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.

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

  1. 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.

    Hear, hear!

    This is essentially why I am in favour of having at least some visible hierarchical power structures in place. If they aren’t visible, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there, it just means that there are no checks and balances on them. At very least we need some way of holding de-facto leaders to account.

    Perhaps one reason it is sometimes difficult to understand this is that our current de facto leaders are so often not held to account.

  2. It appears to me that the most successful small farm model working today is the model of individual small holdings within the context of a long standing intentional communities of the same. In the USA this model is the exclusive habitat of various religious “old orders” who, in order to retain their small scale individual holdings within the context of the larger community have accepted specific, agreed upon, limitations to individual profit, wealth, and energy / speed / power of equipment and transportation.
    We call these groups collectively “the Amish” although there are numerous subdivisions within the larger body.
    This model is neither individualist nor collectivist, but an older human model of mixed organization, each with his / her own nest but the flock working together as well.
    I believe the race issues to be separate from the organization of farms and farming communities. I don’t choose to go deeply into it here, but I don’t think racism is either required nor prevented by these different farming / community models. Racism is clearly a problem of humans writ large, one we have not yet come to grips with. I have thoughts about it but in no sense feel that I know how to solve it.

  3. Your article for The Land Magazine is very well done. You covered the entire range of possibilities inherent in a transition to an agrarian future with a lot of good examples and common sense. It’s as close to the “final word” on the subject as I’ve seen to date. We’ll just have to wait for the actual transition to see how it plays out on the ground. Once again, excellent work!

  4. “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.” Couldn’t agree more. Meanwhile, the economic relationships are essential parts of the food system, because it is the economic relationships that makes it a system and not isolated technologies etc.

    Therefore it will be futile trying to change the contents of the system while leaving the economic conditions, struc­tures and relationships intact. What we have today is – somewhat simplistically put – what makes sense under the conditions under which farmers, agribusiness and consumers operate.“

    • Doesn’t changing the contents also change the system itself in some ways? As I switch to growing more of my own food, the content of my dinner plate changes, but so do the economic relationships I have with farmers and agribusiness.

      The reality is that growing as much of my own food as I do is largely only accessible to me because of my considerable privilege, though. And I garden partly because I do enjoy it — but also because I feel I have a responsibility, given my privilege, to exercise what good stewardship I can.

      I think there are potential systemic changes that would make changes in content easier, of course. I strongly suspect that how those changes happen will be related to what appears to be in the short or medium term financial interests of the very rich. A rather gloomy prospect!

      • Sure Kathryn, I think these things are intertwined in complex ways and it is futile to say what comes first and what comes after, cause and effect.

        By and large, I think our societies look a bit too much into technologies as well as too much into various cultural constructs (race, gender, diet identification etc) and too little into how production is organized, power, class and economics. One can of course claim that economics trumphs all in the world of today, but I would say that the economic analysis is extremely shallow, especially by the economists!
        The food discourse is a good case in point. People discuss veganism, regenerative or organic farming, GMOs, fertilizers, but rarely how food is distributed, why it is so cheap, why there are more people working in coffee shops than in farms in most rich countries, or why farming is one of the most capital intensive industries today (in Sweden trumphed only by mining and real estate).

        • I broadly agree, though I do think a lot of people who take an intersectional approach to equality and justice (around race, gender, sexuality etc) are acutely aware of at least some aspects of the way financial power orders our society and our lives. As far as food is concerned the discourse around urban “food deserts” is one example of this. It isn’t necessary to be entirely familiar with the ins and outs of farming and agricultural policy to know that there is something deeply unfair about who has access to fresh vegetables, and there is room there for fruitful conversation.

          • San Fran Frisco is slowly turning into a food desert , small shops closing, larger chains limiting hours and closing stores , reason rampant criminality , theft at such a point that bancrrupsy causes a food desert , and yes the bleeding hearts will start wailing , the inhabitants chose their fate .
            Austin TX farmers market is also under pressure , in KNOW people who are having up to 20 % of their goods stolen , no help from city services , their view is suck it up !

  5. Hmmmm
    Racism is like an old cut , every time it starts to heal over some vested interest has to scratch the scab off !
    Well from a TX point of view anyone would have to work early hard not to be able to make a living where Salitin does German immigrants tried and failed , the Amish tried and failed, European style of farming does not work on marginal land .
    As for small farmers here I have been to many auctions never have I seen anyone of ” colour ” there , lots of Hispanics bid and get land , one I know the family put their combined savings together and bought land that is now a ” truck farm ” selling produce at markets and at the road side ( covid lockdown almost bankrupted them ) we also have many Dutch dairy farmers , immigrants from Europe here because land is cheaper and governments less draconian .
    Claiming farming is racist because people of colour are thin on the ground is foolish , you can’t force people to become farmers no matter what their colour !

    • Here in Minnesota, Blacks were discriminated against in being able to buy property. It is well known that leaving a paid off house to your kids gives them a financial leg up in life. (I hate statistics but) According to the Federal Reserve the median net worth of white families here is $210,000. For black families it is $0. Probably not a coincidence based on the restrictive covenants for real estate from 1915 until the ’70s. .

      We would not be farming today if we had not gotten lucky in the real estate market when it was time to move back home from out east and didn’t have the money to make the down payment on a house out there in the first place.

      That does not make us racists, but we certainly benefited from our folks being white and being able to buy and sell property as we pleased.

      All of this is a bit of a red herring when it comes to being able to feed yourself when access to to cheap energy, a stable climate and readily available resources is cut short. There are plenty of white people who are not going to be able to access land. By simple happenstance our plow ground is worth $20,000 an acre. Who the heck can afford to farm at that rate ?! In our county, zoning is one housing entitlement per 40 acres. Got half a million dollars ? You can live here.

      Maybe it has always been this way but it sure seems like only the really wealthy will come out okay when the load in the spreader hits the widespread. That makes the transition to a small farm future very tricky.

      • Wow $20,000 acre , how long will it take to pay for that at today’s grain prices ,when I was young we reckoned on no more than eight years to pay it off and banks would not lend on longer than that . Far too much ” free money ” around .
        Look around farms where you are , they are the same here , one man with a big tractor that does near all the work , but no one could move a big round bale , no horses can use any of the machinery , farmers have the land but they are as badly off as those that have none , human sized tools will be needed , good luck finding them .

  6. I teach a college survey of American literature, which is in large part a history of ideas course, and I cannot help but wonder if there is something peculiarly American about this brand of communalist idealism that paradoxically glorifies a charismatic “big man” leader. I suspect Emerson is probably at the root of it (as he is at the root of so many other things American, for good and bad).

    In any case, I am confident that the saner though less charismatic approach is represented by thinkers like Elinor Ostrom … and of course the author of the excellent new article in The Land.

    I have been following the dismal affair of Salatin/Newman, deeply dismayed by the example that both have set, and I am therefore all the more impressed by the remarkable decency and humility and generosity of the piece above. Chris, you are truly a class act. Whatever model works best in the future, the only way it will work is if we learn how to treat each other with common decency. (It would also help if we trained our minds not to be seduced by simplistic binary concepts like the ones you list…)

    “It’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to strive to do better – and we need to do better than this.” Indeed. Keep up the good work, and maybe the example will inspire a few others to try for something else.

  7. To be fair, the overall prospects for cooperative farming shouldn’t be diminished by the failure of Sylvanaqua farm, just as than the overall prospects for small family farms shouldn’t be diminished by the failure of a single dysfunctional family farm.

    Sylvanaqua wasn’t even a collectively-owned farm, according to this information on their website last month: “Our farm today… owned by a single principal.” Their vision depended on somehow fundraising $750K for acreage, housing, and facilities, which highlights the deeper issues and injustices related to access to capital and land when none is available through inheritances.

    • A good point: according to Chris, people work collectively when they have to. So could we look at what is being done (successfully or not) collectively or cooperatively, especially in farming, and use that to formulate ideas about what kind of things need to change if we are to better support small, family-scale farms?

      I grew up mostly in the Canadian prairies, with wooden grain elevators — mostly cooperatively owned — a frequent sight as nearly every town with rain access had one
      They’ve been replaced by infrequent cement behemoths which I find inherently ugly (though perhaps I am just overly romantic), and the co-ops and wheat pools replaced by Cargill. I am pretty far removed from knowing much about that segment of the economy these days, but I think that I wouldn’t like to take on Cargill alone.

  8. Thanks for the comments and apologies again for the slow reply.

    Individuality-within-community is a pretty fundamental human story, but it plays out very obviously within small farm societies. As Jeff remarks, it’s often kept alive nowadays within heterodox religious communities, though I think that has more to do with their special ability to hold the line than to the religious element per se.

    Thanks to Joe and Derrick for the positive feedback. Indeed, we await the proof of the pudding… I’m interested in Derrick’s point about the communalism-big man contradiction as a distinctive American style. Maybe that’s so. It’s quite military – perhaps there’s an issue here around the greater demilitarization of politics & territory in other regions? Might also explain attitudes to guns?

    Interesting debate between Kathryn & Gunnar, on which I have little to add. Except to note the irony in the truth of Kathryn’s comment that nowadays it requires privilege to have the opportunity to grow one’s food, whereas so often historically it’s required privilege to have the opportunity not to. Which touches on Gunnar’s point about the organisation of production – our contemporary alienation from the idea that being a competent provider of one’s own livelihood is quite a problem, IMO

    To Steve’s point, agreed the case of Sylvanaqua doesn’t diminish the wider case for agrarian cooperativism, though hopefully it might diminish some of the more numbskulled cheerleading for crudely-drawn versions of it as a panacea. Kathryn’s points about prairie grain farming and Cargill are of interest – for sure, people often need to band together politically and commercially. But the banding together is often over-emphasized as the decisive political point and turned into an argument for collectivism writ large. Farmers and other political actors may ‘co-operate’ (implying both autonomy and collectivity) in some contexts and not in others, they may identify as a class without working cooperatively, or work cooperatively without identifying as a class etc. So indeed it’s a good idea to look closely at the nexus of individual-household-cooperative-collective action around farming and in wider society, without reducing its elements to singular political identities.

  9. Although, as I commented above, you have covered the topic extremely thoroughly, I am personally much less interested in the politics of the small farm future than the politics (and events) of the transition to that future. The small farmers of the future will be the survivors; they will have made the transition. It will be a rare political dystopia that makes them wish they had perished instead.

    But getting from here to there, that’s the real can of worms. If capitalist industrialism perseveres, and it looks like it probably will, then it will be almost impossible to maximize the number of people who can establish the small farms they will need for survival. When industrialism is no longer possible in the Global North, and modernity crumbles, it will mean that vast acreages of farmland will go fallow while people left in the cities starve to death.

    In my view, preparation for mitigating the looming mismatch between where the land is and where the people are is the biggest challenge facing every modern polity. It’s too bad that the politically powerful don’t even seem to be aware of it. If they wait for industrial agriculture to fail before considering a transition to small subsistance farms it will be too late to do the best possible job of populating those small farms and a horrific waste of human life.

    But perhaps the powers-that-be are perfectly aware of the challenges ahead and just don’t want to get involved in the politically unrewarding process of cultural triage, deciding which parts of the modern world have to be abandoned (cities), which will carry on without much attention (existing family farms and much of the Global South) and which have to be lavished with rapidly diminishing resources to enable them to support as many people as possible (turning industrial farmland into small subsistance farms).

    Advocating this kind of triage, while absolutely essential, is probably not a winning political strategy, so most people in the coming small farm future will have to get there by just muddling through. That’s really a shame.

    • I think that you only need to look at the rich world’s response to climate change to see how that will play out. It has been well know that using the atmosphere as a sewer was a mistake since the 80s. In the past 40 years there have been lots of changes. Most of them made the problem worse.

      Of course past performance is no guarantee of future results but 1) to imagine that it is possible to have infinite growth on a finite planet and 2) systems work the way they are designed. Hard (really hard) choices need to be made and the powers that be are not interested in making them.

      It does not matter where you are. How has the weather been lately ? In the past 7 weeks we have had 1 1/4″ or rain and record heat. The west coast is even hotter and drier. Canada is on fire. It sounds like northern Europe is getting too much rain. Mostly, the rest of the world is a mystery since we live in the US.

      I think we are in for tough times as the formerly stable climate slips over the edge of positive feedback.

      • Tornadoes, floods and hail in Europe, Greg – I’m sure my kids see it as normal weather, scary and tragic as it is.

        The latest Farmerama radio series, ‘Landed’, is well worth a listen. It’s examining the idea of the family farm as colonial concept, and looking back to not so long ago in Scotland, when farming families practised transhumance and existed in the landscape in a more indigenous fashion. It’s proving fascinating, and I’m looking forward to the third instalment.

        In the village square where I live is a patch, maybe 20m2, of strawberries, there for anyone to forage and planted a few years ago by the village council team. Typically, children who are out playing and instinctively know a good thing when they see it, eat bellyfuls. It’s not far from an old mulberry tree, and a couple of young, weeping mulberries, all bearing fruit now, so lots of stained clothes, mouths and little fingers.
        Down the valley in the neighbouring village is a street, maybe 400m long, planted with two strips of French lavender, and where anyone interested was allowed to go along and cut bunches for free, just this weekend. This drew people in to the village and made for a pleasant half hour for us; a peaceful, convivial atmosphere among strangers all bent to the same task. My son and daughter loved it: they get to use their secateurs (watch out for the bees among the lavender!), so it’s quite exciting! While we were doing that, it got me thinking of the next village up the valley, where there is an avenue lined with walnut trees, maybe 40 in all, which I’ve noticed also draws people, locals mainly, to gather nuts in Autumn.
        Although one can’t live for long on a strawberry patch, mulberries, some walnut trees and around an eighth of an acre of lavender, I believe it’s worth pondering the possibilities, and the good, in edible municipal landscaping, not only for the produce, but for the way it draws people a) to a village and b) up close to a parcel of fecund earth.

        • If you’re looking for case studies of such things, I’m aware of one project called Incredible Edible Todmorden, in, er, Todmorden.

          I also know of a few intentional “community orchard” projects in London. The difficulties are usually a) stopping random people from harvesting the fruit before it is ripe and b) stopping squirrels and pigeons from harvesting the fruit before it is ripe or as soon as it is, respectively. The kind of communal management that is possible here is not *quite* enough to net the trees. I do see signs on some of them saying when the fruit ripens and asking people not to pick it before then; unfortunately the squirrels don’t read the signs. Orchards within the locked grounds of estates (apartment buildings, essentially) seem to fare better. So my best urban foraging is often not from such community orchard projects, but from older established trees in out-of-the-way pockets of parks and other publicly accessible land: places with a bit less passing traffic, where you would have to pay attention to know there is a fruit tree there at all. I have no doubt that the community orchard projects are helpful in an outreach and education capacity, and I am delighted every time I find a new one, but I definitely wouldn’t want to rely on them for top fruit.

      • And here in TX we are running 10 ./ 15 degrees cooler than normal with an inch or so rain every week so far , it’s almost balmy , fields are still green and growing not burned off as usual , irrigation is not being used yet , we just hope we don’t get 15 degrees lower than normal in winter like this year .
        My ocra is sulking too cool, yet the tomatoes that have usually quit by now are still setting fruit , melons are tasteless too much rain not hot enough for them , but my potatoes did really well diving them a month later than normal .

  10. I agree with Joe that the shorter-term questions of transition are the real zingers. The trouble is, I don’t think any of the mainstream modernist politics that we have (broadly, market liberalism, nationalism & socialism) are the means to manage it. So we need to reconstruct other approaches, which means reaching out into the political ether.

    Nice examples from Simon & Kathryn. We’re building from a low base, so anything that gets people thinking about local food provision is probably a good thing. But again, Kathryn hints nicely at some of the reasons why open access regimes rarely work.

    • I mean, I think they *could* work, but not without more investment (of labour or stuff or both), and they usually aren’t seen as a priority.

      At the allotment if we want to eat strawberries we net the plants to keep the birds off them. Even without humans like me opportunistically eating urban fruit, a community fruit cage is just a harder thing to run.

      • It’s also been interesting to watch urban foraging get more mainstream over the last several years. I always feel torn about this: glad that more people are looking to their immediate landscape for provision, and sorry that it means there is less to go around than I’d like! But really, that just means I live in an overpopulated area, which I already knew.

  11. Having worked and lived in a collective farm setting for 29years as well as organizing farmers’ cooperatives I can’t really see that collective farming or cooperatives as such as any problem. There are certainly many advantages, most of them perhaps social rather than economic. Now I live in a household farm setting and it is quite hard to be alone or two instead of many. I have no theoretical or ideological bias against either way, and in many situations collectivism or cooperativism is simply essential. In some ways it also regenerate its own conditions if it works well.

    From where I stand the main debate is not really about households vs collective but more about the rate of market and state control of them.

    • I wonder whether that household farm setting might feel less lonely if there were more people doing similar things. It seems to me that in our current context, some things are easier done as medium to large collectives and others as smaller groups; but that a change of context might mean there are still economies of scale and some areas where everyone benefits from collective action and others where they do not — but they light not be the same areas as now.

      In my great-great and great-grandparemts’ time (and maybe my grandparents’ childhoods, too), land was owned by the family, but if someone needed a barn built, the whole community would get together to help — my understanding is that a barn raising could be quite a party. Nowadays it might make more sense for a community to own land collectively, but for a family (perhaps paying a peppercorn rent for the land, like I do with the allotment) to pay a builder to put up a barn. (I don’t know, this is entirely speculative on my part!) And what’s next might be different again, and I expect will vary with geography as well as politics and market circumstances.

      Tangent alert!

      I have no idea where the timber came from for the prairie barns my grandparents had on their farms; or the timber for the farmhouses, either. Saskatchewan does have forest but it’s a fair way north from where the farms are. Did it come from there, or from the larger logging operations in western or eastern Canada? And how did my ancestors access these markets?

      Transport looks like getting more expensive as fossil fuels get more expensive. The canals of the industrial revolution are mostly not used for goods transport any more; railways, too, are less extensive than they were. Fossil fuel vehicles aside, how will road maintenance (and bridge maintenance!) work in the kind of supersedure state that Chris can see as a strong possibility? What aspects of, say, containerised shipping and pallet-based shipping will we be able to keep or adapt?

      These questions seem to me like important ones to ponder if we are trying to predict which areas may need collective action and which can be managed at smaller scales; I think it is wise to aim for smaller, local markets, but it is as well to consider what local might look like without the currently dominant transport networks.

      (See, I told you it was a tangent.)

        So there ya are , all diesel trucks banned , replaced by technologies that have not been Invented yet , as an ex transport engineer / manager I see things will have to change drastically , in one distribution center I know of 11000 vehicle movements a day that’s just one of five centers feeding the Manchester area , grow local or starve , rural towns will have to be abandoned , no rail networks, no way of overhead cables. Batteries ? Even Elon Musk says they are non starters . I would love to know how they intent to get Chris’s potatoes or anything else he grows to central London !
        My advice to Chris is to start breeding horses .

        • I don’t think banning the sale of diesel lorries is going to make an overnight difference. The existing ones will stay on the road; fewer and fewer people live in small towns (and those who do can often drive to larger centres); petrol is still available. The destruction of much of the rural rail network decades ago is unfortunate, of course. But banning the sale of diesel lorries is not flipping a switch that will throw people into subsistence farming, it’s just one thing out of many that affect food transport.

          • No it will n or happen overnight but the attrition rate is high ,trucks last 10 to 12 years so if they don’t replace the entire fleet at the cut off date numbers will fall precipitous ly , the national grid has stated it will have to double output to feed the truck sector , ( not likely ) electricity shortages will doom private vehicles .
            No one has really understood the logistics , moving food into major cities by rail is possible as long as you remove passenger services to make room , UK rail has very few chilled / freezer cars , the company I used to work for had 600 working into Manchester every day ( about 25% of total traffic ) .
            Chris’s ideas are great but replacing the entire transport infrastructure with wooly thinking , hope and vague ideas is a recipe for disaster .

      • I’ll predict that lost skills and technologies will need to be rediscovered.

        My neighbors and I could probably put up a timber framed barn. Marty was a construction supervisor and everyone else (mostly) grew up or works on a farm. Cutting the mortise an tenons on the angle braces would be slow going at first.

        The people that work for me a re very interested in farming, combating climate change, etc. but they don’t have any mechanical skills. Truing a bicycle wheel or changing a heater hose on their car are completely mysterious actions. Standing up the long wall on a barn would be daunting.

        The people who have come from communal farming situations were not very happy with them. They may have been wishful thinkers or not truly committed to the idea.

        All the neighbors help out when needed but we all run out own operations. It is much easier than keeping track of who is slacking if we all worked together.

    • Agree with Gunnar that market/state issues are more important.

      I’m certainly not arguing that collective or cooperative (the difference between these is large) farming models must be ruled out. I do think they have their problems, though. As do household farming models – somewhat different ones. In the circles I move in, I find collective models are routinely presented as the solution to the problems of household farming models. Maybe so, but then they raise other problems … which household farming models can redress. So a mix of the two, which is what many historic farm societies came up with…

      Agree with Kathryn that household farming works best when other people are doing it. Autonomy in community etc…

      Interesting points about transport infrastructures. I will perhaps try to address them in a future post, probably quite tangentially.

      William Cronon’s book about Chicago as the link between the woodlands of the north and the prairies of the south to create export grain & meat agribusiness via railways was quite influential on me. Not sure how that kind of story played out with smaller scale farmers on the Canadian prairies though.

      • Tentatively and from memory: the further north you get in Canada, the shorter the growing season and the harsher the winters. So our connectivity largely wasn’t north-south, but east-west. The Canadian Pacific Railway was a really big deal, and later, the Trans-Canada highway. To an extent, water transport was also important — especially for logs, and in the Maritime provinces for all sorts of other goods too. But trying to go from Calgary to Winnipeg by boat would be daft. (The Mississippi River in the US strikes me as potentially pretty important for the American context, too, and of course Chicago itself is on the shore of Lake Michigan.)

  12. The diesel trucks thing pretty much captures the state of government decarbonization policies in Britain right now. Set a goal that’s close enough it sounds like action is being taken, but distant enough that it won’t be on the present incumbents, and set it based on the idea that as yet uninvented technologies will somehow save the day, without any real investment in said technologies.

    My honest answer to how to get enough food into crowded cities with renewable, low carbon resources is that it can’t be done. So, in one of JMG’s better turned phrases, the optimum approach is to collapse now and avoid the rush.

    Greg’s points resonate with me. I’ve picked up quite a few skills in the last 20 odd years of homesteading, but I still retain the basic haplessness inherent to having been an academic social scientist. Sometimes I think I should stop doing all this damn writing and spend more time doing useful practical things. Other times I think making the case on paper for a small farm future is a worthy contribution I can make. Dare I ask for any thoughts?

    One thing I would say though is that while most of the mainstream farmers around here probably have better practical skills than me, I still think there’s a certain ecological and social resilience our holding possesses that most other one around here don’t. Which maybe counts for something…

    • My attitude has been that if one can read, the rudiments of a new skill is just a chapter away. This means, however, that the chapter must be available when needed and in a small farm future that will mean it must be in one’s own or a neighbor’s library. YouTube is great, but the internet is doomed along with all the other artifacts of a high-energy economy. The best long-term repository of knowledge is a book, better even some times than memory.

      Refining rudimentary skills and adapting knowledge to a very particular local situation does take practice and a lot of over-the-fence discussion with neighbors. Local exchange of cultivars helps, too. Fortunately, in a small farm future there will be plenty of time for skill refinement and neighborly exchanges of knowledge and goodies.

      I am sympathetic with the “should I be doing something more productive than sitting at this computer” attitude, but then I recall that very valuable bit of folk wisdom; “all work and no play makes Joe a dull boy”. That wisdom and a glass of mead help take the edge off the generally depressing state of the world we must contemplate every day. I do try not to mix my play (commenting) with the mead so as not to make silly mistakes.

      So, please keep up the writing. Your thousands of daily readers are depending on you for a regular dose of common sense and the opportunity for collegial discussion of our mutual prospects.

    • The more people you can reach out to and get to think the better , forewarned is forarmed .
      The virtue signaling governments world wide are trying to kick the can down the road , ( it will not affect me at my age I will probably be dead in ten years or so ,) so I pass on warnings , teach as much as I can the old pre fertilizer / tractor / chemical ways of farming I grew up with to those that will listen ( and grandchildren that have no option but listen ! )
      Fiddling round the edges is what’s happening , there is no complete outlook into national problems never mind international .
      I agree with Joe , books !!! , I have found the best way for grandchildren is to turn the wi fi off , that gets their attention !

    • I am pretty much in the same position as you are, even though I have actually farmed in 40 years and not spent time at the university, but in organic ag organisations, certification and consultancy in parallell. Nowadays I also do a lot of writing (4 books with the 5th on its way, as well as my 2 blogs and various articles). I find the combination rewarding and fulfilling for myself and I certainly believe that my views and writing benefits from my growing, livestock husbandry and forestry. Probably less the other way, even though I pick up one or the other good farming idea also from the intellectual activities. But I have also asked myself the same question many times…..

    • The real value of your book is to put the idea of a small farm future out there in a thoughtful way. People aren’t poo-pooing your ideas because they have some fabulous insight into the future. They can’t imagine a world without all the luxuries that fossil fuels bring us.

      Another name for the uninvented technologies is pie-in-the-sky. It ain’t gonna happen.

      Best case, with zero emissions tomorrow, we have 35-40 years of the effects of past CO2 emissions baked into our future. Around here global warming induced stuck weather patterns are already causing problems.

      Reversing entropy is very energy intensive. Every six months we hear that MIT or some other research lab comes up with a way to suck carbon out of the air or plastic out of the ocean and turn it into oil. And there is a very good reason we never hear of it again.

      So, how do we feed, clothe and shelter ourselves in the next 50 years with out all the fossil fuels ? I have a hunch that big cities are not the solution…

    • Some winters ago, I watched an interview with gardener-philosopher Jeremy Naydler, who not only has the most fascinating face, but also spoke eloquently about, among other things, dividing his time between gardening and writing. He said one without the other would make him go potty. You have been warned!
      Living as we do with the curse of interesting times, I consider it a blessing to be able to read SFF (and yes, sometimes a curse to be able to engage with it).
      That interview is here, with Naydler’s interesting thoughts on gardening and writing at around 6 minutes in:

    • I’m late to this, but I hope you will keep writing.

      I also wonder whether, after you’ve worked your way through your book, there might be scope for some kind of book group. (This wouldn’t necessarily need to be led by you, Chris, and I’m sure we’d all like to fit the timing around the rhythms of the agricultural year rather than vice versa!)

      I certainly find books useful, and more accessible to me right now than going out and buying land (I quite agree that large cities aren’t a resilient part of the future but that doesn’t stop me being stuck in one for now), but I find the discussion here illuminating.

  13. Thanks for those comments. It’s a biased sample, I guess, but I’ll try to keep doing some writing. Not sure I’ll be able to match Gunnar’s prodigious output though! I will have a look at the Naydler interview.

  14. Y’all night like to read this from the university of Leeds UK .
    “Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, UK
    Institute of Geography and Sustainability, Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
    Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Berlin, Germany
    Institute of Economics and Econometrics, Geneva School of Economics and Management, University of Geneva, Switzerland
    Received 26 July 2020, Revised 27 April 2021, Accepted 7 May 2021, Available online 29 June 2021.”
    27 gigajules per person per year = sustainability .
    Yup it’s on cfact they are just the messanger not the message .

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