Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

The first talk I’m giving in relation to my new book is at the Northern Real Farming Conference, at 7.30pm on Tuesday (29 Sept). Although I’m not from or in the North, the conference is nevertheless an appropriate launchpad for my book because I suggest in it that in the future people are going to have to furnish their livelihoods more regionally and locally than most do today, and that this is going to involve a lot of rethinking – of agriculture, of industry, of politics and society more generally, and indeed of what we mean when we talk about the local or the regional. There are few better forums for getting going with this rethinking process than a regional farming conference.

My talk is going to be fairly general in its scope. I’m hoping that the audience discussion will add more local colour and detail to it and fit its themes to the specifics of Britain’s north. But I also hope that anyone reading this webpage may do the same in relation to wherever in the world they live, and however they think of their locality and their region. Perhaps, in the comments to this post or elsewhere, this will help to generate some worthwhile rethinking of agrarian localism.

And boy do we need that rethinking! Wider issues like climate change, energy scarcities, economic stagnation and political fragmentation are already reconfiguring our world, but we can only guess at the local adjustments this will demand of us – which makes it hard to know where to put our energies and what kinds of institutions to support and nurture. Often, as a grower and smallholder I feel that I should probably just get my head down and try to produce food in a low impact way. But that alone isn’t going to be enough. Below, I lay out five broad themes (and some more specific pointers) that I’d suggest need addressing everywhere as we rethink regionalism and localism for a small farm future:

  1. Producing for local needs, instead of for commodity markets.
  • in (northern) Britain, this probably means going easier on livestock and cereals, and harder on woodland, horticulture, fertility-building fallows, fibre crops, seeds, medicines and general trades and inputs into farming.
  • it also means entering a steep learning curve on low impact, local farming, involving a thorough rethinking of scale, labour input and agricultural education
  • and it may mean disregarding recent historical land use patterns. Where I live, for example, there’s a strong recent history of dairy farming which partly has to do with the fact that grass grows well here (harking back to the quaint days when that actually mattered…) but also with the fact that the opening of the railways to London created a demand for fresh milk in the capital
  1. Rethinking settlement geography
  • cheap energy has broken the links of mutual service between town, village and countryside. How can we restore them?
  • in the future, we will probably see ruralisation or deurbanisation in the face of new energy, climate and economic realities. Population dispersal is harder to achieve than concentration – how can this be managed?

     3. Rethinking landownership

  • ruralisation may put inflationary pressure on farmland prices to the benefit of existing landowners, exacerbating inequalities
  • this is potentially counterbalanced by the sheer weight of a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class, the weakness of the political centre and the residual influence of liberal rights ideas
  1. Local identities
  • in what ways might local or regional identities help or hinder reconstructing a renewable agrarian localism? (Personally, I’m dubious about most existing identities in this respect, in the North and elsewhere: northern, Yorkshire/Lancashire, East Riding/West Riding, urban/rural, ‘indigenous’ or ‘immigrant’, here first, the ‘real people’
  • almost everyone is a child of a failing economic modernism – can we forge new identities as farmers engaged in creating renewable livelihoods in place?
  • civic republicanism as a political tradition to inform new identity-making, not based on ideas of a pre-existing ‘natural community’. The politics of ‘here we all are’

 5. Wider interactions

  • in a supersedure state situation with semi-autonomy of, say, the north from London, how would relations between region and centre work?
  • and between regions?

20 thoughts on “Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

  1. The first problem will be farmers / homesteaders , there aint enough of them , todays non intensive farmers will have the job of teaching thousands of ” townies ” how to grow stuff .

    • Very true, especially if the movement of “townies” to the country is left until the last minute. Please see my comment below for another possible solution for easing the transition.

      And thanks for the link to the video about the mineral resources required for the total electrification of the economy in your comment after the last post. It was very good. It also highlights the missed opportunities of waiting until recently to begin moving away from fossil fuels. If we had started 40 or 50 years ago, an energy transition could have taken place gradually, which would have allowed electric technologies to adapt themselves to resource constraints equally gradually, making the whole process a lot easier (not easy, but easier).

  2. Ruralization will be impeded by powerful economic forces:

    If asset owners in cities sell those assets in order to purchase land in the country, urban asset prices will tend to fall and rural land prices will tend to rise, impeding the exchange of assets. Even if large groupings of urban asset holders pool their resources to better match the asset prices of larger acreages, the asset price mismatch would still retard asset transfer.

    If people in cities attempt to move their labor to the country without purchasing land, they will only be able to do so if their farm labor has more economic value to a landowner than that provided by the landowner’s existing labor pool supplied mostly by machinery and fuel. This situation is unlikely to happen as long as fuel and machinery are ultra-inexpensive (or food prices are ultra-low) as they are now.

    In fact, I see little chance of rural movement while food supplies are dominated by commodity producers. It will be very difficult for high-labor food production to out compete commodity producers except in tiny niche markets. And since commodity food production will be one of the last aspects of a global market economy to fail, small farming might have to wait for the present market structure to completely collapse before it can compete.

    But one factor could facilitate population movement, however:

    If the labor has nothing to do with the land, if the worker moving to the country still works at their city job, then a quasi-ruralization could happen. Remote working has been given a large boost by the pandemic. If the trend continues, workers might migrate to the country and continue to work at their city jobs. They may then begin to dabble in country life and gradually adopt a more agrarian skill set. It would certainly be better to have the population dispersed around rural areas prior to any necessity for higher numbers of farm workers than move them later as commodity farming fails.

    I have a small farm in rural Hawaii. I love it here, but another big reason for my staying is that I consider it a lifeboat for the rest of my family. Normally, as my family has discussed the matter in the past, even though they grew up here (perhaps because they grew up here) my adult children wouldn’t move back unless they were forced to do so by job loss or civil unrest.

    However, both my daughter and son (who are both engineers) have been remote working for the last six months. If I had faster internet service, my son’s family would move here for the next year or so and continue to work at their jobs on the mainland. They would certainly also be assigned a few farm chores while they were here, to everyone’s delight. Unfortunately, my internet speeds are too slow for reliable and high quality video conferencing, which seems to be the key to remote work.

    I think that there is a certain irony in the fact that the internet, one of the highest technology products of a high-tech urban civilization, could well be the cause of a gradual dissolution of urban populations and a return to the country. Perhaps those who promote a small farm future should first concentrate their efforts on getting high speed internet installed throughout rural areas. Move the workers first, then let them become farmers later when necessity requires it.

    • I think that is a really clever ploy, using remote working as a set-up for re-ruralization.

      It occurs to me though (and I am not casting aspersions on your children) that only certain classes of workers are able to work remotely.

      Not having any children of my own, I’ll have a look at who among my co-workers I would choose as farm help. I would much prefer Jimmy the welder to any of the young engineers. But Jimmy can’t work remotely. Welding is something you need to be present for.

      Those college kids are nice, but I would much rather have somebody who actually knows how to do stuff.

      • Well, my two college kids (now 41 and 38) grew up in the country, where horses, fence building, rodeo, tree planting, greenhouse work, building construction and lots of farm chores were all teen jobs or hobbies.

        I’m not worried about them being able to make themselves useful, but while civilization totters on, they have things they’d rather do than help out around the farm they grew up on. They know their present jobs won’t last forever, but while they do it’s up to them to do what they want.

        As to remote work – of course not everyone can do it, but there are enough people who can that they could make up quite a large rural population. Sure, the learning curve would be very steep for those with little experience of rural life, but when farming becomes required just to have enough to eat, they would at least have a head start over those left in the city. And who knows, maybe remote workers would get tired of staring at a screen all day and find something productive to do outside, just for a change.

        I actually think the kind of people who would be interested in doing remote work from a rural area would have to be attracted to rural life in the first place. Remote work would let them move to the country and still have enough money to live there. There may not be many other options, at least for a while.

    • Yes powerfull groups will try to stop ruralizastion , but if news reports are to believed and UK supermarkets are begining to ration goods ( little said about actual foodstuffs ) then hunger will shift the goal poasts a long way , and if reports are true that the gov wants no FF transport by 2035 i would think breeding horses will be a winner .

    • The issue for rural internet connections is not so much speed as cost.

      I have just invested in a 4G router with a data SIM in order to continue working permanently from home. 4G is cost-competitive in the UK. Once we finish setting up our VoIP phone, we’ll cut the phone line completely and be paying ~£30/month plus a small charge for any calls to actual phone lines. I don’t know if you have 4G infrastructure in your part of Hawaii?

      I know of other places that have set up satellite internet systems that are very fast. These are usually pooled between several households.

      • Wow I am payind $125 a month for 14 mb so yes rural net is freakin expensive , no alternative its either the phone co op or satalite and satelite is shall we say , uncoperative .

    • Ha, nice to see I’m not the only one thinking this. I’m 30 now, working as a software engineer in Amsterdam, but we’re planning to move to the countryside in a couple years where I’ll probably still be working (remotely) the first few years as we set up a smallholding and learn more and more of the necessary skills so that eventually I can give up the day job and gain our income and sustenance from the land.

  3. l’m struck by how the UK seems to be much further along the road to regional autonomies than the USA.

    London, in Southern England, and Lancaster, where the Northern Real Farming organization is based, are no further apart than some places in the state of Maine. The area of the UK (plus Ireland) is less than that of California, yet the UK is already divided into four semi-autonomous regions.

    There’s a lot of catching up to do before California (for example) is similarly divided into semi-autonomous regions, and has its own currency.

  4. Hmm, A mosaic of fiefdoms would certainly be one flavor of regional autonomy. I applaud your efforts to try to nudge society in a way that might preserve some elements of liberalism and equity in our future. Our feudal past and human nature makes me think this will be a big lift, regardless of my hope that you succeed. While a small farm future makes ecological, sense, some equity in human societies would be a nice additional feature.

    good list of discussion topics.

    1. The logistics and processing infrastructure will be the bottleneck here. but there are emerging localized networks in my area. The expansion of farmer markets, the buzz around eating locally are hopefully signs of a shift in direction. Feeding the urban population will be the challenge. Reruralization (this needs to be a real word) to get closer to the food production resource will take a lot of time and money, so the two will need to stay in some balance. Far enough down the road, as fossil fuels truly wane in the ag sector, horse drawn logistics will drive arrangements, as well as regeneralizing each farm to optimize the plant – animal cycle. No more farmers in Iowa eating food grown in California.

    2. The amount of cost to create housing stock, various local business infrastructure is mind boggling when faced with our current short sighted and deeply debt burdened financial world.

    3. This one really puzzles me. Who will be the bag holders? How will mass and transfer and redistribution happen in our current economic system? What is fair? Haircuts for all! How to avoid a rupture of the social contract? Unless the internal immigrants and small holders have the money, how does transfer happen? Average age of the American farmer is somewhere around 60. A sea change was in the works regardless, with corporate investors being the likely new landholders. A quick shot of stats for you:

    4. Small town provincialism exists. The area I live in experienced a wave of settlement by back to the landers back in the 70s, and there is still an uneasy background animosity amongst the “real people” that occasionally finds voice. It’s not just identity and long connection to the land, it’s also cultural. Organic agriculture, as an example, is a good predictor as to ones history on the land.

    5. wider interactions- area specialization will still exist based on geography and climate, so trade will continue. It happened before the fossil fuel era and will continue, the scale will revert. Not sure how the value proposition for London or New York will be evaluated. As power diffuses, it may just be that the wealth pumps of empire simply become less confiscatory or wither. I do love coffee and chocolate.

    Will your talk be recorded for those of us that can’t make it to the meeting?

  5. Sorry for my long silence here. Publicity stuff for the book has been kicking off. Plus I’ve needed to indulge the rare pleasure of doing some actual farming. So I need to keep this short. But I’ll try to pick up some of the interesting comments above in greater detail in some later posts as I work through the book themes.

    For now I’ll just say yes urban to rural movement and land market dynamics are big imponderables – much will depend on the pace and focus of change. But generally I don’t assume that central governments will remain stable enough long-term to underwrite existing property dynamics.

    Nor does it seem to me likely that we’ll see a return to a feudal past – though a more likely modern iteration of this could be some variant of a fascist future. But I’ll say more about this in due course.

    US vs UK regionalism is interesting. It’s probably true that there are remnants of local regionalism that vary over tighter geographical space in the UK than the US. Though these kinds of identities can be double-edged when it comes to creating the new kinds of local society we need. On the other hand, government in the UK has long been highly centralized in London and the whole state-federal tension in the US that’s potentially generative of more local politics (for better or worse) is absent.

    Anyway, more on all this soon, I hope.

  6. Coming late to this – very interesting themes in the post, and great comments as always.

    It seems to me that 3 is the crux of everything else, and I’m rather excited by the idea of ‘a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class’. Class politics is always about confronting existing inequalities, and the current injustices of landownership should be front and centre. One of the largest problems to articulating this kind of politics in the rural parts of England is that many established farmers tend to align politically with the defenders of the landed status quo.

    We desperately need an oppositional smallholders’ politics, and one that recruits broader support from among non-smallholders committed to such a transformation. Unfortunately threats to private landed property rights often offend those with the smallest plot to lose as much as the largest, and tie in with a more general ‘common sense’ that such rights underpin liberal ‘civilisation’.

    A civic republican politics may help here, in so far as the political inequalities produced by unequal landholding cannot be tolerated. But what specific form might this new politics take? What programmes might help to articulate ‘political’ (in the broadest sense) campaigns? I don’t have much to offer here (anyone else?). I’ve recently become quite interested in the politics of Thomas Spence, which speaks to rectifying the political inequalities of landownership, but in a context two centuries old – it perhaps says more about my historian’s tick to look backwards than it does about the best shape of future political action.

    • Thanks for that, Andrew. You home in on some key concerns of mine that I discuss in Parts III & IV of the book but would like to develop further now I’ve finished it. I certainly plan to devote a blog post or two this winter to the forms of this new politics – and in particular to the tension here between class & civic politics.

      Never a bad thing to look at how these issues played in the past … though maybe I just have the same tic (perhaps a greater problem is contemporary forms of progressivism that lack it). I’d be interested in your further guidance regarding the thought of Thomas Spence.

    • Take away all subsidies and tax breaks on land holdings over 100 acres , turn mega farms into perminant loss makers .

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