Review of ‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

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Posted Nov 1 2020 by Dave Darby of
Can organic farming feed the world?

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.

Organisations like the ELC are helping build a small farm future

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.

Small-scale production is key to a small farm future

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.

Could a small farm future look like this?

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.

Dave DarbyAbout 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 in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of and the Open Credit Network.