A Small Farm Future

Chris Smaje argues that the best future we can now hope for is a small farm future (as opposed to the increasingly big farm present), in which many more people than now are involved in food production, mostly on privately-owned small-holdings – realising the old demand for ‘three acres and a cow’.

Cover of the book 'A small farm future'

Making the case for a society built around local economies, self-provisioning, agricultural diversity and a shared earth

Published by Chelsea Green, 2020

In a country like Britain, home of the industrial revolution and where only about 1% of the population work in agriculture, it is easy to forget that how we produce our food is the foundation of our society and determines much else about it. Chris Smaje points out that notwithstanding industrialisation and urbanisation, we live in an agrarian society, reliant globally on just three crops, wheat, maize and rice for much of our diet. The future is likely to be a farm future. Smaje argues that the best future we can now hope for is a small farm future (as opposed to the increasingly big farm present), in which many more people than now are involved in food production, mostly on privately-owned small-holdings – realising the old demand for ‘three acres and a cow’.

Smaje does not paint an over-rosy romanticised picture of this future. He recognises the constraints and drawbacks of small-farm life and rural communities, in particularly that they can become dominated by ‘big men’, to the detriment of women and youths, who end up doing most of the work. To counter this, he wants this future society to retain some of the elements of modernity such as individual rights upheld by a civic republican public sphere, a freedom from traditions of the past and the idea of the individual life as a project of self-creation. Similarly, all farming involves trade-offs: there is no perfect farming system, but farmers have to wrestle with trade-offs between labour and other inputs, environmental impacts and productivity.

He starts by outlining ten crises that we face and how a shift to a small farm future could mitigate or address these. This includes an analysis of our current capitalist economic system using the Aristotelian framework which contrasts the economy of the household, in which goods are acquired for use (commodity – money – commodity, or C-M-C), with M-C-M’ (where M’>M) – the use of money to buy goods which are sold on for more money, ie. for a profit. This, he says is the logic of capitalism, the initial M being the capital invested to produce or acquire commodities. In past ages there were limits placed on this sort of activity, such as the ban on buying grain in order to resell it, that existed in England before 1660. Capitalism only got going when these limits were removed. It has now remade the world in its pursuit of profit and in financial markets has got to the point of getting rid of the commodity altogether: money simply makes more money. Smaje points out that money is a ‘symbolic good’ and in recent years its growth has been freed from any linkage to the real economy of physical things and human labour. One symptom of this is that investors are finding it harder and harder to find productive areas in which to put their money, resulting in the expansion of profit-seeking into more and more areas of life. The symbolic economy has grown out of all proportion to the non-symbolic economy of real things but is accorded power over and allowed to re-order people, societies and nature. Smaje argues that it is this M-(C)-M’ logic that drives the escalation of global resource use, not consumer demand (p.74). The result has been the crises that we now face, of climate change, soil, energy and of inequality.

In contrast to this capitalist logic Smaje argues that the small-scale farms he is promoting (he has a problem with what to call them – family farms, smallholders, peasants all apply in different contexts) see their assets, such as land, tools, buildings and livestock, not as financial values on a balance sheet, but as a long term resource base – an inheritance from the past to leave to the future. Those farming seek to earn an income from this resource base using the primarily unwaged labour of family members. This type of farming is not a capitalistic enterprise but a strategy (perhaps one of several) for making a livelihood for the household and for carving out a degree of independence, or autonomy, from wider capitalistic forces ruled by the logic of M-(C)-M’.  

The section called ‘Small Farm Ecology’ contains interesting insights into the realities of the ecological systems with which farmers and growers have to grapple in order to produce food. The section starts with a discussion of the basic strategies of living organisms. Ruderal species take the ‘live fast, die young’ tactic of rapid growth, reproduction and death. Ruderal plants grow where there are high levels of nutrients and of disturbance – they need open ground to germinate and grow. Competitor species, such as nettles, put energy into rapid-spreading growth, which is able to outcompete other organisms. They flourish where there are high nutrient levels but little disturbance. Finally, stress tolerators are plants that are in it for the long haul and take over in undisturbed, low nutrient situations. They put energy into growing a plant that can last, trees being the prime examples. The fact that ruderal species put so much energy into reproduction means they produce lots of seeds, which make great foods for us. Hence the cereals that are the basis of agriculture are annual crops. Cereals also have other advantages: a grain of wheat is much like another grain so wheat lends itself to being traded as a commodity; it can be stored or processed into a wide variety of different products. These properties, and the fact that cereal production is easy to mechanise, means cereals are favoured by modern agri-businesses, and have in the past been the mainstay of centralised states. Globally, just three cereal crops, wheat, maize and rice, provide 40% of our energy and protein, meaning that too many people are not eating all the micro-nutrients needed to stay healthy. Smaje says we are boxed into an ‘arable corner’, resulting in “a world that seems mired in chronic poverty, not in spite of our cereal-fuelled wealth, but largely because of it.”  (p.108).

In contrast, small-scale farmers generally do not just produce cereals, not least because they want to have a varied diet and they produce what they want to eat and that can be sold on local markets. And they may want to produce other products such as fuel and fibre. Smaje discusses the role of vegetables, trees and livestock in this small-scale agriculture. With regard to meat-eating he contrasts the ‘shopping isle ethics’ with ‘peasant ethics’:

“When you are standing in the supermarket isle trying to decide which ready-meal to buy it’s almost certainly ‘better for the environment’ to choose a bean dinner over a beef one.  But it’s ‘better for the environment’ still to choose a local, low-energy farming system, and that system will raise livestock…”

The livestock that system will raise will be ‘default livestock’ – following the arguments made by Simon Fairlie in Meat a Benign Extravagance.

Could Smaje’s small-scale agriculture actually feed us? He argues that in many parts of the world it already does and it is the over-production of industrially produced cereals that causes hunger because it destroys local food systems. He reports the results of modelling that he has carried out for the UK that suggests an agricultural system consisting of mixed arable farms, with some dairy, small holdings, market gardens, urban city farms and household gardens could feed a population of 83 million – an increase on today’s population to allow for the UK to take its fair share of climate refugees. In this modelling he assumes: that no fossil fuels are used (so farms have to also produce the biodiesel they would need for machinery, or oats if traction is provided by horses); that yields would be substantially lower than today, and that the 30% of farmland that is currently ‘rough grazing’ is given over to re-wilding. The diet this farming system could produce would be low in sugar, meat and fats. In the UK climate more calories per acre can be produced by growing potatoes than any other crop – hence the over-reliance of nineteenth century Irish peasants on potatoes. They ate 2.5 kg of potatoes a day each. Smaje’s diet has 0.6 kg a day per person. 15% of the workforce would be employed in agriculture in Smaje’s scenario: a big increase on the UK today, but similar to the proportion working in agriculture today in countries such as Mexico, Tunisia and the Ukraine.

This percentage actually seems quite low to me given the discussion elsewhere in the book about people leaving urban centres for rural areas, spreading out so they can ‘skim renewable energy flows’, rather than being concentrated in urban centres reliant on the stocks of energy contained in fossil fuels. Eighty-five percent of the population would have to earn their living doing something other than agriculture, though they may produce food in their own gardens or as volunteers at city farms. What they do may of course supply services to agriculture, so more than 15% of the population could well live and work in rural areas.

This is a complex book that is an important contribution to the debate we need to have about how we are going to adapt to climate change and the other crises we face. It steers clear of techno-optimistic visions, but also of bright green futures, where all our problems will be solved by the transition to a zero carbon economy. There is trouble ahead, but also hope that we may find a congenial way to live.

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