Oxford Real Farming Conference: Envisioning Agroecological Futures

I’ve recently returned from my annual junket to the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which just gets better every year.

At the conference I ran a session entitled Envisioning Agroecological Futures and I promised to write up the ensuing discussion on this blog – a rash promise as it transpires, for not three days after the event many of my copiously scribbled notes now seem entirely unintelligible. Ah, the perils of aging. Anyway, here goes, and apologies if what I say below ignores, belittles or otherwise traduces what anyone had to say. I don’t mean to be offensive – well, not very anyway.

So the premise: supposing the world of small-scale, input light, labour or skills intensive agroecological farming that many of us would like to see actually came into being at some point in the future – what would it look like, and what sorts of tensions and problems would it create? I posed these questions to guide the discussion:

  1. what are the drivers for the emergence of an ‘agroecological society’?
  2. what social, political and economic tensions would emerge in such a society?
  3. what proportion of the population would work directly as farmers?
  4. what kind of surplus could those farmers generate, and what extra-agricultural things would be needed or desired?
  5. who would hold political power, and how could it be limited?
  6. what role would trade play?

In relation to question 5, the previous speaker had mentioned the arresting statistic that 10% of Britain is still owned by Plantagenet families whose ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, a point I used to illustrate the fact that there’s a deep structuring of political power that can be remarkably hard to shift. On reflection, I think that misses a more significant point: it’s not so much that ruling classes are good at clinging on to power over time but that particular kinds of socioeconomic structures (eg. small farm societies) are amenable to particular kinds of enduring power concentration.

Anyway, here’s a quick whizz through some of the resulting discussion:

How would a future small farm society (henceforth SFS) affect gender relations? Would women be confined to the domestic sphere in patriarchal village societies, venerated as Earth Mothers (which amounts to the same thing), or be empowered, successful farmers? I don’t know – though Jonathan Rigg’s book More Than The Soil has some interesting analysis on this. Women play a major economic role in subsistence farm households, but often with the development of cash cropping they become confined to domesticity while the men take over with all those big, fun agricultural toys like tractors.

Talking of big, fun agricultural toys, somebody made the point that diesel engines are hugely efficient compared to human labour, that poverty and famines are associated with non-mechanised subsistence farming, and that smallholders like me in the UK are responsible for depriving African farmers of handy used machinery – which, taken together, constitute possibly the least convincing set of criticisms of small-scale farming that I’ve ever heard. Of course, there are some issues – also raised by others at the session – about the extent to which agroecology currently parasitizes the industrial economy. On the other hand, there are also some issues about the way that the industrial economy parasitizes the global ecology. And if we’re going to use technology most efficiently, then virtually all the world’s fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers should surely be going to poor peasant farmers on marginal productivity grounds. OK, it won’t happen, but if it did it wouldn’t be the small farmers in the UK who would shout the loudest.  But I think I’ll devote some separate posts to all these knotty issues (and non-issues) soon.

Technological, magic bullet solutions to agricultural problems are enduringly popular…and let’s face it, people in the alternative food movement are (almost) as guilty as the industrial farming brigade of this, what with their compost teas, terra pretas, perennial grain crops and the like. Another suggestion was to use hydroponics to feed the world more efficiently. Basil was mentioned as one suitable crop in this context. Personally I think I’d struggle to eat enough basil to see me through my working day, even though I’m enormously keen on pesto. Others thought we’d be better off using soils to grow staple crops close to consumers. Agreed. But figuring out how small-scale farmers in countries like the UK can realistically grow staple crops in the present economy is a challenge. I mentioned that arable cropping was the final frontier of sustainable farming and that there weren’t too many arable farmers at the conference. Despite catcalls from the floor from a forward-thinking arable farmer commendably in attendance, I still believe that to be true.

Should we care about producing surpluses, or should we focus on wellbeing rather than, say, GDP? I’d say that we should most definitely focus on wellbeing, but that wellbeing is best served if not everybody has to produce their own subsistence. Someone else pointed out that surpluses could be quite useful, mentioning how grateful they were when they were rescued off Snowdon by a Wessex helicopter. But how many Wessex helicopters does a SFS need? How many could it realistically produce? And should agroecologists be climbing Snowdon anyway? More research is needed.

We talked about the problems of the post-war productivist paradigm in British farming, and the lack of any kind of redistributive land ethic in the UK – resulting, in my opinion, from the fact that British socialism has been almost entirely a municipal affair, an achievement of urban working people who escaped or were expelled from rural gentry rule. A few lessons there for a future SFS. It’s a different picture in Latin America, it was pointed out, where leftwing peasant movements abound. Just as well that we shall soon be having a UK branch of Via Campesina, which will hopefully help us to draw on some of that Latin American inspiration. More generally, I think it’s high time we tried to recover the traditions of leftwing peasant populism from the derision it’s suffered at the hands of liberals and Marxists over much of the last century and retool it for future use. Now there’s a subject for another post, not to mention an almighty political struggle.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Others pointed to the many good things that are going on – the Localism Act in the UK, which (might?) empower local communities; circum-Baltic agroecological activism operating at a subcontinental level; the global ecovillage network; futures methodologies available to sharpen up the frankly woeful human capacities for predicting future challenges; and the power of the internet to challenge the onward march of landlordism. Will such developments be enough to protect a small farm society of the future from the depredations of environmental decline, political demagoguery, landed power and chronic, unpredictable risk? Maybe.

8 thoughts on “Oxford Real Farming Conference: Envisioning Agroecological Futures

  1. This is a lovely summary and a great set of questions to ask. It’s a shame there’s rarely enough time to answer them at conferences 🙁

    Can we look forward to further posts where these are addressed? I really hope so because I love your diligence.

  2. Hi Ed, thanks for your message & apologies for the delay in moderating it. Yes I’m hoping to address many of these issues in future posts – do remind me if I fail to do so. I try to post something or other every week, but it helps if there’s some chat on the comments pages to keep me going!


  3. “More generally, I think it’s high time we tried to recover the traditions of leftwing peasant populism from the derision it’s suffered at the hands of liberals and Marxists over much of the last century and retool it for future use. Now there’s a subject for another post, not to mention an almighty political struggle.”
    Wow, you’ve put your finger on the button there! Look forward to a weekly read of your blog.

  4. Thanks Robert – glad you picked up on that comment. ‘Populism’ is such a misunderstood term…I’ll try to come back to the topic soon!

  5. Localism act empowering……lol. its the Tories privatising everything of value. They’re back if you jadnt noticed. Sorry its impossible to wrote anything coherent on a 3 inch screen. I’ll try again layer.

  6. I’m inclined to agree with you there Tom – however, in that post I was trying to convey some of the things that people said during the discussion without necessarily adding my tuppenceworth to every comment. Admittedly I largely failed, and in fact I was hoping that the attentive reader might take my closing ‘maybe’ to indicate a certain scepticism…

  7. I’ve been following your blogging for some time after googling about low input growing of high yield foods. Like you I recognise its got to be high carbs and I reckon, as much as I want to, no-dig is probably not going to cut it. I’m going to have to grow nitrogen fixers and dig them in. I’m doing everything I can to avoid it because I’m dazzled by Tonsmeier and Martin Crawfords visions of fungi transporting nutrients and other groovy forest gardening stuff.

    I ought to add I’m an allotmenteer and not a market gardener, who abandoned my smirking hostility to green issues once I actually started my stewardship of my tiny bit of land. I’m interested in permaculture but needing actual proper yields that actually feed people properly.

    I’m also a union rep being battered in part by the localism act. The selling off of the collective family silver to social enterprises is not a return to community co-operation but the abdication of responsibility of those who govern us, handing that responsibility to well meaning liberals and then after they fail to deliver on a shoestring, to the private sector. Some well meaning “social” enterprises that have carved up public services in the country have already failed and the localism act is only in its second year. There is a thread of green politics that sees the state as wholly bad (influenced by Bakunin, when the state was wholly bad). Later “anarchists” like Colin Ward have suggested that british socialism didn’t want the NHS and would have preferred something like a co-operative organisation dispensing services on subscription. This thinking has walked us straight into the hands of the free-market right.

    I only mention this because you mention the localism act, urban British socialism etc. Now if, and this is a big if, the permaculture folks behind transitions-this-that-and-the-other start getting a head of steam and the idea that urban people start growing much of what they need in every spare bit of space, urban grass root politics might come to the aid of the rural agroecologist struggling against the rural forces of reaction (Mendip Council 🙂 ).

  8. Tom, thanks for elaborating your comment – what you say is really fascinating, and I think you’re spot on both in your scepticism about social enterprises and in your concern for ‘actual proper yields that actually feed people properly’. On that note, I’ve also been dazzled by groovy forest gardening stuff in my time but I suspect much of it will ultimately fail your ‘actual, proper’ test, although perhaps less so for urban allotmenteers than for rural growers. I’ll post some more on that soon. Your point about urban and rural activists helping each other out is also very interesting – I hope that’s something we can debate some more at some point. Thanks for visiting the site!

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