Industrial agriculture and giant monoculture farms dominate our food sector. But does it have to be that way? Could and should we build a new kind of food system based on small farms? This new book, ‘A Small Farm Future’ published by Chelsea Green, outlines what a post-covid, post-capitalist society might look like, built around a repopulated countryside of small farmers.
Author Chris Smaje joined the board of the Ecological Land Co-op as I was leaving it a few years ago, so although we haven’t worked together, we exchanged emails about some of the content for the book. So, as we’re drawn to the same organisations, and he thought my opinions relevant enough to mention me in the Acknowledgements section, it’s not surprising that it’s a book with which I wholeheartedly agree, and in which I can see potential for symbiosis with others working to build a new, decentralised, sustainable economy – including (and almost especially) the group of people I’m working with on mutual credit networks.
Chris walks the walk – he’s a small farmer, and the book is filled with nuggets of information that were new to me – about perennials, the calorific value of various crops and their productivity / yields per hectare, the pros and cons of having animals in the mix and the requirement for small, sustainable farms to provide their own soil fertility – fascinating stuff. However, in this review, I won’t go into the details of farming covered in the book. Instead I’ll focus on the kind of economy that a small farm future would be part of – the foundation of, in fact.
But it’s not ‘progress’ is it?
He talks about going forward to a small farm future, not back to a small farm past. However, there’s a movement of ‘ecomodernists’ that would certainly label small farms ‘anti-progress’, and Chris has a particular antipathy towards them, especially corporate cheerleader Steven Pinker. I can see why – how can you praise technological ‘progress’ and economic growth without noticing the ecological damage and wealth concentration that it’s causing?
Let’s keep the best – reduced infant mortality, human rights, the internet (although I’m not sure Chris is convinced about this one), but dump so much of what’s wrong with modern society. Some things you can’t improve on – what heating technology is better to sit around than a real fire, for example? What’s more beautiful than a thatched, cob cottage? And nothing is healthier for human bodies or for nature than local, organic food. We can take the best from all ages, understanding that older technologies aren’t necessarily worse (I feel that way about analogue radio and email, but let’s not go into that here). It’s about allowing people to live balanced lives – educated, but including physical work, close to nature. It’s not about repopulating the countryside with hillbillies.
There are three things that are essential for human well-being: fulfilling work, strong communities and healthy ecosystems. Capitalism just doesn’t take those things seriously, and so they’re being lost, because the only criterion for success is profit. Modern, large-scale agriculture destroys soil and wildlife, and uses vast amounts of fossil fuel energy. It’s not something that can continue if we want to survive, let alone thrive.
But not enough people want to be small farmers, do they?
When people retire, they often get a bit of land, get an allotment, garden, keep chickens etc. – things that they just couldn’t find a way to do it in their work life. And it’s not just about growing, but also craft skills, tinkering, bushcraft, DIY etc. Lots of people love to work with their hands – to make and fix things, grow things, create things. The kind of society with the most freedom is one in which people are allowed or even encouraged to follow the kind of lifestyle they want. But the current system really doesn’t make it easy for people to be small farmers. Organisations like the Ecological Land Co-op are trying to turn the tide, but it’s a slog and a perpetual battle with the planning system. That’s not freedom, that’s coercion – forcing people into cities and into meaningless work, or, as David Graeber called them, Bullshit Jobs.
Our food system involves misery for hundreds of millions of people working on corporate plantations, and for billions of animals in industrial agriculture. The quest for profit (via the 1960s ‘Green Revolution’) drove small farmers from their land and into urban slums in poor countries, just as it drove peasant farmers into Western cities hundreds of years ago. People who can’t feed themselves have to succumb to boring work in poor urban housing or starve. And now large farms in rich countries draw in lots of manual labour from poor countries, destroying community in both countries. A small farm future could make life better for the majority of the world’s people.
But small farms can’t feed the world, can they?
Actually, they’re the only way that can, ultimately. Industrial monocultures are destroying ecosystems, poisoning watercourses and removing soil, and don’t produce as much per hectare as small farms anyway. So not only can small farms feed us all globally – he goes into the some detail to show that the UK can feed itself, with no food imports and no synthetic fertilisers, even as our population heads for more than 80 million (although it would require big reductions in sugar, cereals and meat, and an increase in fresh vegetables, potatoes and fruit). As his model is better for our health and for nature, as well as for our communities and for providing fulfilling work, I think we need to have a good look at what he’s saying.
His vision of a UK agriculture that can provide this is diverse and locally-focused. We’d be eating in-season, local, organic food virtually all the time, apart from some preserves. It’s ironic that basic fresh, organic fruit and vegetables are starting to be seen as a middle-class luxury, when they’ve been a staple for even the poorest peasants forever. But they’re as easily deliverable now as they always have been, via networks of small-scale, diverse farms with fruit, veg, herbs, grass, trees, hedges, bees, maybe some cereals or a few animals. Having some cereals as part of the mix is a much more sustainable way to provide them. The modern reliance on cereal crops is due to their profitability and ability to be stored, transported and grown in huge monocultures that rely on large machines, pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. The Green Revolution reduced crop diversity, and now we have a dangerous reliance on just a few, and just a few varieties within those species – mainly wheat, rice and maize.
It’s wise to base food production on a large number of small, diverse farms that produce for local markets, rather than for global supermarkets that squeeze small farmers dry and suck wealth out of communities. And it’s definitely not wise to assume that we’re going to be able to continue to get such an essential resource as food from other parts of the world in the face of climate change, population growth and conflict.
But it’s not good for the economy, is it?
Not for this one, no – but this current, unsustainable, undemocratic, community- and mental-health-destroying economy is not good for us. It has to be replaced, as soon as we possibly can, with an economy that values work, community and ecology in ways that the current economy doesn’t. And as Chris is so eloquently saying, it has to be built around small-scale farms contributing to local resilience, health and community.
Chris makes the very important distinction between a C-M-C economy (you produce commodities, for money, or another exchange medium, which you use to get commodities that other people produce), and an M-C-M’ economy (you invest money in commodities that you don’t care about, with the sole purpose of making money). The former is sustainable, community-oriented and frankly, sane; the latter isn’t any of those things. More here.
There’s not the slightest chance that an M-C-M’ economy can stop or even slow down climate change or biodiversity loss, because it has to grow forever, and if an economy grows (real GDP growth), then spending power grows with it (it’s a tautology in fact), and there’s nothing to stop that increase in spending power being spent on material things. And as material consumption can’t increase forever without killing us, then that’s not possible. We’ll have to switch to a C-M-C economy as soon as we can – but that’s not capitalism.
Maybe Chris’s book will convince a few more people of the impossibility of perpetual global GDP growth, but it’s very difficult when in this economy, so many people’s jobs depend on them not understanding it. Nevertheless, nature doesn’t care about that – she just cares about the damage that perpetual growth does, and will remove us if we continue to try to achieve it. Quite a lot of influential people are beginning to point it out though – here’s a good article, for example.
‘Spread out and skim’ is a metaphor he keeps returning to, and I like it. We spread out / decentralise, and skim renewable resources from a renewed countryside – food, fibre, timber, renewable energy – rather than from centralised and concentrated sources like fossil fuels / plastics etc. Flows rather than stocks, in other words. He goes into detail about how this can be achieved in the most important of primary industries – food. This kind of system deals with our wastes better too, and reduces the need for transport. It will require a move away from cities of 10 million + people, but covid has shown that we don’t need to cram into cities for work. Let the Exodus begin.
But it’s just not possible to move to this small farm future in the 21st century, is it?
Well it’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth having is easy. Covid, and especially the response to covid, could help shake things up to make it easier. For example, Chris mentions that he’s had a huge increase in local new customer enquiries at his farm. The biggest barrier is currently the price of land. To stop the continual rise in land prices, he suggests that we need to restrict the opportunities to accrue capital.
He has slightly more faith in states when it comes to this than I do. The state subsidises only large-scale agriculture that enriches an elite, of which politicians are part, and undernourishes the masses with low-nutrient food. I don’t see how we’re going to change that, in ways that are permanent, which they’d have to be. I’d rather put our energies into building alternatives, which of course Chris is doing, with his farm and with the ELC; he also mentions development banks to provide loans for young farmers to buy land.
I think that just by building the C-M-C economy (and of course, a mutual credit exchange system), we’ll slow down the wealth concentration that pushes up land prices. I prefer to build local economies via ‘replication and federation’ of key institutions, like worker co-ops, housing co-ops, community energy schemes, CSA networks, community land trusts etc., rather than to look to the centralised state for solutions.
There are so many reasons to support a small farm future. It’s not unrealistic. It can still happen, even without the support of a corporate-captured state, although it might help if the state stopped favouring the corporate sector by looking the other way when they evade their fair share of taxes, which small producers have to pay. But he doesn’t romanticise – he points out the potential problems of personal interaction in a non-hierarchical system; but are they worse than the current problems facing humanity? The book also covers a lot that I haven’t mentioned here, including individual farms vs. collective farms; the history of land ownership; immigration etc.
I don’t think that the food sector can strike out on its own against the damage caused by the corporate-dominated economy. Alliances will need to be built, and people will need to be able to move away from ‘bullshit jobs’ towards valuable, fulfilling work that provides the essentials of life in communities everywhere, from craft skills, renewables installation, natural building, social care and cycle couriers to IT support, bakers, brewers, shops, restaurants, bars, musicians, barbers, yoga teachers, based on non-extractive coops and self-employment. We need all this in place before the inevitable collapse of the capitalist growth model, if we want to protect people, communities and nature. He talks about providing credit for these kinds of jobs as a form of commons and that it’s probably a good idea to separate the exchange medium and store of value functions – exactly what mutual credit (for which, in particular, I’m a cheerleader) is about.
There are no blueprints, no simple answers, but a family of similar types of solution – non-hierarchical, decentralised, small-scale – transcending not overthrowing or reforming. I don’t think that anything he’s suggesting is utopian or unrealistic. On the contrary, thinking that we can continue on the path we’re on, or that scientists will solve all our problems, is what’s unrealistic.
We don’t need large-scale agriculture, industrial, cruel livestock farming, monocultures, pesticides, fossil fuels, synthetic fertilisers or GM to feed the world. To feed the world, and to provide more and better jobs, healthier people and communities and to protect nature, we need a small farm future.
Get the book here.
About the author: Dave Darby lived at Redfield community from 1996 to 2009. Working on development projects in Romania, he realised they saw Western countries as role models, so decided to try to bring about change in the UK instead. He founded Lowimpact.org in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of NonCorporate.org. and the Open Credit Network.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1itwisnaemoiChrissie November 1st, 2020
It is so uplifting, to know there are folks like Chris who focus on fulfilling work, healthy food, local community, living in tune with Nature rather than against it.
2Jeremy Smith November 1st, 2020
Thank you for this very good article! I’m a trustee of a small charity in Forest Row, East Sussex (St Anthony’s Trust) which was set up to provide training and land for biodynamic and organic farming. It’s quite revolutionary, in that its purpose is to remove land from being considered as an asset which can be bought and sold, just so as to realise profit from increasing land values. Our aim is to provide farmers with the land they need, at a modest rental, so that they can concentrate on what they do best – growing food for and with their local communities. There is no mortgage debt around the necks of the farmers. We own the land of two very successful community farms in Forest Row (Plaw Hatch Farm and Tablehurst Farm). There are many people who wish to support this kind of initiative and one very good way of helping is to provide a legacy in your will, so that charities like ours can find the capital they need to buy farms and remove them from further land speculation.
3Chris Smaje November 1st, 2020
Hi Dave, thanks for that very generous review! I’m not sure if it’s the done thing for authors to engage with reviews of their books, but you raise a key point for debate when you say that I have more faith than you in states creating a convivial non-capitalist economy so I just wanted to highlight this particular point. As I see it, I express almost no faith in the book in states or the global system of states as they’re presently constituted in delivering such an economy. In Part IV of the book, I discuss the possibilities for people to build these new economies bottom-up in situations of central state breakdown that I call ‘the supersedure state’. Here, all the things you mention like CSAs, land trusts, worker co-ops and so on are absolutely to the point – although so are small, private farms – but I argue in the book that they do require some kind of collective ‘state space’ within which to operate, otherwise the likelihood is that a personalised non-state politics of family, ‘big men’ or entrepreneurs of violence will establish, with negative consequences. I’m hoping to write a bit more about this soon, probably on my blog, but few things seem more important to me than discussing and developing the means for bottom up local economic renewal in liberatory rather than repressive ways.
4Mike Pinard November 1st, 2020
Two problems the vast majority of people don’t care about food as long as it’s cheap which small farms cannot deliver except on a few basic goods. Secondly fewer and fewer can or want to cook especially seasonally and from scratch.
It’s a lovely idea and I wish I had a magic wand as it would be a much nicer system but the public just get in the way.
I should point out for accuracy the main driver of the movement of rural people to the city was a better standard of living. Scratching a peasants living in the past was as far from the present days smallholders way as life as chalk is from cheese.
I farm a relatively small farm producing nutritious ecologically produced heritage wheat flours but I rely on a wealthy clientele as they are £2.50 kg v £0.60p, I need that price to make a living not even a very good one. No matter what drives any farmer initially in the end their aim is not to feed the world but to feed their family.
5Dave Darby November 1st, 2020
Hi Chris. I was just about to send you the link, but you’ve found it!
“Almost no faith” is still more faith than me, to be honest.
“the likelihood is that a personalised non-state politics of family, ‘big men’ or entrepreneurs of violence will establish, with negative consequences.”
– That hasn’t happened in Rojava – https://www.lowimpact.org/small-key-can-open-large-door-know-whats-happening-rojava/. ‘Non-state politics’ doesn’t have to equal gangsterism – although of course it can. But it doesn’t have to be the case if people are organised, in communities. Plus, states are extremely adept at delivering violence. There’s a huge amount of literature, and an enormous discussion to be had about providing security in communities without the state.
6Dave Darby November 1st, 2020
“the main driver of the movement of rural people to the city was a better standard of living”
– Completely disagree. Peasants don’t leave their land voluntarily. https://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain
7Chris Smaje November 1st, 2020
Thanks, Dave. We might need to have a longer discussion about our understandings of what ‘the state’ is, and the various forms of power that operate within families, communities and higher level aggregations. I’ll try to write some more about this … though I suspect our positions are not too far apart.
Mike – you might find my book of interest in the way it analyses some of the points you’re making about profit, monetisation & urbanisation – and also in the possibility that the way these have played out in the past may not be a good guide to the way they’ll play out in the future.
8Dave Darby November 1st, 2020
Chris – that would be very interesting.
9Daniel Scharf November 1st, 2020
There are a few ways in which the existing state-run planning system could assist in the growth of small- scale and agro-ecological practices. http://dantheplan.blogspot.com/2016/01/should-planning-control-use-of.html and http://dantheplan.blogspot.com/2016/01/if-agro-ecology-is-different-how-can.html
10Mike Pinard November 2nd, 2020
Dave Darby enclosures dispossesed many who then became serfs or just land workers who stayed in the rural areas. Those losing land in the main did not produce goods for sale but for sustenance and they never owned the land but it was common land which they could use. The mass migration began when good wages were being offered in the towns being a poor townie was much better than a poor peasant.
Chris Smaje I’m not running down the idea of more small farms it would be great but I’m saying that no matter how good an idea or cause is you are dependent on the realities of economics and unfortunately the vast majority of the public don’t care and won’t spend extra/ cook when you can get a KFC grease bucket or an M&S meal for two with wine for a tenner (or modern equivalent). Unfortunately people will eat the lowest of the low sitting on the sofa in front of technology not caring what it does to themselves or the planet and that is the elephant in the room.
I get really annoyed with the ‘,public’ all up.in arms at the potential of trade deals to reduce our food standards if they cared what they bought there would be no need for petitions at all, perhaps they are using it as a defence against themselves?
11Dave Darby November 3rd, 2020
“enclosures dispossesed many”
– Exactly. The driver for people moving to towns was push not pull. No-one left the land voluntarily (although pre-enclosure, I’d agree with you that serfs often escaped lords by running away to guild towns and learning a trade – but this was a long time before capitalist factories). Houses were torn down and families evicted, based on an illegitimate claim to the land, based ultimately on violence. Conditions in urban areas after enclosures were harsh and unhealthy. Wages were set at levels that just kept workers alive, culminating in the Corn laws – until labour started to organise. The first capitalist firms were not social enterprises or charities.
Plus, veg box providers / CSA folk are telling us that demand has more or less doubled this year. It may not be as bad as you think (although I do recognise the problem).
Your heritage grain growing looks v interesting btw.
12Steve Gwynne November 3rd, 2020
Hi. I’m certainly interested in Chris’s vision but can he explain
1. how a small farm future will finance the necessary taxes to provide robust and resilient public services, including health, transport, education, defence, housing etc
2. how downscaling the division of labour back to the land will enable the necessary labour to extract and produce primary goods and therefore produce and maintain secondary goods like tractors, building materials, metals, infrastructure like roads etc
13Dave Darby November 4th, 2020
Don’t know about Chris, but I can’t get a purchase on this. 1. Why should reducing the size of institutions reduce the tax take? I would have thought it would increase it – less tax avoidance / reduced flow to offshore tax havens etc. 2. Read ‘bullshit jobs’. Why would more farmers / fewer workers in PR / fashion / finance / advertising / corporate law etc. have any bearing on this?
14Steve Gwynne November 9th, 2020
Mainly because incomes would reduce.
Most key worker pay is way less than £30k.
Most bullshit jobs are paid much higher.
On average, English farms made a £39,000 profit last year from their farming business.
Only £2,100 of this came from agriculture, which is what springs to many people’s mind when they think of farming. If we look at cereal farms alone, they lost £9,500 on agriculture in 2014/15.
The figure changes from year to year and between various sizes of farm. In 2013/14 the average farm’s profit from agriculture was £6,600, which fell to £2,100 the next year. Large farms in 2014/15 made £22,300 from agriculture, whereas small farms lost £6,600.
On the other hand, the average English farm received £24,900 in subsidies last year. Once you deduct the costs involved in making use of the subsidies, like employing labour and machinery, the benefit is closer to £22,400.
On average small farm subsidies make up around 78% of the total profit, on medium size farms it’s 61%; and on large farms it’s 46%.
15Dave Darby November 10th, 2020
Don’t know – there’s no blueprint. It’s about direction of movement. I’m agreeing with Chris that a move towards a small farm future would be beneficial to ecology, community and human health. It’s what Lowimpact is all about – building community-based, small-scale and often co-operative alternatives – so we have topics that include smallholding, community-supported agriculture, veg boxes etc.
Otherwise we’d be in a situation where we’re advising against growing your own veg (for example) because it doesn’t contribute enough to the tax base, which is absurd.
We don’t know if tax take (or the need for taxes) will fall – income drop can be balanced by a reduction in subsidies (there are no subsidies at all for farms of less than 5 hectares, btw), a healthier population, reduction in the need for large infrastructure projects like HS2 etc.