain in the backside anyway. Big landowners will most likely line up with all the current ‘getting our country back’ tosh, position themselves as custodians of the timeless English landscape and find other ways to cash in. They’re good at that sort of thing. They’ve been practicing it for, like, a thousand years.

Upland stock farmers. Hard times are in store when the subsidy regimen dies and the winds of neoliberalism blow harder. Ironically, perhaps the New Zealand sheep farmers who suffered in the 1970s when Britain tightened the screws on its EU membership (or EEC as it was then) will return the favour now we’re leaving it. But some of the British upland farmers will survive because, like the aristocracy, the peasantry is adept at hanging on to what it has. The lightening of the regulatory burden may help. So more dead fish, then. Don’t expect much rewilding or watershed management, unless it’s undertaken for free by Mother Nature on abandoned upland farms.

Dairy farmers. The final death knell for medium-scale family dairy farming? And no more generous grants for converting to indoor robotic systems. So a game for giant corporate players. But also perhaps some spaces opening up for low-impact micro-dairying?

Conservation policies and environmental regulation: you’re joking, right? (See Miles King for details).

A national food policy: are you some kind of communist? Read my lips: no centralised planning unless we have absolutely no other option. Which may turn out to be the case (see below).

Energy: I doubt there’ll be enough in the kitty for the new reactor at Hinkley Point, and negotiating with EDF just got harder. I also doubt that the instinctive Tory hatred towards renewable energy of any kind will change much. And now we’re out of the EU we don’t have to ratify that silly Paris climate deal. So I’d predict lots of fracking and open-cast Welsh coal. Probably not enough to keep us ticking over, but there’s a chap called Putin knocking at the door with some excellent deals up his sleeve. They seem a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but surely it would be madness to say no?

Horticulture: now that we’ve got our country back, will British consumers want to buy more British fruit and veg? I’m not so sure. They’ll have their job cut out anyway, because we import most of it from abroad (the EU, principally). And the stuff we do produce is heavily dependent on the kind of footloose migrant labour working long hours in hard jobs for low pay that we’re supposed to be getting rid of. Though a good deal of it is organised by criminal gangmasters who are unlikely to be affected by whatever edicts are issued out of Westminster. But maybe more horticulture jobs will open up for British people. What’s the betting that after further onslaughts on trade unions and labour legislation a good number of Brits will find themselves lying nose-to-stolon on giant picking rigs supplying strawberries for their favoured politicians’ jaunts to the tennis at Wimbledon, and will then vote the Lib Dems in at the next election in order that we rejoin the EU and bring the migrants back? Stranger things have happened. Though not many, to be honest. Anyway, rising fruit and veg prices are a fair bet for the future, turning them into luxury items that’ll be increasingly beyond the means of ordinary people. But that might foment an allotment movement, and once the smell of the veg patch is in people’s nostrils then peasant insurrection is never far away.

An ecomodernist calls: what this all seems to point to is that Britain could become a giant laboratory for ‘land-sparing’ ecomodernism, with its uplands re-wilded by default and intensive, large-scale, grain-heavy farming in the lowlands. Expect Mike Shellenberger to be flying in soon for another meeting with Owen Paterson (will Paterson soon be stalking the corridors of DEFRA once again, or is that just another Bremain scare story?) In terms of the ecomodernist agenda, the roll-out of GM crops in the UK is probably now a foregone conclusion, so we can look forward to the end of weeds and pests and the feeding of the poor and needy. But as I said before, new nuclear is probably off the agenda for the time being until we’ve saved a bit more cash. Mike, could you bring some piggybanks over with you?

Food prices and food policy: In summary, I imagine that we’ll keep churning out the wheat, barley and oilseed rape in the short-term until all our best agricultural soil has been washed into the English Channel (it’s OK to call it that again, right?) But food prices will probably rise, especially for things that require work to grow and actually taste nice: fruit, vegetables, meat and such. And our national food self-sufficiency will probably continue to dwindle, necessitating increased food imports bought with a weaker pound on less advantageous trading terms. As climate change, more populist government and trade protectionism begin to make their influence felt around the world the UK government will suddenly panic about the parlous state of the food supply and appoint a safe pair of hands to pilot a national food security policy – Boris Johnson, perhaps? And as we know from Johnson’s antics to date, anything could happen after that. My prediction is that he’ll target the planning system as a dastardly communistic impediment to free enterprise. The last time the Tories took a look at the planning system they ditched decades-worth of meticulous planning guidance in favour of a short document that they knocked out on the back of a beermat as they walked home from the pub. This time they’ll probably throw out the beermat too. And then, my friend, every acre of these fair isles will be ripe for a sturdy peasant farmer to fight it out with the aristocrats and property developers to take possession. What’s that you say? Who on earth in this day and age has a plan for how Britain could feed itself through peasant farming? Well, I’m glad you asked me that…

Reference

1. Figures from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearningsearn01 and Wood, Z. 2016 ‘Figures that add up to higher food prices’ Guardian 04.07.16

Lead us not into temptation: of Trump, Brexit and the wrong kind of populism

I had to recite the Lord’s Prayer at school every day for ten years, and have never spoken it since. But for my sermon today I’d like to elaborate a theme from one of its lines – “lead us not into temptation”.

The temptation to which I refer is voting for populist political candidates. Perhaps that will surprise long-term readers of this blog, who will be familiar with my enthusiasm for agrarian populism. So let me qualify the statement by paraphrasing that hapless British Rail spokesperson from many years ago who justified the company’s inability to deal with inclement weather by saying that the railways were afflicted by “the wrong kind of snow”. What I mean to say, then, is that it can be tempting to endorse the “wrong kind of populism” – the kind of populism with which you disagree, but are inclined to support anyway just in order to shake up a political status quo dominated for too long by what Susan Watkins nicely calls “the cartel parties of the extreme centre”. It’s a temptation that I think is best resisted.

For this reason, I’ve been slightly puzzled by John Michael Greer’s recent posts on the US presidential primaries. I think Greer is a perceptive and thoughtful writer, and though I can’t claim any great local expertise in the matter of US politics, it seems to me his argument is exactly right that Donald Trump’s rise draws from a wellspring of anger among an excluded working class who have borne the brunt of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive Republican and Democratic governments. However, Greer’s posts seem to involve more schadenfreude at the discomfort of established opinion in the face of Trump’s rise than any kind of sober analysis of what a Trump presidency might entail. It seems to me that a man who has gold-plated seatbelt buckles in his private jet is less likely to articulate the frustrations of the excluded classes than to manipulate them. The historical lesson of earlier populisms – not least in the USA – is that a just and radical ‘populism for the people’ has to guard carefully against co-optation by carpetbaggers with more sinister intentions.

Anyway, I have no say in the outcome of the US election so let me leave that thought right there. I do have a say in the forthcoming referendum on a British exit from the EU, where exactly the same dangers present themselves. Therefore I’d like to outline why I’m tempted to vote for Brexit, and why I probably won’t.

So first up, here are my five reasons for wanting to vote out:

  1. Many people in Britain like to hark back to the days when the country was the dominant global superpower. They think that Britain is still an important country in world affairs, whose influence is being diluted by its status as just another EU member. The truth is that Britain is not an important country in world affairs, and the only real global muscle it has comes through its EU membership. This would become swiftly apparent in the event of Brexit, enabling us finally to move on from the legacy of the past and get busy creating a less haughty and self-absorbed society.
  1. Britain’s major earner of foreign exchange is its financial services sector, which is not a positive force in the world and allows us to live beyond our means. It’s quite likely that the sector would take a heavy hit in the event of Brexit, which might allow us to recalibrate our way of life to local possibilities and maybe benefit the wider world too.
  1. Presently, fully half the EU’s entire budget is devoted to an absurd agricultural subsidy regimen. Ordinary, small-scale and family farmers are not the beneficiaries of this regimen and as far as I’m concerned they deserve every penny they can squeeze from it. Nevertheless, the Common Agricultural Policy is a disaster – not the least of its many failings is that it acts as a hugely regressive negative tax that rewards retailers, middlemen, self-righteous consumerism and wealthy landowners. Less than 1% of the UK population are farmers, but around £4 billion of agricultural subsidies are paid out in Britain. This is pretty much the way the British government wants it – it unerringly lobbies for CAP policies which suit the interests of larger-scale and corporate agricultural interests. Nevertheless, as things stand it can claim with some justification that its hands are tied by labyrinthine EU structures. Not so if Britain were fully independent and the government continued doling out billions to a small group of its landowning chums while cutting public services elsewhere. I find it hard to see how such a generous subsidy regimen propping up the agricultural status quo would be politically feasible long-term in a post-EU Britain, and I think that would ultimately be good for smaller-scale farmers engaged in longer term thinking than the subsidy-fuelled inefficiencies of present large-scale agriculture, and probably good for the populace as a whole.
  1. The fallout from Brexit and the straitened circumstances resulting from it would lead to enormous conflict in the Conservative Party. What’s bad for the Conservative Party is usually good for Britain.
  1. The EU is an undemocratic and quite possibly unreformable cabal of corporate interests and unscrupulous power-mongers. So is the UK government to be honest, but at least they’re our unscrupulous power-mongers. Perhaps we can keep a shorter leash on them here at home.

And here are my four reasons for staying in:

  1. Most of my reasons for supporting Brexit turn upon the notion that it’ll act like a good hard slap in the face to puncture our present hysterical illusions and bring us back to earth. But there’s a good chance that in fact it’ll only lead to more and worse hysterical illusions. And if you think that’s not possible, I have only two words to say to you: Donald Trump.
  1. Here are some more two-worders that ought to scare anybody into voting to stay in: Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage; Michael Gove; Iain Duncan-Smith. OK, so the last one’s a three-worder, but that’s the Tory party for you, eh?
  1. To put that last point more discursively, there’s a danger that with another four years of a Conservative Government almost guaranteed, at this particular political juncture a Brexit vote will put power into the hands of a dreadful right-wing rabble who will make the present government seem like the epitome of caring, centrist, compassionate conservatism. George Monbiot and Miles King have written persuasively on the disasters awaiting agricultural and environmental policy in the event of Brexit. Those disasters would likely ramify across all policy areas in a Brexit-rebooted Tory government. Paul Mason put it best – “Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island….So even for those who support the leftwing case for Brexit, it is sensible to argue: not now.”
  1. Finally, much of the public debate about the referendum has turned upon an often borderline racist obsession with immigration. I think there are genuine issues that need to be addressed nationally and internationally about the nature of migration, in service of the migrants’ interests as much (in fact more) than anything else. But they will not be addressed by a post-EU UK unilaterally tightening its border control policies, which I doubt will be effective anyway. And in the meantime, I don’t want to give the slightest ammunition to those who would infer from the size of the Brexit vote some kind of blanket opposition to immigration.

~~~

So I think my conclusion is that while it’s tempting to vote for Brexit, I won’t be doing so. I want to play my part in building a proper, egalitarian, producerist populism. And this is a long-term project that will not be helped by jumping on the Brexit bandwagon. So I agree with Mason’s ‘not now’ approach. But his final paragraph highlighting the rise of extreme right-wing and anti-immigration parties in Europe is thought-provoking:

“The EU, politically, begins to look more and more like a gerrymandered state, where the politically immature electorates of eastern Europe can be used – as Louis Napoleon used the French peasantry – as a permanent obstacle to liberalism and social justice. If so – even though the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today – I will want out soon.”

The reference to the French peasantry has obvious if rather complex resonances with the case for a contemporary agrarian populism – an issue for another post, perhaps. More straightforwardly, I guess it’s a case of wanting to stay in the EU for now in order to build a left-wing populism that will truly give us this day our daily bread, with the possibility of wanting to leave pretty soon in order to deliver us from evil. I might just have to start praying again.

The revolution will not be market gardenized: some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier

It was suggested to me recently that I might like to pen some thoughts on Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener1. And indeed I would. Here they are.

At one level, I think the book is very, very good. It’s packed with useful information on how to establish and run a successful, small-scale, local, organic market garden, clearly borne of years of experience and careful thought. A good many of Fortier’s recommendations are things that we’ve also adopted over time at Vallis Veg, albeit perhaps not quite with his efficiency or singularity of purpose. So I’d say this is definitely one for the bookshelf of any aspiring market gardener, alongside other classics like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Hall and Tolhurst’s Growing Green.

I have some reservations, though. These lie not so much in what the book says as in what it doesn’t say, because there are wider contexts within which market gardening needs discussing – and in which The Market Gardener is being discussed – that make me uneasy. They prompt me to question the importance accorded market gardening in alternative farming circles and to wonder whether we should be placing the emphasis elsewhere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me approach my broader theme by summarising a few of Fortier’s points, presenting them – as Fortier partly does himself – in the form of a kind of Bildungsroman, which I will then compare to the trajectory of my own farming life.

So we start with a young man and his partner who wish to pursue careers in commercial horticulture. To begin with, they rent a small piece of land where they grow and sell some vegetables, scraping by just about tolerably from year to year. But then they want to settle down, build a house and put down some roots. They establish themselves on a 1.5 acre semi-urban plot, close to a market for their produce which is not already saturated by other small-scale growers. They buy a new Italian two-wheel tractor with a PTO and various attachments, better fitted to the scale of their operation than a pricier four-wheel farm tractor, though in fact most of the work on their holding is accomplished by simple hand tools. They don’t grow vegetables year-round, or – given their scale – ones where the economic return per unit area is low, such as potatoes, squash and corn. So they grow mostly high-value summer vegetables, which they produce in large quantities through intensive cultivation methods (including gas-heated polytunnels). For this, they use compost in bulk which they buy in from commercial providers. This is partly because the production of top quality compost is an expert science they consider best left to people who aren’t specialist growers, and partly because the work involved in producing compost in such quantity with the mostly non-powered tools at their disposal would exceed their labour (and land?) capacity. In any case, their business flourishes and they make a decent living through vegetable sales.

Let me compare this story with that of a not quite so young man (yes, that would be me) and his partner who, fired up by a reformist zeal to help make the food and farming system more sustainable, sought a peri-urban plot in which to enact their not yet fully-formed agricultural visions. A 1.5 acre plot for a small house and large garden would have been fine, but they found in practice that most plots contained large houses and small gardens, while there was massive price pressure on peri-urban farmland, keenly sought as it was by all sorts of people with deeper pockets than them (and most certainly than anyone financing themselves through small-scale horticulture). But after six months of thorough searching they felt lucky to be able to purchase an 18 acre edge of town site (bigger than they’d planned, or had much experience in managing), albeit one lacking the necessary permissions to build a house. Despite distractions such as raising children and trying to earn some money to get by in the meantime, they too established a small market garden of about 1.5 acres on their site (planting the rest with orchards and woodland, or leaving it as permanent pasture). After some early messing around on the machinery front, they bought a 25 year old 50hp farm tractor with front loader, and assembled implements for it cheaply from ebay and farm sales – probably for a similar total cost to a brand new Italian two-wheel tractor. The implements were a bit of a ragbag, though – different working widths, offsets etc. So they also ended up buying a cheaper two-wheel tractor, better suited to working a small market garden (while, like Fortier, also mostly using hand tools). The four-wheeler remained invaluable for other jobs on the site. One of these was compost management – after experimenting with a range of onsite and offsite compost options, the couple adopted as their main fertility strategy the composting of wood chips brought in by local tree surgeons and mixed with other organic matter from the site. Although, like Fortier, relying mostly on high-value summer crops for their income, the couple operated year-round, growing winter crops and low value ones like potatoes, for although the fire of sustainability had dimmed in them somewhat through the years, they still felt the need at least to make some kind of effort to grow staple crops. A major boost to the business occurred in late 2016 when, thirteen years after buying the land, they finally received permission from the local council to build a permanent residence on it (OK, I’m forward projecting there – at any rate, that thirteen year hiatus is not untypical for rural worker applications in the UK planning system).

So now, on the basis of those two narratives I’d like to make a few observations about market gardening:

  1. Location, location, location: Fortier’s advice on siting your market garden close to your market and away from where other small growers are operating is wise, but not necessarily easily achieved. His stated customer base is 200 families. I think you can figure on a market of about 1.5% of households in a town if there are no other small growers locally serving it, which means you need to find an affordable 1.5 acres, preferably with a residential option, on the edge of a town of about 30,000 with no other growers in sight. Not impossible – but not easy. Here in southern England, land of that sort without residential permission can easily change hands for up to around £50,000 and with it for closer to £1 million. On the upside, it’s probably quite easy to find towns where there aren’t any small local growers. On the downside, there are good reasons for that. Markets don’t stay unsaturated for nothing…
  1. Equipment: personally, I don’t think you’ll save money by going for a new 2-wheel tractor over an old 4-wheel one. But if you only have 1.5 acres, a 2-wheel one better fits the scale. My site, with its 2-wheel and 4-wheel tractors, is arguably over-capitalised for its scale. If there were other small growers in the vicinity, sharing would make sense (but there aren’t – see point 1). I’m not sure it matters too much though. The embodied energy of this kit is low. So is the fuel use, though it’s probably higher than Fortier’s…
  1. Ghost acres: …but we do need to bear in mind that Fortier is exporting his compost requirements, as indeed I do too to a lesser extent. Even so, I’d estimate that at least half my tractor use relates to fertility management. I’m not sure how fuel efficient my small-scale compost handling is compared to large-scale commercial composting operations – I’d like to find some data on this – but impressionistically on the basis of my occasional visits to municipal composting sites, I’d say their use of fossil fuels is prodigious (moving bulky organic waste around is very energy intensive). And so too is the ‘virtual’ land take associated with growing all the fertility which is being concentrated on Fortier’s plot. I had this debate some years ago with Charles Dowding, another well-known small-scale grower who imports his compost. Charles’ view was that the compost is a waste product that’s almost going begging in our energy and nitrogen-sated world, and that it’s hard enough for a small grower to stay in business as it is without fussing over fertility provenance. I find it difficult to disagree, but I do think it’s incumbent upon people who adopt such methods not to make strong claims about the productivity or sustainability of small plots without acknowledging the ghost acres involved and their associated environmental costs. I’m not necessarily saying that Fortier is guilty of this, though I’m not convinced he’s entirely innocent either.
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (1): any small-scale commercial grower who stays in business long is probably going to have to make their peace with concentrating upon high-value summer vegetables. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many good reasons to support local small-scale farms that do it. But let there be no doubt that such farms are not ‘feeding’ their customers in the sense of meeting their full dietary needs. Without growing crops year-round and providing other foodstuffs, particularly staples, the proportion of total food demand provided by such a farm is not large. Again, not necessarily a problem, unless anybody is claiming otherwise…
  1. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy (2): …but Fortier is certainly right that this is the easiest way to make money from a small plot. He claims that it’s possible to bring in CAN$60,000 – 100,000 per acre in vegetable sales at a 40% profit margin, which I think is plausible – my per acre net income from veg sales languishes at the very bottom of that range. But Fortier is probably a better farmer than me, and he doesn’t waste his time as I do growing potatoes and other such tomfoolery. Still, I’m hanging on in there, eight years in, earning something rather less than the UK average income for a more than full-time job. As Fortier says, it’s not really about the money anyway, and it’s a good way of life. I guess I just worry that these kind of books can foster unreasonable expectations. The Market Gardener has an endorsement on the front from Joel Salatin, another rock-star alternative farmer, who writes “Few books have grabbed my attention as dramatically as this one – because it’s ultimately do-able for thousands of would-be food and farm healers”. Salatin’s books – with titles like Pastured Poultry Profits and $alad Bar Beef – also create the impression that alternative, small-scale farming is something of a gravy train. Well, I endorse the sentiment up to a point. At a time when career prospects for young people in many other walks of life are diminishing, it’s time to scotch the old clichés that “nobody wants to farm any more” and that farming is “back-breaking work”. But let’s not feed false hopes. Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture, problematic as I find it in some respects, is refreshingly candid by comparison in telling his readers straight – you won’t make money through farming of any kind, now deal with it and get on with farming in a way that feels right. My line on the financial side of starting a small peri-urban market garden would go something like this: if you’ve got good farming skills and good business skills, if you work hard and persevere, if you’re lucky finding the right piece of land and perhaps lucky in general, and if you prioritise money-making above most other things in your business planning, then you may well be able to earn the kind of money that a lot of people expect pretty much as of right straight out of college. Alternatively, armed with Fortier’s book you may establish your market garden only to find that it goes under in a few years (and, let’s face it, most small businesses do go under). What did you do wrong? Probably not much…
  1. In a field far, far away …because somewhere, probably a long way from where you live (and more than likely in another country altogether) there’s a market garden that looks more like a large arable farm (or maybe a city of glass), sited on top quality, fertile, rich, deep, stone-free soil. With help from some very large, very high-tech and very fuel-hungry machinery, most likely some very poor and probably undocumented workers, quite possibly organised by criminal gangmasters, and a raft of implicit and explicit government supports and subsidies, this garden turns over more produce in a day than growers like me or Jean-Martin Fortier do in several years, and it exports some of it to your area where it’s sold at a fraction of the cost that we can produce it. That’s the baseline reality against which the local food and urban agriculture movement operates. When I started market gardening myself, I thought of it as a way of helping to transform a crazy food system through ennobling practical action rather than lots of fine words and political rhetoric. I still do, to an extent. But ultimately I don’t think we can transform the existing food economy in the ways it needs transforming by vaunting the possibilities for a few thousand growers in a society of millions to make a tolerable living. We need the words and the politics. We need wider, more radical transformations.
  1. Greenhouse guesstimates. For many different reasons, I would like to see a world in which there were more local growers like Fortier and fewer of those giant agribusiness vegetable operations. However, I think it’s unwise to assume that the small, local, organic operations are more ecologically benign just because they’re, well, nicer. Once you start trucking compost around in bulk and burning propane in your polytunnels, it may well turn out that the agribusiness operation has a lower carbon footprint per kilo of vegetables produced than the small organic urban operation. That may not be true, and in any case it’s not the only important consideration, as I’ve argued here. But it may be true, it is a consideration, and it’s not really addressed in Fortier’s book.
  1. A customer calls. Still, there are plenty of folks who are willing to pay more for good quality, locally-grown fresh vegetables. Well, there are some folks at any rate (note to younger self: don’t overestimate how much people are going to love you for being a local veg grower). Mostly quite wealthy folks, in fact. In this sense, the renaissance of small-scale peri-urban veg growing returns market gardening to its roots as a service for the urban wealthy. In the past, the rural rich had gardeners to grow vegetables on their estates, while ordinary rural folk grew their own. The poor, both rural and urban, mostly did without vegetables altogether. But with the cost of transporting bulky fresh produce long distances prohibitive, and with horse manure relatively easily available in towns, peri-urban horticulture found its niche supplying the growing class of the urban well-to-do. Nowadays, wealthy urban hipsters go artisan, while the rest mostly buy their now much cheaper (relatively speaking) vegetables from those distant agribusiness ventures via local mainstream retailers, and the poor (many of whom work in the food system, if they can find work at all…) probably still largely go without. Again, this is not a criticism of peri-urban growers (like me) who mostly serve the conscientious wealthy. Perhaps our customers are the leading edge of a consumer movement that will re-energise sustainable local food production. Though I somehow doubt it. As things stand, I’d argue that peri-urban small-scale growing doesn’t in itself radically challenge the status quo of an inegalitarian and agribusiness-dominated food system.
  1. Enter the peasant. Instead of trying to make a living from your plot mostly by monetising your returns from it, suppose you were trying to make a living mostly by eating your returns from it. What would your 1.5 acres look like then in comparison to Fortier’s, or to mine? I think it would look more like mine than Fortier’s, but probably not much like either. If it was at the kind of latitude where both he and I live, I think there would be a lot of space devoted to grains, seed legumes and potatoes. There would be some soft fruit and espaliered top fruit, and maybe some short rotation willow coppice. There would probably be some grass to feed livestock – livestock that would perhaps be shared with others in the neighbourhood, part-using their land too, or part-grazed on common land. The high-value vegetables dominating Fortier’s holding and mine would be relegated to a few small beds outside the back door. Someone who was managing their land in this sort of way could possibly be described as a peasant, or a neo-peasant. I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to live like this, but if we want a just and sustainable global society I think it is necessary for a lot more people to live like it than is currently the case in countries like Canada and the UK. At present, it’s only really an option for a few remnant peasant-type populations in these countries, together with the downsizing wealthy. So we need to find ways to enable more people to choose this way of life. I’m not sure that the approach Fortier advocates (and that he and I have chosen) is the best way, though it was probably the best way available to us given the political and economic constraints we faced. My upcoming cycle of posts aims to explore what this better, peasant way might look like, and the political and economic changes it will require.
  1. An inner voice speaks: “Jeez Chris, lighten up”, it says. “The guy just wants to show you how to sell a few veg. He’s not trying to rewrite Das Kapital or change the world.” Another inner voice replies “Fair enough, but the problem is we’ve too often been guilty of conflating the one with the other in the alternative food movement. Me included. And perhaps also alternative farming hero, Masanobu Fukuoka. “I can remain patient no longer,” Fukuoka wrote. “With this straw, I, by myself, will begin a revolution”2”.

I admire the sentiment, but I’m less persuaded by it than I used to be. Gardening can be a radical act, sure enough. But if there’s to be a revolution, I think radical gardening will better serve to chart a route beyond a revolutionary past than towards a revolutionary future. And the relationship between radical gardening and market gardening is debatable at best.

References

  1. Fortier, J. 2014. The Market Gardener. New Society Publishers.
  1. Fukuoka, M. 1978. The One-Straw Revolution. New York Review Books, p.181.

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

Chris:

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.

Chris:

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.

Reference

  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.

 

References

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.

10. http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/10/city-capitalists-or-agrarian-peasants-where-does-the-future-lie/

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.