Commons and households in a small farm future

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Land Magazine recently published a lengthy article from me, ‘Commons and households in a small farm future’. In this post I’m simply going to reproduce the article. The version here is my original draft which is slightly, but not very, different from the one in the magazine. The magazine version is available here. If you download it, you’ll get some nice pictures and a smarter typeface.

Over the next few posts here I’m going to go through various issues raised in the article in a bit more detail. So I’ll be interested in any comments I might receive here regarding specific aspects of the article, but it may be that I respond to them in more detail as I grapple with the relevant aspects in subsequent posts. Since these blog posts are often reproduced on some other websites, let me just reiterate that your best bet for getting a response from me is to comment directly at www.smallfarmfuture.org.uk.

In many ways the article in The Land scopes out the territory of Parts III and IV of my book A Small Farm Future – Part III being ‘Small Farm Society’ and Part IV being ‘Towards A Small Farm Future’, in other words, the politics of how a small farm transition may occur. So hopefully it’s a useful preamble to the various posts to come that will focus on these parts of the book.

And so, the article:

It seems likely that the numerous and growing global problems caused by modernization and globalization will devolve into lower energy, less carbon intensive, more labour intensive, more rural and more agrarian ways of life than the ones to which we’re accustomed in the wealthy countries today. In The Land 27 Simon Fairlie sketched a possible human geography for such a world1. In my book A Small Farm Future I sketch, among other things, a possible sociology – in other words, how people might organize their property, social and political relationships2. This article summarizes these aspects of my book, and extends them somewhat in the light of responses to the book and my own further reflection.

In contemplating this future, there’s a rich historical storehouse available from societies of the past and present that have lived in this way and that for convenience I’ll call peasant societies – essentially, situations where large numbers of people spend at least some of their time on small local landholdings where they produce most of their basic needs for food, fibre and other necessities for themselves. This has played out in very different ways in different times and places that are by no means reducible to the stereotype of a miserable hand-to-mouth existence under the thumb of landlords or aristocrats, although regrettably that fate has been common enough. Peasant societies are so various that generalizing about them is questionable.

Still, there do seem to be some recurrent features born of producing a low-energy, partly non-market, local subsistence which are worth pondering as we contemplate the possibility of a similar future for much of humanity. To what extent does the peasant way inherently impose certain kinds of social structure, to what extent can we now exercise different choices over those structures, and how might peasant societies of the future differ from or resemble ones of the past? These are some of the issues I address here, while asking the reader’s forgiveness for a degree of over-generalization. The examples are global, but I don’t presume to speak for the whole world in outlining a possible small farm future – my main focus is the wealthy countries of the ‘west’, and more particularly my home turf of lowland England.

The Commons

One aspect of peasant societies is their collective self-organization. Peasant societies are societies of the commons, a point that people often champion nowadays as a welcome corrective to the present unchecked power of both private interests and the state. And it’s true enough – thorough local cooperation is essential in any low impact agrarian society. But it’s not always appreciated that commons almost always go hand in hand with and are circumscribed by private household production. It’s worth examining how this works in practice.

There are four key aspects of commons, which I call the four ‘E’s’ – commons are usually extensive, elemental, extra and/or exclusive. They’re extensive in the sense that they’re particularly appropriate to situations of diffuse and irregular resources – hunting or fishing rights, forest firewood gleanings and suchlike – where individual ownership or management would be impossible or impossibly inefficient. Where such extensive resources are the mainstay of provisioning, as for example with many foraging societies, the economy can be almost entirely based on commoning with little development of private rights, but in agricultural societies extensive commons are usually a supplement to more intensive household production effectively involving private property rights3.

Commons are elemental in the sense that they often form around the larger elemental features of the landscape – fire, water and earth – that elude household control. For example, Australian aboriginal societies often managed landscapes and fire risk through controlled large-scale burnings organized on a clan basis; various rice-growing communities in southeast Asia created local irrigation associations to organize water flow to the fields; and the open-field systems of premodern England were organized around shared use of draught animals4. But in all these cases, the day-to-day work was undertaken by smaller units of household or individual labour.

Commons are extra in the sense that they can be cleverly organized to squeeze extra productivity out of given resource inputs (for example, through the complex private/commons mix in traditional dairying arrangements, with private ownership over animals, hayfields and milking, but common grazing and cheese-making). In similar ways, common grazing historically enabled people who were otherwise too land-poor to keep animals, therefore operating as a form of redistributive welfare, while some societies organise commons around labour bottlenecks in the production of subsistence staples but not for cash crops. So commons can be ‘extra’ in supplementing or underwriting the returns from the established organization of production5.

Finally, commons are exclusive in the sense that they aren’t a free-for-all available to all comers, this being one of the main ways they avoid Garrett Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which open access leads to ruinous overuse, as in numerous collapsed maritime fisheries where there’s no local community to regulate use and prohibit outsiders. In many peasant societies, to be a commoner is to count for something locally. But the corollary is that the interests of the commoners may not be the same as the common interest. Who’s included, who’s excluded, who gets to decide and the livelihood implications of these decisions are of great importance to the shape of peasant society and the fortunes of those within it.

One thing to be learned from these examples is how essential collective organization is to the functioning of low energy agrarian societies. Another is how difficult it is to organize a successful commons, with the result that commons usually only form when they make practical sense in particular circumstances – not out of some generalized faith in the joys of human collective organization. As I see it, there are four main reasons why it’s difficult to create successful commons, all variants of a wider ‘tragedy’: humans are complex social beings who can and must work collectively with each other, but also can and do find working with each other troublesome.

The first reason is that while it may be true that modern capitalist society has foolishly made selfishness and free-riding the cornerstone of economic action, these traits are sadly not confined to capitalist societies alone, as becomes apparent from a glance through the history of commons and commons failures in non-capitalist societies. Creating structures to protect commons from abuse is costly in human time and energy, and may not be worth it unless other options are worse.

The second point is a more subtle variant of the first. It’s not that most people are inherently selfish or ill-motivated towards collective arrangements, but unless it’s specified very clearly exactly who is responsible for doing exactly what, and the holders of these responsibilities actively embrace them, then the potential for failure is high. The writer Eve Rodsky calls this a ‘CPE fail’, when conception, planning and execution of a task aren’t well enough integrated6. The easiest way to integrate them is to make a single person responsible for the whole CPE of a given task. The larger the number of people with a stake in the CPE, the more work and communicative energy is required to avoid CPE failure. When Oscar Wilde joked “the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” he might equally have been addressing this aspect of commons.

But, third, the reason it takes up so many evenings isn’t just because it’s tricky partitioning out tasks. It’s also because people disagree on fundamental details. When the benefits of collective work – such as sharing a plough team – obviously outweigh the disadvantages, people willingly swallow their differences and find ways to work together. But when it comes to personally assembled and specifically crafted inputs or outputs (on my multi-household farm this includes compost heaps, split kindling, chainsaws, scythes, certain crops and living spaces) the benefits of personal autonomy usually win the day. This is a consistent finding from numerous peasant societies worldwide.

Fourth and finally, coming back to the prospect of evening meetings, when work is organized collectively some people’s voices usually carry more weight than others. This can hold not only in relation to obvious social differences, such as the relative weight accorded to women’s voices compared to men’s, or those with greater political status and authority compared to those with less, but also in relation to individual personalities.

For example, the people who have most aggressively disputed with me my reservations about collective work and insisted on the unqualified superiority of co-operation have (without exception) been men of such abrasive disposition that they can barely compose so much as a tweet on the matter without resorting to aggressive putdowns. It seems ironic in view of their insistence on humanity’s fine-tuned abilities to get along, but I’m not sure it is. The people likely to gain most from collective organization are the ones with the loudest voices who are most practiced in the arts of domination and best able to get others to dance to their tune, perhaps without even realizing that this is what they’re doing (human communities always seem the most beautifully functional wholes from the privileged vantage point of their centre). These are likewise the kind of people who go into politics, or in peasant societies become the self-appointed custodians of the commons. Those of quieter voice face the choice of subordinating themselves to the dominants or spending a lot of precious energies trying to defuse them.

Or, when they’re able, of walking away. Imagine justifying your farm enterprise to the busybodies on your local authority planning board not once or twice during your farming career, but on an almost daily basis. What applies to planning boards also applies to allotment associations, manorial courts or village soviets – the ‘big man’ politics of personal domination transcends the specific colour of the political regime. And so, for all the reasons discussed above, it’s hard to overstress the appeal in peasant societies of autonomy. In societies where physical escape may not be easy, juridical escape is keenly sought – the ideal of ‘three acres and a cow’ of one’s own (or, as one of my correspondents prefers, ‘five acres and a cow and a donkey’).

Household Farming

But this ideal itself is a collective one. People in peasant societies rarely live on a landholding in hermetical isolation. Instead, they usually share a household or a hearth with a small group of other people and work with them to provision the household.

The household basis of the peasant farm raises similar problems to commons – in fact, the hearth is a commons in microcosm. But before looking at the problems, let’s consider the advantages of hearth-based farming, given the present state of the world.

Most importantly, household production is self-limiting in a way that commercial production for wider markets rarely is. The farm household defines its needs for itself, works to meet them, then stops. There is no inherent tendency to increasing production and profit (in fact, ‘profit’ has little meaning on the household farm), and this is important in our present populous world increasingly poisoned by the consequences of such increase7.

Another way of saying this is that the costs and benefits of production are internalized by the farm household. The economic growth from which we supposedly benefit in modern capitalist societies too often comes from the immiseration of other people somewhere else, or the destruction of wild ecosystems and the drawdown of nonrenewable resources. But on the household farm, the heavier work demanded to grow its productivity is work you have to do yourself, and the ecological destruction it wreaks is on land you have to husband. So an important part of the self-limitation of the household farm is direct economic and ecological feedback of a kind that’s sorely missing in capitalist society – there is no incentive to destroy the ecological basis of your own livelihood, nor to immiserate yourself in pursuit of a larger one.

An implication of this household self-limitation is that, although the household farm is inevitably integrated into a wider community in numerous ways, it usually guards its autonomy of labour quite jealously, which is one reason why commons are an extra and often relatively minor feature of the working landscape in peasant societies. The CPE difficulties of a commons are one thing, but so is the loss of labour autonomy it involves. In peasant societies, kitchen gardens and arable fields whose flourishing responds mostly to individual labour deployment are rarely organized fundamentally as commons.

The reader may notice that these virtues of the household farm I’m extolling sound rather like the justifications for private property and private markets invoked in orthodox economics and right-wing politics, with their emphasis on making people bear the consequences of their own actions – reaping the rewards for their industry, and the punishments for their folly. In modern societies where the monopolization of capital in few hands and speculative returns on investment deny most people significant economic autonomy, such arguments for private initiative easily become victim-blaming exercises that see the poor and powerless as the authors of their own misery.

But in certain peasant or household farming societies where people do potentially enjoy such autonomy, there’s a stronger case for centring economic self-responsibility and ecological feedback on people and their households. In these situations, there’s no need for abstract and moralistic political ideologies about individual responsibility and the good life. People create their own institutions, typically a mix of private property and commons, an autonomy-in-community that enables it. It’s no coincidence that China’s post-Mao economic dynamism started with a bottom-up peasant activism later co-opted by the state under the term ‘household responsibility’8.

Household responsibility has been ubiquitous throughout global history, often in peasant societies wholly or largely untouched by the capitalist world. So when the eminent analyst of household farming Robert Netting wrote “Where land is a scarce good that can be made to yield continuously and reliably over the long term by intensive methods, rights approximating those of private ownership will develop”9 we need to look at it through a different lens to the one we use when considering how private property functions in modern capitalist societies.

Capitalist societies are geared to the accumulation of financial capital, which is put into the private hands of a few, whereas in the kind of societies Netting is talking about private property rights are widely distributed in the hands of many household farmers, while ‘capital’ operates more as the specific forms of working capital the household needs to build and maintain the farm and a decent way of life, and transfer it to the next generation. The sense is more usufructuary – the household ‘uses the fruit’ of the land, but doesn’t prioritize financial returns from it or appropriate it as a primarily financial asset.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the persistence of outdated 19th century thinking about ‘primitive communism’ and the recent origins of private property, we’re still saddled with the notion on the left that private property in any form is the root of all evil. But as I discuss in more detail in A Small Farm Future – and indeed as anyone who’s sought planning permission for an agricultural dwelling well knows – private property involves a bundle of distinct rights, some of which can be quite enabling of low-impact smallholding, and some of which remain resolutely within the control of the wider community, with its planning boards or other structures of collective local power.

Retaining such collective rights over land is absolutely necessary for a fair society. But everything depends on who controls them and for what purposes. Usufruct is all very well, but the devil is in the detailed politics of defining and allocating usage rights. Much of the history of peasant societies can be told in terms of the conflicts over these rights, the fight for household autonomy over land, and the danger of losing control of it to more powerful players. I’d suggest this is true pretty much regardless of the flavour that politics takes. Wherever political power is invested – in a village council or soviet, a liberal democracy, an autocratic state purportedly ruling on behalf of ‘the people’, or in a local landlord class – from a peasant perspective there’s an ever-present danger that there will be a ‘big man’ politics associated with it that will remove their autonomy. But in certain perhaps unusual situations the opposite can be true and all of these seats of power can be supportive of peasant autonomy – indeed, many of the premodern agricultural commons in Europe whose loss we lament today arose out of collaboration between local peasant cultivators (usually the better off ones), aristocracies and the state10.

We may soon be entering another unusual situation of this sort where there will be scope for creating peasant autonomies. The immediate precipitating factors will be climate change, energy descent, soil crises, water crises and political crises connected with the inability of capitalist nation-states to deliver expected levels of welfare to their citizenries, all of which are likely to fuel large-scale migration within and between countries, mostly to places tolerably well suited to intensive horticulture. Land will be a scarce good and people will garden it intensively. The emphasis will not be on ‘saving’ labour, but on increasing the productivity, diversity and resilience of local agrarian economies through various means, including intensifying the application of newly abundant labour to the land.

So by the lights of the quotation from Robert Netting above, it’s likely that in these situations property will mostly be small-scale, privately-owned and household-operated. This is particularly so given that most people will lack deep local roots, so the who’s in/who’s out logic of traditional agrarian commons will be ill-suited to the situation. Such commons will develop in time, but in the short-term the commons that really matter for creating fair access to land will be ones that can create access to smallholdings for allcomers. They will have to be apparently paradoxical ‘commons of private property’, allocating cropland equitably to private households in ‘tight’ farming situations where pressure on land is high.

More than one reviewer of A Small Farm Future has commented that ecological and political crisis might as easily result in the authoritarian retrenchment of centralized nation states rather than their eclipse, and that widespread access to land will only be won through class conflict against landed interests. I accept these points, and in fact made them myself in the book sotto voce. Authoritarian retrenchment is likely, but won’t provide stable solutions to present crises, so in many places will probably lose its grip on local affairs and will not endure. Between the smooth power of the centralized modern state and the chaotic lawlessness of ‘collapse’ there’s a wide spectrum of political possibilities. It’s worth contemplating the point on that spectrum involving semi-autonomous, low energy, local, agrarian societies responsible for providing for themselves most of the resources they need for daily life, including their politics.

To achieve such societies there will have to be ‘class’ conflict over access to land, whose result isn’t foreordained. But in most places I doubt it will be the kind of class conflict still often heralded on the left, where the political activism of the most downtrodden somehow generates society-wide revolutionary renewal that unlocks the treasury of capital for all without the need for hard and socially complicated graft in the fields and workshops. Instead, I think we’ll see more localized, more chaotic, more populist reconfigurations as capital melts away, where the interests of the disparate, displaced majority who have no access to land will contest mostly with the interests of the few who hold a lot of it. The ideal outcome for this kind of populism – none too different than for certain strands of libertarian leftism – is that national, ethnic and other such historical identifications will be superseded by a shared socioeconomic interest in accessing ‘land for the tiller’ in new historical circumstances entirely different from the ones that generated older historical identities. If it succeeds, the outcome of this popular conflict for the majority could be successful access to smallholdings and the creation of the kind of peasant society I’ve been describing.

It’s a long shot, I admit. But, as I see it, it’s a shorter one than every other scheme for sustainable and just social renewal. As with all societies, small farm societies of the future will involve numerous tensions and points of conflict, although the ones they face as they wrestle with the decline and death of capitalism are unlikely to be the same as the ones faced by small farm societies that wrestled with its birth and development. Some schools of thought consider peasantries as inherently unstable, apt to differentiate into landowners and labourers, but this conceals a more complex reality and has usually only been true in modern situations of economic growth and capital penetration (and sometimes not even then). The dynamics of new peasantries emerging in situations of economic contraction and capital decline are unlikely to be the same. So in the present world historical moment there’s a good case for addressing ourselves to the challenges of creating small farm societies and keeping them convivial and integrated, without importing too much baggage from the way those challenges played out in past circumstances of capitalist growth and colonial domination.

The F Word

So far, I haven’t said anything about the composition of the households doing the household farming. That’s probably as it should be. It’s not for me to say who other people should choose to share their fields, hearths or bedrooms with. What matters is that people do share them, work together to furnish their household, and stop when the furnishing is adequate.

Nevertheless, it’s noticeable that in many historic peasant societies worldwide, households often comprise an adult female/male couple and their children. In fact, this is also true in the decidedly non-peasant society of contemporary Britain: in 2019, over 80% of the population lived in a ‘family’ (defined as a cohabiting adult couple with or without coresident children, or a lone adult with children), the great majority of them occupying a single household, and the great majority of co-habiting couples being ‘opposite sex’, to use the official terminology11. In modern Britain, and in every other historical society, people participate in and rely upon wider social networks of kin and non-kin than the occupants of their household, but small, kin-based households based predominantly upon opposite-sex adult cohabitation are historically ubiquitous.

I want to be absolutely clear I am not arguing that this or any other given type of household or family structure is historically ‘correct’ and ‘ought’ to be followed, nor that the demands of self-reliant household farming favour any particular type of family structure or gender relations. But it’s still necessary to consider family and kinship relationships in local agrarian societies of the future. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult discussion to have. Even though family relationships are a deep social force and a powerful feature of most people’s lives, when it steps onto the political stage the concept of the family too easily becomes a caricatured hero or villain in a political tug of war.

Broadly, the political right makes a particular version of ‘the’ family the basic building block of a gendered, heteronormative, hierarchical vision of social stability, while the political left opposes all such attempts to make ‘the patriarchal family’ a building block for anything – the definite article in both cases hinting at the simplifications involved. Like another well-known ‘f’ word, ‘family’ is a political F bomb that only seems to accentuate feeling and entrench division.

I take no view as to what ‘the’ family in the household farms of the future should look like, and I’d hope that people will be able to experiment with endless possibilities for creating households and family structures within local farming communities. All the same, however plausible critiques of the “toxic, totalitarian prominence of the couple” and the need for women’s liberation “from the confines of marriage, the family and compulsory heterosexuality”12 might be, it remains true that many people opt for heterosexual coupledom even in highly mobile, marketized and individualistic modern capitalist societies where that choice is far from obligatory. It seems unlikely this will change in less marketized household farming societies of the future with a heavier loading on the household as the key unit of production. So inasmuch as women indeed are confined or oppressed by marriage and ‘the’ family, then gender equity becomes a vital political concern in relation to household farming societies of the future.

But even if people actively try to avoid grounding future local agrarian societies in kin relationships, I think it’s likely they’ll end up reinventing kinship over time. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins defines kinship as “mutuality of being”, where kinsfolk “participate intrinsically in each other’s existence”13. So kinship is about living other people’s lives long-term within yours, participating in the births, deaths and relationships, the joys and sorrows, of your kinsfolk. It doesn’t matter much if these people are considered biological or ‘blood’ kin. It does matter that you eat with them, work with them and/or care for them, and establish a clear, ongoing modus operandi in respect of long-term mutuality.

All of this can apply to non-kin such as friends, neighbours, colleagues or fellow members of an intentional community, but the difference in practice is that people in these categories can usually walk away from the relationship with little cost if they choose. The essence of kinship is that it’s not so easy to walk away. Of course, people do walk away from their families, but the pain of family estrangement that fills the agony columns of the newspapers suggests that usually it’s not easy. Underlying this is a sense that there are affinities between people in kinship roles that should usually be nurtured, that the roles (sibling, spouse, parent etc.) are ultimately more important in society than whatever specific difficulties and tensions may exist between given incumbents, and that the roles extend outwards (to cousins, in-laws, clan fellows etc.), incorporating large numbers of people within a locally meaningful ‘space’ of kinship that organises much social interaction and isn’t easily dispensable.

This kinship space has weakened somewhat in modern capitalist societies where work, residence, neighbours and friends loom larger, although family relationships remain surprisingly robust. In Britain in 2016, 2 million adults received unpaid informal care from other adults, the majority from a parent, spouse or child, and more from women than from men14. One argument is that this is how capitalism offloads costs, and that the government should provide better, less gender-skewed welfare services. Another argument, which isn’t necessarily incompatible with the first, is that caring for other people and specifically for kinsfolk is what people do, involving the mutuality of being that makes us human.

In small farm societies lacking the abundant cheap capital and energy necessary to create the employment, infrastructures, mobilities and bureaucratized welfare services of modern societies, kin networks are likely to be more important. We see this in examples from numerous peasant societies. Historian of medieval England Rosamond Faith remarks “As so much depended on others, peasant farmers could not afford to trust anyone who was not of good reputation”15 – and kin networks provide a handy idiom, shortcut and safeguard for reputation. So it seems to me likely that if local agrarian societies of the future are lacking in this idiom, they’ll soon reinvent it. Kin relations aren’t easily avoided.

Let me reprise my argument so far to get to the main difficulty with household farming. In a climate and energy-challenged future with limited ability to mobilise capital, it’s likely there will be a turn to small-scale farming and horticulture geared to local self-reliance. Given the pressure on cultivable land, it’s likely that the main productive unit will be the household or ‘hearth’. There will also be commons, but these will usually be less significant for the household’s total output than the work it directs itself because of the need to intensify household labour, because of various difficulties with the efficiency of commons in this kind of ‘tight’ farming situation, and because of the desire for autonomy. It’s likely that most households will be organized through kin relations – as indeed have been most households of the small farm past and of the non-farming, urban-industrial present – and it’s likely that many of these kin-based households will be built around a cohabiting woman and man, and their children.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that this is how things ought to be, but how things probably will be. All the same, there are certain aspects of it that may be desirable. One of them is the renewable, self-limiting productivity of the household mentioned above in the face of ecological constraint. Another may be the richness of local relationships. A lot of people lament the loss of ‘community’ in modern life, and the essence of community is non-optional relationships with kin and neighbours (immediate and more distant) that aren’t easily escapable. But the obvious downside of this is the danger of oppressive relationships within the household. This danger attends every kind of household, including ones built around same-sex couples or non-kin intentional communities. So although I’m drawing on gender issues for illustration, the point goes wider. In societies where households loom large as socioeconomic units, so too does the danger of intimate violence within the household.

Still, specifically gendered violence within small farm households is surely a significant concern. The way an oppressively patriarchal family farm works is similar to the way an oppressively dysfunctional commons works. Essentially, conception, planning and execution is split between different people, with the CP largely in the hands of the powerful (men) and most of the E in the hands of the less powerful (women), with the rewards falling inequitably and perhaps also male control operating more generically than just in the organisation of specific tasks.

There have been many ways women have challenged and transformed such patriarchal structures across global history, but the one that gets most emphasis in modern ‘western’ societies is exit, or at least potential exit. Just as people mitigate the potentially oppressive nature of the commons through seeking household autonomy, so have women mitigated the potentially oppressive nature of household relationships through seeking individual autonomy via such things as accessing divorce, education, fertility control, property ownership, financial independence, paid employment, voting rights and human rights.

Obviously, I support these autonomies, but there are some difficulties in realizing them for small farm societies. Without abundant capital and energy, it’s not easy to build the large institutional alternatives to a local household farming society that make them readily achievable. Indeed, avoiding the ecological drawbacks of abundant capital and energy is a principal advantage of a household farming society, but the risk of patriarchal control is high. Another problem is that while household exit from the domination of the commons may be feasible in peasant societies, individual exit from the domination of the household isn’t so easy, not least because it’s hard to generate an adequate livelihood as an individual in a low energy, low capital small farm society.

So safeguarding women’s rights and other rights within households in small farm societies is vital, but also challenging. At the same time, there’s a mirror to this problem – men without households can bring their own challenges in peasant societies where state control is weak. This was explicitly recognized in early medieval English ideas about the heorđfæst: a society where men are mostly ‘hearth-fast’, attached to a farm household, poses fewer threats to the general safety and wellbeing of its members than a society rife with unattached and underemployed men with a point to prove16. Finding ways that both women and men can be attached to a household that cares for them and honours their individuality, while also channelling it, is difficult. But household farming societies haven’t always failed completely in the task historically.

The ghost in the machine: politics as the other half of kinship

Building the basis for creating such caring rather than oppressive low impact, small farm households appropriate to present times is a key challenge. If I can’t claim to have solved it, I plead in my defence that I’m not alone. Patriarchy and other forms of oppression have remained stubbornly alive across all kinds of societies. It would be fanciful to think there are any simple or foolproof solutions.

All the same, there’s a place we can look for mitigating these oppressions. That place is politics. A banally obvious point, perhaps, but I want to suggest a particular kind of politics that could work in a future household farming society as a complement or alternative mode to the kinds of local kinship I’ve just been describing. Kinship looks to erase differences, emphasize commonalities and create a sense of a harmonious social world. This has its advantages, but it tends to bury social power, gender inequalities and other such uncomfortable truths. Political relations in a congenial small farm society would have to act as a counterweight to kin relations, identifying and transforming tensions and differences.

I won’t dwell here on the shape of that politics. In A Small Farm Future I briefly discuss the traditions of civic republicanism as particularly apposite for small farm societies of the future. A key attribute of civic republicanism is the existence of a public sphere, where a citizenry of equal standing tries to resolve issues through reasoned argument rather than the exercise of social power. Recent writings on the possibilities for restorative culture are a less explicitly political version of similar ideas.

A case in point is Eve Rodsky’s discussion about the politics of CPE and its failures that I mentioned earlier. Although I applied her analysis to problems with commons, which it nicely illuminates, Rodsky isn’t writing directly about commons at all but about female-male domestic relationships, where she argues that women usually shoulder a heavier CPE burden for household work than men in ways that men rarely notice or implicitly value. By bringing this hidden labour into the open and renegotiating the domestic workload on the assumption that men’s time is not more valuable than women’s, it can be possible to create a better functioning and less resentment-filled relationship or ‘domestic commons’. But in view of the gendered histories of labour and domesticity, this probably does require a wider public sphere to make reasonable the proposition that women’s time is as important as men’s.

In a thought-provoking essay, Wendell Berry argues that local communities are the necessary intermediary between the alienation of do-as-I-please individualism and the legalistic force majeure of centralized states and their associated publics17. For him, communities provide the firm foundation of local custom and practice on which good social relations – including good gender relations – must be built authentically from the ground up. The problem as I see it is that while this may ideally be true, too often the politics of local community simply replicates the don’t-rock-the-boat politics of household and kinship, conniving at rather than challenging its oppressions. A more transformative idea of local public deliberation is called for, where it’s possible for anyone to say “my voice will be heard, however important you think you are, and however much you’d prefer not to hear it”.

There’s a risk my argument involves a ‘ghost in the machine’, implausibly invoking the public sphere as a stopgap concept to rescue gender relations or other points of social tension from oppressive content in the small farm societies I’m describing. Yet I’d argue that every plausible public politics involves a ghost in the machine, because the essence of politics consists in identifying inherent conflicts or tensions in existing structures and attempting to overcome them with new approaches that inevitably borrow from the ghost of the old, albeit in different contexts (e.g. that if all men are created equal, then perhaps all men and women are created equal too, which was Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering feminist and republican critique of Rousseau). A future challenge lies in trying to retain this sense of differentiated public deliberation in small farm societies, rather than surrendering political autonomy to the notion that communities, classes, market forces, elders or charismatic leaders know best.

So against the conservatism of kinship and community, I propose the public. And against mechanical political approaches committed to the idea of some objective, underlying process like class consciousness or market discipline as the true motor of social progress, I propose only ghosts, with no guarantees that a small farm future will avoid patriarchy or other forms of domination. But then nor, I think, can any other political philosophy plausibly make the same guarantee. As I see it, there’s no machine, but only ghosts to guide our hands in working with the crooked timber of humanity. But ghosts can be powerful, and a patriarchal peasant future isn’t foreordained.

Inheritance

A couple of final points, the first of them geared to grounding the rather abstract discussion from the previous section into a problem of practical politics faced by all societies, but perhaps especially peasant societies. This is the issue of inheritance and intergenerational transfer.

Creating a tolerable livelihood in a low-energy, low-capital society involves learning often supremely difficult foraging, farming and/or craft skills, and acquiring the resources from previous generations to practice them. The main way peasant societies have dealt with this is through children growing up in and learning how to participate in a productive household, and at some point inheriting land and farm property from older generations. The difficulties involved in this are enormous, but the same goes for intergenerational transfer in all societies. Probably the main difficulty with property inheritance is that it tends to reinforce inequalities of wealth and status over time. Through bad luck, bad choices or naked theft, the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on the inheritance of the children. Peasant life historically has too often involved a grim struggle not to slide down the social order into poverty or dependence, and multi-generational strategies for rising up it.

Modern societies have moved some distance from this local politics of family and land, with redistributive centralized welfare states, formally equal citizenries and the engines of industry promising an ever-growing monetized wealth rather than a limited landed one down the generations. But given that the poorest 50% of the global population owns only about 1% of global wealth, while up to a third are physically undernourished, it can hardly be said this modern alternative is working out well. As economic growth falters and the various other crises I’ve mentioned bite harder, the prospects for redistributive, growth-oriented, centralized welfarist states surviving at all seem low18. At some point in this trajectory, the idea of being a hearth-fast smallholder may come to seem a more plausible route to a decent livelihood for most people than hitching one’s fortunes to the sputtering industrial growth engines of the modern central state.

In A Small Farm Future I toyed with ideas like high inheritance taxes as a way of preventing social inequalities, rentier landlordism and the economic effects of historical injustices such as racism from stifling opportunities in societies unable to buy off their populations with the promise of future fiscal growth. Others call for the nationalization of landownership. Such ideas might work where citizenries have collective commitment and a strong faith in the redistributive goodwill of the state. In England today, where corporate/government linkages already represent a land nationalization of a sort, and where radically redistributive governments have been in power for perhaps five out of the last seventy-five years, I wouldn’t personally wish to hand yet more power to the Boris Johnsons or Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world to determine how people might access and use land, nor to any centralized revolutionary politics divorced from the particularities of land stewardship. Various forms of localized co-operativism seem more attractive alternatives, but then we get into the minutiae of who gets to be the gatekeepers of local usufruct discussed earlier. In the face of such uncertainties, peasant farmers historically have often opted warily for the tried and tested routines of family inheritance and private landownership when they can.

Which segues into my final point. The notions of property, family and inheritance often articulated within peasant societies can seem dismayingly conservative. Radical politics in modern urban-industrial societies is usually both more individualist and more collectivist – more individualist in its critiques of family, gender, heteronormativity and the ‘couple norm’ in favour of personal freedom, and more collectivist in its belief that propertyless joint economic endeavour on a mass scale is feasible and liberatory.

I have some sympathies with this politics, especially its individualist elements (I find its collectivist elements unconvincing in view of the problems of CPE failure and ‘big man’ domination). There’s definitely a place for constructive, radical critique of the peasantization process I’ve sketched here. But it would have to venture into territory where existing radical politics in the west seldom dares to go: a future world of probable economic and industrial decline and state contraction, with limited energy availability, widespread migration and ruralization, and the need for many or most people to engage in labour-intensive local food and fibre production finely calibrated to the limited potentialities of the local landscape.

We know that societies of the past have experienced such pressures, and sometimes thrived in the process. Generally, they responded through strong but limited commons, family-based household farming involving bundles of private rights, family inheritance, labour intensification and land intensification. I think it’s worth attending carefully to how and why they did this before assuming there’s nothing we can learn from them in the face of contemporary problems.

Notes

  1. Simon Fairlie. 2020. ‘Cars: an exit strategy’ The Land 27: 12-17.
  2. Chris Smaje. 2020. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth. Chelsea Green.
  3. See, for example, Robert Netting. 1993. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press.
  4. See: Bruce Pascoe. 2019. Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Scribe US; Francesca Bray. 1986. The Rice Economies. University of California Press; Robert Allen. 1992. Enclosure and the Yeoman. Clarendon Press.
  5. See, among others: Tine De Moor. 2015. The Dilemma of the Commoners. Cambridge University Press; Simon Fairlie. 2009. ‘A short history of enclosure in Britain’ The Land 7: 16-31; Bray op cit;J.M. Neeson. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge University Press; Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Eve Rodsky. 2019. Fair Play. Quercus.
  7. See Netting op cit and Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood.
  8. Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  9. Netting op cit p.158.
  10. De Moor op cit.
  11. ONS. 2020. Families and Households in the UK. https://www.ons.gov.uk/releases/familiesandhouseholdsintheuk2020.
  12. Sasha Roseneil et al. 2020. The Tenacity of the Couple Norm. UCL Press, pp.7-11.
  13. Marshall Sahlins. 2013. What Kinship Is–And Is Not. University of Chicago Press, p.ix.
  14. ONS. 2019. Living Longer: Caring in Later Working Life. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/ageing/articles/livinglongerhowourpopulationischangingandwhyitmatters/2019-03-15#who-is-providing-unpaid-care.
  15. Rosamond Faith. 2020. The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge University Press, p.80.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Wendell Berry. 1992. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Pantheon, pp.117-73.
  18. Smaje op cit, Part I. For other analyses of the modern malaise, see: Aaron Benanav. 2020. Automation and the Future of Work, London: Verso; Hilary Cottam. 2018. Radical Help. London: Virago.

The Collective, The Individual and the Big Man: A Note on Small Farms, Racism and the Media

The Land Magazine has just published a long article from me in which I sketch some key issues facing small farm societies of the future, anticipating much that I want to say in the remainder of this blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future.

I’ll reproduce the article in my next post and expand on it in future ones. In this post, I’m just going to mention a few points from it, relating them to an issue that seems to have blown up in alternative farming circles in the USA concerning the alleged racism of small-scale family farms, and how media constructions play into this – what I’ll call the Salatin-Newman problem. But I’ll get to that shortly.

1. Household farming and the commons

Societies oriented to local agrarian livelihoods have frequently involved strong forms of collective organisation, but also a strong development of what are effectively private property rights, typically exercised by households comprising closely related kinsfolk practising skilled self-provisioning work individually. This can be upsetting to standard modern political positions, the collectivism offending cherished notions on the right, the individualism and kin structuring offending cherished notions on the left.

In my article, I explain why these jointly collective and individual forms are so frequent and outline some of their advantages – while acknowledging, I hope, the drawbacks too. I suspect these joint forms will figure heavily in small farm societies of the future. I’m open to the possibility there may be better ways to organise things, but to be persuasive I think the proponents of such possibilities need a thorough grasp of why the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual practices has been so frequent historically. Alas, this seems less common than invoking simplistic individual vs collective dualisms and advocating solely for one or other side.

I touched on some of these issues in a post I wrote a little while ago, where I offered some friendly criticisms of the cooperative farming model advocated by Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms.

Sylvanaqua’s response on Twitter was none too amiable, opting for an ad hominem attack on me along the lines that I sounded like a wannabe know-nothing with a permaculture design certificate, before suggesting to a woman who was advocating critical engagement with my position that “You can look for my work and read it, or you can go fuck yourself. Because who are you again anyway?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced an aggressive and dismissive response from people (men, usually) who espouse egalitarian collectivism in agriculture. Usually, I’ve just shrugged at the irony of folks who can’t even engage in a Twitter exchange without combative putdowns while supposing they can handle the enormously more emotionally demanding reality of genuinely egalitarian collectivism in farming.

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t an irony at all. The people who stand to gain the most from formally egalitarian modes of local collectivism are the ones most skilled at implicitly dominating, bullying, cajoling or bending them to their own purposes where others will have greater difficulty in challenging the appearance of collective harmony. So it’s no surprise that egalitarian collectivism is often favoured by domineering characters – not least within historic Marxist-Leninist regimes where the ‘big man’ style of personal domination can justify itself with respect to the ‘scientific’ trappings of its power, and opponents can be easily dismissed as ‘bourgeois’, ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’ or whatever. The appeal of being able to walk away from this big man style of local domination, of not having to either submit to or waste precious time resisting the dominants, is one reason why more individualist approaches manifest in many agrarian societies. In my article, I trace a few of the implications of that point.

I can’t say whether Chris Newman fits that oxymoronic mould of the domineering egalitarian, and I don’t much care. My point is a wider one. But the tweets emanating from Sylvanaqua do give me the impression of the kind of status-aggrandizing big man micropolitics that so often blights people’s lives in rural places where you can’t just escape by turning your computer off, but you might just escape if you’re able to organise some personal autonomy through property rights.

After I’d submitted my article to The Land, I became aware of various recriminations emerging out of Sylvanaqua – as for example discussed here, here, here and by Sarah Mock here. I’m in no position to judge the various claims and counterclaims, except to say their very existence does seem like prima facie evidence for my basic argument that it’s hard to keep large-scale agrarian cooperatives on an even keel.

Indeed, this point is made by Sarah Mock, formerly of Sylvanaqua, thus: “[a] system of collective agriculture …. requires outstanding interpersonal skills, a deep commitment to shared goals, a thoughtful recruitment strategy and a rigorous onboarding and training curriculum, a strong and healthy internal culture, a bias towards continuous personal growth, and well-established and articulated structures for conflict-resolution that can be accessed and reinforced by each and every member of the group. Collective systems require collective power and an incredible amount of humility and patience from every individual, most especially the leader.”

Aside from the eyebrow-raising idea that genuinely collective systems of agriculture have ‘a leader’, this seems about right to me as a general summation of the challenges these systems face. In my twenty odd years around alternative agriculture, I’ve seen much-touted, supposedly mould-breaking new co-ops and non-profits fail time and again because of these inherent difficulties – often through social conflict between people of goodwill who end up bearing the wider dysfunctions of the food system as a personal burden. To be fair, I’ve seen a few household farms fail too for much the same reason. None of this stuff is easy.

But now imagine yourself in a tight and tough peasant farming situation that places heavy demands on your labour, with little time, energy or capital to spare. I’d suggest that the chances of pulling off the kind of system that Mock describes without conflict or personal domination emerging are minimal. Which is a major reason why local agrarian societies usually work collectively where they have to, but not otherwise. This raises other difficulties, which I discuss in my article and in my book. But the alternative of agrarian cooperatives is no panacea.

2. Is the small farm racist?

Another theme that’s recently emerged around the household vs collective farming duality, particularly in the USA and again with Chris Newman as a key protagonist, is the question of the small family farm model as being effectively racist.

The background to this is Newman’s argument with regenerative grass farming notable Joel Salatin, which is explained in this widely-aired article by Tom Philpott. In a nutshell, Salatin responded to some criticisms of his farming practice from Newman with ad hominem dismissals of the latter’s greenhorn status (well, I know how that feels) followed up with some heavily racist comments.

It’s a sad story of Salatin’s flaws but, in Philpott’s rendering, it becomes something more, with Salatin presented as an archetype of small-scale, regenerative, family farming more generally, his racism a lineal heir of the Jeffersonian smallholding vision and his individualist farming model merely replicating systemic inequities. Newman is presented as the positive to Salatin’s negative – someone who draws from a deeper, anti-racist, collectivist, indigenous tradition.

And so we arrive at this homology:

Salatin – Newman

Jefferson – Indigenous

Racist – Anti-racist

Small family farm – Larger multi farm

Individualist – Cooperative

Politically conservative – Politically transformative

Confirms existing food system – Challenges existing food system

Negative example – Positive example

I think this is problematic for various reasons which I hope to address in future posts. It’s true nonetheless that small-scale farming models have played their part in the history of US racism. If we’re going to point the finger at a president, however, I’d suggest a more telling target than the soft one of Thomas Jefferson is the more ambiguous one of Abraham Lincoln, on whose watch the 1862 Homestead Act was passed. As documented in Paul Frymer’s interesting book Building an American Empire, it was through this (and other) means, that US governments peopled the country in the late 19th century with land-hungry white settlers in ways that ensured white electoral majorities over black and indigenous people, and indeed in ways that helped create ‘whiteness’ as a modern political project in the USA.

There are other cases of racialized small farm settlement as a political strategy on violent colonial frontiers – for example in parts of Latin America, Southern Africa and Australia. But the history of these places is not the history of the world, and farm scale per se is not the decisive factor in them. The agrarian history of political racism in my home country of Britain worked in pretty much the opposite way. Britain’s colonial extension established it as a food-importing metropole, extracted most of its national populace from small-scale farming, and fostered large-scale commercial alternatives at home and abroad. If the small family farm can be represented as a racist institution, then a nodding familiarity with the history of the Atlantic slave system is surely enough to suggest that the large non-family farm oriented to supplying agrarian commodities to metropolitan regions is also a racist institution.

I suspect the dominance of settler-colonial history in folk memory within the Anglophone world, and the global political dominance of the USA, makes it dangerously easy to slide from the racist settler-colonial history of the small farm in the US to some over-generalized notion that small family farms are racist and inherently problematic. Yet there have been generation upon generation of small-scale, kin-based farms in South, Southeast and East Asia, in Africa, in precolonial Europe and in the Americas without the racism implicated in current US discussions of the small single farm model. This alternative small farm history includes African American farmers in the USA in the aftermath of slavery, as discussed in this interesting presentation by Noah McDonald. The notion that the small kin-based farm is inherently tainted by racism strikes me as an ethnocentric and Anglocentric over-generalization of more specific histories.

Perhaps I’m labouring the obvious here: the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. There is intrinsic racism in access to farmland, and most other forms of capital, in the USA and in Britain and other countries too. In my opinion, anyone starting up a small family farm, a large commercial farm or any other kind of land and capital-based operation is well advised to do it thoughtfully in the local historical context of who has had access to land and money and who has been denied that access, and to do their best to transcend that history, even if their best probably won’t be good enough. But the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. Indeed, often enough it’s been aspirational for people denied the possibility of creating one due to racism and other forms of oppression.

I won’t dwell here on the other problematic aspects of the homology I drew out above from Philpott’s article, though I hope to return to some of them. However, as I’ve said previously, whether farmers work in single family operations or in larger cooperatives, it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in redressing the iniquities and inequities of the food system, still less the everyday power dynamics of human interaction, bottom-up through their farm structure. So while I think Chris Newman and Tom Philpott are right to question the transformative potential of the small family farm model within our current political economy, the same doubts hang over the kind of cooperative models they espouse. I’m not saying people shouldn’t experiment with such cooperative models. On the contrary, I’m all in favour of experimentation. I’m likewise in favour of experimenting with family/household farming models. I just don’t think there are good grounds for suggesting that fully cooperative models are intrinsically better than household farming ones. Or for suggesting that either model alone can remedy the deep-seated problems of the food system.

The reason I still advocate for small-scale household farming is mostly because I think it’s best equipped to meet the looming challenges of climate, energy and socioeconomic crises to come, rather than being an intrinsically transformative model in the here and now. On that note, those of us who have white privilege, or class privilege, or rich country privilege, might be wise to look at the example of Thomas Jefferson with a little less self-righteous hindsight and a little more personal discomfort. Jefferson lived in a time of unprecedented social change. He addressed himself in some powerful ways to that challenge, but in the end failed to overcome the contradictions, compromises and bitter legacies of his time – a failure in my view grounded less in the fact that he advocated for small family farms than in the fact he didn’t advocate for them radically enough. In any case, many of us may soon find ourselves likewise living among epochal changes that will bring immense suffering to many people. In fact, we already are. Can we look at ourselves with honesty and be certain that we or the politicians we elect will meet the moral challenges facing us better than Jefferson did? I’m not seeing good grounds for that at present.

3. Farming the media

A problem with the Salatin-Newman imbroglio is the fact that it’s a media event, with all of the pressure for simple and satisfying storylines that entails. Joel Salatin has some interesting ideas about grass and livestock, but he’s never been an uncomplicated hero of the alternative farming movement (as opposed to people writing about the alternative farming movement) or been seen as a significant political theorist within it, and he’s long been criticized within the movement for several reasons – not least that his skills at media self-promotion somewhat exceed his results on the ground.

It now seems the same may apply to Chris Newman. I wouldn’t know. But I definitely think there’s a problem with the way that charismatic personalities appear on the farming scene, scornfully dismiss predecessors in favour of their chosen approach, get themselves amplified in the media and gather disciples around them who loudly squash any questions or criticisms, and then get invoked positively in boilerplate media articles as a shorthand critique for much more complex and ambiguous realities. I’ve seen it so, so many times across numerous dimensions of the farming scene. It’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to strive to do better – and we need to do better than this. In my view, the lesson of the Salatin-Newman problem is not that Salatin was a hero who turned out to have feet of clay and needed replacing with a new hero like Newman, but that it’s better to write about farming without invoking heroes at all.

So, here’s my suggestion: if a farmer has written a book, does a lot of social media, has a lot of articles written about them, or claims to have solved the difficulties that are inherent to farming or the politics of farming, then treat the claims they make or that are made on their behalf with a large pinch of salt. Of course, with a book, a blog and a Twitter account to my name, I thereby implicate myself within this rogue’s gallery of influencers and wannabes. To be honest, I feel a bit too old and tired to qualify as a ‘wannabe’. Except for one thing – there’s a vastly greater historical weight to the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual peasant farming strategies than there is to the mould-breaking claims of a handful of media-savvy present day farmers, and I wannabe a voice as best I can for those tried and tested strategies of innumerable small-scale and peasant farmers down the ages who for the most part never left a script, never had a book to sell, a big idea or a guru to promote, but who I believe have nevertheless still left much from which people today can learn. What I hope to do in the next part of this blog cycle is try to distil some of those lessons for present circumstances.

What’s in a number?

Chapter 11 of A Small Farm Future is predominantly a number-crunching exercise showing that Britain could feed a population of 83 million people using organic farming methods with locally generated fertility when yields are generally assumed to be 10% lower than the lowest bound of current organic crop yields, and with minimal fossil fuel use on-farm. The kind of analysis I did will be familiar to readers of this blog who followed my posts about feeding the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, but in this case I applied the analysis to the whole country. I didn’t apply it to the whole world, however, and this is where I need your help (see below).

The basic take-home message of the analysis as I see it is that it’s possible for Britain to feed itself even with these stringent assumptions about population, yield and energy. So barring major climate tipping points or socio-political meltdown (both of which are possible, of course), I don’t believe that our food supply problems are ones of basic ecological carrying capacity. This is consistent with various mainstream studies, though not with the narrative that only capital-intensive, hi-tech, output-maximizing agricultures are capable of feeding us. Other organisms, if they’re capable of such thought, might take the view that their food supply problems are one of basic ecological carrying capacity as a result of human encroachment, but that’s another issue that I address elsewhere in the book – and, in passing, below.

I chose the population figure of 83 million – around 17 million more than the present UK population – on the assumption that Britain will be a destination for climate refugees in the near future. I plan to write more on this topic soon, but for now I’ll just underline my previous observation: even with a considerably enlarged population, Britain can feed itself with low impact and low yield methods. At the enlarged population of 83 million, this would involve a land take of 0.4 acres per person, with some slack in the system but with more land than presently devoted to cropping rather than grass. It’s tight. It involves potatoes. But it’s doable.

In the course of my analysis in Chapter 11, I mentioned that the agriculture I was proposing would require something like 15% of the working-age population to work directly as farmers (and more to serve the farm workforce indirectly). This number got picked up by various readers and reviewers and – as generally seems to be the way with bold quantification – prompted a certain amount of comment.

I think 15% is defensible, but to some degree I plucked it from the air on the basis of various assumptions that could be questioned, so I certainly wouldn’t defend it to the hilt. Arguably, the true number might be more. Conceivably, it could be less – though I doubt it. But what are the implications? What’s in a number?

One implication, I think, is that my analysis is sociologically plausible in the grand scheme of things. If it had turned out that the ratio of workers to consumers was close to or greater than one, then I would have had to conclude it’s impossible to feed ourselves with low impact methods, but I don’t believe this to be the case. As I mention on p.161 of my book, the 15% figure would put Britain in the company of countries such as Tunisia, Mexico and Ukraine today. There’s no strict comparability between what’s happening in these countries now and the kind of future scenario I’m describing. I make the comparison really just to suggest that 15% is not some outlandishly implausible figure.

People often point to the low proportion of the British labour force employed in agriculture (around 1%, currently) as if it’s an impressive historical achievement, rather than a source of past and probably future pain. But it does need noting that the true labour force involved in producing the country’s food and fibre is much higher, because we export the responsibility to grow labour-intensive products abroad, or else import from abroad temporary labour in those sectors, and this isn’t captured in the 1% figure. If you throw in all the processing, logistics and retail jobs that exist in the present food system but probably wouldn’t in a more self-reliant small farm future, then the 15% figure might start looking quite run of the mill. Indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post, it’s likely we’ll soon be in a situation where a lot of people will be looking for work to feed themselves at a time when many of the employment sectors that people have come to rely upon in modern society to provide for their needs will be contracting. So a plausible response to my analysis in Chapter 11 might be – “Just 15%? Couldn’t it be more?” The good news is, yes it could.

If 15% of people worked as farmers, that means on average that around one in six adult workers you know would farm, and the majority of families would probably have a personal connection to agriculture. It’s interesting to speculate how that might affect the standing of agriculture in society. One suggestion that’s come my way is that its standing would remain low, and the 15% would be dominated by the other 85%. It’s certainly possible, but I’m not sure it’s a matter of the simple numbers. There have been many societies historically with much higher proportions of people working directly in farming where the social standing and political opportunities of the farmers are low. But an interesting aspect of the epoch of modernity – manifested especially in the politics of populism – has been the idea that as citizens, individuals or humans, we are all of equal standing. It will be interesting to see how that issue plays out in the turbulent politics that are upon us.

One criticism I’ve received concerning this analysis is that showing how Britain can feed itself – even with numbers swelled by climate migration – is all very well, but it doesn’t prove that we can feed ourselves with local low-impact methods worldwide. On page 153 of my book, I give some reasons why the British case may not be wildly unrepresentative of the global one, but the criticism is a reasonable one all the same. I took the view that it was hard enough – and the assumptions were heroic enough – even to do a Britain-wide analysis. Trying to do a worldwide one would have been a step too far.

But maybe I can call on some external help in this regard. Greg Reynolds recently jotted some thoughts here about farm productivity from his US experience, and it looks like Jan Steinman might have some Canadian data up his sleeve. The main spirit of Chapter 11 was not fundamentally about me showing that the world could feed itself sustainably but about inviting people to think about their localities or regions and address their food sustainability for themselves. So … if anybody would care to do that – in whatever way they deem appropriate – I’d be delighted for them to send me their results via the Contact Form. I can’t promise that I will publish them or necessarily do anything with them, but if some sufficiently interesting analyses come my way I will try to make something of it.

When I’ve raised this issue in the past, I’ve received some semi-aggressive feedback along the lines of “It’s absurd for you to think my locality could be food self-reliant. I live in a city/desert”. Aside from noting that interesting final conjunction of words, my first blush response to this has usually been something along the lines of “Well, I’m sorry to hear that but, er … that’s not fundamentally my problem”. Ultimately, though, it is my problem as much as it’s anyone’s, and this is why I built a margin for climate migrants into my modelling for Britain. To be blunt, if your own modelling suggests your present local population couldn’t easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present high numbers. If, on the other hand, your modelling suggests your present local population could easily sustain itself from local resources, then don’t assume people will still be living in your locality long-term in their present low numbers.

A final observation. I’m writing this post on a sunny late May evening in the first spell of dry weather we’ve had after three cold, wet weeks. For two days, all day long and well into the night I’ve heard the distant whine of tractors in neighbouring fields busy playing catchup making silage. When they’re done, I know what the fields will look like – shaved bare as a skinhead’s pate from boundary fence to boundary fence.

When I think about my own site, with its mix of woodland, rather underused grassland, its small extent of heavily cropped gardens, its houses and outbuildings, I’ve sometimes felt guilty that we’re not maxing out the productivity like our neighbours. On the other hand, when you step from those fields into ours, the first thing you notice at this time of year is the sudden birdsong and the buzz of insects. You notice the large number of people living, working or playing on the site. You might notice the large diversity of its products – in addition to the meat and wheat furnished in such quantity by the surrounding fields, there’s wood for building or burning, fruit and nuts, a proliferation of vegetables, and quite a bit of wild food too. We could, if necessary, ramp up the per acre food productivity a little, especially if we brought more people onto the site to live and work. And we could probably do it without compromising too much on the birds and insects. But I don’t feel too guilty because, as I said above, I think Britain can feed itself well with low impact, low energy and low yield methods. The main problems lie elsewhere.

From Russia To Love: Engaging with Chris Newman on the small family farm

Continuing my theme concerning peasant farming in this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, the general focus of this post is how and why revived neo-peasantries might help meet present global challenges.

On page 90 of my book, I lay out three typical characteristics of historic peasant farms:

  1. Most of the work is done by unwaged household/family labour
  2. The capitalization of the farm in terms of buildings, tools, stock etc. is viewed as a long-term endowment, not as an embodiment of liquid capital seeking to maximize profitable return
  3. These factors condition the economic behaviour of the farm’s occupants, which isn’t geared to maximizing net profit

I’ve drawn this from the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov (1888-1937) and his more recent interpreters1. I don’t mention Chayanov by name in the book and I’m not loyal to everything in his thought, but in many ways my book elaborates a Chayanovian vision for present times. As I see it, we need to embed a social economy in the finite needs of a collaborative society of households, rather than allowing an expansionary economy to drive society according to its own logic.

There’s a long history of misunderstanding and antipathy between this kind of Chayanovian peasant populism and other better known political-economic positions, not least Marxism – the regnant doctrine in Russia during Chayanov’s later years. A low point in this respect was Chayanov’s untimely death at the hands of Stalin’s regime and its vulgar, murderous class politics. Mercifully, we later Chayanovians have mostly suffered only textual assassinations from Marxists, but there’s a lot of talking past one another that goes on when Marxists and others on the mainstream left interact with agrarian populists. The same goes for engagement with more centrist/liberal positions.

As is perhaps suggested in the points above, what Chayanovians mean by ‘capital’ or ‘the market’ isn’t really the same as what Marxists or market liberals mean, and this sows much confusion. Chayanov himself didn’t always help matters, for example when he spoke confusingly of peasant ‘self-exploitation’, launching a thousand attempts to assimilate peasant economies to Marxist conceptions of surplus value and the ‘captured garden’ thesis that I discuss on page 93 of my book, and a thousand more attempts by market liberals to turn peasants into smallholding entrepreneurs. At the root of all this lurks a deep assumption that peasant life is both miserable and outmoded, an assumption resting on modernist notions of ‘progress’ that I argued in my previous post are ironically themselves now outmoded. So it’s time, I suggest, to reconsider peasantries and small-scale farming.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make this case in counterpoint to a couple of recent interventions from Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, USA – namely in this article entitled “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer: The Romance of Neoliberal Peasant Farming Blinds Us to Our Collective Power” and in this interesting podcast. Let me say first that I think Newman is a smart agrarian voice, and there’s a lot of common ground between us. I focus on points of divergence here only because I hope that clarifying them might be illuminating.

The first points of divergence come straightaway in the title of Newman’s article. ‘Small family farms aren’t the answer…’ – but the answer to what? Newman makes a powerful case that when individuals buy small plots of private farmland and sell renewably grown produce from them locally through retail routes such as farmers’ markets they make themselves helpless and irrelevant in the face of the mainstream food system, which will defeat them sooner or later, and probably break their backs, maybe their marriages too, into the bargain. I couldn’t agree more – although Newman does start his podcast by saying that his move into farming arose from the stress of his previous white-collar job. So maybe the problem doesn’t lie with specific jobs or job sectors like farming so much as the general economic system into which all job sectors fit, a system that breaks our backs if we step outside it and breaks our minds if we don’t.

But as I see it, the mainstream food system and the more generalized economy of which it’s a part will themselves be defeated sooner or later by a combination of climate, energy, economic, political and other problems that I outline in my book, and in these circumstances I see the Chayanovian small family farm as a potential ‘answer’ to the ensuing crises. It’s not an answer that will just happen by itself. It will need to be fought for. In that sense, I see the present tender crop of small-scale household farmers as useful pioneers in the work to come, especially in their work of self-provisioning rather than in their work of supplying market demand.

So, to my mind, Newman’s future visioning is insufficiently radical. It assumes a persisting liberal-capitalist marketplace that local and community-minded people can colonize by working together. He suggests that if such people in the DC area collectively raised US$50 million they could sort out food provision in the area. I think this underestimates the forces ranged against them, some of which are external to Newman’s vision, such as corporate food players and their government associates who I suspect would happily burn sums far in excess of $50 million in order to defeat upstart localisms. But there are also internal tensions in his vision that threaten to tear it apart (to be fair, there are internal tensions in every economic vision that threaten to tear it apart – so it’s as well to be clear about what they are in each case).

Newman’s subtitle is a gateway to the key tension – “neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power”. To my Chayanovian mind, the concept of a ‘neoliberal peasant’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s true that most small farmers (and most people doing every other kind of job) serve the neoliberal economy in one way or another. It’s true, too, that probably the majority of small farmers in wealthy countries are fairly well-to-do folks with some buy-in to the neoliberal status quo and, as Newman rightly suggests, there’s a need to de-gentrify farming by socializing access to farmland so that farming is a viable option for all sections of society. But in setting up a paired dichotomy between (petty) private ownership/neoliberalism on the one hand and collective ownership/community localism on the other, what I think he misses (and he’s not alone in this) is that collective power, collective landownership or commons aren’t intrinsically incompatible with private property. Peasant societies (other societies, too) combine private rights with collective ones – and, as I’ll now argue, in doing so they can be more radically non-neoliberal in a way that better fits present (or at least future) times than Newman’s cooperative model.

So I propose two games. In Game Newman, ordinary local folks pool resources to obtain hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish a cooperative structure with democratic working protocols, leverage its buying power to obtain economies of scale, pay decent salaries to worker-members and start supplying in bulk to local retail outlets.

The way I see this game playing out is firstly in a big financial transfer from the ordinary local folks to land vendors, although that hurdle probably isn’t insurmountable. Things get stickier establishing the working protocols, because flat structures involving lots of people suck a lot of time up in conflict management. Sure, some people claim that everything goes just swimmingly in their own farm co-op, but a working knowledge of agricultural co-ops and of agricultural history suggests to me that this outcome is, at best, very much in the minority. And modelling the social organization of an entire society on best-case scenarios isn’t a great idea.

The next problem is that although the co-op’s pooled resources enable it to achieve economies of scale like the large corporations with which it’s competing, ultimately just like those corporations it has to pay the bills – including the wage bill – by selling into food retail markets where the profit margins are wafer-thin. To keep up with the competition, it has to look to cost savings – and that wages bill will be among the first places it has to look. So in the end, just like the corporation, the co-op either squeezes more out of its labour force or mechanizes people out of work. This is basically the critique of co-ops in capitalist societies that’s long been made by radicals as diverse as Vladimir Lenin and Murray Bookchin. There’s much to be said for co-ops – I’m a member of a few myself – but they don’t fundamentally escape the economic pressures driving the initial problems they seek to redress, and are therefore prone to failure. Perhaps we could call this the problem of the ‘neoliberal cooperative’, and it’s where Game Newman seems to me quite likely to fail.

In Game Chayanov, ordinary folks likewise pool resources to get hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. They establish whatever minimum cooperative or commons structures are necessary to manage the total landscape effectively (here again, they might easily fail), but then divide much of the land up among individuals or households with strong personal rights to farm it pretty much as they please, with enough land per household to provide largely for its needs but with mechanisms to prevent it concentrating in few hands over time.

This is a classic strategy of peasant societies historically, especially ones minimally coopted by centralized states. Unquestionably, it raises problems of its own, which I’ll come to in later posts. But this kind of small-scale household or family farming is emphatically not ‘neoliberal’. As I see it, Game Chayanov has none of the tendencies towards massification, labour-reduction and profit-seeking of the neoliberal cooperative, which is why for all its problems I think it’s a better model to try to build a fair, renewable, postcapitalist agriculture around.

It’s easy to get dazzled by words like ‘commons’ or ‘cooperative’ into assuming that economic models where such words appear front and centre are somehow more sharing and less capitalistic, more ultimately dedicated to building community cohesion or – if it’s not too schmaltzy – to building love than ones explicitly combining private and common property. But it ain’t necessarily so, and much depends on the larger political and economic field in which these economic models are at play. In a smoothly functioning capitalist economy set within a well-ordered global system of capitalist states, it’s debatable whether the ‘neoliberal cooperative’ or the ‘neoliberal peasant farm’ is preferable. But in the present reality of a failing capitalist economy and an increasingly disorderly system of states, I pin my colours to the Chayanovian mast.

A whole other set of issues that Chris Newman probes in his aforementioned commentaries is the question of race and the ‘whiteness’ of the small farm. We’ll come to that next.

 

Notes

  1. Chayanov. 1925 [1986]. The Theory of Peasant Economy. University of Wisconsin Press; J. van der Ploeg. 2013. Peasants & the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto. Fernwood.

The sheep sacrifice

Continuing my amble through my book A Small Farm Future, my next stop in Part I is Crisis #7 – Land (pp.43-51). There’s a specific aspect of this that’s topical at the moment here in the UK, so I’ll begin with that and work my way towards a more general conclusion that’s implicit in the book.

With a no deal Brexit looming and the Government’s farm subsidy regimen shifting towards payments only for delivering ‘public goods’, it looks like hard times may lie ahead for many commercial farmers in the UK, none more so than for upland livestock farmers. The UK is by far the EU’s largest sheep producer, and about a third of its production is exported, the great majority to other EU countries. So sheep farmers (primarily in the uplands) face a double blow of contracting markets and contracting farm support. I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, but maybe with farmers shooting a lot of next year’s lambs. I hope none of them end up shooting themselves.

The decline of the upland livestock industry will be celebrated by many in the (re)wilding movement, for whom Britain’s ‘sheepwrecked’ mountains have become the iconic example of misplaced agrarianism at the expense of wilderness. Without the intensive grazing pressure of sheep, the argument goes, the mountains would regain their tree cover, with numerous benefits for biodiversity, as well as lowland flood abatement. And instead of eking out a marginal economic existence as farmers, the people of the uplands could then earn better rewards as custodians of the rejuvenating wilderness and workers in the consequently growing tourist industry.

The rewilders surely have a point. Sheep stocking in the uplands is at a high level historically and there’s much to be said for reducing it and creating more complex silvopastoral upland landscapes. Arguably, this would more closely resemble the farmed upland landscapes of the past, when the mountain valleys would also have had a greater diversity of arable farming, horticulture and local crafts and industries, much of it devoted to local needs. What changed was less an enthusiasm among upland farmers to cram the hills with sheep than the dictates of central government policy, in the UK as in many other countries, which has generally pushed farmers to focus upon the single most advantageous and remunerative crop in their area to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a danger that by design or default (re)wilding will figure as another top-down policy prescription imposed from afar, without connecting to local histories of mixed land use geared to feeding people locally.

This touches on debates about so-called ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ that I discuss under Crisis #7 in the book. Behind them lies a wider philosophical question of human ecology: which is preferable, a world of domesticated and urbanized humans experiencing unpeopled wilderness only as visitors and sojourners, or a world of rather wilder humans making modest livelihoods in rural spaces? And perhaps behind them too lies a matter of practical ecology sparked by the classic ecological question of why the world is green – that is, are plant-rich terrestrial landscapes preserved from the depredations of herbivorous animals top-down by predator control of the herbivores, or bottom-up by plant defences against herbivory?

I won’t dwell on all that here, but essentially I’m in the bottom-up camp. Share land, wild ourselves by learning to live in place, and don’t over-fetishise predators because plants can more or less take care of themselves. Still, in the short term I daresay that erstwhile farmers in the uplands will make a better living working as tour guides than they ever did as shepherds. In the present economy, herding people always pays better than herding livestock. But while they might be making a better living – and while some, I’m sure, will genuinely take to tourist work – I’m not convinced that many upland folks will be making a better livelihood, in the sense of participating in a way of life that’s deeply structured to the sustaining possibilities of the local landscape. And this, ultimately, is what seems most likely to endure. The present collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is surely only the harbinger of a larger and longer collapse in the possibility that the wider economy can keep infusing places with wealth greatly beyond their local means.

For sure, people gain from participating in the wider economy and the services it provides. Doubtless there are few who would want to renounce all of it in what Emma Marris (who I quote on p.27 of my book) calls the ‘grand sacrifices’ involved in turning our backs on our contemporary high-energy, high-throughput society. But that society isn’t quite as paradisiacal as is often supposed, especially for those with a less advantageous place within it. And, however paradisiacal it is, it’s in any case unlikely to survive the numerous crises that I outline in Part I of my book.

Therefore, I think many of us certainly will need to make sacrifices. So perhaps it’s as well for us to ‘sacrifice’ in the original sense of the word – to make sacred. An awful lot of contemporary thought makes sacred urban, fluid, high-energy consumer culture. It’s time to put this romanticism aside. We now need to find ways to come to terms with both the opportunities and the constraints within local agroecosystems like the forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain, thereby making them sacred.

But with the sacred comes the profane. So we also need to think through the difficulties of small farm localism, just as the romantics of urban modernity need to think through the difficulties of their own vision. As to whether continuing with present high-energy, urbanizing, monoculturalizing trends involves more sacrifice than low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying trends, it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.

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.

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.

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

The first talk I’m giving in relation to my new book is at the Northern Real Farming Conference, at 7.30pm on Tuesday (29 Sept). Although I’m not from or in the North, the conference is nevertheless an appropriate launchpad for my book because I suggest in it that in the future people are going to have to furnish their livelihoods more regionally and locally than most do today, and that this is going to involve a lot of rethinking – of agriculture, of industry, of politics and society more generally, and indeed of what we mean when we talk about the local or the regional. There are few better forums for getting going with this rethinking process than a regional farming conference.

My talk is going to be fairly general in its scope. I’m hoping that the audience discussion will add more local colour and detail to it and fit its themes to the specifics of Britain’s north. But I also hope that anyone reading this webpage may do the same in relation to wherever in the world they live, and however they think of their locality and their region. Perhaps, in the comments to this post or elsewhere, this will help to generate some worthwhile rethinking of agrarian localism.

And boy do we need that rethinking! Wider issues like climate change, energy scarcities, economic stagnation and political fragmentation are already reconfiguring our world, but we can only guess at the local adjustments this will demand of us – which makes it hard to know where to put our energies and what kinds of institutions to support and nurture. Often, as a grower and smallholder I feel that I should probably just get my head down and try to produce food in a low impact way. But that alone isn’t going to be enough. Below, I lay out five broad themes (and some more specific pointers) that I’d suggest need addressing everywhere as we rethink regionalism and localism for a small farm future:

  1. Producing for local needs, instead of for commodity markets.
  • in (northern) Britain, this probably means going easier on livestock and cereals, and harder on woodland, horticulture, fertility-building fallows, fibre crops, seeds, medicines and general trades and inputs into farming.
  • it also means entering a steep learning curve on low impact, local farming, involving a thorough rethinking of scale, labour input and agricultural education
  • and it may mean disregarding recent historical land use patterns. Where I live, for example, there’s a strong recent history of dairy farming which partly has to do with the fact that grass grows well here (harking back to the quaint days when that actually mattered…) but also with the fact that the opening of the railways to London created a demand for fresh milk in the capital
  1. Rethinking settlement geography
  • cheap energy has broken the links of mutual service between town, village and countryside. How can we restore them?
  • in the future, we will probably see ruralisation or deurbanisation in the face of new energy, climate and economic realities. Population dispersal is harder to achieve than concentration – how can this be managed?

     3. Rethinking landownership

  • ruralisation may put inflationary pressure on farmland prices to the benefit of existing landowners, exacerbating inequalities
  • this is potentially counterbalanced by the sheer weight of a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class, the weakness of the political centre and the residual influence of liberal rights ideas
  1. Local identities
  • in what ways might local or regional identities help or hinder reconstructing a renewable agrarian localism? (Personally, I’m dubious about most existing identities in this respect, in the North and elsewhere: northern, Yorkshire/Lancashire, East Riding/West Riding, urban/rural, ‘indigenous’ or ‘immigrant’, here first, the ‘real people’
  • almost everyone is a child of a failing economic modernism – can we forge new identities as farmers engaged in creating renewable livelihoods in place?
  • civic republicanism as a political tradition to inform new identity-making, not based on ideas of a pre-existing ‘natural community’. The politics of ‘here we all are’

 5. Wider interactions

  • in a supersedure state situation with semi-autonomy of, say, the north from London, how would relations between region and centre work?
  • and between regions?

A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.

What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.

oOo

Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…