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”.

17 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!

  4. Thanks very much for your book, which has articulated and developed several ideas I had been chewing on without having the conceptual framework to put them into context. If I were to sum things up I might get say that we must transition to a system where the non-financialised benefits of our food production outweigh the non-financialised costs — moving from ecologically and socially damaging externalities to nourishment which feeds us in a variety of ways without necessarily being measured economically.

    Personally it seems unlikely that I’ll ever be able to buy land and move to a farm, but my shambling and inexpert allotment gardening feels less futile now — or maybe that is the effect of the 25 squashes, mostly varieties I couldn’t purchase from the supermarket or greengrocer, hanging up to cure in my kitchen while I was reading, or the various pods of soup beans drying on strings… not bad for our first year on the plot and dealing with both winter floods and a late hard frost. We started in December 2019, before all the COVID-19 stuff came up, and having somewhere other than the house to spend time has done wonders for my mental health, too.

    One thing I didn’t see addressed explicitly in your book is the problem of access to health care with a more distributed, less mobile population and a supersedure state. In conditions of societal collapse we might not have much of that in cities either, of course, so perhaps the point is moot. I suppose much of this depends on which technologies and infrastructure we attempt to conserve, and in what form. Perhaps that’s another book.

    • Thanks for commenting, Kathryn – I’m glad you found the book of interest. Indeed, there’s nothing like a house full of curing squash and drying beans in the autumn to make you feel the tangible benefits of gardening! And this is one of the key places to start in transitioning to a just and sustainable society.

      Regarding health, I did originally have a chapter on health and welfare, but unfortunately there wasn’t space to include it in the final draft of the book. A difficulty in writing a book about the future is that it’s easy to slip into glib predictions (“this is how society will look…”) or glib solutionism (“this is how we’ll deal with healthcare in a small farm future…”) which are best avoided, but the other pole is to be too non-commital (“on the one hand there’s this approach, but on the other hand…”) I think my welfare chapter fell too far towards this non-commital end of the spectrum. But maybe I’ll air it on this blog sometime…

      • Thanks for your prompt reply, Chris.

        I think the health and welfare aspects of our future are worth addressing, or even exploring, in depth. I suspect it is probably better to have left them out of the book than to be glib or non-commital; but one of the things that ties me (and many people I know in the global North, at least in countries with decent public health care systems) to urban and suburban living is reasonable access to health care. Even if I could afford land on which to live and farm, being able to visit the GP is a concern. Currently I walk or cycle there (like many Londoners, I don’t own a car and haven’t bothered with the expense of a driving license). Sometimes I have to wait longer than I’d like for an appointment or to sort out chronic problems, but I also know I have a reasonable chance of being seen promptly at the local A&E should an illness escalate to life-threatening status. The NHS isn’t perfect, and I have my fair share of complaints, but it is adequate most of the time where I live.

        Modern healthcare as I know it developed in tandem with urbanisation, but of course that doesn’t mean further development (or even maintaining existing standards of care) is impossible outside of urbanised, centralised models. Urbanisation itself brings many health challenges, from water treatment to noise pollution and air pollution. But (admittedly, without a good understanding of the existing underlying
        economics of health care), I find it difficult to imagine alternatives that would be compatible with a small farm future. It seems to me that the extremes positions of “we’ll have better health from working outdoors, so medicinal plants and traditional medicine can provide all we need” or “Big Pharma is the only way to provide any quality of life” are unhelpful: I want fennel tea for better digestion, and also access to X-ray imaging, sterile surgery and antibiotics when I fall into a ditch or accidentally lacerate a foot on a scythe.

        Much of the world doesn’t have ready access to these things, and I only really know much about health care services as a recipient. Perhaps I need to learn more of medicine to be able to begin to imagine something better, or at least different. Perhaps it is because I am already a gardener, if a somewhat haphazard one, that I can imagine food production moving to a more distributed and locally autonomous model which has a resilience our current systems do not. But if that means asking comparatively wealthy people in the global North to give up access to the standard of medical care most of us enjoy, I worry that the answer might be a flat “no”.

        I am inclined to agree with you that a small farm future is where we are headed, whether we embrace or resist it. So then the questions about medical care, public health and welfare are more along the lines of: given this imagined future, what is the best care we can provide? And what do we need to do now, to ensure these options are available?

      • All good points and questions that indeed deserve to be answered. I’ll do my best to sketch the beginnings of one, but I think in a forthcoming blog post rather than in a comment here.

        I’m about to start a cycle of posts commenting and expanding on the book, so when I get to Part III (Small Farm Society), I’ll try to write one on healthcare and engage with some of your points. Perhaps I’ll also publish the draft welfare chapter.

        Hopefully, this might have the added benefit of keeping you reading the blog 🙂

        • Thanks, Kathryn. In the meantime, if you (and indeed anyone else here who’s read the book) would care to write a brief online review (Amazon, Goodreads etc.) the publishers and I would be appreciative!

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