Labour on the farm

The first draft of A Small Farm Future had a chapter called ‘Labour on the farm’ which didn’t make the final version. I needed to cut the length, and although there were parts of this chapter I was quite attached to, I felt I hadn’t nailed the issues as well as I’d like, so it was easy to spike. Some passages found their way into other parts of the book, but I’d been hoping to make good on the issue in this blog cycle with parts of the deleted chapter and my own more polished thoughts. Trouble is, I still don’t feel I’ve nailed this issue sufficiently. So instead I offer this post as a placeholder for a more distant day when I hope I can offer something more up to scratch.

What I’ll do here instead is provide a few brief thoughts on the topic prompted by a deeper dive I took recently into Francesca Bray’s fascinating book The Rice Economies (University of California Press, 1986) – an old book, but a very good one. Then I’m hoping I can come back in the future with something a bit more expansive.

A key organizing theme in Bray’s book is her contention that wheat in western countries and dryland cereal crops in general offer economies of scale in production that don’t exist in the case of the wet rice cultivation that dominates much of the populous regions of East, South and Southeast Asia. The combination of relatively scarce labour and relatively abundant land in the west (albeit that the latter was too often a function of colonial dispossession) created a dynamic of labour substitution and mechanization geared to increasing the per worker productivity of farming as an economic sector that’s come to be seen as exemplary of agricultural ‘progress’. In the wet rice regions, on the other hand, relatively abundant labour and relatively scarce land created a dynamic of agricultural development where the focus was using more (skilled) labour to increase the per acre productivity of the land.

From this point of departure, Bray unfurls an enormously detailed and sophisticated discussion of poverty, development, mechanization, landownership, credit, state formation, agrarian organization and much else besides which I hope to draw and elaborate from in future posts. But for now I’ll restrict myself to a couple of main points.

In certain situations of economic growth and capitalist development, there can be a compelling logic to agricultural labour substitution of the western kind. People quit the toilsome agrarian life for better paid jobs in industry or services, helping fuel an accumulation of capital and resources that redounds to the net benefit of all.

This is a pretty idealized vision of how capitalism works in practice, but it has a sufficient grain of historical truth to it in western societies to colour notions of a more labour-intensive agricultural future with a sense of regress and misplaced romanticism. Nevertheless, it matters where the accumulated capital and resources go. If labour substitution helps generate extra income that doesn’t find its way back to labourers, then to them there is no benefit. And this is basically what’s happening in the present phase of the global economy.

In the rice economies, on the other hand, capitalism was often built out from small-scale rice farming based on the intensive application of skilled labour, for example in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. And even where it wasn’t, intensive labour on the farm created opportunities for crop diversification and increased rural income in relatively egalitarian rural societies.

Turning to the present and probable future global situation, I’d suggest that Bray’s analysis of the rice economies provides a firmer foundation for grasping the agrarianism to come than the recent historical experience of the western wheat economies. In the face of climate change, energy squeeze and socioeconomic crisis, the new normal will most likely be situations where a lot of people are gathered in the diminishing areas of the world still propitious for farming – in other words, where labour is abundant and land is scarce. Generally, capital will not be accumulating, but melting away. In these situations, the wise course will not lie in trying to release people from agrarian labour for largely non-existent jobs in a declining capital-intensive sector, but in intensifying agricultural labour to best produce the things that people need to live a good life locally.

If people were to do that, it seems likely they would move away from cultivating more than the minimum necessary amount of wheat, maize etc and towards more diverse cropping of fruits, vegetables and other such crops which have more the characteristics of wet rice than wheat. They respond to labour-intensive, land-sparing husbandry, which is why rich countries like the UK and the USA that are sold on labour-sparing agricultures terraformed to the largest possible envelopes for machine working import so much of their fruit and vegetables from abroad.

All of which is to say that we need a more nuanced approach to discussions of agricultural ‘efficiency’ than is commonly found in both mainstream and alternative agricultural circles (referencing this discussion with Ernie on the latter point, while conceding my elaboration here is sketchy – hopefully something to be filled out further in the future). In brief, efficiency is not an end in itself, but a way of saving on the means. So there is no virtue in having a labour-lean, capital-intensive agriculture when labour is abundant and capital is thin on the ground. It will not improve quality of life, which is a more powerful underlying aim than mere ‘efficiency’. In these circumstances, labour productivity will be less important than land productivity. And trophic efficiency may be less important than figuring out an agriculture that keeps people tolerably fed year-round, ideally with some periods of slack in the annual labour cycle that enables them to devote themselves to other pursuits. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be fleshed out in emerging agrarian societies.

Over at The South Roane Agrarian, Brian Miller has recently made much the same point implicitly with an enumeration of the labour on his farm over the last twenty-one years since he took it on. It’s a similar timespan since I turned to the farming life, though most of Brian’s numbers are well ahead of mine. Perhaps he’s more efficient?

Well, to compare farms and farmers is always to compare apples with oranges. Sometimes literally. But Brian closes his post with an irreducibly apples/oranges comparison of the kind that many farmers make.

“1,126 times one of us has said to the other, “This is too much work.” 7,929 times one of us has thought, What a lovely and a lucky way to live.

The challenge in the future will be trying to maintain that 1,126:7,929 ratio and make it the reality for as many farmers as possible. Because there won’t be many other options.

22 thoughts on “Labour on the farm

  1. Agree with your analysis. It is also a question of what to do with surplusses which are a result of gains in labour productivity.
    An “economic surplus” has been a pre-condition of all kinds of desirable material progress of humanity. Through increased productivity in farming, more work could be invested in opening up new fields, making irrigation systems and developing other industries. Meanwhile, surpluses in societies were historically often directed into other purposes than increased production, such as the building of pyramids or cathedrals or expended in sacrifices, festivals, lavish parties or great works of art. The ultimate, and tragic, way to destroy accumulated surplus capital was by warfare.

    Yet there is a far more peaceful alternative, too. If production is more efficient and productivity increases, it could simply result in less work instead of an economic surplus. It appears that this was a favored option in many egalitarian societies, while in hierarchical societies the elite will try to extract as much as possible from the dominated classes. The poor work ethics of the peasantry or colonized people often commented upon by their rulers was an expression of this propensity to work less rather than contributing to the accumulation of capital (mostly the capital of someone else).

  2. Thanks, Chris, for another well-reasoned essay. Ownership seems to have a major role in these issues.

    The ratio of “This is too much work” to “What a lovely and a lucky way to live” could depend on whether the labourers are essentially working for themselves or for the enrichment of an employer .

    “If labour substitution helps generate extra income that doesn’t find its way back to labourers, then to them there is no benefit.”

    Along those lines, if the labourers are also the owners of the farm, then the labourers are more likely to benefit from substitution.

    “…quality of life… is a more powerful underlying aim than mere ‘efficiency’.”

    Yet, where the farm ownership is disconnected from the farm labour, increased efficiency can translate to increased quality of life (for the owners).

    • Some labour substitution was a good thing , if you have ever stood with a shovel in your hand in January up to your knees in ice cold water cleaning out a ditch you would as I did welcome the invention of the back hoe ( jcb for the Brits )
      Steam then diesel replaced men . Which was cheapes ,but which will BE cheapest in the future will be the crux of the matter , high fuel and machinery costs will drive mechanized farming out of existence , people will become cheaper .

  3. Greetings,
    I don’t have any expertise in this area so my comment is more in the form of a question. I live in northern California and last week one of the larger organic farms put most of its acreage “to sleep” because of the drought. It subsequently discontinued its large CSA program. Its circumstances are somewhat unique (the vineyards that surround the farm suck up available water, though I am sure not for long given the prospects of continued drought). So the issue now becomes one of available water and not available land. I’m not sure of the implications given this predicament. Does it mean hydroponic vertical farming in cities? Does it mean diverting water from non-essential uses (vineyards), away from rural towns, diverting grey water and trucking it to farms? Or what?
    btw… I fully agree with the ownership issue. Maybe the model of future farming should resemble the early kibbutzim, coupled with seasonal workers (students?) coming from the cities for harvesting and planting.

    • Here I mix Texas the problem is the intermittent rain last year I was watering the garden and watching the pastures turn Brown , this year we have had 24 inches of rain in three weeks , the pastures look good the garden drowned, low lying fields of corn are yellow and dying , the fields that usually need irrigation look good and that’s the problem of a small farm the variabilities of the weather ! There is no way I will be self sufficient in vegetables this year .

    • Hi Bernard

      I’m sorry to hear about the discontinuation of that CSA program. How big is that farm?

      I have a few thoughts on your question:

      1) The vineyards (or almond orchards and whatever else) that “suck up” so much water are large monoculture farms that produce high-value goods for an international market, yes? So in a small farm future with locally-based economies where shipping wine (or almonds or whatever) halfway across the world in exchange for money that you then use for getting your beans (or whatever) shipped to you doesn’t really work because cheap shipping doesn’t exist, those vineyards aren’t going to be so big, and people are going to have to grow other things, many of which don’t need as much water.

      2) In a small enough farm with enough people living in it, you don’t have to divert grey water in a truck.

      3) We really, really shouldn’t be flushing our toilets with treated drinking water. Even if you accept that urban and suburban centres have to be a thing, you could reduce water use hugely by installing composting toilets, or using your grey water for flushing the toilet. (The latter is pretty simple to do with no special plumbing whatsoever: put a decently large bucket in the bottom of the shower and use it to catch some of the water from washing your hair, and next time you need to flush, pour the bucket down the toilet instead of using the flush handle. Done.) If everyone does this, the need for fresh water goes down a huge amount, but I gather it isn’t standard practice in California.

      4) I don’t know how seasonal the rain patterns are in California, but rain water catchment is probably a good idea too. Again, the smaller the farm, the more realistic this becomes.

      5) As the climate continues to change there will continue to be places where humans live now which become essentially uninhabitable for one reason or another. Sometimes that might look like a really bad fire season; sometimes it might look like a flood; sometimes it might be several years running of drought, which cumulatively put anyone trying to grow food out of business.

      6) The more diverse your food supply the better. If you get all your vegetables from one CSA and it folds you’re in a bit of a bind. If you have a handful of different local suppliers you have more options. If you grow some yourself — even sprouted seeds or some herbs on a windowsill — you have still more options. This may be inefficient, but efficiency is not the same thing as resilience, and in times of precarity and change, it’s probably better to be part of a resilient system than one that is efficiently optimised for certain conditions.

      Sorry if this raises more questions than it answers!

      • 4) …the rain patterns are in California

        Interestingly, it doesn’t rain in California during the growing season.

        When I lived in Mendocino County, we got two meters of rain per year – between November and March. With a sprinkle or two in August.
        The whole state is that way, wetter in the north and drier in the south.
        That is why all of the rivers coming down from the Sierra Nevada have dams on them – to hold water for the majority of the year.
        All of the agriculture in California is irrigated, except for a few early spring crops.

  4. Labor substitution and mechanization have gone about as far as they can in large scale US agriculture. It is a very productive system in the sense that it produces lots of bushels of stuff.

    Efficient ? I’m not so sure. No one wants to invest a million dollars and run 3000 acres to barely make a living. In addition, last year 40% of US farm income was some sort of government subsidy or payment. I’m not a historian or economist but I don’t think that capitalism is supposed to work that way.

    Food prices are about half of what they were in the 1970s relative to income. If we were paid double for everything that we produce, it would be much easier to make a living.

    Completely coincidentally, average medical expenses have gone from around $300 per year to over $11.000 during the same time period.

    The food system is broken in a lot of ways. To try to make sense of the current system or to think about an alternative using the existing framework is impossible.

    • Well, if you can find someone to rent you the 3000 acres, and a bank to lend you the money for seed, chemicals, and diesel, I guess a million would just about get you enough equipment.

      • And there is the crux of the matter , instead of employing “expensive ” labour , farmers are employing expensive banks and machinery , at some point those competing interests will cross as diesel and machines + debt payments become too expensive to make a profit , we are all ready at the point where banks do not forclose the debt is far bigger than the land is worth , if land price doubles then all bets are off .
        Diesel is the canary in the coal mine , the NO statistical review says oil companies need $130 to make enough money to start drilling again , legacy fields are depleting badly , world oil production is down to 2000 as levels but the virus has cut use hence no shortage , IF the economy picks up then there is insufficient oil to run it , there is plenty of oil underground it’s just too expensive to drill , catch 22 .
        Here are some interesting statistics
        Gail Tverberg’s

  5. Thanks for the comments. Just to pick up on a couple of points.

    I agree with Gunnar on the issue of surplus production and the different things you can do with it – this leads into a consideration of the state, which we’ll be coming to shortly.

    It also links to Steve L’s points. Indeed, when I talk about ‘small-scale farmers’ these days I tend to be thinking about owner-occupiers with inalienable property rights, which of course is far from the only kind of small farmer you can be, but IMO is far and away the best option. Again something I’ll be addressing here soon.

    For me, perhaps the key point to address where Gunnar and Steve L’s comments meet is to consider in what circumstances the owner-occupier’s potential surplus prompts them to stop working and enjoy more leisure, and in what circumstances it might prompt them to invest in labour-substituting means that generate further surplus.

    To Bernard’s point, indeed in some places water is a more fundamental limiting factor than land, with implications that can be both similar to and different from land issues (water issues loom large in wet rice production, of course!) At present, in places like California (or here in Somerset) the production of money usually takes precedence over the production of food (unless you’re an owner-occupier with an ornery take on modernity), so the vineyard probably beats the CSA. But in the longer run, I think the local production of food will take precedence over the production of money. So in water stressed places there will be a lot of interesting commons developing around water … but ultimately probably population movements away from excessively water-stressed places. Chances are, the most water-stressed places will usually be cities, so I wouldn’t put my money on hydroponic vertical farming. It’s an important arena of debate – I’m interested to hear other thoughts.

    I agree with Greg’s conclusion – “To try to make sense of the current system or to think about an alternative using the existing framework is impossible” – which is a nice lead in to my discussions around Parts III & IV of my book coming up soon.

  6. A very interesting post, which seems to pull a lot of threads. I’m still thinking it through so forgive me if the following just makes your points again in different words!

    I fear I’m getting stuck on the same old record, but the key here appears to be capitalism, whether in wheat or rice economies. A small farm future may look more like the rice economies, but the ethos will need to be different – hence your emphasis on quality of life.

    I haven’t read Bray’s book, but from what you say I get the impression that she is basically drawing a distinction between the limits of capitalist agriculture in different habitats. As you put it in your comment above, the key is money, so where you can’t do without skilled labour (rice) you have to increase productivity per acre, but where you can ‘de-skill’ labour (wheat) you increase productivity per labourer by substituting machines. Either way, from the capitalist’s point of view, the point is getting more money out for the same amount of resources in (including labour).

    I have some sympathy with the idea raised in the comments on the importance of ownership, and a focus on the beneficiaries of productivity gains. Even in situations of labour abundance, the capitalists in charge will seek to limit the benefit that goes to labour, so the rice economy depicted by Bray is just as counterproductive as the wheat economy when it comes to ushering in a new focus on quality of life.

    But when the limits of capitalist appropriation through productive efficiency (whether of land, labour or both) are reached, our present circumstances would suggest that capitalists turn to the rents that can be extracted from land as asset instead – whether tenurial rents, subsidies, or something else.

    So the way forward cannot only be about the fashioning of a new attitude to land work that stigmatises productive efficiency for its own sake – and I really like the vision of labour abundant, diverse production for present need in both the former wheat and rice ecologies. But surely what’s needed is a political offensive of some kind (in a broad sense – a movement) that attacks expropriation in all its forms, whether through productivity efficiencies or through rents – so an attack on land ownership in the form in which it’s currently understood. That is, the key is making sure that land cannot be used in any way as an asset for the private gain of the owner. Subsistence then becomes a public matter, not just a strategy for individual farmers but something to be achieved, enjoyed and celebrated collectively.

    • Interesting perspective to call private ownership expropriation, which it is of course. The origin of privately owned land is very often in violence, war, colonisation and preceeded by appropriation of land that wasn’t owned by anybody. Meanwhile, ownership is also a kind of protection against violation by the state or peers. In addition food can to some extent be considered a public good and the ecosystems that are impacted by food production certainly are. It is even more apparent in forestry.
      By and large I believe that private ownership of land is not the best arrangement, while secure tenure is important for nature resource management in general. The devil is how to find the arrangements which are less harmful…..

      • Maybe the key is to think about what is meant by ‘secure tenure’. The ‘tenurial’ bit drags it back into the existing legal system, which tends to protect those with property. But what is actually meant by secure tenure on a farm?

        Presumably this is about the ability to plan for the future (the annual cycle, tree-growing cycles, etc) without the fear of ‘external’ forces scuppering those plans. But I suppose that just moves the question on to how and whether we should define and internal/external binary.

        In the case of the ‘household’ envisioned as a unit of production, do we envisage a head (chief decision maker/boss) or something more democratic? Do those who work have greater authority than those supported by that work (the young, old and I’ll)? And how permeable should such households be to the wider decisions of a democratic public? Above all, who gets to decide the answers to such questions?

    • Thanks for another incisive comment Andrew. Much to agree with in it – and much that touches on some future writings of mine, both here and (hopefully) elsewhere – but just a couple of qualifications for now.

      I sort of agree with your final paragraph, except that I don’t see a household’s production of food for its own consumption from the land it’s entitled to cultivate as ‘private gain’, whereas I do see the charging of Ricardian rent as private gain. I agree that subsistence is or should be a public matter, but ‘public’ mostly in the sense of collective arrangements that accord private people the capabilities to produce subsistence for themselves. So, like you, I oppose ‘expropriation’, but in quite a formal etymological sense of not ‘taking property’. That leads to numerous difficult questions, for example about tax, entitlement to public welfare and so on that I hope to pick up in later posts.

      ‘Tenure’ is an interesting issue. I’ve recently read Rosamond Faith’s book ‘The Moral Economy of the Countryside’ concerning the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. She argues that ‘tenure’ was a Norman introduction, a form of homage involving the idea that land was held from a feudal superior – ultimately the king – whereas previously land was owned outright, albeit very unequally, by aristocrats and peasants (though not slaves) alike, and passed on to their descendants. I guess I favour some tricky mix of tenure (holding land from the community) and landownership (inalienable property rights).

      However you slice and dice it, most of the questions you ask in your second comment – essentially who decides, how is authority partitioned – are pertinent whether land is owned privately, publicly or commonly, and in my view it’s a big mistake to assume that public or common ownership avoids problems of inequitable appropriation. I hope to expand on this in some posts to come. I do think the idea of the moral economy is important here (Faith, James Scott, E.P. Thompson etc.) and I wish I’d made more of it in my book.

      Regarding your points about capitalism in the rice and wheat economies, I think it’s important to say that while rice economies did create forms of capitalism – especially in modern times under the force of the globalization of capital – there were many non-capitalist rice economies where land intensification was a result either of demographic pressure or a non-capitalist search for peasant prosperity, sometimes with the state allying with peasants against the would-be capitalism of local landlords. So these models are quite interesting in contemporary terms for these reasons.

      • It just the human state of you own something you treat it better than when you rent something , just look at rental cars , mostly beaten to death halfway thru their normal life , old farm rental contracts were very specific about treatment of the land , fences , buildings , etc , and they would kick you off if you were burning out the fertility of the land .

  7. Thanks Chris. The Bray book does sound fascinating, and I know virtually nothing about rice economies, so I think it’s one I’ll have to get hold of.

    As for the rest I think we’re broadly on the same page most of the time, and I agree that expropriation begins where subsistence ends, but you’ve brought up pre-Conquest England, in which I have a professional interest, so I can’t resist a little more comment!

    That said, scandalously I haven’t yet read Faith’s book (it’s on the pile!), so I can’t speak directly to it. But I would point out that pre-Conquest landholding was validated and authorised at the shire and hundred courts, which appealed to ‘custom’ – expectations about how things like inheritance were meant to happen (I agree that ‘moral economy’ is a useful way of looking at this). Those courts were primarily focused on assemblies of landholders, so basically a special interest group looking after its special interest. Landholders might also forfeit their land if they didn’t fulfil obligations to the king that were owed by virtue of holding the land.

    My point is that landownership never exists by itself, sui generis, and always emerges from some kind of collective structure, often shot through with hierarchy and buttressed by interesection with other forms of power. The state is one way of working through the play of public and private intetests, as you’ve mentioned. I’ve recently become interested in situations in which people are constructing collective alternatives to the state, such as in Chiapas, Venezuela and Rojava, and the ways they have developed to articulate landholding, broadly conceived.

    Anyway, I look forward to more of your writing on these themes!

    • Thanks Andrew. I certainly agree that landownership always emerges from a collective structure – this is a point I make on p.176 and pp.186-7 of my book. So the concept of ‘inalienable property’ is always a legal fiction. Nevertheless, private property rights are not all the same and I argue that inalienable property is an important and useful kind of legal fiction.

      My inferences from Faith’s book were in no way intended to negate the point you’re making about the contingent and inegalitarian nature of pre-Norman property rights, with which I agree. We’ll come onto that hot topic soon! Nevertheless, both public and common property regimes also usually involve special interest groups looking after special interests – a point I make in my book, and which I don’t think gets the attention it should!

      Anyway, more on this soon.

  8. Sorry I’m late to this conversation (Since Chris was kind enough to give a nod to my back of the envelope calculations). Further thought on that list of what has been accomplished: Much of that shows, even with human powered work (ouch, my shoulder), how much fossil fuels have been used to create a basic working infrastructure. We will have to be much more creative and efficient in the future to accomplish even half that work if the basic source of energy is in short supply.

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