Both hands now – an introduction to ‘A Small Farm Future’

Today I’m going to begin my cycle of posts commenting on, expanding and perhaps occasionally qualifying the analyses in my book A Small Farm Future.

You have bought your copy by now, right? Ah well … far be it from me to tell you what to do with your hard-earned cash. Suffice to say that I’m not planning to summarise or repackage what’s in the book, so if you haven’t read it or aren’t an old hand on this blog, some of these posts may be a little mystifying in places. Others, though, should work as standalone pieces. One way or another, I hope you’ll find something of interest and perhaps some things worthy of debate within them.

I’m going to work my way through the book roughly in page order. The book starts with ‘The Civet’s Tale’, which I sketched in order to make the point that, almost invariably, the choices we make have downsides as well as upsides, perhaps in agriculture more than in most areas of life (and, unfortunately or otherwise, agriculture is at the root of all those other areas of life).

Another way of putting this, following on from my previous post, is that after only death and taxes (in fact, before taxes), a certainty in life is trade-offs. Arguing this puts me in the company of mainstream economists, whose discipline proceeds largely from the concept of opportunity cost or decision-making in circumstances of scarcity. There are those – often on the political left, my own political home turf – who insist that such notions are a conceit of our capitalist economic system, which manufactures an artificial scarcity. Along similar lines there are those in agriculture, both alternative and mainstream, who insist that there’s a ‘right’ way you can farm – out of which flows abundant produce, social harmony, a handsome income to the farmer and all other good and wholesome things1. Well … don’t get me wrong … honestly, I’m with the left, and I’m with the agrarian renegades. But on just a few significant points I’m also with the mainstream economists and the sceptics of cornucopia. As I see it, Harry Truman’s yearning for a one-handed economist is rightly destined to go forever unfulfilled. Perhaps this shelfie of some of the books that particularly influenced the approach I took in my own book illustrates the point – try to reconcile the arguments in all this lot.

On pages 1-3 of my book I try to thread a way through arguments from left and right, from ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, about decision-making under circumstances of constraint – arguing that in the present world-historical moment this points to many more people than at present turning to an agrarian life. The rest of the book, and indeed this blog, is premised on working through those implications.

Although I share a trade-off based starting point with mainstream economic thinking, there are a couple of ways in which my analysis departs from it. One of them is that I’m open to the idea that ‘scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ are not analytical absolutes but in many ways are just words we attach to certain kinds of feelings (and there’s an underlying psychology to those feelings that I examine at various points in the book, particularly Chapter 16). The things humans need are both scarce and abundant, and the best place most of us can be for getting the measure of those twin truths is on the farm, where we have to build a livelihood in their shadow.

Another way I depart from mainstream economics is that, as I see it, only a few of these trade-offs are quantitative ones that can be expressed through the medium of money. Whereas it’s a commonplace of contemporary culture to say that arguments for a small farm life or for economic localism are romantic and fanciful, I argue in the book that the real romanticism in contemporary culture, the real fantasy, is our views of money, capital and trade as the solution to our problems, as the measure of our wellbeing and as a meaningful claim against the world. In this respect, anyone who says that my book is a nostalgic evocation of past rural worlds that are now inevitably lost to us either hasn’t read it or has badly misunderstood it.

But we’ll come back to money and markets presently. For now, I’ll conclude by highlighting a few of the trade-offs that I examine in the book, not many of which are ‘economic’ ones in the usual sense of the term.

So as I see it (and as I explain in more detail in my book), you can’t usually or easily:

  • Produce more food or fibre from a given area without creating more work for somebody, or more pollution, or more stress on wild organisms, or all of those things.
  • Introduce ‘improvements’ into a society that aren’t experienced as degradations for some people – thereby calling into question singular narratives of universal social ‘progress’
  • Develop new crop varieties that involve significantly less labour input and less environmental impact, but yield as well or better than older varieties
  • Create globalized networks of profit-seeking trade without degrading human and non-human ecologies somewhere
  • Create collective forms of human organisation without creating interpersonal conflicts
  • Dismantle collective forms of human organisation without creating other interpersonal conflicts
  • Build and populate cities without energetic and social costs
  • Surrender a sense of personal autonomy without spiritual cost

Some of these issues we’ve already discussed at length and picked over on this blog, but in the posts to come I’ll try to lay them out (alongside other issues) afresh once more to fill in some of the gaps in the book and round out its analyses. I hope you’ll join me.


  1. On this point, see this recent comment to an old blog post of mine and my reply … further comments on this welcome.

31 thoughts on “Both hands now – an introduction to ‘A Small Farm Future’

  1. I find myself very much in agreement with your final list. Most of them are about “efficiency” one way or the other. And that is bad already as stated by you. When “efficiency” is linked to our socio-economic system it seems to be bound to “produce” externalities and place burdens unequally.

    I may disagree with your last point, but that is possibly because I am so square minded that I never quite understand the word “spiritual”. Spirit and soul are concepts beyond my comprehension…

    And yes, I will read the book, hopefully before Christmas. I wish you good reviews and sales!

    • As a lifelong atheist, I can sympathize with your difficulty with “spiritual”. But I do think that there is meaning to the word that derives from our emotional reactions to dramatic experiences (especially aesthetic experience), emotions perhaps more akin to the definition of “spirited” than “spiritual”.

      The awe and exhilaration we feel in the experience of majestic vistas or great art and music, can lift our “spirits”. For many people, losing autonomy could result in “soul-crushing” despair.

      It’s not necessary to believe in an immaterial “soul”, God, or heaven and hell to meaningfully use the word “spiritual”. I don’t know whether Chris’ use of the word was intended as a purely religious statement, but it still made sense to me without any religious connotation at all.

  2. Well, I’ve finished my first reading of your book. Due to the complicated nature of our predicament, and difficulty in auguring a realistic path forward, I need to read it again. I’ve annotated in the margins a bit, and will what till your posts hit on the topics I have questions/comments on. Our predicament lies at the intersection of ecological limits and collective human psychology, both devilishly hard to characterize.

    Adding to the difficulty, is the fact that some future impacts are not remotely predictable even when trying to be holistic in evaluating a choice.

    Trade offs- Thus the nuance and caveats throughout your book. The concept of the triple bottom line is one example of attempting to account for all the effects of economic activity in something more than money. It hasn’t exactly caught on or changed our trajectory.

    Trade offs define every ecosystem niche filling organism. Since we gained access to fossil energy, we’ve acted like a ruderal species, with all the downsides (Unacknowledged tradeoffs!) that has caused, and will have to figure out how to return to a role more K selected in a low energy, low disturbance environment. What will be the tradeoffs in that scenario? Will we have computers, ice cream, toilet paper, glass windows?? The mind reels.

    Globally, there is no “external”, but we don’t currently think that way. A culture that thinks seven generations ahead has at least a chance of making wise choices.

    • Globally there are indeed many “external” . Solar energy perhaps the biggest. And while it tends to behave as a constant, it is not exactly a constant (think solar flares). The universe also sprinkles us with cosmic rays, meteors and meteorites, solar winds, and gravitational pulls from the moon and other heavenly bodies. Many of these global externals have minor impacts (meteoric impacts notwithstanding), but the moons gravitational impact directs the tides… a very significant feature… whole (and very significant) habitats and weather driving phenomena would be lost with the external forces of the moon’s gravitational pull.

      Your overall point is still appropriate – there are VERY many other externalities inside of our global system which we either ignore, still don’t appreciate, or find ourselves too lazy to incorporate into our daily thinking.

  3. Like Joe, I’m a lifelong atheist. And like Gunnar, I don’t think I quite understand the word ‘spiritual’. And yet increasingly I find myself thinking that understanding it in ways that are somewhat alien to modern culture is critical if we’re to cope with the challenges now facing us. But I’ll say more about it in a future blog post, rather than here.

    Appreciate you reading my book , Steve! The fact that people are reading it is an honour, though it galls me to see how quick some folks are finishing it when I think how long it took me to write it 🙂 Still, it’s even more of an honour that you’re going back for a second look.

    Indeed, please feel free to interject with comments or questions as I work through the book here on this blog. Writing about the future in a worthwhile way is a hard thing to do … and so is trying to say something useful about our predicaments when there are no simple answers and many intractable problems. I hope you found at least some of it worthwhile, at any rate.

    Linking Gunnar’s intervention with Steve’s, I’d say that whether people have computers, ice cream, toilet paper or glass windows in the future may be less important than whether they have a sense of agency, purpose and restraint.

  4. ◾Develop new crop varieties that involve significantly less labour input and less environmental impact, but yield as well or better than older varieties

    Perhaps you’ve been waiting for my pushback on this item. Sorry to be so slow in getting to it. We are still harvesting yield trial plots here. These plots though are the very basis for my claim that you are quite wrong on this point. Wrong enough that you can expect me to keep banging away on the point.

    Within a properly conducted variety trial one can readily find different varieties that do in fact yield more of something than other varieties grown using exactly the same inputs (labor, fertility, environmental impacts). Context is very significant, so some varieties may behave as more specialist (fitting certain habitat niches better than a generalist variety). Having better yielding varieties allows choices for producers and starting points for further improvements.

    There are some tradeoffs in the biological sense – but these are commonly NOT 1 for 1 tradeoffs – (eg, a one gram gain in shoot weight means an automatic and absolute one gram loss in root weight). I can, if your are curious, supply a couple feet of bookshelf texts that go into more detail on the subject. One could begin with Darwin… you’ve likely heard of him.

    • If you’re gambit is to hide behind the term “easily” (“you can’t usually or easily:” )… then know that one can make crosses between two soybean varieties with a simple tweezers (and actually this is not an absolute requirement). One can learn to make these crosses without an advanced degree in as little as an hour. The process is far from finished at the point of making a cross, but it is well underway. Further “difficulty” in the effort to create new varieties and to test them is just as difficult as farming. Challenging, and perhaps beyond the “ease” of sitting in the sunshine enjoying a sip of cold beverage… but not beyond the ability of someone capable of grubbing some subsistence from the earth.

      • Sorry… your gambit… not you’re gambit. Apparently the wear and tear of harvesting thousands of yield plots on an industrial scale does take a bit out of an old curmudgeon.

    • Seems like it’s Round 2 from my previous post and you’re coming out swinging hard, Clem 🙂

      So, where I’m standing is this: yes, I accept that “within a properly conducted variety trial” it will be possible to find net gains for desired traits, and any trade-offs that do exist will likely not correspond to some ironclad natural law of zero-sum trade-offs, which indeed doesn’t exist.

      But then you will go and sow the new variety in the field, and it will now be participating not in a properly conducted trial but in an uncontrolled experiment or game involving numerous human and non-human actors with a wide variety of purposes unfurling over years, decades, maybe centuries or millennia. And at this zoomed-out, uncontrolled and multiplex level of analysis I remain unconvinced that it’s useful to invoke the idea of trade-off free crop improvement.

      There’s an ecological component to my position in relation to Land Institute type arguments that historically humanity backed the wrong horse with annual crops and we can now gain trade-off free improvements by going down a perennial route with no yield penalties. I think there are hard ecological trade-offs here and in other such circumstances that are too easily neglected. But there are also sociological or human ecological components in terms of the kind of crops that humans select for different human reasons, and the various paybacks that flow from these choices.

      I don’t think our positions are mutually exclusive, and you’re on easier ground in drawing clear synchronous parameters around your example, and disregarding by definition other factors. My position is ultimately a qualitative and political one, albeit with an ecological/biological underlay … and so I think this argument between us, which we’ve had on and off for years, is basically irresolvable.

      If you can think of a phrasing for conveying my point that’s less provocative, I’ll happily consider it. As I see it, there are numerous problems facing we humans where technical interventions like crop-breeding are necessary, but very few in which such interventions are alone sufficient to solve the problem. Push the latter view too far and you end up with the kind of articles that condemn Vandana Shiva as an “evil charlatan” for her opposition to golden rice. They thereby miss a great evil that’s staring them in the face. Of course, this is a wholly different issue to our starting point, but – as well as the ecological trade-offs – it’s for such reasons that I’m wary of arguments about trade-off free crop improvement in real world agrarian societies, and of techno-fixes generally. The relevant discussion of this is on pages 109-114 of my book.

      • I skipped over several of your points in this comment to generalize in the comment below (addressed to you, Joe, and Diogenese). The ecological point seems strained… we do agree on the Land Institute effort (to a great degree) – or perhaps more to the point on the Land Institute’s narrative. Their notion that we’ve backed the wrong horse is a tough one to defend. And I’ll cautiously side with the notion there are ecological trade offs (exactly how “hard” they are may be a point of contention).

        I will also agree there are human preferences at play. Serious ones in fact. Being hide bound to potatoes didn’t play well once upon a time. And as you and I played that hand of cards once before I was brought up on the matter that failing potato yields were not the only driver of the severity of the crisis. So I can warm to notions that human preferences and sociological nuances must be considered for broad scale alleviation of pain and suffering.

        A quick anecdote to perhaps offer some additional evidence to your side… while not undermining my basic tenet: Once upon a time a certain soybean breeder we both know developed a new variety of soybean that was demonstrably better yielding, healthier in the field, in short, better adapted and just an all around winner. The intended audience included two different groups: Midwestern farmers, and Japanese soy-food consumers. To the first group it was a stunning success. To the second – big yawn. “It doesn’t taste just right”. The Goldilocks phenomenon. Ok, if I have to, I can understand that one. There is sufficient food on the planet, one can be choosy.

        But what if there were some great collapse…unbearable temperature increase… never before seen levels of hurricanes, hail, no further fossil fuel to drive all our gadgets??? Food sufficiency in peril. Will Goldilocks still turn up her nose? If she does, the problem solves itself. Darwin was right.

        I’ll have a peek at pages 109-114 of your book. Right after I find the page where soybean is mentioned 🙂

      • Clem, my last word on this for the time being.

        Indeed, the list of native plants we’re raising for food on our holding is small (albeit perhaps smaller than it could be) and the ones we’re raising have been bred to fit this environment. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying there have been no downsides to adaptive breeding of this kind. I see the downsides all around me in the farmed landscape, in its history and in the history of the wider world.

        Things are connected to other things in complex ways. People in Japan may jump in the future at a higher yielding but less tasty bean in the face of climate change, weather disasters, energy constraint and so on. Yet those disasters are emerging from a set of choices people have made in which high-yielding mechanized export-oriented annual grain agricultures have played a prominent role. I accept that there’s some wriggle room around our interventions and not simply the dead hand of nemesis returning to punish us. All the same, I don’t see the virtue of rigidly compartmentalising the different aspects of human action in the world, and their consequences.

    • In thinking about this as a total lay person, it seems to me that crop yield can only be improved without tradeoffs if that yield improvement is due to an increase in photosynthetic efficiency or an increase in symbiotic efficiency (as with nitrogen fixing bacteria). Without either of those two efficiency increases, yield increases are just transferring soil nutrients out of the ground faster, which is a significant tradeoff.

      I don’t know about the possibility of increasing photosynthetic efficiency. C3, C4 and CAM paths have been undergoing continuous selection for hundreds of millions of years. They should be completely optimized.

      Perhaps it is possible to turn non-nitrogen fixing plants into nitrogen fixers. If so, that would seem to me to be the easiest route to real improvements in yield without soil nutrient loss.

      Perhaps I am missing some fundamental factor here. If so, please enlighten me.

      • As you say neture has had millions if years to get to the optimum yet grains have never naturaly crossed with legumes in nature , there seems to be natural genetic barriers to stop it , each plant adapted to its environment and made the best of it , each genome has its own niche and is fitted to its environment , the plant groups have not crossed , seems to me that the only way to get the cross is gene splicing .

        • To Chris:
          Have a look at the species you currently raise on your Frome holding. Now have a look at which of these species are native to Frome. I’m guessing it’s a pathetically small list. Adaptation to alternative environments is an aspect of breeding.

          To Joe:
          Photosynthesis is very important, I will wholeheartedly agree. And there has been some (albeit quite small) improvement in photosynthetic efficiencies in crop species due to breeding efforts. But there is more to making a sound crop than first fixing the most carbon. Respiration, driving the cellular work that plants and animals do, can also be improved genetically. Disease resistance… getting sick costs much in the yield of a plant. Winter hardiness (for winter annuals such as winter wheat) is extremely important. Farm A grows winter wheat variety A and loses 3/4 of his stand to winter kill. Farmer B, right across the road (exact same micro-climate grows winter wheat variety B which is cold hardy to a bit lower temperature and loses less than a tenth of her stand. Drought tolerance, water use efficiency (not the same thing) – these traits manifest in still controversial ways, so I’ll not rant extensively on them other to observe that in certain contexts the differences between varieties can be quite significant. So transferring soil nutrients “faster” is not absolutely necessary.

          To Diogenese:
          Your comment airs a taste of Ford Dennison’s theme in Darwinian Agriculture. There is something to the argument… but it still falls apart in context sensitive ways. Take the example of where species can now be grown vs. where they evolved. Soybean is native to eastern Asia and Australia (which were one and the same long ago). There were absolutely no Glycine species (soy and its relatives) in North America until the very late 18th century, and it wasn’t until after the first world war that any significant acreage was found here in the states and southern Canada. Today it occupies as much acreage as any other crop (yep… even corn for grain). It didn’t evolve here… some of the pests here are different from those where it did evolve. Other species can tell similar stories.

          Gene splicing occurs in nature also… even today all the laboratory techniques for transferring DNA between species employ some elements of natural DNA modulation. Even biolistic techniques where foreign DNA is loaded onto a metal bead and literally shot into a cell still rely on the host’s own DNA repair mechanisms to incorporate the novel sequences. But I’m guessing you didn’t come here to hear that.

          To all:
          Just because you haven’t heard these stories doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

          • Thank you, Clem. It is indeed difficult to see what tradeoffs there could be for disease resistance, cold hardiness and increased water use efficiency, all of which affect yield by reducing loss. I was too fixated on gains.

            Since agriculture already changes the “playing field” between local plant varieties, it is also hard to see any negative tradeoffs with moving crops to a new location, unless perhaps one sees increased competition between farmers in different regions as a negative.

          • Though here larger life history ecology interacts with human sociology in manifold ways. Eg. annual/ruderal strategies of going to seed and dying before they’re felled by disease vs perennial strategies of investing in defence. European settler practices of ploughing perennial prairie for ruderals that require more fertilisation vs Amerindian practices of cultivating small areas and foraging on perennial grasslands etc and the very significant trade offs involved there … for both colonists and Amerindians.

            From what I’ve read there do seem to be some life history tradeoffs in terms of yield against characteristics like drought and pest tolerance – eg. sorghum vs maize, sweet vs bitter cassava. I guess these are at a more macro level than the ones Clem’s talking about … I’m not quite sure where this takes us – perhaps into a wider discussion of crop genetic diversity, as per John Letts recently.

          • Take the example of where species can now be grown vs. where they evolved”
            But they did not naturally evolve there they were introduced and so humans killed out the natural flora and replaced it with ones to our liking , yes there are legumes on the us great plains eeedy little tgings that could posibly be bred into something usefull to humans but they have not crossed with other indigenous plants , corn ( maize ) is the staple food of parts of africa a south american plant , the list goes on yet naturaly these olants would only move continents after a continental colision , man is the one untroducing plants into pkaces they did not evolve

  5. As there seems no further appetite here to engage over the value of crop improvement for a small farm future, I will offer the following link for the curious:

    This is a short piece with a couple further links in it (those I’ve chased were not behind paywalls). There is more here than the GMO focus, and even for the anti-GMO among us there could be some value to having a peek as the ITIF link includes a primer and for me at least a somewhat balanced layout of the current elements in the controversy and some speculations about future possibilities. The link to the article in Science is a year old, but the view taken by the Chinese in regard to future food production for billions of people caught my eye.

    By offering this link and associated narratives I am not advocating a GMO future. In my little corner of the world we raise non-GMO crops and compete with the GMOs that exist. But it has always served us well to keep an eye on what we see ‘across the fence’.

    • Clem (and others) – an interesting non-GMO product being used on soybean and other crops in the US, developed at Nottingham University, using bacteria (at about a litre per acre) to enable any crop to fix nitrogen. The first 4mins of this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Farming Today had an interesting interview, but here’s the company’s website:

        • High tech solutionism… you make that sound like a bad thing.

          I had a peek at the LinkedIn site for the company, and the patent claim. The bacteria in question has been on research radar screens for at least a couple decades. The name has changed (now a serious mouthful:
          Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus

          There is a review article from 2014 here:

          (this latter is not from the lab at Nottingham)

          This particular bacteria (actually a group of related bacteria) does appear to have some value – particularly for monocots such as sugar cane. The value for nodulated legumes is likely more suspect as there would be a competition for carbon (though the physiology of having a commensal within the leaf rather than in a root could become interesting).

          N cycle implications? IF (and I’m sticking with an all caps IF) this approach can be made to work economically then there is the likelihood that some real N cycle improvements may be realized.

          Now there could be some VERY interesting future plant breeding efforts looking at host plants and various members of the bacterial family(ies?) – their interactions, possible collaborations, costs of tradeoffs, etc. But future plant breeding efforts are not of interest in these parts (too solutionist I guess), so I’ll drop it.

          • Thanks Clem. It appeared this new approach could reduce nitrogen application and its associated pollution. A look at the company website reveals several field trials showing increased yields irrespective of the amount nitrogen fertiliser used (or not applied), by around 10-20 percent. If true, as you mention, it may prove a better high-tech solution. That said, most of the field trials didn’t use coated seed but in-furrow applications, on various crops around the world, including the US (Iowa for soybean, if memory serves).
            At first glance, and in admittedly simplistic terms, it appears analogous to using an older technology to drive to and from the office, as opposed to using the internet from home and ‘phoning it in’.

        • Come now, Clem. Let us seek concord where we can. Nowhere have I suggested that future plant breeding efforts are unimportant or uninteresting.

          But indeed I’m sceptical of high tech solutionism. My scepticism attaches mostly to the solutionism, not so much to the high tech.

          Regarding this particular piece of high tech, to push the tech part of my question I guess I’m assuming that the yield increase is due to greater N uptake by the crop plant, but I’m wondering to what extent the technique demonstrably restricts the extra uptake to the target plant and removes it at harvest. I’m also wondering if it involves any other changes to agricultural practice acre by acre.

          • >Perhaps our common language is less common than I’d supposed.

            It would seem so … nothing in that comment suggests to me the view that plant breeding is unimportant or uninteresting.

          • Then please help me understand this sentence:

            But that’s not at all the same thing as saying there have been no downsides to adaptive breeding of this kind. I see the downsides all around me in the farmed landscape, in its history and in the history of the wider world.

            For from my perch this appears to be kin to suggesting that the invention of knives, hoes, scythes and pitchforks are somehow culpable for their eventual misuses.

          • As I see it, it’s not really a question of culpability. People make decisions and invent technologies in response to the issues and problems they confront, and these have endless implications and unforeseen consequences that ripple through subsequent history. Indeed, it would be absurd to blame the inventors of domesticated cereals or scythes or whatever for the problems our cereal civilisation now faces or to suggest they shouldn’t have done it. But it also seems to me problematic to extract such inventions from the mess of history and claim some kind of pure or sui generis status for them.

            Perhaps it boils down to one’s philosophy of history. As I see it, people always confront problems and frustrations, which they try to solve in various ways – including social and technical innovation. These solutions will seem like progress to some people but they usually create other problems and frustrations, most likely for different people. And so it goes on. From a particular person or persons’ perspective at a given time it may be possible to talk of progress or improvement. But from a holistic or diachronic perspective, not so much, I think.

            Or to put it more succinctly, there are likely to be upsides and downsides to the things people do, as variously judged by any number of other people. And this applies to plant breeders, as well as to smallholding former sociologists. Which is not to say that there isn’t an important role in the world for both such characters – perhaps especially the former.

          • From the above, Chris, I can’t get my head around this sentence: I’m wondering to what extent the technique demonstrably restricts the extra uptake to the target plant and removes it at harvest.

Leave a Reply

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