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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Of pigs, peasants and pastoralists

I’ve been meaning to write a simple little blog post about the pigs I’ve been raising on my holding this year. But here at Small Farm Future we like to go for big picture analysis, and somehow the post has turned into a redesign for British agriculture in its entirety. Ah well, at least it enables me to riff on various hot topics recently featured on this blog: rewilding – particularly in the context of Miles King’s fascinating vision of nature-friendly arable farming; the affinities and tensions between livestock and arable, which in these modern consumerist times often figures as a vegans versus omnivores debate, but in the alternative farming world can also hinge on arguments about the respective ecological credentials of meat versus plant production, and more broadly in the longstanding historical tension between agrarians and pastoralists; the issue of whether organic farming can feed the world; and, lastly, the war cry of the latter-day agricultural improvers that we need to get people out of small-scale farming and increase the productivity of the land without increasing total land take.0 2015 09 21 Pigs in clover 2

But let’s start with my pigs. I have two weaners which I’ve been attempting to feed as much as possible from my on-farm resources, minimising the amount of grain or soy-based concentrate I buy in (no offence intended to any grain or soy-oriented readers…) It’s been going OK. The pigs are living in about an acre of mixed young woodland plantation, which includes an area of pasture and fodder crop. The fodder crops are alfalfa for protein (reasonably successful) and fodder rape (not so successful). The pigs have also been getting crab apples, some nuts, and a lot of vegetable waste from the market garden, including our reject potatoes. So far I’ve had them four months and got through just over one 25kg bag of concentrate. I’ll probably need to buy in a bit more before they’re finished, but I did get them relatively late in the year (July). I suspect the main limiting factor if I run this as a long-term project is going to be their soil-disturbing activities, which are quite profound even at a stocking density of 2 pigs/acre. A topic for further reflection and discussion…

Projects like this make me think about land use. What kind of land take is associated with these pigs? What else could or should I be doing with it instead? And if I were to generalise from what I’m doing, what would be the wider social and environmental implications? So in the light of the interim lessons from my pig project let me temporarily appoint myself God and redesign British agriculture as I see fit. I’m going to do it using the following self-imposed guidelines:

  • My agricultural output will be mixed
  • My British farmscape will need to furnish the entire calorific needs of the country’s population. It’s not that calories are the only important nutritional metric, but there’s no avoiding the fact that any plausible farm system has to meet its population’s energetic requirements, and this is among the more demanding tasks asked of it. I conjecture that in my mixed farming system, if I can take care of the calories most of the other nutritional needs can take care of themselves
  • Fertility will be organic, and largely self-generated on the farm
  • Farming will be small-scale and labour-intensive for a variety of reasons that I won’t dwell on here but have done in past posts and will do in future ones. You know it makes sense!
  • Livestock will be default, ie. they will complement the production of human food and not directly compete with it. In that sense, my pig project is much closer to default than grain/soy fed pigs, but it’s not quite default because of the fodder crops and the small amount of bought in concentrate
  • Trees on farms are good – for biodiversity, for the soil, for wildness, maybe even for timber. But people need to eat too

Let’s start by looking at existing UK agricultural land use, as reported in DEFRA’s Agriculture in the UK. Figure 1 gives you the lowdown.

Fig 1

Fig 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now let’s look in Figure 2 at what we’ve got in that cropped area.

Fig 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hmmm, this isn’t good. Not good at all. Happily, having arrogated temporary omnipotence to myself, I can soon put things right.

First of all, I have to profess my sympathies with Robert C, the upland sheep farmer who commented on my recent post about rewilding. His family have been farming sheep since the sixteenth century and they’re not going to be pushed around by Johnny-come-lately urban re-wilders. Plus, upland shepherding drives the whole of British sheep farming. Fair play, sir – to you and your kind, I allocate all of the sole right rough grazing for sheep farming. But I’m also sympathetic to the re-wilders – George Monbiot’s laments for the sheepwrecked uplands touch my soul. So I’m going to allocate half of the common rough grazing to the re-wilders, taking it out of agricultural production and getting some trees on it, while retaining the other half for sheep farming. Then I shall watch what unfolds from my lofty perch in the heavens before issuing my final judgment. May the best man win!

Now then, heaven forbid that I should invite the ridicule of the ag improvers by taking any more cropland, so I’m going to fix the cropland essentially at its current level of 4.7m ha. I am, however, going to add in the temporary grass, which is surely just cropland that’s lazing about and not reporting for work…and there’s no place for malingering of that sort in George Osborne’s Britain. I’m also going to add in the outdoor pig land. I don’t care if they’re outdoors – it if ain’t default, I’m calling a halt. So let’s do something more useful with that.

We’ll need to come back to the crop mix, but first we need to do a little more tidying around the edges of the cropland. As I mentioned, trees are good, so let’s arbitrarily (arbortrarily?) treble the amount of farm woodland (we can put a few pigs in it). We’ll do it by including the re-wilded commons in our woodland portion and then pinching just under a million hectares of the permanent grass. Hell, those aristocrats and horsey folk won’t even notice they’ve lost a smidgeon of their copious estate. We’ll also forest up the ‘all other’ land. I wasted too much of my youth as a data analyst pussy-footing around with residual categories. To any parcels of land that won’t clearly state their intentions I say this: I have a tree-planting auger, and I know how to use it…

So now let’s get back to the cropland. Dear oh dear. My fellow Brits – didn’t our parents tell us to eat our greens? Right, well we’re farming organically so let’s put a quarter down to legume-rich grass leys. Then we’ll have a quarter down to wheat, a quarter to potatoes and a quarter to vegetables. Oilseeds? No, sir. But I suppose we do need some oil or fat. Well, let’s have some dairy cows then. They can graze the permanent pasture and the leys. No concentrates, though.

That brings us to livestock. We’ve got a few sheep in the uplands and some dairy cows down on the farm. And we can eat the calves, of course. Apart from that, it’s tricky. How many default pigs can we have? Not many. Let’s say we can produce one default pig carcase per two hectares of farm woodland per year. And how many default hens? Depends on the farm size, of course. Let’s look at that next.

I’m figuring on about 10% of the working age population working as farmers – something I looked at previously. Maybe that sounds high. I think it’s probably a sensible, sustainable figure, and it may not be too far off the actual number toiling to fill the British plate when you count in all the people around the world to whom we’ve outsourced the most labour-intensive food production jobs. So that would be about 3.9 million farmers. Let’s say most of them live and work as couples. Then the average holding size would be about 6.7 hectares – not too dissimilar to my own humble plot, in fact. Assuming that these lowland farms have to do the bulk of the work in feeding the nation, each 6.7 hectare parcel would be charged with the nutritional welfare of about 33 people. And, coming back to the hens, how many default hens could we have on our 6.7ha? I don’t think too many. A bit of food waste, a bit of gleaning, a bit of grass and some insects from the field – shall we say six dual purpose birds to give us eggs and chicken pie? And let’s have some bees. Easy now with the honey. Default bees need it more than we do. But perhaps they’ll allow us to skim off 10kg a year.

I haven’t said anything about fruit and nut trees. Tough, I’m a veg grower. La Brassicata and I are going to be pretty darned busy growing your spuds and milking the cow, so if you want fruit and nuts as well you better come down to the farm and lend a hand. Actually, in this climate I think nuts are probably better thought of as an occasional gift of wild nature rather than a farm crop. And fruit production is quite specialist. But I imagine we can fit in a bit of top and soft fruit in our spare time – let’s say 200kg of apples and 50kg of raspberries.

Right, well there we have it. Agri-redux, courtesy of Spudman. Let me now plug in some figures to see what we can produce. Full details are on this spreadsheet and it’s a real back of an envelope job so I’d welcome any comments, especially if you want to challenge the plausibility of my yield figures or stocking densities. Absence of howling errors not guaranteed. Probably the key assumptions are a wheat yield of 4.3 tha-1, a potato yield of 20 tha-1, a grass-fed house cow producing 3000 litres of milk a year, dual purpose hens laying 200 eggs a year, and upland sheep farming producing 3 lamb carcases per hectare (an overestimate?) Most of those yield figures are quite low – lower than current yields from organic farming. But my suspicion is that there’s quite a surfeit of manure and other implicit energy subsidies in the organic farming of today stemming from our overdriven nitrogen and carbon cycles, our food imports and so on. I know on the basis of my experience that the figures I’m using should be achievable long-term with mostly on farm nutrient cycling, so they feel more properly sustainable or ‘agroecological’ to me. In any case, this way the result ought to give a minimal, baseline figure.

Assuming an energy requirement of 2,300 calories (9.6 MJ) per person per day, my figures turn out a national energy requirement of 2.25 x 1011 MJ and a total farm productivity of 2.58 x 1011 MJ – a ratio of 1.15 the latter over the former. So, my conclusion is that yes we can produce a decent, mixed and calorifically adequate diet for the UK population organically from its existing farmland. But only if we keep livestock numbers rigorously controlled and meat consumption low, and resign ourselves to getting most of our food energy from wheat and potatoes (see Fig 3) – which may not suit some folks. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should diversify our diet away from simple carbohydrates. But I’m also sympathetic to the ideas that we should farm organically, with minimum tillage, on mixed farms and that we have to feed the population. So something has to give. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s priorities might be. As it stands, I’m projecting about 6-7kg meat per person per year from my system, something like a tenfold drop from current EU levels of consumption. And about 90 litres of milk (or 6-7kg of butter). By God, this is tight. Still, we can always go visit the candyman for a sprinkle of his magic Haber-Bosch dust. And, by my figures, there’s scope for trimming back the potato/wheat area a little. Or we could try to increase the margin in other ways – more labour input for diverse perennial cropping, a bit more farm specialisation (but not too much, we’ve fallen into that trap before…), urban farming with poultry and pigs as waste cyclers. And we do have to bear in mind that this is probably a minimum yield figure that we’re working with.

Fig 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now then, if we did away with the cropped area and grew grass instead we could put an end to all that damaging tillage farming. We could replace it with the most productive form of livestock farming – dairying – and bring in another house cow and calf, while keeping the other livestock, the fruit trees etc. But if we did that, we’d only be able to produce about 15% of the national population’s energy needs. That’s an interesting figure in relation to the old ecological rule of thumb that each step up in trophic level loses about 90% of the productivity of the previous level, which seems to be roughly borne out here.

There’s quite a move in alternative farming circles these days to talk up livestock farming – particularly in relation to extensive raising of ruminants for meat. Great claims are made for traditional range management, desert reclamation through grazing, carbon sequestration in grassland soils, grass-fed cattle, mob stocking and the like. I’m sceptical about some of them, though I find them plausible enough in the main. But I don’t find them plausible as a method of feeding humanity. They’ll feed small numbers of poor rangeland pastoralists and small numbers of rich grass-fed meat enthusiasts, but extensive pastoralism is no more viable as a plan for feeding contemporary humanity than hunting or foraging. That’s not intended as a criticism of people farming livestock agroecologically. If I took on a farm in present economic and ecological circumstances that’s what I’d probably do. And it makes sense to fit extensive livestock husbandry in where possible around more intensive provisioning strategies. But – as with Britain’s upland sheep – its role will be minor.

I think what this analysis shows is that, unlike extensive pastoralism, intensive, ‘organic’/ agroecological, local ‘peasant’ farming is feasible for national self-provisioning.  It may seem impossibly distant from how we farm now, but it’s not impossible as a provisioning strategy. And how we farm now may seem impossible in the not too distant future. So my punt is that the livestock of choice in the future will be the usual peasant menagerie: the house cow, the pig and the chicken, and not the pastoralist option of the ruminant herd. Though to make up the shortfall in the meat ration, insect and mollusc farming may have an emerging role too.

When I write posts like this, somebody usually says “yes, but what about the energy requirements?” and then bangs on about the land-take of horses or oxen. But most of the energy requirements in the food system relate to fertiliser synthesis and farm-to-consumer costs. Here, I’ve eliminated the former and the latter isn’t my problem. Hey, I’m growing your food for you, you expect me to worry about how you’re going to get hold of it too? You shouldn’t have bought that fancy townhouse! The world according to Spudman is a world of producer sovereignty, re-ruralisation and localisation. So if you want to live in the city, you’re gonna have to pay for the privilege. And if you want to call my vision ‘feudal’, it means you don’t know what ‘feudal’ means and, even more inexcusably, you haven’t yet read the essay I’m going to be posting up on here in a few weeks’ time about all that sort of thing. There, I think I got my retaliation in first.

OK, OK, so farm energy may still be a problem. But if so, it’s a hell of smaller problem with 4 million working the land than with 400,000 – and not just because of the direct substitution of human for fuel energy, but also because of the different kind of farming strategies involved. Give me 30 litres of petroleum a year for my on-farm use and I’ll cope OK. If, as Andy McGuire said here, our societies prioritised fuel use sensibly they’d make it (sparingly) available to farmers in preference to many other more frivolous uses and we could use if for centuries without facing such acute energy uncertainties as we presently do. But if I can’t have my 30 litres then I’ll plant 30 pine trees and make the damn stuff myself, or – as David suggested here – grow another biofuel crop, by trimming back the woodland or the meat. Really, when it comes to unsustainable energy use, farm traction comes low on the list. Meat comes in higher, but if you and my other 31 customers are really, really nice to me, I may just put a little chicken and bacon by for you for Christmas. Don’t eat it all at once!

Gosh, I’m feeling dizzy…I think I’m falling…what’s that I see? It’s a field…a field of…no, it can’t be…aargh!…oilseed rape. And where has all my woodland gone? Crash! Dammit, I think my omnipotent powers have deserted me and I’m back to the bare earth of the arable cereal fields with a bump. Sigh. Well, I’ll just have to work out how to deliver on that vision by normal, human means. Any suggestions gratefully received below…

Soil food webs: from farm to garden?

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about since February, when I heard Elaine Ingham talking about soil food webs at the Canadian organic growers conference. Dr Ingham is one of the main movers and shakers behind this apparently increasingly influential perspective, which has found its way into the gardening firmament through books like Lowenfels and Lewis’s Teaming With Microbes. The idea in a nutshell is that plant/crop growth is interdependent with a complex web of small, mostly soil-living organisms. Plants exude proteins and carbohydrates into the soil, funded from their photosynthetic way of life, which provides food most importantly for bacteria and fungi, and thence to a vast array of other single- and multi-celled critters whose life and death in the soil provides the complex nutritive foundation upon which the larger organisms intelligible in the everyday human world build their lives – the trees, the shrubs, the grasses, the forbs, the birds, the mammals, the reptiles, the molluscs, the arthropods and so on.

Two main points emerge from this of relevance for farmers. The first is that despite our impressive level of human knowledge about the chemistry of soils and plants, we don’t really know exactly what our crop plants need to thrive at any given time – only the plants know that (‘know’, that is, in a biochemical sense – which brings to mind this nice article by Richard Mabey about plants as authors of their destinies in ways not always suspected by humans). So instead of fiddling about with idealised fertiliser regimens, we’d be better off just providing the plants with healthy soils teeming with life, and let the plants themselves get on with the job of self-nutrition. This is basically the familiar adage of the organic movement: feed the soil, not the plant. A further, unproven, implication is that plants which have been able to optimise their self-nutrition may better enable us, their predators, to optimise our own.

The second point concerns precisely how you ‘feed the soil’. What you don’t do, according to Dr Ingham, is add synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, because these salty additives kill soil life. Nor do you till, because this does the same – particularly in the case of delicate fungal hyphae, which are torn apart by ploughs and harrows. So instead you add compost – lots of it. That’s how you feed the soil.

Not just feed the soil, in fact, but according to Dr Ingham actually build it. She was scornful of the USDA agronomists who claim that soils form at a rate of (I think she said) one millimetre per year. She informed us that she could make a soil thirty feet deep in two days (or some such improbable amount…I forget the exact figure…), evidenced by her work to create a native Texan prairie in just one year at the gardens of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, where her photos showed us trucks dropping off compost by the ton1. Cue astonished wows and whoops from the audience…

…and an uncontrollably arching eyebrow from me. It’s not, of course, that I question the morality of working to beautify the legacy of the USA’s 43rd president. Because, let’s face it, no amount of native Texan flora could make Mr Bush come up smelling rosy. No, it’s because…because…well, JUST WHERE THE HELL IS ALL THAT COMPOST COMING FROM? Surely from the detritus of an American agricultural civilization which, though it accumulates in centres of human population, ultimately stems directly or indirectly from its farmland. Let’s put it another way: if you put your mind and a decent number of large trucks to it, you can probably produce and spread compost several feet thick over the 13 acres of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and several other such institutions besides. What, I’d submit, you can’t do is spread it over the 900 million plus acres of farmland in the USA where I suspect the overall rate of soil formation is more likely going to approximate to that disparaged USDA figure, and then only if you’re lucky.

The implications of all this are potentially significant. First, I suppose I should pose the question as to whether Dr Ingham’s arguments are sound. There are those who would doubtless argue that farmers have been merrily tilling and spraying their fields for a long time now and nobody’s died yet – well, nobody identifiable anyway, apart perhaps from a few farmers. Personally I find it plausible that we’ll have to look after both soils and soil food webs better than we presently do if agriculture is to continue to serve humanity well long-term. And there does seem to be some evidence that repeated fertiliser and pesticide applications aren’t good for soils, but I’d be interested to hear more expert views than mine on this.

On a garden scale, I think it’d be quite easy to grow food in no-till beds nurtured by compost made on site. True, that’s partly because in a domestic growing situation people are rarely producing all their own food so there’s a net nutrient inflow – particularly in modern industrial societies awash with cheap energy and fertiliser. In a self-provisioning or ‘peasant’ situation it’d be harder, but probably still doable with careful attention to human and animal wastes, compost crops and the like. This is something I plan to start trialling soon and will hopefully be able to write about in the future with my own data to hand.

In a broadscale farming situation, though, it’s tricky to see a solution. You could go for the conventional no till approach with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. You could go for the organic approach with clover leys and tillage. But both fall foul of Dr Ingham’s strictures. I suppose you may be able to establish some kind of permanent pasture and/or biomass crop with a cut & compost or graze & confine regimen, which enabled you to transfer nutrients to the crop. But I imagine it would be quite inefficient in terms of per hectare yields and possibly also energy inputs. Maybe organic no till methods will prove feasible, with crops established in a clover sward.

In southern England where I live, the cool, moist climate and heavy soils make for a very forgiving environment for tillage farming. The annual crops that we grow prosper in bacterially rather than fungally dominant soils, and bacteria are relatively little affected by tillage. So the system I’ve adopted has essentially been a standard organic ley and tillage one, albeit with a few closed-ish loop, no till affectations thrown in. But there are lots of good reasons to try to avoid tillage, especially if Ingham is right and you need a decent level of fungal hyphae in the soil even for annual agricultural crops to prosper. So maybe my present approach will prove unsustainable in the long run. But the George W. Bush presidential library approach is certainly unsustainable in the long run. Fitting, perhaps, for a rather unsustainable president. So are we then left only with the peasant self-provisioning option? Nurture your own soil, grow your own vegetables, compost your own excrement…oh and buy land, they’re not making it anymore, as Mark Twain had it. Or at least only at 1mm per year.

Well, that’s a familiar bottom line conclusion for me to reach. This website ain’t called ‘small farm future’ for nothing. Even so, my feeling is that Ingham’s no till, soil food web approach may be something of an ideal, and there’s room for messier compromises to be made with the world. It may be best not to till for soil, plant and human health, but perhaps the world is not so black and white that a judicious bit of tillage here and there is so impermissible. But perhaps that’s wrong. Perhaps, somewhere, or perhaps even everywhere, a long biological soil clock is starting to tick down on human agriculture.

Note

  1. In September 2016 I received an email from Laura Solano of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc, stating that Dr Ingham did not work on the George W. Bush Presidential Center project. See http://www.mvvainc.com/

Thinking like a molehill

“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.

I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.

Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.

It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.

The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).

We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.

I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.

I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.

This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.

I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.

Notes

  1. Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.

Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

So, no comments on my previous post – obviously my contention that medieval agriculture was more efficient than its modern counterpart was wholly uncontroversial. Let me up the ante in this post, then, and shout out for the pre-Neolithic diet as a healthier way of eating than most of what’s come after. This, by the way, is also my attempt to address Clem’s question about why I’ve claimed that a grain/legume diet is not especially healthy.

You can barely move these days for people following the Palaeo diet it’s so faddish, but I think the issues it raises are interesting. I’m not an expert on this, but that’s never stopped me before on this blog, so here’s a tentative appraisal of the issues.

The classic agricultural package developed in various centres of domestication around the world about 10,000 years ago involved a starchy cereal crop (or sometimes a starchy non-cereal crop), a legume and often domestic livestock, perhaps most importantly ruminants. This furnished people with the basic macronutrients they needed (energy, protein) and it furnished farmland with a potentially sustainable nutrient cycle involving crops, grass fallow, nitrogen fixation and manure. In some places (eg. China, New Guinea) crop domestication was more horticultural than agricultural, with a wider range of vegetable crops supplementing the grains, beans and meat. Either way, it’s hard to gainsay the success of the package in terms of productivity and human population growth – what we like to call ‘civilization’ depends upon it, and it seems unlikely we’ll be departing from its main features any time soon.

But it may be that it’s not so good for us. The argument, as I understand it, is that simple carbohydrates cause cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the seedy agricultural diet (grains, beans) causes us to ingest various anti-nutritional agents which the seeds have evolved, presumably as a defence against destructive ingestion by herbivorous animals. This causes illness: the gut-inflaming effect of proteins like gluten leading to long-term immune system problems, anti-nutritional substances in legumes like soy potentially leading to health problems of various sorts (the Weston Price Foundation has produced this indictment sheet against soy), glycaemic load from simple carbohydrates playing cardiovascular havoc and so on. The result, so the argument goes, is the chronic disease prevalence of modern times: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis etc. Pre-agricultural peoples didn’t generally eat such heavily seedy diets, and since there have been many more pre-agricultural generations than post-agricultural ones people are still not evolutionarily well adapted to the agricultural diet. Nevertheless, people have been experimenting with agriculture and its dietary effects for a long time, so perhaps it’s possible to qualify a purist emphasis on a ‘palaeolithic’ diet with the notion of an ‘ancestral’ diet: using the tricks of our farming forebears to lessen some of the negative health effects of our chosen seedy agricultural foods, for example with purely grass fed ruminants, or sourdough bread or fermented soy products.

Well now, what to make of all this? There are those who dismiss it as some kind of deep ecology impulse to return to Palaeolithic lifeways, and who are therefore inclined to point out that life in the Palaeolithic often wasn’t so healthy. That latter point is perhaps somewhat debatable, but is also irrelevant – the point is not to live like Palaeolithic people, but to eat like them inasmuch as that might be better for our health. I haven’t looked in detail at the research evidence. Certainly, there are some peer-reviewed biomedical papers that favour the palaeo diet hypothesis – like this one – but I’d be interested in any comments on the plausibility of the hypothesis from a nutritional point of view. Of course, there was no single palaeo diet –  some folks, like the people who lived at Wadi Halfa in the Nile Valley 15,000 years ago, ate a lot of starchy plants1. Other Palaeolithic people didn’t. I don’t know if archaeologists have been able to reconstruct patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with these various different palaeo diets – probably not in the case of the Wadi Halfa people because their favoured starchy fare was so sought after that many of them died young defending it – early evidence, perhaps, of the dangers attending humanity’s attraction to junk food. I can’t imagine that morbidity data on the basis of the archaeological evidence would be all that robust, which I suppose may weigh somewhat against the Palaeo diet hypothesis itself.

It may be that in fact there are stronger selection effects for the agricultural diet than might be supposed. As I understand it, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are pretty catastrophic among modern hunter-gatherers when they switch to contemporary agricultural diets: if a similar selection effect operated on our early farming forebears then perhaps we’re better fitted to our seedy diet than you’d expect purely on the basis of the timescales involved…though the fact that these are mainly chronic diseases of later (post-reproductive) life, and the fact that they’re highly prevalent today perhaps suggests otherwise.

In my writings on perennial grain cropping I drew on Phil Grime’s competitor-stress tolerator-ruderal ecological framework, and also on Wes Jackson’s idea of agriculture as a failing experiment to produce a large standing crop of humans. Put those two together, and you get the notion of agricultural civilization as a kind of human ruderal strategy in contradistinction to the competitor/stress tolerator strategy of hunter-gatherers: agricultural civilizations produce large numbers of low status, impoverished, poorly nourished and essentially expendable people, while reproducing their basic structures through knowledge transfer among elites. Nowadays we’re a bit more squeamish than civilizational elites of old about accepting the fact that agricultural societies produce a stratum of impoverished and expendable people – which perhaps is why people like Graham Strouts get angry when people like me argue that biotech developments like golden rice essentially just normalise extreme poverty, and why advocates of ‘free’ markets like to insist – despite all historical evidence to the contrary – that capitalism will liberate everybody. It’s curious, come to think of it, how the ‘ecomodernists’ advocate urbanization as a solution to rural poverty, and then deride anybody who suggests that poor urban dwellers ought to be able to afford anything other than rice, as per Mary Mangan’s diatribes against me or the denialist Mark Lynas rather silly ‘let them eat broccoli’ slogan. If the palaeo diet people are correct, then it’s surely ironic that you have to be quite rich in order to eat as healthily today as many of our ‘uncivilised’ forebears did.

I can’t see myself personally or humanity collectively taking to a strict palaeo diet in the near future. But it might be worth thinking about its implications and trying to move a little in that direction. Food policy commentators are pointing to the unsustainable tendency in rich countries for people to eat ‘feast food’ as everyday fare, and also to the unsustainable tendency in those same rich countries to import vegetables from countries where cheap labour is abundant (even if cheap water ultimately isn’t…) So why don’t we take just a few modest steps to move towards a more local and horticultural and a less agricultural (grains-grain legumes-meat) diet? As well as ‘meat-free Mondays’ we could have ‘farm-free Fridays’, in which we tried to source everything we ate for one day of the week from the (local) garden rather than the (global) field, producing veg intensive, carb-light meals (OK, as a small-scale market gardener, I know I’m biased here). And we could try to limit our meat consumption to special occasions when we’d be willing to pay for the true cost of livestock, raised – to use Simon Fairlie’s term2 – as ‘default livestock’ in larger mixed farming systems…which would probably mean sharing out the grass-fed ruminant meat and going easy on the soy-fed monogastrics. Building local solidarity through sharing meat at feasts – well now, there’s another time-tested Palaeo strategy we might do well to try…

Notes

  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality, Harvard, p.40.
  2. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Permanent Publications.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here are the results:

Area mown

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

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

Here are the results:

Energy used

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

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

Ratio area-energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grass dilemmas

Today a few musings prompted by a characteristically thoughtful and lyrical post on haymaking by Brian Miller.

As Brian points out, there’s really no comparison between the speed of hand or indeed horse-powered haymaking and what can be achieved even by a small 45hp tractor, let alone by a big one. The way that’s worked out in ‘developed’ country farming on a straightforward cost accounting basis is that fiscal output over fiscal input favours the tractor every time, and it also favours the big tractor over the small one, which is why the agricultural landscape in so many ‘developed’ countries looks like desert(ed) steppe. We tend to slip into talking about this kind of agriculture as being ‘efficient’. It may be so financially, but not necessarily in terms of carbon, energy or social accounting. I’ll be dealing with that issue in more detail in an upcoming post, aka ‘the Vallis Veg grass cutting experiment’.

But what I want to focus on here is some of my dilemmas around the classic agricultural balance between grass and tillage cropping (or ‘horn and corn’ as they used to say in these parts). Granted, nowadays both arable and livestock/grass farmers tend to rely on imported synthetic fertiliser and the grass farmers often plough and sow short-term temporary ryegrass leys, but in a classic mixed agricultural situation with few external inputs you’d go for a mix of permanent pasture, temporary grass and cropland. My 18 acre site was all permanent grass when I started – now it’s about 2 acres of vegetables, 7 acres of woodland/wood pasture and 9 acres of grass.

I’ve only recently established a small flock of sheep on the site, having finally got the green light to live here. I’m still basically just a glorified veg gardener, but I’ve been enjoying having the sheep around. The birth of my first set of lambs this spring was pretty special. God, it’s a lot of work though: and I was even thinking of getting a house cow at one point…

So now, how should I best manage my own little mixed farming experiment? A lot of people (especially if they’re vegan) say that livestock farming is land-inefficient, and we ought to trim it back and focus on direct human plant food. Fair enough, but I’d raise a few queries. First, 2 acres of veg is more than enough to keep me busy, especially on our rather poor, alkali soil where the best parts are already under cultivation. You could argue that we should therefore turn the rest of the land over to other people to do something more productive with it – which to some extent is what we’ve done, but we’ve found those arrangements aren’t 100% straightforward and in any case people aren’t exactly queuing up to become commercial fruit or veg growers. Trying to help out younger people who want to get a start in farming is definitely part of my longer terms plans, however. And so is more thought on private and collective land management – some posts coming up on that soon.

Another issue somewhat elided in the ‘just grow food crops’ argument is how to get enough fertility into your cultivated ground if you’re not importing synthetic fertility from offsite (we can – and I have – argue about how much need there is in the world for synthetic fertiliser. But drowning in an ocean of artificial fertility as we are here in southern Britain, and with significant downstream nitrate and phosphate pollution, personally I can’t see good arguments other than possibly financial ones for a small market garden startup to use synthetic fertiliser as a first resort). You can go the vegan organic route with temporary clover leys like Tolly’s interesting system, but then you’ve got quite a lot of forage that you’re just cutting with a tractor – if you’re not vegan, why not graze it too? The trouble is, I find in practice that a market garden is quite an intensive system: I’ve got raised no dig beds (of which more anon), polytunnels, all sorts of irrigation kit, seedlings etc. so I don’t really want a bunch of woolly grass munchers blundering around amongst it all. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to set things up so that I can graze them out in my field crop rotations (more bloody fencing…) – but it’d have to be limited to a short period in the spring when there are no crops in the ground. I like the Hampshire Downs idea of grazing the sheep out in the wildlands during the day and then bringing them down into the fields at night. But again not easy to make work in practice – and obviously quite a low output system. I suppose there are confinement or cut-and-compost options too, but in practice it seems to me that using ruminants as nutrient vectors for an intensive market garden isn’t an easy stunt to pull off.

Oh well – maybe I should be happy just having them on the grass and keeping the pasture ticking over. That brings a few more dilemmas (life is full of them, no?) At this time of year the grass growth is so rampant that my flock can’t keep up, whereas winter is more problematic. The obvious thing to do is to make hay or silage like Brian, but I’m not sure I can quite justify getting a drum mower, hay bob and baler, all just for my ram and six ewes. And contractors are a pain. Here in warm, moist Somerset the grass grows virtually all year round and the sheep just about got by on it through the winter. I did make a little hay by hand – scythe, rake and wheelbarrow into the shed. But the sheep were none too keen on it, or indeed on the nice green bale I bought at the farm merchants. I noticed that, being unbaled, my own hay had its fair share of mouse droppings in it (despite the fact that the cat seemed to spend most of the winter asleep on top of it), and it didn’t feel so grand feeding it to the sheep. Not sure I’m up for making hay again by hand this summer. I think I like the idea of a foggage system, supplemented with a bit of bought in hay and maybe some concentrate for the pregnant ewes. Perhaps not the best way to get the most out of the grass, but most isn’t always best. I like all the insects, and the voles and raptors we have on site – plus our campers too, our most lucrative form of livestock, in the wild wood pasture.

One final sheep issue. I’m not sure what the balance of shepherding wisdom on this is, but I vaccinated my sheep against pulpy kidney and clostridial diseases under veterinary advice – all but one lamb, which is reserved for a valued customer who is not a fan of vaccination. His view, if I don’t misrepresent it, is that the adjuvants used in vaccines can be quite toxic, that the risk-immunity tradeoff is not good, that overuse of vaccines has similar consequences to overuse of antibiotics, and that the medical and veterinary industries are – how can I put this – fleecing us. I’m possibly with him on the latter point at least – after trawling the web for information on the incidence of said diseases I found very little, except for one piece claiming 50% lamb mortality prior to the advent of vaccines. For me personally, I’m pretty happy to be up with my tetanus jabs, but (especially for the small-scale shepherd) there’s a slightly more brutal cost-benefit calculus involved with the lambs, given that they’re off to the abattoir in just a few months. And so my question: to jab or not to jab?

Meanwhile I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s tirade against intensive meat farming. And his book Feral is in the in-tray: I gather it involves a tirade against extensive meat farming. I guess George just doesn’t like meat. I’m actually a great admirer of his writing, though I do think he tends to blame farmers themselves a little too much for the dysfunctions of the food system. Also in the in-tray is Philip Walling’s Counting Sheep, and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which has become a minor literary sensation. I’m glad that some books about farming are intruding upon the obsessional recent trend for nature writing in Britain, even if I’m troubled that these guys may have stolen my schtick. Maybe once I’ve let George, Philip and James argue it all out I’ll be able to answer some of my dilemmas. But feel free to add your tuppenceworth below.

Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This is the fifth and last of my posts about my article ‘The strong perennial vision’1 and the response to it by Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan2 (C&D). One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability” and they go on to criticise me by saying that I offer “no data on trends in funding, literature published or cited to support this concern. Nor [do I] substantiate the perception that groups working on what [I call] the strong and weak perennial visions are competing for attention or resources”. So I’m going to talk about that in the present post, before offering a few concluding remarks to wrap the whole thing up.

With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have pursued that particular line of argument – it’s not the most important one in the paper. But I guess it’s partly what spurred my interest in the topic, because I’ve come across a lot of hyperbolic statements about the superiority of perennial crops in the worlds of permaculture and alternative farming – including this article by Angelo Eliades and my subsequent tortuous debate with him, which prompted me to look into the issues in more depth. This kind of hyperbolic thinking can, in my view, be counterproductive. And as I argued in my previous post, the goal of a perennial grain export agriculture on the prairies and steppes to rival the existing annual one does not strike me as a good direction to aim in for an environmentally resilient and socially equitable agriculture.

In earlier posts, I’ve distinguished between what I call the ‘weak perennial vision’ (WPV) – farm or garden designs which combine perennial and annual plants with other landscape design features to create an overall system capable of producing food and other useful plant products with a minimum of environmental degradation – and the ‘strong perennial vision’ (SPV). The SPV holds that perennial plants can be as productive as annuals without any of the negative environmental consequences of cultivating the latter, and finds little or no place for annuals in its vision for a sustainable future agriculture. The SPV is a strong current in permaculture, which is why permaculturists are often dismissive of annuals (and a bit sheepish about the many annual plants that they do grow). I think the SPV incentivises permaculturists to talk up the productivity of their forest gardens, fruit forests and other perennial designs, and the Land Institute’s work sometimes figures in these efforts. There are many good reasons to plant orchards, forest gardens and suchlike, but input/output ratios to match annual staple crops are not, in my opinion, among them. Indeed, I notice something of a move away from the SPV towards the WPV in the permaculture world – as evidenced by the approach of prominent permaculturists like the late Patrick Whitefield and Toby Hemeway.

I’d like to think of my article as part of this trend to extol the virtues of the WPV and to recuperate annuals from the forbidding proscriptions of the founders. Of course, there are genuine reasons to fear the consequences of large-scale annual arable agriculture, as discussed in my previous post. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, there are genuine ecological and biogeographical reasons why agriculture has gone down this route which cannot easily be gainsaid by assertions as to the productivity of perennial crops currently. Maybe – maybe – at some point in the future the Land Institute or others will develop perennial staple agricultures that will render those comments obsolete, but in the meantime – to adopt a metaphor from annual cultivation – let’s call a spade a spade.

So that in a nutshell is my outline answer to C&D’s characterisation of my position and their criticism that I provide no evidence for it. It’s true that I don’t, but I think this reflects the fact that they and I have different reference groups. Theirs is a world of published scientific papers, mine of snatched conversations in permaculture gardens and smallholdings which defy attempts at quantification. With hindsight I should probably have further clarified this perspectival difference in the paper. But the evidence of distorted over-estimations of perennial productivity in the world of permaculture and alternative agriculture is there for those who care to find it – Eliades and Shepard who I’ve already referenced in these blog posts are cases in point. On numerous occasions I’ve heard people say that perennial crops are as productive or more productive than annuals. The evidence for this tends to vanish as you approach it, but quite often I hear the Land Institute namechecked as the authoritative source for these contentions.

Few people in the alternative farming world have the resources or training to produce credible scientific work of their own, so whether they know it or not, as paid up members of the scientific tribe the Land Institute folks carry quite a burden of responsibility for the thinking of grassroots alternative farmers and permaculturists. And I do think they’re partly to blame for the tendency to over-egg the perennial pudding in that world. Typically, their work is scrupulous, honest and modest. David Van Tassel states that breeding successful perennial grains may prove impossible, and that there will be difficult tradeoffs to overcome3. C&D talk about a managed agroecosystem, which they ‘hope’ can be maintained through endogenous nutrient supplies. This is what I’d call the Land Institute in its Dr Jekyll mode. But then up pops Mr Hyde with promises to “End 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature”4. Such claims are not, I’d submit, scrupulous or modest, but they do the rounds of the permaculture world. And to my mind, despite C&D’s doubtless well-founded comment that academic researchers developing both SPVs and WPVs complement and support each other’s work, I think their paper and the SPV literature in general still bears the traces of a somewhat lofty disdain for the fallen, compromised but practical and productive world of agricultural designs incorporating annuals.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s much going on in agriculture far more worthy of critical activism than the work of the Land Institute. It’s probably not that useful to divide people up into good guys and bad guys, but if it is then in my book Land Institute folks like Crews and DeHaan are on the side of the angels and I’ll happily concede their work is worth pursuing, even if I doubt it’ll achieve the successes they project. So I don’t really want to argue with the Land Institute, at least not when Dr Jekyll is at the helm. I’d like to debate with him certainly, but not argue. Mr Hyde is another matter.

Conclusion

To recap the arguments I’ve been pursuing over these last few posts, C&D characterise my analysis as follows:

  1. Ecological theory suggests that perennial grains may yield less than annual grains
  2. Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically
  3. Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability

Of these, (2) is a mischaracterisation, and (3) is not that important but if it is it’s mostly a plea on my part not to make over-inflated claims for an unproven project, and to consider the wider implications of a perennial grain export agriculture on the steppes. The crucial issue is (1). My analysis in this respect could be wrong, but C&D haven’t convinced me with their arguments, which ignore or understate the significance of the ecological and evolutionary factors conditioning the life histories of crop plants. To my mind, the Land Institute has not established the biological basis of its programme with sufficient rigour to justify its talk of ending 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature.

I think we need people to be working on innovative solutions to our agricultural problems on many different fronts, so I’m really happy that the Dr Jekylls at the Land Institute are beavering away on perennial grain crops. But as for Mr Hyde, I think they should fire him from their programme. There’s an overconfidence in genetic manipulation and an underappreciation of ecological constraint in C&D’s position. And there’s too much Mr Hyde in their response to my article: instead of providing a measured overview of my analysis in the round, they pounce on its presumed weaknesses, try to condemn it out of hand by arguing for the inapplicability of Grime’s CSR framework to their programme, and ignore the things I’ve written that don’t fit with that vision. In particular, I think they underestimate the ecological and evolutionary stumbling blocks to their programme. To me, C&D’s paper reads like the defensive response of people who are too invested in the irreproachable rightness of their position. Ah well, I guess we’re all prone to that. Just as well there’s a big blank space below this post for folks to tell me why I’m wrong.

And that brings to a conclusion this cycle of blog posts about my strong perennial vision article. If you’ve read all of them: well, thank you very much – you rock. I’m now going to take a break for a couple of weeks to hmmm do some actual farming. And then I’ll be back with more gems hewn from the stony face of agrarian knowledge.

References

1. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

2. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

3. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

4. Cox, S. 2008. Perennial crop systems – future of food. Focus On Perennials 6: 14.

Of perennials, cereals and civilisations

This post continues with my exploration of Tim Crews and Lee DeHaan’s (C&D’s)1 counter-critique of my article ‘The strong perennial vision’2. One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically” and that “the real challenge facing humanity is the social problem of how to adapt something like the European model [of agriculture] to other parts of the world”. That’s what I’m going to look at here, before wrapping things up next time with my final post on this issue.

Actually, this one is the easiest of C&D’s various characterisations of my argument for me to address because it’s not what I say in my paper and it’s not what I think. In fact, I think the criticism can be turned around – as I hope to show below it seems to me to be C&D’s project rather than my own which is more intent on adapting the European model of agriculture to other parts of the world.

Anyway, in my paper I cite approvingly Wendell Berry’s comment that we have not yet succeeded in developing sustainable, land-based, locally-adapted economies through the past history of cultivating (primarily annual) staple crops3. C&D cite various other interesting studies that further underline this point. I’m with them on this.

Nevertheless, I do think that there are some places where annual agriculture is relatively less damaging, and C&D confirm that Northwest Europe (where I live) is one of them. Given the profound transformations required if we’re to move to a sustainable agricultural economy worldwide, I’d argue that practising thoughtful annual agriculture in places where it’s ecologically feasible, and working towards methods that minimise its negative impacts are worthwhile things to be getting on with, at least for the time being. Sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. Permaculture emphasises local, specific solutions, so it beats me why so many permaculturists seem to think that something which may be a good idea in Kansas is necessarily a good idea in Kent.

But I’d further argue that even replacing annual grain agricultures with perennial grain agricultures may not be enough in the end. Historian Geoff Cunfer has suggested that the Dust Bowl in the US prairie states of the 1930s was a natural calamity caused by drought and wind that afflicted areas under native perennial groundcover as well as under annual cereal cultivation4. If he’s right, then perhaps this points to the conclusion that the prairies are an inherently fragile environment for human ecology which will be prone to periodic disturbance regardless of whether those farming them grow annual or perennial crops.

Prior to European colonisation the prairies were sparsely populated by horticultural peoples in the wet and wooded valleys, and then later with the availability of horses by the bison-hunting plains cultures. With the arrival of farmers at the expanding frontier of European colonisation the bison were slaughtered, the Indians mostly killed or exiled, and the prairies ultimately turned to a productive but ecologically precarious export-oriented annual grain agriculture which – along with the agricultures of other semi-arid continental grassland regions of the world – created a global grain market highly undermining of many more localised agricultures worldwide, and supportive of anti-peasant urbanisation. There’s a statistically significant correlation at the country level between (prairie/steppe) grain import dependence and urbanisation. But it may turn out that however people farm them, the agricultural days of the prairies are numbered, especially with factors like the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer to consider. That may be no bad thing in the long run.

Cunfer argues that humans are not the masters of the ecologies into which they’re inserted, but are forced to react to circumstances beyond their control, particularly the vagaries of climate. I think he’s too sanguine about the human ability to adapt adequately to such circumstances, but his Leopoldian point about our lack of mastery of the ecosystems we inhabit seems right. At least it strikes a more convincing tone to me than the Land Institute’s programme of genetic manipulation of perennial plants, apparently unconstrained by any extant prairie ecologies, with the putative aim of replicating annual grain yields.

This aim seems implicitly supportive of the USA’s existing grain export agriculture (the US is responsible for around 20% of global wheat exports and 40% of global maize exports, most of which are grown in and around the prairie states). I would argue that these exports are destructive of more sustainable and locally-adapted agricultures elsewhere in the world – a thesis I pursue at greater length in an article I hope will soon be published in The Land Magazine5. Why should anyone concerned with sustainable agriculture be aspiring to shore up the long-term future of such an agriculture by aiming to match its surpluses? Here, I think there are some tensions in the Land Institute’s project between the writings of its founder Wes Jackson on a sustainable, locally-appropriate agriculture – on becoming ‘native to one’s place’ to use one of Jackson’s essay titles6 – and C&D’s apparent conviction that it’s possible and desirable to develop a perennial grain agriculture to rival the existing annual one.

For their part, C&D don’t seem to hold any type of annual cultivation in high regard. At the plot level, they cite evidence for the superiority of their perennial kernza grain crop in preventing nitrate leaching over conventional or organic annual wheat. At the collective level, they cite evidence for the soil-destroying activities of various ancient civilisations in Europe, Meso-America, Southwest Asia and East Asia which, they argue, “experienced rather spectacular levels of soil degradation and erosion, in spite of the fact that they were small-scale, diversified, labor intensive, locally adapted farming systems”.

This is all interesting stuff. It sounds a bit reminiscent of Mark Shepard’s jeremiads about the collapse of annual tillage civilizations that I criticised in a recent post, though less extreme. I don’t mean to minimise the genuine issue of soil destruction by annual tillage agriculture. Perhaps I should have emphasised this more strongly in my paper. Perhaps C&D would now reject the view espoused in an earlier Land Institute paper co-authored by DeHaan that “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”7. But I’m not sure they should. At the plot or farm level, nitrate leaching is obviously best avoided, but if one were to take a permaculture (whole systems) approach, perhaps it could also be addressed by methods such as on-farm water management, contour cropping, mixed cropping, silvo-arable designs and so on. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that breeding perennial grain crops is the only or necessarily the most promising solution to the problem.

On the matter of the soil degradation wreaked by past civilisations, this is something I will address more fully in the future, but I would argue that these civilisations were not sustained by what anyone really ought to call ‘small-scale, diversified and locally adapted farming systems’. They may have been small-scale by today’s standards, but these civilisations were surely the pioneers of the large-scale, export-oriented annual cereal monocropping that underlies many of our contemporary agricultural troubles. And inasmuch as these civilisations were dependent upon small-scale peasant cultivators, the rents in grain they extracted to fund their opulence typically forced peasant cultivators into unsustainable and overdriven agricultural practices. These practices are not intrinsic to small-scale annual cultivation as such.

Philip Grime describes humans as intermediate SC strategists (see here for an explanation of Grime’s work and its relevance to my analysis). In my paper I briefly explore the implications of his framework for human history (albeit that here I confess I am using his framework in a very general sense): from the typical S or SC strategies of hunter-gatherers and swidden farmers, to the C strategy of commercial annual arable farming and onwards, within the constraints of our primate biology, to the R strategy of the great agricultural civilisations, including our own, which produce vast multitudes of impoverished people who struggle to get enough to eat and are treated as essentially expendable by political elites. It hardly seems feasible nowadays to return to S strategy hunting and gathering, but I think there may be scope for retreat towards SC local horticultural strategies. Zohary et al suggest that this is what has happened in the past8. I think it’s worth considering again. To do so would require a primary focus on social reform of societies, not genetic reform of plants.

In summary, I most certainly don’t think that people should apply European-style farming approaches everywhere. Nor do I think they should apply American prairie-style farming approaches everywhere, as all too many permaculturists seem poised to do through their baffling enthusiasm for perennial grains. Instead, I think people should be able to develop whatever agricultural solutions seem promising long-term bets in their locales (and in this respect, the less grains that get traded around the world from the semi-arid continental grasslands to undermine local agricultural adaptations, the better for everyone).

Generally, a good clue to sound long-term agricultural solutions can be found in the mixed farming systems which preceded the recent rise of export-oriented mechanised farming. On that basis, I think Western European agriculture might feasibly include annual grains, though probably not in the fashion of the increasingly prairie-like landscape of large-scale annual arable farming in contemporary Europe. Perhaps we’d do well to move away from grains altogether as much as possible and towards more vegetables (more horticulture) on nutritional as well as environmental grounds. For Kansas, well, I don’t know – long term, I think maybe you guys are screwed, and not even perennial grains will save your ass. Long term, I think farming of any kind may prove to be a failed experiment to push human numbers beyond feasible carrying capacity across large parts of the globe.

But if I were living in Kansas today and thinking about these things, I’d probably go with my own local history of mixed agriculture, offer a prayer to slaughtered Indians and bison, and be thinking buffalo commons and horticulture down in the wet river valleys. And yes, why not some kernza? I doubt it’ll yield as much as wheat or corn, but that’s a blessing in disguise if it helps put a stop to global grain export agriculture. Consider the following calculations I’ve undertaken with the help of a nearby envelope and that unimpeachable oracle, Wikipedia:

The population of Kansas is 2.9 million, which equates to an annual calorific requirement of something like 2.65 million million calories. There are 46 million acres of farmland in Kansas. Suppose 70% were turned over to native perennial forage for bison, 20% to intermediate wheatgrass to produce grains for human consumption, and 10% for vegetables and other crops for micronutrients and other needs producing, for the sake of argument, no useful food energy. I figure on producing 10kg of bison meat per acre annually, and about 250,000 nutritional calories per acre of intermediate wheatgrass (far less than current yields of annual wheat). By my calculations, together the meat and the wheatgrass (mostly the wheatgrass) would more than meet Kansans’ calorific requirements. Job done already.

I imagine that the residents of, say, New York City might have something to say about this new departure in Kansan agriculture, but I’m sure it would do wonders for concentrating their minds on what’s really important in life, as well as providing a welcome shot in the arm for city lot agriculture. Alternatively, if all US farmland was given over to a wheatgrass ‘domestic prairie’ my estimate is that it could provide enough gruel to satisfy around 90% of its citizens’ calorific needs. OK, so the US would then have to become a net food importer for a change, but I’m sure that would do wonders for concentrating…etc etc. Job almost done already. As a perceptive Kansan farmer of the 19th century who I have already quoted on this blog would put it, “Let us not spend nature’s accumulated fortune on riotous farming”. Perhaps that goes for riotous perennial grain farming too.

I admit that a slightly more sophisticated analysis of global food futures is required than the one I’ve provided in the preceding paragraph. But I stand by my basic contention: more than genetic reform of our crop systems what humanity really needs is social reform of our food systems, and our social systems. But then I’m a social scientist. I guess I have my own biases.

References

1. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

2. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

3. Berry, W. 2002 The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind. In A. Kimbrell  (ed.) The Fatal Harvest Reader. Island Press.

4. Cunfer, G. 2004. On The Great Plains. Texas A&M University Press.

5. Smaje, C. ‘The dearth of grass: colonialism, cereals and civilisations’ Unpublished MS.

6. In Jackson, W. 2011. Nature As Measure, Counterpoint.

7. DeHaan, L. et al. 2007. Perennial grains. In S. Scherr  and J. McNeely (eds.). Farming With Nature: The Science And Practice Of Eco-Agriculture. Island Press.

8. Zohary, D., Hopf, M., and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. Oxford University Press.