Our household farming future

Back to the blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future with a little more about household-based farming.

A couple of posts back Greg Reynolds suggested I might write some short declarative sentences about my case for household farming, which struck me as a good idea. So here’s my best shot at it.

  • To reiterate my basic position, I think we face a future of high climate, water and land/soil stress, lower energy and capital availability, and socioeconomic/political turbulence and contraction. In these circumstances, I think farm societies will emerge that are strongly based on smallholder households devoting much or most of their attention to the intensive cultivation of small land areas for meeting their own food and fibre needs.
  • This is not my vision of an ideal society – it’s just what I think a feasible human ecology will look like in probable future circumstances. As I see it, there could be better or worse kinds of household farm society, and in future posts I’ll discuss some of the possibilities for creating better ones within the framework of what I’ve called ‘least worst politics’ – in other words, how people can try to make the best of the challenging circumstances to come. But I’m not going to get into that here. In this post, I’m just going to lay out why I think we’ll see household farm societies in the future.
  • Where there are global commodity chains supported by cheap energy and cheap capital, producers tend to concentrate on a handful of highly processable and transportable crops (mostly cereals, grain legumes and oil crops). This enables them to maintain profitability through seeking economies of large scale (large farms with few workers and a lot of energy and capital-intensive infrastructure). Where the writ of these commodity chains doesn’t (any longer) run and/or where energy/capital are not cheap, producers tend to concentrate on a wide range of food and fibre crops that can provide a full and agreeable diet and other household necessities (clothes, constructional materials, medicines) locally. In doing so, they optimise on per area and per water yield through economies of small scale (small farms with many workers and with low energy and capital inputs). Relative prices of processing, transport, labour and energy are such that the optimal customers for this produce are the people who produced it, ie. the household, with other local households second in line – except that they in turn will be incentivized to produce for themselves. So in this situation, household-based production will likely predominate.
  • In this latter situation, money will be harder to come by and market/retail commodities more expensive. People will try to limit market expenditures to things they really need and can’t easily produce for themselves. As I recall back-to-the-land guru John Seymour putting it somewhere, in self-reliant rural communities money is too scarce for people to waste on things like food and clothes they can produce themselves for nothing. So more non-monetary household resources (especially time, learned skills and land) will be devoted to producing these things.
  • In the future, there will probably be a lot of population movement towards and therefore population pressure upon areas where the combination of climate, soils and water makes them propitious for growing food crops. Such a view is often dismissed as ‘Malthusian’, but as I show in my book (pp.17-21) and as other people like Giorgos Kallis (Limits, Stanford 2019) have also shown, it really isn’t. Whatever the label, regrettably I think it’s unlikely that this re-sorting of the global population will be achieved without lethal human conflicts, but barring the distinct possibilities of really disastrous climate change or nuclear conflict it should ultimately be possible to feed the redistributed global population adequately, or even well. Analysis of diverse situations worldwide, including premodern/precolonial ones, suggests that the dominant form of human ecological adaptation to situations of continuous cultivation on scarce land is small household-based production predominantly for own use, notwithstanding endless local variations on exactly how this manifests in practice (aside from my A Small Farm Future see, for example: Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, 1965; Bray, The Rice Economies, 1986; Netting, Smallholders, Householders, 1993; van der Ploeg, Peasants and the Art of Farming, 2013).
  • With heavy pressure on land, local agricultures outside the humid tropics (if indeed these stay humid and habitable long-term) will have to place considerable emphasis on producing nutrient-dense crops for direct human consumption, with perennial crops and livestock as supplementary. Historically, farming situations of this sort have lent themselves to small household-based forms of organisation, and it seems likely the same will be true in the future.
  • There are economies of small scale in farm societies where availability of land, capital and energy are limiting factors. There are economies of large scale where these are not limiting factors. But prospects in most places point towards the former. Some people shrink from the idea of household-based farming, and prefer to think in terms of more collective or cooperative larger-scale farming. In many ways this is a false dichotomy, because cooperative structures are baked into any feasible farm society. Nevertheless, the day-to-day reality of most farms will probably be based around households or ‘hearths’, usually quite small in size – a point I’ll further explain in future posts. To argue contrariwise, it would probably be necessary to show that there are diseconomies of scale to small household-based farming as compared to larger scale cooperative farming under situations of land, capital and energy scarcity. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
  • In the longer term, these changes will probably be accompanied by changes in political ideologies which, especially with fresh historical memories of the disasters of modernity and global capitalism, might emphasize things like local self-regulation (ecological and political), frugality, personal-livelihood-within-community and a cautious approach to merchants, credit and financial connectors, which will reinforce commitments to household-based farming.
  • Nevertheless, the difficulties and contradictions involved in simultaneously being an individual person and also a member of a household, a family and a wider community are unlikely to disappear.
  • Distinctions between home gardening, homesteading/smallholding and ‘proper’ farming will probably be more fluid in household farming societies of the future. The idea of providing for yourself and your household, of being involved in food production at some level, will be a norm – there will be more producerism and less consumerism. People will also take local community provisioning and service to community seriously, more seriously than they generally do today, but a good deal of that will be filtered through ideas of community as an enabler of individual and household capabilities.

What I haven’t addressed here is the nature of the households doing the household farming and their internal structure. But there’s always the next post…

56 thoughts on “Our household farming future

  1. John Seymour’s book on self-sufficient gardening was the first gardening book I ever read, long before I had access to a garden of my own. I still have a copy.

  2. I wonder where nomadic pastoralism might fit into the future you imagine and if there might be conflicts with sedentary farmers?

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that small farm stability will require the almost complete disappearance of longer distance trade in agricultural products. The rapid conversion of small tenant farms to large sheep ranches in 16th century England was driven by the wool trade with the Netherlands. There are other numerous examples of early international trade in commodities promoting larger scale farms, to the detriment of the smallholder.

    A modern mix of self-sufficient smallholdings in the midst of industrial agriculture is going to be a delicate balancing act even if scale pressures are removed somehow. Small farmers will need to be exempt from all market pressure to earn money, including that needed to pay property taxes. They may also need to be prohibited from using money ‘inherited’ from the modern economy.

    Mixing outside money with small farms is likely to lead to a kind of gentrified country living that would be alien to the concept of self-sufficiency. It’s better than industrial agriculture in that it preserves small farms, but it will make it very difficult for the young and poor to participate. The young and strong are the very people who could actually make small farms work.

    Finally, I agree that it will be “possible to feed the redistributed global population adequately”, but I doubt that it will be possible to redistribute a large fraction of the global population, especially in modern countries. The gargantuan effort required to move moderns out of cities and into livelihoods on the land would likely take many decades to accomplish. I doubt that the time and energy required for the move will be available, and we haven’t even started yet.

  3. Pingback: Our household farming future – Olduvai.ca

  4. Interesting points, Joe.

    On nomadic pastoralism, certainly the conflicts & accommodations between pastoralists and farmers drove a lot of premodern history in some places. Whether it haunts future societies will depend a lot on what kind of legacies of modernity and state power endure in the future, and what kinds of social differentiation might emerge between pastoralists and farmers. It seems a bit unlikely to me that pastoral-farmer relations of the classic Central/SW Asian kind will manifest in, say, N America or W Europe any time soon. But I’m interested in people’s views.

    On trade, I’ll say more about this presently. My sense is that there’s something to be said for agrarian trade, even long distance, and that the wool trade in 16th century England wasn’t especially destructive of smallholding (see, for example, Christopher Dyer ‘A Country Merchant’ and Robert Allen ‘Enclousre & the Yeoman’) – whereas the opposite was true in, say, the late 18th century Scottish Highlands. The underlying question is whether this kind of trade is intrinsically a prelude to capitalist development which *is* destructive of autonomous smallholding. My view is generally not, and we need to look at larger inter-state dynamics for the development of capitalism. But it’s an interesting issue.

    Your point about gentrified country living is interesting and an important question about post-capitalist transition. I’d prefer to hold off on it until we get to the discussion in Part IV, but in brief I think it could go in a number of ways. The one I try to herald in my book is populist class alliances for land access in the context of melting capital, which would make rural gentrification a somewhat transitional phase. It’s not the only possible outcome, but I don’t think it’s completely unlikely. How to get ‘the young and the strong’ into farming is of course a critical question of intergenerational succession, which farm societies have always wrestled with and it’s worth pondering the answers they’ve tried.

    Regrettably, I think you could be right in your final paragraph. To some extent I’ve tried to chart a path through the unavoidable chaos implicit in it towards more congenial small farm futures in my writing. But other outcomes are possible.

    • I don’t think there will be a business-as-usual economic showdown between farming and pastoralism, I think pastoralism will have significant advantages in an increasingly unstable climate.

      Animals can move. But the only time fields move is when they are washed away by floods.

      • I think this depends very much on how property rights shake out. There was a video posted in comments a few posts back, here, of a modern US nomadic dairy shepherd, and there are definite advantages to that mode of production, but it seems to me that he spent a lot of time building community relationships and getting permission to graze.

        Plants aren’t easy to move, but seeds are. I am only a small scale gardener, not even self-sufficient in veg, but I almost never sow all of my seed in a given year. In any scenario where I have any warning at all that I have to move, I will be grabbing my seed box. Will everything grow well in the new location? Maybe, maybe not — but not everything grows well every year in my current climate, either, and this is why I have a diverse range of species and varieties — far more diverse than I could keep with livestock in a similar space. And most of my seeds will remain viable for a few years if push comes to shove, so if I end up in a situation where I miss a season, all is not lost. Try not feeding or watering a sheep for a year and things won’t go so well. Seeds are also easier to smuggle than livestock, if it comes to that.

        • But for seed to be mobile, you need to have new land to put them in, of which there is substantially less arable land than grazeland, and you need to have a year’s supply of food that you can carry with you to eat after you plant.

          • Sure, but assuming you’re moving to somewhere completely uninhabited where nobody else has food either seems kindof unrealistic to me. If land is scarce then most arable land will already have inhabitants.

            I suspect that the migration situations in which seed is advantageous, including due to its particular portability, are different than the situations in which livestock is advantageous. I’m not sure I can predict exactly what the circumstances of such migrations might be. For maximum resilience it probably makes sense, if one household can, to have a bit of both. (And of course growing fodder radish or similar for livestock is a thing, too.)

          • Precisely. Pastoralism has filled a niche where farming cannot—in the far north, in deserts, in the mountains, and in other areas where the soils will not support arable agriculture… which is most of the soils.

            This isn’t an either/or choice, this is a pastoralism or nothing choice (that is a little dramatic, but close enough for this conversation).

            And the point I am making is that climate chaos is making farming much more difficult. It is difficult to farm when you get several inches of rain in an hour. It is not just that your crops can’t survive, but your field will be washed away as well. As we are seeing with the heat domes, crops can be damaged across huge regions. Even if you had enough water, which many of these areas don’t, plants can’t take it up fast enough to survive in the heat.

            Climate chaos means there will be no place to take your seeds that has a stable climate.

            And yes, there are vast areas of very lightly inhabited grazelands. In Canada, 75% of the population lives within 100 km. of the US border. The vast north is unsuitable in soil or climate for farming, but sure can feed ruminants. And ruminants have been feeding people for millennia.

          • I’m in the UK, which may explain why I have different ideas about population density and land availability. Though land is not all that cheap in Canada, either.

            But my earlier comment that some of this depends on how property rights shake out still stands. All the ruminant-supporting pasture in the world is no good if you aren’t allowed to use it, and a supersedure state is not the same as a free-for-all.

            Yes, there will be (there already is) an increase in extreme weather events, and yes, that makes farming more difficult — but it also makes the diversity of horticulture a much better bet than the monoculture of (most current) arable farming.

            I’m not saying nomadic pastoralism has no place; just that I don’t think it’s wise or realistic to put all our eggs in that particular basket, which you seem to be advocating. A combination of pastoralism, horticulture and miniature-scale arable farming seems to me to be far more resilient than relying on livestock alone.

            Meanwhile, we had some flooding in London this summer, including on the allotment (which is an old water meadow, but the drainage has been cut off by road development). People who said “oh, it sometimes floods in winter, but not usually this badly, summer is dry” for the past two winters, and did nothing, lost almost their entire crop. I saw the flooding in winter 19/20 and spent the next eighteen months digging trenches, using the clay to top up the beds, and filling said trenches with woodchips. We lost a few plants in the lowest-lying part of the plot which hasn’t yet had this treatment, but otherwise have had reasonable yield.
            We haven’t caught up yet with our plot neighbours, who have been doing this kind of remedial work for a decade. Making these changes on a larger, arable farming scale, or indeed in the context of pastures for grazing, would be difficult, but in small-scale horticulture it’s remarkably plausible.

            The house we rent wasn’t flooded, because I looked at flood risk profile maps before we moved in several years ago.

          • You said “this is a pastoralism or nothing choice” — and I can imagine situations where that might be true, but I can also imagine situations where nomadic pastoralism might be not be possible, but horticulture (or horticulture plus poultry) would.

            One difficulty in all of these conversations is that we can only fuzzily predict the conditions of the future.

          • Fair, but that is a modifier of “Pastoralism has filled a niche where farming cannot—in the far north, in deserts, in the mountains, and in other areas where the soils will not support arable agriculture… which is most of the soils.”

            And I go on to say “the point I am making is that climate chaos is making farming much more difficult. It is difficult to farm when you get several inches of rain in an hour.”

            So, the arctic is a hunting and gathering or nothing ecosystem. The subarctic is a pastoralism or nothing (really, plus hunting and gathering).

            And the areas that are becoming unfarmable are expanding. Seeds are useless there, because the area is not farmable.

      • I’m curious why you think that nomadic herding will be the way of the future. To my mind it would have significant downsides like drought and winter.

        • Greg, pastoralism has many downsides. But unlike farming, you can pack up and try to get away from the downsides.

          I am not suggesting 8 billion people are going to become pastoralists. But there is no system that can sustain 8 billion people, and by the time we stop emitting huge amounts of CO2, there may not be many options left other than pastoralism.

  5. “in self-reliant rural communities money is too scarce for people to waste on things like food and clothes they can produce themselves for nothing.”

    I like to claim that making something doesn’t cost anything because I do it during my “free time”. Of course, it “costs” me some of my time, but so does anything I choose to do with my life, and time isn’t really a thing. In some ways, time is all we actually ever have. How I choose to “spend” my time, and spend my life, is ideally based on values and meaning.

    When Chris spoke in his previous post about spending time as an XR protestor, his actions were totally understandable to me, despite the admittedly low odds of rational “success”, because those actions are deeply imbued with meaning. I was reminded of the book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, by concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl.

    Spending time to be more self-reliant, even when money is available to pay for an easier short-term solution having more impact on the environment, also makes sense to me. There is so much meaning involved with trying to be more self-reliant, less dependent on financial systems, and less harmful to the ecosystem.

    Life is short, make it meaningful.

    • Correction: Viktor (not Victor) Frankl.

      And I wasn’t implying that Chris was searching for meaning, it’s clear that he has found it.

    • I agree.

      The opportunity cost for me to bake a loaf of bread or knit a scarf now is less than it was twenty years ago, because I am no longer a novice at these things. I’m not an expert, either, and I haven’t made a garment from sheep (or nettle) to shirt or a loaf of bread starting from the seed and growing the wheat myself, but I’m working on it and I have enough understanding of the steps to at least know where to start.

      There is opportunity cost no matter which choices we make, but choices that give us more skills for resilient autonomy-in-community are not only good practical investment of our resources, but meaningful on other levels too. Perhaps this is most evident in gifts. When I crochet a blanket for a friend’s new baby I’m spending far more time and effort than I would if I went out and bought a blanket, but I’m also making a particular and personal expression of love and care. The same is true if I give someone a bottle of homebrew or some French beans when we have a glut, though these are less labour-intensive.

  6. Thanks for the various threads above – interesting stuff. I’m pretty busy the next few days but will respond as soon as I can.

  7. Ruben said:

    ” … Pastoralism has filled a niche where farming cannot—in the far north, in deserts, in the mountains, and in other areas where the soils will not support arable agriculture… which is most of the soils.

    … It is difficult to farm when you get several inches of rain in an hour. It is not just that your crops can’t survive, but your field will be washed away as well. … ”

    I think Gabe Brown in N Dakota estimated that his land could absorb about 200 mm of rainfal in an hour, if ever needed.

    I’m in the UK and I think this garden could cope with that much, given the mostly perennial nature of the cropping and the high organic matter of the soil. But I doubt I’ll get the chance to find out. That kind of rainfall event is extremely rare.

    • Where I live, the two big rain events of the last 30 years were 45 inches in 36 hours (2004) and 33 inches in 24 hrs (2013). The average slope in my neighborhood is 10%, so the rain ran off quickly. Gulches that are normally dry became raging rivers. A good friend almost died when he and his wife were swept off a road when they tried to drive their car through water washing over the road. A common warning here from civil defense officials is “Turn around, don’t drown”.

      Most of the land is covered with pasture so there was little damage. My arable land is graded to 2% slope and suffered no damage (nor did the crops). My grow beds are heavily mulched with fine wood chips. Taro is one of my most common food crops and although it is commonly grown under water, I use a dry-land method.

      I think the highest rate of rainfall here has been on the order of 6 inches per hour, but that lasted only 90 minutes. Other parts of the island got up to 58 inches over a couple of days during Hurricane Lane in 2018, but we were spared the heavy rain even though we were only 25 miles away from the place that got that 58 inches.

      The biggest hassle here from heavy rain is that I have to regularly maintain water diversion swales on my driveway during a major rain event to ensure that the water doesn’t run down the gravel tracks and wash them away. It’s impossible to stay dry during torrential rain, no matter what raingear I wear, so I just go out with my heavy hoe in slippers, shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap.

  8. Given the high land/soil stress, how important do you think soil rehabilitation measures might be, and are these any more feasible on smaller-scale farms and smallholdings than on industrial scale farms? I feel like industrial monoculture farming doesn’t do much of this in comparison, partly because their profit margins are so tight. Cover crops that get turned in, yes, but at the allotment I’m doing that *and* composting.

    It is certainly visually evident at the allotment which plotholders are composting and which are not, because those who are not have plots below the level of the grass paths between plots, and these plots get the worst flooding. I’m aware that most of our own composting relies on imported materials, albeit materials we get for free: horse manure (from police stables I think, sadly with aminopyralid contamination this year, sigh), woodchips (from the council doing tree maintenance), leaves (I steal the bags from the roadside after the council sweeps them up), and now coffee grounds (from local coffee shops). In a more self-contained system I would need to set aside land for carbon crops and use more human waste, or face long-term depletion of the soil. My instinct is that a composting toilet is better if it’s on a small scale, because then if it goes wrong it also goes wrong on a small scale… (we don’t have one at the allotment because I’m not confident we could manage it safely on a site that floods and with a rather intermittent woodchip supply, but we do urinate on the compost heap at least.)

    I suppose one of the things I’m wondering is how feasible it is to rehabilitate depleted soils, and whether this might be significant enough to reduce pressure on existing arable land. A botanist friend of mine is quite sceptical of inappropriate tree-planting schemes (and rightly so if I understand the objections correctly), but can we mimic ecological succession to turn, say, semi-desert into something that can be intensively and sustainably cultivated (perhaps with careful water management), and can we reasonably do this in situ rather than importing stuff?

    It seems plausible enough at the allotment, if rather slower than importing, but there I’m starting on clay that has been in cultivation more or less since it was a water meadow. Left alone, stuff just grows there.

    • Hi Kathryn.
      Nobody can say that you aren’t trying…

      i think soil rehabilitation measures are very important. Especially for conventional / industrial farm land. You can see the difference in a corn crop between where the anhydrous ammonia was applied and where it missed at the edge of the field while you are driving by at 60 mph. They have no natural fertility in their soil.

      Our farm was rented for continuous corn from about 1966 when Bill Grams died until we bought it in 1992. The soil was very depleted. We have brought most of it back to decent shape.

      I have added compost, mostly brought in. I do studiously avoid horse manure in the compost. The herbicides for weed free hay go right through the horses and are unaffected by composting. The stuff they use is the death of legumes and nightshades.

      The soil organic matter was down to 1% or less when we got here. It took 3-5 years for the soil to come to life again. After 30 years of cover cropping it is much better. I can’t tell you exactly how much better because of the dumb way they do soil testing. But, without any fertilizer we are able to grow very healthy crops. I can bore you with all the details if you like.

      Not that I am opposed to fertilizer. We have access to OMRI approved (barely) composted chicken manure. It is 10% calcium, something our sandy soil needs. Ground oyster shells work, last a long time but are expensive.

      I’m skeptical of the nomadic grazing model. I can pump water without electricity. Cover cropped fields are very resistant to erosion. Fresh organic matter in the soil absorbs a lot of water.

      I imagine it would be hard for nomads to move an irrigation system for pasture. And equally hard to move a herd of hungry, thirsty animals in hot dry conditions. The reception the survivors would get once they arrived greener pastures could be warm, as in barbecue.

      My seeds are selected to work in low input and (unfortuneately) weedy conditions. Disease resistance is the big one. Tomatoes are easy. Greens are not. Grain and beans only take a year to double the yield (the most productive ones produce the most seed). I don’t think that sheep, goats or any livestock are that adaptable.

      • I am probably less persistent with weeding than I should be. We’ve nearly got the bindweed under control, but the creeping buttercup things are more difficult. I figure weeds are better than bare soil, I’m still getting the hang of what to underplant and when.

        That stuff in the horse manure is probably aminopyralid, clopyralid or another auxin-based pesticide. Horrible stuff and as you say, it doesn’t break down in composting. It is degraded some by UV, especially in the presence of soil bacteria. I ended up with a load of it (our manure deliveries are intermittent and if you want any at all you have to be quick, so there’s no way to test it until after you’ve collected several barrowloads), my plan was to grow sweetcorn in it as the corn incorporates the aminopyralid into the lignin, then burn the corn stalks for biochar. Unfortunately I forgot to net the corn and the crows pulled up most of it, and it was a very late sowing so too late to try again. But I’m using red clover to test that row so I know whether the sunlight has broken the stuff down. If my coffee grounds source stays good I won’t need any more horse manure, and green manures in general seem like a good way to go anyway, but it sure would be nice to have a reliable and safe way to deal with contaminated muck when it does turn up.

        Late blight was pretty bad on the allotment this year (and even in the back garden, which we’ve not had before), but one of the tomato varieties I planted seems to be doing mostly OK. Next year I plan to grow that plus ten blight-resistant varieties outdoors, to trial which ones I like that grow well in our conditions, then it’s a multi-year project to de-hybridise the commercial F1 seed. Our potatoes weren’t too bad, I think a lot of people lost their entire crop to flooding but our previous work building raised rows has paid off.

        We had a cold wet spring but my peas (sown in guttering in the greenhouse in November, then planted out late January) absolutely loved it. Just finished shelling three kinds of dry soup peas. I grow tall varieties as they are easier for me to work with and the yield is a *lot* more than double, even with rejecting some pods because of moths (hence the hand shelling; if we’d had a warmer spring they might have missed the moths entirely, but I guess yield would have been a bit lower too). My plan is to decide which of the three varieties I like best and grow more of that one next year, along with some new-to-me varieties.

        Flooding is a problem, but at this stage it isn’t so much the weather as the surrounding manmade stuff that’s the issue; moving the river to put in a motorway was a bad choice, and the suburb that lines the other side of the valley has more and more paved surface, people pave their front garden to park cars there and some of them pave their back gardens, too, for convenience. A lot of that paving will break up over time.

        In relevance to Chris’s main post: in 2019 only one of my four neighbours that I know of was growing veg in the back garden (and he has an allotment). In 2021 four of them were. I think one will probably stop as he’s working away from home a lot more now, but the rest will continue. An anecdote is does not make a trend, but there are definitely more people in my neighbourhood who are interested in and engaging in food production, if only on a very modest level.

        • Once Chris gets back from repaying his debt to society at the Gray Bar Hotel, he really needs to get cracking on designing and standing up a clearinghouse for small farm resources.

          The idea of using peas to test for soil contamination is simple, accessible to everyone and cheap. I have tomato seeds that have survived late blight and could save someone years of dehybridizing and trialing. Not to mention that most disease resistant hybrid tomatoes taste like cardboard.

          Tips, techniques and even physical resources exist that could make a small farm future easier.

          • I find a lot of information on permaculture forums. I think the Rizoma Field School is also attempting to build a network of resources and knowledge, though I haven’t personally looked at it much.

            While a single clearinghouse sounds attractive, the reality is that one central source of information is quite a bit more vulnerable to disruption than a distributed network with various communities (nodes, if you will). Additionally, regionally appropriate techniques are pretty important: mulch is a lot more important if you live in a desert, whereas in wet Britain it can provide a perfect slug habitat so we have to be a bit more careful about how we mulch, when we mulch, and what we use to mulch with.

            I think that something more important than having a central clearinghouse of information is that people document what they are doing. I am not great at this myself, but when I do it I find the information quite useful. (I keep a sortof of logbook/almanac, so it will eventually have my previous sowing dates etc but it also has local foraging information and so on.) I should really write up the “aminopyralid remediation with sweetcorn” idea online so others can test it.

          • So, I think maybe Chris shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. I’m reluctant to ask him to do the extra admin of running a clearinghouse for practical techniques when I know he struggles to find time to write anyway.

            I’d be interested in including your tomato seeds in my own trials, but if I recall correctly you are not in the UK. So, there’s a risk DEFRA would destroy the seed if you tried to send it to me. (I’d want to check out the possibility of seed-borne diseases, too.) In any case, I’d still like to develop something adapted to my local conditions. I don’t think the duplication of effort is a bad thing. And I would be growing tomatoes every year anyway, so it isn’t even necessarily that much extra work. One of my plans is to grow enough extra seedlings that I can put a bunch of them in the allotment plant sale, and so get feedback from other plotholders on taste, care and so on.

  9. “In the future, there will probably be a lot of population movement towards and therefore population pressure upon areas where the combination of climate, soils and water makes them propitious for growing food crops. ”
    But where to pick ? Late frosts decimated the European grape and grain crop , US grain crop is lousy / just about break even point , Russia has banned grain exports , Canada has such covid lock down problems no one knows what the crops are like , South America has frosts killing their maize crops , walk around U.S grocery stores and there are empty shelves every where , there are distant rumblings of ration books even here in the ” rich ” USA , shortage of parts is driving U.S. farming back fifty years to non electronic machinery / scrap yards . some dairy farms are having real problems with electronic milking and feeding systems ( failing chips in ear tags screwing the feeding milking regime and no new ear tags ) so where to go ? Coming to ” the West ” is no guarantee of ANYTHING ! I

    • “Canada has such covid lock down problems no one knows what the crops are like”

      Where are you hearing this? My relatives in Canada tell a different story; the drought in North America has certainly affected crops badly, though. Let’s not blame lockdowns for problems caused by climate change.

      But: a lot of the difficulties you are describing would be less severe in a situation where people aren’t growing industrialised monoculture arable crops, but instead diverse horticulture (where it’s possible to replant after a late frost, and where some crops will do okay despite cold: we had a very cold and wet spring here but my peas did great). Ditto having small farms with a handful of dairy cows rather than a huge system requiring electronic milking and feeding.

      Incidentally, I think food scarcity in the 21st-century USA doesn’t look like ration books, it looks like food banks and soup kitchens. Ditto the UK. With rationing, at least everyone had enough. These days, the rich will have enough, and the poor will go hungry.

  10. Apologies for my recent silence here. Not due to a stay at the gray bar hotel – I’ll update that story another time – but because of more book podcasts and a ton of farm & household work. It’s good to know that my website is in the safe hands of its commenters to keep fine discussions going in my absence. I’ll just comment here briefly on a few of the things you’ve been discussing.

    (1) Pastoralism. Yes, I agree that climate change will favour substitution of pastoralism for cropping in some areas. In fact, it already is. I also agree that pastoralism itself is subject to climate change pressures. But for various reasons I think a major turn against crop agriculture in favour of pastoralism would only occur in the context of catastrophic civilizational collapse and a human population crash. Property rights indeed are key, and a turn to pastoralism doesn’t particularly enhance people’s ability to go somewhere else. Historic grassland pastoralist societies have usually involved mounted herders with technologies for the violent control of stock that can also be turned to the violent control of people, and ethics of defending geographically uncertain boundaries, ie. highly militarized societies with a low tolerance for interlopers and a taste for raiding. But also involving segmentary kinship principles allowing large-scale if often ephemeral alliances. To me this pastoralist route seems like a counsel of despair in present circumstances, which is not to say that it won’t happen. More interesting to me is a turn to transhumant pastoralism as a complement to crop agriculture – e.g. the county of Somerset where I live reputedly got its name as the ‘land of summer grazing’, with stock grazed on the lush but flood-prone Somerset Levels in the summer and then driven up to the higher ground of the Mendip Hills in the winter. With drainage, cheap fencing and the capitalization of private individual farms this has largely disappeared, but I’m sure that in the future there will be more grazing commons integrated with crop agriculture of this kind.

    (2) Cropland adaptation. Fascinating discussions about adapting to climate change & weather extremes here – thank you. It’s not something I’ve emphasized greatly in my writing about small farm futures, but it does seem to me that in addition to the breeding of resilience into annual crops this is also going to play out in terms of much more integration of perennials (trees, especially) into agriculture and much more labour-intensive terraforming at small scales to manage flood and drought risk, all of which points to the kind of small farm futures I advocate.

    (3) The search for meaning. I appreciate Steve L’s comment that I have found meaning. Contrasts with one of the reviews of my book on Amazon that says I’m a ‘lost man’! I don’t feel lost, indeed less so than ever, even though the intractable predicaments of our present age seem to me almost impossibly daunting. For my part, I sense a lostness in those clinging on to various dimensions of progress ideology, business as usual political economy (left-wing & right-wing) and tech solutionism in the face of these predicaments. No doubt this a core ideological tension of our times.

    (4) Gifts, time, creativity. Thanks for the nice little discussion of craft skills, time, money and love. I’ve been having some interesting discussions about this with Sean Domencic and Tim Wainwright from a distributist perspective and will be coming on to it more directly soon in this blog cycle. Steve’s invocation of Viktor Frankl is quite apposite in this respect.

    (5) Clearinghouse. I appreciate your job offer Greg of a practical small farm techniques clearinghouse but I think I’m going to have to turn it down, not least because lots of other people can do it better than me. But I’m always interested to host discussions of practical farm issues here, as well as more abstruse flights of politics. At some point I need to refresh this website and perhaps do a better job of pointing to other small farm resources from it, so I’m open to suggestions on that front…

    (6) …in fact, in appreciation of Greg for making the suggestion, even though I turned it down, if people would like to suggest to me things they’d like to see more – or less – discussion of on this site, I’d welcome your thoughts. No promises though…

    • Resources I have found useful off the top of my head, unhelpfully I’m not going to divide links in most cases as I am writing this on my phone:

      John Seymour, “The Self-Sufficient Gardener” (somewhat dated but lovely all the same)
      Carol Deppe, “The Resilient Gardener”; “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties”
      Some older Reader’s Digest books on gardening, sewing, crochet and needlework (yes, really: these are great for getting from ‘not sure which is the business end of a crochet hook’ to ‘can manage most things’)
      Forums at permies.com
      Low Tech Magazine website (I think this has been linked from here before? It’s the one with the article on fruit walks, among other things)
      A basic bicycle repair manual (can’t remember publisher); the Sheldon Brown website is also pretty good
      The Ball Blue Book (for preserving and pressure canning)
      Richard Mabey, “Food For Free”
      Some other local wild food field guides and books
      Mushroom field guides
      iNaturalist (useful for identifying garden pests as well as unusual/unfamiliar plants)
      freesewing.org for parametric clothing patterns
      Some books on small-batch home brewing

      At some point someone here linked to plans for a pedal-powered threshing machine, I don’t have it to hand though.

      There are lots of holes in this list, I’m sure. I think that signposting resources is great, but I also note that a lot of the resources I’ve listed here have been around for a good while… people who are interested in a more resilient way of life will already have found at least some of what they need. I got most of the books in charity shops.

      For people not sure where to start, I would say choose a practical, productive skill related to your basic needs that you think you would enjoy, and learn it: not to a perfect, professional level, but good enough that you won’t poison or injure anyone. Then add another skill. The more you can turn your hand to, the better.

  11. Hi Chris.

    Do you think a Small Farm Future will see the end of “science”?
    I can see all the accumulated knowledge humanity has amassed being lost. Who is going to study particle physics, gene sequencing or even motor mechanics when the apparatus required to practice those subjects, will no longer exist? Who will find the time either?

    If science stops being the framework of human thought, will superstition replace it?

    Over time, we may also lose the ability to read and write. The stock of existing books will eventually rot away and very few new ones (if any) are going to be produced. Much of the content of the existing books will bare no meaning to a generation born into a SFF either. Will the effort to teach a child to read be seen as too great compared to the diminishing benefits/ advantages that it would bring?

    Been thinking what item I would miss the most in a post oil world??? I think my varifocul glasses would be top of the list. I would be seriously disadvantaged if I didn’t have them.

    • Spectacles have been around since around the 13th century IIRC, glassblowing is certainly resource-intensive but it doesn’t have to rely on fossil fuels. Varifocals are definitely harder, you might have to have separate pairs of specs for distance and near work. If your eyesight isn’t too bad, pinhole glasses might work for both (and they don’t need a prescription; they’re very cheap to buy now if you want to try it. I have a pair to use as emergency backups if my glasses break, and they aren’t good enough that I would wear them cycling in car traffic, but they are OK for walking around, reading, and crossing the road as a pedestrian.) If only clear lenses will do, well, I expect they’ll get a lot more expensive, so it will depend on how fast your prescription changes.

      Writing, too, predates fossil fuel use by millennia. So does paper, though it was ultimately dependent on spinning wheels (for spinning linen: paper was made from linen rags) and not as cheap as it is today. Even the printing press and moveable type came along long before oil was in common use.

      Much of the precursor work to modern science was done by monks (Mendel and genetics springs to mind), so I’m not sure a post-oil world is necessarily one in which all scientific progress will halt. It isn’t as if your average office worker or delivery driver has time for serious scientific research these days either, but getting to a point where not everyone has to spend all day in subsistence labour is not impossible.

      Particle physics will probably be difficult, admittedly. And there is definitely past technology we don’t now have a good understanding of: how the Romans made cement,for example. I’m not suggesting that no knowledge can ever be lost; just that it seems unlikely to me that all of it will be, or that humans will stop trying to figure things out or stop trying to preserve knowledge.

      • Hi Kathryn.

        Pin hole glasses are new to me. I’ll have to check them out.

        Reading and writing have been around for a long time granted. But it was only the political elite who could read and write. To them it was a vital tool in social control. Being able to communicate with people other than face to face was a real advantage. Elites control much larger populations because the organise. Reading and writing were an important factor in that organization. Those toiling in the fields could not read and that has only really changed in the last 150 years.

        In a SFF the ability to read or write may have not discernable impact on crop yields or the ability to put food on the table. With this in mind, why would future generations bother with the effort to teach their kids to read when there is no obvious advantage to doing so?
        We understand how important reading and writing is in today’s society. It’s a “must have” if we want to put food on the table. It’s very difficult to function without the literacy today.

        But in a SFF I’m not so sure that it will carry the same importance. There will be other more pressing pressures on people’s time than teaching the next generation to read. Certainly, any nomadic or semi nomadic society will not be reading. Carrying the books would not be practical.
        And for more sedentary existences, the existing stock of books will decompose over time and very few new ones will being created.

        This is why I think science and our existing knowledge will be lost. Within a couple of generations living a SFF existence, very few if anyone will know how to read and write.

    • What an interesting question – for a couple of reasons.

      The first thing that catches my eye is the spectrum between ‘science’ and ‘superstition’.
      I can’t help wondering whether the ‘science’ of the small, resource-constrained future might appear to be superstition to someone who is versed in our current scientific tradition.

      I am much in favor of being able to know things for certain, but the last year or two of medical science has shown how difficult that can be.
      What strikes me as a major weak point of our current scientific regime is that it requires that the things it studies be standardized. For instance, we smash a trillion protons and then average them. Or we study the behavior of a thousand middle class grad students, or test the responses of a couple hundred rats who all have a very similar nuclear genetic code. The idea is that if we can use large populations of similar subjects, then we can zero out their similarities and focus on whatever artificial difference we might induce.

      I believe this works really well on a large scale, but when the focus gets tight or the available population is small, then the exceptions loom large.
      This small scale is exactly what we are headed for, and I can’t help wondering whether scientific practice will adapt to that new situation and find a way to collect up large sets of diverse data that don’t collate well, and be able to learn something.

      There are very many really strange phenomena out there that we all ignore because in a large sample size they are statistically insignificant. But with a world full of small sample sizes, some of those insignificant effects will be the major force.

      I think the place to start is by admitting how little we actually know, even though we have been able to make some remarkable devices building on our broad assumptions.

      Thanks for the thought.

    • Great question, and Kathryn and Eric have good points.

      I agree with Kathryn – science won’t disappear, we are a scientific bunch and we’ll disappear before our inquisitiveness.
      Books may suffer some loss of their present ubiquitous significance, but I don’t see them rotting into the dust bin of history. And I’m not convinced we’ll have to turn back to a completely pre-oil culture. [Kathryn’s notion that Particle Physics might be in trouble in a SFF does make sense… but I am often encouraged by the inventiveness, and the cleverness of our colleagues – so even this realm of curiosity may survive]

      When Kathryn mentioned Mendel above, I had to join in. Gregor serves as an inspiration – even more so than Darwin – to this plant breeder. The ancient Greeks managed to spare some of their folks to thinking of matters beyond carrot production, spinning, war craft and so on. I imagine this will carry on after fossil fuels.

      To Eric’s also insightful thoughts about context sensitivity (small, local issues not being the same across all environments) – this will be fertile ground for future study. Participatory breeding is the avenue a practitioner in domesticate breeding will likely be engaged in going forward. Most industrial scale plant breeding (for broad acre crops at least) is focused on the largest areas that can be suitably served at once. It comes down to profit… but this is today’s reality. Plant breeding (scientific or otherwise) enjoys a thousand years long history – and indeed some may suggest all sedentary farming systems are only possible through domestication and selection among types of plants and animals to hand.

      There will be science in a SFF. There will be creative solutions to the problems our descendants will face. Those who can, will. Those who can’t, won’t. For recorded history it has always be this way. This doesn’t imply it will be easy. But our forebears didn’t have it easy. They did what needed doing – and we are here today as a result.

      • Oops, I failed to mention that the 200 year anniversary of Mendel’s birth comes up next year. An elderly plant breeder I know might just be retired by then and he is interested in visiting the eastern European homeland to celebrate the occasion. The carbon footprint of such a trip may give other pause… but I hope he can manage it.

        • From the Gregor Mendel Wikipedia page: As the son of a struggling farmer, the monastic life, in his words, spared him the “perpetual anxiety about a means of livelihood.”
          Made me smile.

      • Welcome back! I just recently sent an email to Chris wondering if he knew why you had not commented at all for several consecutive posts.

        And I do agree that science will continue, although I am less confident about retaining much of our present scientific knowledge in books. My worry stems from the hyper-specialized and sophisticated nature of current scientific publications. Even if all that scientific knowledge were well preserved in books, would anyone have the time to devote to educating themselves well enough to understand them?

        If the basics from every field of science could be distilled and put in a volume or two it might be able to serve as a core scientific reference for many families. It would go a long way toward enabling a scientific understanding of more practical engineering and agronomy manuals. What we need is an encyclopedia dedicated to the needs of a small farm community.

        My house still has a 1980’s vintage 24 volume World Book encyclopedia on the shelf. I have never gotten rid of it because I always thought how handy it would be for curious grandchildren in a post-internet future. I wonder if one can even buy a printed encyclopedia now?

        To answer my own question: https://qz.com/1271013/does-anyone-still-sell-world-book-encyclopedias/

        • Talking about the post internet future I met our local tech , he says his job will disappear , the net is slowly dying , speeds are dropping , packets of information are just getting lost , ( orders / bank payment transfers ) , the lockdown have screwed up maintenance and they are now playing whack a mole , two local servers are down , no parts to fix them , connection speeds are in the high KB per second , no streaming video works , I can’t access my local bank ! back to the landline ! And as mobile phones are dropping the 3 g network but have no equipment for the 5 g replacement so canceling the mobile phone is in the future , the low tech future is coming fast !

          • I happened to glance up at the stars a few weeks ago – in a kind of awe, as you do, mouth agape – to catch a strange vision of 10 lights in a row, sailing overhead. Upon Googling my research (I know, I know), seconds later I discovered what this strange, steadily-moving constellation was: it was most likely one of Elon Musk’s Space X ‘Starlink’ satellite clusters. Space X plans to send up thousands more of these satellite fleets in the coming years, and isn’t the only business wishing to do so to enable, primarily, super-fast internet coverage in every corner of the globe, but also SatNav, military surveillance, smartphone and meteorological services, and good old TV. According to some reports, stargazers in London, a year or two ago now, spotted 63 of these satellites in a row. The reason they aren’t visible on every clear night is that the fleet, essentially orbiting telephone masts, have their own motor to boost up to a higher elevation once launched, and must then be out of sight.
            Mouth still agape, I read on to discover that until recently there are around 2,000 functioning satellites in orbit, and around 3,000 defunct ones constituting ‘space junk’.
            Musk’s first fleet, authorised in 2018, numbered 4,425 satellites at 750 miles up, the second fleet, at 210 miles up, consisted of 7,518 satellites, while plans for 30,000 more at some point in the future were submitted by the company in 2019.
            So are you sure, Diogenese10, that there is no 5G equipment in place to replace 3G? As I understand it, the 5G network is enabled in part by unobtrusive so-called ‘cells’, which can be placed in an urban environment every 100 metres or so, enabling the ever-faster speeds we all crave. Or is Musk just blasting these elongated constellations through Earth’s protective mantles, to smart the planet in vain?

        • For those paying attention – Ruben often goes silent for prolonged periods as well. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then I suppose Ruben should be blushing 🙂

          It has been a busy season at this end of the web… I’ve not been arrested, and I’ve not succumbed to the virus… but I am getting a bit longer in the tooth and am not able to accomplish as much in the field per unit time… so more time there and less time here. But there are some new voices here – and a whole LOT of reading to keep up with. So the rest of you have done very well in my absence.

          As I consider myself a scientist, and as I’ve had a front row seat in this business for almost a half century, I’ve seen quite a bit of change in how science gets funded. I don’t have good stats to hand, but I’d offer there are more highly trained scientists today as a portion of our population than there ever have been. And our present population is the largest its ever been – thus, MANY more scientists than ever. Granted, there aren’t MANY more Einsteins or Mendels or Darwins… but today’s crop of practicing scientists is replete with its own share of very significant talent. And I don’t think a walk away from fossil fuels will dampen the pipeline (narrow it perhaps… but it might actually need some pruning anyway).

          I need to pause here and also include engineering into this discussion – as it is one thing to tease apart how the world works, and quite another to build upon this new knowledge. Maintaining the hard won knowledge of the past and transmitting it to our progeny will continue to be an effort worth fighting for. But I’m not worried. All our most recent wiz bang tech is nice to have, but at the end of the day it can be replaced or lived without. My computer has never killed a weed, my cell phone has never crossed one plant with another. I have fingers and opposable thumbs, and so too my children and grandchildren. And they also sport a cognitive ability won through many millennia of human evolution. Keep the oil and coal in the ground, we’ll find another way.

          Science is more a state of mind than an expensive, high energy activity. Science is a verb. It is something we do, and something that helps us find ways of doing other things. Like building a future where we all have enough to eat, and we have ways of living peacefully with each other (and I imagine the latter more difficult than the former).

          • Simon , we certainly not urban lol , the only reason we got 3 g was interstate 35 , towers are placed at intervals down it , two bars or less but it worked but we are too far away for 5 G ,old school copper landlines are the only reliable system , As for satellites we tried one system their fault help line was abysmal .

  12. I found out today from my father that my grandfather, as well as being a farmer when he was growing up, was also a sheep rancher. Not a common thing on the Canadian prairies, certainly by the time I grew up cows were dominant. Thought I’d relate the story here, since transhumant pastoralism has had a mention.

    From the e-mail:

    “The summer he was 12 he and the sheep were moved to a pasture. He had some basic supplies such as flour, sugar, soap and dried food stuffs. He also had a 25 caliber rifle and he was expected to harvest rabbits and the like, as well as protect the herd. There was a dog to help with herding the sheep.

    He did not meet or speak to anyone for three months!”

    I suppose it puts lockdowns into perspective, at any rate.

  13. I’m caught between trying to keep up with the comments here, writing the next blog post and … doing everything else in my life. So apologies for not responding to these interesting further comments. I’ll try to put a quick comment up before the next post.

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