Recently I have been pondering, both for my own practical uses and for a bit of attention for the ego, how, in a state of power, I would go about designing an agricultural system that functioned most efficiently, providing the most food or the most varieties year-round for the least cash input. What follows is an overview of the systems I have integrated into this design. At the end is my explanation as to how I will personally implement it.
This is almost entirely idealistic and assumes that businesses want the greatest eventual profit, rather than the greatest monthly turnover or the lowest quarterly output. It also assumes that the government has an interest in protecting the country and the people and that financial assets, employment for all who can work, food for all and conservation of the environment are weighted evenly.
System 1: Medieval field rotation.
A tried-and-tested method for getting the most out of your lands.
You divide your fields into three. One of them bears the fruits and vegetables that need the most nutrition. One is full of staple foods that require less nutrition. Another is left to rest. Every season, year or two years you cycle through the fields. You move your staples into the near-depleted soil from the vegetable field, your vegetables into the enriched soil from the resting field and proceed to rest the previous staple field.
For reasons that will be more evident under the following systems, the most benefit would be derived from three hexagonal fields that were rotated on a two year basis.
System 2: Polyculture.
It should go without saying that monoculture is not the height of efficiency we though it to be. But it apparently doesn’t, so allow me to explain.
Monoculture is efficient in as far as it’s simple. But, much like a single-wheel pulley, simple doesn’t always mean efficient and, if more efficient, it definitely isn’t the most efficient.
The issues with monoculture are as follow.
1: It’s harsher on the soil. There’s a reason wheat fields need artificial fertilizers routinely spread over them and even sometimes need nutrients to be added to the irrigation system. Put simply, no natural environment needs chemical fertilization or nutrients added to the water. This is in part because in nature plants grow in diversity. Some plants put out certain minerals. To them it’s a waste product. To the plant next-to them it may be a life-giving supplement. When a plant dies it decomposes into the soil, shaded and aided by other plants, and its roots return to simple sugars. In a monoculture we don’t get this, so one crop is continually consuming zinc, for example, and there’s nothing to replace this zinc, so we need to add it back ourselves. Phosphor in wheat fields is a perfect real-life example of this.
2: It’s water-expensive. In fact, the mere need for an irrigation system should be a red flag. Most wheat fields used to be grassy hills, woodlands, shrubberies and forests. You may notice that no natural environment needs watering to sustain its plant life. Rain and rivers suffice. This is because the plants that grow in a particular area are adapted to the climate. It is also often because the presence of roots in the earth allows for water-retention, much like the gravel you put in the base of a plant-pot. Finally, plants naturally sweat and will hold this water, along with dew, where vegetation is dense, as in a rainforest. As monoculture is rarely climate-adapted or densely planted, water retention can be very poor.
3: It requires pesticides. In the wild, when a parasite, pest or fungus starts killing-off a specific plant we often find the spread of this disease halting. This is because most parasites, pests and fungi feed on only a few plants or types of plant. If there are twenty potato-plants in this area, but the next twenty are a kilometre away, a potato borer will move into one group, start consuming them and breed to its very limit. If it breeds too much, they kill off the twenty plants and, being far from the other twenty, may die before they find them. This way a plant specie is given a better chance of survival. In a monoculture, you could have thousands of acres of only potatoes. A potato borer infestation will quickly expand and render almost all the potatoes useless for human consumption. The only way to fully control this in monoculture is by use of pesticides. Plants in pesticide-rich soil are likely to need more nutrition and may even be genetically modified to survive the high pesticide load.
4: It works on a very small profit margin and crops require subsidies, as they often fail. Most of the extra profit of running a monoculture comes from not hiring as many people. But wages are cheap and machinery, machinery maintenance, copyrighted GMO plants, pesticides, irrigation systems and artificial fertilization are expensive. At the end of the day, the profits made by the farm are marginal. To boot, oftentimes they would make repeat losses due to crop failure if it weren’t for subsidies, as evidenced by what happened when Monsanto GMO crops where introduced into traditional Indian farms.
Overall, monoculture may be the simplest way of farming, the easiest to manage and the cheapest in terms of initial investment. But running and maintaining a farm over several decades is more realistic in terms of polyculture, especially where fruits are concerned and albeit not regarding modern strains of wheat.
To make this polyculture effective, we need to consider the rich field and the staple field. All three fields will always have fruit- and nut-bearing trees bordering them. Your rich field will carry leafy vegetables, fruits and beans. Your rich field should be the most biodverse. If you’ll need people with what amounts to rakes, their hands and a hoover to harvest them, then the slightly jungle-like nature the biodiversity brings won’t be as much of an issue. Meanwhile, your staple field should carry two or three crops, kept in rows a tractor’s width wide, so it can be harvested with more ease, but with minimized risk of pests.
System 3: Companion plants.
And, whilst we’re planting a polyculture, we may as well do it right. As mentioned, some plants secrete certain compounds or minerals and absorb certain others. Some release a lot of certain substances when they decay. Planting a plant that secretes a lot of sodium near one that will die if exposed to excess sodium is a bad idea. Likewise, planting several that need a lot of zinc withing touching distance isn’t much good either. What we need to do is pair off plants that go well together, ones that release a nutrient the second crop needs, or that decay to form the perfect mulch for the second crop to thrive. Here are a few ideas:
Alliums with nightshades. That would be onions and their relatives with tomatoes, potatoes and their relatives. Their nutrient balances seem to work together, as observed by many a seasoned gardener.
For mutual benefit, plant alliums with carrots. Yep. No idea why here.
Don’t plant brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli) with nightshades. They can poison or choke each other.
Plant lettuce between your bean plants. The bean plants will shelter and nourish the lettuce and it makes use of the otherwise empty spaces between.
By using a complementary planting system you can make the most of an area, encourage all to grow strong and healthy, discourage pests naturally and basically start creating your own micro ecosystem of foods you can use.
System 4: Allan Savory’s pasture model.
This is where we get a bit more intense. Every viable ecosystem involves animals. Now, of course, we understand the purpose of bees, worms and other such helpful critters, but we need to start considering two other groups
a: wild animals that are sometimes considered pests
b: domestic animals that produce.
The first group is a bit of a challenge on one front and that’s that we don’t like them. Not usually. I’m talking wasps, ants, beetles, snakes and rodents. Of course, we don’t want our fields or garden overrun with any of them. But the idea is just to let some of them be. Wasps eat some of the more troublesome insects. Ants and beetles clear surface debris the same way worms clear it in the earth. Small mice eat scraps and bugs and snakes keep the mice in check. The ecosystem is likely to form itself. Unless you’re overrun with one specie or another or you have rats, measures needn’t be taken to eradicate an animal from the environment. Control its population? Yes, sure. But embrace the presence of the critters, albeit within your own boundaries.
The second group is a challenge on another front: that they’re hard work. However, Savory’s pasture model requires livestock. And the benefits parched soil receives when animals start grazing on it is incredible, as you’ll see if you click the above link. This is what will tie-in with the resting field of the three-field system.
We need to take some animals that will control our pests, eat the waste and refertilize the soil. For larger operations herds of cattle could be used, but for smaller ones we need smaller scavenging animals. For gardens rabbits and hens should suffice. For now, let’s focus on the medium-sized land and the goats, pigs and hens. These animals are known for eating anything and everything they can fit into their mouths.
We measure the size of the field, work out how many animals could feed off it for a year and set them free. They will strip out any resurfacing plants from the first year, tear down the remains of the staple crop and clear the weeds from the soil. They will dig and turn the earth, eat worms, beetles and wasps. They will make a mess of everything and leave the soil rich for a new crop. They will produce eggs, milk and later meat. Their feed can be supplemented with scraps, weeds and bugs from the first two fields and maybe with some extra feed near the end of the year. The third field becomes useful again, not only providing the fruit and nuts from the trees around it, but providing year-long eggs and milk and a good supply of meat at the end of the year. To make the most of this, the two-year model comes into its own again, with the goats and hens providing two years of milk and eggs before being killed for meat and the pigs being slaughtered as yearlings before the drove is replaced for another year. On a smaller farm or a large garden the rotation may be reduced to one year, but it would really make more sense to reduce the amount of animals kept and make the most of the hens and goats.
System 5: Conservation model.
This is especially for larger gardens and actual farms, but I will go into how to apply it in a small-medium garden in the extensions section.
This is, again, to protect the biodiversity of the area and encourage the right sort of bugs to visit. We still don’t wholly understand how intricately an ecosystem interacts, so the only way to ensure that polyculture and Allan Savory’s pasture model can fully function is to not rely on them. This is where the hexagonal shape of the fields starts to come into its own. As three fields meet at the centre, you can create pockets of land to return to a wild state between your three fields. A good way of doing this would be to assess how much land you can spare and prioritize the planting and maintenance of endangered species, allowing the more common flora and fauna to move in on its own.
This land would have to be accessible, but also generally left alone unless there’s a problem such as a fungus spreading among the trees or a rabies outbreak.
Generally just leaving some land alone and later reintroducing endangered species is all it takes. Most land that has been used for crops or neglected for a while can recover and rebuild its ecosystem naturally if left alone.
If the land has not been wild for a very long time, there are several models to follow with the conserved land.
1: Forest. Plant thickly with trees and populate with forest insects and tree animals.
2: Dunes. Plant sparsely with thickets and gorse and let it populate itself.
3: Water. Make an artificial pond, lake or stream. Populate wit water-life.
4: Plains. Sow thickly with grass and wildflower seeds with a border of hedges and trees. Allow to populate itself or populate with game animals.
There are many more, but those are the main ones.
By encouraging biodiversity in the centre of your fields you are encouraging a natural balance of small fauna within the fields themselves, allowing for ladybirds to eat your aphids, worms to turn your soil and bees to fertilize your fruit-bearing plants.
By keeping it in the centre you are allowing other farmers next-to you to create their own wholly different ecosystem pockets inside their fields, creating a diverse spread of plants and animals across the country’s farmed land.
By adding new biodiverse space for endangered animals you contribute to their survival and the survival of ecosystems outside the farmland.
System 6: Local business.
This is something consumers are starting to strongly push for, which is excellent news for smaller farmers, smallholders, allotments and gardens.
But everyone talks about buying locally, few talk about selling locally. When we talk about big industries and chain shops, of course we start seeing the benefits of not doing so, but what benefits are there to selling locally?
Firstly, it’s cheaper and easier, especially for the small producer. Minimal transport, waste issues or middle men. Which means lower costs all round.
Secondly, the product can be made cheaply for your customers. It’s easier to charge less for something when it has cost you less to produce.
Thirdly, it’s easier to establish business connections. Selling your eggs, wheat and berries to a local bakery is easier to do when you are in regular contact with other local businesses.
Finally, selling locally needn’t be a restriction, especially not in terms of agriculture. People will always need food and by promoting local business and seasonal eating you are moving them away from imported foods and onto local, national foods. This way you have more customers without moving afar. The closer to home something is produced, the cheaper you can sell it, the easier it is to encourage locals to buy it.
It also plays into the Ford wage-structure mentioned under System 8.
All in all, selling locally can be very beneficial to our agricultural system, especially pertaining to small and medium operations.
System 7: Man-power.
So if we have a rotatory system with one particularly diverse field and a field of animals, we need to embrace another thing we all but gave up on a few centuries back: good old-fashioned man-power. Of course, we can expect innovation to catch up very quickly and reduce the number or workers needed. But, in principle, part-time, hired man-power is going to be cheaper and more efficient and, to boot, more people in work means more people with money to spend on your goods. It may not be in the short-term interests of the business, but in the long-term interests of a country and all who reside in it and depend on it. Again, idealistic, but oh well.
And how would we assign labour? The most people will need to be employed in the rich field, sowing the seeds, checking for disease and harvesting the plants. The best way to run this would be with part-time employment that allowed people to move around whenever work was slower at their usual farm. A few steady workers who can manage all round and some who can do the more permanent, more specific jobs. These people should ideally have housing provided, either for free or as rented property, so they can live nearby, which would keep their travel costs low. The more you do for them, the happier they are to work for you. Those who don’t stay year-round will need temporary accommodation so they can come and go as they need. Considering their situation, this would have to be catered or at least stocked with food, so they don’t have to worry about driving to town and finding the nearest shops after a hard day’s work.
We would also need permanent trained workers to care for the livestock. Collect eggs, milk the herd, feed the animals, check for injury, let them out in the morning and put them to bed at night.
Finally, we’d need trained staff or visiting specialists to keep an eye on the wild ecosystem to ensure it thrives.
Ideally, our lands would have enough space to house the owners and the largest number of workers present at any given time and we’d be able to keep maids and cleaners employed so that the land workers don’t have to dedicate too much time to ordering the house before setting off to work.
Essentially, it would be a return to Victorian labourers, just with hopefully better pay thanks to the reduced number of them.
System 8: Ford’s wage structure.
Whilst it is often misinterpreted, allow me to explain the concept of Ford’s wage system. Henry Ford doubled his workers pay. Now, first we will discuss his actual reasons for doing this and next we will discuss the beneficial effect this act had on the consumer population. These are not to be confused.
Ford’s intentions were, as mentioned in the link, to make his investment more efficient. By paying his permanent workers more than the competition he was guaranteeing that they would stay, rather than getting trained by him and leaving for a better paycheck. This should be applied in terms of your permanent workers also, however it can be done in many ways. By providing them with reasonably-priced housing you are already starting to encourage them to stay. Next, adding perks such as days off on a rotatory system, free food from the farm and the likes will keep them around. Finally, whether you give them a competitive salary depends on the environment. If other farms are paying their workers far more than you, you will need to raise your wages, or at least match those of the competition. If they raise theirs in response you may be looking at a wage war, which means there’s a short supply of those workers and/or they need costly training. If other farms don’t mind you matching or exceeding their pay, chances are the workers are abundant. This presents a different issue. If there are many workers there’s a chance yours may leave for a place where people with their training are scarce, hoping for a higher pay. This means you need to out-compete other areas. Make it less financially viable for them to move. Unless there’s a ridiculous excess of people in their position, these workers will stay local and hopefully stay with you.
Of course, with less valuable workers it’s much easier to let them migrate as they need to and just ensure your turnover isn’t too high.
Next comes the unintended benefit of the wage wars between automobile manufacturers. This is sometimes interpreted as Ford’s intention, but to be fair it’s unlikely that’s what he had in mind. However, there is still much we can learn from it.
The concept is that by paying your workers enough so they can use your product, you increase your consumer base. Now, this makes sense in terms of cars the same way it makes sense in terms of aeroplanes: it doesn’t. If every manufacturer were making a product affordable to the masses through this method we’d all have jets by now. On the other hand, the cars and jets are eventually consumed by the masses, some of which may have helped build them. They just aren’t directly purchased by these people. However in terms of agriculture, it is possible that your workers will purchase your food directly, or having been processed by other local businesses. This means a suitable balance between salaries and product should be found, so that when the produce reaches the customers they can afford to buy it. As between five workers and a machine you may be able to produce food for a hundred or more, this wage structure shouldn’t leave you out of pocket.
Of course, there are things we could add onto this, on a larger scale, to make it run more efficiently. Rather than go into them in depth, I’ll keep these short and sweet. If you’re interested in why I decided any of these was practical, how it would work or how it could be implemented, feel free to comment and ask.
*Extra tax on imported sustenance foods.
*Lower tax on imported luxuries.
*Subsidies for crop failure of main crop or disease outbreak in animals.
*Limits on how many of a certain crop can be grown in one area.
*Incentives to employ local youth in the non-permanent local jobs.
*Subsidies for those farmers looking to branch out into second tier business.
*Any farmland that doesn’t abide by the main laws can be seized, transformed and sold on to another farmer.
*Big businesses have a limit on the number of farms they can own, but not on the number they can sponsor or invest in.
Using the structure in your own back yard.
So, how about for us everyday folk who aren’t interested in starting a farm anytime soon? Well, many of the above principles can be applied to your own gardening exploits.
Pots, balconies, windows and patios.
To make the most use of these, choose large, heavy pots that you can put more than one plant into. Make sure the area is diverse and the plants are matched well. It could be good to keep beans trailing up the balcony rails, for example, or use a small kumquat to shade some herbs.
Keeping animals would be hard, but encouraging bees and getting some worms to put in the pots can really make a difference.
Small gardens and conservatories.
Keeping animals still isn’t much of an option. Focus on the diversity of the garden plants first and foremost and encourage useful insects. Maybe consider getting a goat or a couple of hens or ducks.
You can start moving into more interesting territory here. I’d advise using a reasonable number of small animals, like rabbits or hens and other fowl. They can be kept in a run or allowed to roam freely.
You can also start cycling crops a little. Try and move potatoes and cabbages, for example, into earth where you kept beets or carrots last year.
Divide the field into three and start a small operation involving hens, pigs or goats, a staple and some assorted vegetables.
In the above examples, try and encourage biodiversity by assigning a pot, a corner or a strip of land to the sort of flowers bees will like. Let some areas grow a bit wild and keep a compost heap wherever and whatever you’re growing.
How I’m doing it.
1: I have four areas to my garden. One on the compost heap, which will always be for pumpkins, melons and marrows; one on the hill which is currently for pepper plants, tomatoes and leeks; one near the house, which is for cabbages and potatoes and one near the hedge which is for beans and lettuce. I will rest the potato earth and the lettuce areas over Winter and plant the potatoes and cabbage on the hill next year.
2&3: I plant plants together, to ensure they balance each other. Night-shades with alliums, beans with lettuce, berry bushes with sunflowers.
4: I am keeping hens and, when they can be trusted and the bean plants are stronger, they will be allowed to walk among the permanent plants to fertilize the soil in-between. There are currently four of them and they provide 1-4 eggs a day.
5: I have corners of flowers for bees and am planting flowers between my food plants. I am letting some corners of the garden stay wild so as to encourage natural life in. I am corralling the local ant population into the hedge, where it’s useful.
I’m not currently selling any produce, but may do so in the future.