Friendship to farmers, and the further pursuit of panglossism

Small Farm Future has been gaining a modicum of attention recently, with a few new readers coming to us by way of our CEO Chris Smaje’s article on peasants in The Land magazine, and with Ford Denison, Professor of Ecology at the University of Minnesota, generously stating that Smaje is “an agricultural thinker worth reading” who thinks about agriculture “in creative ways, rather than just parroting conventional vs organic “party lines””. We’ve also had the dubious honour of an entire blog post devoted to us by self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts, who says that Smaje is a fierce defender of organics. Well, they can’t both be right, but a quick straw poll in the Small Farm Future office reveals a clear winner. Step forward, Professor Denison!

Anyway, in my post today I’m going to focus on a couple of Strouts’ comments. No, no, no – don’t stop reading! I’ve come to realise that engaging with him is a fruitless business, and I’ve got no interest in the strident shouting past each other that goes on in blog debates of this sort. However, Strouts does occasionally make points that are worth engaging with, if only because they help me lay down markers for the positions on agriculture I want to develop – and this is my only aim in the present post. Most of Strouts’ post referenced my recent comments about permaculture design courses, but I’m going to reserve further comment on permaculture to another post. The points Strouts made that I’m going to engage with here are:

1. The notion that there’s some kind of “alternative” farming system that applies thoughtful design principles while the “mainstream” does not smacks of a metropolitan disdain for farmers.

2. If “alternative” farming worked, it would just be called “farming”.

3. Imagining that there is a simple way to overcome the problems of modern farming is fanciful.

1. Metropolitan Disdain

If the reference in point 1 is to individual farmers, then I agree (I don’t think I’ve ever said that mainstream farmers don’t apply thoughtful design, but if I have I apologise – friendship to farmers, I say!) And I do think there’s a tendency among (metropolitan) food activists to heap excessive blame on farmers for the mess that the food system is in – for example, in George Monbiot’s recent writings on the UK floods and on CAP subsidies. While I find the basic lines of Monbiot’s analysis hard to fault, I think he’d be better off including consumers, retailers, politicians and corporate financial interests as well as farmers in his broadsides.

Nevertheless, mainstream farming proponents like Skepteco, Applied Mythology and Biology Fortified do rather go to town on the notion that they’re defending honest conventional farmers from the derision of ‘alternative’ farming advocates. The local mainstream farmers I come into contact with are no shrinking violets, and as far as I can tell they don’t much care about my fertility or pest control strategies and whether they might be considered an implicit critique of their own. Indeed, often enough we can find more in common through our shared position as vulnerable producers on the bottom trophic level of the food system than differences through our farming practices. No, the real target of the ‘alternative farming’ critique isn’t mainstream farmers, but mainstream farming policy and its advocates. This, I think, is why said advocates on said websites like to take offence on behalf of farmers, because it’s  easier to feel noble when defending somebody else from an assumed slight than when taking offence oneself.

In any case, the issue really isn’t about what specific farmers do, because it scarcely matters on an individual farm level and it can’t be denied that many ‘mainstream’ farmers do apply good design principles and farm well. The problem rather is systemic. Just as the utopian socialists found that the evils of capitalist industrialism couldn’t be solved by setting up nicer factories, or abolitionists found it necessary to go beyond the notion that the evils of slavery were caused by the problem of cruel slaveholders, so the critique of ‘mainstream’ farming is a systemic one, transcending the notion that the problems in the food system result from bad farmers doing bad things. Writers like Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) or Felicity Lawrence (Eat Your Heart Out) give nice overviews of what a systemic rather than a farmer-blaming critique of the food system looks like.


2. If ‘alternative farming worked’…

Quite simply, it does work, and it very likely grows the majority of the world’s food1. The tragedy is that this kind of farming has been relegated to secondary status in public judgments and public policies concerning farming by high capital-low labour, export-oriented cash-cropping2, and it’s about time that we re-appropriated the word ‘farming’ for those who feed their local communities and called the other kind something else – ‘agribusiness’, perhaps. But as things stand, I find myself juggling with all sorts of terms that people have coined to try to capture the multiple goals of a more sensible food system:  ‘alternative’, sustainable, local, organic, permaculture, peasant, smallholder, truck farmer, community farmer, share farmer, agroecological, regenerative, high nature value, traditional, enlightened, ‘real’ etc. These terms are not synonymous, not all of them are exclusive of ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ farming, and they all have their pros and cons. I don’t wish to associate myself with any one of them exclusively, but I’d rather associate myself with most of them than with the tremendous social injustice, environmental destruction and nutritional deficit of the agribusiness-dominated contemporary food system. And I’ve yet to come across any really compelling arguments as to why a food system based largely around relatively small-scale – usually mixed – farming , principally oriented to local consumption, and looking to cycle local biotic materials as its preferred agronomic strategy, isn’t something worth striving for.


3. Fanciful imaginings

It’s true of course that imagining there are simple solutions to complex problems is fanciful – one good reason among many to question the quaint techno-determinism of the eco-panglossians in championing nuclear power, GMOs etc as the answer to our problems. But the key word at issue here is “imagine”, and it’s worth dwelling on it a moment, for herein lies the cardinal error of the eco-panglossians. One can’t of course simply ‘imagine’ solutions to practical problems, you have to actually solve them. The trouble with the eco-panglossians, though, is that they think of problems as being merely practical, and therefore amenable to purely technical solutions, without realising that these problems ultimately emerge from the particular socioeconomic forms that societies assume – that is, from particular social imaginaries – which are not the only ones possible (a point I examined a couple of weeks ago).

I’ll say more about this in a future post, because the more eco-panglossian writings I read, and the more I study agrarian history, the more I realise that eco-panglossianism is but the latest twist in the long and occasionally worthwhile but mostly sorry career of the colonial ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’. And it will require another twist in the career of agrarian populism to transcend it and take us to a more promising future. Strouts objects to my use of the term ‘eco-panglossian’ for its sneery tone, and though this is rather a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose it is a bit sneery. But what’s the alternative? It certainly wouldn’t be right to let the eco-panglossians run off with the word ‘pragmatism’ and prevent others from deploying pragmatisms of their own. So I think it has to be either ‘eco-panglossians’ or neo-colonial agrarian improvers (‘Neo-cols’? Nags?). Any other suggestions gratefully received below.


Anyway, that gives me plenty of things to post about on this site in the future – permaculture, colonial ‘improvement’, agrarian populism, social imaginaries, plus various other things in the pipeline, such as an interesting and incomplete debate with Andy McGuire about ecosystems and ecosystem assembly, and a post about Chicago (why not?) But truth be told I’m a bit up against it with moving house, re-establishing my growing business and pursuing a couple of other writing projects, so please forgive me if my posts are a bit more sporadic over the next couple of months.


1. Via Campesina (2010) Sustainable Peasant And Family Farm Agriculture Can Feed The World; Grain (Forthcoming), Yes, Small Farmers Feed The World.

2. Van der Ploeg, J. (2008) The New Peasantries.


5 thoughts on “Friendship to farmers, and the further pursuit of panglossism

  1. Dear Chris
    My suggestion for your challenge of naming modern agribusiness corporations is to return to an old name for essentially the same economic institution, “Planters” from plantations. Modern agribusiness and colonial plantations both feature large scale monoculture production of cash crop commodities destined for distant markets. The main difference is the replacement of cheap labour from slaves, indentured servants, share croppers, or pressed labour, by minimal labour through increased capital and energy intensification. Though the word “planters” is historically appropriate I doubt it will catch on as it has lost its historical meaning, and could be just as well used by an organic market gardener as a marketing term, as by a agribusiness corporation.

    Best regards

    Philip Hardy

    • Thanks Philip – I like that suggestion, though I agree it would be hard to make it stick in contemporary times. Of course you’re right that modern agribusiness has replaced much human labour through capital and energy intensification, although it’s interesting that both historically and contemporaneously world market agriculture is quite happy to work with exploitive labour-intensive methods when it can…the liberation of ‘free’ wage labour has liberated some people more than others…

  2. Chris:
    A winter to remember… we’re with millimeters of having the second most snowfall on record here, and there is still another (smallish) chance for more. And we’re to understand your island has received more rain and flooding than any living human can recall.

    So with your mention of George Monbiot’s piece I followed through and ended up reading George Eustice’s remarks to the NFU:

    And that got me to wondering – have you had enough flooding or other water damage to place Vallis Veg in a way of qualifying for backing? Not really interested in your private business affairs so much as curious about conditions on the ground and how the government will roll out this assistance – the hoops and hurdles one would face if choosing to apply.

    • That’s some serious digging around you’ve done there, Clem! Interesting. I’m not sure that our damage is that severe, certainly compared to other people in nearby places like the Somerset Levels, though our farm track is definitely the worse for wear. Generally I find that a micro-scale, lightly capitalised enterprise such as ours is low in the pecking order when it comes to government support, though I’m not the most adept at tracking public funding opportunities. Not wholly a bad thing, I think, as keeping below the radar and trying to learn resilience can be useful traits. Still, thanks for spotting that opportunity, I’ll try to keep my eye on it. You might be interested in this take on the floods:

      Commiserations regarding your snowfall. Having had some hard winters (by our standards) here in the last few years, this winter we’ve barely even had any frost…probably not a good portent for the slug-fest we’ll have when the veg starts growing.

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