So let’s turn the lights down low, set out the candles and uncork a bottle of red. For here at Small Farm Future it’s time for us to talk about romance.
Well, when I say ‘romance’ what I mean is the tendency to be romantic. No, that’s not quite it. Oh hell, what I’m really trying to say, darling, is that sometimes people romanticise things. Not least, small scale or peasant farming. Which perhaps is why when I speak up for it, as I often do, I frequently find myself saying that it’s important not to romanticise rural life, or peasant farming, or whatever.
And maybe it is important. But maybe it’s also worth asking why it’s important. What exactly is at stake in romanticising small-scale farming? For me, the question has additional bite because nobody ever prefaces a discussion of city life or urbanization by saying ‘It’s important not to romanticise the metropolitan’. And I mean, never. With the result that people can get away with the most extraordinary romanticisations of the urban, like this. What is it about the rural and agrarian that makes us so afraid of committing the sin of romanticism, when we do it so insouciantly in the face of the urban?
Perhaps defining some of the forms of romanticism would help. I think a key one is the notion that our own society is rent by irreconcilable contradictions of some kind, and that other societies are free of them and therefore more fulfilled. That kind of romanticisation can be played out historically – past (or future) societies were (or will be) more whole and authentic than present ones. Or it can be played out geographically – other peoples of the world are more whole and authentic than us. It’s interesting how the target of such romanticism itself changes historically. Dominant strands of western thought in the late nineteenth century placed Arabs somewhere near the top of the idealisation league (you see it later on too among Orientalists like Lawrence or Thesiger) and hunter-gatherer peoples near the bottom. Dominant strands of western thought today pretty much reverse that ordering. Generally speaking, I think these projected idealisations and demonisations are a trap, and it’s important not to romanticise other societies in this way. Oops, there I go again.
Well, it is important – but not obviously more so than the converse mistake of narcissistically assuming that people in other societies are less blessed than us and that therefore there is nothing we can learn from them. To take that line you need to combine a strong anti-romanticism with a strong myth of progress – an unfortunate marriage, which alas is all too common, not least among the eco-panglossians who I’m gunning for in my present cycle of blog posts. But the need to exercise a bit of caution in idealising other lifeways can’t in my opinion explain the widespread and visceral denunciation of romanticism that accompanies virtually any attempt to extol the peasant, the local, the rural or the homespun, the more so in the face of the fact that contemporary culture is not at all squeamish about romanticising certain other things, such as media celebrity.
Reflecting on the two main jobs I’ve done in my life – university academic and small-scale farmer – let me offer this observation. My career as an academic was comfortable, interesting, well paid, potentially fulfilling, and accorded a high social status by others, but it wasn’t romantic. My career as a farmer is less comfortable, quite mundane at times, poorly paid and poorly regarded, but generally speaking it’s more fulfilling and more romantic. What’s the difference? I’m not completely sure, but I’d hazard the opinion that farming involves engaging yourself fully, both mentally and physically, with a natural world which is ultimately indifferent to your designs for it, and there’s something about that process that captures the human imagination as few other things can – and certainly not a good many of the modern paper shuffling office jobs which can cut the world down to their own size by word-wrangling. Maybe if you throw in an element of physical risk the romance is augmented, which is why a lot of kids want to be firefighters, deep sea fishermen and the like, and perhaps why a lot of adults who put aside such dreams for better paid paper shuffling work spend their weekends and a good slice of their money rock-climbing, scuba diving, surfing or whatever. Of course, farming is one of the most dangerous jobs around these days, though I have to concede that being crushed by a toppling round bale, a horny bull or a reversing muck spreader isn’t the most romantic of ways to go.
We have quite a few visitors to our holding from a similar urban/suburban, professional/middle class background to myself. I’d say about 1 in 10 of them surveys my workplace with a beaky look that says something like “so you got a Ph.D. and now here you are grubbing around in the soil weeding cabbages – how did it go so wrong?” The other 90% have a very different look, maybe envious, maybe empathetic, that seems to say “You bloody escaped, didn’t you? You’re living the dream, you lucky bastard”.
It’s a subset of the latter people, I think, that the notion of farm romanticism or rural idylls really inhabits, and – if you’ll forgive me the cod Freudianism – I think the reason is denialism, or self-justification: “I’d like to live that kind of life too, but the reason I can’t is that it’s just not realistic.” Well, fair enough – it isn’t that realistic for most people (London property-owners excepted, who could easily afford to throw it all in and buy a smallholding upcountry…if only…if only…if only what? If only it wasn’t such a romantic dream? Philip Larkin, you’re so eloquently wrong). But the reason it’s not realistic is because of economic and political policies which, deliberately or otherwise, make it extremely difficult for anyone to start a small farm and make it work as a business. And, as I’ve argued before on this blog and will argue again in different ways in the future, those policies are not facts of nature, but human artifices which can be changed should we wish to embrace the romance of a small farm future, which I think we should.
The same goes for the standard refrain about how it’s wrong to romanticise poor peasant farmers in low income countries, a point I’ve addressed before on this blog and will come back to again in more detail soon. I’ll readily concede that many such farmers would ditch their holdings without a second thought if they had the remotest chance of getting one of those pen-pushing city jobs I was earlier decrying. The reason for that, I submit, is that they’d prefer not to be the butt of global and local policies that shaft small farmers – the problem being the policies, and not anything intrinsic to small-scale farming as such. There’s more to be said here in relation to academic debates about agrarian populism and the moral economy of the peasant – and I’ll be saying it soon, I promise you.
Talking of agrarian populism, as a self-avowed agrarian populist myself, I have to admit that there’s a dark side to its politics historically, in which romanticism is implicated. Many countries have developed nationalist ideologies which stress the goodness of their countrysides and the people who inhabit them. Sometimes this can be relatively benign, as in the ‘green and pleasant land’ of chocolate box England (notwithstanding the resulting idiocies of the planning system). But it’s not always benign, as in those variants of populism that distinguish the ‘real people of the country’ from urban degenerates, Jewish bankers and the like. One of the tasks for a contemporary agrarian populism is to emphasise the romance and the authenticity of farming and rural life, without projecting that authenticity onto any particular category of people. That has to involve acknowledging that farming isn’t the only worthwhile thing to do, that cities have their own romance. But cities already have plenty of cheerleaders, including the eco-panglossians and their one dimensional dismissals of peasant agriculture in favour of urbanisation. We need more people speaking up for a working, sustainably farmed countryside.
I began this post with wine and candles, so let me end it by playing with the semantics of the word ‘romance’. Most of us, I’d guess, would be happy to have more romance in our lives of that individual sort – a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with another person, who we cannot and do not wish to master. I think most of us would also be happy to have more romance of a different (but not entirely different) kind in our work: a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with the wider social and natural world, which we cannot and do not wish to master but can relate to from a position of dignity and self-possession as we engage our labour with it. Doubtless there are those who can find that romance in academia and other kinds of word-wrangling – I couldn’t, but good luck to them. However, I have found it in farming and in living a little closer to the rhythms of the natural world, some of the time at least. So the next time I catch myself on the point of saying ‘we shouldn’t romanticise small-scale farming’ I hope I’ll stop myself to ask ‘why not?’