Thursday, 12 April 2012
Hunger Games --- The Scottish Version
In both Gaia’s Children, and the short story, The Lottery, I speculate that in 50-100 years time Scotland will revert to being the land of small crofters, with most of the food grown on homesteads, typically a small house on a couple of acres of land. I surmised that the rising price of diesel would make large farms uneconomical. Farmers would then sell of their land, perhaps at a handsome price, to homesteaders. The same might also be accomplished through land reform : absentee lairds selling off their land to the locals. So, in the coming, warmer days, small scale food production will turn out to be more economical than today’s large scale, mechanized farms.
Science fiction? Maybe not entirely. In fact Russians demonstrated the effectiveness of small scale food production. I was recently startled to learn that in 1999, 35 million small family plots produced 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of vegetables, 87% of fruits, 59% of meat, 49% of milk.
How else did the average Russian survive the transition from communism to capitalism in the 1990s: the years of crippling inflation, stagnant or non-existent salaries and sky high food prices? Most middle class people, including residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg had a country home --- the dacha, where they worked the land on weekends. In 1995 while on assignment in St. Petersburg, I visited one --- a small cabin with a woodstove for heating, no electricity, a composting toilet, and water drawn from a nearby well. It was on an acre of land planted with root vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, every vegetable that grows. I didn't see cereal crops; those still are mostly raised on large farms.
During July and August, city offices close their doors, the employees take off for their dachas where they tend their gardens, harvest their crops and preserve them for winter. Any excess is carted off to the city and hawked by little old ladies on street corners. Russians also are avid wild mushroom hunters, and have every recipe for preserving their haul.
Dachas in Omsk
Doesn’t the idea of small scale food production as a means for sustaining a large population, fly in the face of accepted economical models? What makes dacha farming work in Russia are several factors:
1. The existence of abundant cheap land. Russia has a very low population density.
2. Limited globalization. No access to farms in Africa for example, where these days most of UK vegetables are grown.
3. Low overhead. Dacha farming needs no mechanised equipment apart from a rotavator, often shared communally.
4. No reliance on oil-sourced energy.
5. Large numbers of people doing it (35 million families).
Is this the future face of Scotland? Except for access to cheap land (Point 1), and one could argue that there’s plenty of land, just that it isn’t accessible yet, the other factors could all become the new reality once global warming kicks in, and the price of oil soars out of reach. At least in Scotland which has a lower population density than England.
I believe that the Earth is not only growing warmer, but it will continue to do so, regardless of our best efforts to change the course. If that is the case (and I wish it weren't), we need to adapt to the coming, warmer environment. Securing a reliable food supply would be a priority. Kenya's vegetable farms won’t always be there to grow our food. If not, a new paradigm is called for: communities of small scale crofters, growing their food sustainably. The Russian experience demonstrates that it is much more than a pipe dream.