A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.

There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.

1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.

There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.

As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.

2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.

3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:

“Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs”.

If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.

Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.

As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).

Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.

4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.

5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.

6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.

I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.

Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.

7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.

Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.

8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.

One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.

Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.

But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).

Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.

When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.

Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.

9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.

I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.

In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.

10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.”

Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.

I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.

52 thoughts on “A Small Farm Future: Some Problems Re-Stated

  1. I have been having a couple of comments skirmishes after Mock’s article came out, basically posting several of your essays. I agree that both Newman and Mock criticize a lot of things, but family farms are not really one of them.

    “possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.”

    “the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter.”

    This perspective is why I love your thinking Chris.

    And, here is an interesting thread on the North American family farm history:
    (17) Dr Sarah Taber on Twitter: “ah yes. the land speculation/colonial lifestyle influencer/cottagecore/mormon mommy instagrammer vortex

    • The Dr Sarah Taber thread is “interesting” but not particularly accurate, in my opinion. There were different methods of land settlement and tenure in colonial America, but few of them involved rich landowners stripping the land and then selling denuded lots to “homesteaders”.

      Her assertions seem particularly inappropriate to the plantation/slavery culture of the American South and places like colonial Pennsylvania. However, if she does finish her book on the subject, I will gladly buy it and read it.


      My grandparents (on my mother’s side) became landowners in eastern Oregon under the Homestead Act, which was admittedly late in the settlement process. Nonetheless, the land they were given had always been desert sagebrush and only became viable for family farms with access to a federally funded irrigation project. They eventually prospered by developing a commercial dairy and truck farm.

      The entire western half of the US has been dominated by federal control of land since it was taken from native peoples. Even after resources were stripped from federal land, most of it remained in government hands.

      My grandparents on my father’s side were subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers in the southern Oregon Coast Range. The men in the family found work outside the farm in the logging industry, which was mostly promoted by sales of timber from government land and large private timberlands. Most of that land has stayed with the original owners for succesive crops of timber.

      I don’t think the homesteads and farming lives of either set of grandparents were particularly romantic, but neither were they victims of colonial avarice/land speculation. Family farms may not always find a home in Wendell-Berry-Land, but I don’t think they are as terrible as Taber makes them out to be.

      • Have to agree with Joe – Dr Taber appears to be leaving out some fairly significant aspects of US farm settlement history.

        That, admittedly, is only based on the potty mouthed screed she left on Twitter… so like Joe I’d like to see more of her evidence (which I’m hoping some editor will assist her in making her case without so much trash talk).

        To Joe’s wondering whether small farms in “Wendell-Berry-Land” (a designation which made me smile)… whether Family farms in the Midwest could survive being small – yes, they can. But also to Sarah Mock’s points… many don’t. Do they have a future? If we don’t have answers to power questions in the future, then farms of some size will have to prosper in order for those still around to produce their food.

        But back to the history of agrarian settlement in the US. There are well documented cases of land speculators doing many of the things Dr Taber alludes to in her twitter screed. But there are also many well documented cases of land settlement very different from a ‘pillage first and sell later’ rubric. The Northwest Territory was laid out prior to the Louisiana Purchase. Both of these real estate ‘deals’ can be ogled as serious land grabs from first peoples – some at the point of a weapon, and others as somewhat commercial relationships. But subsequent distribution schemes varied all over the map.

        Slavery was not a condition of settlement in the NW territory. And it can be argued that settlement of the LP brought the question of slave culture to the final pitch that resulted in war.

        Unless Taber can pen a much more balanced account of how things really went down, I’m guessing she’ll have plenty of critics to deal with… and I might be among them.

      • Another excellent post, Chris. I agree that there is nothing intrinsically “colonial” about the small family farm/homestead, but of course the history of settlement here in the U.S. is complicated and morally problematic (to say the least). I live on a 14-acre farmstead in upstate New York, in a house that was built by early white settlers in a land grab made possible by the notorious Sullivan campaign of 1779. Under orders from George Washington, Sullivan and his troops were ordered to destroy the villages and food supplies of the Cayuga and Seneca tribes as retaliation for raids made on settlements in western NY and Pennsylvania. These tribes, members of the Haudenosaunee Confederation, had allied themselves with the British. There is actually a vivid written account by an eyewitness who described the normal, end-of-season self-provisioning activities that were going on the morning that Sullivan arrived. I often imagine the scene when I look out my window on what is now my property — the children playing, the adults gathering together the harvest, etc..

        Such brutality is par for the course during a war, and there were in fact atrocities carried out on all sides. But there is no denying the fact that the Sullivan campaign was a rather disproportionate response, an instance of violent ethnic cleansing and brutal dispossession (echoes of My Lai and Srebrenica) involving innocent people who were going about their normal business and doing much the same as I am doing at this time of year.

        Two and a half centuries later, the people who now live on this land (people like myself) typically take a moment at local gatherings and rituals to acknowledge and pay respect to those stewards of the land who were here before us. And I think it is worth noting that these indigenous tribes (still living among us) now serve as role models for the kind of wise stewardship that many of us aspire to. There are, after all, historical precedents and proven models of sustainable and ecologically sane living. These indigenous people were, in an important sense, early practitioners of cooperative self-reliance (not an oxymoron to anyone who lives it). By all accounts, the family homesteads that were established here post-1779 relied upon each other no less than the indigenous families had, and many members of those tribes remained here and co-existed peacefully with the newcomers.

        The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is also a striking example of a long-lasting, peaceful, multi-ethnic democratic system that makes Metternich’s 19th-century conflict resolution model look like a flash in the pan. If we are looking for examples of “reinventions of local forms of cooperation,” we have examples to turn to. (And there *was* genuine conflict among the tribes that formed the confederacy. It was not quite an idyllic, non-hierarchical hunter-gather society, and I suspect the tribe leaders who worked it out would have related to Hobbes more than to Rousseau.)

        All of this puts me in mind of the “Dispossessions” chapter of SFF. Every culture has its own historical baggage to carry around, its own moral conflicts to deal with, and the grass is always greener (and less hierarchical) on the other side of the fence. That may be why I am more tempted to romanticize British vision of local agrarian life (Ronald Blythe, for example) even though I live in the heart of “Wendell Berry Land.” 🙂

  2. I read the Sarah Mock piece and found it frustrating. Yes, financialised global markets are hostile environments for small family farms. The answer isn’t mechanisation or expansion in order to compete in said markets; the answer is more self-provisioning, to make the financialised global markets optional.

    Getting there from here isn’t easy for all of us. I’m sure I’ve commented before that I’m not in a position to acquire land, and so am focusing much more on developing a wide range of skills.

    I think it was Heinlein who said specialisation is for insects….

    • Globalised markets only work with government subsidies , the mega farms are not entrepreneurs they are financial slaves to government subsidies

        • I’d suggest neither. Slave typically canotes an unwilling servant; and parasite an organism deliberately seeking a host.

          Farmers or any other citizen who takes advantage of a government subsidy program is merely participating in the society (government) they find themselves a part of. If forced to side with one or the other I’d go with financial slaves… for most of the farmers I know personally would much rather there not be government interference in the first place.

          In the US, home owners are offered a tax subsidy for their home loan interest. Are all home owners with mortgages then parasites (or financial slaves)?

  3. Thanks for a useful overview.

    I tend to agree with most of what you say and argue here. There is much to add and there is little to add, and I feel we could spend considerable time teasing the devils in the details. I focus in this comment on two small, interrelated things concerning “individual” with a constructive intention; slightly academic, perhaps, but nevertheless worth contemplating again and again, I find.

    So, to lead me in:

    There is perhaps at some point a slight wobble on the observed/observable tension between what we can call, on the one hand, the longing for solitude and the self-preserving instinct of individual integrity, and, on the other, the need and recurring desire for the communal, collective and celebratory (which is generally a group form), when you write:

    “..selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict …. They’re a problem in every human society”,

    …which contrasts a little with the immediately following statement that:

    “….clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive…”.

    Might we simply say that community, as such, is achieved when social organisation turns on this creative tension between these two aspects of existence: (i) one and (ii) all? When there is no clever customs in common to render this tension creative, then there is no community? Could we say that evolution’s challenge is simply the continued recalibration of this source of power and creation, rather than understanding it as “a problem”?


    As we now know, we are each of us trillions of cells that are not us (but microbes), so even when we as individuals make decisions (about food, movements, social engagements and so on) we are not just simply alone, not discrete rational, individual agents, but always also an “us”. If we can sidestep modern conceptions of individuality (that follow the legal forms first invented in Roman jurisprudence), then we can probably see that we are never alone and that “individualism” is a delusion, a false carrot that leads us from the protection of the pack, ripe for predatory taking.

    In that context – “individual” – (while I agree with your notions of the “…jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm..”) – there is, to my mind (coming from a background o political philosophy and history of ideas with regard to “property”), some degree of idiosyncracy at play. Wordplay (un)intended. There is not necessarily anything wrong with convivial idiosyncracies – they add to diversity, I reckon – but I suspect that especially the (rhetorical) leftists and Marxists will find this use difficult. Perhaps it could do with some explanation: after all, it does fly a little in the face of many conventional understandings. As noted above, even the hermit, jack-of-all-trades is a collective form when all her body’s co-inhabitants are considered.

    I might leave another couple of comments that came to mind on (i) specific forms of agriculture and their relations to the principled distinction between ‘extraction’ and ‘habitat enrichment’; and (ii) notions of creative, vital forces required to maintain subsistence understood as a basic element of existence, which was spawned by this line:

    “…such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide..”.

    To end on a cheesy Hollywood quote for now: “Life finds a way” and life has only (so far) one alternative.

  4. “Individualism” is clearly a polysemous term between you and your interlocutors. I think it’s helpful, on both a rhetoric and didactic level, to refer to the small-scale resiliency you are promoting as “subsidiarity” or “localism” or “decentralization.” As you point out, we want personal autonomy to be grounded in a communal/familial/political social network. It may be true that we can draw from individualist critiques of mass society, but nobody wants a member of the family unit or the peasant village to be acting in an “individualist” manner, when matters of the common good (of either the household or the village) are at stake. My opposition to individualism as a word and as a school of thought (it generally refers to liberal-libertarianism in the US context, at least) is that it opposes a vision of the human person who must act virtuously, sacrifice his private gain, and serve the common good (concepts which I think are underdiscussed in your normative anthropology). One can do all that (ie live virtuously and other-oriented) while having a more “individual” autonomy of skills and technical knowledge, but I don’t think that form of family-embedded peasant life (which historically has been deeply tied with religious customs and values) can be described as “individualist”.

    Looking more thoroughly at how household/family/local-autonomy is related to religion/morality/virtue (both are central to one’s sense of “meaning/purpose”) is important to integrating the arguments of Chapters 12 and 16.

    • Yes, as someone who lives in a country that is stereotypically labeled “individualistic,” and home to the author of a famous essay titled “Self-Reliance,” I get annoyed at the simplistic binary notions of “individualism” and “collectivism” that I often come across. There are many drawbacks and conflicts and tensions that come with living in a small-town agrarian social setting, but one thing I can certainly be confident of in my small town — a well-established other-oriented custom and virtue — is that my neighbors will swarm upon me and my family if any of us suffered a major illness that kept us from our work of seasonal “self-provisioning.” Most people around here stack three years’ worth or more of firewood, for example, and would gladly donate cords to us if we needed it (and of course I would do the same). I am not even talking about the offers to look after our young child and the cornucopia of home-cooked food delivered to our door. That is not small-town nostalgia; that is how people here, and in many parts of the world, actually behave.

      And on that note, I think it is important to add to the ” self-provisioning of food and fibre” the self-provisioning of fuel wood. We are all entering a cold season in the middle of a global energy crisis, and I wish I had enough surplus seasoned firewood to donate to all of my neighbors outside my local community who are going to be dealing with astronomical energy bills and possibly shortages. We had an energy supply system failure in Texas last year, during an unseasonal cold spell, and scores of people froze to death or died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Many others receiving five-figure heating bills they could not pay. We have got to learn to be less dependent on an unsustainable system for meeting our basic needs, and “empowerment” and “individualism” do not mean “I’ve got mine, and good luck getting yours.”

  5. Hi Chris. Good post and thanks for the kind words and critique. I’ll quickly respond to one point, maybe just as a point of clarifying. Whilst in the podcast series, the land practice I focussed on was “the shieling system” which was a cattle based practice utilising the uplands, this was integrated with an arable system in the low lying glens where crops such as Bere, small oats, rye and lately potatoes were cultivated. This part of the overall food system was referred to as runrigs. So it was a mixed food economy rather than simple cattle based. As you’ve pointed out, much, if not most, of the work of cultivating or milking etc was carried out on an individual basis and within the runrig system everyone had their own individually allotted strips of land. However, the land itself was very much communal, and lots were cast every three years as to which strips people would get. So no-one ever permanently owned or had permanent tenure of these strips. In some cases some townships in the western isles continued this practice up until only a few decades ago. The way people understood the land to be held was very much communal, and when changes to these started to happen they were implemented externally, from outside the culture. The move to the crofting system with individually allocated permanent allotments, was met with a lot of resistance, and although crofting retained a number of elements from the older system, it was still a tenure system that was imposed on the people here. Within the case of the Highlands and Islands I definitely maintain that the move from communally held land to privately held land happened through a process of “internal colonisation” which is becoming increasingly well documented. I definitely cannot speak for anywhere else though.

    • Also, I’m down in Frome not irregularly as I used to work for Rye Bakery there and am very much involved in the various grain networks that are going on in that part of the world. when I’m down again at some point it it would be lovely to grab a pint and a chat with you. Thank you, Col

  6. Chris,

    I have been following your writings for some time and I find your position on these topics most compelling. In fact your writing has, at least in part, shaped the direction of our own small family farm here in Washington State, US.

    Regarding “the state” and property ownership I wonder if you have read much about “land trusts”. Here in our neck of the woods we have several examples of cities or counties buying farm land and leasing it back to farmers or helping with the acquisition in exchange for perpetual use limitations. So while these are still “government” entities they are at a much smaller and more localized scale. (examples: https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/1182/Public-Farmland and https://saveland.org/) I suspect there are probably examples like this all over the country as a minority have come to the realization that much of our farmland is being paved over and lost.

    In a small farm future maybe they could play a role beyond the current goal of saving farm land and providing a more equitable access to that farm land. Maybe as a “public” means to managing/resolving issues that arise?

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    Ruben, could you expand on what you mean by saying Mock & Newman don’t criticize the family farm?

    I kind of enjoyed the polemical energy of Taber’s tweets, but I agree she overdoes it. Maybe it’s fair to say that buying a smallholding is a more ‘establishment’ thing to do than the people who do it often think, but saying that it’s “literally the most establishment thing you can possibly do” is a step too far. I’m not even sure that it’s a more establishment thing to do than working on a factory floor and striking for better pay or conditions. The wider point is surely that it’s hard to escape the forces of capital accumulation whatever you do. But it does kind of matter what you do with your smallholding once you’ve acquired it.

    The histories of colonial land settlement that Joe and Clem allude to are interesting, but maybe another approach would be to pronounce a moratorium on all reference to white farmers or maybe to any farmers at all in North America when it comes to discussing the nature of small scale farming. My guess is that would still leave us a sample in excess of 99.9% of all small farmers historically, while taking quite a bit of political heat out of the discussion.

    Thanks Sean for your points about sharpening up definitions around ‘individualism’. Nothing to disagree with in your comment … though I think it leaves my own comments about capitalism mostly still standing.

    Thanks also Sean for your kind words of praise – and likewise to others on here recently. I often don’t respond to such comments so that I don’t start blushing, but I do appreciate them – and the martial arts sensei remark made me laugh 🙂

    Agree with Kathryn on the virtues of skills development. Though I think creating more access to land is a nettle we need to grasp, sometimes literally. More on that anon…

    • Maybe I’ve missed your intent… but when you say:
      …but maybe another approach would be to pronounce a moratorium on all reference to white farmers or maybe to any farmers at all in North America when it comes to discussing the nature of small scale farming. My guess is that would still leave us a sample in excess of 99.9% of all small farmers historically, while taking quite a bit of political heat out of the discussion.

      Do I take this to imply that political heat is undesirable here?

      Have North American agrarians nothing to offer in the conversation?

      If I trace my roots back to the Bavarian farmers in my ancestry, may I discuss aspects of their small farm experience?

      Further, I suppose one could muzzle all extant farmers and still achieve a 99.9% of all small farmers historically. But how do we quiz those from the past for advice on how we might organize matters in the future?

    • By my calculation, the percentage of world farmers in North America the last time its population was dominated by people living in the country (around 1900) was 4.75%, so your moratorium would allow a sample of 95.25% of historical farmers for discussion, but point taken.

      On the other hand, if we are to limit our discussions of farming history to those areas with only non-white farmers who also have never had any interaction with colonial powers or colonial settlers, we might be limiting ourselves to a very small population indeed.

      Land tenure and the history of land tenure is a crucial subject for preparing for a small farm future. “More access to land” is going to inevitably lead us to that subject over and over again. I, for one, can stand a little political heat and hope to stay in the political kitchen for a bit longer.

      I think you can, too, as evidenced by your cool, courteous and fact-based analytical composure. I think that’s why Small Farm Future has some of the best posts and best discussions in the whole blogosphere. Thank you!

    • Just to clarify, I’m not serious about banning discussion of North American farming, and I found both Joe & Clem’s comments of great interest. It’s just that there are a lot of articles like Mock’s around that take the US context as somehow exemplary of small scale farming writ large, and it can get a bit aggravating after a while. But indeed aggravation isn’t always bad and here at Small Farm Future we remain up for some heat!

      As to the numbers, any advances on what proportion of small-scale family farmers who have ever lived were based in North America, and what proportion were operating in contexts substantially free of colonialism? Extra marks for plausible definitions of ‘substantially’ and ‘colonialism’…

      How to quiz the past … another hot topic!

      • Elsewhere in the comment thread Derrick has provided another look back at some North American settlement history. Pretty fascinating account of Europeans meeting Indigenous peoples prior to US independence. As I’ve not personally lived in any of the ‘original colonies’ or payed close attention to their formative histories I like that there are some parallels to interactions which occurred later as the NW Territory was opened.

        My small farm in Central Ohio was once part of a territory serving as a home to the Shawnee. It sits just a handful of miles west of where Jonathan Alder settled there are some stories that have come down from the interaction years:

        Quizzing the past is a bit easier when the past is not so far away in time.

        Like Derrick’s neighborhood memorializing the past, there are events here of a similar stripe. See further, the Fair at New Boston: https://grcha.org/ My wife and I went to the fair over Labor Day weekend… impressive.

    • Glad to make you laugh!

      To be clear, the point I want to push back on is whether embracing the term “individualist” is helpful to your argument. I think the alternatives I suggested are much more cogent.

      Individualist doesn’t merely imply resource autonomy, but also a materialistic, relativistic, or utilitarian view of human teleology rooted in Enlightenment liberalism. Such an anthropology is detrimental to the restoration of peasantry, in my view.

      • I agree that the term “individualism” is as fraught as the term “populism,” and both may require so much qualification as to make the reclaiming project not worth the effort. However, I also think that there are rich resources available within Enlightenment liberalism that may be worth reviving in the effort to make a case for an agrarian populism. Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, though not as widely read as that Other Book of his, makes an argument for privileging (or at least honoring) the values and customs and experiences of the common person and local cultures, in contrast with the top-down approach of grand theories and systems that disregarded the particular in favor of abstractions. One system that Smith had in mind of course, is the rationality of market capitalism that he described at length in that other book. I think Smith comes very close to Edmund Burke, another Enlightenment figure who was what we might call an early proponent of “localism” rather than “individualism.”

        In other words, there is a strain of pragmatic populist thinking that is rooted in the Enlightenment. (I think as well of Smith’s contemporary Samuel Johnson, who “rejoice[d] to concur with the common reader…”).

        I would also point out that there are several passages in the Wealth of Nations where Smith defends and celebrates the meaningful and highly skilled work of the “backward” peasant. Simon Fairlie quotes from some of these passages in the closing pages of his book “Meat: A Benevolent Extravagance.”

        On the question of the most promising language to adopt in the rhetorical context of 2021, I have no ideas whatsoever!

    • I have a few ideas on purchasing land for myself, but the timescale is still 5 or 10 years, and I’m not entirely sure it will still be a viable plan by then.

      • I have put in a wheat crop this year, but this time I’ve done it primarily for my (household) use.

        The last few times, I have planted at a friend’s place, primarily for her use, and taken some of the harvest as wages for the planting and harvesting. This came about mostly because I was willing to get her combine running, and then operate it.

        Then that relationship got weird, and I decided I’d not work on that friend’s property again until she took the initiative and called me, and she hasn’t.

        Before that business, I had my own field about 8 miles from my house where I could do whatever I wanted, and I planted wheat there for a few years. Until I sold my field – for many reasons, it is a long boring story, but mostly it just wasn’t worth all the headache, largely having to do with the neighbors.

        You may have heard about the inflation of the price of real estate. I got paid some of that inflation.

        But now I want to grow some more grain, so I talked to a friend who lives on the edge of town on a 7 acre parcel with good river bottom soil. He has a family farm, where he and his wife and two children and various itinerant friends live. They grow a large portion of their household food and sell produce to a local co-op that my friend tells me pays his mortgage. It is a lot of work, and they all have outside jobs too, but the land is very productive, so it is worth it to them.

        But as it happens, he still has more ground than he can keep up with, basically farming by hand with the occasional motor tillage, or borrowing the neighbor’s tractor.
        So he is excited for me to help keep about 1/8 acre from getting covered in weeds, and coincidentally share some of the grain harvest.

        We will see how the human relationship goes, but so far I am much happier using borrowed (share-cropped) land than I was holding title to my own.

        I recognize that this business model is less likely in a large metro area, but in a small city with convenient rural fringes, I’m convinced that it is a good option.

        • Definitely food for thought, Eric.

          Even in my large metropolitan area, the local Transition group runs a “garden sharing” scheme matching people who have gardens but can’t maintain them with people who want to grow food but haven’t any land. But the real difficulty is that there simply isn’t enough land within the city to support the local population. Maybe in American car-centric suburbs this could be possible with intensive horticulture in every front and back yard, but it’s simply unrealistic here.

          So as transporting food (and everything else) from elsewhere gets harder and harder, the city at this size will be less and less viable.

          Meanwhile, a few centuries of increasing urbanisation mean it’s quite difficult to live in rural areas without car transport. Not everyone in my household is on board with the idea of having to cycle ten miles or more to see a GP or visit a post office. None of us are drivers, and at this stage I’m not willing to spend money on driving lessons (and the other huge monetary costs of a car — fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking), even if I could wish away the environmental externalities, which I can’t. Meanwhile, it’s also extremely difficult to buy land here and then get planning permission for any kind of housing on it; and smallholdings with housing run for around ten times what I could afford.

          So: any land that I do purchase will have to be part investment, and part a sort of insurance against the case where things are bad enough that nobody will check or enforce whether I build a cabin on it. In that kind of scenario, “hey, Kathryn knows how to grow potatoes and identify wild mushrooms and make wine” will also put me ahead of 99% of the urban population.

          • Sounds like your local ” farm ” is just like the Russian system during communism , this that had a Dachia grew up to 80% of their food on them , they even employed security guards to stop people stealing produce and they sold the excess on street markets .Small farms have been the mainstay of food production untill the 2 nd war when governments got involved thinking they knew better than people / families who had spent thousands of years growing food to excess and selling it .

          • Hello Kathryn
            Yes, obtaining agricultural land close to urban areas is a big problem. I was lucky, I advertised in a local paper looking for land in the 90’s and a developer doing a barn conversion offered me fives acres a couple of miles outside town. I subsequently moved house to the other side of town to be closer to the land. An observation: lot’s of land for sale are much rarer than housing, buy the land and move closer to it. Don’t limit yourself to the place you are already living in either, look at other towns for available land. You may not be able to move closer to the land straight away, but having the land means you can start.

            If I recall correctly there are no permitted development rights for land holdings of under 5 hectares (12.5 acres) in the UK apart from fencing and planting. However that’s does not prevent you from placing any non permanent structures on the land such as caravans, shipping containers or poly tunnels as long as its not a nuisance to the neighbours or changes the land use to any significant degree. This means you could operate what the Spanish call a field house, a small dwelling used during the more intense field work times of year. As long as its not a permanent residence or structure. My choice today would be a small converted shipping container for security reasons (metal everything!), plus thick hedges and tall wind breaks. What the neighbours don’t see they don’t know. It also helps to have the land and your main residence in the same local authority district if questions are asked.

            My local authority (LA) seems to quiet like me, part of my land is in a woodland, which had been badly damaged by a previous owner and which I replanted, plus I coppice other parts of the same wood. Now this is not unusual, except the entire wood is under a TPO (tree preservation order) due to on going nearby development. My land is no longer two miles from town! The LA is very happy to see the woodland still being managed. I am in an odd situation where a neighbour would be committing an offense by cutting down a tree he owned, but if I cut the same tree down there is no problem!

            I have a collection of poly-tunnels, shipping containers and hovels (open sided sheds) which have been extensively surveyed over the years (they are on official maps!), the LA seem quite happy with them also. So my last observation is be open with the LA about what you are doing if they ask, they may be friendly, indifferent, or obstructive, in which case you will have a lot of persuading to do! It also helps to have a good story to sell them. My story was establishing a walnut orchard (there is some history of such in the area), the woodland management came later because it was there.

            Regards Philip

          • Hi Philip

            Thanks for this — yes, buying land and then moving closer to it when we can is part of the plan (insofar as I have a plan), and so is erecting a “shed” (which, below a certain size, doesn’t require planning permission) and possibly other small shelters. I think a shipping container probably would need permission here, and there are rules about how many days per year a caravan could be present. Plus, we don’t drive, so a caravan is less practical than it sounds.

  8. Point 8 brought to mind a film I watched recently about an eco-commune in Portland, Oregon – I’m pretty sure I heard the commune’s founding father say that it took the community 13 years just to agree on the way members vote on communal issues(!).
    But I just wanted to pop my head into the dojo to report that in 15 years in a post-communist country I’ve encountered no hunger whatsoever to return to the kind of collective farming that existed here until 1989, and only occasional melancholy for some of communism’s good points. The most enthusiastic proponent presided over farm workers, and enjoyed his role, and the extra pay and prestige it afforded, to the hilt.

  9. There seems to be a lot of talking past each other based on vague definitions of “small” and especially “farm” in all of these discussions.

    I haven’t read A Small Farm Future, but I’ve read several of these blog posts. I’d describe the future envisioned more as “homesteading” than “farming”. People aren’t growing food for market, although they may have surpluses of some things that they can sell or trade.

    Whereas when Mock criticizes the small family farm, she means as a business that should be profitable by selling food, and may not actually grow anything for the household members. She says (accurately IMO) that either they fail, or they succeed by exploiting farmworkers, the environment, public health, and/or animals. It is largely not possible to a profitable small family farm in America without doing at least one of these things (or possibly having a large family that devotes all waking hours to farm work).

  10. I’d disagree on point 5, at least about individualism. I agree that we’re all thoroughly dependent on others and on vast global networks that have to stay running to support our individualist lives. Our late capitalist society, however, conceals this from us. People in our society don’t typically think about the vast human and technological structures behind their individual choices; they’re invisible. We don’t see the sweatshop workers in Asia and the migrant farmers in California and the coal miners in Wyoming. By contrast, our village dwelling ancestors could see and realize their dependence on one another (particularly on networks of extended family) and on the natural world.

    Similarly, we are individualist in the sense that we can easily break or modify any of our relationships at will. If we don’t like our town, we can easily move across the world. We can change jobs, political parties, identities. Those who stay put, whether racial minorities left behind in the inner cities by white flight or native tribes on reservations or small farmers in Appalachia are at a disadvantage compared to those who are willing and able to be mobile, both geographically and socially. This wasn’t an option for our village ancestors.

    Even within the same place, we decide who we want to associate with. If a neighbor is annoying, we can ignore them. If a relative disagrees on politics, we can write them off. That wasn’t an option in times past when the village had to work together to bring in the crops or thatch a roof. There was plenty of conflict, but it wasn’t as easy to simply ignore those one didn’t prefer. Relationships in the past, before capitalism, were more “given” and less “chosen.” (I hope that in the future we can maintain at least some of this “chosen” aspect of relationships, but I also think this needs to be tempered by a greater acceptance of “given” relationships.)

    I do agree with you about how large firms suppress competition, but that’s just the logical outcome of competition; eventually, there are winners. Still, those winners tend to be rather short lived; changing conditions (driving by constant competition) often changes the conditions of success, and after a new round of struggle a new winner emerges. It is like warfare; it certainly is competitive, and each empire hopes to minimize competition . . . once it has all the territory it can get!

  11. Hi Chris. Good post. Thank you for the kind words and also the critique. Just a quick response on the points I was mentioned in.
    Whilst in the podcast series I focused a lot on the cattle based shieling system and didn’t reference anything else in terms of productive land practices, this system was integrated into a wider, mixed system. The traditional crops of beer, small oats, rye and lately potatoes were all grown in an open field type system called the runrig. As you’ve rightly pointed out the work itself in growing the crops and milking etc was done on an individual basis (unless otherwise needed), but the resource base of the land was held communally. In the runrig system individual strips were reallocated every couple years so that no-one in the township had permanent use of the better strips. This system, along with access to shielings, etc, was replaced when private property laws began to be installed which replaced this communal system of duthchas. The processes that led up to this are increasingly recognised as “internal colonisation”. All subsequent changes, including the design of the crofting laws, were imposed from outside the culture. In the context of the Highlands and Islands the private family farm sits within this, hence why I still believe that in this particular region I believe my statement holds water. However, I used that statement as a point of departure for my research and I see the series as more of an investigation around what the implications of it might have meant for the territories.

    Also, I’m down your neck of the world reasonably often (I used to work at Rye bakery) and would love to chat it out over a pint a some point. Thanks a million and all the best, Col

  12. I’ve just caught up with the last month or so on here and as always there’s some great writing. I was particularly struck by the Insulate Britain piece, and I’m glad you appear to have decided to forge ahead with these posts, as I truly think they’re important.

    This post is a useful summary of some of your recent points, and I found myself nodding to much of it. I think Sean rightly picks up some confusions around your use of the word ‘individualism’, but I certainly take your point about the interconnected nature of capitalist society. The notion of ‘autonomy’ seems to be more important to you here – you use the word more when setting out what you think rather than what others say.

    From past discussions here you probably know that I’m likely to air concerns around notions of the family and its place in social hierarchies, and I don’t want to go round in circles with it. I’m even quite ready to agree that ‘family’ relationships between parents and children, siblings, and conjugal partners will no doubt continue to form significant common elements in the emotional lives of the future – put like that it’s a no-brainer!

    But I do feel slightly uncomfortable with the primacy afforded to the household, and not for reasons that I’ve entirely grasped, although they have something to do with the atomised character of a society comprising truly autonomous households. Of course, you also place great weight on cooperation, and I really value the emphasis on the need to work through cooperative politics, the need to actively guard against status differentiation and other potential conflicts, rather than assuming some utopian egalitarian human being will emerge.

    So let me ask a question about the extent of your commitment to household autonomy. Take your sentence: ‘As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter.’

    Now, would you object to rephrasing it very slightly? ‘As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood for oneself or one’s household and for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter.’

    My preference for the second version allows for autonomy at a variety of interconnected, nested and coexisting levels that simply doesn’t require the ‘primacy’ of the household, but nevertheless acknowledges its existence as the nexus of farm management. Presumably one of the greatest advantages of the household farm is the kind of ‘practical autonomy’ you mention that it confers on household members thanks to the small size of the operation. But this doesn’t
    have to be the primary form of autonomy in a small farm society, and things like family relationships, political aggregations and broader projects can take a variety or extended forms around it. Indeed, I think historically they probably always have.

    Autonomy has a potentially interesting relationship to the currently fashionable concept of sovereignty, which is associated in public discourse very much with the national level at the moment, but could quite plausibly be reduced in size and/or distributed across a variety of scales and networks, with an emphasis on the smaller end of the scale. In that vein I’ve always been a little surprised that you’ve never invoked Thomas Spence in your historical writings, whose parochial republics appear to be close forerunners to some of the ideas you’ve written about! In any case, I’m looking forward to the coming posts, which I’m sure will help me to think through these sorts of issues as they do for so many others here.

    • Andrew — a thoughtful and thought-provoking reply.

      For me, the primacy of households in certain types of decision-making is self-evident, maybe even axiomatic. This is why the option of individuals leaving one household and joining another is so important. A miniature version of this played out in my own life in 2020, with a rift in our “covid bubble” caused partly by the breakdown of a relationship and partly by differing risk appetites. Thankfully the fourth person did not, in fact, live in our house, so distancing the bubble was ultimately easier than it might have been. But we’ve had a lot of conversations, both about keeping our own household safe and about attempting to make a contribution to the good of the wider community, and how to balance that.

      Household decisions affect everyone in the household, and autonomy within a household can’t escape this. Dysfunctional households, and abusive families, certainly exist; but so do households built on mutual respect and care.

      I’m also involved in various forms of community governance, and this requires more formal discussion for issues that affect me less directly. And there are many spheres, particularly nationally, where decisions in which I have little power affect my household profoundly. I can ignore this, or I can try to at least follow what is going on and respond strategically in ways that limit our options the least. Doing the latter is partly a function of the privilege that I have.

      I tend to think of autonomy not only in terms of “are the consequences of my actions acceptable to others in my household/community/nation?” but also in terms of “what options do I have now, and what will preserve options for Future Me?” Autonomy and optionality seem to me to be closely related. Financialised craptialist markets give consumers myriad “choices”, but the model is still that your only option for procuring what you you need is by selling your labour and paying for goods and services.

      And so — I will always need to eat, but producing some of my own food gives me more options and insulates me to a degree from price spikes. I will always need to wear clothing, but being able to make some of my own and mend items I love gives me options that don’t involve having money. I will always need to wash, but… well, I haven’t got around to soapmaking yet but I do have enough soap to keep us going for a long time (bar soap is cheap and compact and doesn’t make a noise or need feeding or go off, much better to keep a good stock of that than, say, loo roll, which is bulky and not essential — if you have access to soap and water and a washcloth). I have access to a dip tank at the allotment but having 2000l of rainwater catchment means I really don’t need to use it very often. If I had secure access to more land, I would also have more options, more areas of strategic autonomy.

      Further, I think seeking this kind of autonomy from markets for myself helps people who don’t have the privileges and resources that I have. When there were shortages in spring 2020 I didn’t need to rush out and buy anything, which left more in the shops for those who really had no other option, and even meant I could make some food bank donations out of our existing stock. Growing and transporting some of my own food without the use of fossil fuels or poisons means lower emissions than otherwise, less plastic packaging, more wildlife habitat, and maybe even some carbon sequestration. Using rainwater instead of the mains-connected diptanks means slightly lower water bills for the allotment society, more water in the tanks for those who can’t harvest rainwater, and very slightly less need for water treatment chemicals at the plant.

      None of this is to say that I am entirely self-reliant in any sphere! But my point is that even this small amount of flexibility is beneficial. I don’t think autonomy is an on/off switch.

      • Thanks Kathryn. I’m glad you managed to resolve your Covid bubble crisis. I also appreciate the way you’re able to underpin the points you make here with ‘real world’ experience, something I often struggle to do!

        I take your point about the benefits of various autonomies against capitalist society. I think we largely agree that ‘autonomy’ is not a one-size-fits-all prescription.

        I also appreciate the importance of being able to escape abusive family life when necessary, and I think it’s something we’ve both discussed on here before. But even in households that feature mutual respect and care there is a good case I think for questioning any primacy accorded to the nuclear family.

        Love and care, when restricted to the tramlines of the nuclear household (as capitalist society tries to do), can be very lonely and dispiriting. Cultivating new possibilities for care, extending it and therefore one’s own autonomy into broader human communities is surely a prospect worth carrying into a small farm future.

        • Andrew, I absolutely agree about cultivating new possibilities for care and extending that into broader communities! I don’t think Chris intends that “autonomy” should exclude that kind of community involvement.

          My household of three adults is not a nuclear family: it’s me, my spouse, and our housemate (who is my age and who I’ve known longer than I’ve known my spouse). Thinking about it, most of my local neighbours also aren’t in nuclear family situations; it’s just not a place where every house has two parents and a small number of kids. Even the families with children don’t necessarily fit into the nuclear family mold, either becuase there are more adults, or because there are many more children, or because of some other complicatedness. And of course, I grew up in a “blended family” setting, traveling back and forth between two different sets of parents (at times over quite long distances), with either no siblings, or one, or three, depending on where other children in the situation were at the time.

          So I definitely prefer “household” to “family” in these discussions, mostly because people hear family and think of kinship as defined by white Western modern society, but I think it’s usually more complicated than that. I suspect the nuclear family model is unrealistic even now. There could, of course, be a peer selection effect at work here, where most households that are families with children mostly engage with other households that are families with children, and the rest of us mostly engage with… well, everyone else. But I don’t think my situation is that unusual.

        • Kathryn wrote, “So I definitely prefer “household” to “family” in these discussions”

          I would prefer that “family” doesn’t cover only nuclear families, or even DNA-based families, since they have no monopoly on love and heartfelt long-term relationships. Though I see a bit of a dilemma because connotations favour the traditional usage of words.

          What terms would we use instead of “family farms”? Household farms? But then what about the farms worked by multiple households (which could all be part of the same family)? Collective farms? Communal farms? Cooperative farms? These terms have some other connotations (such as state-run, or a legal category for business entities) which could be as confusing as “family farm” and taken the wrong way.

          So I don’t know.

          • I think “household farms” could work. I agree it would be nice if people thought in terms of a more expansive definition of family, but I don’t hold much hope for that happening in the midst of everything else.

            I think the other thing I like about “household” is that it does include some level of mutual commitment on the part of the adults living there, at least in the practical aspects of living together. Some families that are more geographically distributed seem to have aspects of mutual support, too, but I think this can be much more variable. Even my most supportive biological relatives can’t come round and help with a plumbing problem (or whatever) if they’re on another continent.

          • But if the point is to divorce the farm from any expectation of the form of social grouping responsible for it, you don’t need a new term. The key point is surely the size of the farm, so I’d stick with established vocabulary: ‘small farm’ or ‘smallholding’.

          • Well, despite Chris having previous stated that he’s a “lumper” by inclination, he still kept the distinction of “family” in “small family farms” when he wrote that he is “someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer” (in the essay above).

            But yes, in the past he has also left out the family and referred to “small mixed farms.”

          • Family/household/farm. It’s an interesting and important question. I’ve already written a fair bit about it but I think I need to ponder more and come back to it again in the future.

            On a personal level, I live in a single-family household on a multi-household farm community, but on land that I exclusively own with my wife. I like the community/multi-household aspect, but if the economics of land were more sensible and more conducive to homesteading, I doubt things would fall out so easily this way. There would probably be more local commons – but those are pretty hard to create, manage & maintain, as I’ll shortly discuss. Economically significant good neighborliness might also be more common – but so might bad neigbourliness. I think the consequences of commons difficulties and bad neighbourliness may reinvest concepts of kin and family with significance.

            On this question of family, I understand the queasiness about it among left/’progressive’ thinkers and their reasons for this, but I find their tendency to dismiss kinship out of hand as a basis for social organisation rather over the top, problematic in its own way and often enough a gift to the right in making ‘the’ family in its own image.

            So although indeed I’m a ‘lumper’ in being happy for the households of household farms to compose themselves in any number of different ways of their own choosing, I think an account of household farming that fails to take family and kinship structures seriously as common modes of household organisation or tries to dismiss them as somehow wrong and inappropriate reveals its own analytical limitations.

            Also, family and kinship are powerful metaphors. As I’ve argued previously – https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/commons-and-households-small-farm-future – and along the lines that Malcolm discusses above in terms of given-ness vs chosen-ness, I think a small farm future is going to involve more weighting towards ‘given’ than chosen relationships (another iteration of the ‘individualism’ issue), and a goodly part of this will likely be expressed through kinship idioms.

          • Another reason biological kinship potentially becomes very important in a low-energy future with mostly smaller settlements is that without easy travel, it gets that much harder to find a co-parent who doesn’t share most of your genetic material already.

            I have no problem with households or farms arranging themselves along biological kinship lines, as long as households arranged in some other way are also possible. But I think this kind of thing was possibly more common pre-modernity than we sometimes assume.

  13. Thanks for further comments, especially to new commenters. Apologies for my slow moderation. I’ve decamped briefly to Scotland for various reasons, not least COP26, so will need to keep things reasonably brief.

    In no particular order:

    Derrick – Thanks for your interesting observations. Just to clarify when I say ‘food and fibre’ the ‘fibre’ part as I see it includes wood and organic fuels generally. And since you mentioned Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Simon Fairlie, just to say that discussions of all those weighty figures are in the offing here.

    Andrew – not so regarding Thomas Spence just yet, whose contribution I have somehow missed. I will try to follow up. Regarding your reframing of my point to avoid according primacy to household over community, yes I’m happy with it in principle but I think there are some practical problems, to which I have no good solutions. If it’s not feasible for people to establish themselves as semi-autonomous homesteaders, then the primacy is with the community (which ultimately could and probably will become the ‘community’ of global consumers) which will squeeze whatever it wants out of the countryside and its residents. If, on the other hand, it is feasible for people to so establish themselves, then it can often be quite easy for them to pull the ladder up behind them and establish a closed landowning caste. Therefore establishing some community control is a good idea … which takes us back to the first problem. I wrestle with this a bit in the book, and perhaps will discuss it some more down the line. The solution no doubt is a moral economy of some sort, the issue then being how to form that politically.

    Malcolm (and others) – I take the points that various people starting with Sean have made about the problems with the use of the term ‘individualism’. I guess I felt the need to stretch a point to make a point, but I agree this needs more careful unpicking than I provided above. I also agree with your points Malcolm about the balance between given and chosen relationships – which takes us into similar dilemmas as the farmstead vs community one just discussed. I don’t entirely agree regarding capitalism and competition. I accept that capitalism has its competitive aspects, but fundamentally I see it as a system of state/private-corporate monopoly alliances geared to capital accumulation which increases the longevity of the corporate players far beyond what would happen in a more truly competitive situation – not just a game with successive rounds of winner takes all.

    Larry – I think you make a useful distinction between homesteading and farming, but then it focuses attention all the more on the question of scale. Maybe it’s true that commercially successful small farms exploit workers, public health, the environment and/or animals. It’s certainly true of commercially successful large farms, so why does Mock aim her guns at small farms specifically? And why does she think that co-ops operating under the same commercial pressures that generate those bad outcomes in private small and large farms will somehow be exempt from them?

    Col – thanks for responding – I’d certainly be very happy to chat about it over a pint at some point (or maybe a skinny latte at the Rye Bakery) so do let me know if you’re in town! I think if we did, we’d probably get to a point where there wouldn’t be much difference between us in terms of agreeing on the need, in your words, for the resource base of the land to be held communally, but perhaps also on the need for people to hold strong personal rights of private appropriation of that communally held base (as in open field systems, which are mostly not tended communally). That takes us into a discussion about what communal holding of the resource base means in practice, which I hope to discuss shortly in another post. Still, I take your point about the internal colonization of the Highlands agrarian economy. More to say on that, but perhaps not just now – as discussed with Andrew recently, in the case of England I think the emphasis on enclosure and privatization of land tenures, especially later parliamentary enclosure, as a watershed moment in the demise of a collective moral economy is rather overstated, but I think you’re on much firmer ground in making that argument in the case of the Scottish Highlands. Hopefully something to discuss with you in more detail sometime!

    • Sorry, I forgot to respond also to Eric’s interesting wheat growing examples. We shall definitely need to talk more in due course about moral economies, or even – whisper it – rental agreements…

    • Thanks Chris, I take your point about swinging between the extremes of autonomous households and global ‘community’ – what we try to build between them seems crucial. I look forward to your future posts on this, especially a development of the notion of ‘moral economy’. Like the ‘public sphere’, there seems to me a danger that it might be understood as a kind of ‘ethos’ rather than the result of deliberately cultivated political structures and relationships – and as you say, the difficulty is how to form them.

  14. Family kinship usually has stronger bonds than cooperative membership. In Sarah Mock’s “Why I Left Sylvanaqua Farms”, which Chris mentioned earlier, she describes some surprise firings from the cooperative, coupled with evictions from the co-op’s housing. In a business with a workforce that’s interchangeable and mobile, it doesn’t seem very conducive for relationships based on caring, love, and heartfelt long-term obligations. A settlement of established families, on the other hand, seems like fertile ground for this type of relationship among those who are making a livelihood together.

    Chris wrote, “We shall definitely need to talk more in due course about moral economies”, and I look forward to this.

  15. Pingback: Property ownership in a small farm future - Resilience

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