From Land as Factory, to Land as System: Realising the Potential that the Factory Technician cannot See

This is a follow-up blog to my previous, where I examined the false assumptions agribusiness analysts continue to make, and continue to be taught.   Those assumptions and world views actively discourage any imagination of other elements such as woodlands, wetlands or individual trees having a place in New Zealand farmed landscapes.  And so they discourage solution and potential.

Our current paradigm is failing.  The central core of that failure is our teaching and practice of mechanical and narrow scale-focused agronomy (“get big, or get out,” “plant hedgerow to hedgerow,” “grow two blades of grass where there was one,” “grow more to feed the world,”) where we degrade our landscape functions (our soils, our hydrological quality, our patterned landscapes of real economic and environmental potential) in pursuit of what is effectively a simplified hydroponics, producing one thing …. and destroying the potential they can not imagine, let alone see.    

We have changed farming and forestry from being what we once were – husbandmen (and women) – creating multifunctional and resilience landscapes catering for many needs over the long term – to technical agronomy.   The farm foresters and the lovers of making soils a sponge for rainfall, rooting depth and low-input fertility have it right.  That is why their farms perform. 

I’m continually reminded of a colleague who succinctly summed up the challenge to our land use future, “there is no such thing as a good farmer or a good forester.  There are only good and bad land managers.

The following is one story of how thinking differently can achieve, not just profit, but the production many strive for through hydroponic thinking – just add more energy in the form of chemical, fertiliser and irrigation in homogenous scale.  There is a far better way to look at land.

The language of Landscape Jens Kruger

The Language of Landscape – Jens Kruger


The UK is having the same angst-ridden debates about more trees within agricultural landscapes as New Zealand. And, like here, it completely works against the potential of our rural landscapes. In a recent article in the UK, their National Farmers’ Union (equivalent to our Federated Farmers) were wary of trees within farms – let alone whole farm conversions – with talk of the “complexity” of “taking land out of food production.” Similar to those agronomic minds within the halls of education, policy research and commerce who see maximum production (of mostly commodity food) as their little god, no matter the wider negatives; you know, to profit, risk, productivity, synergy smothered by homogeneity, natural capital, environmental effects, rural decline.

And we have the same industrial blinkered homogeneous scale thinking within forestry as well. Industrialism on steroids.  Single functions and faux efficiency. Reducing a forest to the mechanics of agronomy and finance isn’t what professional forestry is about.  Narrow forest agronomy is not in any position to be smug.

The UK’s Fed Farmers think that by planting woodlands within their farmscapes, that they will lose.  Wrong.  They’ll win, it is just unfortunate that their education and dominant social norms work directly against the imagination they need to see how.

Wetlands on farms

Riddell’s Wetland, Northern Hawke’s Bay

It is a false narrative to presume that less area in agricultural production – what is referred to in New Zealand as ‘effective farm area’ (oh how I detest the implications in that phrase – “more scale, less wetlands!”) – will mean less agricultural production. It’s a mechanical and linear view. It’s part of this curse of Modernity – the assumption that complexity can be reduce to a few chosen variables – a child reduced to a calorie input/output machine perhaps. Newton did it for physics, so let’s apply it to humans and landscapes. Land is far more analogous to a child than a factory.

It parallels the poor understanding of landscape variation and connections, the farm money map where production varies 100% +/- the mean, the many costs that have 80:20 patterns.  If the UK Farmers’ Union is any indication, it seems farming in the UK has the same problem of identity as New Zealand land use …. an identity of production, in a factory sense of land, rather than land (and community) husbandry. Curious that, because the emphasis on scaled up production of *only* food using ‘human resources’ and other forms of machinery has had terrible consequences to individual farm finance, rural communities and the environment.

But it’s also curious because that poor construct of land – as uniform scalable homogeneous factory, not complex adaptive system – fails to imagine, let alone realise the scope of potential you can get by thinking differently. Modernity should be stamped to death within our education, policy and research entities, but – like Frankenstein – it is still alive, wandering around in the snows of Scandinavia somewhere.

Stories are far better than data when you’re dealing with complexity, so here’s one.  A colleague of mine came back from the UK a few decades ago. She had been working with the European CAP policy of the 90s, focused on the *over*production of food commodities.  Then, the EU encouraged the replacement of agricultural land with forests and wetlands, to – they thought – reduce agricultural production. On many farms, the opposite happened.

The incorrect logic is simple. Technocrats see land from afar in averages. Less land equals less production. They neither understand nor work within any understanding of patterns of complexity, combination, patch connections, feedbacks etc. related to this particular space and time. If they’re only thinking in finance (through averages) and not environment and social linkages, then the loss of potential is even greater.

However, many of these patterns and connections are completely obvious to those who live intimately *within* a landscape. There is wisdom in intimacy, in being a part of something. There can be foolishness in distant faux objectivity. To the distant technocrat, less land in agricultural production would obviously mean less agricultural production. It’s obvious to them, as other realities are obvious to farm foresters.

The agronomic technocrats are those who are wrong.  Their spreadsheet analysis is wrong because their assumptions are wrong.  But many technocrats never even question their assumptions because they are not taught to question philosophically.  Worse, they are taught that they are above metaphysics; that they don’t even have any in their supposedly objective bubble.  Life, to them, is a machine, reducible and deterministic. Which is fine for simple billiard table physics and the more complicated physics of getting a rocket to the moon and back; but wrong for the complex adaptive systems of land and people.  Or for community and economy for that matter. Wrong. Dead wrong.

Planting dissected gully

Planting a Dissected Gully, Northern Hawke’s Bay

Here’s what happened when the EU encouraged some farmers to take land out of agricultural production. Farmers took the not inconsiderable sum per hectare on offer to plant woodlands – more for deciduous broadleaves than for conifers. It was at this point my colleague smiled. She asked, “So what land do you think they chose to put into trees?” Well, obviously, the land they knew was poorer performing for whatever reason. And that’s exactly what happened.


Here, things get interesting. Rather than uniformity and regularity, you’re dealing in complexity, variation, pattern, connection, feedback, adaptation, thresholds, and system effects.

I go on about this a bit, but it’s the Modern worldview that simplifies life into fallacies of quantification that is blinding us to potential and synergy. Under the industrial model we see – and therefore make! – everything from land to a human being into a machine reduced to some nonsense but measurable variable (a general parameter rather than a particular one).  That is effectively subjectively choosing a number you have, and applying it to a context where it doesn’t apply, because you don’t happen to have a parameter specific to that area.

This is philosophically the same as taking the ‘average’ fuel consumption for the whole transport fleet (ships, trains, trucks, SUVs etc.) and applying it to your 1200cc car. An educated judgment would be far far more accurate, but judgments have become – apparently – career limiting. Mustn’t think and judge. You have no model to fall back on and blame.

O'Brien - Wetland Functional Wetlands

O’Brien’s wetland on left.  What was once a costly stock loss magnet, now the whole farm is more productive and more profitable

My colleague laughed, “Yes,” she said,” they converted their worst agricultural land, and then whole farm agricultural production actually went up!”

I knew why because I’d dealt with farm foresters for 25 odd years by then, and it was an extremely common finding (even though MAF officials shook their heads and tried to rationalise it from their own worldview).

The land people chose to put woodlands or wetlands on were – almost universally – high cost (directed ‘overheads’ included – like stock losses, weed control etc.) and low production areas; Often a fraction of the farm average. High cost, low return. They are effectively black holes for money.

So they turn unprofitable areas into woodlands (and are paid to do so – so they win twice with a grant *and* more profit besides the other positive multiple functions woodlands provide to the farm enterprise).  They also save all the overhead costs they once threw down a bottomless pit black hole in that side face, gully, bog, etc.

That’s another win. Suddenly, more liquidity.

They *adapt* to that new situation by investing in areas of the farm that provide a positive rather than a negative return. More bang for their buck. Better pastures etc. And so production rose.

That is an example of adaptation within a “Complex Adaptive System” view of land and enterprise.

Thinking this way is also part of the shift around the world from our mechanical homogeneous Ford factory ‘Economies of Scale’ emphasis, to the emerging post-industrial ‘Economies of Scope’ thinking that you get by owners realising the potential in their various complex worlds – their landscapes, their environmental and social functions, value chains, market position and the narrative that provides a premium, their communities, cooperative constructs, clusters etc., the pattern languages of space, with actual *humans* who are caring, engaged and motivated…

… rather than being ground into obedient uniform, perfectly measurable and immutable robotic cogs, etc.

We can achieve a hell of a lot of win:wins by not thinking of land, environment, community, people, and produce in that – frankly – backward Frederick Taylor mechanical way.

bridget-march terraced-fields-sa-pa-vietnam.jpg

Bridget March, Sa Pa, Vietnam

None of this is that difficult to understand; it only requires a questioning of assumptions. The assumption that higher production is always better is wrong. The assumption that production over landscapes doesn’t vary greatly is wrong. The assumption that many direct costs can be treated as indirect for land analysis’ sake is wrong. The assumption that there are no associations between low return/high cast and high return/low cost is wrong. The assumptions that costs don’t work in patterns and waves over the farmscape are wrong. The assumption that the environment is disconnected from the farm accounts is wrong. The same with social connections and social capital … wrong.

The assumption that there are no connection synergies, no ‘scope’ – only ‘scale’ efficiencies, is dead wrong. The assumption that there are no system effects, nor system adaptive effects, are wrong. In systems theory, you never do one thing. And if you’re not looking at what else you’ve done with any act – economically, socially & environmentally – then the analysis (well, synthesis) is incomplete. That is an understatement.

foxs & hedgehogsTo see potential scope requires a mind that sees curves not lines, tangents, patterns and connections – across and within social, biophysical and economic domains. This is the world of the proverbial Fox who sees many things, strategises and adapts, rather than the box ticking ‘this is what we do’ Hedgehog who plods doggedly toward the cliff like a good technician, focused on one thing in their world of immutable and reducible machine, ignoring all the patterns, connection, trends and exemplars all around them – to whatever doom awaits beyond the brow of the hill they cannot imagine, let alone see.

It ought to be the part of any ‘professional’ to be able to imagine – to induce, not deduce – beyond the constraints of a mechanical mind.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.
The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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