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Colin Ward
Country Life
Anarchist Note Book
Article published on 31 May 2004
last modification on 27 April 2015

by r-c.
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Britain, with its heavily-subsidised agriculture, has fewer land workers per head of population than any other European country. It has fewer even than Hong Kong.

Plenty of us have sought for explanations of the absence of a British peasantry and of a tradition of food production linked to other sources of family income than the standard historical explanations provide. Into this gap steps a celebrated agricultural historian, Joan Thirsk, who was an economic historian at Oxford for many years and was editor of several volumes in the massive Cambridge Agrarian History of England and Wales. Her new book Alternative Agriculture: a history from the black death to the present day (Oxford University Press, #25), explains a great deal.

She finds that for centuries farmers, landowners, tithe-gatherers and even statisticians have been concemed almost exclusively with the production of basic foodstuffs in the forms of grain and meat. But there have been periods when, for a variety of reasons, markets have collapsed and a greater diversity of products has crept in. After each of these periods, she argues, though farmers return to the pursuit of mainstream foodstuffs, some new procedures or specialities in each phase "carried positive benefits onto the next".

Her argument is that three phases of altemative agriculture can be documented in English history:

"The first occurred after the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, and lasted from 1350 until about 1500. The second occurred in the early modern period, and lasted between about 1650 and 1750, though the way was being paved for it from at least 1590 if not earlier. The third occurred in the later nineteenth century, from 1879, and lasted until 1939. We are now in the 1990s involved in the fourth phase, for which a path was being opened from the 1970s."

There were different causes for each of the historical phases of searching for alternative crops, and for our current situation which results, as we all realise, from heavily subsidised chemical grain production which has done devastating damage to the environment. And one of the fascinations of Joan Thirsk’s book is the way many of the same crops which we regard as alien to British farming today, were produced in the earlier alternative periods.

Amusingly she cites a manual by Walter Blith of 1652 recommending the cultivation of "clover, sainfoin, lucerne, woad, weld, madder, hops, saffron, liquorice, rape and coleseed, hemp, flax, and orchard and garden fruits". Rapeseed, far from being an intruder, first appeared here as a serious crop in the 1560s and remained until the nineteenth century as a source of industrial oils. European subsidies for its use as a vegetable oil made it by 1986 "the third most widely grown arable crop in England after wheat and barley". Subsidy changes have caused a decline, but the modified oil "is already being used experimentally to drive public transport vehicles, including a ferry to Italy is in Berlin, two buses in Reading two pleasure boats on the Norfolk Broads, and post office vans ... Through genetic engineering, scientists also see another use for rapeseed in cheap plastics".

Camille Pissaro. Oil on canvas 65x81cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Camille Pissaro, a painter inspired by the ideas of Kropotkin, painted this vegetable garden and trees in flower. Spring, Pontoise (a town close to Paris), Spring 1877.

Dr Thirsk pays particular attention to those turn-of-the-century land reformers like Howard or Kropotkin, who sought the repopulation of the empty countryside through the combination of intensive agriculture and industrial work. In her conclusion she reminds us that:

"In the late nineteenth century phase of alternative agriculture, Peter Kropotkin argued most eloquently in favour of labour-intensive work on the land. Demanding more horticulture, he stressed first and foremost the common sense of growing fruit and vegetables at home to replace rising imports, but he also pleaded the good sense of providing work for all.

A policy of ’low labour and high technology’ had met the situation until 1870, he argued, but after that it was no longer appropriate.The same may be said today. A notable characteristic of many horticultural ventures is again their labour-intensivity, and in a climate of opinion which also acknowledges labour as a therapy, it is striking how often thehorticulturists themselves stress the value of their work, despite the hard manual labour. Since far-sighted individuals have forecast the impossibility of restoring full employment now that modern technology is daily reducing the work required, we plainly await another Peter Kropotkin to pronounce the same lesson all over again. The continuing obsessive drive to foster technology and shed labour at all costs belongs appropriately to the phase of mainstream agriculture, and not to the alternative phase ..."

Naturally I find this an absorbing conclusion, especially since Dr Thirsk adds that:

"... judging by the experience of the three previous phases of alternative agriculture, the strong assumption of our age that omniscient govemments will lead the way out of economic problems will not, in practice, serve. The solutions are more likely to come from below, from the initiatives of individuals, singly or in groups, groping their way, after many trials and errors, towards fresh undertakings. They will follow their own hunches, ideals, inspirations and obsessions, and along the way some will even be dismissed as harmless lunatics."

Her findings have great importance for the shapers of rural policy, and especially rural planning policy. Especially, since she is a veteran recorder of the economic history of agriculture, it is absorbing to see how far she is from current discussion on the need for new homes with its assumption that ’brown-field’ sites (in existing towns and cities) are virtuous, and ’green-field’ sites (in the country) are the rape of the countryside. For she automatically sees the "diversion of the rural economy, permitting agriculture and industry to co-exist in the same communities, and even in the same households", as a way of avoiding "the painful social disruption which followed later when industrial growth demanded that workers live in towns".

She hopes that maintaining and increasing village populations could "relieve the heavy pressure on towns". It is marvellous to see current assumptions turned upside down simply through paying attention to rural history instead of to un-historical nimbyism. This is the most significant book on the rural economy and on the assumptions of rural planning for many years.

Colin Ward


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