Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

Of chancers and last-chancers

Time for me to arise from my book-editing duties and offer belated new year wishes from Small Farm Future. Already, it’s been a year of reversals. The year when the USA finally stopped just chasing after rogue states and actually became one. The year when the UK decided its best option for economic renewal was to ape Singapore – forgetting not only that Singapore achieved economic renewal by aping Britain, but also unfortunately that Singapore aping Britain has a brighter look about it than Britain aping Singapore aping Britain. It’s also the year when the British police classified Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organization and urged state employees to exercise vigilance in the face of people “speaking in strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change”. Truly, the lunatics are running the asylum.

Another reversal, though perhaps not so unexpected, is that it’s the year in which the celebrated campaigner and journalist George Monbiot seems to have finally gone full ecomodernist, embracing the case for humanity to abandon farming and embrace lab-grown, ‘farm-free’ food.

I posted on this a while back in response to an early shot across the bows from George about the direction he was travelling. The discussion under that post was one of the most erudite, informed and wide-ranging ones there’s ever been on my site, most likely because I played little part in it. So I don’t plan to cover the same ground. As I’ve often said about George in the past, since he’s just about the only radical left-green voice widely heard in the British media, I try not to get too infuriated when he takes positions with which I disagree. But jeepers, it’s getting harder. This post is probably my last throw of that particular dice.

I’ll skip the technicalities of George’s surely unproven case that farm-free food stacks up on energetic or health grounds, something that prompted a fascinating discussion under my previous post. I’ll skip too making the case for the ‘extensive farming’ that George casually dismisses as being worse than intensive farming on the basis of a paper from the ur-ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute, who only a few years ago he was criticizing for their criticisms of extensive farming. Though I must say in passing that it’s not a great look to found an argument for junking the entire historic basis of human provisioning on the authority of a hardly disinterested paper which draws its data from another paper which draws its data from a handful of LCAs of current practices with only a couple of data points seemingly aligning with the anti-extensive view.

The more troubling issue for me is the implicit convergence of George’s position towards forms of what some have bluntly labelled ecofascism. Again, he was vigorously and rightly contesting such views only recently when Steven Pinker mischaracterized the environmental movement for being “laced with misanthropy”, indulging in “ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet” and “Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin”. There are too many issues to unpick here. I guess right now I just want to say two things. First, historically, getting people out of farming has rarely ended well for the ex-farmers, and there are more farmers in the world than any other single job. And second, making people mere spectators of the natural world is unlikely to do either people or the natural world a long-term favour. George’s plan for sparing nature is self-defeating.

But what I really want to explore is why George has ended up where he has, and to do that I’d like to offer the following nature spotters’ guide to the ecomodernists, which my recent research has established come in four distinct sub-species.

The Old Timers: long ago, in more innocent days, talking up the capacity to find market and high-tech solutions to emerging environmental problems was no doubt an alternative view to the countercultural zeal of Schumacher et al that was worth making. So let us bear no grudges against the likes of Julian Simon or Wilfred Beckerman. But, guys, what a monster you spawned…

The Rogue Males: Sometimes people get on a train of thought that takes them way beyond their anticipated destination. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to stay fresh and skeptically enquiring. But it’s also easy to succumb to your own sales patter or hero narrative. This is a particular danger for smart, charismatic males as they age. Take a bow, Stewart Brand.

The Chancers: the bread-and-butter ecomodernists of today are polemicists for capitalism-as-usual and high-tech solutionism who increasingly clearly are flogging a dead horse. They often get accused of being industry shills, a matter on which I couldn’t comment. Maybe it’s more likely that they’re shilling for their own industry, which is writing benedictory books about how everything will be fine and we just all need to carry on doing what we’re doing. Their work is occasionally illuminating but one-sided to the point of dishonesty, as is usually revealed by the fatuous insults they direct at their critics: Marxist, Luddite, primitivist, romantic etc. In my experience, it can be scary when faced with a herd of such chancers braying these words at you – but in truth they’re flighty beasts who can easily be dispatched by shouting “absolute decoupling” very loudly.

The Last-Chancers: the gentlest members of the ecomodernist bestiary, these are people who have looked long and hard at the future to which we’re hurtling and got very, very scared. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to warn us about this wolf at our door, only to find that not only do we treat their prophecies with indifference but we’ve actually welcomed the wolf in and installed him in the White House and No.10. Understandably, they’ve now given up on prophecies and politics and are desperately clutching at whatever darned thing they think might just conceivably save us in the last chance saloon we now inhabit – nuclear power, lab-grown eco-gloop or whatever.

My theory is that George has become a last-chancer, perhaps with a dash of rogue male thrown in. I sympathize, but I don’t think it’ll work. It certainly won’t work without a detailed plan of how you transcend the moment of ecomodernist salvation and institute a steadier state ecological economy in its aftermath, which the last-chancers don’t seem to do – perhaps because it would have the self-undermining result of drawing them back into politics.

So, however improbable, it seems to me that the only things that will save us are two of the oldest human trades: farming and politics. I plan to keep nailing my colours to those masts.

But I do have a Plan B if George’s vision succeeds. In that eventuality, I’m going to slip the fence of his urban dystopia with my sheep, find a pleasant grassy spot somewhere, and make my living as a mammal and a farmer, surrounded by other wild creatures.

Meanwhile, at some point soon I might have to withdraw my props for George and attach them to someone like Vaclav Smil – an energy analyst who seems to be travelling in the opposite direction, from fossil fueled eco-scepticism to a more somber take on humanity’s future, including our invariably misplaced enthusiasm for sunrise technologies to save us from bad politics and bad culture.

A marginal farm anniversary

It was exactly ten years ago today that I and my co-conspirators at Vallis Veg sold our first veg box, as good an anniversary as any to define the point that I became a farmer (perhaps I should say ‘grower’ or ‘market gardener’, but I dislike the way the word ‘farmer’ is policed – a familiar motif in the last decade has involved people of various stripes telling me that I’m not a ‘proper farmer’. To which my considered answer is – Yes I bloody am. And so are you if you grow any food.)

Anyway, I thought I’d indulge myself on my anniversary with a brief memoir of my farming life and the non-farming life that preceded it, if only to try to explain to myself how on earth I ended up doing this. (Apologies for the autobiographical tone that’s crept into these last two posts – normal service will return next time). This post is modelled loosely after another autobiographical essay, Wendell Berry’s ‘The making of a marginal farm’1 – sacrilegiously, perhaps, since I daresay Berry is a considerably better farmer than I am, and a better writer to boot. And yet there are some overlaps and dissonances between his story and mine that interest me. So here goes.

As I related in my previous post, I had a semi-rural/semi-suburban childhood in a village about thirty miles from London. But, unlike Berry, farming or even gardening had a minimal role in my youth. There was a little farming going on in the area, and a handful of farm kids, but farming never really presented itself to me as a viable career option, and wasn’t presented as such by my elders. Though farming didn’t appeal, historically there’d been a furniture industry in the area where I lived, which manifested as large remnant beech woods, full of mysterious bodger’s hollows. As a teenager, I’d go for long solitary walks in the woods and feel some kind of spiritual peace in them that felt lacking elsewhere. For me, the natural world – however trammelled by human hand – figured largely as an arena of escape.

The truth is, despite a happy-enough childhood in a pleasant-enough part of one of the world’s richer countries, I never really felt from a young age that the kind of society I was growing up in made much sense or answered to people’s fundamental needs. It’s taken me a long time to find a way of being that does make sense and does answer those needs, and I’m still not sure I’ve found it. But I do sometimes think there’s a kind of unbridgeable divide among people in the modern world. Some, like me, can’t understand the appeal of a suburban, salaried, satrapped life, while others slip gladly into its flow. The risk that’s run by my kind is romantic illusions about other kinds of society, a persistent and pervasive sense of alienation, and all manner of grass-is-greenerism that sends us off on one wild goose chase after another. But our great advantage is a perspectival depth that means we shall never, ever write a sentence like this one from Anthony Warner: “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”. And for that, I am truly grateful.

My path out of adolescence took me into an anthropology degree in London where, under the influence of my mostly Marxist teachers and of Michael Taussig’s neat but problematic book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I conceived a somewhat overwrought interest in peasant societies as resistant to the modernist logic of capitalism – an interest I pursued to no great effect in brief attempts to be an anthropologist in Mexico and Jamaica before realising that the singular skills of the field ethnographer were permanently beyond my grasp. Perhaps my attempts to get to grips with peasantries wasn’t helped by my ignorance and general lack of interest concerning what peasantries actually do, namely farming. Still, the thinking that I’d done about peasant societies sowed a seed – to coin a horticultural metaphor – that has been important to me later in life.

I then spent ten years trying to fit myself around more-or-less unsuitable jobs in London and environs at the end of which my roles in life were husband, father, and alienated lecturer in sociology with a self-respect that was diminishing by the day. Berry hints at his own alienation as an academic in New York, and his life-changing decision to go back to his native Kentucky. Kentucky, says Berry, was his fate. But for me there wasn’t really anything or anywhere to ‘go back’ to. There was no pre-manufactured ‘fate’ beyond urbanism or suburbanism, no authentic touchstone for my life except what I invented for myself. As per recent discussions on this blog, I honour small farm societies like Berry’s that have retained such a thing, but without surrendering too many of my critical faculties to the lure of tradition. Berry, to be fair, does the same, to some extent.

Around this time my wife went on a permaculture design course and insisted I do likewise. Two weeks at Ragman’s Lane Farm with the late lamented Patrick Whitefield proved revelatory, supplying something of that missing touchstone – farming, gardening, a human ecology wrought from a natural world neither friend nor enemy, a deep entangled history of humans and landscapes opening beneath my feet on the land I’d walked unknowingly for years. More recently I’ve largely parted ways with permaculture – I’ve found the movement around it too given to fixed ideas, complacent dualities and a strident sense of purity. I argued with Patrick, usually amicably, in the early years of this blog about such matters, but I’ve found too many others in the movement less supple in their thinking. Still, for me it was a key to another world and I’ll always be grateful for that.

We spent a couple of years transitioning into agriculture, much of them in Canada, strangely enough. Then in 2003 we bought eighteen acres of pastureland in Somerset. Berry describes his good fortune in having learned how to run a team of horses in his youth, just before the skill receded into history, which established the course of his farming career. I wasn’t quite that lucky, but my wife and I did enjoy one stroke of generational good fortune. We’d bought some property in London in the early 1990s at a time when a young couple doing average-ish jobs could more or less afford to do so – something that would be quite impossible now. That purchase, along with a certain bloody-mindedness, has enabled us to carve out a kind of semi-independent smallholder life that we probably couldn’t otherwise have achieved.

For the first five years of our tenure as rural landowners we did very little on the site except plant trees (a story I’ll relate in another post), grow a little veg and raise a few pigs. We had young children, no house on the site and non-farm work to do to keep the wolf from the door. I fancied myself as a Berry-like figure and dabbled rather ineffectually in creative non-fiction writing. One agent said they liked my manuscript, but I didn’t give enough of myself in it. Another agent said they liked my manuscript, but nobody wanted to listen to a non-entity like me banging on about myself. I decided to give up on my literary pretensions and start a market garden instead.

I’ve rarely been so happy as I was in the early stages of establishing that garden. But it proved to be a fragile happiness. I went about it wrongly, too manically. Having turned my back on a secure professional career to the bemusement of friends and family, I was desperate for the market garden to be successful, naïve about the forces ranged against it, too unskilled and – how easy to see with hindsight – still in mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance. One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life. One of the problems of many pre-modern cultures is that they placed too little emphasis on it. Independent smallholding cultures are better, I think, at navigating between these perils. Something that working the land has taught me is that the individual person is basically unimportant, but just important enough – and that to a considerable extent the importance is objectified in the particular transformations of the farmed landscape itself. I still have bad days, when I slip into thinking that my life has some kind of higher purpose or distinctive signature that I’m failing to embroider as I should. But mercifully fewer as the years on the land pass by.

Anyway, for five years I grew vegetables and sold them – still living in a house in town some distance from the site. In comparison to the lives that many small farmers lead, I had it easy. But living like this it was hard to make the business and other aspects of my life work, and it took its toll. I don’t think the life of the market grower suits many people, and I wouldn’t unequivocally commend commercial horticulture as a career. Perhaps I should have read my Wendell Berry more attentively:

“it is possible for a family to live on such ‘marginal’ land, to take a bountiful subsistence and some cash income from it and, in doing so, to improve both the land and themselves. (I believe, however, that at least in the present economy this should not be attempted without a source of income other than the farm….To attempt to make a living from such land is to impose a severe strain on land and people alike)”2

Amen to that. Though I’d add that an advantage of commercial husbandry is that it teaches you more quickly than you’d probably learn otherwise about the true costs of human labour and other inputs, the miraculous but Faustian power of fossil fuels, the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead, and the dismal economics of the food system. By working as a commercial grower, I learned that I’m not an especially good one. Still, the world has more need of second rate farmers than of second rate sociologists…and I also learned through doing it that, whatever my limitations, the struggles of farmers and growers to stay afloat don’t arise out of the fact that they’re not good at what they do. This has stood me in good stead for looking unflinchingly in the face of the endless claims one encounters about new ways of farming that are supposedly better for the environment while making more money too, and also in the face of the endless claims that farmers doing bad environmental things are bad people.

Since 2013, I’ve no longer been the main commercial grower at Vallis Veg. But we do now live on our land – a struggle documented on this website – which has eased many former burdens. My roles today encompass tractor driver, mechanic, stockman, woodsman, fencer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, subsistence gardener, purveyor of stale urine and general éminence grise in the market garden – though the current growing team are doing a much better job than I did running the show, so I fear it’s more a case of grise than éminence. I wouldn’t say I’m especially competent at most of the roles I listed, but I’m more competent at them than when I first started, and I daresay more competent than I would have been if I’d stayed a sociologist – and I get some satisfaction from that. The truth is that I burned myself out a little trying to run a market garden as I did. But looking back on it now, most of the relationships I have that matter to me feel like they’ve been strengthened through some tempering in that fire, and I feel happy that I’ve helped to create a thriving homestead flowing with people, livestock and wildlife, out of modest beginnings. I’ve encountered a little carping of one sort or another about what we do and how and how we do it. Ah well, there’s plenty that we’ve done or failed to do worth carping over for those who wish to carp. But there’ve been a lot of positive interactions too, and for all our errors I feel a sense of achievement that we’ve somehow kept a small farm business on the road for a decade.

Ah yes, errors. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance again. But we haven’t made many head-in-hands mistakes that cause me to lose much sleep. The commonest mistakes fall into four main categories, 1. Not knowing what I’m doing, 2. Following someone else’s advice without devoting enough thought to whether it’s right for me and my land, 3. Taking on too many different things, 4. Over-dominating a job with too much fossil fuel.  Perhaps all but the last of these categories are reducible to the first, but the worst mistakes have involved all four. Like Berry, probably my worst one was digging a pond that didn’t really work. But I can’t quite summon the Homeric levels of tragic self-critique that Berry does over his failed project. I used less fossil fuel in making it than I’d have done on a frivolous trip to London to see a friend or see a show, and I’ll get it to work somehow next year. Or the one after. Probably. I also console myself with the thought that people who use fossil fuel and don’t know what they’re doing probably cause less damage in the world than people who use fossil fuel and do.

Talking of fossil fuels, the basic reality of global farming today is that those with access to them can produce food more cheaply. This drives a global division of labour: capital-intensive mechanised farming in the rich countries, labour-intensive less mechanised farming in the poor countries. Which explains why there isn’t much market gardening in Britain, and the country’s biggest food trade deficit – around £9 billion – falls in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Berry concludes his essay with these words,

“To spend one’s life farming a piece of the earth…is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming”3

Wise words, no doubt – but to love the farming in a global economic context that writes its economic bottom line in diesel is not only a hard thing, but a conflicted thing. I can’t claim to have extracted myself from those dismal economics but my good fortune is that, on the ground and on the page, at least I’ve found some opportunities to try.

Finally, a dedication:

To Cordelia, for sharing the journey

To Moon, for picking up the baton

And to multitudes, for lending a helping hand

Notes

  1. Wendell Berry. 2017. ‘The making of a marginal farm’ in Paul Kingsnorth (ed) The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin.
  2. Ibid. pp.44-5
  3. Ibid. p.47

An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

Waiting on amber: a note on regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

This post offers some further notes on the issue of carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, arising out of the discussion in this recent post of mine, particularly via the comments of Don Stewart. Don set me some onerous homework – a lengthy presentation by Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs farm in California, another lengthy presentation by David Johnson of New Mexico State University, and an interview with Australian soil scientist Christine Jones. Diligent student that I am, not only have I now completed these tasks but I’ve also read various other scientific papers and online resources bearing on the issue and am duly turning in my assignment. I hope it’ll provide some interest and a few points for discussion.

I started out with considerable sympathy towards carbon farming and regenerative agriculture, but with a degree of scepticism about some of the loftier claims made on its behalf by regenerative agriculture proponents (henceforth RAPs). And in fact that’s pretty much where I’ve ended up too, but with a somewhat clearer sense of where my grounds for scepticism lie. I hope we’ll see a shift towards more regenerative agriculture in the future. But if that’s going to happen, the RAPs will have to persuade a lot of people more inclined to scepticism than me about the virtues of their proposals – and if they’re going to do that, I think they’ll need to tighten up their arguments considerably. Anyway, in what follows I define what I understand regen-ag to be and then critically examine some of the claims about it.

Defining regenerative agriculture and carbon farming

Doubtless there are numerous possible emphases, but the fundamental idea revolves around restoring or maintaining the biological life of the soil, in particular the fungal component. Working as symbionts to plants and other soil organisms, fungi are able to deliver nutrients to plants that are otherwise unavailable, and also to sequester carbon by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into stable organic carbon compounds in the soil. In order to achieve this, it’s essential to avoid tillage, since this destroys the fungal hyphae in the soil, and to keep the soil covered with living plants at all times so that there’s a healthy rhizosphere (root zone) interacting with the soil food web. It can also be necessary to inoculate the soil with the right kinds of fungi – apparently, not just any fungi will do1.

So the three key characteristics of this kind of agriculture are zero tillage, continuous cover cropping and fungal inoculation. David Johnson states that a one-off ‘dusting’ of 400-500lbs of inoculant per acre (that’s 450-560kg per hectare for those of us still hanging on in there in Project Europe) is all that’s necessary to create the right initial conditions in the soil for many years to come.

Proponents of this kind of regenerative agriculture have variously claimed that it can:

  • Protect soil from erosion and depletion, and indeed actively build soil
  • Provide adequate crop nutrients with minimal external inputs
  • Produce high yields
  • Produce healthy crops that are weed and pest-free
  • Sequester human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them
  • Earn greater financial returns for farmers
  • Improve human health

If all that turns out to be true, then this is fantastic news. But these are powerful claims, and it’s surely reasonable for them to be examined closely before we collectively hitch our wagon to regen-ag. So here, in each case I try to highlight things that seem to be more or less well established beyond reasonable doubt, and things that don’t seem so well established, at least to me. I’m not an agronomist or a soil scientist, so doubtless there are things that aren’t obvious to me which are obvious to others, though I have a sneaking feeling that a few of the non-obvious things are brushed aside a little too quickly in the Regen-Ag movement, perhaps because they don’t quite fit the narrative. And then there are one or two things I’d like to highlight that seem not well established at all. So we have green-amber-red: Small Farm Future’s traffic light guide to Regen-Ag.

  1. Regen-Ag protects and builds soil

I think it’s reasonably well established that no till, continuous cover-cropping protects soil from physical erosion better than tillage farming2, so we can start with a green light. It’s not an all or nothing thing, however. There are places with strongly erosive conditions where it’s a really, really bad idea to practice tillage agriculture from a soil protection point of view, and others with less erosive conditions where perhaps it’s only a slightly bad idea. Sensitivity to local context, and other pressures, is in order before deciding how much to censure tillage practices. Nevertheless, I think it can be agreed that tillage is best avoided whenever possible. Of course, the mainstream ‘no till’ approach involves using copious quantities of glyphosate, synthetic fertiliser and heavy, compacting machinery of the kind that the late, lamented Gene Logsdon subjected to gentle ridicule in various articles3. It’s tempting to say that’s a whole different ball game from Regen-Ag, but actually it isn’t entirely. Many farmers lauded for their Regen-Ag credentials like Gabe Brown and Gail Fuller routinely use glyphosate or other herbicides, even if at a lesser rate than conventional farmers4. I’m not inclined to criticise them for it, but it falls some way short of the desiderata for a healthy soil food web generally emphasised by the RAPs, without apparently receiving much discussion.

In terms of actually building soil, RAPs like Christine Jones and Elaine Ingham commonly critique the widespread notion that soil formation is a slow process, arguing that topsoil formation can be ‘breathtakingly rapid’5. But it’s rarely stated how rapid. Many no till, regen systems I’ve seen involve importing compost in bulk. But that’s not soil building – it’s soil importing. So my question is, allowing for an initial ‘dusting’ of inoculate à la David Johnson, how quickly do soils under a regen-ag regimen typically ‘build’ with no subsequent imports or amendments, with crops being removed from them for human consumption all the while? Until that question is satisfactorily answered, I think the ‘building’ claim stays on amber.

The Kaiser’s Singing Frogs farm seems to involve importing quite a lot of compost, even if it’s used only as a soil amendment that helps stimulate the soil food web. In addition to the compost applied to their growing beds, they raise most of their plants initially as transplants in the greenhouse, which presumably also involves importing a lot of substrate. This is how most small market gardens operate, including mine (we import woodchip and some substrate). In our present economy, flush with fertility and fossil fuels, it’s a rational thing to do. But you do have to pay close attention to where the compost or substrate comes from, and how feasible it would be to scale its supply up across the farm sector as a whole, before concluding that soil-building of this sort has global replicability. Historically, in low energy situations the choice was essentially between tillage farming or diligent and extremely labour-intensive cycling of nutrients locally. As we confront the possibility of a lower energy future, it seems unlikely that farming systems based on importing compost in bulk will figure heavily.

  1. Regen-Ag provides adequate crop nutrients

There seem to be two ideas here. First, that once the soil food web is in good heart, there are enough nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil to give the crops all the nitrogen they need in better forms than synthetic fertiliser, which ultimately has a destructive effect on the soil food web and on the ability of plants to take up nutrients5. And second, that the overall metabolism of the soil food web makes the other nutrients needed by the crop more available than in soils compromised by conventional practices.

The first point seems plausible to me, but not definitively established. I think more quantitative evidence is required, which I didn’t find in my various readings of the RAPs. Much as I share the dislike of the RAPs for synthetic fertiliser (and I’ve never used it myself), about 40% of the current global food supply is based on the application of synthetic nitrogen compounds – this was a major limiting factor in 19th and early 20th century agriculture, and it seems doubtful that human populations would have reached their current level without the invention of the Haber-Bosch process6. Undoubtedly, there are downsides to synthetic fertiliser. The RAPs may be right that ultimately it’s destructive of soil health. And we may be able to do without it – either by careful cycling of organic nutrients, or by the kind of soil food web route advocated by the RAPs. Various people – including me – have asked whether it’s possible to feed the world through organic farming alone, and answered with a tentative yes. It certainly makes sense to start weaning ourselves off synthetic fertiliser whenever we can, but from a global food security viewpoint our current tentative yeses don’t seem quite enough for us to blithely ditch the synthetics quite yet. Generalised or anecdotal claims that crops will do better without synthetic fertiliser are all very well, but I think such claims have to stay on amber until more quantitative data is forthcoming.

In relation to other nutrients, I get that a thriving soil biota can pull in carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere, but all the other nutrients have to come from the soil. David Johnson talks about the “increase in the availability” of such nutrients in his version of Regen-Ag, which he calls “Biologically enhanced agricultural management” (BEAM)7. It’s plausible to me that a healthy soil biota makes these nutrients more available to crops than they’d otherwise be, but (unlike C, N and O) it can’t conjure them out of thin air. So if crops are being taken off, then it seems to me that ultimately these nutrients are being mined from the soil, unless they’re somehow getting put back too8. But since Dr Johnson also enthuses about retaining his modern lifestyle and jetting off to distant conferences, it doesn’t seem that he’s thinking of a smallholder-style world of careful nutrient cycling. So I wonder where these nutrients are coming from. Maybe the RAPs would argue that there are effectively limitless quantities of them in the soil if only they can be made more available by the soil biota – I’ve heard Elaine Ingham imply as much9. But again, I’d like to see more quantification of this point. By my calculations, for example, the 65 million of us in the UK need to consume about 24,000 tonnes of phosphorus annually, which would minimally involve stripping the phosphorus in its entirety out of about 24 million tonnes of soil every year, and that at an improbable 100% extraction rate. So for the moment I consider this another amber, at best.

  1. Regen-Ag produces high yields

Yet again, I’m struggling to find much quantification here. In Christine Jones’s article, various farmers practising regen-ag are mentioned who are “getting fantastic yields”10. Well, how fantastic? Wheat yields in the USA, for example, have averaged 46.7 bushels per acre nationally over the last five years11. How do the wheat yields of regen-ag farmers compare? I’m not seeing too many hard and fast figures in the literature.

Let me unpack this point a little under these four heads:

  • Biomass and harvest index
  • Necessary yield
  • Competition and agronomic variation
  • Cropland-grassland balance

Biomass and harvest index: David Johnson presents figures for the most productive natural ecosystems which suggest they produce up to four times more biomass than agroecosystems despite all the fertilisation and irrigation lavished on the latter. From this he infers that “We’re doing something wrong”12. But the main purpose of agroecosystems isn’t to maximise the production of biomass, it’s to produce digestible human food – carbohydrates, proteins etc. Human crop breeding efforts have actively tried to reduce the amount of inedible biomass relative to the edible portion of the crop (ie. increase the harvest index). In this sense, Johnson’s comparison presents little useful information. Further, the high productivity natural ecosystems he identifies are all from hot and/or humid places (swamps, rainforests…even kelp beds). It’s not clear that the same is true of his agroecosystem figure, so I’m not sure he’s comparing like with like. Then Johnson presents data showing that his BEAM system produces way more biomass than even the natural ecosystems. He doesn’t always make it clear exactly what these high biomass BEAM plants are, but they generally seem to be cover crops which, by definition, are plants that are unusually good at quickly producing copious leafy biomass in the short-term. So it’s not necessarily surprising that they outperform the range of plants found in natural ecosystems and agroecosystems. High biomass production can be one important agricultural goal, but what’s ultimately of greatest interest is the yield of the edible portion of the crop. The table that Johnson really needs to present here is the yield of edible biomass or of metabolisable human nutrients in the various different regimens. It’s impossible to know if we’re ‘doing something wrong’ in crop yield terms until he does.

Necessary yield. Of course, yield isn’t everything. A lot of crops are fed inefficiently to livestock, or exported, or end up as food waste. Undoubtedly there’s some slack in the system, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if regen-ag yields are lower than conventionally-grown crops if they bring other benefits. As with enthusiasts for perennial grain crops, the RAPs seem to feel the need to claim that crop yields are as good or better than conventional crops, when this may not be necessary for their case, and potentially draws us into needlessly oppositional arguments. But ultimately it’s necessary for any agricultural system to yield enough to feed the people relying on it. What counts as enough isn’t an exactly quantifiable number, but it should be roughly quantifiable, and I’d like to see the RAPs roughly quantify it.

Competition and agronomic variation: at one point in his presentation, David Johnson likens our major crop plants to weeds and says “we’re good at growing weeds”. That’s exactly right. The basic characteristic of most of our major crop plants is that, like most weeds, they’re pioneer, short-lived (usually annual or biennial, sometimes short-lived perennial) plants that usually fare best in disturbed (ie. ploughed), highly fertile ground. As argued above, disturbed ground isn’t ideal for other reasons, so if we’re going to grow our standard crops in regen-ag systems, then essentially we’re going to have to ‘trick’ them into growing in circumstances they don’t particularly favour. In particular, we’re probably going to have to grow them through cover crops that may compete with them for water, light and some nutrients, even if they may donate other nutrients (like nitrogen). Therefore we might expect them to yield less. Generally, the way farmers bicrop cash crops with cover crops if they don’t use herbicide (which in fact most of them do) is to use some kind of inherent seasonal check to the latter (eg. flooding, extreme heat/drought, or extreme cold) or else by damaging them mechanically by some method that falls short of full tillage. But that’s not possible everywhere – for example, in the moist temperate zone where I live, cover crops can happily grow more or less year round and I’m not sure there are obvious ways that, for example, a cereal crop could be established directly into them with uniform success and good yields. This article about Kansas regen-ag farmer Gail Fuller says “Instead of trying to figure out the best way to terminate a cover crop or pasture, Fuller is looking for ways to knock it back for a few days to allow the cash crop to compete as a companion crop”. Where I live, I don’t think ‘knocking back’ a cover crop for a few days would be anything like enough to establish a successful cereal crop into it – which is why cover-cropping farmers here continue to use glyphosate routinely. My feeling is that further experimentation with cover cropping may eventually mitigate this problem, probably at the cost of some yield loss. But it doesn’t seem to me that humanity has really cracked this one yet. I think the RAPs need to discuss this issue more clearly, perhaps with an acknowledgment that – as with their ideal cover crop – it’s not yet cut and dried.

Cropland-grassland balance: many of these cash crop-cover crop trade-offs disappear when the focus shifts to farming ruminants on grass, because – notwithstanding many farmers’ taste for temporary perennial ryegrass – the cash crop in this instance is essentially a long-term cover crop, which therefore fits easily into the logic of regen-ag. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the farmers who get star billing as regen-ag pioneers are often ranchers on extensive, semi-arid grassland who are restoring soil and vegetation in the aftermath of ill-advised intensive grazing or tillage. All credit to them, but in terms of global food production it would be stretching a point even to call this a sideshow. The problem with grass as a crop is that humans have to jump a trophic level in order to be able to consume it as beef, lamb etc. and – as the likes of George Monbiot tirelessly, and correctly, remind us – this is pretty inefficient energetically. The contribution of rangeland beef to global food intake is minimal. On this note, Gabe Brown is frequently cited as a regen-ag pioneer. I haven’t yet established exactly what Brown’s system is and what his yields are, though it seems he has long fallows in his grazing rotations. Makes sense…but then he has a lot of (presumably cheap) acres to play with. Maybe his yields stand up even so. If so, it hardly fits into a Boserup model of agricultural intensification. Gail Fuller says “with low grain prices my bottom line is better grazing cover crops and pastures than growing corn…Right now, I make more money grazing”13. Of course, that’s absolutely fine at the individual farm level (though maybe it raises a question mark or two about those ‘fantastic’ regen-ag yields). But at the global food system level, it probably wouldn’t be fine, and we need to address that too.

In summary, I’m open to the idea that regen-ag methods produce ‘fantastic’ yields, but I’d like to know what they are. If no-till, cover-cropping methods can match or surpass tillage plus added-fertility methods for crop yield (rather than biomass yield) then that indeed would be fantastic – but it would run counter to what we’ve learned historically about agricultural development. Even if they can’t match them, it may not matter if they can yield enough. But some good, global quantification is necessary. For the moment, there are many ambers here.

  1. Regen Ag produces healthy crops that are weed and pest free

It seems plausible that a healthy soil biota, with fungal networks optimising nutrient transfer, will produce healthy crops – perhaps healthier than ones propped up by an agri-chem plus tillage approach. At the same time, as mentioned above, most of our crops are based on weedy, pioneer species that like to hoover up nutrients in disturbed soil, and they’ve been further bred to amplify these characteristics. So the idea that they’re happier in undisturbed fungal soils arguably requires demonstrating, rather than being assumed. I’d judge this assertion to be hovering on amber.

No doubt it’s true that healthy plants are more resistant to weeds and pests. This has long been the refrain of the organic movement, and I think it’s defensible so long as you don’t overplay the argument. Our crops, remember, are basically weeds, and the kind of soils they like to grow in will generally be to the liking of other weeds that humans don’t want. At Singing Frogs Farm, the Kaisers emphasise the use of mature transplants as a strategy to prevent weed ingress. That makes sense in the context of a small market garden, but it speaks of weed management, not a weed-free agronomy. It’s also labour and compost-intensive. It’s not necessarily applicable to broadscale farming – unless the argument is that we should minimise the latter and emphasise small-scale, labour-intensive farming. That, I think, is precisely what we should be doing. But we won’t have banished weeds, and we’ll have to scratch our heads to find the necessary inputs.

The pest issue mirrors the weed one. Different kinds of pests adapt to different kind of cropping regimens in different ways, and again it’s a matter of management rather than banishment. The Kaisers discuss the bird and insect problems they have and the crop covers they use to minimise these – so clearly they have pest problems. I find implausible the notion of a farm so tuned in to the natural world that none of its crop ends up in the stomachs of wild critters. Indeed, a farm tuned in to the natural world probably ought to be one in which some of its crop does end up in the stomachs of wild critters.

For me, it’s a red light on this claim.

  1. Regen ag sequesters human greenhouse gas emissions – possibly all of them.

It’s generally agreed that soils can act as a sink for carbon, and that soils containing a healthy food web are better at sequestering it – for example, through the fungal creation of chitin which holds it in a relatively immobile form. So I think we can probably award a green light to the basic claim that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon. I say ‘probably’ because there are studies that contest the idea of carbon sequestration through no-till regimens14 – it seems to be the case that the ‘regimen’ can be more important than the ‘no till’. Still, I think it would be fair to say that the balance of the literature suggests sequestration is at least a possibility.

Even so, I’d like to make four caveats.

First, I’d hope we can all agree that the best form of carbon sequestration is the one where humanity leaves the world’s hydrocarbons in their well sequestered present locations deep down in the earth. Carbon sequestered shallowly in soils by living organisms is always going to be more potentially mobile. You could argue that, in practice, humanity just isn’t going to leave all that energetically useful carbon where it currently lies in the rock, and that we therefore need to think about other mitigation strategies. Fair enough. But David Johnson’s insouciance about continuing to live our present high energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyle while mitigating its effects through shallow sequestration in living soils doesn’t inspire me with a great deal of confidence.

Second, no till farming doesn’t have it all its own way in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s typically associated with greater nitrous oxide emissions – and in some situations these outweigh the carbon sequestration gains: “increased N2O losses may result in a negative greenhouse gas balance for many poorly-drained fine-textured agricultural soils under no-till located in regions with a humid climate”15. That sounds like an apt summary of many of the soils where I live. Proof again, if it were needed, that in agriculture as in many other things there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

Third, there may be a limit on soil sequestration potential. Regen-ag heroes like Gabe Brown are lauded for taking on farms degraded by over-tillage and soil carbon loss and then building up the soil carbon stocks. But it seems to be the case that you can only build up the soil carbon for so long16 – we’re talking years, or decades at most – before it reaches an equilibrium where there’s no agricultural benefit to increasing carbon (as the Kaisers have already found) and it gets harder to do so anyway. So there may be a fairly short time-frame in which the carbon sequestration benefits of regen-ag are operative. Experiments like David Johnson’s have also been undertaken under short time-frames so far. Some caution about how much we can extrapolate these findings long into the future is probably in order.

Fourth and finally, we come to the vexed question of how much of the carbon that humanity is adding to the atmosphere can be sequestered in soil. The scientific consensus seems to be something in the region between 7-16% of current emissions17 – a useful amount, certainly, but not decisive enough to keep the climate change wolf from the door. RAPs like Christine Jones and David Johnson think that the potential is much greater, but frankly I’m doubtful of their claims. Jones appears to have something of a track record of questionable over-estimations of soil carbon sequestration potential of such proportions that it’s prompted even luminaries of the alternative farming movement such as Simon Fairlie and Rafter Sass Ferguson to distance themselves from her claims18.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that since fossil fuel combustion is only responsible for about 3% of the carbon in the global carbon cycle, it’s better to focus mitigation efforts on the biotic side of the cycle. This strikes me as specious. True, there are large natural sources, sinks and fluxes of carbon which dwarf the anthropogenic ones, but these are well-established patterns that aren’t significantly responsible for the radiative forcing we’re now seeing as a result of adding new carbon to the cycle. And if I understand this right, this new carbon, this 3% (I think it’s possibly more than 3% if you consider all anthropogenic causes of radiative forcing), is being added every year. However we tend the soil, can we really expect the existing carbon cycle, its soils and vegetation, to take care of an additional 3% on top of its relatively stable totals on our behalf in each and every year for the foreseeable future so that we can continue flying around the world to go to soil carbon conferences? That’s a very large demand to place on Mother Nature. I suspect she has other plans. If the claim is that on the basis of a few short-term, small-scale, local experiments like Johnson’s we can be sure beyond reasonable doubt that all anthropogenic carbon emissions can be stably sequestered long-term in agricultural soils, then I fear I’m looking at amber turning to red.

This isn’t the first time it’s been claimed we can adopt agricultural practices that will sequester all anthropogenic carbon and banish our climate change woes. Those earlier claims were shown to be spurious19. The same outcome seems likely this time around.

  1. Regen-Ag earns greater rewards for farmers

I think the basis for this claim is that regen-ag farmers spend less on agri-chemical inputs, presumably without a concomitant decline in outputs. So it’s plausible that the current handful of regen-ag pioneers are making a bit more money just at the moment. But unfortunately markets don’t fix food commodity prices at levels determined by outmoded technical inputs – in fact, they barely fix food commodity prices at levels determined by inputs at all. If they did, I’d be a rich man. So if regen-ag proves itself and spreads, then absenting major structural change in the global political economy, no farmer is going to get wealthy from it, because commodity prices will adjust. In other words, it’ll play out the same way as every other technical innovation that’s enabled farmers to increase yields or reduce inputs without for the most part becoming notably better off. Even David Johnson concedes that farmers will need to be paid in order to adopt his BEAM approach. He says that we shouldn’t expect farmers to bear the brunt of society’s environmentally-damaging behaviours. I agree, though historically they generally have done. Of course, in the long run it’s not sound business sense for Homo sapiens Inc. to erode away all its agricultural soils, so at some level it must ultimately be true that it ‘pays’ to adopt regenerative practices. But in the short-run, while I’m sure some farmers have improved their incomes as a result of adopting regen-ag approaches, I’m not seeing a persuasive argument for how regen-ag will in itself improve farmer income. Another red light.

  1. Regen-Ag can improve human health

The main idea here – one debated under my earlier post – is that without a healthy soil biota to transport nutrients readily around, our crop plants are unable to access the range of nutrients (particularly the micro-nutrients) that they need for their full health, with negative consequences in turn for human health. I find this idea intuitively quite plausible, but intuition only takes one so far. Proponents of mainstream agriculture are fond of saying things like “nitrogen is nitrogen”, and to be honest I’ve not seen much evidence to refute them. Evidence of harm to human health from the proliferation of nitrates and other agro-chemicals in the environment is clear, so there are grounds for shifting away from it on that basis alone. But evidence of harm to human health from impaired soil food webs is more elusive. It seems to be the case that the nutrient density of our food is in decline, but it’s possible that this results from eating high-yielding modern crop varieties with poorer micro-nutrient uptake and from a poorer overall diet20, not because of the non-availability of micro-nutrients in the soil.

Christine Jones has this to say about the link between current agricultural practices and cancer:

“Not that long ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer. At the current rate of increase, it won’t be long before nearly every person will contract cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer is also the number one killer in dogs. Isn’t that telling us something about toxins in the food chain? We’re not only killing everything in the soil, we’re also killing ourselves — and our companion animals”21

Let’s unpack these statements a little. In the UK22 the current cancer ‘rate’ in the sense of new cases of malignant cancer occurring each year across the whole population is 1 in 182, but that translates into the expectation that indeed around one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in the course of their lives23. If by a cancer ‘rate’ of 1 in 100 Jones means that ‘not that long ago’ only 1 in 100 people got cancer at any point in their lives (compared to the 1 in 2 today) I’d like to know how long ago that was. It would certainly be much longer ago than the 20th century, and the problem is that when you go back that far there are lots of other causes of morbidity – infectious disease and accidents, for example – that confound the attempt to make inferences about cancer aetiologies from rate changes. The fact that cancer incidence in pre-modern populations was low doesn’t necessarily mean that carcinogenicity in those times was concomitantly low (though that might be the case).

The difficulties of inferring changing carcinogenicity from historic incidence rates are compounded by changing age structures. The population now has a larger proportion of older people than before, and since the incidence of cancer is strongly associated with age, a good deal of the increase in cancer rates is purely an artefact of the ageing population. Meanwhile, cancer incidence is currently reducing in many ‘developed’ countries24 – though as a result of complex, multifactorial influences that push in different directions. So the straightforward answer to Jones’s question – isn’t the secular increase in cancer rates telling us something about toxins in the food chain? – is no, you just can’t infer that. That doesn’t mean she’s necessarily wrong. For all I know, it could be true that there’s a declining intake of micronutrients (or an increase in toxins – Jones seems a bit unclear on this point) with a positive effect on cancer incidence. Though if the finger of suspicion is pointing specifically at the decline of soil food webs, I’d observe that tillage agriculture has been the norm in many places for a long time, so the link between increased cancer incidence today and the destruction of soil food webs seems questionable. In any case, what’s clear is that the evidence Jones cites in support of her ‘toxins in the food chain’ view doesn’t in fact support it. There does seem to be evidence linking high dietary intakes of heavily processed food with raised cancer incidence25. Given current dietary patterns, adopting a diverse diet of fresh, unprocessed food may yield more health dividends than a switch to a regen-ag diet.

I’ve dwelt at some length on this rather abstruse cancer issue partly because I think it’s bad intellectual practice to justify an assertion in relation to evidence that doesn’t actually support it, and also because I think sloppiness of this order will easily torpedo the RAPs’ claims about the evidential base for regenerative agriculture more generally as they try to build wider support for regen-ag – and that would be a shame.

I think the health claims for regen-ag currently have to get red light status – though that may change in the future. I find it plausible that numerous aspects of our present food system may be associated with increased cancer incidence. It’s just that I haven’t (yet) seen any plausible evidence linking regen-ag practices to reduced cancer incidence.

Conclusion

I won’t try to summarise what I’ve said above. All in all, my traffic light assessment of the RAPs’ claims suggests to me a few greens, rather more reds, and a lot of ambers. There are numerous reasons why moving towards a regen-ag approach and sequestering some carbon in soils probably makes sense, but there’s a distinct lack of convincing empirical evidence to support many of the stronger claims made by the RAPs. For now, I feel like I’m waiting on amber.

Note: My thanks to Don Stewart for prompting this line of enquiry and to Clem Weidenbenner for an informative discussion.

Also, please note that I’ve recently upgraded this website with additional security features. If you have any problems accessing it, please let me know via the Contact Form.

References

  1. David Johnson
  2. Eg. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/33/13268.short
  3. Eg. https://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/no-till-is-a-big-white-lie/
  4. Eg. http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/conservation/take-soil-and-farm-beyond-conservation; for a discussion of this among British farmers, see https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/thoughts-on-the-glyphosate-saga/ 
  5. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  6. V. Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization, MIT Press, p.308; V. Smil. 2001. Enriching the Earth. MIT Press.
  7. David Johnson
  8. Disclosure: I once vehemently and obtusely sought to deny this point in an online discussion with an Australian scientist whose name now escapes me. Sorry, sir – I was wrong.
  9. E. Ingham. 2015. Presentation at Canadian Organic Growers’ Conference, Toronto, Feb 2015.
  10. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdf
  11. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/wheat-data/
  12. David Johnson
  13. Gail FullerJ. Baker et al. 2007. Tillage and soil carbon sequestration – what do we really know? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 118: 1-5; Z. Luo et al. 2010. Can no tillage stimulate carbon sequestration in agricultural soils? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. 139: 224-231.
  14. P. Rochette. 2008. No-till only increases N2O emissions in poorly-aerated soils. Soil & Tillage Research. 101, 1-2: 97-100.
  15. S. Singh. 2009. Climate Change and Crops; DEFRA (2007). The effects of reduced tillage practices and organic material additions on the carbon content of arable soils.
  16. IPCC; CGIAR; Singh, Ibid.
  17. S. Fairlie. 2010. Meat. Permanent Publications; Rafter Sass Ferguson.
  18. George Monbiot; D. Briske et al.
  19. M. Fan et al. 2008. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. 22, 4: 315-24; F. Denison. 2010. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.
  20. https://www.ncat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Acres-story-for-web-posting-March15_Jones.pdfI’m not sure which country’s rates Jones is referring to. I’m most familiar with UK data, so I’ve used that – I doubt the conclusions I draw here would be radically different if data were used from other ‘developed’ countries.
  21. https://www.cancerdata.nhs.uk
  22. A. Jemal et al
  23. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/14/ultra-processed-foods-may-be-linked-to-cancer-says-study

Mixed messages

Well, it’s busy times here at Vallis Veg so I’m just going to offer a brief news roundup for this week’s post.

I spent last weekend at the West Country Scythe Fair and the associated Land Skills day sponsored by the Land Workers’ Alliance, where I ran a session on small-scale mixed farming. Traditional (peasant) farming systems in most parts of the world usually involve a mixed farming strategy (crops and livestock), but commercial farming today rarely does – notwithstanding the ongoing practice of combining dairy with arable in conventional systems, which is better than nothing. A typical traditional mixed system involves ruminants grazing temporary clover-rich grass leys (the fertility-making part of the system), which are then ploughed for cropping (the fertility-taking part of the system). The other livestock (pigs and poultry, mostly – but let’s not forget our invertebrate friends, like bees and worms) fit in around the edges of the system, tapping nutrients that might otherwise go to waste. And the motive power of the animals, if carefully managed, delivers various benefits around the farm.

Nowadays, we’re swimming in a sea of manufactured nitrates and mined phosphates that undercuts the value of the traditional mixed farm (and also has significant external costs upstream and downstream). Even organic growers who don’t apply these products directly often rely implicitly on the mountains of manure or municipal compost made possible by the synthetic nitrogen economy and the land uses it permits. Cheap fossil energy likewise undercuts the careful nutrient cycling and motive capacities of farm livestock that are part of traditional mixed farming strategies.

My guess is that traditional mixed farming strategies will come into their own again if, as seems likely, we move towards a more energy and phosphate constrained future. But it’s easier to devise a mixed system on a broad-scale arable farm, where you can alternate between grazed ley and ploughed cropland. My main interest these days is in promoting smallholding-based, subsistence-oriented farming, preferably one involving no or low levels of tillage, achieved without herbicide. A common situation here is one like my holding – intensively cropped garden beds, surrounded by permanent pasture – and it’s harder in this system to arrange the nutrient transfer between grassland and cropland. You can, of course, confine the livestock on conserved forage and collect the manure that way – though I prefer a low input-low output system with the livestock out on the grass as much as possible. Generally, it’s not really feasible to bring them directly into the cropped system.

On the upside, a garden grown for personal subsistence with little off-farm nutrient leakage doesn’t require that much fertility input, so the problems aren’t insurmountable. I had some interesting conversations at the Skills Day with enthusiasts of regenerative agriculture – which I’ve been slightly sceptical of, perhaps as a result of my aversion to gurus and the extravagant claims sometimes made by them or on their behalf. But perhaps I need to rethink this – the idea of a no till subsistence garden with a flourishing soil biota nourished by on-farm resources is an appealing one, and it shouldn’t be impossible to achieve. All suggestions gratefully considered.

Another set of issues we discussed is the mob-stocking approach advocated by the likes of Joel Salatin (really, I suppose, just an intensification of traditional rotational grazing systems). Again, I’ve always been slightly sceptical – partly because of my guru-phobia, partly because it looks like a lot of work for limited rewards, and partly because when I tried it my sheep were utterly impervious to electric fencing, fencing being quite an issue for the small-scale farmer needing to enclose small paddocks. It’s hard to see how to do it economically with any method other than electric fencing. In this respect, sheep are probably much more troublesome than cattle – though one or two people at the Skills Day were unflappably optimistic about the possibilities of electrically-fenced sheep, so perhaps I’ll give it another go. I certainly don’t feel that the present state of my pastures reflects especially well on my farming skills, so I need to do something different. Again, on a bigger scale, there’s a lot to be said for alternating between sheep and cattle (worm burdens are at issue here), but it’s harder to do this on small scales.

One of the easiest livestock options for the small farmer is the household pig or hens, fed substantially from food waste. Of course it’s now a criminal offence to feed even hens with kitchen waste – which strikes me as a fine indicator of how badly wrong our contemporary ecological politics have become.

Ah, politics. Well, in other news a major ‘mixed message’ that’s come through recently is the general election result. Not since 2005 has the British public convincingly endorsed a single political party. Maybe it’s time for a bit more mixture, some cross-party collaboration to fit the public mood? Corbyn’s achievement in the teeth of a divided party and a hostile media is impressive. For me, the best thing about it is that it scotches the mantra that only centrist, middle-of-the-road policies and candidates can achieve electoral success. So although I’d argue as per recent discussions on this site that none of the formal political parties are fully engaging with the issues that really matter, this result encourages me that eventually they might.

Part of that recent discussion here included David’s comment that I should devote less attention to politics. And here I am talking about the general election….I guess what I’d say is that it depends on what you mean by ‘politics’. I don’t find the daily tittle-tattle of professional politics especially interesting or relevant to much that matters, but I don’t think I give it much attention on this blog. I do think the broad outcomes of electoral politics matter, even if all the party platforms fail to a greater or lesser extent to engage with the most pressing issues we face. But as to politics in general, this surely is absolutely crucial to the possibilities for a small farm/sustainable future. It’s the difference between a few visionaries/misfits scraping around at the edges of the business-as-usual world, and actually creating a viable agrarian society. If, for example, we’d like to see more of the mixed farming systems I was discussing above, then the only way it’ll happen is if we engage somehow with the political process to make it happen. My main interest isn’t with formal party politics (though that’s certainly one dimension of activism) but with the possibilities of building a movement (from a low base, I admit) for a sustainable agrarian society. Hence my position in my recent debate with Malcolm Ramsay about his proposed changes to property law. I can’t see these happening unless they’re articulated within a political movement with associated views on the way that class and power operate in contemporary society. Articulating such views as best I can feels to me a worthy enterprise for this blog.

Those, at any rate, are my principles. But like Groucho Marx, if you don’t like them maybe I could find some others. So I’d welcome any comments…but I’m going to be off in the internet-free wilds again for a few days, so please excuse me if I don’t reply until later next week.

Songs of the uplands

I recently mentioned the strange phenomenon of those political radicals and environmentalists who reserve their keenest barbs for members of their own tribe. Well, in this post I’m going to engage with a radical environmentalist I greatly admire, one who mostly avoids internecine conflict of that sort and keeps his sights appropriately trained on the real enemy. And, yep, you guessed it – I’m going to criticise him.

But not, I hope, in an especially negative way. George Monbiot – for indeed, it is he – has made a strong case against sheep farming in the UK in general, and upland sheep farming in particular, arguing that sheep occupy a large proportion of Britain’s uplands at considerable expense to the public purse in the form of farm subsidies, while providing very little food and creating severe environmental problems – notably in preventing the tree cover that could help both in limiting the water runoff that causes flooding problems in the lowlands and in promoting the re-emergence of indigenous wildlife, two causes for which he’s advocated with commendable passion and acuity.

20170204_141008

I’ve written before on this issue, but I recently exchanged a few comments with George about it on Twitter, which is absolutely the worst place to debate anything1. So here I offer you what I hope reads as a sympathetic critique, or at least a questioning, of his case against upland sheep farming. It’s not that I think he’s necessarily wrong. I think he could well be right, or at least mostly right. I’m pretty sure he’s done more thinking and more research on the issue than I have, and I’m glad he’s raised it and spoken up for rewilding, or ‘wilding’ at any rate – a cause for which I have a lot of sympathy. It’s just that there are various aspects of his case that don’t quite convince me, a few points I think he hasn’t addressed, and a few others where the implications seem to me more complicated than he supposes. My aim isn’t to refute the case against upland pastoralism, but ideally to help make it more refined.

In my review of George’s book How Did We Get Into This Mess I made the point that there’s a tension in it between the perspective of the indigene trying to figure out how to make a living from the land, and that of the rational-bureaucratic planner trying to figure out how to deliver services to the existing population. That wasn’t intended as a criticism – on the contrary, I think it’s a credit to him as a mainstream commentator that he should even be thinking about an indigenous self-provisioning perspective. But it’s that self-provisioning perspective that mostly animates my thinking on upland pastoralism, whereas I think his critique of ‘sheepwrecking’ mostly arises from a rational service-delivery perspective. And therein, I think, lies most of the disagreement. In a crowded modern country, I think it’s impossible not to take a rational service-delivery perspective when it comes to policy prescription. On the other hand, if that perspective consistently crowds out the voice of the denizen, the self-provisioner – as it usually does – then I suspect we’re condemned to endlessly replicate the problems we’re trying to solve. And there you have the generality of it. But let me try to outline some specifics.

1. The Golden Rice corner: George points out that a huge area of Britain, especially upland Britain, is devoted to raising sheep, and yet sheep meat furnishes only a small proportion of our diet. The figure he cites is about a 50% agricultural land take for sheep, which contributes only about 1.2% to our diet. I’m shortly going to question that figure, but I’d accept that the general case he makes is almost unarguable. You can grow way, way more food per acre by tending wheat in the lowlands than by tending sheep in the uplands. But if you push that argument to its logical conclusion, you end up boxing yourself into what I’d call the golden rice corner. Why not restrict ourselves to growing what’s maximally productive of calories per acre (in Britain that would basically be wheat or potatoes) and leave it at that? Why not stop farming the lowlands too and import food from places that can grow it still more efficiently?

OK, so George doesn’t in fact push his argument that far, and I think he’s (partly) right to emphasise how pitifully productive sheep-farming is compared to lowland wheat. What he actually says is  “sheep occupy roughly the same amount of land as is used to grow all the cereals, oilseeds, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and other crops this country produces”, but we need to bear in mind that the country doesn’t produce much of the fruit and vegetables it consumes, and that these are also quite low in calorific value per unit area: almost 80% of Britain’s cropland is devoted to growing just three crops (wheat, barley and oilseed rape), and more than half of that 80% is wheat – so I’d suggest the comparison he’s making is effectively between sheep and wheat. But the bald sheep-wheat comparison doesn’t really help us decide how much land we should ‘spare’ by growing wheat, and how much we should spread out and diversify our cropping in accordance with the land uses most locally appropriate. The high per hectare productivity of cereals partly stems from the fossil-fuel intensive inputs involved in arable farming – and, as George himself has elsewhere argued, perhaps these fuels should really be left in the ground. If we did so, arable yields would decline and we’d need grass-clover leys in the crop rotation – which would best be grazed by ruminants such as, er, sheep. And if you really push back on energy intensity, then human labour input starts to be an issue – at which point the case for pastoralism strengthens. As things stand, Britain could just about feed itself with a purely organic arable agriculture, based on 50% cropland leys – admittedly, here we’d be talking about a lowland ley farming focused mostly on dairy cattle rather than sheep, but my point is that cropland/grassland productivity ratios are something of a moveable feast.

oOo

2. Calories, schmalories: when it comes to the aforementioned pitifulness of sheep productivity identified by George, I do think his choice of data casts sheep in an especially bad light. First, there’s the fossil energy intensity point I just made above. And then there’s the fact that George focuses only on food energy, which is but one of the many things people need from the food they eat. I concede it’s an important one, though there are those who argue that getting it from high productivity staples rich in simple carbohydrates is not nutritionally optimal. In any case, there are things you can get from sheep meat like Vitamin A that you won’t get from wheat or potatoes. That’s not to say that upland sheep farming is necessarily the best way of getting them. Still, the point is that the nutritional benefits of our food aren’t reducible to calorie-by-calorie comparisons (incidentally, the calorific value that George uses for sheep meat is a tad lower than the one I generally use, derived from McCance and Widdowson). If we were seeking national food self-sufficiency in Britain – particularly in energy-constrained scenarios with limited synthetic fertiliser – then getting enough dietary fat becomes quite an issue (unless we grew a lot of organic oilseed rape, which we probably shouldn’t). And then the case for sheep would start looking better.

Another issue with George’s calorific measure is that he looks at how many calories people actually consume (including in food imports) to show what a small proportion is furnished by sheep. That figure turns out at about 3,500 calories per person per day – about 1,000 calories more than nutritionists recommend. We know that obesity is a major contemporary issue, so I’d suggest a more apposite denominator might be how much we ought to be consuming.

There’s also the issue of mutton and offal – I’m not sure how much of this potential yield from British grass finds its way onto our plates. I suspect not much – and consumer taste is not the fault of the grazier. Having proudly produced my own home-made haggis for the first time recently from the offal of my slaughter lambs, I’d like to raise the question of what George’s analysis would look like if his sheep production figures were fully haggisified.

Maybe these various data corrections I’m suggesting wouldn’t change the land use/productivity ratio enough to convince George and his supporters to moderate their views – in which case, fine. But I think they should be in there.

oOo

3. Only disconnect: as every statistician knows, the more you aggregate data, the more you conceal underlying variability. Let me go with my haggis example and – notorious socialist that I am – renationalise the data by allocating out the sheep meat between the populations of Scotland and England in accordance with the quantities of sheep grazing in the two countries. Doing that, we find that in Scotland sheep meat produces 14% of the population’s calorific requirements from 49% of its agricultural land (mostly of the poorer quality), and English sheep meat produces 0.1% of its population’s calorific requirements from 6% of its agricultural land (ditto). I’m not saying that this necessarily negates George’s overall argument, but it does improve the look of the figures a bit.

oOo

4. The sheep pyramid: although it’s true that upland sheep aren’t very productive of meat, that’s not really their main purpose. Their main purpose is to provide breeding stock with the good characteristics of upland breeds (hardiness, milkiness, easy-lambing, good mothering etc.) which, when combined with meaty lowland breeds, optimises productivity – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’. In that sense, there’s a need to see upland sheep farming more holistically in symbiosis with lowland grass as an important part of an optimised system of national flock management. True, you could probably lose a lot of upland acres without affecting total productivity or flock characteristics a great deal, but you would lose something, and it would be a good idea to figure this somehow into the considerations.

oOo

5. Defending the commons: read virtually any environmentalist treatise these days and odds are that’ll it wax lyrical about the commons as a vital way of managing society’s resources effectively (perhaps a little too lyrical, as I’ve argued here), and it’ll probably bemoan the way that modern industrial society rode roughshod over the commons of the past. Well, about a quarter of Britain’s (upland) rough grazing is managed as commons – pretty much the only functioning agricultural commons we still have, and with a finely-graded agricultural way of life attached to it. I’m not saying that it should be preserved in aspic just for that reason if other imperatives present themselves. But I am saying that people ought to think carefully before consigning it to oblivion out of some perceived greater contemporary need. It would be very easy to venerate commoners of the past whose voices are lost to us and bewail the forces that overwhelmed them due to their putative inefficiency…and then to visit the same fate on contemporary people for the exact same reason. And these would be real, complex, ornery, flesh-and-blood people, who don’t necessarily sing to the same tune as us. That’s long been the fate of many a peasant farming community, and it surely delivers a historical lesson worth pondering. It’s true that there may be more and better jobs available for upland residents in tourism than in sheep-farming in a post-pastoral, rewilded future. I’m just not sure that in the long run an economy based around a pastoral heritage is better than one based on actual pastoralism.

oOo

6. The destruction of the kingdom: …and talking of pastoral heritage, I do feel the need to take issue somewhat with George’s historical take on pastoralism, in which he blames Theocritus for inventing in the third century BC the pastoral literary tradition that associates sheep-keeping with virtue, tracing it in Britain through what he calls the “beautiful nonsense” of the Elizabethan poets to contemporary television programmes exalting a country life of sheepdog trials, adorable lambs and so forth.

In George’s alternative history, sheep occupy a malevolent role as shock troops of enclosure, dispossessing indigenous peasantries, who were providing for themselves, in favour of a monocultural ovine cash-crop. Well, there’s certainly some truth in that. Then again, there’s always been an oscillation between grassland and cropland in British history, with complex implications for agricultural output and social relations. Elizabethan poets may have exalted pastoralism, but Elizabethan statesmen did not: converting cropland to pasture was denounced in 1597 as a “turning of the earth to sloth and idleness”. In 1601, William Cecil said “whosoever doth not maintain the plough destroys this kingdom”2. Whereas now the plough itself is regarded as a destroyer, and the issue of which kind of farming is most carbon-and-wildlife friendly – grassland or cropland – gets ever more baroque.

Another point worth making is that the late medieval and early modern turn to commercial sheep-farming by the aristocracy led to a release of peasants from corvée arable labour on the demesnes, which arguably fostered the rise of an independent yeomanry3. There is neither crop nor beast which can be allotted the status of an unalloyed historical bad. Well, maybe sugar? Anyway, if there’s a case against sheep, it has to be a contemporary case. History has got nothing to do with it. Though I’m loth myself to underestimate the importance of the accumulated cultural capital in sheepdog trials, livestock markets and the plethora of finely adapted sheep breeds. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about nostalgia or television programmes – it’s about the possible lives that we can lead, which are necessarily built on the shoulders of our forebears and can easily be diminished when we turn our backs too readily on their achievements.

oOo

7. Aiming high by aiming low: I think I get George’s point about targeting the uplands for rewilding – they don’t produce much food, so why not devote them to something else? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be the case that these areas are among the least propitious for wildlife for the same reasons that they’re the least propitious for farming? If rewilding is the name of the game, why not aim higher by first developing proposals for lowland rewilding, where there are richer possibilities which will be better integrated with where most people live? After all, lowland arable deserts are no less dreary than upland grass deserts, are equally if not more destructive of wildlife, and produce an over-abundance of commodity crops that aren’t good for us. My alternative proposal, which I’ve been examining in some detail in my Peasant Republic of Wessex series, would be to look to feed ourselves first with vegetables and fruit, second with grass-fed and waste-fed livestock, and only third with starchy arable staple crops to make up the shortfall – with almost no place at all for grain-fed meat. I’d keep most of the grassy uplands for meat and reduce lowland arable as much as possible, starting my rewilding there. Ultimately, to feed the nation you’d probably have to trade off some lowland productivity for some rewilding, but why not at least start there?

oOo

8. Songs of the uplands: a rare breed hoop: As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the idea of rewilding, but I have a nagging feeling that the general public might get behind it as ‘a good thing’ without much clarity of objective, while continuing to know or care very little about how their food is produced. This will buttress the land sparing/sharing tension I’ve mentioned – big agri in the lowlands, no agri in the uplands. Or, worse, ‘wild’ uplands in Britain and lots of imported lamb from places like New Zealand that didn’t even have terrestrial mammals prior to human colonisation. So I’d like to know more about the kinds of wildness the re-wilders are proposing and why they want it. I’m not necessarily opposed to it – I appreciate how degraded the wild places are compared to the past – but how do we evaluate its qualities and trade them off against present agricultural practices? I’m less inclined than George to write off the symbiosis of human, dog and sheep in upland pastoralism. I see it as a thing of beauty, another fine song of the uplands, just as the song of eagle, marten or rowan has its beauty. I don’t dispute that upland sheep farming isn’t always beautiful – I agree that it’s possible for land indeed to be ‘sheepwrecked’. Still, wilding the uplands involves making a human value judgment that the songs of the wild (and which songs, exactly…?) are so superior to the song of the shepherd that it justifies essentially terminating a historic upland industry. It’s a strong claim – maybe a plausible one, I’m not sure. I think I’d like to hear a lot more about the wilding that’s planned and its putative advantages.

So how about this as an interim measure to test the public’s resolve? Before adopting full-on, sheep-vanquishing upland rewilding, why not promote silvo-pasture using traditional, locally-appropriate, lower-productivity rare sheep breeds – a situation that could create ‘wilder’ uplands than at present, and would force the public to reach into their pockets to support it if they wanted? Consider it a rare breed hoop to jump through, a wallet-test for rewilding that would probably generate more accurate feedback than public opinion surveys.

oOo

9. Multi-functionality: in our contemporary cash-crop farm system, sheep basically have the single function of producing meat. But in a self-reliant economy they have what Philip Walling calls a ‘tenfold purpose’ – meat, fat, blood, wool, milk, skin, gut, horn, bone, manure. In the past this provided “food, clothing, housing, heating and light, all manner of domestic implements, soil fertility and parchment”4. Perhaps we should think about some of those possibilities again in creating a more sustainable agro-ecology. Would they make a difference to George’s argument? I don’t know – maybe not much. But it’s worth pondering.

oOo

10. Money: George is probably right that upland sheep farming in its present form is only propped up by a generous EU subsidy regimen (so maybe it’s already a goner, though peasant peoples historically have been pretty good at weathering the storms raised against them from the political centres). Then again, our contemporary food system in its entirety is only propped up by a generous set of explicit and implicit subsidies, and the price the public pays or farmers receive for their food bears next to no relation to its costs. I take George’s point that upland sheep farming may not be the best use for precious public money, but since the whole food system needs rethinking across the board I personally wouldn’t single out upland pastoralism for special opprobrium. In the long-term, I think we need a human ecosystem more closely fitted to its surroundings and I’d imagine that in Britain upland sheep farming in some form would have a role there. In the short-term, I’d say that the fiscal balance sheet of sheep farming is largely irrelevant to the case for or against it.

oOo

11. Flooding vs. rewilding: the flood abatement case against upland sheep-farming seems to me rather different to the rewilding case. In the former, it’s surely possible to develop silvo-pastoral systems which adequately combine the purposes of sheep-keeping and flood abatement5. Whereas in the latter, each sheep is one small extra quantum of human affliction against the kingdom of the wild (full disclosure: I plead a total of six offences currently on this score, as pictured – though I’d argue that they do contribute to the productivity of the holding, which still has it wild spaces…) It’s reasonable to make a both…and case against sheep, but others might want to make an either…or defence which finds an ongoing role for sheep in the uplands.

oOo

So there we have it. I salute George for sticking his head above the parapet as few others are prepared to do and making his case against upland sheep in Britain. But I’m not quite yet ready to throw my lot in with it. First, I’d like to see someone work through the doubts I’ve expressed here and convincingly defuse them.

Notes

  1. George’s main writings on sheep farming, the uplands and related issues are in his book Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) and in articles here, here and here. I’ve written previously on upland sheep farming here, and on rewilding here.
  1. See Thirsk, Joan (1997). Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford, pp.23-4.
  1. Duby, Georges (1974). The Early Growth of the European Economy. Cornell.
  1. Walling, Philip (2015). Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain. Profile, (pp. xix-xx).
  1. As I argue in a little more detail here.

Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.

oOo

  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.

 

  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)

 

  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.

 

  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.

 

  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.

 

  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.

 

  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.

 

  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.

 

  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.

 

  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.

 

  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.

 

 

  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).

A farewell to the year

And so I come to my final blog post of 2016, and what a year it’s been. I’ve been asked by Dark Mountain to write a retrospective of it, which I hope will be up on their website soon. I’ll be offering some thoughts on the larger events of the world in that post, so here I’m mostly just going to offer a few nuggets focused on my specific theme of small-scale farming, and its future.

But first I thought perhaps I should take a leaf out of John Michael Greer’s book and make some predictions for 2017. I got a certain amount of stick on this site earlier in the year for the dim view I took of Donald Trump’s politics, and of Greer’s (deniable) enthusiasm for them. I was told that Trump’s speaking up for the working class, his focus on domestic politics rather than global power politics, and his anti-corporate/neoliberal agenda promised fresh departures. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced now that the president-elect has stuffed his team with Goldman Sachs bankers and assorted billionaires and foreign policy eccentrics, while baiting China and the Arab world.

So my prediction for December 2017: Trump’s presidency will have had a minimal to negative effect on improving the lot of the US working class, a negative effect on international relations and tensions, and a positive effect on the entrenchment of corporate power. Something to reflect on in a year’s time… The history of global power politics suggests that the rise of one power and the slow decline of another, while scarcely going unnoticed, often reaches a flashpoint where the starkness of the reversed fortunes is suddenly revealed, as if unheralded – the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War spring to mind in the case of European history. I predict a future flashpoint in which the supremacy of China over the US is revealed, though probably not in 2017 unless Trump really surpasses himself. I hope he doesn’t – I’d prefer it to happen under a steadier pair of hands in the White House.

Anyway, let’s talk about farming. Back in October I went to the small-scale farming skill share day organised by my Land Workers’ Alliance friend Rebecca Laughton, in association with her interesting research project on the productivity of small farms in the UK. My train was delayed and I turned up late to the event, walking in to the middle of a session on small-scale grain growing just as an audience member asked the session leader what variety of wheat he grew. “Maris Widgeon,” he replied, to audible intakes of breath through the pursed lips of the assembled participants.

I sometimes think that in Britain, more than in most countries of the world, the cause of small-scale farming is, alas, a lost one. So I somehow found it cheering that there are still people around in this country capable of tight-lipped disapproval at the thought of someone growing a variety of wheat that most other people have never heard of.

That event was held at Monkton Wyld, where the inestimable Simon Fairlie and Gill Barron keep a small herd of Jerseys, sell scythes, and run The Land magazine, which celebrated its twentieth issue this year – a small ray of sanity in a crazy world. It was great to have a look around Simon and Gill’s operation, including its traditional small milking yard. As Simon pointed out, there used to be thousands of these around the country. Most are now gone, but as the margins for milk production narrow and the inputs of robotic mega confinement dairies broaden, there are some glimmerings of a return to low input micro-dairying of the kind that Simon and Gill practice. Another reason to be cheerful.

Simon is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance – still probably the best single-volume examination that I’ve read of what a small farm future might entail. And talking of meat, alternative farm guru Joel Salatin has recently been taking on all comers in defending the cause of ‘sustainable meat’ – notably against a New York Times op-ed by James McWilliams called ‘The myth of sustainable meat’, and in a debate here in the UK with, among others, Tara Garnett, head honcho of the Food Climate Research Network.

Salatin makes a lot of good points, and generally gets the better of McWilliams in his response to the NYT article, which recycles the usual weary old shibboleths about the superior ecological credentials of intensive confined meat operations. But on one point I find Salatin evasive. Critiquing McWilliams’ figures for the amount of land needed to finish an animal on grass, Salatin writes that these figures “are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures….Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.” What he doesn’t say is how many acres an animal needs with these exponentially augmenting space-age methods, and how many acres you’d need to produce the same level of nutrition from exponentially-augmenting space-age technology applied to food crops grown directly for human consumption rather than to forage crops. Because the fact is, there’s a cast iron ecological law of trophic levels which shows you can’t produce as much meat from a given area as you can of vegetable matter.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for livestock on the farm, or that there isn’t a case for scaling up ‘sustainable meat’ – issues that Simon Fairlie looks at in some detail in his book, and that I’ve been looking at in my blog cycle on sustainable farming in the UK. But let’s be honest – except in highly marginal environments, you’re never going to produce human food via the intermediary of livestock with the same land-use efficiency as directly edible crops. Tara Garnett is undoubtedly right that levels of US or UK meat consumption aren’t globally sustainable, however the animals are raised. And in any case, ruminants are a sideshow in global meat production – the real issue is pork and chicken, which compete more directly with humans for cropland.

Western levels of meat consumption may not be globally sustainable, but they could still be locally sustainable. I’ve spent a lot of time this year crunching numbers on a projected future ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ here in southwest England where I live, with a view to comparing it to the imperium of London in the southeast. On the grassy expanses of Wessex I’ve found a role for animals in feeding the populace. But I’m not sure those assumptions will play out so well in the case of Londinium, which I’ll be coming to. My aim has also been to discuss the politics and sociology of a shift to contemporary neo-peasant societies in ‘developed’ western countries. I’ve made much less progress on this than I’d hoped to by now, but hey I’ve got a farm to run as well. And there’s always next year – I hope.

On the upside, my neo-peasant exercise seems to have prompted some wider interest. This has been the year when Small Farm Future went…well, not exactly viral, and maybe not even bacterial, but certainly amoebal, with over 1,100 comments on my posts here at Small Farm Future alone in the course of the year. Some of them weren’t even written by me. So thank you very much to everyone who’s commented, and apologies if pressure of time has sometimes meant that I haven’t been able to reply as fully as you might have liked. I’ve learned a lot from the comments I’ve received, and getting feedback is certainly an encouragement to continue blogging.

Indeed, Small Farm Future was even mentioned in dispatches by an academic study called ‘Is there a future for the small family farm?’, funded by the Princes Trust and with a foreword written by lord somebody of somewhere-or-other, so here at SFF we now have true blue aristocratic pedigree. Admittedly, the mention we got was somewhat backhanded:

Others lament the decline of the small farm in a global context. Chris Smaje, who runs a website called Small Farm Future, writes:  

“From the brief high-water mark of pro-peasant populism in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the possibility of founding self-reliant national prosperities upon independent small proprietors has slowly been eroded through land grabs, global trade agreements and agrarian policies favouring capital intensive staple commodity production over local self-provision, regardless of the consequences for small-scale farmers.” (Smaje, 2015) 

The close association between advocacy of small-scale farming and advocacy of radical organic alternatives to conventional agricultural systems (see Smaje, 2014; Tudge, 2007) often serves, in fact, to keep the size issue on the margins of mainstream debate. This is unfortunate in our view as there is real scope for positive interaction between alternative visions for agriculture and the concern at the challenges facing more conventional mainstream family farms.

Ah well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I’m not sure it’s lonely voices in the wilderness like mine that are keeping the issue of farm size to the margins of mainstream debate, and I can’t really see how a serious case for small-scale farming as anything other than a minor complement to high input, specialised, large-scale agriculture can be made in the absence of advocating for radical (if not necessarily organic) alternatives to conventional agricultural systems. The report is certainly interesting in its analysis of the role of small-scale farming within the lifecycle of the mainstream farm economy, and in bringing a little (though only a little) data to bear on this under-examined sector. But ultimately I’d have to say that, no, there isn’t a future for the small family farm in the UK unless somebody shouts out for it politically long and loud. What a lucky break for the world it is that Small Farm Future is here to do some shouting for it…

…but not for a month or so. All this blogging of late has left me behind on my farm chores and other writing tasks. So while some opt for alcohol-free Januaries, I’m going for a blog-free one in order to catch up in some other areas of my life. And so…thanks for reading, all the best for 2017 – and I hope to see you again on the comments page sometime around February. Ciao!