A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

Last week my publisher Chelsea Green hosted a webinar to launch my book and I then spoke about it at the Permaculture Convergence. I’ve struggled a little with the online format, but I appreciated the engaged comments from the audiences at both events who I knew were out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to answer all the questions in the time available, so I thought I’d reproduce the questions here and attempt to answer them, if only briefly. The book contains more in-depth discussion of most of the points raised. I’d strongly recommend buying a copy…

I’ve grouped the questions into these six overarching headings:

  1. Food & farm system economics
  2. Labour questions
  3. Property & access to land
  4. Settlement geography
  5. Politics
  6. Caring for the land

I’m going to work through headings 1-3 in this post, and 4-6 in the next one, which I’ll post in a couple of days.

Food & farm system economics

Q. I have recently been suggesting that the price of food should double – but how do we then ensure that we are not increasing food poverty?

Sounds about right as a minimum. The key is to consider food prices in relation to the price of everything else – land, housing, labour, energy, transport, welfare. For sure, if food prices increased without any other economic adjustments, food poverty would increase. But we need to rethink those other sectors too. That’s something I do, albeit in fairly general terms, in the book. I think we also need to decommodify food production considerably, so that non-commercial, locally self-reliant food production is more of an option for many people, including poor people – ‘recapturing the garden’, as I call it in the book, after Steven Stoll. If we get it right, food poverty and nutritional deficits will decrease.

 

Q. As the current large scale food system has to start internalising its costs, how do you think its affordability would balance out with agroecological production models

A similar question to the previous one, perhaps? My view is that if the existing food system fully internalised its carbon, soil, water, health and pollution costs we’d probably be questioning the affordability of anything other than agroecological production models. At the same time, I want to avoid an overly dualistic ‘mainstream bad – agroecological good’ framing. I argue in the book that farming of all kinds has to confront difficult dilemmas to which there are no perfect solutions.

 

Q. In Covid I’ve reinvented my not for profit company into a local produce wholesaler called Brighton Food Factory, to support small farmers and supply community food projects. Is that a service that small farmers need? To create the bridge from small farmer to food citizen, not just as a consumer but to shorten the supply chain and help people understand the upsides and challenges of local, small farm production?

The way food commodity markets work in my experience is that most of the financial value is captured at the point of retail sale, which is why small-scale farmers tend to sell direct to customers – volumes aren’t high enough to make a living from wholesale prices. But this does mean we spend a lot of time on the retail side of our operations when we could be farming. If other organisations took on the marketing, this could be a boon – but the question is how best to create these collaborative rather than competitive relationships between production and marketing. If your venture is succeeding at that, I’m sure there will be a lot of wider interest.

I think people sometimes over-emphasise the marketing difficulties facing small farm enterprises at the expense of emphasising the difficulties of production in the face of wider economic forces. The key problem facing small farmers probably isn’t a lack of sympathetic people offering to sell their produce. But that said, your points about creating bridges and public understanding do seem vital to me…

 

Labour

Q. If you talk about the global equity and the creation of livelihoods for small scale farmers – how can this be created for small scale farms which (often) heavily depend on volunteer work?

Not that many small commercial farms I know depend heavily on volunteer work long-term, because it can be rather a mixed blessing. But, as I said above, I’m in favour of considerable decommodification, and here ‘volunteer work’ broadly conceived can play various roles compatible with livelihood creation. Generally, small-scale local agrarianism isn’t well suited to generating salaried work, but it is well suited to generating livelihoods. I talk about this quite a bit in the book.

 

Q. Are farm volunteers (e.g. CSAs) included in the 1% who work on the land?

(Note: I mentioned in a talk that about 1% of the UK workforce was employed in agriculture). No, that figure encompasses only salaried and self-employed agricultural workers. So the true amount of work going into the production of food consumed in the UK is higher – not only CSA volunteers and similar, plus home gardeners, but fisherfolk and all the people working abroad whose labour is embodied in the food we import.

 

Q. I know you like to calculate Chris (perhaps your book address this): What is your take on how big a share of the population should/will have to be involved in farming if it is small scale, ecological and based on renewable resources (under European conditions). Or put otherwise, how many people could an empowered small scale farmer produce food for?

Is that you Gunnar? You know me down to a T! Yes, the book does address this for the UK – and the answer is … 15% of the working-age population working directly as farmers, or one farmer per twelve people altogether. As per the previous question, that ignores volunteer and backyard labour and fisherfolk. But it’s based on meeting national food needs entirely, without imports. It also ignores the various rural trades supportive of farming work. Of course, it’s only a rough guess…

 

Q. With the poor response by the general public to Pick for Britain and British Summer Fruits jobs in the face of (the recent) crisis, how realistic is a wider small farm approach and the need for more labour compared to our current industrialised farming practices?

At the moment, not very realistic – though the crisis seems to have changed the narrative about small farm localism a little for the better. But in the longer term I think it’s unrealistic to expect that our current industrialised farming practices will continue. Most of my book is addressed to that tension between the large farm present and the small farm future. I argue that agrarian localism will emerge in the disorder arising from the decline of the current global political economy – though it can happen in various ways, some better than others.

 

Property and access to land

Q. Do you talk in your book about new ways of looking at land ownership?

Yes – especially in Chapter 13 (‘Complicating the Commons: Holding and Sharing the Land’). Though, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. So many of the ‘new ways’ of looking at it that I discuss are actually old ways.

 

Q. Recommoning please!

OK, not a question as such, but a statement. And one that I agree with. But it’s complicated … hence my chapter ‘Complicating the commons’.

 

Q. As someone looking to enter into small scale farming it is clear just how difficult it is to access land in the first place, due to a wide range of factors, not least the price of land. What do you think can be practically done to encourage new entrant farmers, and specifically younger people, into farming, when it is currently so difficult for people to make that transition?

There are various organisations trying to ease routes into farming and people can be quite inventive at finding their way in, but ultimately I agree it’s difficult and the price of land is a major stumbling block. One way or another, there’s going to have to be a major reconfiguration of access to land – I discuss this in Chapter 13, and also in Chapters 17-20.

 

Q. Property developers artificially inflate value of land. Village of Cassington that has allotments at centre of village life is about to lose this invaluable food and community resource for local people as Blenheim Palace estate plans to build housing on the land. What can be done about this sort of situation?

As per my previous answer, I discuss this in some detail in the book – you’ll just have to read it! But I don’t claim to have all the answers and I’ve been unable to go into the issues at the level of deep policy detail, so this is an ongoing discussion I’m interested in having with people.

 

Q. In the UK, many pubs, cinemas, community centres etc have been registered as Assets of Community Value, giving local people the opportunity (although unfortunately not the right) to buy them rather than see them converted into accommodation or other uses for profit. Have any small farms been listed as community assets under the ACV legislation? Could be a great way to protect small farms and a way to exit on retirement if passing on to family members isn’t an option.

Interesting, and not something I’m very familiar with, so I can’t answer the question about small farms and ACVs. My guess, though, would be not many because land inheritance is the norm. I suggest in Chapter 13 that this will need to change, but the wriggle room for achieving this is extremely tight. Currently, the UK planning system generally protects farmland from development, albeit often in cumbersome ways that are obstructive towards a small farm future. But I get the sense that the present government would like to remove planning controls altogether, and this would be more obstructive still.

17 thoughts on “A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

  1. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for writing the book, it’s on its way to me. I think you did great at the book launch after some minor technical difficulties. It is awkward but sure saves on air-travel! I definitely learned a lot and was inspired by the lively conversation. Thanks for bringing Jyoti in, it was great hearing her perspective. I was also interested to learn that you do allotments on your property, Do you have a lot of interest in that and does it require a lot of hand-holding/administration? Had any problems with it?

  2. Hi Michelle – Thanks for that. Glad you appreciated the webinar.

    Interest in the allotments has been reasonably high over the years, even though we make it quite difficult for people – eg. limited vehicle access, create your own plot from pasture etc.

    There’ve been a few problems over the years, but it’s mostly been OK so far. Probably 3 key lessons are (1) Being sure we can get along with every plot-holder, (2) Clear written rules and boundaries, (3) Getting them to form an association with a contact person.

  3. Sure it is me Chris.(I had to google “down to a T”).. Your assessment seems quite plausible to me, and also quite acceptable from a social perspective, It the kind of figure that I will throw out if someone asks, even though I haven’t made the calculation. The book launch was nice thanks. Tell me when the grand book tour will reach my equally coronaridden shores and I will assist!

  4. This is a great response to see to questions on the night. Really thoughtful and generous.
    V interesting to hear that ACV is not really part of the conversation re small farms. I hope Peter McFadyean has a chance to take a look and I will try to raise it with the Plunkett Foundation (I’m a member of their More Than a Pub scheme Steering Group that helps people buy their local pubs) and Power to Change, which helps fund community businesses
    Cheers Chris and I’ll be ordering the book
    Iain Chambers
    Brighton Food Factory

  5. Devil’s Advocate for the day says…

    I don’t know about the UK, but in the US the farm population was 15% of the total in 1950. While there were a lot of farmers back then using mostly organic methods, they also relied on a great deal of fossil powered mechanization. In the 1950’s, my grandfather milked his mostly pasture fed cows with electric powered milking machines and spread manure with a tractor drawn spreader. All field work was done with machinery.

    I have no doubt that 15% of the population can feed a nation with industrial equipment, but a lot of people are very happy with the 2% or fewer doing so now. If the methods that those 2% use could be replaced with no-chemical-input regenerative methods, and there is a pretty good case that they can, why should the farm population increase at all, especially if increasing farm population means higher prices for the same food, grown with the same methods? And if an increase in farm population just means substituting seven people on small tractors for one person on a giant tractor, has anything really been gained toward sustainability of farming?

    A positive EROEI from food production means extremely high labor inputs. People need to realize that there is a dramatic step change in de-mechanization required before farming produces more calories than it uses. Your garden allotments are a bigger step in the right direction than just increasing the number of farmers using industrial machinery.

  6. Thanks Gunnar, Iain & Joe.

    To Joe’s points, the 1950s US comparison maybe suggests I’ve underestimated the necessary labour input. On the other hand, the US was then a major ag (and horticulture?) exporter, whereas my figures are based on national food self-reliance alone.

    My projections largely assumed hand and draught team energy inputs, not small tractors instead of big tractors. But, Joe, I’m surprised to see you write “why should the farm population increase at all” if we can use the existing methods of the 2%!

    In other posts you’ve emphasized the necessity of repeopling the countryside with low input small-scale farms, and questioned whether even a bicycle is too high tech for a renewable economy to sustain. As I see it, for numerous reasons that go beyond the direct energy/material requirements of existing mechanized farming in the rich countries, there isn’t a good case at all that we could have regenerative farm economies based on just 2% of the population working in agriculture.

    But I guess you did say you were playing devil’s advocate…

    • I like Joe’s comparison… up to a point. Why benchmark at 1950? Because that is when the farm population in the US was 15%? Chris’ observation that US was at that point already an exporter is salient here.

      If we pick a time before gasoline instead (realizing that coal is a fossil fuel and steam predates gasoline by quite a margin)… we could go back to 1900. Joe and I are approximately the same age and thus need to peek one more generation further back. My great-grandfather had a steam engine tractor, the first in his community (1903). Animals were still the major source of non-human labor. Land set aside to feed horses, mules, and oxen was nontrivial. The community had a farm population greater than 15%, so the comparisons are not equivalent. But there are many other differences to our current situation. Land values in the Midwest US were much lower relative to commodity prices. Productivity of the commodity crops (wheat, corn, field peas, cotton) was much less (independent of cropping technology). The government didn’t involve itself in agriculture to the extent it does today (both World Wars had much to do with the industrialization of US ag).

      But to Joe’s point that it may be possible to produce all our ‘farm’ food needs with less than 15% of the population – I think he’s headed the right direction in the estimation. I put farm in single quotes because so little of what we actually eat is directly from a farm produced product. Fresh veges may be the closest to table ready, but grains, meats, and preserved foods need some processing. These can be done on the farm of course, but at some point we should account for the labor involved… as most of the processing today takes place off farm. Thus a 2% figure for the farm population is misleading in a sense. What percentage of the population is needed to go from a seed to a meal?

    • My projections largely assumed hand and draught team energy inputs, not small tractors instead of big tractors. But, Joe, I’m surprised to see you write “why should the farm population increase at all” if we can use the existing methods of the 2%!

      In other posts you’ve emphasized the necessity of repeopling the countryside with low input small-scale farms, and questioned whether even a bicycle is too high tech for a renewable economy to sustain.

      I replied about using tractors because I looked at the technology in use when 15% of the population was farming, which for the US was almost all tractors and associated machinery. I doubt very much that muscle alone can produce food at a rate wherein one person can feed seven people. I believe Gunnar’s comment corroborates my doubts.

      I will be glad to admit my error if you can point me to your evidence that “hand and draught team energy inputs” is sufficient for a 15% farming vs 85% non-farming population ratio. When we look at historical periods when all farming was muscle powered, the ratio was more likely to be the reverse, 85% farmers and 15% non-farmers.

      Since I think that industrial food production will collapse with the rest of industrial civilization, I do think that the countryside must be repopulated with people using non-industrial ways to produce food, mostly for themselves. Again, this is why I said that decreasing the size of industrial farms and increasing the number of industrial farmers is not a solution to the problems of industrial farming. It does move more people on to the land, but at a cost of much higher food prices that people in an industrial culture will not want to pay, especially if farming methods and environmental damage remains the same (what I took your population ratio to assume). They won’t want to leave their jobs and become hoe farmers either, but that’s why a transition to sustainable agriculture is so difficult.

      My ideal solution would be to develop a process for moving people from cities straight to subsistence agriculture in the countryside. If offering them a tractor is the only way to get the process started, I’m all for it, but I am stumped about what argument to make that would be persuasive and still include tractors.

      What is persuasive to me is the importance of de-mechanization. Only by substituting manual and animal labor for tractors and other machinery can we ever return to a positive EROEI from food production. Not only will that be sustainable in perpetuity, it will also necessarily be carbon neutral (on a global scale).

      People may not like de-mechanization, but it’s coming back sooner or later. So, we might as well get prepared to live without fuel-guzzling machines as quickly as possible. How we do that preparation at a societal level is still a mystery, at least to me.

    • It’s possible that I’ve underestimated the amount of agricultural labour required. In fact, the 15% figure doesn’t capture the full labour I’m modelling because I’ve excluded spare-time urban/backyard labour and fishing. But here are some reasons why it might broadly be realistic:

      – There are no exports
      – Although I assume very low yields by modern standards, they’re probably still higher than historic yields in preindustrial farming systems
      – In societies where there’s something like an 85/15 split between farmers & non-farmers, the 15% typically ensure that the 85% remain farmers, and expropriate most of the surplus that they produce. Think of the level of capitalization of 17/18th century England or France. I don’t make that assumption.
      – Almost all primary food production is for human, not livestock, consumption.

      In practice, I think the kind of small farm societies I characterize in the book would probably have more than 15% of their populations working as farmers and, like Joe, I emphasize self-reliant non-market production (as per the book’s subtitle) – what I’m assuming is very far from ‘industrial’ farming. But I’m not convinced that the 15% figure based mostly on human and animal power is indefensible. Certainly I don’t see much difficulty in one person feeding seven or more using human/animal muscle on a well-established farm.

      Probably the two key labour assumptions I’ve made in the model are that a 40 acre organic mixed-arable farm can be worked by 6 people and 2 horses (as I understand it, this is much more than the 17-18th century norm in England) and a 3 acre subsistence smallholding (mostly down to pasture for a house cow) can be worked by 1.25 full time equivalent adult labour.

      As Clem says, there’s much more to the food system than direct farmer labour, so a good deal of other employment would be in work that served the wider farm economy. On the other hand, the more that production is oriented to household or local subsistence, the more farm system labour equates to food system labour, with the production of many directly consumable wholefoods on-farm.

      Anyway, of course I’d be interested in further comment or critique of the modelling I’ve done, which is pretty back of an envelope (or at least back of a rather large and unwieldy spreadsheet). It’s laid out in more detail in Chapter 11 of the book. I’m not especially committed to the 15% figure. It’s just what turned out from the modelling assumptions I made – unless I committed some ghastly mistake

      • To further muddy the waters, quite a lot of small holders will be doing something on the side besides growing food. As Chris describes in snapshot three in chapter fourteen, there is a lot of entrepreneurial business conducted out of small farms.

        A large number of the Amish farms near here build, make, bake, sew, repair and value add all manner of things for cash, with signs at the head of the driveway advertising their wares. One wonders how to apportion their labor split between faming and “off farm” income activities.

        Overall, I’m inclined to think that 85:15 might be a bit optimistic, especially at first as we are at the base of a steep learning curve for all these new farmers and cultural changes, but I’m not stuck on that. It will settle out at some number radically different than today.

  7. After it rains around here, unfailingly certain folk are out mushrooming. Incredible amounts can be had, if you know where to look and what to look for, though most hobby-foragers seem content to fill a carrier bag.
    Other off-farm food sources come from hunting, poaching (deer, occasionally pheasant) and fishing. Pretty much everyone grows some food in the garden and mature fruit and nut trees are everywhere. Some intrepid hungry bellies harvest nettles, wild fruit, edible snails (again, illegal). One fellow even crushed then ate a few carpenter ants while in my company. Another helps a pensioner on his small vineyard and always seems to be carrying a large bottle of local red.
    I guess there must come a point where too many foragers might spoil the road less travelled.
    Though I don’t (yet) forage, fish, hunt or poach, just knowing local people who do seems to guarantee a few meals in any given season, and for that I’m glad of the diversion from trying to grow my own. I was served buffalo last week.
    On fishing, I found this to be an exquisite half hour, by the water’s edge somewhere in Wiltshire…
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000ncn6

  8. Chris,

    Two points

    1. You talk about doubling the price of food. At the moment about 10% of what the consumer pays goes to the producer, clearly if we could go back to 50% – the figure circa 1950 farm income goes up 4 fold

    2. You talk about your farms being owner occupied, what about rented ones? Unless farmers are lucky enough to be able to pay cash or inherit they will end up with a mortgage so will still be paying for it somehow? It also seems to me that rented farms/farmland could either provide a form of tax income for local authorities or perhaps the basis if a landworkers pension fund

  9. Simon – yes, I think there’s a need to embrace the possibilities of wild food. I include a little in my modelling, but probably not as much as I could have done. However, the worry indeed is that the road less travelled might easily become the road dug up, so I don’t think we should overdo this.

    Steve – indeed, this is where we might start rethinking the basis of the economy. It raises a whole other set of questions and trade-offs: local/non-local, monetary/non-monetary etc. some of which I discuss in the book.

    John – on farm incomes, yes I think we need to arrange things so that producers capture more of the value. At the same time, we need to be decommodifying the entire food system. More trade-offs … and more discussion points covered briefly in Part III of the book.

    On farm tenure, as I see it ultimately all land is ‘rented’, firstly from the wider human community and secondly from the wider natural community – and both those communities demand payment in the end. I’m not averse to rented farmland in the more everyday sense of the term, but I’m wary of the power of landlords (private or state), which I think too easily lead to bad ecological and economic outcomes. In Part III of the book, I therefore speak up for the unfashionable idea of inalienable private property rights in farmland, something that’s widely coveted in historic small farm societies. Such rights have problems of their own, which I discuss – in less detail than is ideal, but I had a word count and an editor to worry about… Hopefully, I’ll get into some of this in a future post here.

    • The issue of land tenure is both very important, and as Chris points out, very hotly debated now and historically. And so long as we want to slice down into details, I’ll also draw attention to another – Chris’ use above of the phrase “farm tenure”, where here I’ve chosen the broader “land tenure”.

      I am a bit sympathetic to the feeling that individuals ‘rent’ land rather than actually posses it… renting it from posterity, from our fellow humans and fellow fauna and flora. I like this approach as it emphasizes a land users obligations more as a steward than a tyrant. And farming is not the only land use we might consider [exploding mountain tops for access to coal seems to fit]…

      As an example of differential land use – on my small farm there are several pieces currently under different uses and thus under different modes of management. There is agricultural land on which we raise commodity crops for the market. The goal being to generate income to pay principal, interest, taxes, insurance, seed, fuel, etc. and then at the end of the money list perhaps some money is left for the farmer. There is some timber land – left alone for the most part, sometimes wandered as a peaceful effort to reconnect with nature. This timberland also acts as buffer between ag land and a protected stream. There is a bit of access land, a navigable lane that permits vehicle access to various points on the property. There is also a division of the arable – some is farmed as noted above, and some is rented back to the federal government under the CRP program. This latter piece generates some income for the broader farm, and offers some habitat for ground nesting birds and other wildlife.

      There could be some income from the timber portion of the land mentioned here, but at the moment I’ve not moved that way. I have picked a few wild raspberries and cracked open an occasional walnut – to Simon’s point above.

      But the larger point I want to make is that as a sole proprietor, as the owner of record, there are a whole host of others I have to include as ‘co-renters’. The bank, input suppliers, end use customers, various levels of government (local, state, and federal), neighbors, and if I’m being fair… the next person who will have the opportunity to work this land. [to the white tailed deer who operate under the illusion that the growing crop is theirs for the eating… I have less sympathy]. But I do want to acknowledge that as a land steward I do feel some obligation to wild nature – so the negotiation with the deer ends up at the tip of an arrow or the point of a shotgun.

      The ‘co-renters’ mentioned here? A motley crew. Some very nice and reliable participants. Some as aggravating as the deer. At the end of a season, when balancing up all the accounts and noticing where effort and reward flow to and from it makes for an interesting lesson. Ownership is a serious responsibility, and I sometimes wonder if ‘rent’ captures this nuance.

  10. I have grown up in a small holding. From my experience of 20 years, I small holding farming is much more sustainable and diversified. I can just cite an example of growing local rice in the coastal area. The farmers in the area grow local rice which is tall in nature. If diversity of rice is quite high. More than 100 types rice in cultivation. Another point is that, we want to grow a number of different crops in our land. I think it is also profitable. In most cases the small holding farming is organic in nature. Thus it is labour intensive. The question is how long we can continue this farming. Well, the answer is simple, as long as we can provide labour. The agricultural labour is migrating to other activities. So, the future is bright provided realization of importance of small holder farming.

  11. There are a few community-owned farms in the UK, like Fordhall Organic in Shropshire (whose previous ‘owner’ Arthur Hollins wrote an interesting book for pastoralists called The Farmer, The Plough and The Devil). There’s also a Community Interest Company (CIC) model and a legally-binding way to keep farmland as farmland in perpetuity, all positive developments.

    Having experienced deer predating mainly our luscious early potato leaves earlier this year, I worked along the fenceline where they/it was, I imagine, gatecrashing of a night. I’m not sure which change was most effective, but I strung empty beer cans along a wire at head-height (for uncanny noise in the dark). I let the hedge grow taller as I’d read that deer don’t like leaping into the unknown. On their side of the fence I laid a pavement for them, consisting of fist-sized rocks that move underhoof in a treacherous manner. To top it off, when we cut our hair, or the dog’s hair, we toss it out there. I occasionally urinate all over my creation. Since spring this has kept them/it at bay, though I have no doubt the deer will outwit me eventually. Shooting the creature dead would have been very difficult since my wife sold her shotgun not long after meeting me. At garden-scale this is all doable, and I have every sympathy for affected areas where it wouldn’t scale. I’ve heard a certain weight of fishing line can be a useful deterrent too, but for now I feel my approach is belt-and-braces enough so I’m keeping the fishing line as an element of surprise if I have to deploy it; they can’t see it, but by God they can feel it.

  12. TFTFC.

    Indeed, an owner faces various responsibilities – especially if they’re a partial owner in partnership with a bank. But a renter faces the same responsibilities, even if they’re rendered in more straightforwardly monetary terms. Maybe it’s easier for a renter to walk away. But they walk away with nothing. I discuss this in Chapter 13 of the book.

    And thanks Simon for recording your terrifying deer defences – the uncanny sound of cans is haunting my nightmares! Perhaps a future archaeologist will excavate your garden fence and surmise – correctly – that it was a sombre shrine to horticultural fertility…

    Thanks also to Константин – how long can we continue farming … as long as we can provide labour. Exactly this.

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