I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.
Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).
There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.
One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.
This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.
Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons. Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.
But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.
Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.
Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.
One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).
But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.