…and a happy new year to anyone who for some bizarre reason may be reading this blog during the holiday season.
Small farm future will now be taking a Christmas break until early in the new year. Upcoming highlights for 2013 will include a report back on the Oxford Real Farming Conference, an analysis of R. Ford Denison’s interesting book Darwinian Agriculture, and doubtless more posts on many other topics that I promised to cover in the past but never did. For me, 2013 is also likely to involve a long drawn out planning appeal against Mendip District Council and a tricky decision as to whether to try to resume life as a commercial grower in the mean time – I’ll keep you posted. Betcha can’t wait!
I keep coming across the notion currently that ‘ideological’ support for small-scale farming is problematic and that no particular level of farm scale can be regarded as optimal – ideas which are obviously at the heart of this blog. I’m inclined to respond with the thought that there is no such thing as an ‘unideological’ position – it’s a cardinal error to assume that the mainstream way of doing things must somehow involve less political baggage. And if indeed it’s true that no particular level of farm scale is optimal, then surely the time has come for a massive investment in small-scale farming, since it’s historically been so starved of funding and influence compared to its industrial-scale counterpart.
Matthew Fielding of the Stockholm Environment Institute recently blogged about the superiority of larger-scale commercial farms over small peasant farms in dealing with the problem of climate change in low income countries. He was kind enough to respond to me when I challenged him over the evidence for some of these claims, suggesting that you can’t compare low tech smallholder farming with high tech commercial farming – in which case I’d argue that he shouldn’t have done precisely that in his original post!
It’s true that such comparisons can be tricky (especially because the multiple and sometimes intangible benefits of small-scale farming are often harder to demonstrate than the benefits of larger scale farming) but there is a need for them, because otherwise it’s too easy for the ‘unideological’ proponents of the industrial farming status quo to dismiss small-scale farming as an irrelevance – as for example in the shocking refusal of Mid Devon council to entertain the Ecological Land Coop’s planning application for smallholdings at Greenham Reach on the basis of claims such as smallholdings are not ‘serious farming’.
An interesting paper written by Peter Rosset over ten years ago now suggests the following benefits of small farms compared to their larger scale counterparts:
- environmental benefits
- empowerment and community responsibility
- places for families
- personal connection to food
- economic foundations
- better overall output and factor productivity
According to Rosset, small farms in both high income and low income countries can bring greater social and environmental benefits, as well as turning out more product and more money per hectare than larger farms (by the way, I use the word ‘can’ in that sentence with no compunction, in just the way that ‘unideological’ mainstream commentators often say things like “produce grown abroad and shipped here can be less ecologically damaging than homegrown produce”).
I’d be interested in any comments on Rosset’s list – any things to add, any things to take away or qualify? For me the three overarching categories of local food cultures, local or human-scale economies, and output are key, as indeed are future energy and climate change scenarios. What would a large-scale farm in a situation of major energy constraint look like? Two obvious historical precedents are the medieval manor and the slave plantation – neither of which, I’d suggest, are inspiring models for the agrarian future. In any case, I’ll try to fill out some of the points on Rosset’s list with both further reflections and further research results in future posts.
I just spent a couple of amazing days at the University of Oxford at a workshop on agrobiodiversity. For me it felt like a true “university” with anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, archaeobotanists and farmers coming together to share their skills and knowledge.
I learned so much in such a short space of time that I feel a bit overwhelmed. It’ll take me a while to digest it all, if I ever do. Many of the themes that I’ve previously raised on this blog loomed large – farm scale, labour inputs, perennial versus annual crops, biodiversity. I don’t think many of my basic perceptions on these things changed much (well, prejudices are hard to break) but I learned plenty to help me think about them more subtly. Things that particularly resonated for future thought and practice were:
- the possibilities for growing small-scale, low input wheat as outlined by the inspirational John Letts – and why permaculturists should perhaps be less dismissive of this distinguished grass
- the implications of the Neolithic farming package that spread with such apparent rapidity and uniformity across Europe from the Fertile Crescent
- the complexities of biomimicry, as described in Doyle McKey’s fascinating work on chinampa systems (not to mention the equally fascinating things he told me over dinner about ants)
- the role of homestead biochar
I learned quite a lot about date palms too, which might prove useful if the climate hots up and my wheat experiments don’t work out.
Listening to various presentations about indigenous small-scale farmers around the world (not least in France) I was struck by how – unlike here in England – these people have so often managed to retain their standing as what I would call “proper farmers”. A proper farmer in this definition is somebody who retains their own capacities to enhance the diversity of the agroecosystem, including the genetic basis of the crops they plant, and who produces food and fibre in sufficiency without making themselves functionaries of commercial systems that furnish them with exotic inputs but ultimately undercut economic and ecological wellbeing.
The irony here is that while we commonly think of European colonialism as destroying the indigenous cultures it met around the world, it may turn out that it wreaked its greatest destruction upon itself in undermining a proper European agriculture. The result, I suspect, may well be the one that acts of hubris usually encounter.
My thanks to Laura Rival and Patrick Whitefield for enabling me to attend such a wonderful event.
As Small Farm Future starts going viral, I’m finding that it’s subject to an increasing amount of spam. I’ve recently activated spam filtering software to deal with the problem, but there’s a risk that some genuine comments will get filtered out. If you find that your comments don’t appear on the blog please email me via Vallis Veg to let me know.
I’m currently in the midst of a raft of interesting meetings around the country – the inauguration of a UK branch of the international peasant/small farmer movement Via Campesina, working on the emerging College of Enlightened Agriculture, and attending an interesting conference at the University of Oxford on global agrobiodiversity and food systems. Meanwhile, my fearless superhero alter ego Spudman is continuing his epic battle against the forces of evil otherwise known as Mendip District Council. More on all the above soon!