In praise of stupid: for a self-systemic farming

I’ve been blogging for over six years under this ‘Small Farm Future’ moniker, without devoting much effort to defining what a ‘small farm’ actually is. So I thought I’d try to make at least some minor amends on that score in this post. Strangely, I think the results bear on recent discussions here, including the one under my last post on regenerative agriculture.

The standard response to the question ‘how small is a small farm?’ is the same as the standard response to most questions – it depends. A small peri-urban market garden may be a fraction of an acre, whereas a small upland livestock operation may be hundreds or even thousands of acres. So a quantitative definition in terms of land area doesn’t get us far. The same of course holds true for defining large farms. Blank quantification doesn’t elucidate the essential difference between ‘small’ and ‘large’.

Perhaps we get closer to the crux if we say that a small farm is one that serves its local community. A small farm is not one that sells its produce into national or international commodity markets, but one that usually sells directly to local customers. I think this definition is serviceable, but it obscures some details that need highlighting. Most ‘local communities’ in wealthy countries – and, in fact, generally in the world today – are not fundamentally organised with respect to local space and resources. In this sense, a small farm serving its local community is anomalous. Further, because of the non-localism of local economic space, many of the inputs used in small farms are necessarily not that local. The result is that most of us who produce food for local sale have to compromise in various ways, and expect our customers to understand the nature of these compromises sufficiently to keep buying from us rather than simply going to the supermarket. That’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, and it goes some way to explaining why there aren’t many small farms, and why a lot of the ones that do start up go out of business. Michelle’s fascinating account on this site of operating a ranching operation in Hawaii at local and not-so-local retail levels nicely illustrates the kind of dilemmas that arise.

Maybe another way of broaching these issues is to say that a small farm is one that doesn’t grow staple cereal crops for sale. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the history of modern global civilization is keyed fundamentally to the story of how the world’s immense semi-arid continental grasslands were transformed through colonial violence in Old World and New from human ecologies of foraging and pastoralism to ones of (increasingly mechanised) cereal production1. The resultant vast global flows of cheap grain have successively undermined smaller-scale and more localised agricultures – first in the colonial heartlands (eg. the English agricultural crisis of the 1880s), then in the grain-producing grasslands themselves (eg. with the substantial demise of independent rural farm communities in the US mid-west, starting in the 1920s and 30s) and finally with the demise of peasant grain production and increasing import dependence throughout most of the postcolonial world from the 1960s as a result of international grain trading and food dumping2. To a considerable degree, global grain prices drive the price of almost everything else, and small farms serving local markets can’t compete with them, at least within the narrow framing of the contemporary economy. In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.

For numerous reasons that I’ve set out on this blog over the years, I think this global food system (and therefore global civilisation writ large) is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely saviour from these crises – but a ‘post-global’ or ‘post-industrial’ small farm won’t look much like the small farms of the present, and it may not look much like the small farms of the past either.

But that’s for the future. For now, the definition of the small farm that I most want to work with is the idea of it as a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Let me try to explain. Generally, I don’t favour technological solutionism in the face of the world’s problems, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves and in fact is exemplary of the kind of super-scaled terraforming that’s precisely what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.

Generally, I’m reasonably sympathetic to ‘holistic’ ideas about the common thread between good farming, good food, good health and good earth stewardship, though these connections are often tied up too neatly for my taste in much advocacy for various alternative farming techniques. The claims for the benefits of these techniques often outrun the evidence for them, and I’m uncomfortable with the way that they’re so often presented as a complete system which people in general ought to follow in order to solve humanity’s problems – indeed, that they’d be stupid not to. Stupidity has long been imputed by the advocates of progress and agricultural ‘improvement’ to small farmers practicing self-systemic agriculture historically3. It’s not hard now to find contrary examples of alternative agriculture enthusiasts returning fire to ‘conventional’ agriculture. I daresay I’ve erred myself in this respect.

Well, call me stupid but I now want out of this megalomaniac solutionism. So I’m tempted to define the small farm as ‘anti-systemic’. The small farm is a farm which is not run on principles like feeding the world, solving climate change, cutting costs or prices, increasing market share, impressing neighbours or peers, beating out the competition, maximising yield or saving the planet. It’s a place whose farmers are trying to provision themselves with the resources to hand, not build a ‘system’ to proselytise and ramify. But of course farming is intrinsically ‘systemic’ – it involves numerous deliberate procedures and input-output loops that you learn from other people, mess around with and apply or modify to the best of your ability. So I’ve gone with the notion of ‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.

This raises more questions than it answers, but I think they’re the right kind of questions. One set of questions proceeds from the notion of the ‘self’, because nobody is just a ‘self’. How am I connected to other people? What is my ‘community’? What duties do I have in respect of it, and it to me? What duties do I have to people who are not in my ‘community’? To my descendants, or my ancestors? Another set of questions proceeds from the notion of the resources ‘to hand’. What lands, soils, water, air, energies, plants, germplasm and minerals can be said to be ‘to hand’? And what legacies in respect of them does my farming leave?

There’s nothing massively original in what I’m saying, but I think we easily forget its import. The permaculture movement, for example, has been good at posing these first principle questions – what are the resources of this land and this community? But permaculture design often reverts to systemic shibboleths – no till, perennial plantings, space stacking etc. One of the last comments of the late, lamented permaculturist Patrick Whitefield on this blog was this:

The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation….Having a favourite theory and pushing that above all others is no help to anyone.

Actually, the comment was aimed critically at me, but it’s one I wholly agree with…and much of my critical writing within the alternative agriculture movement has really been an attempt to articulate it. By contrast, not only our entire civilization but also most of the alternatives and critiques of it within and without agriculture proceed too easily from the notion that every piece of land and every person is not unique, but assimilable to wider truths. And of course, all of us and all places are participants in wider relationships that aren’t just self-generated. To me, that contradiction is at the heart of contemporary dilemmas – agricultural, political, environmental, spiritual. And I’d like to place the self-systemic small farm at the heart of them.

Schumacher wrote that ‘small is beautiful’ (though apparently he hated the title). Beckerman countered that ‘small is stupid’. Contemporary complacency over climate change is characterised as ‘The Age of Stupid’. Keith Hart writes that agriculture bears a political weight beyond its economic importance because rural imagery shapes the modern idea of the nation as resistant to modernism under the slogan “stop the world, I want to get off”4 – the characteristic slogan of a superficial anti-romanticism.

I’d like to define the small farm as something that’s richly and knowingly indifferent to all these stupidities and counter-stupidities, and to the worldliness, anti-worldliness or other-worldliness that the slogan invoked by Hart is trying to fix and anatomize. It’s hard to attain such a complex indifference – but I think it’s worth a try.


  1. See, for example: W. Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. Norton; R. Netz. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan UP; D. Moon. 2013. The Plough That Broke The Steppes. Oxford UP.
  2. M. Mazoyer & L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  3. Examples are provided by J. Handy. 2009. Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies. 36, 2: 325-44.
  4. K. Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in M. Lien and B. Nerlich (eds) The Politics of Food, Berg.

81 thoughts on “In praise of stupid: for a self-systemic farming

  1. To sum up from the last post
    This article today about the parlous state of British (and US) agriculture, and the complete ignorance of governments, is a ‘must read’. I have taken the liberty of also posting a direct link to the linked article ‘It’s the Soil Biology Stupid!’ I believe the article represents more of less what I have said here…you have to make allowances for my advanced age and declining mental abilities.

    I will add one more observation. The ‘sleepwalking’ article points out that most farmers in Britain and the US are losing money. David Johnson has said that he thinks the agricultural revolution in terms of fungal symbiosis and hydrated land will come from the bottom up, as farmers and ranchers realize it is the only way to survive. He finds a puzzling absence of interest on the part of Officialdom.

    Don Stewart


    It’s the Soil Biology Stupid!

  2. Chris
    I suggest that you consider your statement:

    “This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.’

    By lumping mirrors in space and regenerative agriculture in the same concept, I believe your are making a possibly fatal error. If you look at the links I posted before in the ‘Its the Biology, Stupid’ article, you find that every plant and every field will evolve a different ecology, when farmed intelligently. Such ecologies evolve even when we just stop doing destructive things. So we can, to an extent we are just discovering, ‘Team With Microbes’.

    However, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, one needs to take David Johnson’s productivity numbers with a grain of salt because David is blessed with some the best sunshine on Earth. I don’t think you could get Johnson yields in Wessex. Now the Space Mirrors crowd wants to block sunshine. What does that do to agricultural yields? The key to their story rests on one or both of these pillars:
    *We are getting excessive sunshine we can’t deal with
    *We don’t need to produce food from sunshine anyway
    Yet we know that the beds of fossil fuels were laid down by plants in a time when the Earth was much warmer and had more CO2 in the atmosphere. So we may have problems with sea levels or corals and ocean acidification, but it seems that plants and microbes can deal with all the sunshine we have and warmer temperatures. Johnson talks about some studies at the U of California showing increased growth rates as CO2 increases. But that may all depend on having a robust plant/ microbe/ soil food web ecology in place.

    In short, when one denies that Teaming With Microbes is relevant (under whatever label you want to put on it), then one is effectively placing a bet on Space Mirrors.

    I won’t live to see the results of that insanity. But I fear for my grandchildren.

    Don Stewart

    • Don, to me there’s an important conceptual difference between ‘farming intelligently’ and ‘practicing regenerative agriculture’, even if the former may often encompass much that’s emphasised in the latter. The difference is essentially what I’m driving at in the post above – solving your problems or solving the world’s problems (I’ll admit to some tricky questions over who ‘you’ is).

      So I’m with you when you say “you find that every plant and every field will evolve a different ecology, when farmed intelligently” and I don’t mind if you want to label that regenerative agriculture, but my feeling is that the latter label smuggles in more of an off the peg ‘system’ than is wise. This manifests in slogans like “It’s the biology, stupid”. To me it’s no more ‘the’ biology, than it is ‘the’ economy, or ‘the’ culture, or ‘the’ politics. Poor soil biology on the farm is but one morbid symptom of a deeper malaise, and I consider it a mistake to believe that contemporary environmental problems can be solved by getting soil biology right. I certainly consider it a mistake to believe that low farm incomes can be solved by getting soil biology right – that’s not how the economy works.

      I agree with you that Britain and probably the rest of the world is quite possibly sleepwalking towards a food crisis. I don’t think that crisis will be averted by improving farm soil biology, though doing so will undoubtedly have to be a part of the solution.

      The criticisms levelled at the DEFRA consultation in the Resilience article aren’t too dissimilar from the ones I levelled at David Johnson’s biomass comparisons in my previous post. I’m braced to see Gove endorse regenerative agriculture in the UK on the one hand and free trade on the other as the most efficient means to ensure British food security. If that happens, it’ll be the economy, stupid!

  3. “‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.”

    So I like where this is going, but I am not sure I understand your meaning. When I read it first, I thought you meant that the small farm furnishes itself. Then, reading further, I wondered if the “self” here means the human who is running that farm. could you elaborate?

    And if you mean the human, then how is it different from subsistence farming?

  4. On the matter of defining farm size – here in the U.S. of A our government (read the USDA) defines farm size using a simple commercial metric. Farm income.

    So a two acre commercial garden operation selling veges and posting an income equivalent to a 400 acre grain farm will be considered of equivalent size for statistical purposes. How many two acre garden farms exist relative to 400 acre grain farms? I’m not certain, but imagine the ratio likely much smaller than a per cent.

    Another means of defining farms on our side of the pond goes to farmer economic welfare. Does the farm operation depend upon ‘off farm’ income? So Farmer Brown is the proprietor of one of the above mentioned 400 acre grain farms. Not satisfied with a poverty level income from this operation (and capable of attending to this size operation in less than half his waking hours) he chooses to work at welding and small engine repair to augment his income. Driving a school bus, writing for ag magazines, selling books, making pottery… the list of ‘off farm’ income sources is immense. A clever person might suggest all these various off farm, farm workers are somehow ‘self-systemic’.

    Another type of farm also dots our landscape… this would be a farm where the principal is involved in a full-time ‘off farm’ employment and is on the farm as a sort of amusement… often referred to as a hobby farm. Here I have to confess a certain distaste for the ‘hobby’ moniker. I personally farm in this latter category… or at least the land I own and manage falls into this category. If I consider the agricultural field research I do which provides for my full-time occupation as farming… then I guess I would qualify as a full-time farmer. But the USDA doesn’t see things in this light. Oh well, I’m happy – and that particular result isn’t asked for on a balance sheet (which could be one source of our collective difficulty… but again, I’ve digressed).

    But all these categorical definitions aside… I have to ponder along a different tack. I have to wonder, why does size matter in the first place?

  5. I love your musings here, Chris.

    As we discuss the “‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.” I just want to shout-out to Ralph Borsodi for everyone who missed it last time. Borsodi wrote in the 30s, and advocated for not trying to sell your products, just to replace the products you were buying.

    Flight from the city; an experiment in creative living on the land : Borsodi, Ralph (scroll down for download options)

    And I also love “Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation.”

    This is so powerful for me, and such a source of sadness for me that I have spent so little time in a place, and so much time in rented houses. This is the idea that shines out of Wendell Berry.

    My main concern is sustainability–is something able to be sustained. I see the specific relationship with place as being necessary but not sufficient to sustainability.

    If you have a specific relationship with place, you might be able to be sustainable. But if you don’t, I am doubtful if you ever could be sustainable.

  6. Another cracker. Perhaps part of what you’re suggesting in this is a set of meta system principles that could guide positive outcomes when judged by a particular set of objectives. A well-crafted objective function for anyone who has studied formal optimisation.

    The development of something along those lines is where I’ve thought you could make a very useful contribution with your skills and experience.

    People are always going to want some structure to work within as they don’t have the time/skills/experience/knowledge to develop ab initio their own, we’re a tribal animal etc This is one of the reasons glib snake-oil salesmen preying on, for example, inexperienced or desperate farmers do well. Just use this technique/apply this potion and so on. All yours for just $XXXXX with payment plans available.

    A guiding set of meta principles has, of course, been what various intentional communities, assorted movements, charismatic guru figures etc have all aimed at and espoused. How to keep it useful and prevent ossification into dogma is the challenge.

  7. Big or small, the best farm is the one that supplies the most food per worker for the longest time, preferably forever and certainly far longer than one lifetime. This means that the techniques used must be sustainable (can’t rely on one-off supplies of anything, including fossil fuels), cannot permanently degrade the soil, and have to utilize crops and techniques appropriate to the number of people to be supplied with calories from the farm. A few people on a lot of land can do fine with pastoralism, whereas a lot of people on little land will require lots of intensively managed plant calories.

    “The most food per worker” covers even psychological/social aspects of worker motivation and labor organization. I doubt that slaves or serfs would outproduce people working for their own benefit, so small-holdings are probably better in that regard than feudal empires.

    On the other hand, if outside forces come in and kill farm workers, food production would certainly fall, so mutual defense has to be part of the picture too. There is always going to be an ongoing tension between the farmer wanting to keep his own production and the requirement that some of it be diverted to support defense.

    But even though the social context will always impact farmers, starting with the assumption that maximizing very long term production per worker should guide farming practice is reasonable. In some places that will mean ranching, in others it will mean farming with draft animals and in still others it will mean 100% human labor. It just depends on how many people have to be fed per acre of available land.

    • The best produces the most. I can see why you’re right again, Joe, though I feel there’s something to be said for producing just enough food, for the least amount of human work, ideally from the smallest amount of land feasible.

  8. Thanks for another thought-provoking set of comments. I’ll try to address a few of them.

    Clem asks why size matters. Essentially because of his Farmer Brown, whose (very big) 400 acre grain farm is imposing poverty – on Farmer Brown himself, on the farmers whose production he’s displacing and probably on people in the future whose production he may be compromising. Many would argue that this agricultural impoverishment is a price worth paying for all the wonders of modern civilisation that it potentiates. For sure, I’m a beneficiary of these wonders, but I can’t honestly join in their chorus.

    Vera asks who is the ‘self’ I’m referring to. I guess I left this deliberately vague, because that’s the question we all need to answer…and in a sense the point of the post is that there isn’t a single answer to it that’s universally right. But it’s a good question nonetheless. In a European or North American context, I’m quite comfortable with Jeffersonian notions of a republic of private smallholders. So, to get there I’m supportive of home veg gardening, homesteading etc. as well as small farms oriented to direct local sales. I’m supportive of the Borsodi approach mentioned by Ruben or, in a British context, of John Seymour’s influential writings on ‘self-sufficiency’ – so long as we acknowledge that the ‘self’ can never be sufficient to itself. So we need to bring ‘society’ in – and that is exactly the question… I’m not arguing for a ‘self’ prior to society, but a usable social conception of the self. I probably need to work this up some more.

    Clem wonders if school bus-drivers, booksellers or potters might also be somehow ‘self-systemic’. Another excellent probe at my ‘self-systemic’ conception. I guess I’d say that they could be – it depends on how ‘organically’, ‘self-recreatingly’ or perhaps just ‘politically’ their activities are shaped with those of others. Here’s where my self-systemic idea either starts to take off or breaks down completely, depending on one’s point of view. I’m reluctant to define a priori the boundaries and procedures of the ‘self-system’ – so you could argue it’s meaningless, or indistinguishable from present political realities. But there’s something here about conscious self-creation, considered boundary-making and calibration to place that I’m trying to pick at, and which I think is effaced in much of our mainstream political boundary-making.

    Ruben provides another slant to this, capturing something that’s long animated my arguments on this blog – a specific relationship to place as a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. I agree completely…and I’ll be writing more about this shortly. Small, locally-oriented farms don’t necessarily guarantee sustainable wellbeing, but I find it hard to imagine the latter without the former. Farmer Brown’s grain operation and [Appropriate Surname’s] oil business are effective disruptors of this possibility.

    Perhaps at the back of my mind in writing this is James Scott’s ‘Against the Grain’ book, which I recently read. Maybe I need to write a post that summarises it. It proceeds from an essentially anarchist animus against the centralised state. I don’t consider myself an anarchist in any straightforward way, but there’s an anarchist core to my argument in this post. Start locally. What do you need? Build from there. A good centralised state might emerge from that process. The ones we’ve got generally haven’t. In this sense, my argument is probably quite extremist, and I’m probably not willing to die fighting for it. But I think it’s a better mental starting place than the more hidden extremism of a Steven Pinker in his Panglossian approbation of a globalising modernity.

    David provides another interesting slant, in terms of meta-principles or a ‘system of systems’. My next post bears more directly on this. I agree with him that keeping it useful and preventing ossification into dogma is a challenge. Such dogmatic ossification is a common problem with small-scale communities, but it also seems to me to be precisely the problem that arguments for global modernisation have run into. Perhaps my self-systemic conception is a way of trying to mitigate dogmatic ossification – keep actively constructing your systems, and if you fail then at least you’re only imposing dogmatic ossification on yourself. But who is the ‘self’ here? Back to Vera’s question.

    Joe argues that the best farm is the one that supplies the most food per worker for the longest time, preferably forever. I like the way he develops this position, and its radicalism – Farmer Brown currently supplies the most food per worker, but he fails the ‘forever’ criterion. Perhaps I’d like to unpick the concept of ‘food’ more fully. But I also share Simon’s concern: part of this conversation has to be about bringing in the concept of ‘enough’, which the oil + prairie grain equation has temporarily erased from our thinking. So I like Simon’s idea of producing just enough food, for the least amount of human work, ideally from the smallest amount of land feasible.

    Thanks also for the link, Michael. I’ll take a look at it. I’ve perhaps become overly suspicious of other people’s off-the-peg ‘systems’ in agriculture, along the lines of David’s concerns. But there’s undoubtedly much to be learned from other farmers.

  9. Meh. If your attempt to finally define “small farming” is going to be no more than an intentionally humorous and ironic round of crankery with no practical application, which quickly deconstructs into meaninglessness, even more poorly-defined ideological constructs, I’d say leave it undefined or try again. Or perhaps I just expect more for my time from one of the most interesting thinkers in modern “sustainable” “farming” than an expression of frustration with fragmenting, factionalizing, politicizing, and systematizing which have become the norm across virtually every sector of the modern global economy – if not every sector of modern culture. Sure, rant about that reality, or better yet say something meaningful and constructive about it, but smuggling that concept into “small farming” is ironically (intentionally?) more of exactly the same sort of world-saving systematizaing you’re complaining about, but perhaps at an even more refined and meaningless level. Of course, in a society now terrified of climate chaos and social breakdown do-gooderism (beyond “provisioning the self”) is now an essential element in adding value to agricultural product, so virtually EVERY functioning small farm (those actually making any kind of money, rather than spending it on a hobby) in my region of North America is not a “small farm” by your proposed definition. And so long as local economies continue to strongly prioritize do-gooderism (an essential element of placating the masses in such times) over food and other basic necessities, “small farms” must brand as part of the solution in order to “provision the self” successfully, and those that don’t are doomed to failure. Tyson, Microsoft, Tesla, Ford, Apple, Facebook are all busy “saving the world” and consumers for the most part want to believe it. This reality could use critique, but it’s just meaningless to define the whole of opposition to that reality as “small farming” and misses the wider context to define “small farming” as the kind of farming that’s mindfully critical fo that (poorly-defined) and un-named reality. Better yet, why shouldn’t small farms attempt to interact with this reality skillfully until inevitable skepticism brings change, and find ways to profitably aid and interact with their communities beyond growing over-priced vegetables?

  10. Dispatch from the “small farming system” marketing department: “Value, support and purchase produce from “small farms” at a higher-than-market value, because they will save the world, care for soil, and build local economies and so on… through the mechanism of being the kind of farms that are willfully indifferent to saving the world, caring for soil, and building local economies and so on.”

  11. Mike, my apologies for your sense of wasted time on reading my post are tempered by a similar sense on my part in wading through your invective. Saying something constructive cuts both ways. But to respond in brief, I think you’ve missed the point of the post, which isn’t to construct a definition of small farms so purist that all actual examples of the same (most certainly including my one) fail it, allowing me to stand in judgment of them, so much as to construe the conditions in which small farms might be mainstream rather than ‘niche’. If you think my comments have no practical application on that score, that’s fine – it doesn’t surprise or trouble me that some people won’t be moved by what I’m reaching for in the post. Indeed, in a sense that’s one of the points I’m making. But for my part, while I agree with you that existing small farms certainly should engage skillfully with existing realities I don’t agree that “inevitable skepticism” will magically bring about desired change. Skepticism is not inevitable, and desired change has to be articulated politically, which is the purpose of the post. So for me the post is very practical – whereas my day job of growing a bit of food for my local community now seems to me less ‘practical’ than it once did. Finally, a small but important correction – I defined the small farm as “richly and knowingly indifferent” not “willfully indifferent”. I’m not indifferent to the difference.

    • Apologies if I was rude. I have nothing but high regards for your work. Perhaps you touched a vein. I’m still wondering 1, what is the mechanism by which rich and knowing indifference to matters beyond self-provisioning can have a positive impact? 2. Why wouldn’t such farms look like the indifferent farm I grew up on, burying junk with backhoes, draining oil onto farm fields, spraying and tilling the soil and ecosystem into oblivion? Do we really need such farms to be mainstream? I see far too many which fly the flag of sustainability, thinking that being “small” is enough, while using practices which are certainly more destructive than those of industrial farming. Very often, these deeply unsustainable farms cynically court the most acclaim for their sustainability and do-gooderism.

      • Thanks for that Mike. I think I need to do a better job of explaining what I mean, though I find the issues here quite complex and I need to think about them more. Rather than do that in a comment right now, I think I’m going to try to write a couple more posts about it soon. But thanks for prompting me with those points.

  12. I do agree with you on most of the criticism of “saving the world” agriculture theories. And I do see farming as an iterative learning exercise full of compromises. And while it is good to get inspiration from organic, permaculture etc it is not very good to make them into law.

    I find it a bit harder to entertain the notion of the self-systemic farm. Or that it is a desirable place to be in. In order to be “self-systemic” I think you must be in control of most of the processes that keeps you alive. But as humans, I think we can’t think away the society and culture – and alas economy – we are part of, and that human society will always set the frame for our makings. I mean, even a shovel and a bull from the neighbour means your system in no longer self-sufficient and therefore hardly self-systemic. And I also think that this dependence of other people – to a certain extent – is both useful and a preconditions for a peaceful society. Perhaps I misunderstand your point?

    • Gunnar, yes I think you do misunderstand my point, but perhaps it’s my fault for invoking the word ‘self’. Maybe I should revert to ‘anti-systemic’, though that raises other issues. As per my response to Vera et al above, the concept of ‘self’ here doesn’t necessarily refer to an individual person – it’s a placeholder for the idea of a system that’s ‘self-constructed’ and ‘for itself’, rather than addressed to universals or global issues. That doesn’t mean that people within it must be indifferent to other people or wider issues – however, I’m not convinced that trying to ramify farm systems that set themselves up to resolve these global issues is the best way to go.

      • Shame that English doesn’t have the “self” the Latin-based languages have. The small farm you’re describing seems to have what they call “autoorganización” in Spain. Self-organization does not fully translate it, because “auto” means ourselves, not oneself.

  13. A few notes about ‘self-systemic’ farming:
    *Gunnar is correct (in my estimation) when he says that a farm cannot be divorced from its surroundings. Humans, in fact, cannot be divorced from their surroundings, since we are social creatures. We are also tool-using creatures, and tools are social creations.

    *The blog seems to be headed in the direction of re-inventing concepts which have already been explored. Some of these things I have previously referred to, and won’t laboriously describe them again. First, Jordan Peterson’s notion of the Tao as describing the balancing act between rigidity and chaos…we must try to walk the fine line. Second, the anti-Cartesian recognition that there is no division between mind and body. Third, Antonio Damasio’s proposition that all life exhibits a favoritism toward homeostasis (which sometimes goes very wrong). The homeostasis, however, is not static, as higher levels of functioning may be achieved. For example, the development of language allowed a higher level of functioning for humans as compared to apes. ‘Higher’ not being confused with ‘always better’ or ‘morally superior’. Fourth, Capra and Luisi’s ‘The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision’. ‘You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it. You start with life, with humans life and the life of the planet, and ask how to redesign it. You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?’ (And part of the answer is AgroEcology.) Fifth, Lisa Feldman Barrett (in How Emotions Are Made) further explains the intimate connection between mind and body….such that Dan Siegel’s definition of mind as including the body, makes sense. In addition, Barrett explains how language helps or hinders us. For example, people whose native language includes a name for an emotion feel and manipulate the emotion more readily. An example is Schadenfreude. German speakers will recognize the emotion their body is exhibiting and react in more rational ways. Barrett encourages us to develop a large vocabulary of emotional terms, to give us more tools for dealing with the emotions. There are lots of tools available to the aspiring AgroEcological farmer. These tools may come from Teaming With Microbes, or Water Management, or How to Market Locally, or How to Stay Out of Trouble with the Inspectors, or How Not to Kill Yourself from Overwork, or How to Deal With Debt, and so on and so forth. No one of the thousand different ideas one might learn to manipulate is likely to be THE answer for any given farm. Each farmer must walk the Taoist line between rigidity and chaos on their own. In addition, the microbe revolution has shown us that notions of Newtonian Determinism aren’t going to work very well. Sixth, therapists fall into two camps. The first is those who are content to sell off-the-shelf ‘solutions’. The second is those who realize that the vast majority of their clients are looking for a quick fix, and not those dealing with the fundamentals. In medicine, it is suppression of symptoms. In farming, it is likely to be reduced labor and higher yields. In short, short term ‘solutions’ which may not work in the long term. Damasio says that the ability of an organism to reproduce itself is an essential ingredient of homeostasis. This is in sharp contrast to the corporate worldview. The corporate worldview simply seeks to harvest profits while the sun shines. Corporations do not aim at reproduction, such as a family farm might do. Way too many farmers today would be content with ‘making it to the end of the fiscal year’, or ‘losing money more slowly’.
    *Finally, the Buddhists base their religion on the notion of continual change. Because we can dimly see the end of fossil fuels, and perhaps the thermodynamic decay of our ability to manipulate materials, and perhaps some chaos due to overpopulation, the homeostatic solution in 2018 is not likely to be the homeostatic solution in 2025, much less 2050. So we should be forgiving to our fellow farmers, who are mostly doing the best they can. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be critical of practices we see as damaging or gently disapproving of those we see as sub-optimal.

    Don Stewart

  14. My grandparents were small farmers who farmed 185 acres in Minnesota. My great grandparents obtained the land in the 1860’s as a result of the Homestead Act. My grandfather married the youngest daughter of my great grandparents and they moved into the little house on the farm built for the newly married couple. When my great grandfather died my grandparents moved into the big house and took care of “Big Grandma” until she died in 1960 shortly after I was born but after my grandfather died in 1958 from pneumonia at the young age of 58. I often wonder what might have happened if my grandfather had lived and influenced me until he was 78 and I was 19? Would I have become a farmer? I loved my grandparents farm. In many ways my life has returned me to the land.
    My family lived in the small house on the farm. With none of her children interested in farming my grandmother turned the farm over to her nephew so that the land remained in her family. The land is currently farmed by his granddaughter. Five generations of my family have lived and farmed the land that our ancestors received through the Homestead Act.
    My great grandfather and grandfather farmed with horses. They had diverse livestock including beef cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and pigs. Much of their land was farmed to feed the family and the livestock. They grew several types of grain including corn and oats for animal feed, wheat for household consumption and for sale, alfalfa hay for animal feed, barley and flax for sale. Anything sold off the farm was a “cash crop” but they needed very little cash money to survive. Most of what they produced was needed simply to feed the farms inhabitants animals and people.
    My ancestors cared for the health of the soil by rotating land from cropland, to hay field, to pasture, to fallow, and back to cropland which took about 7 years. They sold produce for cash in addition to grain; eggs, milk and cream, and occasionally vegetables such as potatoes. Since the land was “free” to them under the Homestead Act they didn’t owe money for it, but did have to pay taxes. I would say that farmers such as these were more “systemic”, i.e. they operated as a system that was mainly self contained and localized. I also think the term self-sufficient applies. They lived a life that required very little cash money to continue.
    They produced most of the resources they and their animals needed to continue production. They had the skills to grow, manufacture, and repair what they needed from the resources at hand. They imported very little resources needed. But we can’t say the same today since much of our farmland is degraded, not fertile without large inputs of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides bought from off farm. Their source of drinking water was clean and ample. The weather varied but was not as mercurial perhaps as ours might be in the future.
    Small farmers such as these supported the community of people that lived in the “town” nearby. They produced food for their own and local consumption. They provided food (energy) for the draft animals needed to plow and plant the fields, to transport them to town, and to provide cash sales; eggs, milk, and meat. Their farm provided resources for many small businesses directly; the butcher (animals), bakery (wheat flour), dairy (milk and cream), and grocery store (eggs and potatoes); and indirectly; all the small businesses that served the farmers and community preacher, teachers, bankers, lawyers, clock repair, insurance, seamstresses, clothes store, hardware store, etc.
    This is how a small, rural, agricultural community thrived up until the 1950’s and this is how most Americans lived and worked at the turn of the 20th century. What changed it? The “Green Revolution” of the 1060’s and the “get big or get out” mantra of the 1970’s. I believe this model of small farm and agricultural community will eventually be our future, but it will require a different path to get there since no one is likely to give away free land again. How do we get a “Homestead Act” when all the land is already owned? (Ignoring that the land we “gave away” was already occupied by native Americans is another issue we gloss over in our history.) Perhaps something more socialist such as elderly land owners sharecropping their land with young people who can’t afford to buy their own? We will need to be creative I think. And we will need new ways to farm, bringing the land, woods, streams, and lakes back into a healthy state. How we do this with the resources at hand is the big question. The answers will likely to surprise us.

      • Jody, you have very eloquently listed all the extraction businesses your family has been engaged in since being handed what we might called a soil mine. (This is not meant to be an accusation btw.)

        We could adapt our language and say that they’ve drilled for corn, wheat, oats etc.
        Even if the extracted cereals where then sold locally, the extraction method meant that today the mine is depleted.

        Ways out of this often take on forms that shrink, urbanize and make small farms seek high-profile customers.
        I have linked to a Youtube playlist above to show that there are ways to do it differently (it only deals with one aspect, but it’s the one everything else has to start from).

        • Michael, yes farming is an extraction business even under early farming practices. My point with the story was that early homesteaders in Minnesota were more diverse in their products, they didn’t need as much cash crops, and they tended to return more of what they grew to the land in the form of manure. Small diversified farming practices return a great deal more to the land that industrial agriculture. But you are correct they were mining the rich soil they were given, especially of trace elements.

          Sir Albert Howard, who is often called the Father of composting, described composting as the “The Law of Return”. He demonstrated that if organics were decomposed and returned to the soil the result would be improved fertility and health.
          I enjoyed reading the book “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan” which described how Asian farmers produced food on the same land (much of it terraced hillsides) for 4,000 years because they were careful to return organics to the land thus maintaining soil fertility. It’s sad and unfortunate that China’s desire to become an industrial giant has displaced the farmers from their fields which now lay in ruin; eroded deserts susceptible to sand storms. In only a mere decade or so they destroyed what farmers had preserved for 4,000 years.

          But I still have hope because I’ve seen what reclaimation work can do. I think our future will involve a great deal of efforts to reclaim degraded land so we can continue growing food. Much of what I’ve studied and practiced over the years has been to return organics and in some cases inorganics (such as mineral by-products) to the soil. I developed a research project reclaiming acidic abandoned coal slurry ponds in Indiana. We incorporated 1/4 to 1/2 inch of a mixture of alkaline coal ash and composted leaf mold into an acidic coal spoil pile and produced sorghum nurse plants 7′ tall. Even in low areas near a pond with a pH of 2 the sorghum grew 5′ tall, which is amazing considering the acidic water table was 6″ below the surface. Within three years the entire 120 acres of what had been barren for more than 25 years was covered with native grasses and forbes providing habitat for wildlife. Our research team received the Governor’s award for environmental excellence.
          We never know where change and our imagination will lead us. For example, farmers in Minnesota and other states are paid to leave marginal land in fallow under the CRP program. It become popular for hunters to buy this land, plant cover crops, and reestablish upland game birds for hunting. But of course the bird population moved outward to other areas. Over the course of a decade this practice actually reestablished the population of the wild turkey across the state and some people have even sighted wolves and one or two cougars.
          I can easily imagine similar things occurring across Midwestern farmland as industrial agriculture fails and degraded farmland is abandoned. Even the succession of growth from weed species and softwood trees eventually becomes habitat for wildlife. We can enable this process by returning organics back to the land making it suitable for pasture and market gardens.

          I think our future where ever climate allows will be finding creative ways to produce food and feed soil following the “Law of Return”. In doing so we will improve and maintain health and soil fertility. The high density cattle rotation described in the link to Youtube videos Michael provided is a good example. (I admit I only watched the first one.) As the gentlemen said their climate made this possible and it won’t be applicable for all farms, especially dry land. It’s also difficult to say how long before climate change makes South Africa dry land.
          I believe these will be the kinds of “solutions” that will unfold because of necessity, as humans continue struggling to produce food. I think more and more people will decide to produce food in their backyards or on small farms near cities (even trading food as barter). Thus we will provide more food security as industrial agriculture fails. Rather than see the future as a dark, dystopian Mad Max scenario, I see humans finding new and creative ways to grow food; ways that are smaller, more local, less carbon energy intensive, more muscle intensive, and more beneficial for the health of the land and ourselves as we learn to follow the “Law of Return”.

          • Please do watch all of the videos 🙂
            It is in fact geared especially towards dry land scenarios during this course, seasonal rainfall being the common denominator. Most parts of South Africa have been dry lands for a long time.
            Among other things you’ll also find very precise discussion of chemical elements, trace and otherwise (Howard’s credo was attacked back in the day by William Albrecht, who asked how something that wasn’t in the raw material could somehow be returned to the land by the finished compost.)

          • Michael,
            You do realize that watching all the videos would take me almost 11.5 hours???? That might be something I could do in the winter but not in the spring when business and gardening get busy. Are the main points summarized in a publication?

          • Yes; isn’t it wonderful, hours upon hours of condensed knowledge 🙂 ?
            There is Johann Zietsmann’s ‘Man, Cattle And Veld’, if you’d like it as a book.

          • Michael,
            I’ll work my way through the videos as time permits. Not being a rancher I don’t think I will benefit as much as someone who is a rancher from watching the videos. But you seem insistent (in a polite way) so I’ll see what I learn! One never should assume they won’t benefit from learning something even if it is outside our wheelhouse. In the meantime, does this book review cover the main points in your opinion?

          • Michael said:
            (Howard’s credo was attacked back in the day by William Albrecht, who asked how something that wasn’t in the raw material could somehow be returned to the land by the finished compost.)

            William Albrecht wrote quite a bit… I’m wondering if you could point to a specific piece where he says this?

          • Judy, yes, that looks like a good summary.

            Clem, let’s us not try to loose sight of the argument, shall we? I didn’t mention this because of the people involved, but as a form of wishful thinking still prevalent today: That somehow compost will solve every problem, regardless of its raw materials, method of composting and rainfall – something that I have to pay maximum attention to, toiling as I do in a temperate high-rainfall area.

          • Michael:
            I am very sorry if my simple question appears to head away from the main argument. And I don’t see where anyone here has suggested that compost will solve every soil problem. But I would offer here as evidence that Sir Howard did suggest that more nitrogen could be added to the soil from properly managed compost than was in the raw materials the compost was made from. (Due to nitrogen fixation during proper fermentation of the compost). I’m specifically referring to comments he made in a chapter on the Indore process (pg 49 of the 1972 Rodale Press edition of An Agricultural Testament – originally published in the US in 1943 – citing his own published work from 1929 and 1931… all of the earlier of which Albrecht would have had access to and to which Albrecht may have made the objection you’ve suggested.

            It might also be worth mentioning here, if I may be afforded an indulgence for taking the argument off center for one more sentence – in the same chapter on the Indore Process, Sir Albert gives advice on how to manage compost by a couple different techniques based primarily on how much rain and water table moisture one can reasonably expect.

            Does compost = magic bullet? No. Was Albrecht right to object to Howard? Dunno, no evidence offered.

          • And I, Clem, am very sorry to not have made my point properly, thereby prolonging the discussion unnecessarily 🙂
            What Albrecht was referring to was exactly the focus on C and N in compost, ignoring the depletion of Ca, B and other elements, in gardens and in pastures if the annual rainfall is high.
            Now, I have that kind of rainfall and live in a political entity where access to B has quite recently been blocked for ordinary citizens, so I can’t be cavalier about this, even if someone’s book says I should be fine.
            It may not even be the first “compost generation” of writers that is the problem; the pseudo-religious compost cult still vibrant today that developed – and certainly wasn’t being objected to by them – is.

  15. Don writes: “Gunnar is correct (in my estimation) when he says that a farm cannot be divorced from its surroundings. Humans, in fact, cannot be divorced from their surroundings, since we are social creatures.”

    Quite so…and nothing I’ve written above suggests otherwise. I guess my use of the word ‘self’ is causing confusion…even though I feel like I’ve adequately explained my intent in the original post and follow up comments. But perhaps I’ll revert to ‘anti-systemic’ as deployed by scholars like Arrighi to avoid these misinterpretations.

    Jody – thanks for that interesting narrative. Reading a collection of Wendell Berry’s essays at the moment I’m struck by his condemnation even of the kind of locality-oriented small-scale homesteaders you describe for their destructive practices (though I think he possibly somewhat overstates his case). But it seems clear that agrarian societies of this kind are somewhat less environmentally destructive in aggregate than our present one. Which perhaps underscores Ruben’s point above…

    …and indeed as Don points out, there is a lot of degraded agricultural land globally. But that doesn’t prove logically that ‘regenerative agriculture’ is the ‘solution’…In my previous post I discussed some of the problems around defining regenerative agriculture, and in this one I discussed some of the problems around defining ‘solutions’. I think these kinds of discussions are necessary.

    • Chris,
      I’ve seen similar reports of Amish farmers degrading land and polluting streams with manure. Perhaps the take away message is…damage can be caused whether you are a small or large farmer. The difference perhaps is that the small farmer who damages his/her land causes a relatively small amount of damage. The large farmer causes a large amount of damage. Ignorance, stupidity, greed, and neglect all lead to damage and destruction at many levels. Intelligence, wisdom, generosity, and attention may lead to improvements at many levels. What was that saying…By their fruits you shall know them.

  16. I too had some doubts around the use of the term ‘self’ when first reading this post, but having read it again, and the comments as well, I’m now disturbed that you want to change it to ‘anti’, so this is a plea for you to retain the ‘self-systemic’ formulation. I can see that opposition to grand on-size-fits-all solutions, or the centrally-planned political economies necessary to roll them out, might justify an ‘anti-systemic’ approach, but I think that you need to retain an idea of ‘system’ of some kind, as you and others argue above when talking about the position of all human lives within wider social and natural worlds.

    I also think the most useful or insightful aspect of the whole post is the idea that the ‘self’ should not just be assumed to equate to a single human, but needs to be open to broader definitions that take account of community. I was initially disturbed by the idea that a self-systemic farmer might just as easily be a capitalist farmer out for his own profit margin, but I can see clearly now that this is beside the point – the whole point, it seems to me, of talking about self-systemic farming is to encourage discussion and exploration of what the ‘self’ might be and how farming can best serve it. It is an encouragement to utopian exploration, but without the need to define a specific utopia. All this disappears if you go with anti-systemic farming, as it’s then all about what farming shouldn’t be, rather than what it might be.

    In that spirit, I’ve been thinking about what kinds of conditions might circumscribe the kind of ‘self’ that would thrive in a small farm future. I think it’s important here to recognise that we are talking about self-systemic farms, not self-systemic farmers; the farm itself is a social entity, and the self it binds to has to be more than the farmer, a single person exercising command and control functions over a piece of land. A useful way forward might be to consider the farming ‘self’ as all those fed by a specific farm. Now, in the Wessex thought experiment, I think you had something like 25% of the population working on the land, so even in utopian futures this self will encompass more than only those who labour on the farm.

    Where to go from here? If we put issues of land-ownership to one side (this is utopian thinking after all!), then we can focus on issue of farm management, husbandry, and perhaps ideas about executive authority in relation to land. Previous discussions on this blog have touched on ideas of nested sovereignty and the like, and given the kind of extended self we need to envision here, I think such discussions are important. There must always be a decision-making agency on the ground, so to speak, who makes day to day decisions about what happens on a farm, and organises labour on it, although given that farming will ideally become more labour-intensive in the future, we might also look for a greater degree of democracy in the workplace as well.

    But that’s only part of the self. What about those who don’t work directly on the farm, but are provisioned by it – their social investment in the farm also needs recognition. I’ve been wondering about the plausibility of self-systemic farms vested in small co-ops comprising all that farms consumers (including those who work on it), who might have a say via an AGM in the more general questions of the farm’s operation. Is such a farm practising mixed farming, and thus providing most of what its self needs to survive, or do we see an element of local specialisation, in which individuals are member of several different local co-ops in order to acquire the range of provisions they require?

    Broader still, and at a less directly executive level, we may need ways of facilitating the combining of operations across some distance, for example if highland farms wanted to focus more on livestock and lowland farms on cereals (the current degree of polarization in this way is no doubt too high). Other issues include protection against shortages. Comments above included the idea of producing just enough, but some idea of surplus is needed to aid redistribution when some areas suffer setbacks. This would require some kind of regional oversight, even if executive authority remained at a local level – all would no doubt recognise the benefit of insurance.

    The above represent some of my recent idle musings, no doubt open to all kinds of criticism, to which I will reply that they’re only thought experiments! My main point is that they derive from a consideration of the nature of the ‘self’ in self-systemic farming, and its explorations along these lines, especially by people far more knowledgeable about farming than this urbanite, that I think we need. The idea should not be to be prescriptive (my utopia is the right utopia!), but to keep open the space that facilitates these discussions. Going anti-systemic in my view tends towards an every-farmer-for-themselves paradigm, closing down discussion of the broader contexts of small farming, which is not what we need right now, and I know is not your intention.

    • then we can focus on issue of farm management, husbandry, and perhaps ideas about executive authority in relation to land

      Wouldn’t this be a good basis for a simple descriptor of a small farm? A small farm is one that can be actively managed (without machines) by a single family. Since all farms have varying relationships with other farms, ‘the market’ and the rest of society, trying to sift through those relationships for the essence of a small farm can quickly end up in confusion (at least for me).

      I think one has to put the “without machines” caveat in the definition, since a single family that is fully committed to maximizing acreage in industrial agriculture can easily get far larger than anyone’s concept of a small farm.

      • I sure could get behind ‘no machines’ – oh for a small, quiet farm: bees, birdsong, and all your neighbours’ machines convulsively roaring into life. Sounds like my kind of niche right now:) And only a stone’s throw from ‘no fossil fuels’ I fancy.

  17. Chris
    ‘problems around defining’

    The Improvisation movement has the saying ‘Yes….and….’. So the key to improvisation is to build on what the other person just said, or did.

    Defining works in the opposite direction. ‘Maybe…but…’ As in ‘There may be a lot of degraded land and I can see that Geoff Lawton really is greening the desert, but I don’t think he fits in with my definitions and it’s probably not a real solution’.

    At this moment in history, I suggest that ‘Yes….and…’ is going to be a lot more productive. We need lots of people working and lots of things put to the test. Which doesn’t mean that any of us as individuals need to abandon our critical thinking.

    One of Damasio’s points is that the most basic unit which seeks homeostasis is the individual. During prosperous times, the unit of homeostasis tends to expand to include family and extended family and neighbors and perhaps trading partners and finally out to amorphous concepts such as nations or humanity or all living things. When things collapse, the collapse tends to sacrifice the elements more distant from the individual first. Even Maggie Thatcher, who wasn’t suffering from starvation, famously said ‘there is no such thing as the common interest’.

    If Chris is reading Wendell Berry, he will eventually run across the notion of ‘trading work’. As, for example, I want to go to town today, would you take care of my animals in my absence? And I will return the favor when you want to go to town. Or, let’s get together to do the hoeing on my field today and we can work together on your field tomorrow. Close study has shown that these arrangements can be positive, but that we tend to keep very close tabs on the balance sheet. Humans are set up to detect freeloaders.

    Don Stewart

    Don Stewart

  18. and regarding collapse as things get tougher

    Probably a big risk is that the central government gets more repressive, supported by the rich who hold the bonds issued by that government. So if the natural reaction is shrinkage back to a more localized governance, but such a shrinkage implies default on the central governments bonds, which implies that the rich become a lot less rich, then we may be able to predict some general trends.

    Don Stewart

  19. You write “In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.”

    I’ve read elsewhere that small farmers produce the bulk of the world’s food.

    Which is it? I’ll have to go back and check why I thought that.

    • I think the notion that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food comes from that you don’t count in the large scale feed production (such as most of the corn and soy in the world) probably also not sugar (as it is not “food”). And not biofuel and cotton, and not wine or tobacco. And then you count all “family farms” as small – sure they perhaps produce the bulk of the food in the world…..But even that I fear is old data from when most farmers in China and India still were farming food for themselves….. I am all for the small farms, but I believe there is a romanticism that has little basis in realities today. In any case, the real divider is farming for commodity markets or not. That is a much more interesting cut than small.-big

      • I think that’s a very interesting distinction. How would you define commodity market in this context?

        From the work I’m doing in energy and some other stuff I think we’re seeing the potential for a massive shift from the “Get Big or Get Out”, “Economies of Scale”, etc mantra that has dominated Western economic orthodoxy for some time.

        • What I mean is that once farming is integrated in the market economy, and in particular to the anonymous commodity market economy, the “rationality” of the farm is what fits into the market imperative of competition. That has been the main driver of destruction of the regenerative farm as a “self-organizing” system as Chris talks about here. Because the farmers will decide what to do or not to do based on their position in the market and not based on their care for themselves, the family, the community, the land, their pride,. their god or whatever guided them before. As Chris also writes the firts big wave of commodification was with grain production, but gradually most farm production is commodified. Even for niche markets, such as organic, competition drives farmers to do the same: more mechanization, more specialization, externalizing costs, linear production models etc.

          • I think this is a pretty fair analysis Gunnar. There are still millions of farmers in the US, so the broad generalization offered is going to have some exceptions… but in a broad sense the markets for grain as an output will be laid alongside the markets for capital (interest rates), inputs such as fuel, fertilizer and pest controls, risk management instruments, equipment and so forth.

            I can see an avenue through this suggested malaise where the markets might actually serve. Land productivity here in the States is already a very significant determinate in the price of agricultural land (and land rents). One can purchase a comparable sized piece of land at less than a quarter of the price of another lot where the productivity of the two is similarly skewed. If the lower priced piece can be beneficially reclaimed through practices such as cover crops and reduced tillage then its value will increase (and food security within that area will also increase). The push is to find a market savvy mechanism to make the improvement(s) while making the other payments. As discussed in earlier comments – renters are not likely to embark on this sort of endeavor. Owner operators are likely to be the first travelers on this path. Indeed most of the regenerative folks fit this category. But enlightened absentee owners may eventually be persuaded that longer term leases, or different forms of rental arrangements (crop share vs cash rent) which are engaged with a view to better soil husbandry will benefit them more than they cost. Enlightened self interest.

          • But farming has been integrated into markets of one kind or another since settled agriculture started ~10k years ago. And there appears to be good evidence that we’ve been trading agricultural products of one kind or another over long distances for millennia.

            I think definitions are very important in this area and sustainability generally. As well as different sorts of markets I think it is also important to have good definitions of the criteria by which an approach is being measured. A committed doomer and gloomer might regard food resilience and autarky as prime objectives as they think we’re about to lose all the social cooperation and tribal nature we’ve built through socialisation and genetic selection over the last 6 million years of hominid speciation. Someone who thinks the main issues are social equity, environmental damage/long-term sustainability, keeping regional areas and family farms viable, building local economies etc will have a different set of criteria. Middlemen wanting to clip the ticket on commodity trading will want broad acre monocultures. An agtech investor wanting to hype up an idea to get some early round funding will have a different definition of successful agriculture.

            Anonymous commodity market sounds a bit more promising WRT categorising a market.

            A review of different types of agricultural market and the attendant benefits and agricultural systems they encourage would be very useful.

  20. Thanks for the further comments. Quick responses:

    Andrew – thanks for your nuanced thoughts. It’s a pleasure to see you ‘getting’ my point and running with it, in contrast to some of the more negative misconstruals. You make a persuasive case for sticking with ‘self’ rather than ‘anti’, but you said that you had initial doubts about ‘self’. Do you perceive a way I could clarify this upfront that might head off the assumption that I’m arguing for total individual autarky and/or selfish indifference? As to your other points, I think I’ll have to try to define positions around them as I progress through future posts. Your point about surplus as cushion is one I’m particularly thinking and reading about at the moment. Sorry not to engage more fully now, but hopefully I will in due course.

    Joshua – yes various sources suggest small farms feed 70-80% of the population, though the origins of these claims are contested and somewhat obscure. I think it remains true, though, that small farms don’t generally grow staples and grains for commercial sale and are ‘niche’ in this respect. They might grow staples and grains for personal on-farm consumption instead, as mine does, hence contributing to that world food figure. So perhaps it would have been more accurate if I’d written “small farms are fairly irrelevant to the global commercial agriculture system”…though even that isn’t entirely true if you really push at the logic of it…

    Jody/Michael – I wouldn’t necessarily indict Jody’s forebears as miners on the basis of the info he provided as strongly as Michael does (who am I to talk…my granddad was a coal-miner). I think there’s much we could learn from those practices today. But yes in general US agriculture has been quite extractive. What’s worse – a few big farmers damaging their land, or a lot of small farmers doing the same? I’m interested in people’s views. But my shtick generally is that small (‘self-interested’) farmers get better feedback about the consequences of their damaging activities than large farmers plugged into wider economic circuits.

    Sam – thanks for that. Prefigurative politics, exactly so. Not sure it’ll assuage Mike’s beef with me, but that’s how I see it.

    Don – “At this moment in history, I suggest that ‘Yes….and…’ is going to be a lot more productive. We need lots of people working and lots of things put to the test.” Yes indeed. But we do need to put them to the test, which is why ‘maybe…but’ is an essential accompaniment. I’d commend Richard Sennett’s book ‘Together’ on this point – he argues that nowadays we’re losing the art of dialogue, a “form of discussion which does not resolve itself by finding common ground. Though no shared agreements may be reached, through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another”. I think the best interactions I’ve had on this blog are of that sort. I’m not sure I’ve yet had such ‘dialogue’ with you on here, but there’s always tomorrow…

    • Thanks for your reply Chris, I look forward to further discussions. As for alternative terminology, you could put the ‘self’ into Greek and go with ‘auto-systemic’; perhaps that helps avoid the common association of ‘self’ with selfishness or the individual…

    • I’d suggest that the extraction business is as easy to get into for the small as it is for the big farmer.
      Whether you’re a Mayan peasant who has to deliver to the emperor or face punishment, or a big guy today who is beholden to Chicago only makes a difference in terms of the time it takes you to fail – the small guy will quickly have to join the trek to the big city (and then on to the next battlefield), while the big guy will have externalities and loans to keep him on the land for a few years more.

      • Agreed, the extraction business can be as easy to get into for the small as the large farmer. However, I’d argue that it’s harder to get out of for the large farmer…unless they have a multitude of cheap acres and the opportunity for a playful relationship with their markets…and maybe not even then. Much depends on the wider socioeconomic structures.

        • Oh, getting out of the extraction business is harder for the big farmer; no doubt about it.
          But right now, as a class, the giant miners still don’t have to; markets and stock exchanges want them to succeed.
          The small ones have to; it often is a question of physical survival.
          And there is no mechanism of good practice in place to shrink farms; you’re alluding to it in your latest post.

  21. Chris
    Ok. Attempt at dialogue.

    It’s hard to define ‘health’. So, when we go to the doctor, he asks, ‘Where does it hurt?’

    So the attempt to figure out some things about a self systemic farm probably needs to begin with ‘Where does it hurt?’ I’ll use Damasio’s definition of homeostasis to include both a positive energy balance and lack of chronic pain and a legacy which extends beyond one’s own life. With those sorts of general guidelines, my experience with a limited sector of the farming industry in the United States leads me to identify certain key points ‘where it hurts’:
    *Land is too expensive, given the returns to farming.
    *When land is available, it is generally degraded. And the normal farming methods continue the degradation.
    *An ecologically conscious farmer is competing with the strip-mine farmers, who don’t have to leave a legacy.
    *Inter-generational transfer is difficult. If the farm cannot be handed down, then how will the farmer sustain himself and his spouse in old age?
    *For a small farmer, direct to consumer selling can take an inordinate amount of time. And profits from wholesale are hard to come by.
    *Small farming is a lot of work, at best.
    *Health insurance is prohibitively expensive.
    *Diversified small farms cannot purchase satisfactory crop insurance.
    *Farming with WOOFers is problematic.

    All of these factors can keep a small farmer from achieving the homeostasis and sense of well being that Damasio identifies as the goal of all living beings, and also mitigate against inter-generational transfer.

    I am aware of some partial fixes for the issues, but my experience is that a general solution eludes most small farmers. For example, one small farmer I know has been farming for more than 40 years on the same piece of land he bought 45 years ago for a pittance compared to today’s prices. He once told me “If a man can’t be happy on 25,000 dollars a year, he just isn’t trying hard enough.’ That sort of Thoreauvian outlook went out of style with the bell-bottoms. And if a modern day disciple of Thoreau looked around for land, he would not find the cheap land which could be bought 50 years ago.

    We do have a local farm which is in the process of devolving from a married couple with no children to a young woman that I used to work for. All three will continue to physically live on the farm for the indefinite future. But that’s the only arrangement like that I am aware of.

    So, continuing to do what we are currently doing leads to a grim prognostication. Which leads David Johnson to predict that adoption of regenerative agriculture through restoration of fungal networks (which impacts the degradation issue, the yields, the amount of work, crop risk, and even the need for WOOFers) will be adopted from the bottom up as farmers and ranchers realize it is the only way to survive. If you are convinced that regenerative agriculture (in one form or another) won’t actually accomplish those goals, then I could only suggest that maybe getting out of farming might be an option.

    Of course, the pain points that I identify may not be your pain points at all. And even if they are your pain points, you may have other ideas about resolving them.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for that, Don. I pretty much agree with everything in your comment up to the point where you say ‘restoration of fungal networks…is the only way to survive’, though I don’t doubt that it will play a part in improved future agricultures. As per my comment below, I think I’m going to hold back from further comment on this right now and try to address it more systematically in a post to come.

  22. Hi Chris.

    I’ve been enjoying your writing for many months now, learning a lot and finding lots of inspiration for further thought. This is, I think, your most challenging post for me so far (which is of course very welcome), as I currently spend my life and energy working on a small vegetable CSA in the Israeli south. We, of course, are very niche and very do-good: “we don’t spray our vegetables with anything but love”!
    We send vegetable baskets (only partly our produce) to about 100 families every week.

    Unlike you, I’ve only been here only 3 months so far. Like you, I’m doubting whether my day-job growing food for my local community is practical. It’s chronically on the verge of collapse, and it involves too much self-exploitation… (relative to western standards, of course)

    Right now on the farm we are trying to rethink it all, and I’m looking for sources of inspiration. Your post has left me wondering about your own farming practices. What do you grow? by which methods? and especially – which of your methods clash you most with one-solutionists on the ‘alternative’ end of the spectrum? (for us, for example, growing chickens with the intention of eating some of them is probably something our predominantly-vegan customers wouldn’t like hearing about); who do you market to? and what makes you doubt the practicality of your day-job?

    I’m guessing from your writing that your methods are not strictly organic but very resource-minded.

    Maybe you’ve answered some of these questions in the past. So linking back would also make me happy, of course.

    thanks (for your writing in general),

    • Thanks for that Omer – nice to hear from you. I’m planning to write some more on this shortly (as per the comment below) and more on my specific farm in a post in June…so forgive me if for now I only answer briefly.

      I think all of us who run small eco-minded producer operations go through phases of enthusiasm and disillusionment, and we can learn from both those phases. It’s easy to self-exploit and it’s easy for farms to fail, and for farmers then to feel personally at fault, and/or that there are other, better farming techniques that others practice that would have made the difference. I think it’s best to resist those feelings (which perhaps is part of what being ‘self-systemic’ might be). The broader dysfunctions of the food system are often experienced as social breakdown among people doing their best to change it for the better. Nothing I said above was intended to disparage people who are running small farms as best they can and trying to make a positive difference. What I’ve come to think is ‘not practical’ is the expectation that such farms will gradually proliferate and become mainstream without major socioeconomic and political shifts which can’t be created out of farming practice itself.

      In terms of our own farming practice, we’ve moved away from tillage and green manuring towards a no till system involving imported woodchip from tree surgeons which we compost with human urine and organic matter from the farm, and a lot of polymer mulches – some biodegradable, some not. We’ve also moved away from staple crops (potatoes) towards higher value leafy crops and we grow fewer crops from seed than we used to, relying more on bought-in transplants. In these ways, we have less work, fewer weeds and more money. I think it’s reasonably benign ecologically, but probably less so than the old tillage & green manure regimen, and it’s less scalable. It’s more sustainable socially, because over-working oneself strains the soul and human relationships. On the livestock side, I don’t sell as much as I used to and keep them mainly for personal consumption – but I raise them with very few external inputs.

      In terms of inspiration for rethinking your farming practice I’m loath to give advice, but I think Patrick Whitefield’s words quoted above are wise. Look widely (but sceptically) at what other people are doing, and then apply what you find useful to your particular situation with indifference to others’ views about whether your practices are right or wrong, fungus-destroying, planet-destroying or whatever.

      All this becomes harder as a commercial operator because the consumer juggernaut latches on to various ideas, which while perfectly well-grounded in themselves become marketing gimmicks – no-till, pasture-fed, chemical-free etc. I like your concept of ‘spraying your vegetables with love’ – granted it’s a bit vacuous, but there’s a positive intent behind it which is more than half the battle. If you can justify to yourself what you’re doing, even if you feel it’s not perfect, then you can justify it to your customers and explain to them the reason for your choices (before they glaze over…) I don’t think anyone can justifiably expect more of a grower right now.

      Hope that helps for now.

      • Thanks Chris for your helpful reply, and looking forward to hearing more in future posts.

        I just want to add that half-heartedly we’ve been certified organic for the last couple of years, mainly because we wouldn’t be allowed to buy organic transplants otherwise. And that I suspect the organic certification to be one of the mistakes we’ve made on the way, even though we are much stricter than the baseline organic standard: the official certificate is just too expensive, and too alienating, I think.

        We’ve also started recently to experiment with woodchip + no till; alongside old advertisement tarps reused as mulch. But we feed the chicken mainly grain from outside. And our rented lot is too small for larger animals.

        Regarding the consumer juggernaut, I think part of our job as avant-garde farmers is to educate the public; which should go along well with marketing, I would think. in theory at least…

      • Did you try specialty spuds, Chris? There’s some market interest here in less commonly grown varieties with more flavour, some of the South American varieties with interesting colours and so on. Similarly to some extent with carrots.

        I did a biochar experiment with a spud breeder a few years ago. The biochar experiment was a bust but fascinating having a chat with the breeder. He opined that you can get so much flavour per hectare. This can be diluted by growing the watery white varieties common in supermarkets or concentrated in lower yielding varieties.

        The more interesting varieties seem to attract a better price here.

        • I dabbled in that sort of thing a little – the yield/price/demand equations didn’t really work out for me. But for other people in different situations they might.

  23. Don’s additional comment together with Joe’s, Andrew’s and Omer’s (and of course everyone else’s…) has set me thinking anew about this issue. Instead of firing off a lengthy comment response right now, I’m planning to mull over it some more and then write a follow-up post to this one shortly. Thanks as ever to everyone commenting here for your stimulating thoughts.

    • Fascinating article with interesting parallels with biodynamic composting methods regarding duration, micro-dosing, stirring before application.

    • Interesting article. Johnson is a remarkable man in that he “didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology.” The fact that Johnson decided to go to school in his 50’s and then completed his doctorate and started his scientific “career” when he was around 62 impresses me almost more than what he is achieving with his research.
      David Johnson seems to have followed and found his calling. Rare that this happens, usually because people are afraid to follow their instincts or to try new paths. Perhaps because of his maturity he seems to have an ability to think outside the normal boundaries of an academic researcher with an absence of ‘brainwashing”. He has nothing to prove. I bet he would also say that his wife and partner, is an important part of his success.
      I loved these statements:
      “You always wonder why you are doing this. I stopped asking that question. Now I think let’s see what happens.”
      “As a scientist, you have to be half skeptic and half optimist. I’m always wary and expect failure, but nature has been pleasantly surprising.”
      “When we destroy the composition of that [soil] microbial community, that’s when we start having problems. Like you were saying about soil health or soil fertility, I don’t know that anybody can really define it right now. I don’t know that we ever will, but I believe we’re going the right direction when plants grow better.”

      I totally agree!

  24. Although this comment has little to do with the subject of this post, it deals with a topic covered here in SFF many times, the question, “How can we facilitate the movement of large numbers of people onto agricultural land as small farmers”?

    I comment because I was recently at a planning commission meeting (as a member of the commission) listening to some very typical testimony in response to a request for a re-zone of two parcels of land from Ag-20 (acres) to Ag-6. The owners of the land wanted to subdivide their larger parcels and sell off smaller parcels.

    The person testifying against the re-zone request brought up the necessity to protect agricultural land from the depredations of the country gentleman with their large houses and ‘hobby’ farms.

    At this point I had a minor epiphany; it seems that defenders of agriculture implicitly assume that real agriculture is industrial agriculture, with large expanses of land being worked by a few people on large tractors and harvesters.

    It also came to me that in light of the coming failure of industrial agriculture, the best thing that could happen would be for large farms to be broken up into small parcels with houses built on the parcels to enable someone to live there.

    And that if the people living there first were going to be wealthy aesthetes of country life, with llamas or horses out back and a fat old man on a riding mower on his vast expanse of lawn out front, at least the soil would be protected from the ravages of industrial agriculture and, equally importantly, when the time came for that small hobby farm to become a valuable asset in the life and death struggle to grow food (after the demise of industrial ag), at least there would be a place on the parcel for one or more ‘real’ farm families to live.

    I envisioned the typical McMansion, with as much floor area under roof as a small medieval village, being turned into a real farm village, housing multiple families with perhaps a smithy or farm shop in the garage.

    As in England, here in Hawaii there is a lot of money to be made in creating smaller parcels out of larger ones, especially if the right to build a home goes with it. People see this process as a danger, because younger and poorer people are priced out of the rural land market and acreage is removed from the food producing total.

    But after collapse, land that has been in industrial agriculture will require years of work to bring it back to enough fertility so that it can grow food without synthetic fertilizer and even if people were willing to put in the time and backbreaking work to rehabilitate that land, where would they live?

    It seems counter-intuitive, but it could very well be that the gentrification of the countryside is the best thing that could possibly happen to it in the capitalist economy we have now. The prospect of large swaths of land being expropriated and distributed to peasant farmers along with a house and a mule is nil. Let’s let rich old farts who want to live in a bucolic country landscape preserve and protect that land (and built housing) for the agrarian peasants to come. They (we) won’t live forever.

    • Joe, I like that vision and I’ve often thought similarly. I really think this transformation could be helped along if the US created a single payer, not-for-profit health care system. This would remove a huge impediment from leaving jobs with health insurance in the city and moving back into rural communities where the cost of living is much cheaper and there are more 5 or 10 acres parcels available.

    • Yes it’s a good point. It makes me feel better about the somewhat over-specified house we’re currently building with its associated carbon cost – someone may thank us for it in the future!

      I’ve also sometimes wondered about the health insurance situation for low impact homesteaders in the US – presumably many are uninsured or under-insured? Good training for self-reliance, I suppose.

      • There are many medicinal herbs that I’m learning to use to help reduce inflammation and pain, improve immunity and digestion. In addition, clean whole food is also medicine for our bodies. Better health through better eating and understanding the medicinal effects of herbs may not protect us from all diseases but it makes life better. Live better, not longer is my motto!

      • Insurance is available for everyone in the US but it is not cheap except for those who are over 65, quite poor, or work full-time in Hawaii (the only state that requires employers to provide health insurance for their workers). A fair number of non-Hawaii employers do provide health insurance to their workers, but the employee share of the premium is rising every year.

        Talk about stupid; the US approach to health care is about the stupidest in the world, with per capita costs about twice that of other developed countries.

        After collapse there will be no insurance at all for anything except for the mutual support of family, friends and neighbors. Death rates will rise, but there is good evidence that human fertility is capable of keeping up, especially in the absence of modern birth control methods.

  25. Addendum on Johnson interview.

    First, I have tended to emphasize fungi at the cost of ignoring the bacteria. My amateurish opinion was that the bacterial population doesn’t change much, so it was the big increase in fungi which was doing the heavy lifting. Then David showed that bacterial diversity chart in Helsinki and I began to have doubts. What was I looking at and what did it mean? As David explains in the interview, there are bacteria which specialize in just about every metabolic process we might want to talk about. The more diversity of bacteria, the better. David explains that the explosion in bacterial diversity happens during the second half of the composting process. So the process really does take a year if you are looking for the diversity.

    In the comments on the side by side plots, David makes the point that the bacteria in one plot don’t move very quickly into the adjacent plot. So if you want to quickly increase diversity, his compost is one way to do it.

    But he also makes the point that just planting cover crops can go quite some distance toward the goal. This relates to Christine Jones’ reluctance to endorse the composting method, remarking that the cover crops are adequate to do what you want to do. David’s measurements indicate that the cover crops do not accomplish ALL of the increases one gets with the compost. (So, if you are trying to save the world, or just your farm, quickly, then take heed.)

    Another point has to do with the desert plots. In these plots, David is farming in sand plus his inoculum plus water. He removes all of the organic matter after each crop. He gets very good yields, but the soil organic matter does not increase from year to year. He remarks that ‘like in a relationship, you have to put something into it’. I will have to wait for more science on exactly what is happening, but I will hazard a guess. When David slashes the crop residue, it provides nutrients (including nitrogen) for the crop which is planted into the residue. Therefore, the incoming crop is free to put more carbon into the soil, which may be the tip which starts the increase in SOM.

    Finally, I found it very interesting to see David’s notes about similar efforts around the world. For example, he refers to Roland Bunch’s work in the tropics:
    Roland Bunch

    I have by no means explored this work in any detail. But I find it interesting that some Latin American farmers came to just about the same methods as the Singing Frogs farmers in California. Also interesting that David may have shown how to accomplish the same results without manhandling so much biomass.

    Finally, the question of whether it is better to try to increase 97 percent to 100 percent or, instead, to try to reduce 3 percent to zero….using microbes and soil and wetter versus eliminating fossil fuels. I would have to get really cynical to tell you what I think about this one, and I don’t want to go there. The sun is shining, and it’s time to garden.

    Don Stewart
    PS David was an experienced homesteader before he got into microbiology. And he is a recently minted PhD. Consequently, he grew up in labs which were looking at things using equipment and paradigms which are very much unlike industrial agriculture. As he says, he has now been NPK free for 13 years.

    • Don,
      I was very surprised to learn that David was spreading 400 lbs of his compost per acre, which is about 1/4 a cubic yard. One of the big drawbacks of adding compost to farmland is the cost. An inch of compost over an acre is 134 yards, which would cost more than $5,000 per acre (purchase, transport, application costs vary). Few people believe a “dusting” is sufficient to do anything for the soil.
      But I agree with what Johnson said about how his product could be benefiting the soil:
      “I think what you’re putting out there is a lot of spores and cysts. When you let the compost go this long, without the recommended carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of feedstocks, you get lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the pile. And when the whole system senses that it’s running out of usable resources, the fungi will form spores and bacteria will encyst. There still would be living organisms, like the worms processing it, and the compost would continue to mature.”
      I agree. I have always felt that part of the reason my compost works so well for growing plants is because of the long aging process I use. Much of the compost I make takes several years, and once I blend it with soil it is can be aged for two or more years. It wasn’t intentional. It was a result of having lots of space, a steady incoming stream of organics I was obligated by contract to accept, and a small but steady state customer base that bought less than I produced.
      I am going to try this out on the land we recently purchased. The land was recently seeded for hay by the previous owners and I plan to broadcast by hand 1/4 to 1/2 yard over two acres. A dusting of compost wont affect the germination and growth of the hay. It will be interesting to see if there is a difference in crop production. I’ll take lots of pictures!

  26. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the shout-out for stupidity or, as the late Ursula Le Guin would call it, unknowing. I love that last paragraph and the phrase “richly and knowingly indifferent” – so awesome! A certain kind of (noble) stupidity is a desirable and necessary attribute in our line of work. 😉
    I just got back from my own agricultural conference excursion to the exotic locale of Middle North America, with a conference report on my website.

  27. Regarding boron and calcium, Michael, you might find something of interest in The ABC of organic agriculture, phosphites and stone meal by Jairo Restreppo Rivera and Julius Hensel, which details various ways peasant farmers worldwide have mineralised soils and fertilised with various concoctions including cow dung, calcined bone and stone-meals. I ordered my copy from Ragmans Farm in the UK. The translation is not the best, and it could have been further improved with an index. Still worth a punt, I believe.

      • Yes, bonemeal would be my choice for Ca and P – and just like B it is regarded as a dangerous substance not suitable for anything else than industrial purposes – and tiny expensive bags of doggy supplements.

  28. Still catching up, and you folks have moved on, but I’m commenting anyway, in case you see it before you take another shot at defining a small farm.

    Try this as an attribute of a small farm. One that considers logistics for closing the nutrient cycle, with the limitation of no or very little use of fossil energy. Right now, with global commodity markets, food miles in the hundreds or thousands, CAFOs that split a nice synergy into two problems, and human waste polluting cubic miles of potable water, a “large” farm is part of and enables that dysfunction only because fossil fuels are available for “cheap” transport.

    What if we use the metric that a farm’s system radius is that distance something like what a horse drawn wagon could travel in a day? Those stakeholders, non farm workers, and barter partners that live in this area are considered part of the “self”, and all work to close the cycle as part of their essential tasks. Each individual person is actually a node in several “selfs” to varying degrees.

    With overlapping farm system circles, and some amount of specialization, you’d get a somewhat connected net that diffuses some high value small mass products, but heavy, low value density stuff stay close to home.

    The local Amish are not that far from this type of system already.

    The lens I continue to see all this through is “what will farming look like when fossil fuels are gone? Yes, we can quibble right now about how to balance fossil power versus muscle power in designing the optimal “small farm”, and the difficulty to make a go of it when competing against cheap energy subsidized large farms, but if you want your Republic of Wessex to be around in 200 or 500 years, it should be designed for no fossil inputs. Any compromise now should only be considered a temporary one that will transition as fossil energy ( and inputs) wanes.

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