Helping farmers put real health on our plates

Farming to Scale

Farming to Scale

Who remembers the book Small is Beautiful by Schaumacher? I was told that title was not Schaumacher’s choice but his editor’s. Certainly the title worked as a sales ploy because Small is Beautiful is an iconic book known the world over. The Appropriate Size is Right as title, which does not roll off the tongue quite so prettily or conjure up cute images of smallholdings packed with a diverse mix of animals, vegetables and happy, happy, (hippy?) people, was more the message Schaumacher wanted to put across. 

What does this message of the 1970s look like in the light of 2020’s food growing?.

Appropriate size or scale in the farming and growing world is something that needs to be discussed. Growth at any cost does not work but who is to say how big is too big? And if we are to feed the world population, to include those with less, as well as hope to temper the appetites of those with too much, how can we make meaningful changes?

Lots of questions, how about some answers.

I have an idea to put to you all. What if the growing space, be it garden, allotment, market garden, smallholding, family farm, intensive farm, mega industrial unit, on and on to the monoculture grain fields of continental plains ……….. (you get the picture), had to adhere to a few ‘tests’ to find out exactly where Schaumacher’s message of The Appropriate Size is Right really can fit in. 

The term virtuous circle springs to mind, a virtuous circle or cycle is a positive feedback loop, a win, win situation even. The basic ingredients, whatever they are from a whizzing source of electricity to the whole nutrient cycle of a growing system, when directed correctly, produce a wastefree symbiotic system whose offshoots of energy manifest themselves in the former case with usable electrical current and in the latter with good food, wholesome work, and ultimately a cheerful society. Don’t get me wrong even if we got the whole world whirling in perfect harmony something would come along to upset the applecart as anyone who has suffered a natural disaster – pandemic maybe, dealt with loss or accident well knows, but the basic ingredients of life, a roof over our heads, food on the table, a job that feels worthwhile and some sense of community, is something worth working towards. We cannot allay all disasters but can aspire to be in control of at least part of our destiny.

One ‘Test’ of Appropriate Scale : The Virtuous Cycle of Waste

In a garden, the veg waste and weed compost heap is generally reused  with most gardeners these days boosting their growing power with some extra seed compost or growing medium of sorts, hopefully peat free.

In a market garden, it was traditional to have an arrangement with a riding stables, or an establishment with a concentration of animal manure, zoo maybe, along with their own veg trimmings for use as fertiliser, so far so good.

In a smallholding situation there are usually animals around and the pig, cow, goat, hen manure is an excellent source of nutrient plus having these animals probably means buying in some feed in pellet or grain form, an input system with fine potential as compost.

The traditional family farm grows some grains, gathers some conserved grass, and keeps animals using the straw for bedding, or in areas where grain growing is too difficult then another source, cut rushes or rough pastures would be put to the purpose of bedding wintered animals resulting once again in a useful source of usable dung to return to the fields, pastures and the ubiquitous vegetable plot.

A short round up of our most common traditional ways of producing food and the common sense ways natural waste materials are recycled.

Important garden grown food, with market gardens providing fruits and vegetables for town populations and the farms, including orchard crops adding to the food parcel bringing milk, eggs, meat, grain for beers and fruit for cider. A pretty good haul really. Most of us could get along perfectly adequately on those staples.

Now time to put the thinking caps on.

Once this scale of farming and food growing is exceeded the next stage starts to bring its own problems.

Let's follow the egg trail

It began with a few farmyard hens and eggs to sell in times of glut, perhaps backyard hens for the lucky few. Post WW2,the push to feed the nation was on. Egg farms began to appear. Hens in movable houses were folded over the fields, human power lifting and pushing small hutches forward in a pattern over the field. Apply the test of whether this counts as a virtuous cycle, well yes, these birds had access to fresh ground every day or so, their dung was deposited in small amounts across a paddock, leaving good fertility in the wake and the egg harvest was more commercial but not yet industrial. This well manured ground then grew better grass, or was put to grain, vegetables etc. Any produce too poor for human consumption was recycled through the hens. Manpower used to shift the houses kept things at human scale which meant that the groups of birds were stable and could form their own hierarchies, a behavioural must for decent hen welfare. Well done, this system stayed healthy whilst producing a larger output to feed the urban population.

Eggs are such an important protein source, quick and easy to use. From a commercial point of view, they store well for at least a month and at ambient temperature. Even the packaging, being recycled and recyclable poses no environmental problems. All considered, a miracle food really.

Things move on

Once it was discovered that hens could be manipulated, things began to escalate. Intensification really moved on in the 1960s, sixty years ago. I have it on good authority from a renowned poultry vet whose career spanned the time when the concentration of laying birds escalated, the disease problem escalated in parallel. Perhaps alarm bells should have been ringing then! But no, the ‘greedy thing’ kicked in. In the rush to grow, grow, grow the business, plans were implemented that squashed the hens up further. First into single story houses and eventually into hen tower blocks where they never see the light of day. Feed is delivered by automation, eggs removed by automation and if they are very lucky droppings removed by automation too. Otherwise the houses become ammonia stinking hovels attracting pests and disease. Now look again at the Test of Appropriate Scale and Ding! Ding! things have just exploded off the scale! Literally tons and tons of manure a day from 10,000+ hens in one place is not so easy to deal with!

Not only did disease ramp up in parallel with egg production, but also the need to ferry this quantity of eggs about. The work became low paid factory and driving jobs. On one hand with the mantra of producing cheap food for the population, at the other end of this system are the privileged few skimming off their megabucks, a shaving from each egg that passes down the computer belt. Just count the shavings by the million and you get the picture.

Intensification of money here. Intensification of disease at the other end both in the hens and likely in the poorly paid workers for whom this system, ironically, has been set up so they can afford to buy these cheap eggs on their weekly shop at the supermarket!

Can we pull this back?

I believe we can. With some will and a set of modern thinking workers who would like to re-set farming, we jolly well can put this whole thing right. We are in the middle of a pandemic sized upsetting of the applecart! I mentioned it before, but before we panic and stack those apples up too high again, just waiting for them to tip. Pause, take a breath, surely by dividing up the apples, securing them in sensible brown paper bags with a twist at the top like the old fashioned green grocer knew how to do, let us do the same with this part of our farming at least. 

Egg production, the easiest to start with, ambient, storable, salable. If you are out there and can apply your own kind of ‘test’ as to whether your job of work is Appropriate to the Kind of Life you want to live now, or see as a future for your children then come on, change something. It is possible and in this series from me I shall explain how.

Start Small, make it Beautiful

We can start with the easy things like eggs, work out how to keep them clean and sustainable and buzzing with health and vitality, begin to get small parts of our food and farming chain back on a sustainable track.

Some things, milk and meat production require more complicated infrastructure but it is not impossible. We will change things for the better and if you will come along with me on this, the quality of your working life, the food you eat and the community you serve will improve. 

We call it Whole Health Agriculture because we want to include everyone in this move for an improved system of health, and Good Food is Good Medicine. Keep your eyes on this website.

Pammy Riggs

About the author: I’m Pammy, a farmer of many years who teachers courses, and writes about farming, animals, and much more!

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