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.


  1. Startling statistics indeed – interesting suggestion that the Russian middle classes are producing the food for the people! - though I wonder how it compares with today, a decade on, and more than twenty years since the fall of Communism and the infiltration of Capitalism. Does Russia still experience “low globalization”? They say that a Bank Holiday in Britain makes a noticeable dent in the British economy, far less two months of the year.
    Don’t get me wrong though. The land needs people, and that is a maxim that modern economics utterly rejects, ultimately to its cost. Britain has long prided itself on its “efficient” agricultural industry – an industry which is turning large tracts of the countryside into desert. This is a fact still masked by its - currently just viable - vast inputs of artificial fertilizers and other inputs even less desirable. No agricultural system will be fully efficient unless it’s both “uneconomical” and “inefficient” – though I don’t suppose that’s something that the highly resourceful Russians need to be told! Let’s hope globalization doesn’t ever completely overtake them.

    1. I have no doubt that globalization has hit Russia, along with other features of a capitalist economy. At least as far as the large population centres are concerned. But deep in the Tiaga, the heartland, not much has changed. Food is still locally produced. Also, vegetables are still very expensive for even the average Muscovite. The new capitalism has created a highly polarized society, and the benefits have bypassed the average wage earner. For most Muscovites it still makes sense to grow one's own.

    2. I've put some details of where I got the info in my post below. Briefly it seems that point 1 "The existence of abundant cheap land." is not a problem in Russia because the government effectively confiscates parts of large estates and gives a few acres free of charge to individual would be crofters. I think it is "confiscated" as a form of death duty, which was used in a less positive way by Mr. Wilson's government in the UK in the 1960's.

  2. In 2003 the Russian President signed into law a further “Private Garden Plot Act” enabling Russian citizens to receive free of charge from the state, plots of land in private inheritable ownership. Sizes of the plots differ by region but are between one and three hectares each [1 hectare = 2.2 acres]. Produce grown on these plots is not subject to taxation. A further subsequent law to facilitate the acquisition of land for gardening was passed in June 2006. (according to a footnote in “Who We Are” by Vladimir Megre, pg. 42)....

    In 1999, 35 million small family plots produced 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 77% of vegetables, 87% of...
    And since 1999, it seems things have only got better when it comes to small-scale agriculture in Russia. In 2003 the Russian President signed into law a further “Private Garden Plot Act&...

    I found all this stuff on the Organic Gardens Network, which is a US organisation, they have a Facebook Page.

    Scotland led the UK with the freedom to roam laws and the Assynt Crofters. So the precedent exists for us to move further towards self sufficiency.

    1. Thanks for your comments Roy --- and for the original post that sent me in this direction.