SEDA Land Conversations Matrix

The Scottish Ecological Design Association has been progressing at pace with the organisation of their 6 Land Conversations. The first one will be held later today, details and booking at A New Vision for Land Use in Scotland.

Land use in Scotland and its immediate products are varied and spatially complex. They are influenced by matters of ownership and political will and a range of external agents of both human and natural origin. A matrix and decision tree are being developed as an aid to understanding the complexity.

Matrix

A matrix of land use and outputs is is intended both to help set the scene and to summarise discussion over the coming weeks. The matrix as it stands at 1200 today 1 March 2021 is shown below (Fig. 1).

Land use is divided into broad categories of energy, water, urban/industrial, wild land, rough grazing, grassland, arable land, integrated/local enterprise and forest/woodland. The columns represent a second major dimension – things that the land provides or imposes as a result of management acting within local constraints. Categories include products from the land, economy/employment, pollution/losses, wildlife/shared space and human wellbeing.

Other dimensions are indicated outside the matrix. There are factors of land ownership and political will (columns to the right, left unfinished at this stage) and external influences (grey row below). The external influences can be further divided into those that are caused mainly by human interventions, such as the import-exports balance, wars and blockades; and those that can be classed as natural phenomena, such as weather and climate, storms and volcanic eruption. Pervading the whole, but not included in the matrix as shown in Fig. 1 is the biophysical baseline – geological and climatic history, topography, soils and our location on the Atlantic fringe.

Fig. 1 Matrix of land use classes (listed left, in rows) and things provided by the land, which are not all positive (coloured blocks, columns). A further dimension of ownership and political will is indicated by the grey columns to the right and the complex and varied external influences are represented very simply by the grey row at the bottom. Click for a PDF to view detail, including notes.

Each cell in the matrix is given a simple provisional score from empty, indicating little relation between the land use type (rows) and the output (columns), and then *, ** or *** indicating increasing relation or effect.

At this stage, the categories in rows and columns and the scoring in the cells are provisional and for illustration only. They are expected to evolve during the course of the Land Conversations in the light of discussion, comments and new understanding. The development of the matrix will be charted here with acknowledgements to those who have contributed.

Decision tree: a semi-quantitative assessment tool

The matrix is also being converted to a decision tree in DEXi software [1]. Like the matrix it will evolve with the Land Conversations. An initial description showing land use categories as branches of a tree and the other dimensions listed to the right is shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 Diagram to illustrate the use of decision tree software as a means of organising the multiple dimensions of land use. The tree to the left shows the land categories, slightly modified from Fig. 1. The other dimensions, including the columns from the matrix, ownership/political will, and the various human and natural external influences are listed to the right. Each of the Other Dimensions interacts with the land use tree at many points, and any one interaction will affect other aspects of land use and other dimensions. Click for a PDF of the above.

Acknowledgements | contributions
  • SEDA and in particular Gail Halvorsen and David Seel for continued interaction over the scope and use of the matrix.
  • Will McGee from Forest Policy Group for suggesting realistic categories for the forest/woodland land use types.
Sources | references

[1] Decision models in DEXi are widely used in ecology and system studies. DEXi from Marko Bohanec at the Josef Stefan Institute, Slovenia is available to download: DEXi: a programme for multi-attribute decision making

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

[Updates – 2 March with decision tree figure and 3 March with text edits.]

Land Conversations 2021

Scottish Ecological Design Association’s Land Conversations, spring 2021. Six online discussions on the future of land use in Scotland. Including all forms of land – urban, wild, agriculture, forestry, industry. A call for people to decide the future of land in Scotland. With some recollections of earlier work with SEDA.

Back in 2012, the Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) got in touch with an invitation to join them at their annual meeting and give a presentation on some of our work on the state and future of land, particularly that used for agriculture [1]. The meeting proved to be a refreshing example of searching discussion by people with interests and professions that were mostly outwith the scientific disciplines typically associated with food and agriculture.

Following the meeting, Sam Foster from SEDA wrote an appreciative summary of the talk (left, click to see a larger version), then he and David Seel, also from SEDA, asked if we would edit an Issue of the SEDA magazine.

The issue came out in 2013 [2] and included articles from several Hutton Institute people, and also friends and collaborators in soils, ecological processes, human fallibility and their links to land use and food security (more on the issue below).

Land Conversations 2021

So David Seel’s call, seven years later, in autumn 2020, with a request to advise SEDA on their proposed series of online Land Conversations, brought back some of those memories. Over the last few months, there has been continued interaction with SEDA, mainly through Gail Halvorsen and David Seel, who are leading the Land Conversations project, and then with ex-colleagues from the Hutton Institute who will be offering their expertise. The programme for the Conversations is now published on the SEDA web site [3, and flyer below right], which gives more on the scope and purpose. Here’s why it appealed to me.

First, the coverage of land use is comprehensive. It included production land comprising agriculture, forestry, and rough grazing; wild land and rewilding; water, both visible on the surface and underground; but also urban land, industrial and residential, transport infrastructure including roads and rail, and then energy – wind, solar, hydro (fossil and nuclear coming under industry). This broad consideration will be particularly appealing to those (me included) who have repeatedly queried why even activities as close as agriculture and forestry have been treated separately in census, subsidy and planning.

https://www.seda.uk.net/land-conversations

Second, most people in SEDA, and their circle of related interests, are not specialists in food systems or land use, except where that cuts across architectural design. Yet they have an abiding interest in the future of the planet, and how things can be done differently. They also bring, in my experience to date, a professionalism and businesslike drive that derives from hi-tech, commercial business.

There is little difference, when it comes to the principles, between designing architecture and designing a food system or field [4].

The science of food and agriculture has tended to produce many reports and papers that summarise the present status and what needs to be done, but not enough (my view!) of integrated planning and putting that planning into practice. Special meetings and working groups, all charged with redefining policy, commonly achieve less that what is needed, often due to vested interests pulling in different ways.

There will be little progress until enough people come together to act and demand. The Conversations and their aftermath should make a major contribution to such progress.

In the meantime, some mild effort is going into structuring diagrams and decision trees based around each of the six Conversations (examples of which will appear on this site over the next few weeks).

The 2013 SEDA ISSUE on SOIL and natural capitaL

The conclusions of the talk at the SEDA AGM in 2012 were based on much field work on farm land, augmented by modelling and analysis over many years. The long history of agriculture and food production here was acknowledged, as was the diverse range of farming systems and the high productivity of the region, as good as anything else in north-west Europe. But the talk exposed threats due to the way some land is treated and to the dominance of external influences.

The field-based threats reside mainly in excessive intensification, which continued after the main phase of agricultural yield gain, 1960-1990, but with very little further increase in yield. The result was accelerating disruption of the essential cycles of energy and matter (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.), leading to soil degradation, loss of functional biodiversity, and then loss of pollutants to water and to air as greenhouse gas emissions from both arable and livestock farming.

External influences arise from the pressures to serve national and international markets, ill-thought subsidy regimes and the late 1900s divorce between society and farming. The many consequences of such pressure included a degree of decoupling of much farming from food production, payment for destructive practices, money in the food chain going more to manufacturing and retail than the producer, and the country’s continued reliance on imports to guarantee food security.

Action needed at all scales

The solution required action at a wide range of scales, but the essential scale for future provision of food in decades and centuries to come must be that of the field. Fields must be treated not as an expendable workspace, but acknowledged as a complex ‘organism’, whose health and survival needs constant attention. Degrade the field and land will not feed the people when they next have to rely on it.

The choices may seem stark – but to continue as at present is not an option. There are many examples in Britain and abroad of very well managed land and rural enterprises that turn a profit [5]. One example that repeatedly comes to mind is a small tea plantation in Sri Lanka, visited in the 1991 [6]. The image below shows full ground cover of young tea, planted on mini-contours, shaded by several species and ages of tree. The trees provide shelter from sun and rain and most of them are legumes, fixing nitrogen from the air and otherwise stabilising and enriching the soil.

Contrast that with the field in the inset, not far away, in the same climate and on a similar slope, but ill-managed with no contouring and no cover, ensuring severely eroded soil and virtually no yield. In this case, the terminal state of this farmed land was due to poor management that had its origin in past politics.

The experience with SEDA in 2012 and 2013, including some joint writing with Sam Foster and David Seel, gave me a greater appreciation of ecological design in architecture. The understanding of the sun, the seasons and solar energy is an example – vital to modelling agricultural crops, grass and trees but also to the positioning of buildings and their windows [7].

The influence of architectural design and planning rubbed off onto our own research on design of ecological production systems. It strengthened my view of a system-first or system-led rather than innovation-led approach to the future of food production [8].

Sources / references / links / notes

[1] Presentation at the SEDA Annual General Meeting 2012: Design: crops, biodiversity and fragile ecosystems by G R Squire. Thanks to Mary Kelly for the kind invitation.

[2] SEDA Issue Spring 2013: Soil and Natural Capital. Available to members only. The issues contained articles from several Hutton Institute people including Cathy Hawes and Ed Baxter and also an appreciation of LEAF Linking Environment and Farming by GS. Page 2 of this article, in progress, will give a summary of the talk.

[3] A New Vision for Land Use in Scotland : 6 conversations – more at the Land Conversations pages of the SEDA web site.

[4] Design of arable and grassland systems based on bio-physical principles is far from new, being evident for example in the structuring of rig systems before 1700 and of multi-species grass-legumes mixtures in the 1800s. But by the end of intensification in the 1990s, the functioning and health of many fields in mainstream agriculture had been left to mis-chance, unsafe in the notion that they had been there for a long time and would remain however they were treated. Biophysical design continued to guide various ‘agro-ecological’ farming methods and increasingly does so, but they remain a minority. A well designed field has its main stores (of energy, carbon and plant nutrients) in balance and regulates fluxes between them, such that (for example) offtake is replenished and losses are minimal. Management achieves this by ensuring synergy and coexistence between the microbes, wild plants and invertebrates that determine the integrity of a field and the economic products (crops, grass, livestock) that they periodically sustain.

[5] One of the articles in the SEDA Issue of 2013 was on the early history and principles of LEAF Linking Environment and Farming. The James Hutton Institute, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute before it, was a LEAF Innovation Centre. LEAF is a broad church, with few rigid prescriptions, encouraging farming to move gradually to forms of sustainable management. The UK hosts a range of progressive farming organisations, some of which, including LEAF, will partake in the Land Conversations.

[6] For much of the 1980s and until 1992, self-employment in land use (measurement, assessment, recommendation) paid the bills. A visit to Sri Lanka to appraise some of the research there gave a unique opportunity to see some of the best (and the worst) of land management. But to be fair, the worst of land management can be found in almost any country.

[7] One of the most authoritative and accessible descriptions of the annual solar cycle, including the effects of the earth’s tilt and elliptical orbit round the sun, is given by an architect: Szokolay S.V. 1996 (rev 2007). Solar geometry. Passive and Low Energy Architecture International (PLEA) and Department of Architecture, University of Queensland.

[7] The contrast between innovation-led and system-led approaches to design was debated through EU projects such as AMIGA on environmental risk assessment. The prevailing approach to risk assessment was (and a to a large degree still is) innovation-led. An innovation such as a biotech crop or new crop-protection chemical is examined for its safety, but usually in comparison to current practice within an existing system. Such a comparison came to be considered (in our view) flawed if the existing system was itself not safe, for example if its soils and functional diversity were degrading. Far better then to define an ideal ‘safe’ system first and then consider which innovations would be needed to help move the existing system to this safe state.

Page 2 (in progress)

Interlacing: lessons for seed mixes today?

“… an allowance is made for interlacing.”

Stebler and Schröter’s 1889 handbook on grass and legume species and mixtures. Their method of estimating seed rate for each species in a mix. Was the recommendation of over-seeding justified? Lessons for regenerating complex forages today. An article in the series on crop-grass diversification.

Imagine … you’re making a complex seed mixture by combining seed of each of the constituent species or varieties. You work out the best combination of species for the field – three or four for one-year’s hay and maybe 15 for long-term pasture – then gauge the ideal proportion of each in the resulting hay or pasture, e.g. 20% ryegrass, 10% red clover, and so on up to 100%. 

Four of the colour plates by L Schröter in The Best Forage Plants: left to right, kidney vetch, meadow foxtail, sweet vernal and alsike.

It was a complicated task. The composition of each species – in terms of protein, fat, fibre and so on – had to be known so that the mix would satisfy the purpose, whether hay or pasture, sheep or cattle. The amount of nutrients that each species would need from the soil had to be estimated. For example, a nutrient-demanding species might have a hard time in a nutrient poor soil or else starve other, less demanding species. Then the proportion of each species in the mix had to be calculated. And all this before science and farming were fully aware of soil-plant processes such as symbiotic nitrogen fixation. 

A major contribution to knowledge at that time was the work of FG Stebler in Switzerland. His book – The Best Forage Plants [1] – was written in German, co-authored by botanist C Schröter, translated into English by McAlpine [2] and the translation published in 1889.

There was great interest in grass-legume mixtures at that time. A shift from arable to grass had begun in Britain, initiated by serial bad weather and crop failure, coupled with unbridled cheap corn imports from the USA. It was the start of a long-term slump in arable farming and a rise in pasture husbandry [3]. 

The book described 30 species in detail: 21 grass and 9 legumes. Most would have been familiar in mixtures used in Britain, with few exceptions such as the legume Galega officinalis which they named Officinal Goat’s-rue (‘officinal’ because of its medicinal use in parts of Europe). 

Officinal Goat’s-rue, one of many colour plates by L Schröter in The Best Forage Plants, indigenous to south-east Europe but grown widely as a medicinal and forage, having a preference for warmth and deep soil, rarely sown as a forage in Britain.
How much seed of each grass and legumes species for a mixture

Stebler’s recommendations on seed rate (weight per acre) were not without controversy. He worked out from many field trials the seed mass of each species that would be needed to cover and produce good growth on an acre of field: for example, 38.6 lbs for perennial rye-grass, 18.5 lbs of cocksfoot, 22 lbs of lucerne and 15.8 lbs of red clover. (To convert to today’s units, 1 lb is 0.454 kg and 1 acre is 0.405 hectare.) So 7.72 lb of perennial ryegrass seed would be needed if its proportion was 20%.

His method went further by recommending that more seed of each component should be added than estimated by such simple proportion. The extra seed ranged from 10% to 80%, but was typically 50%. The reasoning was that the species in a mix occupy different parts of the space: roots exploring either deep or shallow soil layers, for example; or some species leafing early in the year, others later. 

This is what Findlay [4] in 1925, commenting on Stebler, meant by interlacing. The quote at the top of the page, from Findlay reads “As the roots and leaves of the different ingredients do not occupy the same places …. an allowance is made for interlacing.”

Grass specialists appreciated that roots and leaves of different species interlace: they enter each other’s space, they co-occupy ground. Several species might occupy the same area of ground but in doing so they are not always competing for the same resource or if they are then it is not in the same place or time. 

Is overseeding a waste?

Findley appreciated what Stebler meant, but went on to criticise the method. He wrote “at no time is there any connection between the proportion of the seeds sown and of the plants either in the hay or in the pasture”, and gave the example that a competitive grass will oust an uncompetitive one regardless of the proportions in the mix. 

Findlay was right in principle: the extent and type of interlacing depend on how the species react to each other in the local conditions. Yet over-seeding is not without merit. The aim of a seed mix was to get more mass or nutrition than could be had from any species grown alone. Stebler said that to do this you had to sow more seed of each component than that based on simple proportion. 

Take the very simple example of a 50:50 mix containing one grass or cereal and one legume. The legume fixes its own nitrogen (N) from the air, so will take little from the soil. Consequently, the cereal or grass has most of the soil N to itself, but if it were only sown at 50% of what it would take to cover the ground alone, then it might have a hard time extending its roots to get the N throughout the whole soil space, which includes that ‘under’ the legume. Therefore (Stebler would say) it should be sown at more than half the seed rate needed to grow it alone. 

That’s not the full story because the two species would also compete for other resources – solar radiation, water, the macro- and micro-nutrients. In a 15-20 species mix for permanent pasture, very many interactions would occur between the types, and some would result in the elimination of species. The ones that went would not be the same in all soils and climates. One purpose of a mix therefore was to build in redundancy, such that the mix would still perform well even if some components disappeared.  

Awnless Brome Grass, now named Bromopsis inermis Ssp. inermis, one of the many plates by L Schröter in the Best Forage Plants, capable on poor, drying soils, widely grown in Europe, also previously in Britain, but now rare here as a sown forage.
Postscript – Stebler’s influence ?

In his preface to the translation into English, McAlpine had the view that Stebler & Schröter, now accessible to English readers, would be seen as a major work of agriculture, leading to ‘a revolution in the forage culture of Great Britain’. Further on, he writes ‘I do not hesitate to affirm that if Stebler be destined as I believe he is to become a power in agriculture the effect will be to increase the production of good forage and to improve the practice of this most important branch of farming.’ 

Yet Findley in 1925 [3] found Stebler’s methods deficient in several respects and did not endorse them.  Whatever Stebler and Schröter’s influence on British forage might have been in the 1890s, it did not last. After the mid-1900s, mineral fertiliser would come to supply most of the nutritional needs of grass and supplant forage legumes such as clovers and trefoils. As described elsewhere, the diversity of grass forages became poor and probably the knowledge of how to manage multi-species grassland faded [5]. 

Recent decades have seen a part-reversal of that trend, in that grass-legume mixtures are increasingly available from seed merchants. Some of the mixtures are intended for grazed swards but the emphasis seems to be on restoration for wildlife conservation. 

The lesson from Stebler is that the basis of estimating seed rate in a mixed crop or pasture might need to be reconsidered. In many parts of the world, however, seed is not plentiful. The choice has to be made: eat the grain now or keep it to sow for the next crop.

To come …. More on Stebler & Schroter’s Tables on the nutritional value and needs of grass versus legumes. 

Sources / references

[1] Stebler FG, Schröter C. ‘The Best Forage Plants’. Translated into English by A N McAlpine, 1889. Publisher: Nutt, London. Available to read online through Google Books. The illustrations of grasses, some reproduced here, were by L Schröter, brother of the second author. A review of the book, Wrightson J. (1889). A Review of The Best Forage Crops. Nature 39, 578-579, tells readers that the treatise omits the common fodder crops such as vetches and brassicas, and deals mainly with pasture grass mixtures. 

[2] A N McAlpine, the translator of Stebler & Schröter into English, was Professor of Botany, New Veterinary College Edinburgh and Botanist to the Highland and Agricultural Society. 

[3] curved flatlands article: Food security in the pandemic.

[4] Findlay, W M. 1925. Grassland in Scotland. In ‘Farm Crops’ edited by W G R Paterson. The Gresham Publishing Company, London. 

[5] curvedflatlands articles: Grass mix diversity a century past – for reference to books by RH Elliott and H Stevens; and 1800s mixed crops – lessons from the Agrostographia – gives examples of the Lawson’s (Edinburgh) crop and grass mixtures. 

Acknowledement Thanks to K Owen for allowing the use of her depictions of interlacing on Pictish symbol stones.

Food security in the pandemic

Not long into the 2020 pandemic, Pete Ritchie from Nourish Scotland, wrote a blog [1] putting the case that once the initial panic has receded, the international food system would adapt, the empty shelves would be re-stocked and no one in this country ought to go hungry. Nourish, through their blogs, web sites and conferences are at pains to point out that no one should go hungry in the UK because of shortage of food. Should they be hungry or malnourished, it would be due to other factors, such as social inequality, not the amount of food available.

Nourish were correct, but they were not giving the thumbs up to the current state. The blog writes that the food system – “ … generates massive environmental damage, monumental food waste, exploitative work practices and a disastrous mismatch between what we need to eat for health and what we are being sold.”

Dysfunction and mismatch are not simply other people’s problems. The blog continues – “ …..it would be good if Scotland were to produce more of what it eats, and eat more of what it produces.”

The blog raises the greater issue of the choices that can be made – whether to create a more equitable food system or stay with the current dysfunctional mix of hunger and plenty. Analysis by the Food Foundation [2] shows the pandemic is driving more people into malnutrition and hunger: the food is there but many people are unable to afford it or get to it.

Yet on the continuity of supply during the pandemic, the food system has adapted. Would the same be true following any global emergency?

The food-feed system is resilient ….. but it could fail

The food system was able to recover because of particular features of this pandemic. Farming and food stocks in most parts of the world have been little affected so far. Only a few of the food supply chains have been seriously disrupted [3].  It is too soon to say whether more will be affected if lockdown and social distancing continue, but the chances are they will not be. However, other global crises could have far greater consequences.  

A diagram (Fig. 1) is used to illustrate how food and feed systems are sensitive to global events. The system is divided into four parts (Ag-economy, Ecosystem, Primary production and Food-origin) and each of these into two further parts. Of course food systems are much more complex than this: these particular sectors are shown to illustrate how vulnerable the system can be when things get out of balance.

The particular quality of this pandemic is that it has not had a severe effect on any of the parts in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1 Food production simplified for illustration into four sectors, each of two unequal parts.

The agricultural economy, shortened to Ag-economy is split into farms and related businesses that are viable in terms of making a profit and those that only exist with support, for example through subsidy, such as provided by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy [4]. The viable fraction is smaller than the supported. (This is true for most of the UK and large parts of Europe.)

The Ecosystem provides for agriculture (nutrients, air, water, biological pest control) and needs agriculture to nurture it. Its essential parts, including soils, food webs, biodiversity, and the cycles of energy, carbon, nitrogen and water, can be described as in a state of either building or degrading. While some parts of the cropland ecosystem are at least holding steady if not building, most parts are degrading, in terms for example of declining soil quality, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and inability to regulate water flows.

Primary production is the fixing of carbon dioxide from the air into plant matter by photosynthesis.  In Scotland, production land is divided into managed pasture for hay or grazing and another sector here named feedstocks, which refers to the dominant use of arable land to supply grain for alcohol and livestock feed, rather than staple food directly for humans [5]. The arable also produces oats, potato, fruit and vegetables, but the land area planted with these crops is small compared to the rest. Feedstock land covers less area than pasture. A large part of the products of agriculture go to export, for example as whisky and quality meat.

Food-origin is divided into that produced locally and that produced somewhere else and imported. Imports of food are essential for the UK and its constituent parts because much of farmland supports agricultural exports and livestock feed. Nourish Scotland’s Food Atlas shows around 60% of food consumed in Scotland is imported, but imports account for almost all of some types of food such as bread [6].

So there are four parts in the diagram, each given one quarter of the pie chart, and within each quarter, one of the parts is shown larger than the other. (Exactly how much larger does not matter for the illustration.) It is these imbalances make the food system vulnerable to external events.

Vulnerabilities

The tensions in and between Primary production and in Food-origin primarily determine whether a society can resist and adapt to global crises. Cereals and legumes have been the foundation of all settled societies. It is the balance between local and external sources of these, particularly the cereals, that most strongly determines vulnerability of a food system. 

In a subsistence agricultural economy, these staples are produced locally. Hunger and starvation may happen if agriculture is threatened by bad weather or an insect plague. As societies develop, they usually grow more products for export, which along with trade in mined and manufactured materials, raises wealth. That wealth allows them to import food and feed. A combination of local produce and imports then offers resilience to poor local harvests. If, however, the move to an export agriculture goes too far, then the society becomes reliant on imports for its staple food and therefore vulnerable to anything that affects imports. That is the state of the food system in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The position is bleaker in reality because the four quarters of the diagram are connected. The international food system presently provides much of the staple diet, leaving Primary production free to concentrate on products for overseas markets. The intensity of agriculture in a competitive world is driving degradation of the Ecosystem, while an indifference of politics and society to the Ag-economy leads to low food prices and dependence on subsidy. 

Most major global cataclysms would be likely to cause serious disruption to the food supply in these circumstances. Blockade, for example: assume for whatever reason, imports stop suddenly due to the country being blockaded. Local production could not supply the needs of the people for food. The same would happen if natural phenomena damaged agriculture in those parts of the world that grow the food we rely on.

The right balance

The balance of imports and exports is crucial to food security, but lessons from the last 150 years show the complexity of it – there is no single solution.

The agricultural depression of the 1880s

The depression that began in the 1880s was a consequence of bad weather and cheap imports flooding the home market. The weather of 1879 was among the worst recorded. In Scotland livestock died on a massive scale, grain harvests were 20-40 days late in starting, wheat yields were 50-70% of the average and many cereal and tuber crops failed [7].  Shortage might have meant higher prices to keep farming solvent, but not this time. Grain produced elsewhere, was imported to fill the gap, and a downward spiral begun of poor home yields, more cheap imports and arable land converted to grass. Symon [7] compared wheat prices: 64s. 5d. a quarter in 1867, half that 20 years later, then down to 23 s. in the 1890s, the lowest for two centuries (s., shillings; d. pence).

Most parts of the UK were affected. Thirsk [8] writes: “A dramatic collapse of grain prices occurred in 1879, and continued in 1880, 1881 and 1882. Wet and cold seasons ruined one harvest after another, without bringing the usual compensation to farmers in higher prices. Instead, cheap grain flooded in from North America, and farmers were warned that if American supply fell short, then Australia could send much more.”

The main lesson of this time was that local yields were insufficient, but it was the unbridled agricultural imports drove home farming into deeper depression. A second lesson is that global events have a long reach. The areas of the main arable crops all declined from the 1880s and some kept declining until the 1930s, trends that affected the country’s ability to feed itself when imports were threatened.

Insufficiency in 1914 and again in 1939

The freedom to import food at the expense of local production continued after 1900. In 1914-1915 the government failed to appreciate the scale of the impending problem of food shortage due to restricted imports. Symon [7] writes that it was well into the war before defeat by starvation was considered possible and urgent action necessary to ensure food security. The author goes on to lament the lack of a plan, an unrealistic attitude and a ‘mood of complacency’ towards agriculture and food supply. Matters did improve, the State took control, and agricultural output increased. But self-sufficiency in food was never assured throughout this period.  Even after it, and contrary to pledges made, free trade in food returned and again drove down farming.

The response in 1939 was more immediate and effective than that 25 years earlier, but massive changes had to be made: the conversion of much grass to arable, restrictions on which crops could be given mineral fertiliser, rebalancing different types of livestock, adapting to a shortage of labour on farms and imposing food rationing [7]. The combined result of many such changes was positive in that total output and yield per unit area increased in most crops. Technology advanced also: farming became aware again of the need to apply lime to reduce acidity, to balance the main mineral fertilisers, to sow improved crop varieties and to rely less on the horse and more on tractors for cultivation. But even though writers like Symon felt the changes introduced in the early 1940s were positive for agriculture, the main technological advances in farming were yet to come.

The Agricultural Expansion programme and intensification

After the food insecurities of the 1940s, a post-war Agricultural Expansion Programme was initiated to raise production. The programme worked. It was aided by improvements in machinery, agronomy, and crop yield potential, but also a shift in areas sown to main cereals, oats being replaced by barley and wheat over much of the country [9].  Despite a rising population, the country was able in the 1960s to feed itself. Yet within a few decades, it was again dependent on food imports. Did it return to the 1880s – in one respect, yes, because the food system again took advantage of low-cost food imports, often of poor quality and nutritional value. In another respect, it was different: production was not lacking, as it was after 1878, but turned its attention away from food.

The choice

In an uncertain world, a country needs to keep its borders open for trade, both ways. But it also needs to ensure it can feed itself if it has to.

The balance needs to be redrawn: local production raised, more food than feedstocks, a shift to building rather than degrading the ecosystem and paying a fair rate for food to remove dependence on subsidy. All this is possible.

More about the topics raised here can be viewed online [10]. The Living Field web site also publishes related articles and notes [11].

Sources, references

[1] Nourish Scotland. 2020 Making the food supply chain work for everyone. By Pete Ritchie, 24 March 2020.

[2] The Food Foundation published some recent statistics on 22 May 2020: Food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown https://foodfoundation.org.uk/vulnerable-groups/

[3] Seafood in Scotland is one sector that suffered severe disruption due to the pandemic. The disruption in this case was caused to a large extent by an imbalance between export and home consumption. Most of the catch (80%) was exported, so when international trade was reduced or closed, the only sectors open to it were UK catering and retail. Then the restaurants closed and major UK food retailers shut their fresh fish counters. More at Seafood Scotland on the Crisis Stricken Seafood Sector.

[4] The EU web site gives a summary of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. The James Hutton Institute produced major reports on CAP Greening measures, available for download at Land Systems Research Team. GS structured the main arguments of a Scottish Government CAP Greening Review in the form of a decision tree at Greening with decision trees.

[5] The areas of land used to grow pasture and arable or horticultural crops is detailed on the Scottish Government web site at Agricultural Statistics in Scotland. This (curvedflatlands) web site gives links to further data on food and agriculture at the Scottish Parliament Citizen’s Jury pages.

[6] Food Atlas http://www.nourishscotland.org/resources/food-atlas/

[7] Symon J A. 1959. Scottish Farming – past and present. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh and London, UK.

[8] Thirsk J. 1997. Alternative agriculture – a history from the Black Death to the present day. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

[9] A brief history of changing areas and yields of oats, barley and wheat over the past 150 years on this web site at Three grain resilience.

[10] To find out more about local food systems, try these organisations: Scottish Food Coalition and their Campaign for a Good Food Nation; the Food Foundation https://foodfoundation.org.uk/ and Scotland the Bread.

[11] Living Field articles: City University’s food systems diagram: Five spheres around the food chain, and a look at the 10 crops from across the world that go into a simple meal of Beans on Toast revisited.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@outlook.com

1800s mixed crops – lessons from the Agrostographia

The 1800s, especially the first three quarters of it, was a period of notable invention and experiment, building on the gains from the first phase of Improvement that began a century earlier. Mixtures of crops, of grass and of crops and grass together are repeatedly referenced in the various books and manuals published throughout the period.

Several of these mixtures are examined here, as possible pointers and templates for modern attempts to re-diversify agriculture. The main sources are those published by the Lawsons, seed merchants based in Edinburgh, notably their Agrostographia [1, 2], which appeared in various forms from 1833 to 1877. For example –

  • barley-sainfoin (cereal-legume) mixture, the barley sown as a ‘nurse’, sainfoin drilled at right angles to the barley (a line intercrop?)
  • barley-oat-weld, the first two harvested after the first season, the weld yielding the next year.
  • within-species field bean varietal mixtures.
  • legume-legume, for example, field bean and vetch/tare.
  • barley, oat or any corn sown with grass as a nurse to protect the more valuable grass-legume sward.

As in other articles on this web site about our cool-climate mixtures, all crops were sown as seed mixes rather than line or row intercrops (with the possible exception of barley-sainfoin).

Barley-sainfoin gridded at drilling

When considering which dicot forages to recommend, Agrostographia suggested that sainfoin Onobrychis sativa could be grown in several parts of Scotland, though it was primarily grown in more southern climates. It likes a ‘dry’ and well drained soil, and was also recommended as an addition to their perennial pasture mix on calcareous soil.

Barley and sainfoin are sown together, drilled at right angles, the barley growing quickly, ‘nursing’ the other, then harvested in late summer for grain or fodder. Sainfoin overwinters in the barley stubble, then grows into a full forage crop the next year, when it is cut for fodder. It regrows and is repeatedly cut for several years. Original drawings by K Owen.

As a sole forage, it sometimes suffered in the first year. Therefore to aid establishment, the Lawsons pointed out the practice of sowing a nurse crop, such as barley, first. Then in those situations where that crop was drilled, the sanfoin was drilled at right angles to it, in effect forming a grid, rows of sainfoin crossing rows of barley. The barley was harvested in the first year, as cereal grain or forage crop, leaving the sainfoin to over-winter as a small plant, then extend and flower the next year. It would have been cut one or more times in the summer of the second year, after which it became a perennial forage.

This practice presumably prevented the second drilling (that of the sainfoin) from interfering too much with the first. It might have created an interesting pattern if the drills were reasonably wide apart.

Unlike many mixed crops, the aim of this one was to encourage the legume to establish. Barley would have been sown at a smaller seed weight per acre than when sown for a sole crop, so as to form enough cover to protect the sainfoin without completely denying it light and nutrients. It is unclear whether any particular advantage came to the barley, since it would grow much faster than sainfoin in the first year. No information is available from that time on nodulation in the legume and whether it released any fixed nitrogen when the barley needed it. In recent experience, sainfoin grows luxuriantly at 58N, withstanding the mild maritime winters without any obvious setback [4].

Field bean variety mixtures

In their Agriculturists’ Manual (1836) and the later Synopsis (1852), the Lawsons’ list varieties of Vicia faba of which the main one grown at that time was named Common Scottish or Horse Bean. They write: “Beans enter the rotation of cropping in the early districts of Scotland, and are very successfully cultivated on all strong soils, forming an excellent preparation for wheat. The straw or haulm forms nutritious food for horses during the winter and spring months.”

This comment – on the successful cultivation of beans – contrasts with the decline in area of this crop, along with many other arable crops, during the economic depression after 1880 when agriculture made one of its shifts to grass, on this occasion because of low global grain prices.

Page from the Lawsons’ Synopsis of 1852 showing the description for Common Scottish or Horse bean, the 295th entry (after the cereals but before the forages and fruits).

The point of interest here is the comment of what appear to be crop variety mixtures, identified by the range of flower colour. The wording in the above is little different from that given in the earlier 1836 Agriculturist’s Manual, and extract of which is given below.

The authors could not be certain that the fields they referred to were intentionally sown mixtures. Many of them would have been landraces, maintained by farm-saved seed, or seed impurities or even ‘volunteers’ (which arise from seeds shed by a previous crop and emerging in the current crop). Certainly, faba bean today readily gives rise to short-lived volunteer populations on waysides and in fields of other broadleaf crops..

This note from the Lawsons’ experience shows that despite the seedsman’s quest for purity in seed stocks, diversity was hard to eradicate.

Barley-oat-weld – grain and dyestuff

The plant weld Reseda luteola was once cultivated widely for the yellow dye that can be extracted from its leaves, stems and flowers. Weld as a commercial product has been replaced by imported dyestuffs, but it remains a common wild plant, sometimes growing by roads and especially on wasteland and old industrial sites.

As a crop, it was typically sown in spring along with a corn, such as oats or barley. When they were harvested in autumn, the weld was left to overwinter, then harvested the next year. The plants “are pulled when in flower, or before the seed is fully ripe, and used either in a green or dry state” [3]. Thirsk [5], writing about weld cultivation in 1600s England, relates a similar sequence: barley or oats sown (sometimes buckwheat), weld harrowed in, the corn harvested in autumn and the weld “pulled up by the roots, dried and stored the next year”; and then an usual variation in Kent, weld undersown in barley, the field used for grazing in autumn and the weld again harvested the next summer.

The diagram shows barley and oat grown as a corn mixture, weld seedlings growing beneath them in the first year then weld plants flowering among the corn stubble the next summer [4].

Barley, oat and weld sown as a mixture in spring, the two cereals growing more quickly and harvested during the first summer for grain or fodder, weld much slower and lower. Weld over-winters as a ‘rosette’ then extends the next spring into a flowering plant, harvested green for dyestuff. Original drawings by K Owen.

Two legumes: field bean and common vetch

Agrostographia also describes an unusual mixture – the bean Vicia faba and a forage legume, common vetch Vicia sativa (also known as common tare). Common vetch, as were many other vetches and tares from the genus Vicia, was grown as a commercial fodder crop. Its cultivated forms were reported to be different from the smaller and more slender local wild form. The Synopsis [3] distinguishes the common or summer variety from the winter variety, and also the Hopetoun Tare, which appears to be a landrace selected from a field of the summer variety.

Common vetch was grown as a green fodder and also for seed. Agrostographia describes two types of crop mixture. In one, the vetch is sown with cereals. Agrostographia writes: “The practice of sowing one or other of the cereal grasses (oats or barley) among Tares is strongly recommended, not only as it ensures a greater bulk of produce from the stems of the grains rising above the Tares, but they also serve to prevent them lying on the ground, and so becoming injured in damp weather; cattle are also fonder of the fodder in a mixed than in an mixed state.” It appears from this statement that the mixed crop has at least three advantages: more grain from the cereals, support to keep the vetch off the soil and a more nutritious (balanced) fodder.

In the other mixture, vetch is grown with field bean. Two legumes – but the benefit of sowing them a mixture is unclear. Agrostographia: “When sown for their ripe seed, the Summer Tare is generally mixed with beans, or peas and beans, in the proportion of about a fourth part in bulk, or less …”. In contrast, the winter vetch, sown in autumn for seeds, was said to be generally sown alone, but the manual advises they should be sown with winter bean – “… the seeds being easily separated from the beans, when thrashed, by means of a proper sized riddle”. The beans must have given the vetch support as did the cereal crop in the other type of mixture, but what benefit came to the beans?

Corn as a nurse for grass

The main type of mixture described in Agrostographia was that of ‘grass’ comprising grasses, legumes and other dicot (broadeaf) plants. These highly diverse seed mixtures were generally more valuable and more costly to establish than crop mixes, but also more open to damage in the weeks and months after they were sown. To help grass mixtures to establish, they were sown with a corn crop, oats or barley, which was harvested or grazed after it had done its job of nursing the grass seedlings.

More on grass mixtures and corn nurses is given at Grass mix diversity a century past. Further articles on this theme are in preparation.

.

Sources, references, links

[1] Agrostographia; a treatise on the cultivated grasses and other herbage and forage plants. Authors: The Lawson Seed and Nursery Company. Successors to Peter Lawson and Son. Date: 1877 (6th Edition, by David Syme, Manager). Publisher: William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. Online through sources such as the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Information in the Agrostographia was first published in 1833, though not under that name, and then as part of The Agriculturist’s Manual in 1836 [3].

[2} Agrostographia as a title is of much older origin, being that of a major compendium on grasses written in Latin, by or edited by, Johannes Scheuchzer (1684-1738), published 1719, edition of 1775 viewed. Scheuchzer is credited with being a founder of the science of Agrostology – the study of grasses.

[3] The Lawsons’ Agriculturist’s Manual (1836) and Synopsis (1852), the latter an expanded version of the Manual, are invaluable sources for 1800s crops and their varieties, both available online, e.g. through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Details:

The Agriculturist’s Manual. Peter Lawson and Son 1836. Edinburgh, London and Dublin. Being a familiar description of the Agricultural Plants Cultivated in Europe including practical observations respecting those suited to the Climate of Great Britain; and forming A Report of Lawson’s Agricultural Museum in Edinburgh (Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland).

Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son. Prepared for the Great Exhibition and dedicated to William Jackson Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew.  

[4] Sainfoin was grown in the Living Field garden at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, for several years. It grew slowly in the first year but overwintered successfully and then flowered in the second and subsequent years. Weld grows easily at the Living Field, either flowering the same year as sowing or overwintering and flowering the next year. A mixture of oat, barley and weld was sown on one occasion but the weld failed!

[5] Thirsk J. 1997. Alternative agriculture: a history – from the Black Death to the Present Day. Oxford University Press.

Non-serious depiction of a barley-sainfoin mixture to show the practice of drilling barley in one direction then drilling sainfoin at right angles. Described in Agrostographia 1877. Images from plants grown in the Living Field Garden, Dundee.

Soil: Healing the Skin

The Centre for Human Ecology based in Glasgow held two events in January 2020 on extractivism. One of the events was on mining, the other on cultivation of soil.

Invading the Skin of the Earth: Soil held on 23 January showed two short films on early cultivation in Scotland following by two talks and a discussion. Further links to the Centre’s events is given at the Eventbrite page – Invading the skin of the earth: soil. The Centre asked me to give one of the talks.

Our research in recent times has looked at the way degraded soil can be repaired. Since soil is alive, the process can be described as healing rather than reparation or restoration.

Healing the skin – bandage and ointment

The earth’s skin, the soil, is badly punctured and abraded in many parts due to harmful cultivation and growing practices.  The skin needs to be healed and like human skin it can be healed through bandage and ointment.

The talk considers the main threats to soil – chronic and cataclysmic – then summarises briefly the state of soils in Scotland.  Research has shown that healing will need much greater effort and attention that is presently being given. Healing is nevertheless possible and, in the UK, a damaged soil can be well on the way back to to health within 5 years.

Bandage and ointment? Bandages can be applied in the form of mulches, undersowings and careful crop sequencing – there is little need for bare soils exposed to the elements.  Ointments are not so much rubbed on the surface but deposited or exuded into the soil, first by plants (though not usually the main crops) and then by microbes and invertebrates that process the plant matter.

People and government can influence the treatment of soil here by supporting agro-ecological farming and outlawing damaging practices. They can also reduce harm to soil in other countries by choosing not to buy imported food and feed from unsustainable farming systems. Are we willing to mine other peoples’ resources to spare our own, or just complacent?

An annotated version of the presentation is available here. Healing the skin: bandage and ointment by G R Squire. Presentation given at a meeting on Invading the skin of the earth: Soil hosted by the Centre for Human Ecology, Glasgow, 23 January 2020. PDF file 2.3 kb.

Eroded and broken – a thin line of organic soil supporting scrub vegetation, a few roots penetrating the red layer: in Myanmar (Burma) 2014.

Background and sources

The talk touches on several matters that might be helpful to those wanting to learn more about soil degradation and healing, so additional pages are included given with the following content:

  • Background: lessons from the US dust bowl, 1930s – gross misuse and mismanagement of land,  the resulting movement for soil conservation led by Bennett and the USDA, the possibility of recurrence, Woody Guthrie’s dust bowl songs (link below to page 2).
  • Background: lesson from cultivation of soil in Scotland – signs and pathways of erosion; causes in tilled and grassed land; state of agricultural soil and the possibilities for repair (link to page 3).
  • The prescience of art – from recent exhibitions – Leonardo da Vinci’s fine anatomical drawings contrasting with deluge and cataclysm; and William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (page 4).

Page 1 – Introduction (this page)

Page 2 – Lessons from the US Dust Bowl – click [2]

Page 3 – Lessons from Scotland – click [3]

Page 4 – The prescience of art – Blake and da Vinci – click [4]

[This page first published 23 January 2020; revised with minor edits 22 March 2020]

annular ciphers, keys and decision trees

Annular designs, comprising a set of concentric rings, have been used as keys and ciphers for hundreds, even thousands of years. They arrange and compress information into a compact form that may be  readily portable, for example on paper or light ceramic. Annular designs have been used variously as a secret code, a memory-system, a focus for meditation, a botanical key and a comparator of microbial genomes. 

Why the specific interest? Over the last few years, we have been looking at ways to condense decision trees [1] having many branches, nodes and leaves  into a more compact form. The first attempt, to be described later on these pages, was for a decision tree on environmental risk assessment. Present developments include a decision tree and general guide for use in planning sustainable agriculture and food. 

Browsing a range of sources revealed several devices of this type that were designed for practical usage. Interest arises in the mechanisms by which the user moved from one ring to another. Here is one of them, used primarily as a botanical key.

Ciba-Geigy Weed Tables

A device published 1968 (1975 in English) by the company Ciba-Geigy Ltd, Basle, Switzerland is a classic of annular design. It is a botanical key (Fig. 1). It accompanies a set of exceptional botanical paintings of some major weeds of the world. 

Fig. 1 Photograph of the design from a library copy of the Weed Tables. 

A note attributes text and layout to Ernst Hafliger and artwork to Hanspeter Eisenhut. The design was a supplement to the Ciba-Geigy Weed Tables, a compendium of major weeds of the world. It was found within a box, sat among books in the ‘weeds’ section of the Hutton Institute Library at Invergowrie, Dundee. It was probably bought at the time of the ‘weeds group’ in the previous Scottish Crop Research Institute. 

The key begins in the centre with the seed leaves (cotyledons, one or two), then moves through foliage leaves, flowers, stamens and carpels (Fig. 2) to reach one of the plant families (e.g. Polygonaceae, Chenopodiaceae) arranged on the outer ring. Each family is contained within a segment of the circle defined by radial lines. 

The key would work in the field if it was printed on strong card or something similar, pinned in the centre so that the whole could be moved round repeatedly until the unknown plant being examined could be linked to its family. In that form it would not be that far removed from a mediaeval cipher with independently moveable rings. 

It could also be a great teaching aid in those few remaining places that still teach about weeds. 

Fig. 2 Colours and symbols are used to help the reader navigate through the options from the centre to the perimeter.

Comment

The botanical key in the Ciba Geigy Weed Tables works (as do most keys) by radiating from an initial (either-or) choice to traverse a number of options until the final decision is made on the plant family of the (unknown) weed in hand. In contrast, most decision trees begin by quantifying many input attributes, then narrow down the options to one final choice. Both this key and decision trees in general can in principle be worked either way.

The Ciba-Geigy weed key shows that a mass of information and instructions can be arranged into a compact and easily understood guide. Its use of colours and symbols make it appeal to some as a work of art, to be framed and hung on a wall. It lacks some characteristics of decision trees – the capacity for balance and weighing of attributes or  explicit cross links between different branches – though these are not needed for it to fulfill its purpose and could in any case be introduced if a computerised version were made of the key.

This weed key demonstrates (to this writer) a stunning, modern representation of the ancient design of the annular cipher. ‘Modern’ … but this was published more than 50 years ago. The authors, designers, artists and publisher of the Weed Tables viewed weeds as special plants that came to coexist with agriculture, not simply some green stuff that had to be eradicated.

[Descriptions of other designs to follow ….]

Sources

[1] For more on decision tree and an example on this web site: Greening with decision trees 

[2] Ciba-geigy Weed Tables. A synoptic presentation of the flora accompanying agricultural crops. Hafliger, E., Brun-Hool, J. 1968. Ciba-Geigy, Basle, Switzerland. First edition in English 1975. The design of the cicular key is attributed to Hanspeter Eisenhut. 

[3] Images used here are phone snaps taken by the author from the copy of the Weed Tables in the James Hutton Institute Library, July 2019.

[4] For an idea of the scope and quality of the illustrations, search online for Ciba-Geogy Weed Tables. The box is still available to buy second-hand. Some vendors show images.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@outlook.com or geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

form line, form square? … naargh just mix it!

Formal and informal mixed cropping. Mixed corn and mashlum (oats, beans) preferred historically in Scotland, seed mixed not sown in lines or squares. By mid-1900s, covering very small areas of cereal land. Dredge corn from SW Britain.  Unintended mixed grain from volunteer weeds. Mixes grown as a safeguard. Lessons from history.

Archaeological evidence from many landscapes across the globe shows agricultural land divided into geometric shapes. Linear features may have been constructed as drove-ways to move stock from one piece of land to another; or for cultivation by teams of animals dragging a plough that was difficult to turn. Squares or or other shapes with conserved side-length, are preferred when something has to be contained, such as stock animals or valuable crops that can be surrounded by a wall or fence.

Similar features occur when more than one species of crop is grown in a field. Such intercropping or mixed cropping is widely practiced in many agricultural regions. Smallholder gardens will often consist of small blocks, sometimes even single plants, grown close to each other, sometimes under the shade of a tree-crop. Perhaps the most widely observed configuration is that of lines or rows. One species might occupy one or more adjacent lines, then another species then back to the first species, as in the example below of an intercrop of chickpea and sunflower [1]. 

Chickpea field in which lines of sunflower have been sown, Burma (Myanmar), image by curvedflatlands.

Not all mixed crops are grown in formal configurations. Seeds can be mixed in the bag or mechanical sower and broadcast on the land. Two or more species then emerge together to form a mixed stand.

Also, unintended mixtures can occur when seed dropped on the soil by previous crops emerges in a later one (see below). Whether unintended or planned, simple mixtures have been recorded in agriculture since records began.

A new dawn for mixed cropping in Atlantic Europe?

Three factors need to be assessed when considering the (re)introduction or expansion of mixed cropping. One is whether a biological advantage results from growing the species in a mixture: if there is, the grower gets more from the land or resources than they would if the crops were grown alone over the same area. A second is whether the mixture provides a convenience: even without a biological advantage, it might simply be easier for sowing and harvesting to grow two or more crops in a particular configuration, especially if the grower wanted a varied output (e.g. cereals, legumes, fruit, vegetables) from a small plot of land. The third is whether the mix provides a safeguard or security against unexpected events: here, a biological advantage and ease of management may combine to ensure something is produced.  

The type of mixture used in previous times may also be a practical guide to what might still be feasible. In Scotland, and elsewhere in Britain, the most common sown mixtures from the 1700s to the early 1900s were intended for hay and grazing. They were rarely ‘grass only’, but comprised grasses, legumes and other broadleaf species in proportions varying with the intended use [2]. The legumes in the mix, the most abundant being white and red clover, fixed much of the nitrogen used by subsequent grain crops.

Also references are repeatedly made to assorted mixes of corn and grass, where barley or the landrace bere was sown as a ‘nurse’ for the more valuable and longer lasting hay or grazing mixture [3].

Mixed arable crops (no grass) were also mentioned in sources from the 1700s and 1800s, mainly as sown seed mixtures, very rarely if ever as line intercrops. But by the time formal agricultural census began in the later 1800s, sown crop mixtures such as mixed corn and mashlum were grown over a very small area. 

Mixed corn, dredge corn and mashlum

The two most widely grown crop mixtures in the north of Britain go under the names mixed corn or mixed grain and mashlum. Mixed corn consists of two or more cereals, barley and oats for example, while mashlum consists of a cereal and a grain legume, typically oats and beans (Vicia faba). Mashlum reached its 20th century peak during WW2 (Fig. 1). The subsequent fall but continued usage of mashlum was documented on the Living Field web site [4].

Mixed corn or mixed grain appeared as a separate entry among grain crops in the Agricultural Census of 1929 [5]. Its area expanded and contracted over the next 50 years but generally remained less than 0.05% of the combined cereal area (Fig. 1). There is little information of why mixed corn was grown and also why its area was so small. Oat dominated the cereals in the earlier part of the period shown, then gave way to barley and wheat. 

Fig. 1. The areas sown with mixed corn and mashlum in the Agricultural Census for Scotland [5]: mixed corn not identified from other cereals before 1929 and after 1978; mashlum grouped with other forages before 1944 and after 1960. Over the period shown, mixed corn comprised less than 0.05% of the combined cereal area.

Cereal mixtures grown elsewhere in the UK offer some explanation. A mixture of barley and oats named Dredge Corn was a feature of arable in the south west, mainly in Cornwall [6]. Its area was uncertain due the fact it was returned as ‘barley’ before 1919. As the quote at the top of the page implies, it was used as a safeguard, to ensure a reasonable yield under most conditions. It had a place in the crop rotation, sometimes replacing oats, sometimes barley, and was used in particular for a whole crop feed when the soil or the year was not capable of producing a pure crop of quality to sell as grain.  The proportions varied but were typically two parts oats to one barley. Wheat was added in some cases, making a three-part mixed grain.

While it was certainly grown as a safeguard, it was also attributed biological benefits [6]. It was stated to produce more grain than barley alone and generally more than oats alone, oats being deeper rooted and thereby accessing more resource. In dry years, barley grew to fill the ‘gaps’ left by dying oat tillers. The straw was of higher feeding value than the individual crops, due to better overall structure. But perhaps most relevant to the Atlantic climate, the mix was better able than barley or oat alone to withstand the forces of wind and rain to flatten the crop.  Similarly, one source reported that another variant – a mix of white and black oats – gave a greater yield (of straw) than either alone – the stronger stemmed white supporting the finer stemmed black. 

Despite such reports from farmers, there is little hard information on the yield advantage given by mixtures sown on the fringes of Atlantic Europe. They might have given the 1.1. to 1.3 times advantage widely recorded for intercrops, but without the experimental data from the 1920s or earlier, there is no way of knowing. 

Sown as a seed mix in April, no fertliser or pesticide: (left to right, 1 to 4) the bere barley grew quickly (1), then oat pushed through (2), bere matured first (3) and finally oat (4).

The widespread occurrence of unintended mixtures

It is the nature of small-grained cereals – oats, barley, wheat – to drop seed before or at harvest. The seed remains in the soil and, depending on conditions, emerges in a later crop. Today, such crop-weeds are commonly termed ‘volunteers’ [7]. The sown species and the volunteers in effect form a mixed crop (image below for wheat in barley). Other crops also generate volunteers. Those of oilseed rape are the most visible, but potato and field bean (Vicia faba) often produce mixed crops with cereals, though these broadleaf species may be really controlled by selective herbicides today. 

Unintended mixed crops have been a feature of cereal lands probably since domestication. If the intended product was whole-crop cereals to be fed to stock, then they would have been seen as a benefit – free seed. However, they may also create a problem. They are an unwanted nuisance when they have to be separated from the crop, for example when a pure seed-harvest is needed, and they could harbour and carry over disease. Volunteer cereals are not a recent problem: records from the 1500s [8] on oats relate “that they grow amongst wheat and barley without being sowen, as an evil and unprofitable thing ..”.

Maturing barley crop, golden brown, in which volunteer wheat (upright heads, dark grey-green) has established; younger, still green plants growing in the wheel lines.

Conclusions

Mixed corn, and mixtures of corn and grain legumes, have been recorded for centuries in Scotland, and more generally in Atlantic Europe, but their benefits have not been adequately quantified. Where they were grown, it was as broadcast seed mixtures rather than line intercrops. By the early 1900s, they were minor crops. After the 1940s, agriculture was aiming for the high yields promised by intensification: mixtures almost disappeared. 

Current reappraisal of crop mixtures might perhaps examine why in the early 1900s they never became major crops and why they were rarely grown as line intercrops.

Sources

[1] Photograph of chickpea-sunflower intercrop taken in Burma (Myanmar). Details on curvedflatlands at Mixed cropping in Burma.

[2] Seed mixtures for hay or grazing from the 1700s to the early 1900s are described in a related article on curvedflatlands: Grass mix diversity a century past.

[3] Crop mixtures are frequently referred to by Andrew Wight in the Present state of husbandry in Scotland (1778-84. Volumes 1 to 6), where one of the components (usually bere or barley)  is most commonly a ‘nurse’ crop, protecting the others, which are usually grass mixes (grasses, legumes and other broadleaf species) to be used for hay or grazing. 

[4] Mashlum, Scotland’s cereal-legume seed mix, still occasionally grown, is described on the Living Field web pages at Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans  and Mashlum no more! Not yet.

[5] Data in Fig. 1 are taken from the online Agricultural Statistics in Scotland one of the Historical Agriculture Publications on the Scottish Government web site. Based on the 1965 census, Coppock created an atlas in which the small area sown with mixed corn was noted with the comment that it was ‘not grown in the great majority of parishes’. Ref: Coppock, JT. 1976. An agricultural atlas of Scotland. John Donald, Edinburgh.

[6] Borlase, W. 1925. Dredge corn. In: Farm Crops, Vol 1, pages 265-269.

[7] Volunteer weeds, derived from crops, and presently common in Scotland  are described at the Living Field web pages on Crop-weeds.

[8] Quote on oat from L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique by Estienne and Liebault, 1593 edition. Further details and origin on the Living Field web pages at: Ready, steady mundify (your barley) and  The Library of Innerpeffray.

 

 

Arable trends – positive, negative and neutral

There was no question – following the privations of WW2 – that the arable production systems in Scotland, and indeed all of the UK, had to change. It took the Agricultural Expansion Programme a decade or more to reorganise, then from the 1960s yield per unit area (t/ha) and total output increased steadily by almost threefold due to developments in machinery, fertiliser and new crop varieties. By the 1980s, chemical pesticides  were increasingly used  to combat a rise in weeds, diseases and insect pests, which were themselves thriving on the high nitrogen and carbon contents of the improved crops. But by 1990, yield and total output of grain and other major products levelled and remained so for the next quarter-century. This rise and subsequent levelling occurred in many parts of the world. 

Change despite level output

Not all else has been stable over the last 25 years. Pesticide use has continued to rise and biodiversity to fall. Home production comes nowhere near feeding the people. Economics relies on exports and food security on imports. Yet the future will at some point have to rely again on home production – there is no getting away from it – and nearly all of that production will be in fields. What next then! depends on appreciating how things are now. 

Some of the main positive, neutral and negative trends over the past quarter-century and earlier are listed below in the following main categories: 

  • Agronomic inputs – the addition of fertiliser, pesticide, fuel and other external or imported inputs that drive current arable systems. 
  • Yield and economic outputs – the tonnage and quality of products that come off the field, their markets and profitability.
  • Environment – soil, food webs and biodiversity crucial to the functioning of fields; losses of soil, water and chemicals to the wider environment.
  • Food security – the contribution of arable cropping to the food consumed by the population, the capacity to deliver food security in time of global calamity and reliance on exports.

Not all agree what is positive and what negative. Here, positives support long-term food security, a healthy environment and a viable rural economy, all of which are interdependent. 

The summary below is of a work in progress, at this point concentrating on trends evident from research at scales of field and landscape [1] and official  government databases and web sites from which broad trends and current status can be estimated at regional scales [2]. 

Trends in some topics are not yet included – rural employment, plastic and plastic waste, arable-grass integration, gross margins, risk, education and further training among them. The growth of micro-production and ‘off the grid’ sectors in the form of cooperatives, collectives, urban farming, farmers’ markets, farm shops, etc., is hard to gauge but future food security may depend on the continued growth and influence of this sector. 

Main positive trends

The main positive trends over the past quarter century are in agronomic (fertiliser) inputs and diversification of both products and supply chains. Few if any positive trends occurred in environment, food security and yield.

Agronomic inputs
  • Phosphate fertiliser inputs have continued a major long term decline both in the area of crop treated and the amount per unit area, resulting in total applied phosphate being half in recent years what is was in the 1960s.  
  • Nitrogen (N) – the major rising input driving intensification – has declined to about 80% of its 1990 peak, mainly due to set aside, nitrates directives and price rise.
  • A major part of the N fertiliser decline occurred in winter cereals which had been over-supplied by the late 1980s – a corrective trend taking 25 years.
  • In consequence, nitrogen and phosphate wastage has been reduced as input came closer to offtake, but little scope remains for further savings in current grain crops as specific mass-N and mass-P ratios (stoichiometry) are needed for saleable products. 
  • As a result of the above trends, the nitrogen-phosphorus (N:P) ratio in fertiliser inputs (a useful broad-scale indicator of agro-ecosystem status) increased from its low of 2 in the 1960s and is now stabilising at around 6 which implies a reasonably balanced N:P input. 
  • Nutrient use-efficiency (yield per unit input) for phosphate increased more than three-fold from the 1960s and continued to increase over the past 25 years;  the corresponding metric for nitrogen increased slightly after the 1990s. 
  • GHG emissions in arable (depending largely on nitrogen fertiliser) were  initially cut after 1990 due to set-aside and EU nitrates directives but have been resistant to further reduction i the past decade; solutions to achieving committed targets would include a shift to low-input and N-fixing crops such as grain legumes in arable and grass-clover mixtures in grassland, but mandatory implementation may be necessary.
Diversification of crop products
  • Greater local production of a range of products is an increasing trend, e.g. (with livestock sectors included) cheese, beer, gin, rapeseed oil, botanicals, esculents, meats, landrace-food, soft fruit and vegetables. Yet most arable produce still goes to large-scale markets for livestock feed, alcohol and biofuel.
  • Rise in short food supply-chains – farmers markets, farm shops, cooperatives, but this sector is still a very small proportion of total production. The percentage of the population fed by short supply chains is uncertain.

MAIN NEUTRAL TRENDS

The main neutral trends are in crop yield and total output. The are no  neutral trends in agronomic inputs, environment or food security. (Here, neutral means absence of change in the last quarter-century in something that had changed previously.)

Yield and output
  • Arable and grass surface areas have fluctuated since records began in the mid-1850s, but areas sown to the main cereals have shown no major trend since the 1990s.
  • Yield per unit area over most of the arable sector levelled in the 1990s and has hardly increased since (possibly by 10% over 25 years); exceptions include a rise of yield in oats, which covers the smallest area of the cereals. 
  • Average yields remain well below the highest farm yield and predicted maxima, yet remain high compared to similar crops in other parts of the world (i.e. in the category short-season cereals, temperate, unirrigated), mainly due to the ‘long cool summer’ effect in the NE Atlantic zone.
  • Home production of grain legumes showed some rise from the low point of the 1930s but is still very small (approx 1% arable) compared to legume production in many parts of the world, and accordingly imports supply most of the plant protein eaten by people and livestock .
  • Diversity of crop types increased during intensification (1960-1990) as winter variants of the cereals appeared, and has not since been lost – arable cropping here, while dominated by barley, is still relatively diverse compared to global standards in terms of the number of different crops that can or could be grown.
  • Bad-weather years such as 2012 and 2018 caused a dip in output but not a catastrophic loss –  climatic variation as currently predicted is unlikely to have major negative effects here (provided agriculture remains diverse and reverses the negative trends listed below).  
MAIN NEGATIVE TRENDS

Main negative trends are in pesticide inputs, environment and food security. 

Agronomic inputs
  • Pesticide usage has doubled in most arable crops over the past 25 years despite level yield (pesticides assessed by ‘spray-area’ of formulations or active substances rather than mass) and so pesticide application per unit yield has increased; possible signs of levelling of fungicide application in spring barley.
  • Despite long-established EU strategies to reduce reliance on pesticide, Integrated Pest Management has not been widely taken up in mainstream production (and so is considered a negative rather than neutral trend); integrated (e.g. LEAF) and organic practices are still a small fraction of total cropped area and output; UK-wide IPM policy introduced belatedly and half-heartedly with little effect.
In soil and biodiversity
  • Soil quality (health) is declining in high-input areas due to a range of practices established during intensification (1960-1990) and maintained since; while soil carbon by weight (%C) is down to 1% in some fields, %C tends to be stabilised and not at immediate risk where grass leys occur in the crop sequence and extreme tillage is avoided, e.g. spring cereal-grass systems; but overall soil degradation and erosion risk remain high in arable regions. 
  • Crop-wildlife balance in terms of the sharing of energy and living matter in the ecosystem has moved increasingly to crop, causing further major loss of species, populations and habitat, a trend occurring both in fields and across the landscape; extreme field cleansing evident in many areas brings no benefit to crop yield; high-N plant material (essential for the food chain including beneficials ) is now rare in fields;
  • Impact of loss of beneficials as pest control agents (see note on IPM above) is uncertain while pesticide usage continues to rise.
  • Weed balance showing major long term shift to grasses and away from legumes and other broadleaves. 
Food supply chains
  • Local production of food is far from satisfying population needs for carbohydrate, plant protein or vegetables; home production more geared to alcohol and feed; this despite national policies following WW2 to raise yield for the aim of achieving food security. (The balance of local vs imported food will be examined in later articles.)
  • Since the 1960s (approx) the country has relied increasingly on imported carbohydrate and plant protein (animal feed protein also); the resulting long supply chains are inefficient in use of resources, increase GHG emissions and in many cases degrade external ecosystems.
  • Production is unprepared for – and will be unable to ensure survival through – imposed calamities, either from human folly or aggression (blockade, war) or natural cataclysm (volcanic eruption). (This could be interpreted as a 100-year neutral trend since the country was in a similar position at the start of WW1 and WW2, but is classed as negative because the stated aim in the late 1940s and 1950s was for self-sufficiency.)
  • Farming is in general financially squeezed and receiving nowhere near its fair share of the lauded successes of Scotland Food and Drink. The profitability of much of farming relies on subsidy.
  • The level of agricultural planning, e.g. targets for home production, subsidy to guarantee results-based environmental standards, mandatory reduction of inputs (e.g. in fertiliser and pesticide, emissions, etc.) has looks to have  diminished since the postwar expansion programmes. 
  • The Common Agriculture Policy has supported some major farming sectors, but in many areas of concern has been more counter-productive than helpful, a situation much the same in Scotland as in the UK and most NE Atlantic agro-ecosystems; CAP Greening has not resulted in much greening. 

Next? 

The corrections to the over-provision of mineral fertiliser in the 20th century show what can be done through a combination of EU directives, national strategy and local initiatives.  Can similar action be taken over negative trends in food security and environment? In principle it can. But it is unlikely to happen while cheap imports remain the general preference and wastage is tolerated. Subsidy has failed so far to give adequate support for local food production, environment, small producers and farming-food cooperatives. Mandatory measures may be necessary to curb emissions and pesticide. 

Yet the position is at this point reversible. Most damaged soils can be repaired, food chains shortened, local consumption raised, pesticide brought under control. Farmland habitat and biodiversity can still be restored without loss of yield. But support needs to be tied to results, in healthy food as well as environment. The future should not be left to the big players in arable farming, food and drink. 

[Options to be examined in later articles…]

Sources, references, links

[1] Information on in-field and landscape processes from which trends were defined comes from research by the author and colleagues in the arable-grass regions of Scotland funded by Scottish Government. Examples of recent research papers looking specifically at trends include: Squire, 2017. Defining sustainable limits during and after intensification in a maritime agricultural ecosystem. Ecosystem Health and Sustainability https://doi.org/10.1080/20964129.2017.1368873; Squire, Quesada, Begg, Iannetta, 2019. Transitions to a greater legume inclusion in cropland …. Food and Energy Security https://doi.org/10.1002/fes3.175 (both Open Access). 

[2] The Scottish and UK governments provide many sources of data online or available in hard copy, mostly at national and regional scales. Examples of the sources used to derive many of the trends summarised above are given on this web site at Citizen’s Jury at the Scottish Parliament/ 3 .

[Online 8 July 2019; minor edits 15 July 2018; page to be amended as necessary in light of new information; any major amendments will be noted.]

Author/contact: Disclaimer This article presents the views of the author, G.R.Squire, geoff.squire@outlook.com.

Funding  The author currently has honorary (unfunded) status at the James Hutton Institute. A background knowledge of trends in agricultural production and environment in Scotland was gained in past years through funding from the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme.

Citizens’ Jury at the Scottish Parliament

A Citizens’ Jury was assembled to deliberate on a major topic of agriculture, land use and food security. They were to spend a weekend at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh from 29-31 March 2019. My role was to advise the jurors on current issues, answer questions and draw attention where necessary to reliable data.

Latest …. report and short film prepared by Scottish Parliament now available …. wide selection of online data sources collated on page 3 … see bottom of page for links 

The event was a reassuring experience – a group of people previously unknown to each other coming together, learning individually and together, absorbing complex issues and debating constructively, being courteous to each other and giving due weight to all opinions.

The Friday evening began with an explanation of the event – the jurors did not know the exact topic until then, other than it was to do with  ‘environment’ – and some insight from a visiting speaker on the need to judge reliable information, rather than hearsay and false news, when reaching conclusions .

Perhaps the most important result of the Friday evening was for the jurors to agree a set of rules as to how the discussions would be conducted. Simple guidelines such as ‘there should be no interrupting or talking over another person’ would have at one time seemed natural for such as event, but given the manner in which public argument is so often carried out, the jurors as a whole wanted to make it clear that the views of all should count and be heard.

The second day began with a series of talks, including the opener by me (see link to page 2 below), and  another from Kirsty Blackstock of the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen. At various times over the weekend, the jurors got the chance to discuss the main questions in three groups of 7 – 8  and also to raise points in general assembly. Each group had a facilitator whose role it was to guide the jurors without leading them down any one path. In an extended session on the Sunday, the jurors heard from and could question people who manage land (farmers, smallholders, etc.) or are responsible for governmental and private policy on land.

Those from the Scottish Parliament who ran the event had prepared well, notably in providing examples of the support given to agriculture and environment. Detailed case studies for Switzerland and Australian had been prepared as a base for comparison with the current (and the  future) position in Scotland.

The need for reliable information

It became clear over the weekend that a visiting specialist at an event like this needs to guard against personal opinion and bias. My view is that, despite irreversible change to land and vegetation since the retreat of the last ice, sustainable production is possible at the same time as restoring lost ecological function. ‘Sustainable’ here means continuing to produce food and other economic products from the land for a further few thousand years.

My (continued) view is that to achieve sustainable production needs major change, after which not all interests will be equally satisfied.  A more equal balance needs to be struck between the various outputs – drink and food, economic returns, soil and food webs, wider biodiversity and environment.

Agriculture has to return to producing most of the food eaten in the country, and this includes plant carbohydrate, protein and nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. Agriculture cannot do this alone – it needs buy-in from people, government policy and the supply chains that connect it with markets, retail and consumers. Food production has in the recent past come into competition with feedstock industries and has generally lost because cheap, plant-based food can be imported.  As a result, the country would last months maybe, probably weeks, in the face of any serious blockade or natural calamity that prevented food imports.

Summary of data sources with links

Any solution for the future needs to take account of many sorts of information – on crops and livestock, economics, markets and supply chains,  on soil and other essential natural systems and on impending change in weather, climate, international markets and food policy. To advise on all this needs not only active research into production ecology and economics, but also familiarity with a very wide range of background information.

The types of data that typically consulted and analyse are summarised on a separate page (3 below).  The data are held mainly on government web sites (Scotland, UK, EU, etc.) and are generally downloadable free of charge. One of the great benefits of the web is that such information is now accessible. When I started work on the Scottish scene 25 years ago, you had to be based near a good technical library or else buy or beg hard copy through the post.

Topics include: the general environment in Scotland; agriculture, land area and crop yield; land use and soil; economics, imports vs exports, EU subsidy and greening; inputs such as fertiliser and pesticide; greenhouse gas emissions, weather and climate; land ownership; natural environment and biodiversity.

Opinions given at the event were based on previous careful sifting and analysis of such information together with research on the historical trajectories of agriculture and land use (which are more difficult to quantify but are increasingly made available though online libraries).

What happened next?

The people running the event at the Scottish Parliament have prepared a report of the event, published on 11 July 2019 and viewable at this link:  Scottish Parliament Citizens’ Jury on land management and the natural environment.

A short film is available at this link: Citizens’ Jury on land management.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Further pages

[2] Presentation by G R Squire at the Citizen’s Jury event 30 March 2019 (to be uploaded)

[3] Sources of information on agricultural census, land use, imports/exports, CAP and greenhouse gas emissions which outlines the range of data that should be examined before reaching conclusions of the current state of food security and environment.

[Article first online 4 July 2019, to be updated as new material becomes available; last update 5 February 2020 with new links at page 3]