GentlySerious
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GentlySerious

The real cost of real food

Good food is expensive, right? It is costly to produce, it is in short supply, and it can only be afforded by the affluent. Dead wrong.

I learned this again last week. There is a man local to our smallholding here whose job is to manage deciduous woodland. A charity dedicated to planting trees bought a hill farm and over ten years he has planted 900,000 trees. It looks great. This forester runs some pigs in his trees, for the benefit of the woodland. They eat acorns and other mast. The pork is unbelievably good, and it is not for sale. If you are a friend, you can accept a gift of some.

I was reminded of a story by the fiancé of a friend of my youngest son. She comes from a rural province of the Czech Republic and says that the pork there is incomparable. Allowing for homesickness for a place with no employment we can see the common thread. Pigs in forests, almost all for local consumption, not available to buy elsewhere at any price.

I would add here a tale from the far north of arctic Norway. On an expedition there from college, we would plonk ourselves down on the ground and feast on bilberries for half an hour without moving. We went to dinner at the house of an English teacher living in the local town, Vadso. For desert he provided such a mountain of bilberries matched by a mountain of sour cream and a mountain of fresh waffles. You can’t buy such food.

Fish plucked from the water, mushrooms fresh from overnight rain in the field, liver still warm from a slaughtered lamb[1] or a deer that has been shot. The pinnacles of taste are largely free to those closely enough involved. Good food is both completely contextual and speaks for itself in taste, smell, and texture. And it is incomparably nourishing too.

If you are a food company you need to sell food. You can’t make any money by approaching these pinnacles. You have to sell on price and convenience and synthetic tastes while pretending that what you are doing is healthy or cool or comforting. You have to sell lots of food that has been standardised in some way and all the commercial pressures are to further debase what you sell.[2] This is not a market in the sort of nourishment that will lead to health, nor can it become one.

Smallholding economics

If there is not a price for good food, how can you see what to invest in on the smallholding? We have some equipment that seems expensive to me and we have bought animals and birds and trees. Interestingly some of the more manual tools are not cheap: a scythe costs over £200 and the key fencing tools are a similar price. I saw a tweet yesterday that good investments come on a roll — pipe, fencing wire — not with a key.

If you look with ten years of hindsight, many investments in a farm are bad investments. They have a characteristic that they are easy to justify in the moment and against annual costs. But they tend to increase costs in the medium term, so that the necessary level of investment in inputs — fertiliser, pesticides, machinery — goes up, not down. We are looking for the opposite effect here and it is only available by enlisting the wider ecosystem in support. If we unintentionally damage our life-support systems we are stuffed financially AND the quality of our produce goes down.

The fundamentals of what we can produce on the smallholding depend on capturing rain and sunshine! I never thought moving to Wales water would be an issue, except in excess. But in a wet spring there is far more growth or grass and trees than in a dry spring. The ability of the soil to hold all that Welsh rain is limited, often too limited. The soil needs to be developed to hold more water, and that depends in turn on diverse plants and trees growing strongly in the sun. Simple.

The opposite is commonplace. The classic Welsh fields are overgrazed and not rested often enough. Farmers believe that sheep like short grass, which is one of those half-truths, somewhat self-serving. Nettles, thistles, and bracken are sprayed to keep the fields “clean”, thus killing the soil and going in the wrong direction even though it “works”. Farmers, often with generations of knowledge and experience are seduced away from what they know by the sheer commercial pressure of supermarkets not paying a realistic price. Advisers from government and commerce, and grants from agencies, make things worse not better. As an example, a field has to be classed as either woodland OR grazing, it cannot be both. Read James Rebanks’ English Pastoral for in depth insight.

Where this goes is that I am spending a lot of time scything thistles and bracken, to allow grass and other pasture species to compete better with them. I don’t kid myself that I will kill the bracken or thistles, certainly not in one season, but I will alter the balance in a way that will allow the soil ecosystem to thrive. I don’t know another way, and it is certainly labour intensive. The scythe manufacturer will not get rich from me and there is no other input beyond my time and strength.

Why is fencing and water pipe an investment? Well, rotation is the key to pasture management. Animals need to be moved on, ideally every few days, and there can be a useful succession of grazing, for instance chickens after ruminants. To do that you need a lot of paddocks so the animals can move on and leave grazed pasture to rest a few weeks. The sums aren’t hard, but it adds up to a lot of fences and water troughs. This is a real investment because, properly managed, the rotation will continue to improve the soil and the yields. While, by the way, capturing lots of carbon.

Tilling

The easiest way to get a short-term fertility boost from a field is to plough it and people do, even here. You damage the soil structure and release stored carbon from the soil, but you can smash the weeds and you can get a good crop. It is the wrong sort of investment as the soil simply degrades. And if it rains at the wrong time you can lose a lot of soil all in one go. Rivers turn brown for a reason.

We can return to pork by talking about the judicious use of pigs. Pigs will eat most of what is going on in a field, including the roots. They will wallow if it is wet, and they will dig. If there is a problem that needs a stronger, more forceful intervention than scything and grazing rotation, then pigs are a possible option. You put them on a patch of land and watch carefully to remove them at the right moment: just enough disruption and not too much. For instance, if we are going to plant some more trees, then pigs will prepare the ground.

Removing them means putting them somewhere else if they are not ready to eat. So there needs to be scope at least for a plan. But notice here that this is another ecosystem friendly intervention and one that ends up with brilliant food, not pigs fattened on commercial pig food. This is the economic pattern: when you get something right, several other beneficial things happen as well. You know you are on the right track when you don’t have to keep correcting course.

Which is not to say anything is easy. Small (young) trees get eaten preferentially by sheep and goats. So new plantings have to be protected from grazing. If you protect the saplings from grazing, they will be swamped by the grass and other pasture plants: I need to mow and scythe and strim around them to make sure they have light to grow. When they get big enough, they can take care of themselves, and the soil and provide shade and bring up water and minerals.

The traditional style was to have hedgerows in which some of the trees grew to full size. This is a good pattern in smallish fields and paddocks and can be supplemented by islands of trees or parkland trees in bigger fields.

Critical mass

We have it drummed into us that efficiency comes from focus and investment. We have to be clear where we are trying to get to, and of course expert advice is going to be invaluable. Here we are claiming just the opposite. You cannot afford to specialise and to pursue narrow goals. You cannot afford to: it won’t work. What will happen is the externalisation of costs: pollution, crap food affecting health, loss of biodiversity, undermining the basis of future productivity. There are experienced people who can probably see things in your system that you cannot see, but there are no experts in the workings of your system beyond your own understandings.

That much is clear, but how to understand what is the minimum set of interacting interventions that will stabilise the system? The crucial insight is that we are trying to manage a system of which we are an integral part. That is why it can’t be managed in a command fashion, but only by sensitively understanding the interactions, and particularly how interactions change.

If we abandoned what we do, in the style of people who want to “rewild”, it would go to bracken and trees and brambles quite quickly, a few years. That would be a stable system, but not a diverse system or one that built soil and fertility very well. And it would not be one that supported people (i.e., us) as part of the system. To move away from the rewilded scenario is to expend care getting some other balance to establish itself. These are the options that most people cannot imagine because they have never experienced how dynamic the balances are.

There are larger scale effects that just the local soil productivity. Many people understand that by affecting the local water cycle, the prevalence of flooding downstream is also affected. If I am trying to capture and hold as much of the rain that falls as I can, then clearly in a heavy rainfall event less rain will reach the streams and it will reach them more slowly. I find it interesting that this is a free external benefit, in the same way that bad farming externalises costs. A well-managed operation will be better than the rewilded result, even though trees are a large part of the solution.

But look also at the water quality connections. The river down the hill from us used to be a major salmon river. Salmon grown in the ocean and, when they migrate upriver, bring nutrients that are otherwise missing. Of course, getting those nutrients into the soil requires some otters or bears, the latter not frequent in Wales. Salmon are becoming threatened as a species by river pollution, much of it from farms, and from salmon farming practices, but mostly from streams becoming too warm in extreme heat events like on the west coast of the US and Canada. Control of the local microclimate is another free good of ecosystem management. Of course, you only get river basin goods by getting critical mass in a given watershed. This is as far as you can get from conventional understandings of management of a farm, treated as though the property boundaries demarcate its effects.

I’ll tell you what! Why not let the salmon die if they must and truck in some seaweed with those precious minerals. That will be easier to manage! We need a visceral understanding of just how wrong such thinking is. The ecosystemic interconnections are infinitely richer than such short-cuts imply. That is the impoverished thinking that leads to our impoverished environments that lead to ecosystemic collapse. Previous civilisations, many of them over the ages, all managed to destroy themselves that way. Must we be next?

[1] One of my friends in rural Canada swears by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for lambs’ kidneys, but relies on her local butcher to ring her when he’s about to slaughter a sheep, because she says the next day they’re not worth having.

[2] You get a glimpse of this on some products’ packaging, where the manufacturers warn consumers that as a ‘natural’ product they should expect some variation between batches and over the seasons

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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward

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Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works