Here’s why I’m so at odds with most of my ‘green’ friends

Here’s why I’m so at odds with most of my ‘green’ friends

Patrick Noble has been farming organically since 1978 and farms the oldest organic farm in North Wales. It is a beautiful mixed farm with beef, sheep, cereals, veg and fruit and fertility building herbal leys,, treating the farm as a whole and balanced organism. Sales are local, at the farm and through farmers markets.

The late Ed Goff – another long-term organic farmer – rephrasing a line from Descartes (17th century French philosopher), said “I think, therefore I farm organically”. That describes Patrick Noble who is a formidable thinker and writer.

Patrick’s view and practice of organic farming is at odds with much that has developed in the globalised, corporatised, certified organic sector – but is in line with much that is espoused by Whole Health Agriculture.

He is also at odds with the superficial thinking, clichés and myths of many who mouth the current buzzwords unthinkingly. This, he believes, gets in the way of real solutions.

Patrick explains this in a recent article published on the website of Feasta, the Irish Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, an edited version of which we print here.

So long as I’m in the fields – in the orchard – or with the animals, I can be happy. I can also be happy in the company of farming people – even though I deeply disagree with their current farming techniques. There is a common ground – an understanding, which I can rarely find elsewhere.

I find the following very hard to untangle. Why do I feel so alienated from most of my “green” friends? I think it is probably in the vagueness of their conviction – in the borrowed nature of it and in, not their lack of experience – because we all have experience, but in their refusal to absorb that experience and instead, rely on the supposed experiences of others. Those others, will have been selected, not for their truth, but for their affinity. This disentanglement of mine becomes difficult because such humility is surely a good thing – a route to an open mind and heart. Yet, my friends express those borrowed thoughts with such a sense of virtue that my anger rises. Anger isn’t a good thing, so I feel that I’ve become, as they may truly say, a “negative personality”.

Learning from neighbours and experience

Meanwhile, my own experiences have been, for the most part, of personal failure. My conviction, for over fifty years (born 1949), has been this – to find a way of living, which can abandon fossil fuels and bio-fuels and also settle happily as a very small part of the re-balancing of a vivacious Earth!

To begin with, as a young man, I thought that growing sufficient food year after year was the foundation of all cultures – so I set out to see if we could achieve crop yields, similar to our neighbours, but without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and imported fertilisers. I think we achieved that – sometimes receiving 3 tonnes per acre of cereals – sometimes not – because of adverse weather, or my own mis-timings and misjudgements. Of course, if we subtract input from output (which is a truer measure of yield), we came out very well in the balance sheet. To grow an acre of cereals, we needed a further two acres of regenerative crops in rotation, which cut our overall yield considerably – but then, our neighbours in those days followed a similar rule of thumb and did the same. We all grew on so-called marginal, or grade three land. Our “chemical” neighbours did not wish to degrade their soils. Everyone loved their inheritance. Everyone knew of Oklahoma. Everyone, valued their “farm-yard manure”. In fact, before we had our own land, I learnt a lot from those neighbours, from years as a farm labourer. Our histories and loyalties are entwined. Together, we’ve faced fluctuating weathers and similarly difficult prices.

In those days, just about every tenancy agreement would have a clause forbidding the sale of hay and straw. Everyone agreed that exported biomass should be limited to that extracted for food. Hay and straw should recycle back to soil via animal feed and bedding. That knowledge is as old as the Neolithic. In just the last two or three decades, as with much else, it has been forgotten. Certainly, “climate science” has not re-learnt it – suggesting, as it does, the burning of whole crops for energy, while calling the process “carbon neutral”. Today, the return to soil of human “wastes” is scarcely discussed. Only thirty years ago, I remember, it was a regular topic of conversation – how to remove pollutants from sewage systems. Because solutions are radical, they have been conveniently forgotten.

Peering at the cutting edge of farming – but whose?

Very sadly, I feel no such loyalties for my green friends – for their outrageous claims for the carbon sequestered year after year from their borrowed advocacy for this, or that farming system. They defer to this or that NGO’s “selection” of “peer-reviewed” papers on the subject. That phrase – peer reviewed papers – is thought to be a clincher in all arguments. It clinches nothing for me, because the test for all such papers, is to superimpose them on our own experience – to discover if they fit – if idea and substance merge happily together. Sometimes they may do so and we shout, blimey! – that’s a new way to think about things. Often, they may not and we must carefully disentangle why that is so. Sometimes too, we must defer to the experiences of others. Always, the measure is against the directly sensual, “actuality of being” – a clumsy phrase, but I have not wit to find another.

Ah well, but I cannot deny that my green friends are seeking remedies to our currently psychotic ways of life – or that my farming friends are often locked in that same psychosis. Our farming neighbours have come to believe that they are the “cutting edge” of the “industry”. They’ve no thought of what’s in their drums and sacks, only that they are the latest on the market. As for those pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and artificial fertilisers, they know they are supported by peer-reviewed trials – just as my green friends are supported by other peer-reviewed trials – as the phrase goes, “Peer reviewed trials have shown…”. So, the peers are as wildly at sea as the rest of us – at all points of the compass – driven by the winds of career (advancement and wages), fancy, politics… The word ‘peer’ is the clue – no more than gang member of whichever faction we support.

The craziest, cutting-edge fashions practiced by farmers in our region of North Wales are firstly, Maize-growing, for animal feed and also, increasingly for biomass digestors. The necessarily late (frost-free) sowing date means a necessarily late harvest, which as often as not is from water-logged fields. Rivers turn brown and deeply rutted and compacted fields lie bare and puddled through Winter. The other, still crazier fashion is for “New Zealand” out-wintering of cattle – fields of Kale down which lines of wrapped silage bales are placed, so that using an electric fence, kale and silage can be foraged together. Fields are usually chosen to be sloping for surface drainage. You can imagine the quagmire of soil and slurry creeping down-hill and away. How can farmers do it? I don’t know – but it is cutting edge and also peer-reviewed.

So I hunch my shoulders and slouch into my dream world, shouting – A plague on all your houses – a plague on those claims for virtuous sequestration from mob-grazed grasslands, because we happen to have some grassland; – from those permaculture plots, which produce so little food, that we’d be better to have a very small veg patch and to turn the rest back into trees; – from the claims of intensive no-dig, heavy-mulch market gardeners, who achieve what they do, by importing vast amounts of biomass from “elsewhere”, while not giving a damn about the consequently-impoverished “elsewhere”: – from the cutting edge farmers, who’ve no idea what they do – only that it is cutting edge.

Our farming challenge: building a convivial economy and society

Trouble is, I cannot put up, or shut up…

Our aim has been to contribute our farm produce towards convivial population centres, where “work and pleasure are both “walking distance form everyone’s door” – where workshops, proper shops, market halls and squares are interspersed with libraries, theatres, concert halls, pubs, restaurants, hospitals, meeting houses, churches, temples, mosques… where every street has its corner shop and every village, its workshops, shop, or two, plus pub, church/meeting house… We dream of un-spending the super market and re-spending such places into being, in which every citizen contributes ingenuity and dexterity to the economic whole of both work and pleasure – and in which work herself may become a pleasure too.

And we did partially succeed in our small fragmentary way. We managed to sell all our small farm’s produce (just 89 acres), with the exception of cereals, face to face with people over our market stalls. We found many friendships, stories and mutual loyalties through vegetables, apples and apple juice, soft fruit, beef and lamb. Farm and town became, very nearly, in microcosm, one system. We grew and sold, very nearly, a whole cuisine.

But we also failed, because we were compelled to travel further and further afield, in search of busy market squares. Our local towns, though beautiful and ancient places, were also deserted. People congregated in the ringed encampment of super markets. After years of standing in those deserted and beautiful towns, dreaming of old-fashioned market days, we too betrayed the dream for other, more distant towns, where fragments of dreaming remained. My justification was to promote and participate in the dream, so that as it spread, I could eventually retreat back into my own terrain – just as other producers would occupy my vacated stalls. I maintained that I was on a meandering road to somewhere (home), whereas super markets and internet “organic” box schemes, were locked into a linear road to nowhere.

The dream did not spread. It steadily faded. We were fortunate, because we had gained loyalties and friendships over many years of market trading – and as the towns decayed, so we still maintained fairly steady sales. Newly-arrived producers, in those markets, found it very difficult. Meanwhile, our customers were ageing and one by one, were unable to come to town. Young people (with a few lovely exceptions) did not replace them. Rather, they clicked on the choices of their chosen (usually nation-wide) box schemes, or web sites of artisan producers. We had customers from every class, but without doubt, the greatest volume of sales, were to the so-called working class. That class also paid the biggest personal bills. I suspect that the organic-seeking middle class, followed the young to the internet. They came to us for “another delicious sirloin steak”, but it was plain that the bulk of their shopping was done (almost certainly) in the super market. Anyway, the customers with whom we bonded most, were tradespeople themselves – who liked to repair things, when broken, who were gardeners and cooks – who had family traditions and loyalties – who were curious about our farming methods – and who were from both the Left and Right of politics. Somewhere in that left and right is a lesson for durable human cultures – and yes, they loved to discuss such things. Our more middle-class customers often, but not always, had more fixed opinions.

Carbon sequestration is a convenient untruth

Anyway, everywhere I look, the dream is fading, and our dependence on greenhouse gas emitting energy remains. I can see of removing this dependence other than to remove those ways of life which need it. Which is why my green friends annoy me so much, by their borrowed claims for the carbon sequestered in their virtuous fields. It is not something they know from the trials and errors of husbandry, (the end gauge for everything) but a convenient selection from the literature – from what the peer-reviewed trials have shown…

In any case, greenhouse gases emitted from biofuels and fossil fuels so utterly out-weigh even the most outrageous of those claims, that they do no more than fiddle with a more aesthetic arrangement of deck chairs as the Titanic lists further into the icy water. Sequestration is a convenient untruth, which is used to justify our profligate lives.

All agriculture disrupts the natural systems it has replaced. The most a grower can achieve is balance and that is a high and intermittent achievement. My friends say that “science says” they can “draw down carbon” beyond that balance and achieve negative emissions! Well, life can return to lifeless soils – as they say, drawing down carbon, but after a variable period it will end in balance – in optimum biomass and diversity and within the limits of temperature, water and space – simply space (volume of soil). To find and maintain that balance, while also producing food is a noble end, involving many trials and many errors. Often, we may nearly, but not quite, maintain that balance – frequently because of increasingly unpredictable weathers and often, because of our own misjudgements and mistiming. In short, we have nothing to contribute to those so-called net emissions. Even an established rain forest will contribute nothing. It is a system in balance – total biomass, year after year, will remain more or less the same.

IPCC relies on those “peer-reviewed papers” and has negative emissions embodied in its modelling. It is no surprise to me that adverse climatic events are arriving many decades before the IPCC prediction. It is not the patient gathering of data which is wrong – I admire it greatly – it is the entering of that data into models based on untested, yet peer-reviewed/career-reviewed hypotheses, which I have come to despise. Farmers are fortunate, in that the pragmatic tests for life cycle hypotheses, remain on the farm – in the biomass produced season by season in response to their “good or bad” actions. Soil biomass (fungal & etc) and plant/animal/human biomass are one living (and dying) system, with which we attempt, as best we can, to be a part by the best methods of extraction and return. Crop yield indicates both photosynthetic yield and the vivacious mass and energy of the soil life, which produced it.

All farmers know that if we remove a crop for sale and make no return of biomass to the soil, then next season’s crop from that field will be smaller, while next season’s photosynthetic power will be reduced and next season’s soil biomass will shrink. That is why we need at least two further seasons of regenerative cropping (green manure, or pasture) to return to balance, or near-enough balance. Farmers also know that continuous regenerative cropping (or rather, no cropping) can only end in balance – soil capacity has limits – it will reach saturation, however much solar energy continues to fall on green leaves and however much out-sourced manures, or composts are stolen from neighbouring life-cycles.

So, all agriculture ends the wrong side of balance. We cannot escape that truth. Our task is to come close as we can, but we cannot escape the Fall.

IPCC use an untested hypothesis in all their sequestration models – they say (they really do!) that if land-use is unchanged, then we can extract crops year after year and the system – the life-cycle, will remain in balance. They say the same for coppicing, or clear-felling of forests – worse, future models include negative emissions by carbon capture and storage from burning biomass, such as forests, or biofuel crops.

I can find no IPCC reference to tracing where extracted biomass ends, or returns to an agricultural life-cycle. Food crops end in food “waste” and sewage “waste”. Burnt biomass ends in energy, gas and ashes. That gas, they say, is balanced by the photosynthetic powers of trans-substantial leaves – an immaculate conception – a holy ghost of CO2 miraculously regenerating clear-felled, or stubble soil.

As I say, farmers and growers test the IPCC hypothesis, year by year in crop yields. Climate models are wildly optimistic. Why is there no outrage from farmers? I suppose, convenient untruth, is better left sleeping, while we lobby for government subsidy for our “carbon farming”.

We – ordinary people – can make change happen, but will we?

Anyway, in case some think problems are too immense for the individual to be a part of solutions by changing their own lives, here are some UK government statistics, which show the opposite – that only the individual and the household have a hope in hell of solving them. I’ve lazily lifted these figures from an old article of mine and so they are a year out of date. I don’t think it matters…

Here are DBEIS figures for UK energy consumption (their categories and terms).

  • Transport consumes 40%
  • Domestic 29%
  • Industry 17%
  • Service 14%

If we break down the transport figures, we have:
– Domestic 65%
– Industry 21%
– Service 14%

So, if we break down domestic, industrial and services to include their transport consumption, we have:
– Domestic 55%
– Industry 25.4%
– Service 19.6%

So, households directly control more than half of total energy consumption. What’s more, households control a very high proportion of all the rest by the power of their spending.

Very plainly, personal transport and personal expenditure on manufactured goods and services are controlled, not by governments and corporations, but by ordinary people (the domestic, in the above government terms). Ordinary people are far from powerless. I think we hold nearly all the powers. We can un-spend most of our difficulties – which, like Amazon, Tesco and BP, we had previously spent into existence, and we can congregate in more convivial places – re-spending around us, new (sometimes old as the hills) dexterity, ingenuity and artistry. Of course, much economic activity is and always has been, moneyless. That too is exclusive to the loves and needs of community. Government, corporation and bank are excluded from that influence.

The reason why UK performs so well (in published carbon budgets) relative to other nation states, is that out-sourced manufacturing is not included in the above figures. UK manufacturing has declined dramatically in recent years – far more rapidly than similar European economies. Once, it was the largest UK energy consumer. Now, offshore purchasing is largely in the hands, not of governments and corporations, but in the clicking buttons and key boards of UK citizens and so our powers are even greater than those suggested above.

Yet, we ordinary people lobby governments, politicians and corporations to change, when we, the lobbyists, already hold most of cards for that change. I suppose, we’ve been educated to think otherwise – peer-reviewed papers have shown…No one is de-schooling. Why aren’t my green friends de-schooling? As W B Yeats sang, we could also say of every trade, 

“Irish poets, learn your trade. – Sing whatever is well-made. – Scorn the sort now growing up. – All out of shape from toe to top. – Their un-remembering hearts and heads. – Base products of base beds…”

WB Yeats

About the author: The WHAg team love to showcase farmers and supporters who epitomise the ethos of ‘Whole Health’. We live and breathe this approach, which flows through us in farming, work, and family.

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