A sociological farmer speaks…

With my book launching officially today in the UK, it seems a good time to start the cycle of blog posts about its themes that I’m planning to run over the next few months. Unlike my usual output here, my intention is for these posts to be short and frequent – but we all know where the road of good intentions leads…

Ah, the book, the book! When I started writing it, I naively thought it would give me the space to go deeper into all the major themes that I’ve explored on this blog. But, later than I should have done, I realized that a book is a much briefer thing than nine years of accumulated blog posts. So then I thought that the book might stand as a kind of pure distillation of my considered thoughts, at least on the things I chose to write about, like some miniature jewel in its box, perfect after its own fashion. Of course, that’s not true either – because I can’t write perfectly, and because there are so many different ways of seeing things even from the viewpoint of a single person. And time and ideas always flow on.

Still, the book is something, an intervention at a particular time in things that seem to me important. All the other things it could have been, all the words that have sloughed off it in files called things like “Part 2.ver6” that languish on my hard drive are suddenly neither here nor there. The book has left me and begun its independent journey in the wider world.

And it’s funny to see me and my biography enfolded third-person in that journey. In various online locations I’ve been described as a ‘sociologist and farmer’ or a ‘former social scientist and farmer’. These labels probably represent my strange career as well as anything. The longest salaried job I ever held down was as a lecturer in sociology, for six years – which I guess makes me a sociologist, despite the fact that I’ve never actually studied it as such. And since I’m no longer paid a salary or have a job title, perhaps indeed I’m now a ‘former social scientist’. I just can’t stop myself from thinking about society, though.

‘Farmer’ is the steadier label. On the one hand it seems a rather grand title to apply to the practical work I do as an aspiring shepherd now troubling my way through sheepless nights, as a former market grower, dilettante gardener, amateur plumber, tree-hugging chainsaw-wielder, tractor-botherer, blunt scythesman, weed-eater, hay-maker, grass-raker and mechanically-challenged engineer. But on the other, I think it’s important to resist breathing further life into that mythical imposter, the ‘proper farmer’. A planning officer at Mendip District Council once told me that I wasn’t one of those. When I asked her who counted among their number she said that if I had to ask, then I wasn’t one. Well, I’m not asking any more. As I outline on page 8 of the book, we are all eaters, we are all farmers.

In the webinar on Tuesday, Peter Macfadyen made the point that my book isn’t really about farming. I do have a fair bit to say about farming in it, especially in Part II, but I think he’s right – and it’s largely because the major problems we face aren’t really about farming. Nor are they about energy or technology, which I also touch on in the book. Fundamentally, they’re about how people organize themselves collectively, how we think about our place in the wider world, and what we think life is about. What better background for probing that than social science?

But what’s perhaps of greatest import are the points where our human self-conceptions confront the wider world – and here farming looms large. Since I’m hopeless at multi-tasking, how fortunate, then, that I’m a ‘former’ social scientist and a farmer, albeit improperly! And how curious that I should just happen to have these two attributes that uniquely qualify me to write my own book…

That’s probably just about enough for now by way of an intro to my book. I daresay important books on our current predicaments could be written by people with other CVs (agronomist/shaman; anarchist/mediator) but I’m afraid I’m stuck with my perspective as a (former) social scientist and an (improper) farmer. I hope you’ll join me in my subsequent posts as I work through the numerous implications of this happy duality…

…but just to say before I get into the meat of it that in my next couple of posts I plan, firstly, to try and answer some of the interesting questions that were posed at the webinar and that regrettably we didn’t have time to answer and, secondly, to post something topical in early November provisionally entitled “What growing edible cereal crops can teach us about fascism”.

11 thoughts on “A sociological farmer speaks…

  1. As the year winds down, it’s good to find a spot that’s always evergreen with ideas.
    The Chelsea Green ‘Zoom’ webinar was most enjoyable, and though it was mentioned that it might be online for viewing later, I haven’t yet found a link on the publisher’s website.
    I’m looking forward to the book, which should be here any day now, and also to reading your answers to the webinar questions. I saw Gunnar posed an interesting question, and I was thinking of asking for your estimation of the carbon footprint of an individual thriving renewably, vague though these calculations necessarily are. Maybe it’s all in the book.

    • Hi Simon,

      Thanks for that. I don’t think the webinar has been posted online yet. I’ll let you know when I hear anything. I’m afraid there isn’t an estimation of a ‘thriving renewably’ carbon footprint in the book, but that’s maybe a conversation we could have here sometime. In the present state of the game, I think it might have to be negative!

      • Unless the “thriving renewably” individual is making a special effort to sequester carbon (biochar production or deliberate creation of a peat bog as examples) the carbon footprint would always trend toward neutral. Every aspect of a local carbon cycle has limits that would keep carbon sequestration from continuing indefinitely. I don’t know what it is but I am sure that there is a maximum for average carbon per square meter of earth’s surface.

        The same trend toward neutrality is true for emissions, too, since if emissions were positive for too long the affected area would eventually run out of carbon to emit. Of course, that would be the opposite of “thriving renewably”. There is no way to thrive without carbon.

        • Seems like the conversation has already started! I can’t fault your logic here, but maybe in the short term it would be possible and desirable to have a negative footprint – eg. trimming herd sizes, reforesting etc. I’d like to come back to this in more detail at the relevant point in the blog cycle.

  2. Hi Chris, been following your blog for a year or so. Appreciated what you’ve said and the way you’ve said it. Your book arrived today in Hikurangi, Northland, New Zealand, via a jet-fuel guzzling plane presumably given how fast it got here. Have enjoyed beginning to read in between some of my own small farming endeavours (very early stages) on a balmy Saturday. Will endeavour to post some more in-depth feedback at some point and perhaps get into the habit of making comments to future posts as a way of working through my own thoughts on systems futures, politics, cultural change, etc. Will be writing a short review for the local paper shortly, which will boost international sales I’m sure. As an aside, it’s our national election today, I’ve reflected previously on what a good name “Small Farm Future” would be for a political party in our MMP elections. As a lapsed former socialist/Marxist can’t help but think of class struggle and class interests expressed in a political movement/party. A daydream. Anyway, congrats on the book, from what I’ve read so far it deserves to be read widely and acted on.

    • Thanks Vaughan, appreciated. Do send me your review when you’ve written it. A Small Farm Future party would be great, but I’m certainly not the person to move such a thing forwards. More to come on here regarding class and farming futures…

  3. Hi Chris. Don’t know why our editors didn’t alert me to this or to the webinar, but: Congratulations! I’m looking forward to reading what you’ve distilled from all those ruminations, and, isolated as I am by Donald Trump’s vendetta against all of us over 65, I’m eager to participate in a conversation about our small farm future.

    • Thanks Michael. I’m certainly interested in that conversation. I liked your book, and there’s a lot of overlap with mine. Hope to see you on here again!

Leave a Reply

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