A farewell to the year

And so I come to my final blog post of 2016, and what a year it’s been. I’ve been asked by Dark Mountain to write a retrospective of it, which I hope will be up on their website soon. I’ll be offering some thoughts on the larger events of the world in that post, so here I’m mostly just going to offer a few nuggets focused on my specific theme of small-scale farming, and its future.

But first I thought perhaps I should take a leaf out of John Michael Greer’s book and make some predictions for 2017. I got a certain amount of stick on this site earlier in the year for the dim view I took of Donald Trump’s politics, and of Greer’s (deniable) enthusiasm for them. I was told that Trump’s speaking up for the working class, his focus on domestic politics rather than global power politics, and his anti-corporate/neoliberal agenda promised fresh departures. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced now that the president-elect has stuffed his team with Goldman Sachs bankers and assorted billionaires and foreign policy eccentrics, while baiting China and the Arab world.

So my prediction for December 2017: Trump’s presidency will have had a minimal to negative effect on improving the lot of the US working class, a negative effect on international relations and tensions, and a positive effect on the entrenchment of corporate power. Something to reflect on in a year’s time… The history of global power politics suggests that the rise of one power and the slow decline of another, while scarcely going unnoticed, often reaches a flashpoint where the starkness of the reversed fortunes is suddenly revealed, as if unheralded – the Thirty Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War spring to mind in the case of European history. I predict a future flashpoint in which the supremacy of China over the US is revealed, though probably not in 2017 unless Trump really surpasses himself. I hope he doesn’t – I’d prefer it to happen under a steadier pair of hands in the White House.

Anyway, let’s talk about farming. Back in October I went to the small-scale farming skill share day organised by my Land Workers’ Alliance friend Rebecca Laughton, in association with her interesting research project on the productivity of small farms in the UK. My train was delayed and I turned up late to the event, walking in to the middle of a session on small-scale grain growing just as an audience member asked the session leader what variety of wheat he grew. “Maris Widgeon,” he replied, to audible intakes of breath through the pursed lips of the assembled participants.

I sometimes think that in Britain, more than in most countries of the world, the cause of small-scale farming is, alas, a lost one. So I somehow found it cheering that there are still people around in this country capable of tight-lipped disapproval at the thought of someone growing a variety of wheat that most other people have never heard of.

That event was held at Monkton Wyld, where the inestimable Simon Fairlie and Gill Barron keep a small herd of Jerseys, sell scythes, and run The Land magazine, which celebrated its twentieth issue this year – a small ray of sanity in a crazy world. It was great to have a look around Simon and Gill’s operation, including its traditional small milking yard. As Simon pointed out, there used to be thousands of these around the country. Most are now gone, but as the margins for milk production narrow and the inputs of robotic mega confinement dairies broaden, there are some glimmerings of a return to low input micro-dairying of the kind that Simon and Gill practice. Another reason to be cheerful.

Simon is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance – still probably the best single-volume examination that I’ve read of what a small farm future might entail. And talking of meat, alternative farm guru Joel Salatin has recently been taking on all comers in defending the cause of ‘sustainable meat’ – notably against a New York Times op-ed by James McWilliams called ‘The myth of sustainable meat’, and in a debate here in the UK with, among others, Tara Garnett, head honcho of the Food Climate Research Network.

Salatin makes a lot of good points, and generally gets the better of McWilliams in his response to the NYT article, which recycles the usual weary old shibboleths about the superior ecological credentials of intensive confined meat operations. But on one point I find Salatin evasive. Critiquing McWilliams’ figures for the amount of land needed to finish an animal on grass, Salatin writes that these figures “are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures….Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production.” What he doesn’t say is how many acres an animal needs with these exponentially augmenting space-age methods, and how many acres you’d need to produce the same level of nutrition from exponentially-augmenting space-age technology applied to food crops grown directly for human consumption rather than to forage crops. Because the fact is, there’s a cast iron ecological law of trophic levels which shows you can’t produce as much meat from a given area as you can of vegetable matter.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for livestock on the farm, or that there isn’t a case for scaling up ‘sustainable meat’ – issues that Simon Fairlie looks at in some detail in his book, and that I’ve been looking at in my blog cycle on sustainable farming in the UK. But let’s be honest – except in highly marginal environments, you’re never going to produce human food via the intermediary of livestock with the same land-use efficiency as directly edible crops. Tara Garnett is undoubtedly right that levels of US or UK meat consumption aren’t globally sustainable, however the animals are raised. And in any case, ruminants are a sideshow in global meat production – the real issue is pork and chicken, which compete more directly with humans for cropland.

Western levels of meat consumption may not be globally sustainable, but they could still be locally sustainable. I’ve spent a lot of time this year crunching numbers on a projected future ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ here in southwest England where I live, with a view to comparing it to the imperium of London in the southeast. On the grassy expanses of Wessex I’ve found a role for animals in feeding the populace. But I’m not sure those assumptions will play out so well in the case of Londinium, which I’ll be coming to. My aim has also been to discuss the politics and sociology of a shift to contemporary neo-peasant societies in ‘developed’ western countries. I’ve made much less progress on this than I’d hoped to by now, but hey I’ve got a farm to run as well. And there’s always next year – I hope.

On the upside, my neo-peasant exercise seems to have prompted some wider interest. This has been the year when Small Farm Future went…well, not exactly viral, and maybe not even bacterial, but certainly amoebal, with over 1,100 comments on my posts here at Small Farm Future alone in the course of the year. Some of them weren’t even written by me. So thank you very much to everyone who’s commented, and apologies if pressure of time has sometimes meant that I haven’t been able to reply as fully as you might have liked. I’ve learned a lot from the comments I’ve received, and getting feedback is certainly an encouragement to continue blogging.

Indeed, Small Farm Future was even mentioned in dispatches by an academic study called ‘Is there a future for the small family farm?’, funded by the Princes Trust and with a foreword written by lord somebody of somewhere-or-other, so here at SFF we now have true blue aristocratic pedigree. Admittedly, the mention we got was somewhat backhanded:

Others lament the decline of the small farm in a global context. Chris Smaje, who runs a website called Small Farm Future, writes:  

“From the brief high-water mark of pro-peasant populism in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the possibility of founding self-reliant national prosperities upon independent small proprietors has slowly been eroded through land grabs, global trade agreements and agrarian policies favouring capital intensive staple commodity production over local self-provision, regardless of the consequences for small-scale farmers.” (Smaje, 2015) 

The close association between advocacy of small-scale farming and advocacy of radical organic alternatives to conventional agricultural systems (see Smaje, 2014; Tudge, 2007) often serves, in fact, to keep the size issue on the margins of mainstream debate. This is unfortunate in our view as there is real scope for positive interaction between alternative visions for agriculture and the concern at the challenges facing more conventional mainstream family farms.

Ah well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But I’m not sure it’s lonely voices in the wilderness like mine that are keeping the issue of farm size to the margins of mainstream debate, and I can’t really see how a serious case for small-scale farming as anything other than a minor complement to high input, specialised, large-scale agriculture can be made in the absence of advocating for radical (if not necessarily organic) alternatives to conventional agricultural systems. The report is certainly interesting in its analysis of the role of small-scale farming within the lifecycle of the mainstream farm economy, and in bringing a little (though only a little) data to bear on this under-examined sector. But ultimately I’d have to say that, no, there isn’t a future for the small family farm in the UK unless somebody shouts out for it politically long and loud. What a lucky break for the world it is that Small Farm Future is here to do some shouting for it…

…but not for a month or so. All this blogging of late has left me behind on my farm chores and other writing tasks. So while some opt for alcohol-free Januaries, I’m going for a blog-free one in order to catch up in some other areas of my life. And so…thanks for reading, all the best for 2017 – and I hope to see you again on the comments page sometime around February. Ciao!

15 thoughts on “A farewell to the year

  1. I’ll be interested to see how your predictions regarding Trump pan out. I made a comment on Greer’s blog along similar lines just after the US election result – my suggestion was that if the Brexit thing was any guide (much comparing had been done) the working class were at least as stuffed as they ever were etc etc. My post never appeared – I think it failed moderation – which was a shame as I spent considerably longer on that comment than I have on this one ;-0.

    Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts with us this year – I’ve enjoyed reading/discussing.


    • Thanks Bruce. A bit outrageous not getting your comment on his site! The probability that Trump won’t actually deliver anything to the working class does seem to be a bit of a missing jigsaw piece in Greer’s analysis – well, we shall see…

  2. I second Bruce’s motion of thanks for another year of SFF thinking. Odd perhaps that the quietude begins upon the shortest day of the year. Or maybe not… having some light to shed upon the topic might be necessary, and sustainability suggests the sun might be the best provider of this radiation.

  3. Best wishes for the new year! I will wait somewhat patiently for February.

    As someone who believes that small farms will be the only farms in the not too distant future, I hope that you can take some comfort in having one of the most prescient blogs in existence (and with a perfect title).

  4. Greetings from Norway! I’ve been a regular reader for a while, but this is my first comment. First and foremost, I just wanted to say thank you for another year of interesting and thoughtful posts, and as far as I’m concerned this is one of the absolute best blogs around. I’ve especially enjoyed following the Wessex Peasant Republic project. This blog has been a great source of book recommendations too, like Simon Fairlie’s “Meat” mentioned in this post. Keep up the great work, and looking forward to coming back in February.

    As for Greer and Trump, just wanted to chime in with a quick comment there too since I’m also a long-time ADR reader. On this particular issue, I’m definitely closer to your position than Greer’s. While I do think Trump might have been the lesser evil overall (mostly due to the higher chance of avoiding a war with Russia, which is very relevant for us up here sharing a border with them), Greer does seem overly optimistic about his presidency. Especially considering how much he’s (rightly) lambasted Obama for dropping all his promises of change once he was elected, and how most signs so far point towards Trump going down the same path.

    As I read it, Greer’s position seems to be that as long as Trump manages to scrap and/or renegotiate a few trade treaties and avoid a war with Russia, he’ll have done more good than either of the Clintons, Bush or Obama. At the same time, he seems to be much more willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt than he probably warrants (in my opinion, anyway), especially considering Trump’s far from reassuring cabinet picks you mentioned in the post.

    In any case, have a great holiday season and good new year, and I’ll be back in February!

  5. Compliments of the season to all at SFF. A few posts back you mentioned Simon Fairlie’s excellent article on stone quarrying in The Land; anyone interested in following up on that can find it in Issue 14 (Summer 2013), still available as a back issue. Merry Christmas!

  6. Thanks for the comments, and nice to hear your voice on here, Kim. Interesting local perspective on Trump’s foreign policy… I’m not sure that baiting China instead of Russia is such a great idea, though.

  7. Carramba! I have again slothered my bath-tub occupying carps before I took a photo of the beasts & send it to U. You may carp about it to me :-/

  8. I have read a lot about meat being unsustainable well yes the feed lot / mega dairy are not sustainable , here in the US / texas , inputs have to travel too far , 2000 mile round trips for a load of hay is deplorable but local produced is another thing and could easily be done accept for the economy of scale that would put the price up .
    You can get a lot of green matter for human consumption getting rid of meat animals , it’s a hell of a lot more work to grow a cabbage than a pig , growing pastured meat is far less labour intensive than running a market garden and where does the muck come from ? Out of a bag ? sending produce to cities also exports your fertility with it .
    It seems to me that on one hand we have the vegan’s and the anti cow fart brigade versus the pastured low intensity livestock farmers , you will notice that the ” greens ” don’t want to put land free of animals back to nature , they want to grow veggies the problem with that is there is millions of acres good for animal forage that will become a dust bowl if plowed up .

  9. Not much of a soothsayer meself. I am just happy that long-suffering Aleppo has been liberated, and wish its inhabitants speedy rebuilding, as well as the chance to heal from the trauma of brutal occupation. As for American working class, that’s a tough nut to crack. I hope you’ll give it full four years to see if Trump makes a difference. I am much relieved Trump has indicated pulling back from the new cold war with Russia Obama unleashed… we’ll see if he sticks to it.

    I am also counting this year as the time when a significant mass of people woke up and began to discern on their own what is fake news and what isn’t. I hope our ranks continue to swell. To illustrate the current bizarre situation, here are a couple of vids, the first showing what the BBC said about the Russian ambassador’s assassin’s words and inferred intentions, and below it what he actually said. Thank goodness for the web.

    Maris Wigeon wheat? Very cool. I miss all those long stem fields. 🙂

    Many thanks for this wonderful blog. It’s been intelligent, thought-provoking, and all marvelously entangled with soil magic. Merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, enjoy the “dark of the year”, and a more peaceful new year to us all.

  10. Thanks for the further comments. I’m in bread sauce & stuffing mode today – back on comments duty sometime early Jan. Happy holidays to all.

  11. Thanks again for the time and effort you put into this project, Chris. Since I won’t have new posts to look forward to in January, I’ll turn my attention to your archives — there’s a lot there that I’ve yet to read, and a lot that would merit reading a second or even third time. I also eagerly anticipate your retrospective for Dark Mountain — it’s definitely been interesting and, frankly, rather disheartening year on any number of fronts. Despite Steven Pinker’s assertion that “the world continues to improve in just about every way” in a recent Vox interview, I’m having a hard time reconciling some of the year’s political developments, in particular, with an optimistic take on our collective future. With that in mind, I find your prediction for 2017 to be all too plausible. Let’s just hope that the consequences of Trump’s election (along with the Republican party’s continuing majority in the House and Senate and soon, perhaps, control of the Supreme Court) are no worse than you predict, because I sure as hell don’t see how they can be any better.

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