A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part II

Continuing my theme from last time with brief answers to questions posed at the online launch events for my book.

Settlement geography

Q. How important is the potential of city people to help out on the farm on a part-time basis, as happened in the past? Do we need new platforms or services to enable this to happen?

Potentially important. Certainly, there’s a need for people to be more fully engaged with and supportive of the food and farming system – ‘we are all farmers’, as I put it in the book. So, yes to new platforms and services, and to deeper engagement of cities, towns and villages with their hinterlands. And that could certainly involve city people helping out part-time on farms – though it would probably be of limited immediate practical use to the farmers, and more a means of building understanding longer term.

Ultimately, though, I think we’re in for a period of ruralisation or deurbanisation, and we need to devote a lot of our energies to thinking about that and managing it well.

 

 Q. Urban living is unhealthy and unsustainable, small farming is healthy and sustainable. So, what sort of movements/policies are needed to help move people out of urban areas in the Global North to rural small farms in an equitable way?

In Part IV of the book I discuss how this might happen less in terms of policies from the centre or even in terms of coordinated ‘bottom up’ movements but more in terms of the opportunities arising as centralized states begin to lose their grip, large urban-to-rural population movements develop by default and people have to improvise new ways of creating livelihoods. But it’s also worth thinking about how all this might play out in the form of small farmer movements – something that I plan to write about here in the near future.

But if I had any political power within central or local government right now, these are the kind of things I’d be trying to do: creating economic disincentives to urban and rural land speculation/landlordism; building welfare/human services as a counterpoint to increasing gift and inheritance taxes; framing planning policy to incentivize nucleated settlements with plenty of small-scale, mixed holdings, including Welsh-style ‘One Planet Development’ policies everywhere; supporting local, rural infrastructure; retaining all publicly-owned farmland/green space for affordable agriculture/horticulture; incentivizing the creation of allotments and community gardens; investing heavily in horticultural education; developing high carbon taxes.

I think all of these would help push in that direction.

 

 Q.Many people have recently found they can do their white collar work from home: do you think there is a place for groups of people doing both remote white collar work AND small scale farming? And if so, would the balance need to be seasonal (in our UK climate)?

Definitely a place for it in the present state of things – especially if we’re talking about decommodified, self-reliant production (smallholding, essentially) rather than commercial farming as such. But with that comes the need to think about the implications for rural gentrification – something we’ve touched on in this blog but I hope to write about in more detail at some point soon. Managed well, white collar workers moving to rural areas can help to stimulate local farm economies. Managed badly, it risks creating social conflict.

Longer term, I’d argue there’s a need to rethink the balance and the rewards of white-collar work and farm work. Less of the former, more of the latter, as much as possible in its more rewarding forms. Energetic considerations will most likely push in this direction, perhaps making white-collar work a harder option as time goes on.

As to seasonality, there are ways of trying to stretch the workload across the year but, yes, a business trip in May is probably out. A quick Zoom call before you head to the seedling tunnel may be manageable, however. For as long as we still have Zoom…

 Q. What’s your view on Holmgren’s idea of retro fitting suburbia?

I haven’t read his book, so I can’t really comment. In a UK context, I don’t think retrofitting suburbia alone while maintaining existing urban and rural structures would be adequate to the task before us (actually, I doubt it would be in Australia either, but there may be more suburban green space to play with there). But I do firmly believe that it’s a good idea for people to make their neighbourhoods more resilient and productive of local livelihoods whatever their neighbourhood happens to be, so in that context retrofitting suburbia seems sensible.

 

Politics

Q. Just to say I can’t wait to read the book when I come out of Agriculture Bill hell – and to ask Chris how he aims to get politicians to read and listen to the sense of what it says.

Thank you! How to get politicians to listen is something I’ve been struggling with for years… The way I’ve written Part IV of the book, where I talk about political transformation, perhaps emerges from my failure to find an answer, or in fact for anyone else to find an answer – other than the charmed circle who do have their ear. Basically, I don’t think they will listen – but I think they’ll be increasingly overwhelmed by events that they’re no longer able to control in the ways they’re accustomed to, and in this sense they’ll become less relevant. In fact, we’ll all be overwhelmed by these events. But, unlike politicians, we’ll still be relevant – at least to ourselves and within our localities. The challenges we’ll face in all this are profound, but it’s on that slim ground that I try to build a case for political renewal in Part IV of the book.

Q. Peasant uprising?

Q. Sociocracy

Q.Citizens assemblies are useful

Questions and statements coming at me thick and fast about the means of political renewal here! In brief, I’m sympathetic to peasant uprisings but in many parts of the world – including here in Britain – there aren’t many peasants as such, and the big question for me is what happens after the uprisings. The outcomes of the uprisings in the countries covered by Eric Wolf in his Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century haven’t exactly been rosy… Nevertheless, I do argue that we need to engage seriously with peasant experiences (Chapter 3 ‘The return of the peasant’). Maybe things like sociocracy and citizen assemblies can help us address the issues that arise post-uprising, post-peasantization or however else we describe the rebalancing that will happen (I touch on citizen’s assemblies in the context of civic republicanism in Chapter 18). So these are definitely discussions I’d like to continue.

 

The land

Q. To dig or not to dig?

In her book Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day, historian Joan Thirsk describes the arguments in 17th century England over exactly this question – so it’s a debate that’s long been with us! Looking again at her analysis, it occurs to me that in permaculture circles we often use the same word – ‘tillage’ – to refer to digging a garden or ploughing a field, but actually they’re really different. Ploughing (and power harrowing) at landscape scales has the potential to be really destructive of soil, albeit in some places more than others, whereas that’s far less true of well managed ‘spade gardening’. In Part II of the book, I discuss the ecological reasons why digging and high-yielding food crops go together historically – high-yielding no till remains an uneasy compromise. So, to dig or not to dig … the jury’s still out, after all these years! But what I would say is that on garden or small farm scales digging is less problematic environmentally than at farm/landscape scales. And also that no dig systems that rely on importing a lot of compost from outside the system may be problematic in terms of generalizability and whole lifecycle ecological impact.

Q. I watched Kiss the Ground on Netflix yesterday. Great film and I was really impressed with how the regenerative rancher in particular articulated a really compelling economic narrative that holds the regenerative farm up as a far more economically viable (as well as much more healthful and enjoyable) farm model when compared with any big-ag enterprise that are miserable, deathly, unsustainable and subsidy dependent. I’m curious how small-scale, diverse and regenerative farming is being pitched as the most compelling economic solution of our time – the potential for many many thousands of long-term jobs in all manner of ecosystem restoration enterprises including, central to that, farming enterprises. When thousands are losing their jobs in unsustainable sectors, it seems to me this is the key argument to be made to a neo-liberal capitalist government. It is economically irrefutably logical.

I’ve not yet seen that film – I’ve heard mixed reports! What I would say (as I discuss in Part II of the book) is that regenerative ranching is probably easier to do than regenerative farming, but unfortunately regenerative ranching isn’t going to feed the world. Still, I very much endorse the second part of the statement. In an ecologically damaged world where the engine of economic growth is faltering, creating labour-intensive jobs in ecosystem restoration (with farming as the centrepiece) is an economic/ecologic win/win, and we need to broadcast this as loudly as we can.

 

Q. How do we restore “wrecked” or degraded global farmland – 40% no longer arable – 25% degraded?

Some may cavil at the figures – how do we define ‘degraded’, and can there be a simple binary of degraded/undegraded? – this is something I touch on briefly in Part I of the book. Nevertheless, it seems to me hard to dispute there are current farming practices that we cannot sustain long term.

No doubt there can be many different answers as to how to restore ‘wrecked’ farmland at the level of technical detail. But in general they largely boil down to two. One is to leave it alone and let nature take care of it. The other is to farm it more thoughtfully, usually with agroecological practices that typically involve a mixture of trees, well-managed pasture and well-managed, intensively cultivated (dug, but not ploughed?) cropland. I think this would involve a lot more people emplacing themselves in local farmed landscapes to produce personal livelihoods for themselves, while noticing and accepting the ecological feedback they get locally in response to their manipulations of the landscape. In other words, it would be a small farm future – and the prospects for humanity seem to me quite bleak unless people are widely able to emplace themselves as local ecological actors in this way.

9 thoughts on “A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part II

  1. Some may cavil at the figures

    Hmmm… has ‘quibble’ gone out of favor?

    Degraded is a tricky concept. As an individual ages they will naturally witness their strength and other capacities degrade. Nature deals with this by replacing the aged with younger aspirants. Our obligations to the land might be seen in a like manner – indeed swidden agriculture looks very much like this. But as Chris notes the better approach would be to thoughtfully tend the landscape and do as much to regenerate as feasible. To this end – making regeneration more feasible – I advocate longer term tenures (year to year rentals or leases do not encourage cover crops or other regenerative measures). For me the jury is still out when it comes to programs that will pay farmers for soil carbon storage. I like the fact that it is being discussed and that some attempts are in the works. I hope that current approaches or their follow on attempts will prove viable.

    Cover crops are gaining attention throughout the US Midwest, and I have to believe they’ll prove to be more than a passing fancy. Soil health is discussed far more today than it was just a few years back. This is encouraging as well. Standards for measuring soil health are evolving. Once land owners and other land managing interests come to grips with the value of soil health and are armed with vigorous means for monitoring the same there should follow a natural flow of effort to enhance soil health. This latter emphasis on natural market tendencies needn’t stall or derail a vision of a small farm future – indeed, smaller operations may prove more amenable to restorative efforts.

  2. Chris,

    You talk about City Folk helping out. I remember reading a biography of – sorry to say Jimmy Saville, and in the 1950’s he was going on ‘Help on the Farm’ working camps in the summer so clearly there is a precedent in the UK, to say nothing of the Kent Hop Pickers.

    While you finished the book just as Covid 19 arrived, there must surely be a question about what a ‘Post Covid Post Brexit’ UK might look like – failed state anyone, and there must be the possibility of a ‘back to the land’ movement growing up that in turn might result is at least some minor developments

  3. But with that comes the need to think about the implications for rural gentrification – something we’ve touched on in this blog but I hope to write about in more detail at some point soon.

    Please consider the positive aspects of rural gentrification in your future writing.

    1. It tends to reduce land parcel sizes to those more appropriate for intensive horticulture.
    2. It keeps land open and groomed so as to prevent re-wilding with forests. If you have ever tried to turn forest into arable land or even pasture, you know how difficult it is. Stumps are a real bitch.
    3. Manicured lawns may not build the soil carbon of cover crops, but lawns do gradually increase soil fertility. I suspect the rate of carbon and fertility increase is better or comparable to animal pasture.
    4. Plush homes, what we call “McMansions”, will be able to house many of the families who must exit cities as they become unlivable, even when utilities and indoor plumbing are not available. McMansions will not be repairable or replaceable, but for many decades they will keep the rain off and the wind out of living spaces. Indoor wood burning fireplaces will be especially valuable. I look at gentrified housing as pre-building future farm housing. Really big estate homes can effectively become village centers housing perhaps dozens of families in the main home and numerous garages/outbuildings. People can even sleep in abandoned vehicles that have been pushed out of garages.
    5. After the initial subdivision and road installation, further development is unlikely in gentrified neighborhoods. If high density housing is created, as in condominium complexes, they will tend to be associated with golf courses (another great way of keeping land open and ready for farming). Gentrification tends to keep more dense urbanization at bay. A possible drawback is the tendency for gentrified areas to support keeping green belts completely open rather than being subdivided into small estates. We should support those who want to encroach on green buffers around cities if they intend to create low density subdivisions for rich folk. See all the benefits above.

    Well, that should get the Monbiots of the world steaming. But we should keep an open mind and imagine what kind of capital assets we want to have on hand when modernity crumbles away. If I were fleeing an unlivable situation in a city, I would rather have a rural building to squat in, especially if starting a garden or small farm were simply a matter of digging up lawn. A vast expanse of open farmland would be a hard place to establish a homestead (don’t even think about a forest). I’d rather have an abandoned house to live in than a tent or have to shelter under a tarpaulin.

    Now, in the unlikely event that existing open space and extensive farm country can be directly converted to low-income housing for subsistence farmers on small plots, disregard all of the above. Still, gentrification is a second-best option.

  4. Hi all,

    I did not attend the book launch, but have been exploring this blog with interest, and look forward to reading the book.
    I live in Melbourne, Australia, and would like to comment on the question regarding David Holmgren’s book “Retrosuburbia”.
    David is the co-originator of permaculture. He and his partner, Su Dennett, farm on a one hectare block about 2 1/2 hours from Melbourne. His book talks specifically about the southeast Australian context, but there is much that can be extrapolated to other areas.
    He argues that as modern industrial civilisation declines, we will need to adapt within the currently available housing stock, most of which is in urban and suburban areas. He outlines many ways to become more resilient in this context.
    I would like to commend this book to all. It is large and quite expensive (and mail services painfully slow here due to our prolonged Covid lockdown!), but worth buying for the beautiful illustrations. However, David and Su have kindly made it available as an ebook on a “pay what you can basis”

    https://online.retrosuburbia.com/

    There are many interesting case studies. For example, he profiles this property, a 1/14 acre system in Melbourne which produced 428kg of produce in 2018!

    https://www.katlavers.com/the-plummery/

    David argues in his ebook “Feeding Retrosuburbia” that it may be possible to feed the populations of Australian cities from the open space within their borders, although this would require the labour of a fair proportion of the population. If there is little work or money, and not enough food, this work may suddenly seem quite attractive to people!

    https://retrosuburbia.com/reading/feeding-retrosuburbia/

    Obviously our low population densities and benign growing climate in Australia makes this scenario more feasible than it would be in colder, more densely populated areas. However, it is food for thought.
    It seems that a combination of vegetable/fruit/herb/egg/goat dairy production in the suburbs with grain/staple/large animal meat and dairy production in rural areas might be a workable combination for a sustainable future.
    In the untenable circumstances that humanity has created for itself, we really need to be creative and look at all available options.

  5. Interesting comments.

    Failed states indeed are on my mind, John. I discuss the implications particularly in Chapter 17 of the book. Though the thought of reckoning not only with a failed state but also an agricultural work camp in the company of Jimmy Savile is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. Small farm ownership has got to be a better way…

    …to which Clem’s points are apposite, and again I discuss them in Chapter 13. I was at a conference once where a representative of the Duchy of Cornwall remarked that tenants made better farmers. Subtext – tenants make more money, and there you have the history of English agrarian capitalism in four words. I’d say that owner-occupiers make better farmers – possibly because they make less money – but this can lead to other problems that I do my best to air in the aforementioned chapter.

    Joe makes good points about rural gentrification. It’s a complex question and, like him, I see some upsides. Of course, there are some tricky questions about the transition, however… Again, I touch on this in Part IV of the book.

    Sally, thanks for commenting and fleshing out some detail from David Holmgren’s work. Generally I’m a fan of his writing and I’m sure he has wise things to say. I talk about settlement geographies in Chapter 15. There’s a lot to be said for garden city type ideas … though ultimately a degree of deurbanisation and capital deconcentration seems necessary to me in most places.

    And thanks Simon for the John Gray article. He’s an interesting thinker, and I’m drawn to his critiques of progress and solutionism, and his emphasis on myth. I do find his almost complete refusal to countenance any enduring collective projects a bit over the top, though. From straw dogs to straw cats pretty much captures it…

    • I agree on both counts. I started to find his a very urban sensibility, somehow, and for me this he where some of his societal/collective project ideas misfire. For a more rural sensibility and more laughs, Knut Hamsun takes some beating. Another curious mind.

    • Ah, Knut Hamsun! I’ve only read ‘Growth of the Soil’, which I found astonishing and brilliant. But then we get into some political difficulties with Mr Hamsun that make Mr Gray look tame. Though apparently nobody who met Adolf Hitler ever made him so angry, so there’s that…

      • Took Hitler three days to get over it, though some claim Hamsun’s deafness had something to do with him not allowing Adolf to get a word it edgeways (a scene that in itself its straight out of Hamsun). I enjoyed The Women at the Pump, August and others. I see some other titles have been translated, may have to dip back in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *