2015-05-21

TOOL: Look to the Land

In Look to the Land, Lord Northbourne decries the twin ills of poor farming practice:
  1. Desertification
  2. Depletion of Fertility
He calls Man "The Desert Maker" and claims that the growth of deserts, for example, the Sahara (which apparently bloomed in Roman times) and in America, is a purely human activity.

Northbourne places the blame on the finance industry which:
  1. Distorts farm prices
  2. Causes destructive trade in fertility
Wildly varying and unfavorable farm prices result in a "get rich quick" kind of "fertility mining" farming strategy which destroys the fertility and productivity of domestic farms, and the import of fertility (natural and artificial manures) from abroad, destroying the fertility of other, poorer, countries and destroying the fertility of the world in general. The import of cheaper foods from abroad also contributes to this environment and its bad effects in the same way.

Desertification is directly caused by:

  1. Erosion
  2. Poor husbandry of forests
Both of which are the result of poor farming practice motivated by price distortion from the finance industry and by the valuing of resources such as land, soil, and forests in particular on a purely monetary basis.

I see the dichotomy between the yeoman farmer versus the organized industrial and financial collective as a basis for democracy and social organization to be central.  Historically, the power of the independent farmer, armed with cheap weaponry, e.g., the Welsh longbow of Henry V and the Kentucky long rifle of the American Revolution, have been engaged to overthrow empires, but then are again subjugated by central authority and oligarchy. The yeoman farmer is free, has much to fight for and great motivation, is able to personally marshal the resources to fight effectively as a member of an army of free men, and given the right motivation, leadership, and circumstances, is probably nearly undefeatable. However, the imperial industrial collective is able to marshal overwhelmingly powerful weapons and often huge, very impressive armies, e.g., suits of knightly armor are very costly, as are military tanks, airplanes and rockets. The head of an army of free men is often not impressive in appearance, nor is such a country, despite being a "sleeping giant" as Admiral Yamamoto termed it.  The king or Supreme Leader of a huge well-dressed army and navy with impressive guns and bombs and other weapons, however, has that power to impress, and to garner a much more concrete sense of patriotism.

The downfall of the ideal of the yeoman farmer may be linked to the downfall of farming, the subjugation of same by the financial domination of the banking industry, and what Northbourne laments as the decline of nutrition and quality of life.

He does not write much about the ills of large animal feed lots, although he does cover proper animal husbandry and how the well-being of animals on the farm is crucial.  Animals feel the ill-effects of poor farming practice and nutrition more quickly than humans do, so if animals are sick and dying, then humans are already in a state of poor health, whether we know it or not. A proper mix of animals is needed for good soil health, e.g., sheep and chickens together may be all right, but not just one, no monoculturalism, with the possible exception of cattle.

By the way, the proper management of sludges and manures is lacking. He mentions the "Rule of Return" in which nutrition extracted from the soil must be put back in the form of manures which are produced therefrom, hence, use of manures, and use of city sludges. He would certainly decry feed lots (probably generally) in which the manures there produced were not returned to the soil properly. In America, the return of sewage treatment sludges to the soil is very much the exception rather than the rule (Denver may be a stand-out in its recent efforts to make treated sludges available for farming). Issues include heavy metals coming in due to shared use by domestic sewers and industry, general lack of control of dumping into the sewers, and poor planning generally.  In Switzerland a debate is going on between collective sewage treatment of waste waters and more localized treatment, i.e., smaller treatment stations (STEPs or Stations de épuration) for this reason.

Northbourne recommends two salutory approaches to rectifying the situation:
  1. Royal Land Trust
  2. Royal control of currency and probably return to the Gold Standard
He decries the artificial creation and devaluation of currency by the banking industry and its effect on land and food prices, since farms cannot keep up with the inflation caused by this.  We need real value, he writes.  I'm not sure whether he mentioned this, but he might approve a "basket of commodities" approach where gold would possibly be part of a balanced collection of agricultural (and other?) products, e.g., a Pound or a Dollar might be valued based on the value of a certain amount of gold, however many bushels of wheat, other products, even vegetables, and possibly even oil or mined products (although these latter might defeat the purpose). This idea has been under consideration by a collection of Islamic countries with the focus on moving away from the Petrodollar standard.

Northbourne comes out in favor of an ideal of small farms, more persons engaged in physical labor on farms, local consumption of produce, and promulgation of good farming practices to halt and eventually reverse erosion and depletion of fertility. Nutritional security is an ideal which some countries have embraced, e.g., Japan (although they have begun to import more and more food from China, ironically enough, though it's unclear if this represents a sea change in food independence policy, although it obviously would be a serious risk to Japanese national security if it were so). It seems that the finance industry would not favor nutritional independence generally, since it cuts trade, hence profits, and stabilizes prices, which is bad for speculation, in addition to taking control of this important vector of consumption out of the hands of banks and placing it in the hands of local people.  Northbourne expresses a distrust of trade, saying that it creates nothing, distorts farm prices, and has the effect of eroding fertility and degrading the land. He writes that the only trade in foodstuff should be in "luxury goods", i.e., non-staples, which may only be obtained from abroad.

I don't recall if he includes such goods as coffee and spices -- huge industries have sprung up in tropical regions to supply such goods to the North. I believe he did come out against tropical fruits from far away in favor of local vegetables and fruits.

How do we get there?

What PR would be needed to get the finance industry and Big Business out of agriculture is unclear. Recent egregiousnesses may serve to get the ball rolling, however. How to free up the land which is currently controlled for other purposes and convert it into small farms, in addition to freeing up the people from their city jobs and obligations to work them also seems to present a quandary, even if the people could be convinced that this would be a Good Idea.  Northbourne does make a good case, however.  Farmers' Markets are springing up everywhere and are seen as a Good Thing.  America's horrendous misallocation of resources in the form of suburbia with its attendant roads and cars everywhere, and it's postage-stamping the land down to useless, tiny plots might actually be able to be turned to service in this conversion.

Can Americans start small-scale farming in Suburbia?

In the days leading up to the Rwandan genocide, it was said that the average farm plot size was about 1-2 acres, give or take. Of course, people were on the brink of starvation, but the other side of that is that entire families were feeding themselves, albeit barely, on tiny plots of land. The average plot size of a suburban property may be about half an acre, probably not enough to feed a family year-round, but perhaps enough to feed for one or two days a week on average. If homes were built with greenhouses, or converted to same, more food might be grown and year-round. Homes could also be converted to grey water systems or composting toilets and such to provide fertilizer and decrease sewage dependence.  The plot size problem could perhaps be addressed if underemployed persons, especially, perhaps, children and teenagers, took to farming not only their own families' yards, but also those of neighbors who were otherwise disinclined to do the farming themselves but willing to share their land in exchange for payment and/or a share in the fresh food produced.  At this point we might begin to see a return to the kind of feeling of community to which Northbourne appeals. I have at least one friend whose children grow organic vegetables for sale to neighbors, so this is not an outlandish notion.

The question is what sort of legal and town council obstacles and economic disincentives stand in the way of this kind of a transition?  Keeping animals in town might be one, since animals would be very desirable and a variety of them, even large animals such as cows to provide milk, manure, etc. If it is difficult to sell the food grown, or it is prohibited, or if there is no economic, e.g., tax, advantage to converting one's lawn or to using less sewage, then this might hinder adoption of "suburban farming" whereas removal of these obstructions might actually encourage it to no small extent.

It seems that:
  1. Formulating and elaborating an ideal for small (suburban) farming
  2. Promulgating said ideal in the popular culture, e.g., the media, a TV show, etc.
  3. Identifying the laws and regulations needing to be changed
  4. Identifying products which would be needed and promoting them
  5. Creating publicized "model prototypes"
Would be a good formula for getting this idea, which I see as a modern variation on Northbourne's proposals, into the mainstream, and that that might be a Very Good Thing.

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