How many trees can you eat?

It’s a lot of years ago now. My father and I went on this farm walk organised by the Country Landowners Association. In some parts of the England and Wales, the CLA seems to have a preponderance of major estates and landowners, and in other parts of England and Wales most of its members are small farmers.

I think I was about sixteen at the time. What happened was that one of the big local estates (Holker) had had a tenant retire and were wondering what to do with the farm they’d now got to worry about.

So they had the walk, split us into groups and asked each group what they’d do with the farm. Which is as good a way to go about this sort of thing as any I suppose. But at sixteen what fascinated me was how the groups could be sorted by eye. The farmers wore flat caps, nylon anoraks sold by ACT, a ‘co-op’ selling to farmers, and wore plain black Nora wellingtons.

The ‘landowners’ wore a wider variety of hats, trilbies and deerstalkers were both in evidence. They wore waxed jackets and their wellingtons were green and had side buckles.

Now this was fifty years ago so the world was different then.

Anyway the two groups wandered around, and discussed plans. Finally after Holker had provided us with lunch, the two groups were allowed to report. The farmers had looked at the job and had come up with what they thought was a good plan. They’d run 300 dairy cows on the farm. The landlord would have to put in some investment, but actually not all that much. The farmers were confident that in three or four years they’d have the business up, running, and making serious money.

Then the chap who was spokesman for the Landowners group stood up. He’d obviously been listening. I can still remember his words.

“Rent it to that lot. They know what they’re doing and will not just make themselves money, they’ll put the farm back into good heart and it will be an asset to your estate.”
Then he paused, and added, “But there’s a small patch of woodland at the edge of the farm down near the beach. Keep that in hand and sprinkle caravans in it. The margins are good, the demand is there, and there isn’t a lot of competition.”
I think he knew one of the basic truths, farmer’s farm. It’s what they do and they do it well. If you ever want to experience sickening hypocrisy listen to politicians (who cannot see beyond the next election) or the chief executives of NGOs (engaged in endless trimming their political stance to ensure optimum funding to fill this year’s budget) lecture farmers, (who look ahead to how their children and grandchildren are going to get by) on the need for long term planning.

Another incident I remember from that walk was being ‘hijacked.’ The Holker Estate land agent who was showing us all about led the convoy of cars, and it was going to go down a gated road. He had with him in the passenger seat an elderly gentleman who could have been eighty. So neither of them were going to bounce in and out of the car opening and shutting gates. So he looked round and found the youngest and most expendable. Much to my father’s amusement this was me.

As I climbed into the car, in the crush an elderly farmer said, “Just touch the hem of his jacket.”
Of course I asked, “Why.”
“So you catch whatever he’s got.”

In the way these things happen, perhaps ten years later I was on various bodies and was working with the land agent in question. He was sharp. Straight, reasonably respected by farmers and his peers alike, a nice enough chap and very sharp. Bright enough to retire and spend some years sailing his boat in the Med anyway.

But as the old chap at the meeting knew. Farmers, farm. It’s what we do. We feed people. But now they want us to produce trees. I have some experience with trees. I remember my father pondering a couple of trees, they needed to come down, they were getting a bit old and would soon be dangerous. Their fellows had come down prior to the General Strike back in 1925/26 because there was no fuel for that winter.

So we’d contacted somebody from one of the companies that did bits of forestry. He looked at two good big sycamores and basically we’d have had to pay him to take them away. So we felled them ourselves which was fun and even exciting at times.

But the thing is, the reason I don’t grow trees (except over the years I’ve allowed hedgerow trees to come up to replace those we lost during the General Strike because the next generation or the one after that might need the fuel) is because I cannot afford to. I cannot afford to plant a crop which might produce a meaningful income in sixty or seventy years’ time. Any crop which takes twelve general elections to get to harvest is a dubious proposition.
But why do they want all these trees?
Simple, sequestrating carbon. Except that this con has also been laid bare. Oxfam has calculated that the total amount of land required for planned carbon removal (That is the carbon removal already ‘locked into’ the plans) could potentially be five times the size of India, or the equivalent of all the farmland on the planet.

Sorry but what are you all going to eat?
To quote Oxfam again, (to be fair to them, they’ve had the courage to tot up the numbers) “Oxfam’s analysis shows that several countries and companies are banking on land and natural sinks to meet net zero targets. The EU’s plans rely on forests and nature to remove 225 Mt CO2e of emissions, which could require a maximum of 90m ha of land if EU countries were to rely solely on afforestation to meet this target.

Oxfam has further looked at the net zero targets of just four of the big oil and gas producers (Shell, BP, Total Energies and ENI). Their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the UK. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.”

The problem with forestry and trees as a carbon sink is that they are living creatures. They grow, they take up carbon. As they reach maturity they take up less carbon because they’re not growing much, then they die and release all that carbon again. It’s not an infinite sink.
In sixty years’ time when Shell, BP, Total Energies and ENI want to ‘offset’ their carbon, they’ll have to acquire another area of land twice the size of the UK because the land they’ve already acquired won’t take up any more, the new trees growing on it are just about keeping up with reabsorbing the carbon being released by the trees that are dying.

Carbon sequestration by planting woodland has a place. You could use it to mop up the carbon produced by essential industries, such as agriculture and steel. It’s not there so people can fly off to yet another foreign holiday destination. At the moment, the question I’d ask isn’t, “When will the UK tourism industry be allowed to reopen,” but, “Why on earth are we reopening it? Who wants to fly abroad to watch the world burn?”


What do I know?
In paperback and kindle from Amazon

And from everybody else as an ebook

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”

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50 thoughts on “How many trees can you eat?

  1. rootsandroutes2012 August 6, 2021 at 4:56 am Reply

    I love the cross between Matthew 9 and ‘When Harry Met Sally’. Are you sure that quote comes from when you were a boy?

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 4:58 am Reply

      I’ve never seen ‘When Harry met Sally’ so I’m not sure which bit is from that I’m afraid.

      • rootsandroutes2012 August 6, 2021 at 5:05 am

      • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 5:42 am

        The clip I’ve seen because it tends to appear on social media, but I’ve never seen anything else of the film 🙂

  2. Doug Jacquier August 6, 2021 at 6:26 am Reply

    Just re-blogged this on my blog, Jim. Stunning illustration of H L Mencken’s dictum that ‘For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.’

    You might also appreciate this quote from him: ‘It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.’

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 6:36 am Reply

      I always liked his comment, ““The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.””

      • rootsandroutes2012 August 6, 2021 at 6:39 am

        Hobgoblin nor foul fiend shall daunt his spirit!

      • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 6:46 am

        Which be why so many states who like to control their populace dislike the Christian Church?

      • M T McGuire August 6, 2021 at 9:49 pm

        This is now for with crappy admin that keeps people engaged, for days, in tasks which, face to face (even with a civil servant) would take a few minutes.

      • M T McGuire August 6, 2021 at 9:50 pm

        Done, done with crappy admin now for. 🤷🤦

  3. August 6, 2021 at 6:39 am Reply

    I love the final lines Jim, glad I am not the only one thinking why is everyone living in dreamland? Why are the media always talking about holidays. On the news Greece is burning, but every day they find someone to interview who is ‘desperate’ for a holiday. People who can’t afford to feed their families or who are ill in hospital with Covid do not have the luxury of a day out let alone a holiday!

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 6:51 am Reply

      I’m afraid the prevailing attitude appears to be ‘what can they give up to save us’ whereas to go to genuine Net Zero everybody’s like will change

      I saw this from a paper “The estimated decrease in daily fossil CO2 emissions from the severe and forced confinement of world populations of –17% (–11 to –25%) at its peak are extreme and probably unseen before. Still, these only correspond to the level of emissions in 2006. The associated annual decrease will be much lower (–4.2 to –7.5% according to our sensitivity tests), which is comparable to the rates of decrease needed year-on-year over the next decades to limit climate change to a 1.5 °C warming32,33. These numbers put in perspective both the large growth in global emissions observed over the past 14 years and the size of the challenge we have to limit climate change in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.”

      So lockdown just took us back to 2006

  4. M T McGuire August 6, 2021 at 7:28 am Reply

    Yep, basically. Take engines. You can run engines on all sorts of things. Electricity seems to be about the least green choice of the lot. It’s just displacement. If they poured cash into alternative fuels, not Palm oil based stuff but engines or power cells that synthesise power from water, wee, etc and is hydrogen to make the bang we’d be in better shape.

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 8:02 am Reply

      Interestingly I looked up the proportion of our energy that comes from ‘renewables’ which is now 41% but actually most of it is ‘biomass and waste’

      • M T McGuire August 6, 2021 at 8:35 am

        So like the straw you were talking about. 🙄

      • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 9:00 am

        Straw, but ironically wood chip and similar. So the trees being grown to lock up CO2 can also be cut down to burn to release CO2 because…… well because.

      • M T McGuire August 6, 2021 at 9:47 pm

        🤣🤣 yeh.

  5. beetleypete August 6, 2021 at 7:46 am Reply

    Reblogged this on beetleypete and commented:
    Jim adds some commonsense and home truths to the Carbon Removal debate. And he’s right. As much as I love trees, you can’t eat them.

  6. Books & Bonsai August 6, 2021 at 8:46 am Reply

    If that is the best solution they can come up with, it’s time they went back to the drawing board and had another think…

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 8:59 am Reply

      I suspect it’s the solution that makes them comfortable and gives them least grief

      • Books & Bonsai August 6, 2021 at 7:02 pm

        Does it make the farmers comfortable though…

      • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 10:42 pm

        few farmers can afford trees commercially, you’ll find that estates that already have some forestry will go into this. But what will probably happen is that some small tenanted farms will disappear under trees 😦

      • Books & Bonsai August 7, 2021 at 6:51 am

        This does seem to be a band aid, there has to be a better way to save the planet?

      • jwebster2 August 7, 2021 at 7:04 am

        not that allows people to feel smug, draw good salaries and continue living their lives as they were doing
        Actually saving the planet will involve change.
        Remember when we were all against single use plastic and were going to do away with it. And then suddenly everybody was slagging off government because it didn’t have enough PPE
        And I noticed an (Australian’?) medical person has been given an award for producing reusable PPE. We had that in the 1960s!
        If somebody wants to save the world, they could start by never upgrading their phone

      • Books & Bonsai August 7, 2021 at 5:55 pm

        It should be so simple but they deliberately make it complicated…

      • jwebster2 August 7, 2021 at 5:55 pm

        Of course, if it was simple everybody would see through it

      • Books & Bonsai August 8, 2021 at 8:03 am

        I take it that you don’t hold out much hope for our future, Jim…

      • jwebster2 August 8, 2021 at 8:19 am

        We tend to survive in spite of the best efforts of our lords and masters 🙂

      • Books & Bonsai August 8, 2021 at 6:04 pm

        I can argue with that! ⭐️

      • rootsandroutes2012 August 7, 2021 at 8:30 am

        We’re divided by a common language, Books & Bonsai. Over here, Band Aid was definitely a great way to save the planet (or at least, quite a few of its poorest people – an international charity pop concert conceived and driven by Bob Geldof). It was more than just a sticking plaster.

      • Books & Bonsai August 7, 2021 at 5:53 pm

        You are right!

  7. Stevie Turner August 6, 2021 at 9:00 am Reply

    You can eat the fruit produced by some trees, so they do feed us in a way. We’ve got a lovely plum tree in our garden, that on a good year produces enough plums to feed the whole street.

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 10:35 am Reply

      Things can be managed, they talk about agroforestry but the ‘problem’ with these is they cut food production. Orchards are a valuable food source and traditionally were often grazed. But fruit trees aren’t fast growing, trapping up huge quantities of carbon very quickly. It’s horses for courses, the fruit tree, the orchard, have a big part to play, you can probably combine them which sheep grazing, or pannage for pigs. All ancient techniques

  8. Stevie Turner August 6, 2021 at 9:01 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Stevie Turner and commented:
    Check out this post by Jim Webster, a farmer who knows what he’s talking about…

  9. Sarada Gray August 6, 2021 at 10:29 am Reply

    Quite right, carbon offsetting is a sapphire to the conscience, not a long term solution

  10. Dan Holdsworth August 6, 2021 at 10:35 am Reply

    To be honest there’s two or three things you can say about all of this.

    First and foremost, most of the planet we live on is covered by open water. That’s where the algae that make most of the oxygen we breath live, and that’s where most of the carbon gets locked up. If you want to increase the amount of carbon being locked up by the oceans, fertilise them. This experiment has, amazingly enough, already been done albeit by accident. The Victorian age of steam ships put an amazing amount of coal fly ash into the air above the oceans, which acted as the fertiliser I speak of; all one has to do is calculate how much this fertilised the oceans and what the effect was.

    Secondly, the reason for all the carbon “pollution” is people. There are too many people living in the world, and we really ought to be masterminding a long, slow diminuation in the human population of the planet or else we’ll be seeing a short, sharp, painful collapse in the population. Me, I’ll take slow, planned and painless over a disaster any day of the week.

    Thirdly, did you know what the most potent greenhouse gas by mass is on the planet?

    Water vapour.

    Now, think on a bit with this: why do we not have a run-away greenhouse effect here already? The place is covered with water; the planet should’ve heated up long ago and titchy-tiny amounts of CO2 shouldn’t be having much effect at all. It hasn’t, because there are other factors at play here and I really do wonder if the much-hyped CO2 greenhouse effect isn’t a whole load of complete hot air.

    Finally I would also say that I have seen the computer code that the University of East Anglia (a premier climate change predicting institution, you know) used to make its predictions, and if any computer science student at the august institution I work for ever turned in that pile of shite as a project, they’d fail the course immediately.

    I also note that pretty much none of the climate change-wallahs have had their computer code independently audited, yet they all swear by its veracity and lack of bugs. Me, I’m looking at the long parade of zero-day exploits being found in Google Chrome, a browser written by the pre-eminent coding experts in the world and I’m thinking that if that’s the error level of experts, just think what dreck these self-taught plonkers are churning out.

  11. Jaq August 6, 2021 at 11:04 am Reply

    The obvious answer to the title question is fruit trees. If I remember right, an apple tree takes about 5 years to bear loads of fruit. Cherries do well in a cold climate as well. My aunt had a couple of cherry trees. I suspect pears as well.

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 11:32 am Reply

      Fruit trees help, the yields can be impressive

      Intensively grown trees can produce nearly 400 tons per hectare (over a total of eight years)
      Wheat does 9 tons per hectare every year so 56 tons in same period.

      We could swing diets away from carbohydrates to fruit and meat (because we’ve plenty of land you probably don’t want trees on or where they wouldn’t grow well

  12. noelleg44 August 6, 2021 at 1:13 pm Reply

    Very insightful, Jim. I’ve always been in favor of planting trees where they’ve been taken down for some reason. Sometimes the trees have a mind of their own: we had to take down a 250+-year-old oak because it was leaning and coming down across our driveway. I mourned its loss. But sure enough, a year later there were two sprouts from its roots.

    • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm Reply

      I actually ‘unfelled on’ and it’s growing still 🙂

      A healthy tree can be very resilient

      • noelleg44 August 6, 2021 at 4:46 pm

        Indeed! I just hated to see the history in that tree go. However, a neighbor who hand crafts furniture for churches took the wood with our blessing. He also happens to be the chief of a large African tribe!

      • jwebster2 August 6, 2021 at 4:49 pm

        Your neighbour is sequestrating more carbon than those people burning ‘biomass’.
        Once a tree is starting to die, then the obvious thing is to use the timber. With furniture he can lock it up for centuries
        Me, I’m sequestrating a mountain of carbon in the form of books 🙂

  13. noelleg44 August 6, 2021 at 4:56 pm Reply

    🙂 🙂

  14. OIKOS™- Art, Books & more August 7, 2021 at 9:49 am Reply

    Thank you for this very important posting, Jim! I hope, a lot of people will have thoughts about it. By acting rashly, we are jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of people. Of course, we can turn the whole country into forest. It would then be a natural equity investment, with sustainable returns in around 100 years. For everyone who somehow managed to survive. 😉 Have a beautiful weekend! xx Michael

  15. Jack Eason September 6, 2021 at 11:47 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Jim 😉

    • jwebster2 September 7, 2021 at 4:44 am Reply

      watching the world burn ?

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