In Defence of A Modern Yeomanry – Small mixed farms as the answer.

Given the nature of agriculture in this country and the effects of rising populations both here and globally, it is time to re-examine the virtues of a stable productive yeoman farming sector. In the global South and through its myriad advocates, this sector is often referred to as the peasantry but re-imagining it and seeing it for what it truly is, a free landholding eco-management sector, brings many possibilities.

Let us look at the evolution of the language used to describe this sector. When I was at school, these small holders were referred to as subsistence farmers. Devoid of the wonders of science which in this case meant fossil fuelled machinery and fossil fuel derived agro-chemicals, these individuals were depicted as living from hand to mouth. This description would better be applied to the day labourers of the growing cities. Out of the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s there arose a movement in the West where individuals returned to “subsistence farming” but they called it “Self Sufficiency”. John Seymour, the father of the modern self sufficiency movement, was my first contact with this idea. These early pioneers went back to the ideas of organic farming and replicated the rotations of pre-industrial farming. A good enough starting point but this involved much physical labour. Another pioneer was John Jeavans who developed the Grow Biointensive method. This took physical input to a new height and dis-associated animals from plants in the process. (More on this later).

What these pioneers showed was the viability of the small farm/large garden idea within the agricultural sector. In general there are five major contributions small farms make to society as a whole. Five important contributions we have lost with the aggregation of landholdings. These can be reinstated with the right planning policies and an ability to think in a systems focused way rather than a scientifically deductive way. The five areas are: Food security, Productivity and conservation, biodiversity, non-GMO sanctuaries and Climate moderation. These five benefits are interconnected and interdependent.

Increased food security is based upon the more productive aspects of systems based approaches utilising locally adapted strains of plants and animals. These are open pollinated, non-GMO plants that are adapted to the micro-climates in which they evolved. Being open pollinated they have a wider variation of type. This means they more adaptable to changes in climate conditions than narrowly developed GMO or even “Green Revolution” seed types. Being of a smaller size than agribusiness units the need to conserve and indeed, grow the soil is paramount. This resource is limited and it is husbanded carefully to ensure long term viability when it cannot be flooded with chemical fertilisers. Small farms carry more tree cover than large monocultures and this assists to moderate the micro-climate and lessen extremes of weather. The more three dimensional nature of small farms both increases their productivity and provides more niches for birds, beneficial insects and native species. 

These benefits may not have been obvious to the original “back to land” types of the 1960s and 1970s but they quickly became apparent. These are areas open to research and experimentation. In the same way going back to wind generators in the 1970s meant using the technologies of the 1930s when widespread electrification ended any development of that technology so too did a return to small scale organic agriculture mean a return to old systems. The problem for both the early organic movement and the re-discovery of renewable energies was, the best and brightest minds had been applied, in the interim, to the more conventional ways of doing things. This left a gap in research, hypothesises to investigate and curiosity in these fields. The return to these older technologies created outcomes that worked yet both were ready for new thinking.

Fukuoka in Japan is one such example of this new way of thinking. Having been brought up in a rural area he remembered the ways of life before chemical agriculture and its insistence on full year production. He also saw the increases in costs and debts farmers had to carry. During his time as an agricultural officer he was engaged in the fruitless task of destroying every rice plant that sprouted outside of the official growing season in an attempt to eradicate disease. It was during this time he spotted the way grasses sprout and grow in relationship with the seasons. He also remembered his childhood winters when farmers would spend their days hunting rabbits at their leisure. These two forces coalesced into a moment of satori (enlightenment) for Fukuoka and from there he developed his Natural Farming or “Do Nothing” system. Of which we will discuss more later. Other examples of this new way of thinking based upon observation of natural systems rather than individual parts of nature are Permaculture and The Change Underground System. All three rely upon moments of satori whilst observing the cycles and flows of Nature. The beauty of these systems is they rely upon natural processes to create harvestable surpluses and they do so by allowing Nature to do the “work”. The physical and mechanical labour requirements are considerably less than either conventional or revived organic systems and their productivity is equal to or higher than chemical based systems. This is especially so when wastage through transportation is factored into the equation.

In contrast, the development of chemical agriculture with artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides is reliant upon research focusing on one particular part of a “problem”. To be fair huge amounts of food have been produced with this system but the unintended consequences have been extreme. Loss of locally evolved open pollinated seed stocks, depopulation of rural areas leading to huge city slums, soil degradation, obesity in the West, concentration in the ownership of land, seed production and property rights over parts of Nature are just a few of these unintended consequences.

There are other benefits small farms bring over agribusiness enterprises. They have, on average, a far greater number of trees per unit area of land. These are predominately fruit trees which increases the production per unit area. Production per unit area is where small farms excel. Inter-cropping, closer spacing and continual attention, all result in higher outputs. It is unlikely small farms can compete with broad acre grain production but they don’t have to either. Their competitive advantage lies in the proximity of the farmer to the crops. An acre (4000m2) of land can easily be worked by one person to produce vegetables, larger grains (maize), potatoes, soft fruit and tree fruits. By breaking the area into smaller plots of say, 8 x 4 feet or 50 x 3 feet and using a green house to start seedling off and with all “waste” recycled through ruminants, swine or worm beds, it is possible to produce anything from 4 to 16 times the output of the same acre worked with a tractor, chemical sprays and inorganic fertilisers. The space between rows  set aside for the tractor tyres is used productively is smaller units. The closer planting regimes almost eliminate weed competition. All byproducts not used directly for human consumption are cycled back through the system to increase soil fertility.  

Added to all these benefits are the low capital costs, no tractor or implements, no fertiliser or pesticide costs and more efficient use of water. All this can be done with Seymour or Jeavons systems with much manual labour. Using Fukuoka’s, Permaculture or Change Underground systems the manual labour component is much reduced. This leaves the producer much more time to plan, observe, interact with the systems and increase  understanding of what is actually happening on their small piece of land. If instead of an acre, two were put under production in this system and another three were set aside for orchards, sheep and/or goats (or even a house cow), the producer could feed themselves, their family and thirty other households. 

An average golf course of 140 acres could support 28 farming families and 840 households. By fiddling with land unit sizes and sticking to two acres, rabbits and poultry, 2100 households could be fed a balanced, varied, seasonally appropriate diet. Probably some combination between two and five acre units would achieve the best outcome.

The Grow Biointensive system relies upon plants alone. Something like 75% of all crops grown are used to create compost and thereby improve the soil structure, humus content and strength. Now this is perfectly acceptable if you want to put in the work. Each garden bed in the system is double dug each year. So rather than using natural processes to enhance the soil, it relies upon application of energy to create a soil structure. This and the reliance upon plants alone, for the reason that animal production takes up valuable food that could be fed to humans, seems to me to a an unnecessary self imposed limit. If we take the 75% of production used for compost creation and feed it through ruminants, pigs, rabbits or poultry, the compost process takes only 24 hours and provides more options for meat, milk, fibre and fur. The increased level of manual labour involved also reduces the time available for systems observation and general creative thinking. In the end though a choice to follow this system is not unreasonable, it just has to suit the temperament of the individuals employing it.

The Fukuoka system, Do Nothing, comes directly from its cultural heritage. It is zen gardening without the rakes and stones. The philosophy can be applied to all forms of food production. I will describe one aspect to best illustrate it. It is in the growing of grains on a small scale that the system both evolved and is best understood. What Fukuoka observed was the cycles of summer and winter grasses in the wild. As the summer grasses seeded off and died down, the winter grasses pushed through the remnants of the summer grasses. The seeds from the summer grasses lay dormant until the process repeated itself in Spring. From these observations Fukuoka developed a system for grain production suitable to his locale. Into a ploughed field he sowed clover. Once the clover was established be broadcast rice seeds over the paddock. He then flooded the paddock as per tradition but only until the clovers had been killed off. He then drained the field and allowed the rice to grow. Once the rice  reached three inches in height, he ran ducks over it to trim the rice and force it to tiller. The ducks were removed. The paddock was then left alone until two weeks prior to harvest. At this time the paddock was broadcast with barley or millet seeds. Once they had sprouted the rice was harvested, threshed and the straw returned to the paddock. The winter grains then pushed up through the straw and the cycle continued. It is possible to adapt this system to any grain rotation you like. It is usable on any scale from a garden bed to a ten thousand acre paddock. It is also usable for vegetable or flower production. It is simply a matter of understanding the life cycles of each plant. Applied to orchards, Fukuoka planted a legume tree to every eight fruit trees and under sowed the orchards with grains, vegetables and/or flowers. His method can be summed up as: No bare ground, no digging, no weeding.

Permaculture and The Change Underground systems sit somewhere between Fukuoka and Jeavons. They both tend to rely more on animal manures than either of the other two system but use the Fukuoka understandings of natural cycles to produce surpluses rather than relying on spade work. From all these systems it is possible to find one that meets the temperament of the individual yeoman and for further development to occur. With a method in hand and available land, it is possible to localize food production and increase both general health and our understanding of our place in Nature.

So we have the means to reinstate a stable viable Yeomanry. To do this requires some political will but more than that it requires the information on how to do this to be disseminated so those drawn to this life have a map to get there. There are as many ways of running a small area farm as there are individuals, each with their own biases, research questions, drives and interpretations. The Way of the Yeoman is not just a way of making money nor of “saving” the planet. It is a return in some sense, to our Neolithic roots, to a time when people had a deep sense of the flows of Nature, the cycles of the year and the dignity of each individual. This is a vision worth working towards.

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