Bitcoin, barns, and Butternut squash

After sorting through decaying gourds in search of the one in four that survived the damp and cold of a Devon winter, I have decided to spend some money insulating and damp-proofing the barn.

Nineteenth century cattle barns do not make good stores for Butternut squash. After spending January sorting through decaying gourds in search of the one in four that survived the damp and cold of a Devon winter, I have decided to spend some money insulating, damp-proofing and heating the barn, and securing it against squirrels and the occasional rat.

Digging down through the layers of concrete, compacted lime, tiles and cobbles exposes the history of what was once a model farm – before the well-heeled owners emigrated to South Africa when British agriculture went into decline in the 1870s.

The Corn Laws, which blocked the import of cereal crops from abroad, were repealed in 1846, exposing British farming to competition from the expansive, fertile US prairies. In the 1870s, after the American Civil War, cheap imports finally brought the English yeomen (who owned and cultivated small farms) to their knees.

Farm building
Stone barns are a traditional feature of the British agricultural landscape. 

Almost all the barns and grand farmhouses around here were built during the preceding ‘golden age of British farming’. This particular barn is truly spectacular, and once had an undershot waterwheel fed by a leat from the small stream that passes by. If reinstated, this waterwheel would (in winter) generate a paltry 750W of electricity, or the output of the average horse; perhaps enough to run a small mill or apple press, but barely enough to make my toast today.

While digging out the cobbles (don’t worry; they will all be rehomed), I muse on all that would be possible if agriculture still accounted for 22 per cent of GDP as it did in 1850, compared to just 0.7 per cent today. New Zealand farmers, who are more exposed to world markets, would say: “Give UK farmers a high milk price, and they will think of an expensive way to produce milk.”

I suspect the farmers of the golden age were guilty of the same indulgence, but they did build some fine barns. As I dig, I also wonder at our insatiable appetite for cheap energy. Until energy is more expensive, I suspect we will keep thinking of new ways to waste it. A ludicrous example is the amount consumed by computer servers to mint virtual coinage and record transactions in the new cryptocurrencies.

It would take 11 million waterwheels to power Bitcoin today; comparable to the energy consumed by all of Venezuela. For what gain? The yeoman’s mind would have boggled, and mine does too.


Leave a Reply

  1. I’m also a bit surprised by the comment about Bitcoin. I would have thought the political ideals of Bitcoin align quite strongly with Riverford’s.

    Surely the power consumption of one country required to secure a global monetary system, which allows freedom from corrupt governments, is much better than the amount of power required to print money in every country and run existing and outdated banking systems?

  2. I don’t consider 750 watts paltry. It could charge into a battery or if you have a hot water system as we have, heat the water thus saving oil (no gas where we live and both contribute to global warming..
    I think that we have to look for these energy options and make best use of them. Similarly insulate our houses but don’t clad them with very flammable material.
    I see houses in this area of Shropshire often use wood which can be treated to make it less combustible,

    Cheers and thanks for the Leeks


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