Digging for Victory

One of the joys of farming is that there often isn’t a right way to do it. Two farmers will do the same thing in entirely different ways and both of them seem to work well enough.
Somethings work on one farm, with its soil types and climates, but don’t work too well on another farm. I know hill sheep farmers in Cumbria, what works on one bit of a fell won’t work on the other bit of the same fell. But still, people who obviously know better tell us how we should do it, even if their experience is reading a blog post.
One recurring comment/plan/idea that I keep coming across is that what we ought to do is get rid of farming. I saw a tweet from George Monbiot. Apparently farming is the most destructive activity to ever have blighted earth. Actually he’s right, if it wasn’t for farming, George Monbiot (and many others) would have been a short lived hunter gatherer who died in his early teens, malnourished and eaten by worms while he was living and vultures when he finally died.
But the idea appears to be that people would have a plot of land on which to grow their own food. So let us take part of the UK as an example as to how this could be done. For the blessed who don’t know it, the South East England is the third largest region of England, with an area of 19,096 km2 (7,373 sq mi). It has a total farmed area of 1,137,000 hectares or 2,809,588.acres. Now we have to remember that more than 40% of the region is covered by protective designations. All sorts of things such as Green Belt, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, there’s one National Park with talk of a second, and there are areas designated as ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ Now obviously some of this overlaps, but about a third of the region is recognised as having ‘national quality landscapes.’ There’s all sorts. There is chalk down land, woodland, heath and clay vales. Now remember virtually all this is currently farmed to keep it as we want it. Somebody will run a few sheep over it, or a few cattle to make sure there are still rides in the woodland, or whatever the environmental managers want. But they’re not going to want thousands of people digging it up to grow vegetables on, so I think we can discount 40% of the farm land from our calculation. So this leaves us with 1,685,752 acres.
Now back in the 1970s John Jeavons and the Ecology Action Organisation found that 4000 square feet of growing space was enough land to sustain one person on a vegetarian diet for a year, with about another 4000 square feet (370 square metres) was needed for access paths and storage.  
I read a description of the typical Jeavons garden. It is densely planted with maize, wheat and millet. These provide the carbohydrates and also a lot of bulk for the compost heap. Over half the garden is given over to these crops. This is fair enough, these are the crops which will feed you.
Another third of the garden is planted to high-calorie root crops like potatoes, parsnips and turnips. These are crops which store well over winter and will produce a lot of calories in a comparatively small area. Finally you have a few small beds of vegetables, things like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce and broccoli. Note that John Jeavons did his work in the USA, in the UK it might be important to substitute some crops, perhaps more Brussels sprouts and suchlike which also can cope with our winters.
But let us return once more to the South East. Really we have to throw in half of London as well, as the other half can travel north to their allotments.  Apparently there are nine million people living in in south east to which we have to add 4.5 million Londoners.
How much land will they need? Well traditionally in the UK, with local authorities there were 16 allotments to the acre. They were supposed to be 302.5 square yards. But Jeavons needs 740 square meters per person. This is 885 square yards. So in simple terms the new allotment is going to be the same size as 2.93 of the traditional ones. So that will be about 5.5 to the acre.
So our 1,685,752 suitable acres will produce 9,271,636 allotments where we need 13.5 million. If we just give them to adults, assuming they will feed their children, (so on your 16th birthday you’ll be put on the list for an allotment,) then probably everybody in SE England and London can have their own allotment. Admittedly there’ll be no farmland (other than a bit of environmentally managed livestock grazing,) but everybody will have their land and be fed.
Obviously it could be difficult assigning allotments at the start of the programme. You’d probably just have to start with each village and then each town, assigning land around them, and using London to fill in the gaps. But once the system is settled, when you are 16, you will be assigned the next allotment to come free in your area. Obviously some areas could fill up more quickly, but you could be issued an allotment in another area if you don’t want to wait.
Whilst I see teething problems, it’ll work really well. Obviously there will be no need for food shops. But it doesn’t matter because those who worked in them previously have their own allotments so they’re just as well off as everybody else. Indeed there’s no unemployment, as if you’re cycling thirty miles to your allotment, balancing a tub of night soil and urine on your handlebars, and then thirty miles back every day, you won’t really have time for a job anyway. So the unemployed now have the dignity of labour.
It will hit the NHS, but there again will we need one? If everybody is vegetarian and travels everywhere by bike, people are going to be screaming fit and live forever anyway. It’ll hit the funeral trade but look on the bright side, the last contribution you make to your allotment is when they bury you in it.
Now it’s entirely possible that we will need people to do administration and to keep order and provide policing (as it’s inevitable that antisocial and counterrevolutionary elements will take the easy way out by stealing from the allotments of others). The people appointed to these positions won’t need paying, after all they have an allotment. But obviously their work will eat into the time they have for tending it. To allow these large hearted people to serve the state without going hungry, it would make sense to just legislate that other citizens will work for a day on the administrator’s allotment. It’s only fair. Indeed, if the citizen has to work for two days on the allotment of one of the Servants of the People, it’s still a lower rate of tax than we pay now.
When you think about it, it would make sense for the citizen to always work on the same administrator’s allotment. Otherwise the administrator is going to spend more time explaining how she wants the allotment tended than she is going to spend on her work. It would be reasonable for citizens to be assigned permanently to her service. It makes sense to give these assigned citizens a name, they’re cultivators, so perhaps we should use a Latin term derived from that root and call them Coloni?
After all, ‘serfs’ is so triggering.


What do I know? As the expert.

As a reviewer commented, “

This is in the same league as Herrick, absorbing you into a different world, with its trials and tribulations making a background for the occasional moment of hilarity or joy. Hats off to Jim and his ilk, putting food on our tables despite our unwillingness to pay a decent price for it. I am frequently outraged that I live in a society which is prepared to pay more for bottled water than milk, and drowns the country in plastic in the process.

Jim manages to get this across without ranting and then uses his wry sense of humour to leave you howling with laughter at a series of events that a mere townie could never have imagined. Thanks for letting me into your world Jim – I am now committed to changing my behaviour and paying the extra for local, seasonal produce.”


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37 thoughts on “Digging for Victory

  1. rootsandroutes2012 August 10, 2022 at 5:18 am Reply

    Hmmm. Not sure about this – after all you’ll need quite an industry to manufacture the bike parts (and possibly even new bikes eventually) – and although bikes are much easier on the road than (Chelsea) tractors, even roads will need maintaining eventually Another job for the Coloni? Oh, and NOTHING hits the funeral trade.

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 5:28 am Reply

      You’d fix your own bike. Japanese infantry learned to stuff their tyres with leaves, and there are other third world expedients 🙂

      But yes, I have no doubt the funeral industry would continue, even if they had to be paid in carrots because nobody had the cash 🙂

  2. Doug August 10, 2022 at 6:31 am Reply

    Naughty Naughty Jim, the SE England isn’t really the most representative sample. Besides, you left out room for the roads for the transport bicycles with the turnip exports, plus the storage for all the stuff you will need in winter. Then there’s those folk who are incapable of working a plot due to age or infirmity. Locally, we’d be fine, kale, seafood, soft fruit, oats, rye, potatoes plus orchards and some hill sheep.

    My own tiny garden has got a lovely crop of leeks coming in at the moment, the greenhouse is full of tomatoes, lettuce is more than flourishing, and the potatoes taste better just out of the ground. We’re pretty much finished the peas and beans, but if we had grown enough, we could have dried them for the Winter stews. Not sure how the squash and zucchini will go, lots of flowers but nothing edible yet. The fruit trees are a bit disappointing and you can see how a poor season would leave a lot of folk hungry. The herbs are all doing well, and they’d be very welcome in the January snows to add some flavour to the dried pea and root vegetable broth.

    It’s one small garden though, and this year we will grow enough to provide maybe 2-3 weeks worth of food for two of us. Growing enough to lay in for the winter, an immense amount of work, and we’d need to be continuously enriching the soil, rotating what we grew and leaving areas fallow to recover.

    Sounds more like the kind of thing I’d leave to the professionals to do for me. Maybe if more people had dentistry as a hobby, we’d be as dismissive of the professionals as we are with farmers on the basis of a wee herb garden?

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 8:59 am Reply

      Love the Dentistry hobby 🙂
      But yes, everybody has been to school so we can all tell teachers how to teach. Everybody has been to a doctors so we all know how to run a health service. And everybody eats food so everybody knows how to farm 🙂

  3. Doug Jacquier August 10, 2022 at 7:11 am Reply

    “I saw a tweet from George Monbiot. Apparently farming is the most destructive activity to ever have blighted earth. Actually he’s right, if it wasn’t for farming, George Monbiot (and many others) would have been a short lived hunter gatherer who died in his early teens, malnourished and eaten by worms while he was living and vultures when he finally died.”
    At the absolute top of your form, Jim. To make it easier to have land allocated to all, you could return to an earlier experiment and send the surplus to Australia and call them rural entrepreneurs. After all, convicts is so triggering. 😉

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 9:01 am Reply

      I’m not sure what Australia has done to deserve them 🙂

  4. Cathy Cade August 10, 2022 at 9:18 am Reply

    I looked up this George Monbiot. guy – having never heard of him.
    The Guardian, eh?
    Says it all.

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 9:23 am Reply

      I suspect that if he ever reads this blog, your comment will cut him more deeply than anything I have ever written 🙂
      My daughter will occasionally send me links to his article if she feels I’m getting too chilled and relaxed and need something to raise my blood pressure 🙂
      But yes, The Guardian, says it all 🙂

  5. Mike Van Horn August 10, 2022 at 5:19 pm Reply

    Isn’t this what they tried in Zimbabwe when Mugabe took over? Booted all the farmers off the large productive farms that allowed the country to feed itself and export food, and gave small allotments to the locals, who knew squat about farming. Quickly changed the country to a major importer of food with hyper-inflation and near starvation. Oh, and the president’s friends ended up getting all the best lands.

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 9:06 pm Reply

      Funny you should say that 🙂
      But yes, isn’t it interesting how often it ends up being the inner circle that get the best bits of the pie

  6. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 10, 2022 at 6:27 pm Reply

    Jim Webster, well-known satirist…

    I want my computer! I have no interest in farming (beyond the garden I had in grad school where I learned that cabbage loopworms will eat all your cruciferous vegetables unless you kill them with Thuricide, poor little things). And that you get a lot of zucchini (vegetable marrows?). And then you have to process all that stuff and we had a FREEZER full of corn and zucchini which was very good with cheese. We had no room for a cow, or even a goat, though, so the cheese came from the grocery store.

    My utmost admiration for those who farm and feed us.

    You forgot to mention that in such a large group of new farmers as you are suggesting, many will die of hunger due to their ignorance about growing and storing food.

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2022 at 9:08 pm Reply

      I thought I’d let them work it out for themselves 🙂

      • Doug August 10, 2022 at 10:11 pm

        I confess my primary experience of farming was a dairy farm in Victoria owned by my partner’s parents. Not so much the dairying but the extensive plantings of everything from grapes to prickly pear. All vegetables, dairy, meat, wine and fruit were off the farm. I think in foodstuffs they only bought coffee, pasta, and sugar. Not a huge farm and only 80 head, but very cleverly productive. It only took 40 years and intensive labour, plus long days to make it like that.

      • jwebster2 August 11, 2022 at 5:08 am

        Yes the level of skill and knowledge necessary to achieve that is awe inspiring

  7. Jack Eason August 23, 2022 at 5:07 am Reply

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

  8. OIKOS™- Art, Books & more August 24, 2022 at 9:34 am Reply
  9. OIKOS™- Art, Books & more August 24, 2022 at 9:38 am Reply

    Thanks for another great thoughts about fantasy in some brains, and the pure reality by staying and working on soil, Jim. From political sight i only can congratulate the UK for leaving the EU. How hard this ever seemed to be, the EU now is eradicating itself. Best wishes, Michael

    • jwebster2 August 24, 2022 at 9:41 am Reply

      I think the EEC was a good idea, but it created a bureaucracy that was set on ‘ever closer union’ and ever more intrusive bureaucracy that wasn’t working for the people who lived in the UK
      Looked at from the sidelines I get the impression that on the Continent. national governments are taking control because of the war, but I could be wrong in this

      • Doug August 24, 2022 at 1:00 pm

        Wasn’t working for people on the UK like the people who wanted to let rip by removing environmental and other regulatory protections, or pump sewage into rivers, or weren’t interested in scientific cooperation or mutal recognition of certification, or common standards that reduced the need for duplication at a national level? Right. I’m so tired of waiting for the unicorns.

      • jwebster2 August 24, 2022 at 2:23 pm

        actually they were pumping sewage into rivers pretty much anyway, it only stopped official tipping into the sea. With scientific cooperation, that isn’t a EU member thing in that Horizon actually includes Tunisia and Israel

      • Doug August 24, 2022 at 7:11 pm

        I was actually working in a University in 2018, and watched the panic as research projects, particularly in energy or medicine were looking for renewal funding. It’s Erasmus, it’s Cern, it’s regulatory non alignment. Fewer and fewer scientists coming to the UK to do research is one of the biggest impacts. The local pharmaceutical industry labs associated with a leading research hospital and the University were losing staff hand over fist as highly qualified Europeans gradually found other roles in projects in the EU rather than stay in the UK, and there simply aren’t the skills to fill all or even most of those roles. The absolute joke of insisting on a separate UK chemicals certification alone would be a laughing matter of it didn’t impose huge additional cost for no gain.

      • jwebster2 August 24, 2022 at 9:36 pm

        I know, horror of horror, we’ll have to do something about our education system and train our own people. After all if European countries can produce a surplus they can export, surely we can train people as well?

      • Doug August 24, 2022 at 10:15 pm

        You think that’s going to happen in a country where the nurses bursary was removed, and is closing down courses unless Students can outbid overseas applicants?

        We haven’t been serious about education and vocational training for decades. Universities are businesses to make money, Further Education is a joke, and schools funding is slashed while schools themselves are an ideological test lab.

        What will continue to happen is that the UK will attempt to make up its educational shortfall by importing skills instead of investing in its own. Only instead of Europeans it will increasingly be Sri Lankans, Philipinos, African states and the Indian sub-continent. Much cheaper to get another country to do the education and training. We’ve done the ultimate in outsourcing.

        The real challenge will be we are no longer a particularly attractive destination for skilled migrants. We’re competing with the US, EU, Australia, NZ and Canada among others, and quality of life and salaries here are less and less competitive.

        So while the obvious answer is to upskill and educate our current workforce, that’s the expensive option, we’re looking at 10-20 years before it bears fruit, and there’s a POV that the raw material in many cases is inherently unfit anyway.

      • Doug August 24, 2022 at 10:33 pm

        Oh, and many of our own best and brightest have left as well, for countries with a much better quality of life. I have dual nationality and I’m only here for family. My salary and quality of life was far superior doing an equivalent job in Australia.

        Sorry to be so negative, but the UK has really blasted off its feet with both barrels in so many spheres, from education to housing to energy to health, and there isn’t the political will to face up to reality and turn this around. Instead we are being peddled fantasy futures completely detached from reality. Tax cuts, freeports, more school inspections, deregulation and charter cities. Nothing that will actually fix things for the vast majority of the population.

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 4:54 am

        the last forty or fifty years have been largely negative and our political class has been able to hide behind the EU. I saw it when I was meeting people in the civil service to discuss new regulation etc. A lot of stuff just ran into the sand because the people you were dealing could shift the blame for nothing happening onto the Commission or the Treasury. Our time in the EU, as you have pointed out, has largely been a downward spiral, to now the politicians and bureaucrats will have one less thing to hide behind before accepting responsibility

      • Doug August 25, 2022 at 6:59 am

        The EU has been the easy scapegoat for Westrminster and Whitehall since the 1970s, and anyone who has actually looked into it, knows it’s been almost entirely an easy alibi to cover UK policy failures. Ironically, some of the EU policy that has been most complained about has been initiated by the UK. Our own MEPs didn’t bother protecting UK foodstuffs, our MEPs didn’t even show up for fisheries discussions, our MEPs pushed for expansion into the former Soviet Bloc and didn’t set the same limitations that most other EU countries agreed on Freedom of Movement.

        But throughout, the common thread is ‘the EU made us do it’ when it is entirely at the door of the UK MPs who decided not to invest in education, infrastructure, housing, training, energy etc. In fact made negative decisions. The EU didn’t make us run down the PPE stockpile, or dispose of gas storage, or flare North Sea gas for years, or sell off public assets. They didn’t force the UK to close down steel production, or sell our innovative companies to overseas investors. They didn’t force the UK to create the economic environment where virtually all investment goes into a housing bubble making housing unaffordable for so many. They didn’t force English fishermen (largely) to sell off their quota to foreign operators, or not institute inshore fisheries protections.

        So I can understand people being angry when their towns are run down, their schools dumping grounds for delinquents, housing unaffordable, the jobs available needing social security top-ups to approach anything like a liveable income, huge debt to complete a degree, health-care increasingly difficult to access, quality jobs increasingly restricted to SE England, and services closing and being sold off.

        It’s just a shame a lot of that anger wasn’t better directed at those responsible, instead of being deflected on to the EU, who very largely weren’t.

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 8:23 am

        You have to remember that in agriculture we had to work closely with the EU for the entire period,

      • Doug August 25, 2022 at 12:37 pm

        Yep, and the competing patchwork of interests across Europe led to some very odd outcomes. I think the one thing most commonly misunderstood about the EU is they didn’t directly legislate. It was up to individual states how they implemented the directives that were collectively agreed. You only have to look at how various countries legislated to be in compliance with the GDPR protections, or competition policy or the working time directive. The UK seems to have had the uncanny knock of turning general directives into devilish detail.

        I’m not hugely familiar with the agriculture directives other than the headliners about Nicotonoids and so on, but as I understood it, there was considerable leeway in how States interpreted and applied definitions.

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 12:44 pm

        Yes, we exported our pig industry because we banned sow crates 1999as the EU regulations said, and nobody else did until about 2013 when it got embarrassing.
        Even a couple of years ago Compassion in World farming was pointing out that some countries still had them because “their use is permitted for up to four weeks after mating”

      • Doug August 25, 2022 at 4:55 pm

        So what have made you happier was better enforcement of EU directives… can’t argue with that, if you want a level playing field.

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 5:50 pm

        A damn sight fewer of them. Why on earth did the EU want all cats with electronic ID? They brought in Cattle ID with the excuse of tackling BSE, then proceeded to use a veterinary tracking database (which is what was set up) for all sorts of stuff it wasn’t designed for. Proceeded to add Sheep, pigs, dogs, and cats were on the list as well

      • rootsandroutes2012 August 25, 2022 at 4:03 pm

        To make the system work at all there’d have needed to be that leeway. The problem was that we have such a talent for ‘gold-plating’ that EU membership became intolerably burdensome.

      • Doug August 25, 2022 at 5:04 pm

        If you want pettifogging jobsworth bureaucracy it’s very hard to beat the Whitehall inspired version. (Though I think the Indian Civil Service may have surpassed their mentors.) But it isn’t just the public service infected with that mentality. Ever tried to deal with the nightmare that is transiting Heathrow?

        I wonder if it’s not a culture of a fear of risk or someone else getting something ‘for free’. Communal approaches and a charitable view of one’s folk as something to be kind to, replaced by an ‘I’m all right Jack’ attitude. Greed is Good (God perhaps?) Reaching an apotheosis in an atomised and selfish culture.

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 5:52 pm

        I mentioned the inspector trap just before to Martin.
        As for Communal approaches and charity, most of it round here is run by various church congregations although a fair proportion of the volunteers aren’t churchgoers

      • jwebster2 August 25, 2022 at 5:48 pm

        The problem is what I call ‘the inspector trap.’ When an official calls to inspect, if you’re given a clean bill of health, but something then goes wrong, the inspector might be questioned as to why they missed something.
        But if they pick stuff up and force you to do stuff, then it might be a total waste of your time and money, but it’s a sign that they are a diligent public servant who is assiduous in their duty
        Same with regulation. If they ‘miss’ something and then there’s a problem, they might be blamed
        But gold plate, you cover your back at the expense of the business which isn’t a problem as it’s not your budget

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