The ancient commons

At the end of my last post I floated some questions about property rights and resource use, which I aim to address here – albeit obliquely – with a look at an old book about an old subject, but one that’s highly relevant to present day issues: historian J.M.Neeson’s Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. I’ll follow it up with another post or two about the concept of the commons and its relevance today.

Neeson effectively dispels, if indeed it still needs dispelling, Garrett Hardin’s misleading concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Instead she finds in England up to the 1750s and persisting beyond, a village-based common-field, common-pasture and woodland/wasteland peasant agriculture which she describes as “an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture” in which “the common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.” (p.156). I’ve written before about rural romanticism: it’s a trap that Neeson most certainly doesn’t fall into. She has no illusions about the tough and deeply inegalitarian realities of peasant life in 18th century England. But she’s alive to the complexities of the peasant commons and their importance to people who vigorously defended their way of life against the ultimately victorious encroachments of the enclosers. Indeed, she shows how the damaged trope of the ‘rural idyll’ still with us today has in some ways come down to us from the propaganda of the 18th century enclosers in their attempts to discredit the commons.

The level of detail in Neeson’s book probably goes beyond what most people lacking a specific interest in the period can easily stomach – so here I’m just going to paint in very broad brush a few things I learned from it that I think are relevant to contemporary issues around agriculture, environment and society.

1. The Commoning Ecology. In a society where access to land and its resources for ordinary people was relatively scarce (mostly because landownership was heavily concentrated), by partitioning usufruct rights out across the community commoning created numerous ways in which people could at least partially self-provision with food, fuel and other necessities through mechanisms such as gleaning in the fields, taking snapwood from the forests and grazing livestock on the commons. Put another way: in a society where energy was scarce and everyday needs had to be provided from local resources with few imports, the commons maximised sustainable resource use by partitioning out access to various local resources, albeit without challenging the basic pattern of resource ownership. I’ll come back to this point in an upcoming post.

2. The Commoning Economy. Notwithstanding the inequality, commoning included fine-grained ecological complementarity between economic classes in situations of energy/fertility scarcity: for example, the right of commoners to graze livestock on the headlands of ploughed land, thus making best use of available grazing while adding fertility to the fields. Commoners spanned a range of economic standings, from the near destitute to the comfortably off within the village economy. One argument in favour of commoning was that, by allowing the poor to raise livestock they couldn’t otherwise have afforded, it provided them with an income that kept them off the poor rate and enabled them to spend money in the village economy to the benefit of other local economic agents such as shopkeepers, blacksmiths etc.

Nevertheless, in 18th century England there were plenty of (wealthier) people who had reason to oppose the commons – usually on the basis of one of two somewhat contradictory positions. The first was that the commoners were mired in poverty, and it would be better for them to work as labourers for others where they would likely earn more as wageworkers than they would as independent proprietors. The second was that commoners weren’t poor enough – their access to the commons enabled them to live a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, making them reluctant recruits to the proletarian labouring that many of their social superiors desired for them. “The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence” in the words of one 18th century report, but after enclosure would follow a “subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted” (Neeson, p.284). Not much wanted by the commoners themselves, though: a Northamptonshire petition, for example, lamented the “small but comfortable Subsistence” that would be lost with the enclosure of the commons. Other contemporaries argued that enclosure “impoverished twenty small farmers to enrich one” (Neeson, p.22) and that it would “tend to ruin ye nation”. The evidence marshalled by Neeson indeed suggests that enclosure typically brought further concentration of landownership and greater poverty to erstwhile commoners.

Herein lie two different economic models. There’s the model of the enclosers, the nationalists, and the modernists – a model of the lowly worker integrated into a large industrious society, a cog in the machine who, though subordinate, can expect a little of the largesse to come their way. And then there’s the model of the peasant or the commoner, a proprietor, thrifty, frugal, and not well off – but independent, and beholden to few. It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson; Marxism versus populism; or, as I’ve framed it elsewhere Kshatriya (king) versus Vaishya (farmer) values. In the 18th century, arguments raged not only over the morality of turning commoners into proletarians by fiat, but also over the respective agricultural productivities of the two models. That argument still continues.

Of course, these ways of life were connected to wider economic currents. In Neeson’s analysis, the relationship between the peasant commoning economy and the emerging wageworker capitalist economy in 18th century England is complex – indeed, the relationship between peasantries and capitalisms historically throughout the world has been highly complex, and in a future post I’ll be looking at Giovanni Arrighi’s fascinating analyses of this. But by century’s end, commoners in England were in retreat: widespread enclosure had led to a further concentration of landownership, and an increase in indigence and proletarianization. It’s worth noting in this connection the arguments of historian Emma Griffin, whose book Liberty’s Dawn, I reviewed in an earlier post: according to Griffin, few industrial labourers in early 19th century England expressed any nostalgia for the rural, agricultural life they’d left behind. Well, maybe Neeson helps us understand why: their forebears had mostly been shunted off the land a generation or two earlier. If you’re already a landless proletarian, you might as well be an industrial landless proletarian – the pay’s better (at least while the industrial economy is growing), and it’s easier to organise with your fellows. But, as Neeson amply demonstrates, the enclosures of 18th century England were fiercely resisted by those who stood to lose out from them.

3. Agricultural ‘Improvement’: I doubt the resonance of the 18th century enclosure debates in England with earlier and later incarnations of agricultural ‘improvement’ need much spelling out from me. John Locke justified the European expropriation of America from its indigenous inhabitants with a proto-encloser argument about the idleness and unproductiveness of the Indians. And today it’s not hard to find people urging the demise of a putatively unproductive and inefficient peasant agriculture – send them to the cities, where they can get proper paid work! Nowadays, the anti-peasant tone is paternalistic rather than critical: nobody wants to be a peasant anyway – it’s a “poverty trap and an environmental disaster” (Stewart Brand). Or “urbanization is often the only way out of the drudgery and insecurity of subsistence agriculture on the land. No doubt, many have been forced to the city as a result of corporate land-grabs, but many more make their way there in search of a better life not available in the parochial traditional village” (Graham Strouts).

An anonymous defender of the commons writing in 1780 suggested that an encloser had first to deceive himself about the value of commons: he must “bring himself to believe an absurdity, before he can induce himself to do a cruelty” (Neeson, p.38). The absurdity is the belief that because peasants or commoners can fall on hard times, this is a chronic and intrinsic limitation of small-scale proprietorship (another one I’d add is the apparent belief that small farm expropriation is a good remedy for small farm poverty). The cruelty is the expropriation. There’s a lot more that needs saying about the concept of “the parochial traditional village” and the voluntaristic, Dick Whittington image conjured by the neo-improvers of peasants lighting out for the city in search of a better life. But for now I’ll just say that the 18th century encloser/improver discourse in general and the absurdity/cruelty couplet in particular neatly captures the putatively anti-poverty and complacently anti-peasant language of the contemporary neo-improvers. I’m unsure as to whether their get ye to the city schtick represents a genuine belief in the enriching power of the city (for which there’s not a great deal of evidence) or is merely a (cynical?) ploy in favour of proletarianization and the disciplining of labour. Perhaps both: doubtless 18th century enclosers genuinely believed that their programme would uplift the rural poor by incorporating them as dependents into a hierarchical national and international economy. Doubtless 21st century enclosers believe the same.

I’m not myself an admirer of agricultural ‘improvement’ generally. I’m not convinced that enclosure actually did improve agriculture in late 18th century England, and I’m not convinced that the proposals of the latter day improvers to replace peasant agriculture with giant mechanised arable production will improve 21st century agriculture. But that doesn’t mean I think a commoning agricultural economy of the 18th century sort is appropriate today. I’ll turn to the contemporary commons in my next post.

PS: apologies for the advertising hyperlinks that seem to have appeared in this post. Looks like there’s some kind of security/hacking problem that I’ll have to try to figure out – in the mean time, the irony of writing a post about the commons which gets subverted by others for private gain is quite amusing, no?


Spudman goes west

Time was when every virile young man such as myself was enjoined to go west and start up a small farm enterprise. Damn right, for as a superb recent article on the Statistics Views website outlines, small farms are usually more productive acre for acre than large ones. I may just have to write a blog post on that soon.

In any case, some time ago an invitation arrived in the Small Farm Future office for one of the team to go and talk at the Canadian Organic Growers’ conference in Toronto. I was far too busy myself, so I sent my faithful deputy, planning department-fighting superhero, and general alter ego Spudman. And so it was that two weeks ago Spudman upped sticks and headed west, first to Iceland and then ever more westward still to Toronto. Finding himself too late to stake a homestead claim in downtown Toronto, he booked into the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel and attended the conference instead. Then he obsessively monitored the local weather on his widescreen TV. Frederick Jackson Turner will be spinning in his grave.

In fact, I didn’t intend to post anything up here about his trip, but Spudman learned so many interesting things while he was away that I feel the need to post in summary form ten points about the trip as placemarkers for lengthier treatments at some point in the future.

1. Spudman had fascinating interactions with David Montgomery, author of Dirt, and of the forthcoming The Hidden Half of Nature, and with Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. about, er, soil food webs. Food for soil is food for thought, but there are dilemmas involved. Expect a blog post soon.

2. Spudman also came across Thierry Vrain and his work on the dangers of glyphosate, which I think is interesting not only in itself but also because of what it tells us about science politics. Ditto.

3. Spudman briefly discussed the Yellowstone supervolcano with a noted geologist at the conference. What’ll happen if that goes off, Spudman asked. Hmm, he replied, well that’s unlikely but if it does it’ll be the end of civilisation. Memo to self: enjoy each passing minute – you never know when a volcano may go off. Metaphorically. Or literally.

4. And talking of civilisation, ends and beginnings, and of ecological catastrophes, Spudman read a bunch of books on the trip and acquired a few more in the course of it, all on that general theme. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Riddley Walker, On The Great Plains, From Prairie to Cornbelt, Nature and the English Diaspora, Independent People. The attentive reader will note that there are even a couple of novels thrown in there. Oh yes, Spudman does have a cultural side. More blog posts coming right up…

5. Spudman used to avoid flying on climate change grounds, but for various reasons that I’ll probably explain on here at some point he’s softened his stance on this a little in recent years. Then again, flying over Greenland at 38,000 ft he was struck by how easy it was to see the detail of the landscape below and how little atmosphere there was above. What a thin little skin it is that we all rely on so fundamentally. May just have to harden up that stance again…

6. …though talking of climate change and Greenland, the whole damn place was covered in ice. Did Spudman see any signs of melting ice as he flew overhead? No sir, he did not. Now that’s the sort of thing that counts as rock solid evidence on denialist websites. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, warmists.

7. …and talking of ice and warmth, let me report some latitudes and temperatures from the trip: Toronto, 44oN, -21oC; Frome 51oN, 9oC; Reykjavik, 64oN, -1oC. Thank heavens for the briny, and the North Atlantic Drift. Long may she flow.

8. Ah, Reykjavik. Ah, Iceland. Spudman saw pastures still turned to bedrock lava by the Vikings, when centuries ago their overgrazing of sheep allowed the arctic winds to blow the light volcanic soils to smithereens, never to return. Memo to self: do not overgraze your sheep, especially if you keep them in Iceland. Which I don’t. On the other hand, Spudman saw a single hydroponic hothouse enterprise furnishing something like 20% of the country’s hothouse veg, all powered from ‘green’ geothermal sources equivalent to the energy needs of a small town. Well at Small Farm Future we talk a lot about the concept of progress, and here at last we have incontrovertible evidence for it. Memo to self: if you want to run a successful market garden, be sure to place it on top of a giant plug of red hot magma. Then again, see point 3…

9. According to my tour guide, farming bombed in Iceland post war when farm women all decided to move to Reykjavik and get proper jobs. Now most farmers raise the famous Icelandic horses, which they sell at vast profit to rich Americans. There must be some kind of point relevant to this blog to be made there…

10. And, hot from the same source, I can report that Iceland was the world’s first democracy. It also comprised at the time all the chancers, dreamers, outlaws and ne’er do wells who couldn’t get by back home in Scandinavia. There too I think there must be a point to be made. Why I’m very sure of it…

Just another bloody day: thoughts on ‘Liberty’s Dawn’

A few thoughts in this post on historian Emma Griffin’s recent book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution1, which touches on many themes relevant to this blog.

From a close study of memoirs and autobiographical texts written by ordinary people caught up in the British industrial revolution, Griffin argues that industrialisation did not deskill and impoverish working people – as in the still-popular ‘dark interpretation’ of the industrial revolution associated with such figures as E.P. Thompson2 – but on the contrary raised incomes and provided fertile conditions for them to develop forms of religious and political association that enabled them to organise around their interests and help create a national public sphere as active participants rather than as a passive lumpen mass. Griffin’s autobiographers display no conspicuous nostalgia for the world of rural agriculture they lost, but instead embrace the new world of urban, industrial opportunity emerging around them.

This all sounds like an unpalatable history lesson for those like me who advocate a less industrialised, small scale farming society as a solution to many of our contemporary ills, and perhaps it is – it’s a compelling book in some ways, and I don’t want to try to shoot it down simply out of narrow partisanship. Still, there are a few gaps and question marks over Griffin’s analysis that I’d like to raise. Perhaps more positively, I’d like to find a way of incorporating her insights into a better small farm vision for the future.

So first the gaps and question marks, many of which Griffin herself acknowledges. Most obviously, however humble their origins the people who wrote down their memoirs were probably atypical members of their social group and had likely steered a more successful personal course through their turbulent times than those who left nothing to posterity, even if ‘success’ here might mean nothing more than being a stalwart of the Sunday school or the local reading club. Though Griffin acknowledges this, I’m not sure she takes it seriously enough in generalising from her findings. But let’s put such tedious methodological quibbles aside and for the sake of argument assume that her autobiographers speak for the majority in their sunny tales of industrialisation.

Another issue, which again Griffin acknowledges, is that the main working class beneficiaries of industrialisation were adult men. For children pressed into earlier and harsher industrial service than their rural farm counterparts, industrialisation was, in Griffin’s own words, “a disaster”3. The story for women is complex, but although young women in the industrial areas were beneficiaries of factory work, marriage usually ended their tenure as independent wage labourers and reallocated them to the familiar role of dependent domestic workers. Griffin often pauses her narrative to insist she’s not saying it was all a bed of roses, but even so for me the notion of industrialisation as ‘liberty’s dawn’ rides pretty roughshod over the evidence that Griffin herself is presenting in instances such as these. And this is doubly true for the fact that her analysis never strays beyond Britain’s shores: consider the half million slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century producing sugar for the British working man’s tea, and consider also the unsavoury details of how that tea came to him4. As Britain began to flex its muscles as a global superpower, its liberty dawned an awful lot brighter for some than for others – and a good deal of evidence suggests that Britain’s industrial takeoff was funded in large measure by the toil of its colonial dependents5. This question of globalisation presages another issue that Griffin touches on but scarcely discusses: the more that you’re tied in to a global economy, the less control you have over your economic circumstances. The boom times are great, but what about the busts? The weaver William Thom took to the roads with his family in the 1830s when “in one week, upwards of six thousand looms in Dundee alone” fell silent6. Not much liberty there.

Coming more directly to the issue of farming, Griffin argues – convincingly in my opinion – that working people at the dawn of the industrial revolution were glad to see the back of a rural farm life involving chronic underemployment and subjection to the rural landowning classes. But let us be clear what rural life involved in eighteenth century Britain. Capitalism began in the English countryside in the sixteenth century7, and by the eighteenth agriculture was a thoroughly capitalist affair, with an essentially landless rural proletariat engaged in wage labour for landowners themselves pressurised by the vagaries of the market into cutting input costs and shedding labour wherever they could. The new urban proletarians were not trading in a life of jolly peasant autarchy for the cold discipline of the factory – they were trading in one kind of dependent wage labour for another, and better paid, kind.

I suppose you could go looking further back into history to try to find the jolly peasant autarchs, but it probably wouldn’t be wise.  Raymond Williams effectively satirised the search for the real, authentic countryside at some ever-receding point into the historical past in his book The Country and the City8. So let me accept Griffin’s history lesson and agree with her that there’s little to be gained other than a sense of wistful romanticism in supposing that preindustrial society holds a complete template for our future wellbeing (not, of course, the same as saying that jolly peasant autarchs have never existed, or that there’s nothing useful to be learned today from preindustrial times). But let me also point out, as I’ve done on this blog before, the dangers of a reverse romanticism in the ideology of ‘progress’, which identifies an axial point in the past to which we owe our present success and our future greatness. Griffin wholly falls into this trap, arguing that “It has been a very long time since the critics of industrialisation could plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth” (p.16) and  that, in the future, “Each generation will live longer, enjoy greater levels of material comfort, eat a more varied and exotic diet, and have more possessions” (p.241).

Well, to my mind it’s actually rather easy to plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth. And to project limitlessly increasing wellbeing, material comfort and material possessions betrays an alarmingly ahistorical failure to appreciate the limited trajectory of the very particular modern economic ideology associated with capitalist industrialisation. How can we mock those who imagine a perfect past and a miserable future, and then simply invert the temporal ordering of this ideology to imagine a miserable past and a perfect future? But I shall leave all that aside for now, because I want to return to ideologies of progress more explicitly in another post.

Industrialisation was different from what went before it, and Griffin does a good job of describing the new working class cultures that emerged in its wake. But maybe one can overstress the significance of industrialisation per se. The main story Griffin tells of industrialising Britain is the story of economic growth. In fact, even that is controversial: other historians such as Jan de Vries and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that the evidence for economic growth in England’s early 19th century industrial revolution is surprisingly thin, and that the disciplining of labour (Thompson’s ‘dark interpretation’) was a more salient driver for its restructuring of work9. But leaving that aside, is Griffin saying anything more telling than that in times of economic growth and full employment things can go pretty well for the ordinary working person, and specifically the ordinary working man? I’m not sure that she is. Even so, that story in itself raises tricky questions for a contemporary agrarian populism of the sort I espouse because I think Griffin could be right that it’s difficult to generate all that much of an economic surplus in agriculture alone, even in capitalist agriculture – let alone non-capitalist agriculture. And perhaps she’s also right that it’s easier to achieve working class self-organisation in the unified public sphere potentiated by industrialisation and urbanisation than in rural farm society. That also seems to be David Satterthwaite’s main argument for the benefit of urbanisation in poor countries today10.

I’m not so sure that the relative ease of political organisation in towns is the greatest argument against small scale farming. And I’d argue that the public spheres which emerged in urbanising early modern economies aren’t entirely positive, because they easily give rise to nationalisms and other such mystifying ideologies. Small farm life historically has indeed tended to be materially spartan and inequitable, an inequity that has presented considerable challenges to rural working people in organising to achieve their goals in the face of landowner power. But it’s not as if peasants have always and everywhere failed in the pursuit of these goals, as the work of people like James Scott attests. Scott writes that the peasantry is

“a class scattered across the countryside, lacking formal organization, and best equipped for extended, guerrilla-style, defensive campaigns of attrition. Their individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital”11

Others have even argued that such forms of peasant agency can create new and more sustainable forms of labour-intensive capitalism – an argument that I want to explore in more detail in another post12.

The peculiar social structure of eighteenth century Britain at the point of industrial takeoff reflects the outcome of prior class struggles which had already created a class of vulnerable wage labourers without significant access to land and self-provisioning. It’s not surprising that some of them at least were enthusiastic about the new economic opportunities that then came their way with industrialisation. But to me this hardly deserves the sobriquet of ‘liberty’s dawn’. Quite apart from the travails of people elsewhere in the world who toiled in servitude to fulfil British interests, and quite apart from the busts that inevitably attend the booms when global capital imbues everyday economic relations, the economic uptick of industrialisation (if indeed that’s what it was) was surely just another bloody day in the long historical standoff between capital and labour. And in the global long run it has still led to wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and the ecocidal consequences of endless economic growth. The challenge for a contemporary agrarian populism is to map out a society where there can be wellbeing without excessive economic growth, a focus on sustainable agrarian production and social equity in the means of that production. It’s not an easy task, and Griffin teaches us that we shouldn’t look to eighteenth century or preindustrial Britain for a good model of how to achieve it. But what she fails to show, in my opinion, is that such models themselves are not worth aiming for.



1. Griffin, E. 2013. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale UP.

2. Thompson, E. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

3. Griffin, op cit, p.83

4. Blackburn, R. 1997 The Making of New World Slavery, Verso; Mintz, S. 1986 Sweetness and Power, Penguin.

5. Heller, H. 2011. The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.

6. Griffin, op cit, p.39.

7. Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

8. Williams, R. 1975. The Country and the City. Oxford UP.

9. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge UP; Voth, H-J. 2004. Living standards and urban disamenities, in Floud, R. & Johnson, P. eds. Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol.1, Cambridge UP.


11. Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance Yale UP, p.xvii

12. Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

Nature’s Matrix: or, of foreigners and Englishmen

My opportunities for writing blog posts are cruelly curtailed at the moment while I try among the other crazy things I do to make a living growing vegetables and to build a house that I’ll have to take down again in 3 years, so apologies for my present intermittency. But I haven’t been altogether absent from the blogosphere – against my better judgement, I got myself involved in another damn golden rice debate on Steve Savage’s blog. This truth I know: don’t debate golden rice with its many ardent fans – the insult to insight quotient will overwhelm you with its toxic magnitude. Still, I might try to derive a few worthwhile lessons from this sorry episode in my next post.

Meanwhile, a much more interesting debate arising from my previous post ensued between Clem Weidenbenner, Ford Denison and myself – at first here on Small Farm Future and then on Ford’s Darwinian Agriculture blog. How refreshing to be able to disagree respectfully with someone and learn from them, in marked contrast to the golden rice brigade… Perhaps one difference lies in debating with actual scientists, who are interested in testing ideas, rather than with people who simply wish to invoke ‘science’ as a magic incantation in support of existing positions. Ah well, more on that next time.

Anyway, time I think for one last walkabout around the theme I’ve been exploring these last two blog posts, for I feel I’ve not yet answered the question Patrick Whitefield posed after my first post – what’s a ‘good’ ecosystem, and what’s a ‘bad’ one?

To be honest, I’m not sure I can answer that, and I’m happy to let the conservationists and ecologists fight it out over the metaphors of flux and balance as applied to wild ecosystems, so long as they don’t go to town on either of them too much, as I previously argued. Consider, for example, this tale told by a friend of mine, who recently had a visit from what he called the ‘Himalayan Balsam Police’ – a local voluntary group of balsam-bashers who informed him that he had too much of the noxious exotic on his land, and threatened to report him to the authorities when he asked them to leave a few plants untouched for his bees. This doubtless exemplifies the problem pointed up by Emma Marris’s ‘everything grows’ critique. It also encapsulates the best and worst of Britain – the proliferation of voluntary groups and the concern for the environment are definite strengths, whereas an unhealthy obsession with the authenticity of the past, the evils of foreigners and ready recourse to higher powers go firmly on the debit side.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the debate about heritage and the built environment – it’s nice to preserve some old historic buildings, but if you obsess about preserving everything from the past and outlaw almost any new developments you paralyse and reify your society. Part of the preservationist impulse no doubt springs from observing the godawful, cheap, jerry-built crap that passes for architecture in contemporary Britain. But maybe it’s better to focus the activism on improving the new architecture rather than clinging on to the old.

Hold that thought, and now apply it to agro-ecosystems. An excellent book by Ivette Perfecto and colleagues1 previously mentioned on this blog argues that local species extinctions are commonplace: what’s required is the in-migration of other conspecifics from the wider meta-population in order to restore the local population. For this to happen, it’s necessary for the agricultural matrix in between islands of biodiversity or fragments of wild ecosystems to be sufficiently wildlife-friendly to allow migration: a traditional cabruca cacao farm might fit the bill, whereas a giant soya monoculture probably wouldn’t. The book’s focus is tropical, which is where most of the world’s biodiversity and most of its people are, but it would be interesting to consider it in the temperate, post-wilderness context of a place like modern Britain. While the likes of Ford Denison have convinced me that there may not be an awful lot to be gained by polycultures or intercropping at the level of the individual garden bed or farmed field, the likes of Perfecto et al convince me that there probably is much to be gained by diversity at the level of the farm, and the wider farmed landscape. To substantiate that would doubtless require a lot of ecological research, some of which has already been done, with mixed results (though it’s tended to focus on comparing conventional with organic farms, not with small, mixed, ‘agroecological’ holdings)2. But there are wider issues at stake than how many butterfly species you find in two fields from your two respective farm systems. Since there are so many other economic and social benefits to a diverse, small-scale, locally-oriented, peasant rather than productivist agro-ecosystem, until someone proves my suppositions wrong I’m inclined to take Perfecto et al’s analysis as a decent bit of prima facie evidence for the combined ecological, economic and social benefits of small-scale diverse agro-ecosystems in temperate as well as tropical climates (in fact, they make this argument explicitly in the case of tropical agriculture practised by low income small farmers).

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I? Maybe it’s just a case of confirmation bias on my part. And that brings me to the topic of my next post… In the mean time, perhaps I’ll just echo Tom’s sentiments of a couple of posts back, and close with the thought that the good agroecosystem is the agroecological agroecosystem. Now repeat three times.


1. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2009) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

2. Eg.; Bohan, D. ‘Managing weed ecosystem service provision’

A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

Here, belatedly, is my promised follow up to the preceding Rambunctious Garden post. I’ve been travelling recently, and found myself sharing an old-style train compartment with a curious fellow who introduced himself as ‘Nick’. With the faint goaty aroma that enveloped him, his suspiciously round shoes and the bumps on his head poorly concealed with a demotic flat cap, it didn’t take me long to figure out who he really was. I like to think I managed to hold my own with him, but here at any rate is the transcript of my conversation with the old devil.

Nick: So, Chris, what are you reading there?

Chris: It’s a couple of blog posts by an agronomist called Andy McGuire.

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

  • the view that agriculture should mimic nature is based on the mistaken notion that there is a ‘balance’ in nature
  • ‘balance of nature’ ideas assume that ecosystems are in equilibrium, that they operate in accordance with meta-local rules and display emergent properties. None of this is true.
  • these ideas also mistakenly impute complexity and optimisation (or ‘nature’s wisdom’) to ecosystems, including the idea that pests are best controlled by retaining a complex agro-ecosystem
  • thus, finally, (and quoting Andy directly) “If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random…we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services.” The lesson, in short, is the one that gives Andy’s post its title – ‘Don’t mimic nature on the farm – improve it’.

Nick: I’m not your student, you know – you can spare me the bullet points.

Chris: Sorry.

Nick: But I like the cut of his jib. So nature’s not in balance, eh? It’s all randomness, disorder and chaos.  I like that. I like that a lot.

Chris: Yes, I suppose you would. But that’s the first of my problems with his arguments. Manichaeism is all very well in religion – you know, heaven and hell, God and the Devil…

Nick: (splutters) Look, I was just a plain member and citizen of the celestial community, OK? The fact that certain fragile-egoed upstarts don’t like hearing truth spoken to power is not my fault.

Chris: Yeah, Nick, whatever. But leaving that aside, in the natural world there’s surely scope for some shades of grey. I mean, Andy seems to take the view that ecosystems must be either wholly optimised and in balance, or else wholly random. This neglects the surely more plausible possibility that they might be partially optimised and in balance, but also subject to random occurrences. His analysis draws heavily on Ford Denison’s work1, which makes the important point that organisms are more optimised than ecosystems because natural selection operates on the former and not the latter. That makes sense, but the fact that there’s a powerful optimisation mechanism acting on organisms doesn’t mean that they’re wholly optimised or in balance. By reverse logic, the fact that the optimising forces acting on ecosystems are weaker doesn’t mean that there is no optimisation.

Nick: Well, maybe. But then you’d have to specify what those external optimising forces at work in the ecosystem actually are.

Chris: Not necessarily. It’s possible for there to be emergent forces resulting from the interactions between the elements of the ecosystem which have that effect, without invoking some additional agency. I mean, for goodness sake, just take the evolved morphology or behaviour of predator and prey species, like wolves and bison. You can’t understand it as a sui generis form at the level of the species – it only makes sense as an emergent interaction between the species. And that’s just a simple dyadic relationship – there are so many additional complexities, some of which we probably don’t even know about, whereas others such as the ecology of keystone species or disturbance/stability dynamics we do. And yet McGuire argues, with little substantiation, that there are no emergent effects in ecosystems. You don’t need to hold to some strong Clementsian superorganism type view of ecosystems to argue to the contrary – I think those examples I’ve just given suffice, or Grime and Pierce’s arguments about the evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems2. And I do wonder why people get so het up trying to disprove emergence in ecosystems. In economics, a discipline far more wedded to methodological individualism than is possible in biology, nobody seems to quibble about the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as an emergent property despite its quasi-mystical overtones.

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

Chris: Yes, Adam Smith’s doctrine that people pursuing their own narrow self-interest in the market unwittingly produce socially beneficial aggregate outcomes.

Nick: People acting just for themselves produce social good? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in ages!

Chris: Don’t worry, Nick – there are plenty of critics who argue that the invisible hand is more like an invisible foot, in which the mere pursuit of self-interest produces more collective misery than deliberate attempts to cause social harm3.

Nick: Now you’re talking!

Chris: Anyway, my point is that McGuire’s creating a straw man. If you look at the way people have articulated the ‘balance of nature’ concept, it’s much more sophisticated than some mystical notion of a steady equilibrium state. Look at people like Aldo Leopold or John Vandermeer or J. Baird Callicott – they don’t construe ‘balance’ at all in the way McGuire charges. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Callicott says, but he makes a lot of interesting points about emergence and balance in his essay on the topic4 – including that “stability is a notoriously ambiguous concept in ecology, and has more recently been parsed into several more specific concepts – persistence, resistance and resilience” (p.124).

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

Chris: Well, that’s as maybe, but a couple more points about this. First, while writers like Emma Marris and Andy McGuire are keen to distance themselves from Clements and pin their colours to Gleason’s standard, some of the people they cite in their favour like Stephen Jackson are much more ambivalent: Jackson says that while he considers ecosystems to be fluid and contingent, he also considers them to be entities with particular attributes and processes that are repeatable in space and time – and that Gleason and Clements aren’t quite the polar opposites that are often supposed5. By the way, he also reckons that ecosystem assemblages usually hang together only for about 12,000 years or so, which might be encouraging news for malcontents of civilisation and its unholy alliance of Homo sapiens with cereal crops.

Nick: Well, I like unholy alliances…but, oh, the fun I could have if that happened. (Collecting himself) Anyway, your second point?

Chris: my second point is that it might be better if we stuck with the quantifiable ecological science of concepts like resilience or resistance. Otherwise we just start yelling our preferred metaphors at each other. ‘Nature’s in balance!’ ‘Oh no it’s not, it’s in flux!’. Balance, schmalance, flux, schmux. This isn’t science, it’s just mythologisation.

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

Chris: You would say that, wouldn’t you, otherwise you’d be out of a job.

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

Chris: Yes, people need their myths and their shorthands. But as I suggested on Andy’s blog, the ‘balance of nature’ myth, though problematic in some respects – including real world cases such as the removal of indigenous peoples from nature reserves – is less problematic than the ‘flux of nature’ myth, which has been used through the ages to justify might is right, and the defeat of countless relatively sustainable agricultural systems and peoples in favour of destructively productivist ones. It’s not just me that thinks this either – various ecologists have pointed to the dangers of the ‘flux of nature’ metaphor along the lines of the ‘anything goes’ problem I identified in my previous post6. That’s why I think Andy’s post, despite I’m sure his noble intentions to articulate a scientific truth as he sees it, strikes me as ideologically loaded. It buttresses humanity’s already well developed tendencies towards hubris in supposing that it’s a simple thing to design human-improved ecosystems.

Nick: Yes, well if it weren’t for human hubris, my job would be a darned sight harder. But since you mention ‘human-improved ecosystems’ let’s talk about agriculture, which you haven’t really mentioned yet. Andy’s main point surely is that you can’t rely on the ‘balance of nature’ myth to design good agricultural systems. I mean, ever since I got humans kicked out of Eden (heh, heh), they’ve had to get by through agricultural systems that rely on humanity’s infernal ingenuity to improve on what the natural world can offer, and not through ‘mimicking nature’. Ford Denison is surely right that it’s misguided to mimic nature – things like perennial grain crops just ain’t gonna work.

Chris: Let’s try to unpick this carefully. So first, yes of course any type of agriculture is an ‘improvement’ on nature from a human point of view (or at least from the point of view of those humans practising it), though I don’t see how it can be described as an ‘improvement’ in any other transcendent sense. Nothing new there. I think what Andy’s really gunning at is the notion that we can best improve on our agro-ecosystems by better mimicking nature. In some situations, I’m sure he’s right. In others, I suspect he isn’t. I don’t think there are any cast iron laws of agro-ecosystem assembly that rule nature mimicry in or out. At one level, all agro-ecosystems involve nature mimicry: we’re a long way from creating purely synthetic food, much as the prospect appeals to some. At another level, I think Andy is using Denison’s ‘misguided mimicry of nature’ point misguidedly. Take perennial grain crops. If Denison is proved right that the perennial grain breeders will be unsuccessful – and I suspect he will be – the reason won’t be because the breeders erred in trying to mimic nature. It’ll be because they erred in not mimicking nature enough. To put it crudely, in nature we find short-lived, prolifically reproducing species and long-lived, cautiously reproducing species – not long-lived, prolifically reproducing species. Farmers have made use of this by, for example, rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys – that’s a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem. But trying to keep your perennial grains and eat them? I’m not so sure. There are loads of other examples of good nature mimicry in agro-ecosystems, like mob-stocking to mimic the grass-ruminant-predator relationship I mentioned previously, or the research on the relationships between ants, scale insects, parasitic flies, ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps in traditional coffee production systems which suggests counterintuitively the need to retain ants in those systems7. Andy may not consider these things ‘complex’. Well, they’re complex enough for me, but what really matters is that there’s enormous scope for improving agriculture by mimicking nature. Denison’s point, surely, is not that it’s necessarily misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

Nick: OK, OK – so there’s a role for nature mimicry after all. Are we done yet?

Chris: Nearly, Nick, nearly. One last point. A nice thing about Denison’s approach is that he’s very attuned to tradeoffs in a way that I think Andy’s posts miss. We may be able to ‘improve on nature’ in agriculture, but what are the costs? If I were trying to develop a new pumpkin variety, I’d probably want to improve on nature by hand pollinating my plants. If I had some kind of high value crop in a polytunnel, maybe I’d improve on nature by deliberately importing some pollinating insects. If I had a five acre field of these plants, I’d hope nature would just do the job for me. Maybe we’ll get into a situation where we’ve messed with nature so much that it’ll stop doing some of these jobs for us – in fact we’re probably already there in some cases. I think it’ll be hard for us to assume responsibility for many of these ‘ecosystem services’ at as low a cost to us as nature has provided, but as a thought experiment suppose we had to choose between a mini-drone we’d devised that could pollinate all our crops better than insects at virtually no cost, or the insects themselves…which choice, and why? Is the human ‘improvement’ of nature the obvious way to go here? Not to me. There’s also another tradeoff I’d highlight that I think Denison misses  in a comment picked up by Andy when he says “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems…is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom’” (Denison, p.106). Maybe that’s so in the sense that there’s no wise superorganism type ecosystem in a strong Clementsian sense, but I think Denison misses the opportunity here to apply his tradeoff approach, understood as “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p.44). In human agroecosystems it’s easy to import extra inputs, but this usually imposes costs of various kinds elsewhere in the total system. Are tradeoff free improvements achievable through increasing the flow of exotic inputs, or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible hand’ in the exotic input market? Maybe, but how often? The tradeoff if we let exotic inputs get out of hand is the speed, scale and uncertainty of anthropogenic change, not to mention its social costs, which Denison in fact alludes to and so do most of the other ecological writers I’ve already mentioned. That’s where the ideological character of the ‘flux of nature’ myth becomes troubling, because it intersects so readily with the hubristic myth of human overcoming.

Nick: Yeah, well there’s a lot of those folks living down my way. What was it God said to me just before he banished me – “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within”8. Wish I could have quoted Adam Smith to him back in the day. But anyway, if you’re so down on the flux of nature metaphor, what alternatives do you propose?

Chris: I think we just need to be careful about any metaphors for nature that we use, because they never capture the entire reality that we have to deal with. I agree of course that we need agriculture, and that the ‘balance of nature’ myth isn’t always our best guide, but sometimes it is, and the ‘flux of nature’ myth can also be seriously misleading. We just have to tread a very narrow path in designing agroecosystems, and always keep in mind social goals (what kind of society is this agriculture ultimately for?) as well as just productivity goals. But sometimes I think any kind of human living involves a Faustian pact of one sort or another – we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Nick: Well, that’s really made my day. Thanks, Chris – it’s been great talking to you.



1. Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.

2. Grime, P. & Pierce, S. (2012) The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford.

3. Hunt, E. (2002) History of Economic Thought, Armonk.

4. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Do deconstructive ecology and sociobiology undermine the Leopold land ethic?’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond The Land Ethic, Albany.

5. Jackson, S. (2006) ‘Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems’ Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549-55.

6. Eg. Pickett, S. and Ostfeld (1995) ‘The shifting paradigm in ecology’ in Kinght, R. and Bates, S. (eds) A New Century For Natural Resource Management, Washington DC; Perfecto, I. et al (2010) Nature’s Matrix, London.

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

Well, an air of normality has returned to us here at Small Farm Future. A combination of sunny weather and endless meals of Clem’s slug stew have put those pesky molluscs on the back foot and enabled us to get some plants established at last. The money I paid for the potato planter has returned to me (though not, alas, the planter: now I know what people on ebay mean by the term ‘time waster’). And the hordes of permaculturists who were commenting on this blog a week or two ago seem to have departed to graze on other pastures. So what do we do now? Well, we go on, ploughing our lonely furrow.

My next few posts, then, are concerned as promised with the ‘balance of nature’ as applied to agriculture, which I briefly debated with Andy McGuire in response to some blog posts of his on this topic. As a preamble, I’m going to look specifically in this post at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden1, which touches directly on this issue, and which Andy cites in his posts.

I have to admit that I approached the book with some trepidation: it has an endorsement on the dust jacket from celebrity eco-panglossian Stewart Brand, and has also been enthusiastically commended by other foot soldiers from that warlike tribe. The dust jacket hails the book for its ‘optimism’ (usually a bad sign – I’ll post something soon on the important difference between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’).  And it seems to be rapidly becoming a touchstone work by people championing policies that I find questionable. But notwithstanding all that I enjoyed reading it and found a good deal of Marris’s analysis persuasive.

That analysis, in a nutshell, is that much ecological thinking and conservation work is based on the idea of restoring natural environments to some kind of baseline state of ‘balance’ which has been upset, typically by human activities of recent origin. But this is an impossible aspiration, first of all because the evidence suggests that human activities (and ‘human’ here may even refer to pre Homo sapiens species in our genus) have always and inextricably been associated with profound transformation of the natural world, and secondly because ecosystems are never in balance anyway but are always an unstable congeries of organisms buffeted by random events and destined not to endure. In this respect, Marris reprises a venerable argument in ecology between Clements (he of the ‘climax vegetation’ and ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’ school of thought) and Gleason (of the ecosystems as random or ‘stochastic’ agglomerations of individuals school).

Well, the Gleasonians seem to have the upper hand in ecology at the moment and one merit of Marris’s book is that she spells out the implications. These are, essentially, stop moralising about pristine ‘untouched’ wilderness and embrace anthropogenic effects.  Don’t get too het up about ‘invasive species’, let anthropogenic nature take its course, enjoy the buddleia and the sycamore, the novel juxtapositions of organisms in ‘self-willed land’ (an appealing term, but a pretty problematic one for a Gleasonian…). Indeed, given the randomness of natural ecosystem assembly, you may actually find that anthropogenic ecosystems perform better than their wild predecessors, as for example on Ascension Island where the monotonous plain of ferns preceding human agency has now been replaced by a fully functioning cloud forest.

In short, everything grows in the rambunctious garden, and we should let it – we must relinquish our human notions of pristine nature and natural balance.

I think I can live with most of that. It’s probably easier for those of us hailing from what certain Americans call ‘old Europe’, where we can’t even pretend to have any significant remaining pristine wilderness, and where there’s been no recent history of explosive human colonisation. Richard Mabey’s book The Unofficial Countryside2 laid out the same basic thesis for us quite some years ago, though it’s true that even here conservationists do fuss rather about ‘native’ species.

This ‘everything grows’ thesis represents the weak narrative of Marris’s book (not ‘weak’ in the sense that it’s a bad argument, but in the sense that it’s a less radical position). But she also articulates a stronger narrative, perhaps inevitably. For once you’ve kicked away the foundations of ‘balanced’ natural ecosystems, embracing the Anthropocene  and the patch-disturbing antics of its guest star Homo sapiens, it becomes a bit difficult to know where to stop. Nature has no ultimate goal, no telos, and humanity is a part of it – therefore if nature has no balance either, then really anything goes. There are no criteria for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate human interventions in the world, a point made by ecologist Mark Schwartz, who Marris cites (p.80) as follows,

“Without a baseline we have no target. Without a target, every kind of management, including those that result in lost native species is arguably a success. I fear such success.”

Me too, Mark, me too. It’s an onerous business, playing god, and most gods with a successful long-term track record go about it by laying down some ground rules. Call it a covenant, if you will. And here Marris misses a trick by failing to engage with the import of religious traditions that have done this – “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden” she enjoins, without apparently realising that the lack of stability and the consequent difficulty humans face in making good choices is exactly the problem articulated in the Eden story, and the problem her own ‘anything goes’ analysis bequeaths us (this very point is further examined in my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’). Although Marris clearly does want humans to make good decisions on behalf of the biosphere as a whole and not go charging around like a bull in a china shop just because we can, her ‘anything goes’ logic rather pulls the rug from under her feet in finding criteria with which to make those good decisions. Nor does she have a great deal to say about farming, surely the arena in which making these decisions vis-a-vis the wider biota is paramount.

Still, even though the ‘anything goes’ position is quite challenging to those of us who advocate small-scale, local, largely mixed organic farming, it does have its up side. For of course it blows out of the water the so called ‘land sparing – land sharing’ debate, which is often used to critique relatively low yielding organic farming for its potentially greater land take. If anything goes, if ‘self-willed’  (or any-willed) land has no intrinsic inferiority to ‘pristine wilderness’, then there’s no virtue in land sparing. As Marris puts it: “More than sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers, novel ecosystems are really wild, self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential” (p121). She later writes: “Don’t ignore green, growing land just because it isn’t your ideal native landscape. Protect it from development, even if it is just a “trash ecosystem”. Build your cities in tight and up high, and let the scenery take over the suburbs” (p170).

Oh, hang on a minute. That last bit doesn’t sound much like a land sharing argument! And come to think of it, counterposing ‘sickly’ wilderness with ‘really wild, self-willed land’ doesn’t look like a very impressive effort at getting the anthropocentric moralising out of ecology. How did we get from ‘anything goes’ to ‘everyone blows’, an argument for cleansing the countryside of people and packing them tight in cities (whose ecological credentials, as I’ve argued here and here, are usually assumed rather than proven)? Now, I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but Marris’s ‘everyone blows’ conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, unless perhaps she’s playing a fiddle for the eco-panglossians, amongst whom the likes of Stewart Brand (he of the dust jacket endorsement) are happy to dismiss the rural peasant life of something like a third of the global population as, quite simply, ‘over’ on the basis of no significant evidence whatsoever.

Nope, give me anything goes over everyone blows. And give me everything grows over anything goes. For indeed I think that reports of the balance of nature’s death are somewhat exaggerated. I’ll say more about why in my next post – essentially that Clements versus Gleason isn’t quite the polar opposition it’s sometimes painted, and that too singular a focus on species-level dynamics is no less incomplete than too singular a focus on ecosystem-level dynamics. In fact, Marris herself frequently invokes notions of ecosystem ‘balance’, as when she argues that there’s a tradeoff between reproductive success and stress tolerance which is likely to enable native species to claw back niches from invasive exotics in the long-term.

You might reasonably ask how commonly she invokes such notions. But then I might reasonably ask for a bit more quantification of this sort in her own analysis. As a not terribly quantitatively-oriented social scientist by training, my own publications, like Marris’s, are full of phrases like ‘as many analysts have argued…’ or ‘the research tends to suggest…’, but on the rare occasions I’ve submitted papers to more technically-oriented journals I’ve generally been asked to sharpen up my act and provide a bit more quantitative precision. Take the Ascension Island example. Given that it’s pretty hard to find land anywhere on the planet quite as remote from other land masses as this speck in the South Atlantic, I don’t find the ‘stochasticity’ of its native flora and the possibilities for ‘improving it’ too surprising. But if you were to survey all the floras of the world and assess them against the same yardstick, how many of them would appear equally ‘improvable’ by human agency? Not so many, I suspect – and that’s before we even get into the debate about what ‘improvement’ really means. Much the same points can be made about exotics/invasives.

Ah well – I like people who stick their necks out and try to nail an interesting argument rather than getting too bogged down in over-cautious evidence-weighing, so long as they engage politely with other views and follow the basic rules of analysis. In that respect, I welcome Marris’s book. But its talk of ‘improvement’ does ring a few alarm bells, for the same reasons I touched on recently when I talked about the legacy of ideologies of agrarian ‘improvement’. My own writing has sometimes been accused of being ‘ideological’, which I’m fairly comfortable with since I don’t believe non-ideological writing is possible in the main. The danger of supposing that it is is in thinking that one’s superior contemporary insight can replace the error of past scientific misunderstandings – now revealed as contaminated by the political concerns of their day – with the clear-sighted truth of the present.

You don’t need to be a genius to see the trap awaiting there, especially in a book like Marris’s which places such a heavy political accent on certain ecological metaphors while seeking to overcome others. And indeed, just occasionally as I read, I fancied I saw a fugitive John Locke, that pioneering agricultural improver and proto-panglossian champion of human overcoming, disappearing amongst the written words as he whispered his excoriations of wilderness and waste into Marris’s ear. For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?3

And to cap it all, there’s that darned dust jacket quotation from Stewart Brand…



1. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.

2. Mabey, R. (1973) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller.

3. Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, II, 37.

Who owns the future?

Following on from a recent post of mine and from Clem’s comment therein about thinking of food and land in terms of private property with protections through the rule of law, I’ve been musing a bit on this issue and thought I’d mention a few things here that touch on it.

One of them is an interesting article by Guardian journalist John Harris called ‘The Tories own the future – the left is trapped in the past’. Leftwingers of the Twitterversity were quick to brand him a traitor to the left but I thought much of the article was bang on, even though I’ve got to say that it seems to me the Tories are trapped in the past too. Disclaimer: John is a near neighbour of mine here in Frome and a tireless campaigner for a relocalisation of the economy, but I don’t know him personally and carry no particular torch here.

I won’t dwell at length on all the implications of John’s article. What particularly struck a chord with me was his argument that the Conservative party is embracing a notion of trying to keep up in the ‘global race’, in which the industrious, the supple and the adaptable will be rewarded, while the lazy, staid and complacent will be punished. Witness Nick Clegg’s repeated derision for what he calls the ‘stop the world I want to get off’ view (OK, I know Clegg isn’t strictly speaking a Tory, but c’mon, let’s not split hairs). This plays to a common national self-image of hardworking, go-getting, self-reliance, in contrast to the moaning about welfare rights and protecting public services associated with the traditional left. It’s a more modern and globalised take on the way Margaret Thatcher pinched the working class vote from Labour in the 1980s by appealing to everybody’s inner shopkeeper (of course, there’s something of an affinity between shopkeepers and peasants, the latter being this blog’s favourite kind of people – shame that Thatcher lost touch with her inner peasant, and opted to help usher in neoliberalism rather than neopopulism).

One major problem, though, is that Britain’s chance of winning the global race, or even getting a sniff of the podium, is zero (some other nice articles in the Guardian recently, such as this one and this one have pointed out contrarily how working people generally are very well aware of this, and pursue other goals when possible). Ha Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism explains why quite effectively. And David Harvey’s book The Enigma of Capital, which I’m currently reading and will post something about soon, explains why we probably shouldn’t be trying. Whatever the case, the Coalition’s lack of a Plan B means that we’re skating on thin ice.

In terms of my personal politics, I like the traditional left’s emphasis on civic amenities, its ethic of community-wide care, and its recognition that it’s morally wrong (as well as politically short-sighted) to condone major and persistent inequalities. But I’m also drawn to somewhat more rightwing sensibilities: shit happens, you have to make the best of it without trying to find somebody to blame and the best way to do it is to cultivate your self-reliance. I’ve found my current occupation as a self-employed farmer highly educative in relation to this latter set of values, and I think it would be good if a lot more people did it. I’m under no illusions that I’ve achieved a significant degree of self-reliance, but farming has certainly helped me both develop my capacities of self-reliance and appreciate my limitations in respect of them. To obtain protection from weather, clean water, a healthy and fertile soil, a stock of domestic animals and plants, fuel and machinery, and, ultimately, food and fibre for myself and money for other things by selling food to others is no easy thing, and it ties me to the labours of so many other people living and dead.

My suspicion is that many people with well paid jobs and grid-connected homes in thoroughly domesticated neighbourhoods who talk about the virtues of self-reliance really have very little clue about what that truly means, and how the kind of anti-collectivist policies they advocate render self-reliance impossible for a huge swathe of humanity. Many such versions of ‘self-reliance’ really are nothing of the sort: they’re a distorted culture of narcissism, as discussed with a remarkable prescience towards my analysis by the late American cultural historian Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism. And the pro-globalisation, anti-‘stop the world’ rhetoric represents an almost millenarian belief in ‘progress’ as an ideology, a kind of true and only heaven: a concept of mine again astonishingly prefigured by Lasch in his book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. Harvey is also very good on the rhetoric of liberty, self-reliance and privatisation masking what he calls the “incredible centralisation of wealth and power observable in all those countries that took the neoliberal road”. But, as I say, more on Harvey soon.

So when, inevitably, we lose the global race, when we find that the global bus indeed has not stopped for us, what then? Harris talks of the demise of steady wage labour, the ageing of the population, and the increasingly problematic reach of the central state as key problems for the left to confront. It’s interesting to put them into the context of a relocalised food economy and a repeopled farming sector. I’m noticing youngish, well-educated thirtysomething people wanting to get into farming because they sense that it’s an issue for the future and because they can already see that the writing’s on the wall for notions of a steady and fulfilling career as employees in the information society. A young guy here in Frome is setting up a herb business, because there’s no other way he can find work. One of the problems for we latter day agrarian populists is that it’s difficult to argue for a mass people’s movement of farmers, when less than 1% of the population is in farming. But maybe running and then losing the global race will hasten the emergence of a repeopled farming community. It won’t be easy trying to wrest the farm estate from landed wealth, and then insulating ourselves from free trade ideology without thereby giving it back to the landed aristocracy by the back door. Still, I’m hopeful that these young people or later generations of them will succeed, be able to farm, and be able to judge the success of their on-farm actions in relation to their wider social projects, as per the ideas of Paul Richards I mentioned in another post.

Anyway, I think I agree with Clem’s instincts that private property with protections through the rule of law generally isn’t a bad way to go – not because private property is universally desirable, but because it’s a model that we understand well here and that has certain benefits so long as we make sure the legal protections are good and we don’t put the economists in charge. On this front, I had an interesting little discussion recently with Ford Denison on his Darwinian Agriculture blog about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept. As I suggested there, my feeling is that left-leaning enthusiasts of common property regimes are way too romantic about what those entail in practice, but right-leaning enthusiasts of private property regimes are way too romantic in their turn about the capacity of private property to deliver public goods – they also tend to mythologise concepts such as competition and efficiency, though both have their place. I subsequently came across Simon Fairlie’s brilliant historical analysis of common property regimes in Britain (after which Hardin modelled his influential but misleading ‘tragedy of the commons’ concept) and their destruction through enclosure. The ‘Private Interest and Common Sense’ section towards the end is especially thought-provoking. So yes, private property with protections through the rule of law undergirding a people-intensive farming sector is something I’d like to see, but as a way of delivering community welfare, not as an a priori economic ideology. The difficulties and contradictions of realising it is something I’ll try to come back to in future posts – and the unfulfilled promise of 19th/early 20th century agrarian populism in the USA touched on by Clem and Brian’s discussion is a key legacy to reckon with.

In the mean time, here’s a novel thought in answer to the Cleggist programme of trying to win the global race:

the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Spudman backs up: or of household production, tractors and peasants

Maybe time for a quick post from down on the farm, so here’s a picture of part of our new farmhouse being shunted into position.

Well, I know it’s not much of a farmhouse, but I can only refer you to Mendip District Council’s Local Plan, Policy DP13, which insists we have to erect a temporary building with no foundations that must be removable after 3 years. “In this way”, to quote from Mendip’s document, “We will make it as difficult as possible for hippy upstarts with ornery ideas to get their foot in the door of England’s green and pleasant land, thereby saving the timeless and unchanging beauty of the countryside, with its oil seed rape, maize silage and temporary ryegrass leys, for the aesthetic edification of passing motorists and dog walkers, or those rich enough to buy farms whose purchase price far outstrips the value of all the produce that can ever be grown on them ”. OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit…

In any case, what you see before you results from the fact that Mr Mobile Home Relocator pronounced the platform we’d provided for it unfit for purpose, leaving us to move the darned thing the last critical 30ft ourselves after undertaking the necessary remedial work. Trouble is, whereas he had something like a 200 horse 4wd John Deere c/w hydraulic front linkage, our own dear little 50 horse 2wd Ford c/w only marginally hydraulic rear linkage that you see pictured decided it was more interested in aimlessly spinning its wheels on the track than putting in the hard yards to move the home. Fortunately, with your blogmaster Spudman pushing with the Ford, the intrepid Mrs Spudman tugging with the mini digger, and our lovely WWOOFer Teresa standing in between waving her arms about to pass communications between the Spudpersons in an increasingly desperate but I’m pleased to say ultimately successful effort to prevent the onset of major domestic disharmony, we managed to get it into place. All we need now is water, electricity, a few more walls and roofs, a large bookshelf for my collection of rare tomes on global agrarian history and we’re good to go…

Regular readers of this blog will probably think I’m building to some larger point about the present state or future prospects for farming on the basis of this homely tale.

Nope. I just thought you might like to see a picture of my new house.

Oh go on then, you twisted my arm. How about the following?

This website’s predecessor was called ‘Vegboxpeasant’, but I changed it to Small Farm Future on the grounds that (1) At that particular juncture, I was no longer actually selling veg boxes, and (2) I was worried that I couldn’t rightly call myself a ‘peasant’, given the typical definition of peasantries as joint family labour oriented to household production.

Happily, I can report not only that I’m now back in the veg box business, but that – as you can clearly see from the picture – my family’s labour is most definitely oriented to household production at present, in a rather literal sense.

Of course, I accept that as an owner-occupying truck farmer with the princely total of 18 acres at my command, farm labourers clamouring to work on my holding for the price of a meal, and another 500 or so (usually) willing labourers tucked under the bonnet of my trusty-ish Ford, I guess I’m a rather privileged peasant, and would no doubt have been ripe for liquidation as a kulak in Stalin’s Russia. But as Clem Weidenbenner pointed out on this website in a different context a few weeks ago, when it comes to classification there are lumpers and splitters, and I do think there are things to be gained by lumping folks like me in with all the other peasants. Those things, specifically, relate to political solidarity and common experience.

On the political solidarity front, I’m happy to be going up to London on 17 April – the International Day of Peasant’s Struggles – to demonstrate with my friends in the Land Workers’ Alliance outside the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, asking it to pay more heed to small scale farmers here in the UK, and through our connections with our global umbrella organisation Via Campesina with the wider world. This article on the ‘peasant’ concept expands a little on the issue.

On the common experience front, well I don’t doubt there would be many differences between me and a poor peasant farmer picked randomly from a low income country, but I like to think that there would be some commonalities of experience on the basis of our mutual efforts to feed ourselves and other people via the vagaries of food markets. Paul Richards makes the following interesting comment in this regard:

“It is an obvious characteristic of small-scale resource-poor farmers that there is little scope (however orthodox economics might wish otherwise) to insulate the farm from other aspects of existence. This embeddeness is a feature of all people-intensive small-scale farming systems, irrespective of whether output is for market or household subsistence. Members of the farm household in these circumstances judge the success of their on-farm actions by whether they further their social projects more generally”.1

A nice point from a great thinker on small-scale farming, whose Indigenous Agricultural Revolution2 is still just about the best book I’ve read on the subject of peasantries, and how they’re typically misunderstood by the agricultural improvers who wish them into oblivion for their own good, and also often enough by sympathisers who wish to preserve them in aspic as remnants of a more authentic age or elevate their agricultural knowledge to the level of mystical truth.

Anyway, I for one certainly judge the success of my on-farm actions by whether it furthers my social projects more generally (a good thing too, because to be honest at the moment that’s just about the only thing that’s keeping me ticking as I toil away on the house and the land towards rather uncertain goals). For me, this blog has become an important part of attempting to think through what those projects are. So I’ll be returning to more serious matters in my upcoming posts…time permitting. One of which probably ought to involve taking a closer look at the labour that gets done on the holding by volunteers and by machines. But before that, first we need to talk about populism, and then about the balance of nature and the rambunctiousness of gardens.


Richards, P. (1993) ‘Cultivation: knowledge or performance’ in Hobart, M. (ed) An Anthropological Critique of Development, London: Routledge,

Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London: Hutchinson.

The Country And The City: From London to Chicago

Well, the rains have ceased for now, the waters are receding, and the tractor is primed for its 34th season (God willing). But perhaps I’ve just got time to share some thoughts on two classic books of a similar vintage to my trusty Ford. They’ve languished for too long in my in-tray, but the idleness enforced by the sodden early spring has enabled me to catch up with them at last. Both of them as it happens are on the subject of the country and the city. One of them, appropriately enough, is The Country And The City (1973) by the English (OK, Welsh) cultural critic, Raymond Williams. And the other is Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991) by the American historian, William Cronon.

I’m not going to attempt any kind of précis of these two great books. With all due apologies to Messrs Williams and Cronon, I’m just going to go magpie and steal a few of their shiniest points in order to line a few positions of my own – positions on history, urbanisation and technology which I’ve possibly over-worked a bit on this blog in recent months. Ah well, one more turn of the crank before moving onto some new themes. And so to work.

City vs country?

‘City’ and ‘country’ are too easily invoked as polar opposites, typically enchaining a whole series of other metaphorical contrasts: wealth/poverty, future/past, optimism/nostalgia, social mobility/social stasis, hi tech/manual labour, down-home values/loss of cultural identity etc. Such contrasts are singularly unilluminating – partly because the country and the city create each other (consider the cowboy, the epitome of non-urban rugged individualism, as a servant of the industrial meat-packing business), and partly because a more complex historical reality lurks behind the metaphorical contrast. As Williams puts it: “Between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment. We must begin differently: not in the idealisations of one order or another, but in the history to which they are only partial and misleading responses.” Amen to that.

From rural capitalism…

In the case of England, that more complex history basically involved the rise of an agrarian capitalism which progressively destroyed the character of pre-capitalist rural life. And good riddance to it – let’s say that loud and clear, because there’s a fine line between defending the old country ways and defending the old aristocratic order that underpinned it. Nevertheless, the couplet of the old, repressive countryside stuck in its customary ways versus the new, forward-looking, liberating city which has plagued analysis over the last couple of centuries really must be rejected.  Certainly, for those able to transcend the derision of the rural shared by metropolitan intellectuals across the political spectrum, in British history there can be found a “precarious but persistent rural-intellectual radicalism…hostile to industrialism and capitalism; opposed to commercialism and to the exploitation of the environment; attached to country ways and feelings” (Williams, p.36). Also awaiting discovery are rural working class traditions involving a love of country work, wildlife and the life of the fields, which feel no sentimental need to invoke past golden ages in the manner of more genteel writers (Williams, p.262).

Capitalism is not an inevitable economic form, nor is it the only alternative to landlordism or communism; it does not emerge ‘naturally’ if its path is not ‘blocked’1. Therefore, rural-intellectual radicalism combined with rural working class mobilisation in Britain could conceivably have taken the country in a wholly different direction. But the fact is, it didn’t. Agrarian capitalism in the countryside allied with the growth of London as a trading and, later, an imperial city, drove a relentlessly accumulative and class-conscious economic system. Arthur Young, whose Annals of Agriculture had been a major force in the consequent improvement of agricultural productivity, expressed his second thoughts thus: “I had rather that all the commons of England were sunk in the sea, than that the poor should in future be treated on enclosing as they have been hitherto”2.

…to urban meta-capitalism

And then there was Chicago. The farmers, loggers and labourers of the American west whose predecessors left a Europe caught between a dismal rural landlordism and a dismal rural capitalism became functionaries to a city empire that took the process started in London to a wholly new level. Chicago turned grain from a palpable foodstuff of the fields into an abstract liquid flow, first through the technology of grain-handling (railways, elevators) but more importantly through the conceptual innovation of derivative markets. It likewise turned meat from a product of local farmers and slaughtermen-butchers into prairie-raised, industrially-processed, globally-exported canned and packed meat products. And it potentiated the agricultural colonisation of the prairies by acting as an entrepôt for timber from the Great Lakes to make farming possible in the treeless plains.

The late 19th century debate over timber in Chicago is an interesting mirror to our own times. Having logged out the easy white pine, a debate arose about the sustainability of Midwest lumber, but the industry scornfully dismissed its detractors, using new technology (railways) to access the more recalcitrant reserves. Nevertheless, the industry indeed collapsed shortly thereafter. This was only a minor problem for Chicago, which by then was wealthy enough to diversify its economy and import lumber from further afield – caring little, presumably, for the sustainability of those reserves. As Cronon demonstrates, one of Chicago’s founding myths was its conquest of nature (“We will build a city where men and women in their passions shall be the beginning and end. Man is enough for man”3), entirely effacing its dependence upon ‘natural capital’ for its survival.  Writing of such 19th century concerns with progress, the overcoming of natural constraint and infatuation with technology, Cronon says “Our own faith in technology has been so chastened by our knowledge of Faust’s bargain – also magical, but finally hollow and self-destructive – that we may find it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of wonder as applied to so profane an object as a railroad locomotive”4. Personally I’d have to say: nope, the rhetoric of technological wonder is alive and kicking – take an effusive technological booster of the 19th century, transplant them to the present day, and what would they write? I’d suggest something like “Why dense cities, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, restored wildlands, radical science and geoengineering are essential”. And they’d be feted by legions of wishful-thinking acolytes.

In their different ways, London and Chicago dramatised what it meant to be a ‘global city’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries: I’ll tip my hat to their breathtaking self-confidence, opulence and achievements, even as I’ll look to the likes of Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair to inform me of their darker reaches. But it’s not just the darker reaches in the cities themselves, as explored by these writers – the point is that their tendrils gripped both ‘human capital’ and ‘natural capital’ throughout the world. This was the real secret of their opulence.

All the world’s a city

Bring it on, say the latter-day urban boosters. As Williams incisively points out, ‘the city’ has now become a metaphor for the whole world – the ‘developed’, ‘metropolitan’ nations are metaphorical cities to the rural backwaters of the ‘under-developed’, ‘peripheral’ nations5. Modern day technological boosterism believes we can all become middle class city-dwellers globally, while an automated agriculture does the hard work for us, and simultaneously protects nature (“Why dense cities, nuclear power, genetically modified crops…” etc etc), much as the boosters of 19th century Chicago believed its urban economic development brought benefits to all with no disadvantages. They were wrong then, and I think their descendants will be proved wrong again. It would help if they undertook serious analysis of urban economies, instead of the skin-deep platitudes offered by the likes of Stewart Brand6, which fall squarely into the ‘city on a hill’ rhetoric so expertly skewered by Williams. But that’s a topic for another post…

A new populism

Well, what’s the alternative? Certainly not what Williams calls a “false conservationist and reactionary emphasis which would…have the developing societies stay as they are, picturesque and poor, for the benefit of observers”7 (such a position informs, I think, the common and usually ill-directed accusation that opposition to contemporary capitalist development is ‘elitist’ or ‘reactionary’). In my view, an important alternative tradition is agrarian populism, and I’ll write more about this in another post. A sub-theme of Cronon’s book is the career of agrarian populism’s American variant, as embraced by many of the prairie farmers who fed the city’s markets. These farmers considered themselves to be the real producers of the city’s wealth, yet denied its fruits by a cabal of middlemen – railroad companies, grain traders, merchants and suppliers. They wanted a piece of that city magic, hankering after a rural agrarian life of technologically-enhanced leisure through scientific agriculture, learning and rural development. Like the British radicals, they failed. Well, maybe not entirely – they got the ‘scientific agriculture’ but not the rural development, as the 19th century American countryside emptied into the city and the suburbs. Which brings us back to the boosterism of our own era that I’ve already discussed, and its vision of an ecologically benign global suburbs.

For reasons documented on this blog and in many other places, I believe that vision to be flawed in numerous respects. I think the vision of the agrarian populists has considerably more promise, for all that it needs a thorough modern makeover – which I’ll start trying to get to grips with in another post. I don’t underestimate the difficulties of creating an agrarian populism for the modern day (some of which I touched on here). For one thing, as Patrick Whitefield pointed out on this blog a while ago, there aren’t too many agrarians around any more in countries like the UK and the USA and, undeniably, it’s hard to build a mass ‘people’s’ movement out of 1% of the population. Is the undermining of local agrarian economies by cities and larger trading networks of the kind described by Williams, Cronon and Geert Mak inevitable? Possibly. I want to reflect on that further, but I’m not wholly convinced by Cronon’s (albeit nuanced and critical) reliance on the rather mechanistic approach of central place theory to suggest so. In any case, I prefer a politics of the long haul over one of short-term expedience – maybe even politics as the ‘art of the impossible’. I can’t say that the emergence of a mass left-green agrarian populist movement of the kind I think we need to tackle global questions of social justice and environmental sustainability seems especially likely, but I can find a few reasons for cautious hope. And at this time of the year, cautious hope is about as much as any farmer ought to be harbouring as they look to the future.


1. Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999) The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

2. Williams, p.67.

3. Cronon, p.15.

4. ibid. p.73.

5. Williams, p.279.

6. Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline,  pp.25-73.

7. Williams, p.287.

Get big and still get out: Dutch courage for small-scale farming

I ought to be in overdrive right now getting ready for the new growing season, but the monstrous floods we’ve had here in Somerset have interrupted all my best laid plans. So apart from occasional acts of frantic ditch-digging, instead I’ve had a chance to catch up on my reading. And those doom-mongering greentards say climate change is a bad thing!

Anyway, one of the books I’ve read is Geert Mak’s An Island In Time: The Biography of a Village, which charts the history – social and agricultural – of a small farming village called Jorwert in the Netherlands. It’s a great book in numerous respects, not the least of them being Mak’s ability to avoid romanticising the agricultural life of the past while maintaining a nuanced scepticism about the agricultural developments of modern times. You wouldn’t think this was such a hard stunt to pull off, but it’s remarkably rare in contemporary writings about farming. Marty Strange’s book Family Farming is the best other example I know (plus Jan van der Ploeg’s work, of which more anon). The nice thing about Mak’s book, though, is that it’s less academic in tone – it’s long-form, eyewitness reportage, breathing life into the issues by telling us about actual people.

Mak addresses a couple of themes which are close to the concerns of this blog. Here I’m going to address the implications of one of them, namely changes in dairying, the dominant form of farming in Jorwert in modern times (it’s worth bearing in mind that, though small and relatively isolated, farming in the village has long been of a commercial kind, oriented to selling milk, butter and cheese to city folk in a highly urbanised society).

The story in essence is that circa 1945 a farm with 20-30 milk cows, hand-milked by around 3-4 workers would have been an average-sized commercial concern in Jorwert. That changed with the arrival of milking machines, bulk tanks and, later, milking robots. By the 1960s, a single farmer would often manage over 100 cows alone on the holding. In 1975, the last farm labourer in Jorwert lost his job. In the 1990s, herd sizes were larger still, but by then few Jorwert dairy farmers were still in business.

Now, you can argue that milking machines and suchlike make the job easier – doubtless there are few who would wish to return to the days of hand-milking – but they don’t just make the job easier, they also fundamentally change ‘the job’. From the perspective of the individual farmer, the milking machine is not a labour-saving device. It doesn’t mean you have to work less hard; it means that you now have to manage a bigger herd, in a different kind of way. And from the perspective of the farming community or of wider society, it means the loss of jobs and the loss of farms, in this case aided and abetted by government policy and the financialisation of farming that made capital rather than land or labour the new resource limit. A nice thing about Mak’s analysis here is that he sees through the rhetoric of efficiency or economies of scale that seeks to present agricultural modernisation as unambiguously positive. The large dairying businesses that survived in Jorwert became, in his words, “trapped in…a continual spiral of more investment, more production, more subsidies, more profit, and more investment again – because otherwise it all went to the taxman. The sheds filled up with tractors, combine harvesters, beet-lifters, water-spraying systems, pickup trucks, crop-sprayers, top-dressers, reapers, low-loaders, hydraulic shakers, silage wagons, feeders, cultivators, coulters, maize-cutters, crushers and whatever else had been thought up in the way of machinery”1.

A parallel development was the rise of confined pig operations in the area, in which thousands of pigs were raised on just a few acres using bought-in concentrate feeds. One of the many bad consequences of this was a vast excess of fertility unknown from the days of grass-fed dairying, which led to all sorts of sharp practices and pollution problems – an ongoing issue today in concentrate-dependent modern agriculture.

There’s much I learned from Mak’s analysis, but here I’ll confine myself to three brief points. The first, as I’ve already said, is that new technology doesn’t just make the job easier, it changes the job, and indeed very often destroys the job. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if there are new and better jobs available for the now redundant farm workers. Often, though, that isn’t the case – as the great Dick Gaughan reminds us, concern over the fate of labour has never been a conspicuous concern in the entrepreneurial drive to lower input costs (well, he puts it a bit more lyrically than that, but still…). And, as I’ve argued elsewhere in the light of Tim Jackson’s interesting work2, there is now a strong imperative in the context of climate change to move towards low carbon and labour-intensive economic activity. How would the different dairying systems in Jorwert past and present stack up against that metric?

Second, Mak’s analysis of the financialisation and mechanisation of dairy farming suggests to me that there’s probably a point at which the society-wide marginal benefits of these developments are exceeded by the society-wide marginal costs, and that farming in countries like the Netherlands (and Britain) has long been riding this downslope. My point, if it needs reiterating, is not that technological development is always a bad thing – it can be a good thing. But you can have too much of a good thing, particularly when it starts to undermine the social values that matter to people. A nice thing about Mak’s book is that he’s not too starry-eyed about the social values of his traditional farming community and the various suppressed conflicts embedded in them, but he doesn’t forget that ultimately it’s social values and not efficiency or returns to investment that matter most. How refreshing it would be to have a proper political discussion about appropriate farming scale, rather than the relentless peddling of the ‘get big or get out’ ideology. It’s not clear that increasingly large-scale modern dairying really does produce cheaper milk, but even if it does it’s not clear that the benefits of this outweigh the many social costs to actual people and communities. Somebody, somewhere can almost certainly produce what you do more cheaply. So what? Produce it anyway (scope here perhaps for a future post on the misleading way in which Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage is often invoked to critique the apparent inefficiency of old industries).

But, finally, perhaps herein lies hope for a smaller farm future. That, at any rate, is the position taken by another Dutch writer, Jan van der Ploeg3, who argues essentially that the ‘get big or get out’ trajectory of mainstream farming is starting to ingest itself as the marginal return downslope increasingly changes the narrative to ‘get big, and then still get out’ – the experience of many Jorwert dairy farmers. His research (also based in Friesland, where Jorwert is located) suggests that farmers adopting smaller-scale, biotic-cycling, community-oriented dairy farming can achieve better financial returns than those following the upscaling conventional dynamic. This, among other factors, is why he considers there to be a dynamic of ‘repeasantisation’ occurring alongside the dynamic of industrialisation in Europe. So, despite the connivance of government policy and skewed markets pushing the ‘get big or get out’ model, it may be that the input-output balance of farmers like me with my little old tractor, my vintage farm implements culled from ebay, and my band of merry local volunteers will be able to gain market leverage. ‘Use small and slow solutions’ as permaculturist David Holmgren says, ‘The bigger they are the harder they fall; slow and steady wins the race’4. Marty Strange has argued much the same in the case of American family farming. Well, at least it gives me some hope that I’m not barking completely up the wrong tree. Now all I need is to be able to get out onto my sodden fields and start doing some bloody farming…


1. Mak, G. (2010) An Island In Time, Vintage, p.79.

2. Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity Without Growth, Earthscan.

3. van der Ploeg, J. (2008) The New Peasantries, Earthscan.

4. Holmgren, D. (2002) Permaculture, Holmgren Design Services.