The Wealth of Fields and Nations

As we end bad practice and attempt good practice, so farm and garden soils can accumulate some vital biomass and biodiversity. But that increase in soil biomass will always end at an optimum point, at which the farmer/gardener can only attempt a balance – a stable, living mass. That balance is precarious, because it is subject to human fallibility, unpredictable weather and very human choices, such as attempts to cultivate, or harvest – to salvage something, in unsuitable weathers. Even here, in temperate Wales, such unsuitable weather is becoming more and more frequent. This season we’ve had extreme rainfall, extreme heat and extreme winds – all of which are likely to grow worse. It’s plain that unsuitability will accelerate – that is, current human cultures will be increasingly ill-matched to the weathers, which once sustained them. The lovely yeast of soil, which gave rise to a more or less stable harvest, will be diminished by flood, drought, wind and human desperation. However skilled we are and however hard we struggle, beyond an optimum point, we will not “draw down further carbon” onto our virtuous fields and gardens.
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Anyone who raises an eyebrow at the word, desperation, is plainly not a grower, or farmer.
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Even in perfect weather, the best husbandry can only aim for balance, while knowing that it will often fall short of that balance – all farming and gardening disrupts the natural ecology it has replaced. I think we should begin with that primary knowledge. We should also assume that we will make mistakes. Our task is to grow food, while causing as little ecological and atmospheric harm as we can. We will cause climate heating and we will disrupt natural systems – knowing that, is the best frame of mind to learn how to limit that disruption.
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There are outrageous claims for farming and gardening systems, which “draw down carbon” into their lovely soils. These are often made by the “newly-enlightened”, new farmers and growers and by writers and journalists passionately applying a revelatory idea – a permaculture; an agroecology; – and too easily finding evidence for their own virtue. It is used to promote produce in marketplaces and since it is often a genuine, if deluded aspiration, there are few of the kindly, who’d rock its boat.
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If we consider organic as a method which attempts as best it can, to imitate the optimum cycling of organisms, then we have in the word, a fine rule of thumb for farming and gardening. And it is true that the linear gift of sunlight can repair some very human cracks in our attempted cycles, but only to a point. That point is an optimum (durable maximum) photosynthetic leaf area, much of which will have disappeared down those cracks.
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Like sunlight, there are other linear contributions, which are often accepted as a gift from nowhere. They are no such thing. They have come from somewhere – an emptying hole in the ground, a broken organic cycle in some-one else’s field, or from a once-vibrant ecosystem, such as a forest.
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Many practitioners have made outrageous boasts of soil sequestration by importing large amounts of mulching material. They import from another’s impoverished organic cycle. In short, this is either narcissism, or simple anti-social behaviour – it diminishes a common good. If one field receives biomass grown in another field, the sum of the two masses will end as less than the original mass, which had been thriving in the soil and plants of the two separate fields. Although soil biomass will increase in the importing field, it will increase by less than the loss of biomass in the exporting field. The sum of the biomass of both fields will be smaller and Atmospheric CO.2 will increase accordingly. Where is the missing mass? – In energy (heat), gas from uncycled fermentation and in leached minerals from the importing field and in cascading diversity and mass of soil fauna and plants in the exporting field.
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We could imagine a world without artificial fertilisers, in which the powerful appropriate green wastes and sewage for their high-yielding, money-making fields, while the disempowered struggle to scratch a living. As always with inequity, overall yields will fall, while a few become rich. Overall photosynthesis will fall, along with the shrinking soil biomass and increasing atmospheric CO.2.
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The human economy is also an organic system. Adam Smith, the moral philosopher, observed, Economies with high wages and low profits achieve the “greatest wealth of nations”, while those with low wages and high profits achieve the least.
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That equity of wealth distribution, applies equally to both economy and ecology of fields. Of course, a field which is most knit inside the webs of its ecology, achieves greatest economic success. But that success can only be achieved for a community of fields, if so called, wastes (wages) are distributed fairly between all fields. If those biomass/wages are taken by an elite group as profit, then the wealth of the nation of fields will fall.
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The greenhouse effect of lifeless gases will increase to the same degree.
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Having left fossil mass to lie quietly sequestered in its strata and having ended the burning of living biomass (the lungs of lovely Earth), and having re-arranged our ways of life to do without what those fires and explosions have brought us – suburbia, the family car, aviation… – we must look to Adam Smith’s prescription for a bio-massive wealth of nations.
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Fields can shrink from the compass of oil-power to the compass of man-power and we must limit growing areas to just our dietary needs – and I’d say, pleasures. Meanwhile, we must let the wilds expand – only the wilds can “draw down carbon”. They are Eden. Sorrowfully, we cannot escape the Fall. As the poet, Edwin Muir tells us – Time’s handiworks, by time are haunted. He continues – blossoms of grief and charity bloom from these darkened fields… Strange blessings, never in Paradise, fall from these beclouded skies.
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4 Responses to The Wealth of Fields and Nations

  1. The points about equity and maximum biomassive wealth of nations are good. I had forgotten Adam Smith’s point about the inverse relationship between the profit:wage ratio and overall wealth.

    Some thoughts:

    “But that increase in soil biomass will always end at an optimum point, at which the farmer/gardener can only attempt a balance – a stable, living mass.” Yes. And therefore the location of that optimum soil biomass is critical. There are soils well below that point and there are soils near that point. Knowing where your soil is on that scale is key for determining the suitability of different methods. The methods by which we bring soils up from the depleted point are different from the methods we use to maintain ourselves at that point. But how do we determine where that point is? Historical conditions, climatic analogues, comparison to nearby ecosystems…

    “Our task is to grow food, while causing as little ecological and atmospheric harm as we can. We will cause climate heating and we will disrupt natural systems – knowing that, is the best frame of mind to learn how to limit that disruption.” I’m not sure about this. If, from the very outset, we dismiss the possibility of doing ecological good as we intervene in the ecologies that surround us, then we are limited by our frame of mind. My home garden, over time is becoming both more productive (£900 of food over the last year at the most recent count) and is attracting more and more wildlife (recently, on Saturday morning, a delightful juvenile willow warbler, climbing up my onion and garlic stalks). Yes, mea culpa, some of that has been kick-started by imports of organic matter, but far from all of it. A great deal of the increase in life is due to the increased diversity of plants in the space, offering a diversity of habitat, nectar and food. Diversity feeds diversity. I’m only just getting started.

    “Meanwhile, we must let the wilds expand – only the wilds can “draw down carbon”. They are Eden. Sorrowfully, we cannot escape the Fall.” Maybe. I submit that Eden was a garden, i.e. not wild in the sense of being devoid of humans. I see two ways of expanding the wilds: i) retreat and let forests (in this climate) reclaim lands that once were fields and ii) bring more of the wild into our fields and gardens. In the latter option, we humans become active participants in fostering “the wilds” (active re-wilding of our fields – a paradox? If so, paradoxes are a source of creativity). Even in the former option, we can occasionally join the co-creative dance of forest regrowth in order to foster nut trees or timber trees. Yes, nature is the only force that can help us out of the mess we’re in, but I hold on (cling?) to the tenet that I am a part of that very same nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bryncocyn says:

    I agree (paradoxically!) with all those points, but mine is a repost to extravagant claims for negative emissions, which many (most, in our circle) now make for mob-grazing, agroforestry and so on. Resilience.org has them pasted as background wall paper. Bringing the wild into our farms and gardens should be an adventure, an education and a pleasure, but I don’t think we’ll succeed at all if we begin with the frame of mind that our minds hold the key to success. Beginning with the inevitability of mistakes in the face of the larger unpredictability of what is always more complex, more beautiful and more terrible nature, is more charitable and kind to ourselves and others. It pre-supposes learning, because the best lessons we have we have are by personal folly. Sadness today, is not negative, it is simply true – and by intelligence of the sadness of others, we can more easily find the joy of vigorously seeking a common good.

    We have an agriculture – roads, towns, trades, fields… The sorrow is that we retain the hunter-gatherer in our souls. The poem I quote is Edwin Muir’s, One Foot in Eden. We cannot go back, but perhaps we can live more like Neolithic people, to whom agriculture was new and the natural world, very, very old – and re-learn our singular place in the teeming whole of all the other species. Certainly, we must think of agriculture as new, half-unthought and full of promise. But not false promises – promises of negative emissions, which just about every green friend I know, makes to justify their identities. Bugger such identities.

    Yes. I love paradox and am happy with contradiction, when truth is unavailable, as it often is.

    I’m very happy with people , who use other people’s unused and unvalued wastes to make compost. But the future must be one where nothing is wasted and all is valued (morally). I’m not happy with people who trumpet their heavily-mulched, no-dig beds as the future. At best those beds are rescue beds in the cascading biomass/diversity of our (and with such claims) very shaky common future.

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    • “We have an agriculture – roads, towns, trades, fields… The sorrow is that we retain the hunter-gatherer in our souls. […] We cannot go back, but perhaps we can live more like Neolithic people, to whom agriculture was new and the natural world, very, very old – and re-learn our singular place in the teeming whole of all the other species.”

      Some permaculture thinkers suggest that there is a middle path, calling it “garden farming”, “garden agriculture” or a “horticultural society”. Apparently, some cultures embraced this third way, neither field agriculture, nor hunter-gatherer, nor nomadic herder, for hundreds if not thousands of years. It offers some meager hope, to which a dichotomous worldview of agriculture v. hunter-gatherer is by definition blind.

      I don’t know if you’re into videos, but this 2010 lecture by the late Toby Hemenway is a good one, despite the exaggerated title. In it he explores the possibility offered by horticultural societies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nLKHYHmPbo

      I’ve also found a downloadable audio version, which might be more useful to a farmer who may not have fast internet and whose eyes may be busy watching the line of the tractor or combine: https://www.permaculturevoices.com/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization-presented-by-toby-hemenway-v143/

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      • bryncocyn says:

        Thanks for that. I’ll enjoy the youtube tonight. Strange, I’d put “a horticultural society” in the piece, after “from the compass of oil power to the compass of man power”, but edited it!

        What’s certain is that we must change radically as from Mesolithic to Neolithic. New archaeology has discovered abandoned agricultural clearings deep in the supposed Mesolithic. My son does the tractor driving now. My role is hands and knees among the red-shank, groundsel and fat hen…

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