A Dollop of Potato and Another Piece of Pie
A Dollop of Potato and Another Piece of Pie

A Dollop of Potato and Another Piece of Pie

editorial by William Castle of Shropshire, England

I can tell you for sure because it is still there on the bookshelf, that the first adult book I ever bought, and I don’t mean the racy type, was John Seymour’s ‘Self Sufficiency.’ I bought it when I was about fourteen, probably with a book token given as a present, a good use for it because back then I wasn’t a great reader; I much preferred being outside, making stuff, various woodwork projects mostly, and my model railway, though by then that re-creation of an idealised tiny world was losing its appeal.

‘Self Sufficiency’ was a timely book, tapping into the back-to-the-land movement of the ‘seventies, a loose amalgam of hippies, proto-environmentalists, practical men and women and those disenchanted with modernity and the nine to five. It was also timely for me because, as the son of a farm manager who ran a farm that was larger than average for the area, it was clear that good farming was losing ground to the forces of modern financial efficiency, of unfriendly economics; I knew it and my dad knew it too, though he tried not to think about it in those terms. Instead, he got on with his work, a life he enjoyed, though without any land of our own, it wasn’t something he advised for his three sons.

By comparison, John Seymour’s slant was refreshing and completely different; never mind the economics, just avoid the market and concentrate on growing good food for you and your family. The somewhat idealistic world created in the book, and in my mind, was a step up from the model railway, but for a teenager, it was still playing with ideas, toying with possible futures, but no matter how simple the idea of self-sufficiency was, it was still a world away from my reality earning pocket money by working on the farm in the school holidays. Nonetheless, Mr. Seymour’s upbeat and enthusiastic manner was hugely appealing for a young would-be, could-be, but practically speaking, probably-might-not-be, farmer. But some of it rubbed off.

Later that year, or perhaps it was the next, I bought a couple of weaner pigs, scoured a potato field and collected a ton of the smaller ones discarded by the machine to augment the pelleted feed which provided the pigs’ protein. I fed my pigs carefully, scratched them when they got tame enough, boiled the potatoes to make them more easily digestible, lost my wellingtons in the mud and watched them grow, the pigs that is, not the boots! Those two pigs remained nameless to avoid getting too attached to them, but when the time came for slaughtering, I felt sick as I heard the slaughter man turn up on his moped with a full complement of knives and other equipment, and slightly less than the full complement of fingers! He returned the next day to butcher the carcasses, talking me through what he was doing, so the following year he only needed to come once, as my elder brother, now training at veterinary school, and I butchered the pigs ourselves. The meat was sold to my parents at a reasonable price, I took full part in the curing and sausage making, then I got to eat a good part of them myself! A good deal perhaps, but the bigger, better deal was it got me to do stuff most fifteen-year-olds didn’t do, caring for animals, an introduction to costs and budgeting, and the appreciation of good food and the work involved in producing it. Nonetheless, as children growing up on a farm, we knew John Seymour skimmed over the harder stuff, the technical stuff you needed to know as a farmer. Understanding the amount of work involved in processing pigs, raising sheep or growing wheat, we also suspected that self-sufficiency done inexpertly could easily fall below the level of sufficiency. Tongues partly in cheek, we always referred to the book, and the idea, as ‘self-deficiency!’

A decade or so later, I was working on a horse-powered farm, driving horses with harrows and rollers, in a cart and to the plough. Some of it was easy enough physically, especially when riding on the hitch cart, but sometimes it was hard. The hardest work came each autumn with ‘wuzzeling.’ ‘Wuzzel’ is the local name for a mangel, mangold or mangel-wurzel, an impressive plant, the roots sometimes swelling to almost a foot in diameter, but not many are grown nowadays because they bruise easily so are not suited to the rigours of mechanisation. We fed them to the horses and cattle from January until turnout, but most were sold in late spring to hill farmers to bridge the gap until the grass grew. Harvesting the wuzzels was all hand and horse work, pushing over the swollen roots, cleanly chopping off the leaves above the root so they wouldn’t bleed, and then throwing them into a tip cart to be piled in a long clamp, which was covered in straw and soil to keep the frost away. It was all work, mostly bending down, the filling of the carts seeing you take off your coat, then your jumper, then your undershirt before putting the shirt back on again, in temperatures just above freezing. A few months later, one of the delights of late winter evenings was hearing the horses crunch through the matured mangolds when they were released into the fold yard at night, but wuzzeling itself was hard work.

During the week of wuzzeling and the six weeks spent harvesting, we all ate a lot more than normal, I guess about fifty percent more. After long days loading sheaves in the harvest field, an extra dollop of potato and another piece of pie, though most welcome and quite sufficient to keep us going, seemed like a small amount compared with the work achieved. To put it into numbers, an adult male usually needs about 2500 calories of food a day, so during harvest, we were probably eating three and a half- or four thousand. By comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 31,000 calories, so in food terms, that is about the same calorific value each of us would take in over a whole week of working hard.

A Dollop of Potato and Another Piece of Pie

Throughout all this time, in Britain we were told that British agriculture was the most efficient in Europe, maybe even the world, at least according to the National Farmers Union, a view echoed by the farming press and many farmers. Like most proud boasts, it came from a place of security and power, because the big farmers that the NFU represented were earning big money; they could afford to see their good fortune as a natural outcome of their own efforts. Indeed, their claims of high output per person did have some validity. Tied to those bold claims, however, there was a subtext condemning small farmers for being inefficient, criticising self-sufficient homesteaders and ‘hobby farmers’ for just playing at it, while the organic producers were dismissed as being ‘niche’ and therefore of no consequence; all that ‘working with the soil’ stuff was just nonsense, it would never feed the world. Even more criticism was leveled at the farmers of continental Europe, especially the French, for being more interested in their wine and stinky cheeses than being efficient modern farmers.

Like most bragging, the claims were inflated and narrow minded, the large farmers’ wealth being a direct consequence of European Union subsidies intended to keep farmers farming, or if you look at it another way, of keeping prices low for the consumer. The mechanism for doing this was price support, so for every ton of wheat a farmer grew, for every litre a cow produced, there was a guaranteed sale at a fixed price. Anyone who was already farming couldn’t lose; it wasn’t necessary to produce a good product that someone wanted to buy, just pile on the fertiliser and watch the money roll in. From the French point of view in particular, the subsidies were designed to preserve the rural way of life, the backbone of French culture, the level of support set to keep the average farmer afloat. But large farms got more money, simply because more acres meant more litres of milk, more tons of wheat, the very large arable farms in eastern England benefiting the most.

Although there was some criticism of the system, no-one questioned the source of these farms’ efficiency; no-one, except for a few cranks, was thinking about the energy balance, either on the farm or in the food system as a whole. Today, perceptions may be different, but the steam roller of industrialised farming has scarcely deviated from its course. There are innumerable reasons why it should change, social, economic and environmental, but when it comes to energy, there is one simple fact that really says it all. –

Each calorie of food that we put on our plates has taken five calories of energy to produce.

Let me say that again; on average, it takes five times as much energy to produce the food we eat as the energy we derive from eating that food, and that excludes the direct energy from the sun, the heat that allows the plants to grow and the light used in photosynthesis. If you did the same thing with money, it would be like running a business where each product sold for ten dollars, but it took fifty dollars’ worth of materials and labour to produce.

Those of us who use draught animals might not be surprised at these figures, but the energy consumed on the farm is only one part of it, a greater part is used in the processing and distribution networks, in shipping between countries and across oceans, in supermarket freezers and in the final cooking. Then there is the manufacturing of agrichemicals and the mining, manufacture and transportation of fertiliser, British farmers for example, getting phosphate from north Africa and potash across the Atlantic from Eastern Canada. With nitrogen fertiliser, the story is a little different because it is partly made from the air, but every ton of nitrogen fertiliser requires a ton of oil to produce it, and in the process seven tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. That is the reality behind what some people still see as the ‘marvel of modern agriculture,’ a story of biology being supplanted by an industrial process, with the farm becoming just a cog in a machine that transforms inedible crude oil into a far smaller quantity of stuff we can eat.

As in other areas, there is change happening now, some effort is being made to farm with energy saving in mind, but it is mostly superficial change. The problem is often presented as being technical or practical, but the core of the problem is that most people do not know how to function without easy energy, they don’t have experience of anything else and can’t conceive of life without it. Imagining working by hand, for instance, must seem ridiculously hard and torturously slow, and they would be right, because they have never learned how to use their body to handle a tool effectively, never been so physically tired that they learn to conserve their energy the next day, never had the pleasure of completing a large or complicated task alongside other practical people or gained the satisfaction from mastering a hands-on skill.

A Dollop of Potato and Another Piece of Pie

Anyone involved in practical work knows that the work gets done by skill, just as much as by brain or brawn; those who use draft animals know to watch the animal’s efforts, to match the work to their power and fitness, to the length of time at work and their intake of food. So, we can see, we can feel, the connection between effort and the work done, between food and energy, as we engage with the biological motors of muscle and bone, with the mechanics of biology which have taken millennia to evolve and refine. In energy terms, natural processes such as muscle contraction, photosynthesis, plant growth and decomposition are remarkably efficient, but too often we take them for granted because they have always been there, ignoring those benefits that cost us nothing, the subsidies nature contributes towards our lives and livelihoods. But when we take fossil fuels out of the imbalance sheet, the landscape changes, we have to pay attention to the energy input and output; we have to learn a different concept of economy, the concept of biological efficiency.

Biological efficiency encompasses the whole assortment of life on earth, but in a farming context, it is the effectiveness of the web of interactions that turn sunlight and nutrients in the soil into food and recycles the waste products or by-products back through the system. It is about allowing natural processes to work as best they can, about tuning our work to optimise natural activity, in the soil, within plants, and with the actions of animals. Sometimes that might only involve planning and organisation, like the timing of cultivations; sometimes it might involve bigger changes, reassessing your choice of plough, choosing not to plough, or altering how you select cattle, not on their 300-day growth rate when pumped full of cereals, but on their ability to breed easily and gain weight from grass. Or you might go for crops or varieties which form strong mycorrhizal associations with fungi rather than relying on soluble nutrients, or horses that do not need a lot of food and walk with a free gait and their eyes the same level as your shoulder, rather than those with a flashy trot and a head looking for trouble. And a multitude of other things, using gravity rather than muscle, using timing rather than brute force, or persuading yourself to take animals off grass when there is still grass there to eat because you know the plants will bounce back into growth sooner and with more vigour.

In the public arena, technological solutions, often ones that are no more than vague ideas imbued with hope, are frequently offered as a panacea for our problems. It would be stupid to dismiss them, whether roller bearings or photovoltaic cells, when they allow us to harness natural forces more effectively than in the past. But we should never ignore the biological efficiency of simple actions, solutions that are readily available, planting a vegetable seed ten paces from our back door, walking to pick beans in a community allotment, running hens outside to get some of their nutrition from grass and insects, or feeding discarded potatoes to a couple of pigs.

Fifteen years after I first got the book, I saw John Seymour in the flesh. He was the final speaker at an evening on tropical rain forests. The evening started with a university biologist, who, assisted by a slide show, talked about the diversity of rain forests, not just stuff about the plants he was studying which should be preserved for their own sake, but about their possible potential for us, as sources of new drugs, etc; arguments you will be familiar with, but back then, maybe not. Then up came the speaker from Friends of the Earth, who stressed how important tropical rain forests are, for soil preservation, carbon storage, species diversity and, in the case of the Amazon, the provision of a basin from which water evaporates providing rainfall for the land higher up in the Andes. Oh, and oxygen too, but I guess you know about that. Whereas the first speaker stood still during his presentation, this guy moved about, getting more animated in his speech, and pacing up and down as he spelled out the disturbing consequences of rain forest destruction, unsettling himself just as much as the audience as the unfortunate outcomes became vivid in his mind.

Then it was John Seymour’s turn. He walked on stage, a little stiffly, sat down at the table as the audience calmed down, watching and waiting. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and like the skilled storyteller he was, took another moment, followed by a deeper than average breath. “Well, I don’t know anything about Tropical Rain Forests, but I’ll tell you something about the forests I do know!”

He went on to talk about his experiences in southern Africa, about the indigenous people and how they interacted with the natural systems of the area, about their small-scale hand-powered farming and some other stuff I have forgotten. Unlike the first guy, he was scant on detail; unlike the second guy, he wasn’t getting upset about the changes he had seen. Instead, he talked about what he knew, what he had witnessed, and a little bit about what he had done. His observations and experiences were captivating in themselves, but they had also led him to choose an unconventional life, even for someone connected with the land. That rural life had fostered further insights, which, through his writing, had provided others like me with the opportunity to see things in a different way too. To be sure, he skimmed over the harder stuff, the technical stuff you need to know, as a farmer or an environmentalist, and definitely as a speaker on Rain Forests! But that didn’t matter, because the breadth of his experience and his practical knowledge had given him an appreciation of the bigger picture, enough to imagine another world, maybe not quite a perfect one, but certainly enough to re-inspire at least one member of that audience.