Originally the definition of a farm was the smallest landholding that produced a taxable surplus. Peasants were untaxable units, largely self-sufficient and therefore economically uninteresting to governments of any colour, only working to earn money when required. Curiously most farms are now seen as needing subsidies, so maybe governments have the opportunity to revise their suppression of peasanting (and suppressed it is, through planning, health and safety, and retail laws designed to favour farms and companies and virtually outlaw peasanting). But producing for oneself is the high value end of production, as one is the farmer, manufacturer and retailer, therefore quadrupling many items value. Can peasanting compete with mechanised, computerised, globalised production? In order to explore reinventing peasanting in 21st Century UK, in 2009 my family bought a 2 acre bracken and bramble patch.
Autumn 2009. We uncovered some surviving meadow, planted mixed trees valued for different green woodworking qualities, and a section of hedge. Slashing back brambles and bracken has turned out to be my favorite sport since chopping logs, and I am excited to see whether anything we grow survives the deer, squirrels, voles and weather.
Autumn 2010, the trees we planted survived their first year, the grass has reclaimed the areas where we knocked back the bracken and brambles surprisingly easily. I've been spreading the ash from the stove in the hope it alkalines out the bracken. We've discovered the joy of scything.
Autumn 2011, deer have been scoffing a lot of our trees so we've had to explore taller tree guards, and using hedge cuttings to make a wall to hide tree planting areas. Potatoes grew well, but it was too cold for my tobacco plants, onions and carrots got swamped by weeds. I made some chairs out of an ash tree. There are slow worms and some grass snakes. Wildflower meadow section spreading nicely with a scattering of new apple trees we planted. Still into scything and getting more comfortable with my chainsaw to get firewood. Borrowed some ponies to graze the 'meadow' and collected their manure for my veg patch.
Autumn 2012, did some charcoal burns in an oil drum using the left over brash wood. Potatoes grew well, field beans couldn't outgrow the slugs. A basket grade willow patch I planted is struggling probably due lack of sun on this north facing slope, but hasn't totally given up. Most trees we planted are doing well, but there's a lot of squirrel damage trees of 5 years or older, I'd like to trap and eat them but it might gross out the kids. Scythed a bit of grass for hay, borrowed the ponies again. Got a good haul of firewood from wind blown trees round perimeter. Thinking about burying close relatives their.
September 2014, more charcoal, logs, hazel wands, bit of basket willow, hay and manure. Reasnable crop of potatoes and pumpkins - it was a bit dry. I plant them in heavily mulch to reduce digging to the minimum and avoid having to do any watering. Apple trees have just kicked in. Electric company cut down a big cherry tree, I planked a bit and split the rest, so I've a year to think what I can build out of it while it seasons. Planted structural grade willow to make a living dome and car turning bank.
Feb 2016. Beech tree down so lots of firewood, and done some green woodwork tests for using as ash substitute, made a bog chair out of the seasoned cherry. Coppiced alder we planted in 2009 - 5in diameter trunks at base. Pumkins failed (too cold, then too dry), potatoes OK, apples did well. Willow structures off to a slow start but not given up, basket grade willow beginning to make a noticeable amount of willow. I was too bizzy painting last year to make charcoal.
March 2017. Trying planting the pumpkins through a mulch mat this year. Got 60 litres of birch sap wine on the brew.
Peasant Audit so far
Peasanting is struggling to pay the minimum wage. But most trips to the field we're taking something over or coming back with something, and the 'wage' is improving. Because I enjoy most of the activities, I guess it works as a hobby that pays something rather than something you pay for.
From an environmental audit point of view, it's more productive than a bracken patch (lovely low starting point). I think it's getting to be as productive as if it was grass and you kept sheep on it. It's hard to imagine anyone planting crops on due to the slope and north aspect. From a bio diversity view it's more diverse than a sheep field or bracken patch. So I think it works. It's biggest CO2 and cash gain is probably that it keeps me too busy to want to fly away on holiday.
Conclusions Dec 2014
The harsh reality is that any work which requires the mechanically unenhanced hand of man is going to be hard work and cost ineffective. There is 10,000 man hours of labour stored in a �100 barrel of oil, that's 1 hour/1 penny. This is easily illustrated by comparing sawing wood with a bow saw and chain saws. Even chainsaws have become economically unviable for harvesting wood now and are only economic in gardens or where monster machines can't access.
Planning permission and govt regulations have been designed over centuries to marginalise or outlaw peasantry. All regulations regarding permissible land use, permission to build necessary infrastructure, site inspection regimes, Health and Safety requirements, sale of produce, and tax regimes are all based on mass production, and all are awkward, time consuming, expensive for the small producer.
However hopefully peasanting will get us more produce from an area of land than a farmer when we get better at it. With the globalising economy there is a possibility that if I eat something, someone else won't be able to. So if natural resources are dwindling and coming under pressure from climate change and population growth, a peasanting renaissance is a very logical solution. Owning land or a garden without producing something or increasing bio diversity becomes a rude use of the global resource. Land use, lawns and concrete yards are moral issues in waiting.
Culturally there is the issue of intentionality. According to witchcraft practice, tools should be made by the user, ideally without using machines, because hand made items show more intent and determination, and therefore power. Peasanting provides the raw materials and skills required for the self made. Anyone doubting the value of the self made should visit an anthropoligical museum such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, or make a hand made Christmas card. Sometimes intention is more important than cheap and easy (cheap and easy's good as well though sometimes).
For checking out other peasents in the Forest, Yorkley Court Farm's not a bad place to start -