Small farm romance

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?’

14 thoughts on “Small farm romance

  1. I shamelessly romanticize the agrarian life we lead. And a large part of it has to do with the scale and scope of our farm. The fact that our farm is fairly balanced between self-sufficiency and products sold to customers helps. If I was farming 5000 acres of soybean, then maybe not so much. It is that wonderful fulfilling mix of the physical and the mental, the challenges that present themselves on a daily basis all are more fulfilling than any 9-5 (which I still have).
    When we made that plunge fifteen years ago most of our city friends thought we had lost our minds. And on days where the temp is 22 degrees and the sleet is hitting you horizontally, while you race to finish a building project or an essential fencing, we think they had a point.

    For me the romanticizing really kicks in over a dinner, with that bottle of red wine (muscadine/raspberry), pork chops, mustard greens and roast potatoes and a winter squash Crème Brule for dessert, all from the farm. That simple act of providing for oneself is infinitely sexier than that heading out to the grocery store. It makes the insanity of all the hard work worthwhile.

    “Living the dream, you lucky bastard.”

    Then there is the herniated disc, gimpy knee, front tooth lost to a well-timed kick, etc. etc.

    • It appears we’ve both remarked at about the same time and I didn’t have the benefit of seeing your comments first. I might have saved time… being able to second most of what you’ve offered here.

      But did you have to pick on 5000 acres of soybean?? That just hurts 🙂

  2. Wow, this is wonderful in many ways. And on the one hand I should perhaps just idly admire the whole of it and leave it alone. On the other hand I feel drawn to offer a few thoughts – tweaks perhaps, quibbles, or just an observation from a slightly different perspective.

    The romance of farm life to me lies less in how other’s might perceive it or feel about it and more in how it makes me feel. I’m more an introvert than most, not a hermit but toward that end of the scale. I’m very curious about Nature and her ways. How does this work; why did that happen? And I feel there is a surreal beauty to a healthy sward. But an analytical piece of me challenges the notion of ‘healthy’ in that last sentence. Beauty is a particularly subjective notion. Health might be more amenable to objectivity, but I’d argue that in the use here – a healthy sward – there’s a certain subjectivity that gives lie to where many arguments over conservation and sustainability get started. Is it healthy only if no human engages with it? This latter notion I find nonsensical.

    And with these thoughts as foundation, I want to offer a little different perspective on your observation of farming and its role vs. the natural world. As you characterize it – the natural world is ‘ultimately indifferent to your designs for it’. And only if I consider the ecology of the entire planet would I sit still and allow that notion to go without challenge. In the microclimate of the farm in question I expect the natural world a human engages with certainly does respond and react. Perhaps such reactions are not immediately and directly in line with an original intent. But what sort of outrageous conceit is needed to imagine we can control nature completely? I often find it amusing (rewarding even) to see how nature replies in some unexpected manner. Indeed the peccadillos if you will, the variances and surprises she graces us with as we stir and husband her are to me like various endearing attributes of our loved ones. So the analogy to romance seems very fitting. When healthy, beautiful, bountiful and delicious foods come forth from a garden and reward our husbanding efforts – it seems to me Nature is not indifferent but actually working in concert with us. Almost as if she has said “Thanks”. So just as bees and worms offer ecosystem services, I consider a farmer in his/her endeavors offers ecosystem services as well. And I heartily agree the whole can seem somewhat romantic.

    On dangers associated with farming – yes, it can present its difficulties at times. And if fear of pain and suffering is so awful to certain souls then heading for the shelter of a more predictable endeavor seems appropriate. If you can’t stand getting soaked, get out of the rain. And while I’d really not enjoy getting tangled in a reversing muck spreader, I can’t say the lack of romance is the reason for my reticence. For me a good dose of exertion, a sore muscle or two, a bump on the head are all part of the price to see some chores through to completion. Indeed the satisfaction of seeing a project through seems enhanced by knowledge that it wasn’t simple. Not just any scallywag could have accomplished it.

    On economic and political policies making it extremely difficult to make a small farm a going business… you make a fine case. But this makes me ponder whether one should be careful what is wished for. I wonder how close I might be if I presumed more favorable policies might stimulate a back-to-the-land movement with the result that economic prospects for small farm business would worsen. I hope I’m wrong about this. Maybe my difficulty is a definition of a successful small farm. If expectations of income are scaled back and materialistic fantasies reigned in, then this may be more manageable.

    We are all very different in our particular skill sets. We have different likes and dislikes. True, we have a certain common humanity – basic needs for survival. But procuring basic needs requires each of us to call upon our individual skills and desires. What each of us finds romantic will, and I would argue should, be different. Ultimately I have to agree with your position that there is nothing improper with romanticizing small-scale farming. But I suppose if I expect to enjoy such freedom then I might also need to respect someone else’s right to romanticize urban living.

  3. Thanks for your comments as ever, gentlemen. I’m much in agreement with all you say, and I’m with you Brian on the pleasures of the home-raised. Clem, I agree with your slightly different take on the matter of ‘indifference’: my point wasn’t really that my input into my own little corner of creation has no impact (I agree this is not the case) – it’s more that in a lot of urban/office/wordy jobs it’s easy to manufacture the answers you want and to harbour the conceit that you (or humanity generally) is in control of the world. Harder when you farm, where you quickly become aware of a complex natural world which is not reducibe to your own designs or desires.

  4. On a completely unrelated topic: I was reading a bit from a British book entitled “Vegetables for the Epicure” by Roy Genders 1956. A book that tries to get you folk interested in eating your fresh veggies. He goes on about a summer squash, (he calls summer squash mallows), called Avocadella, aka Argentine Mallow. I can’t find any reference in any of my seed catalogs, books on squash, internet, etc. etc. Now it could have been a new variety and the name was changed to something more marketable. Anyone have any suggestions?

  5. This synonym probably won’t help:
    begin quote-
    Pavonia hastata
    Argentine Mallow
    This shrub native to Argentina is a rather open growing semi-evergreen plant with narrow hastate leaves 2 to 3 inches long. Trimming or shearing will result in a more compact plant. Early blooms are cleistogamous ie.forming seed without opening but the small pale pink Hibiscus-like flowers then appear over a long period during the summer and fall.
    -end quote

    But from a piece I saw in the Guardian I’m wondering if an acorn squash is close to what they’re talking about. The squash fruit in question is supposed to be small, green, and something like an avocado… and an acorn squash seems to come close.

    • Clem,
      I got the same reference on Argentine Mallow. But, again, I think mallow must be one of those crazy malaprops of our British cousins. 🙂 Then again, my friend, it may be you and I who have fallen off the linguistic hay wagon.
      The author referred to it as a summer squash. But it could be an acorn type that is tasty at the immature stage as well. The whole tone of the book was a bit “gee whiz folks, put down your fish and chips and try some veggies.” But I was intrigued by his description of the taste to try and find some seeds to trial.

      • Yes, off the linguistic hay wagon… I tend to lean in the direction of the Brits in matters of English – their forebears having made such a muddle of it. But a small piece of me (the Angle – or wait, perchance the Saxon??) doesn’t want to allow even this. But out of deference to our host, we should probably play nice.

        Still not finding a seed source – but I have run across 3 references to the ‘avocado squash’ here on our side of the pond and all in the last 4-5 years. Further, it seems there is a distinctly different beast than the acorn squash (which I’ve grown, and at no time in its development does it resemble the pics I’ve now seen). So here are a few links that you might follow and from them see if you might ferret out some other leads (one mentions a farm that was growing these a couple years ago).

        The curiosity bug has bitten me, so while I’ve still not found some seed, I will poke around some more. Do let me know if you find some before I get back to you.

          • Hybrid smybrid…where’s your sense of adventure?? You are right that if you keep seed of a hybrid the next crop will not be exactly what you started with. How different could it be? Well, that depends – how different are the parents in the hybrid? We aren’t likely to get that information unless we can get in touch with the breeder. Not liking our chances – but I still have one avenue to pursue on that front.

            If you can find a non-hybrid type then you are all set. But if you don’t, would you walk away from the whole endeavor? Trying the hybrid would at least give you the satisfaction of knowing whether or not you even like the squash. If its not so outstanding, punt and go home. If it is as wonderful as advertised then you can return to your seed dealer for more hybrid seed [and you could keep some seed and start selecting for an inbred line that works well on your farm. Buying new hybrid seed is easier, but then if easy were your mantra…

            Oh, I think I recall seeing that the seed at Kitazawa is treated with Thiram (broad spectrum fungicide) – so for the organic farmers in the audience this is a deal breaker.

  6. Don’t worry you guys, English is well on its way to becoming American. For example, there’s no way I’d have written ‘you guys’ 20 years ago. And in fact there’s no way I’d have written ‘no way’. Hmm, I’d better stop now – except to tell you that when I was in the US a few years ago somebody asked me what language we speak in England. Go figure. Dammit, that’s another one…

    Anyway, interesting on Argentine mallow – I’d never heard of it. Traditionally people call summer squash ‘marrow’ over here. I’ve never heard anyone call it ‘mallow’ which I think of as a totally different plant group. Hey, somebody should come up with an unambiguous scientific nomenclature for plants to avoid these confusions – maybe they should use Latin so we don’t have to argue over English terminology.

    • Capital idea!! Wish I’d thought of it. 🙂

      Interestingly, the cucurbits (like the brassicas) are not so easily categorized into unambiguous little cells. Indeed I’ve seen the squash under discussion listed under two different species. And I’m not wholly certain the ‘hybrid’ being discussed isn’t in fact an interspecific hybrid… in which case the fruit should be seedless (and Brian wouldn’t be able to save seed anyway).

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