I’ve been blogging for over six years under this ‘Small Farm Future’ moniker, without devoting much effort to defining what a ‘small farm’ actually is. So I thought I’d try to make at least some minor amends on that score in this post. Strangely, I think the results bear on recent discussions here, including the one under my last post on regenerative agriculture.
The standard response to the question ‘how small is a small farm?’ is the same as the standard response to most questions – it depends. A small peri-urban market garden may be a fraction of an acre, whereas a small upland livestock operation may be hundreds or even thousands of acres. So a quantitative definition in terms of land area doesn’t get us far. The same of course holds true for defining large farms. Blank quantification doesn’t elucidate the essential difference between ‘small’ and ‘large’.
Perhaps we get closer to the crux if we say that a small farm is one that serves its local community. A small farm is not one that sells its produce into national or international commodity markets, but one that usually sells directly to local customers. I think this definition is serviceable, but it obscures some details that need highlighting. Most ‘local communities’ in wealthy countries – and, in fact, generally in the world today – are not fundamentally organised with respect to local space and resources. In this sense, a small farm serving its local community is anomalous. Further, because of the non-localism of local economic space, many of the inputs used in small farms are necessarily not that local. The result is that most of us who produce food for local sale have to compromise in various ways, and expect our customers to understand the nature of these compromises sufficiently to keep buying from us rather than simply going to the supermarket. That’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, and it goes some way to explaining why there aren’t many small farms, and why a lot of the ones that do start up go out of business. Michelle’s fascinating account on this site of operating a ranching operation in Hawaii at local and not-so-local retail levels nicely illustrates the kind of dilemmas that arise.
Maybe another way of broaching these issues is to say that a small farm is one that doesn’t grow staple cereal crops for sale. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the history of modern global civilization is keyed fundamentally to the story of how the world’s immense semi-arid continental grasslands were transformed through colonial violence in Old World and New from human ecologies of foraging and pastoralism to ones of (increasingly mechanised) cereal production1. The resultant vast global flows of cheap grain have successively undermined smaller-scale and more localised agricultures – first in the colonial heartlands (eg. the English agricultural crisis of the 1880s), then in the grain-producing grasslands themselves (eg. with the substantial demise of independent rural farm communities in the US mid-west, starting in the 1920s and 30s) and finally with the demise of peasant grain production and increasing import dependence throughout most of the postcolonial world from the 1960s as a result of international grain trading and food dumping2. To a considerable degree, global grain prices drive the price of almost everything else, and small farms serving local markets can’t compete with them, at least within the narrow framing of the contemporary economy. In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.
For numerous reasons that I’ve set out on this blog over the years, I think this global food system (and therefore global civilisation writ large) is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely saviour from these crises – but a ‘post-global’ or ‘post-industrial’ small farm won’t look much like the small farms of the present, and it may not look much like the small farms of the past either.
But that’s for the future. For now, the definition of the small farm that I most want to work with is the idea of it as a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Let me try to explain. Generally, I don’t favour technological solutionism in the face of the world’s problems, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves and in fact is exemplary of the kind of super-scaled terraforming that’s precisely what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.
Generally, I’m reasonably sympathetic to ‘holistic’ ideas about the common thread between good farming, good food, good health and good earth stewardship, though these connections are often tied up too neatly for my taste in much advocacy for various alternative farming techniques. The claims for the benefits of these techniques often outrun the evidence for them, and I’m uncomfortable with the way that they’re so often presented as a complete system which people in general ought to follow in order to solve humanity’s problems – indeed, that they’d be stupid not to. Stupidity has long been imputed by the advocates of progress and agricultural ‘improvement’ to small farmers practicing self-systemic agriculture historically3. It’s not hard now to find contrary examples of alternative agriculture enthusiasts returning fire to ‘conventional’ agriculture. I daresay I’ve erred myself in this respect.
Well, call me stupid but I now want out of this megalomaniac solutionism. So I’m tempted to define the small farm as ‘anti-systemic’. The small farm is a farm which is not run on principles like feeding the world, solving climate change, cutting costs or prices, increasing market share, impressing neighbours or peers, beating out the competition, maximising yield or saving the planet. It’s a place whose farmers are trying to provision themselves with the resources to hand, not build a ‘system’ to proselytise and ramify. But of course farming is intrinsically ‘systemic’ – it involves numerous deliberate procedures and input-output loops that you learn from other people, mess around with and apply or modify to the best of your ability. So I’ve gone with the notion of ‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.
This raises more questions than it answers, but I think they’re the right kind of questions. One set of questions proceeds from the notion of the ‘self’, because nobody is just a ‘self’. How am I connected to other people? What is my ‘community’? What duties do I have in respect of it, and it to me? What duties do I have to people who are not in my ‘community’? To my descendants, or my ancestors? Another set of questions proceeds from the notion of the resources ‘to hand’. What lands, soils, water, air, energies, plants, germplasm and minerals can be said to be ‘to hand’? And what legacies in respect of them does my farming leave?
There’s nothing massively original in what I’m saying, but I think we easily forget its import. The permaculture movement, for example, has been good at posing these first principle questions – what are the resources of this land and this community? But permaculture design often reverts to systemic shibboleths – no till, perennial plantings, space stacking etc. One of the last comments of the late, lamented permaculturist Patrick Whitefield on this blog was this:
The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation….Having a favourite theory and pushing that above all others is no help to anyone.
Actually, the comment was aimed critically at me, but it’s one I wholly agree with…and much of my critical writing within the alternative agriculture movement has really been an attempt to articulate it. By contrast, not only our entire civilization but also most of the alternatives and critiques of it within and without agriculture proceed too easily from the notion that every piece of land and every person is not unique, but assimilable to wider truths. And of course, all of us and all places are participants in wider relationships that aren’t just self-generated. To me, that contradiction is at the heart of contemporary dilemmas – agricultural, political, environmental, spiritual. And I’d like to place the self-systemic small farm at the heart of them.
Schumacher wrote that ‘small is beautiful’ (though apparently he hated the title). Beckerman countered that ‘small is stupid’. Contemporary complacency over climate change is characterised as ‘The Age of Stupid’. Keith Hart writes that agriculture bears a political weight beyond its economic importance because rural imagery shapes the modern idea of the nation as resistant to modernism under the slogan “stop the world, I want to get off”4 – the characteristic slogan of a superficial anti-romanticism.
I’d like to define the small farm as something that’s richly and knowingly indifferent to all these stupidities and counter-stupidities, and to the worldliness, anti-worldliness or other-worldliness that the slogan invoked by Hart is trying to fix and anatomize. It’s hard to attain such a complex indifference – but I think it’s worth a try.
- See, for example: W. Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. Norton; R. Netz. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan UP; D. Moon. 2013. The Plough That Broke The Steppes. Oxford UP.
- M. Mazoyer & L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
- Examples are provided by J. Handy. 2009. Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies. 36, 2: 325-44.
- K. Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in M. Lien and B. Nerlich (eds) The Politics of Food, Berg.
Teaser photo credit: By Leiju – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16766437