Act: Inspiration

The Agrarian Alternative

September 4, 2019

Ed. note: This piece was originally published in AcresUSA (September 2019 issue). It is republished here with permission of the editor.

On my first day as a graduate student in agricultural economics, one of my new professors sat me down and said that ‘if we are to improve the lives of farmers, step one is to get people off the land’. It shocked me coming from a professor of agriculture, but looking back, I appreciate his bluntness. He laid bare the inevitable result behind the assumptions held by the majority of researchers at agricultural universities – that the future of agriculture will have more technological complexity, fewer people on the land, and larger agri-businesses. These assumed truths about future direction inform decisions on what research is done, and the research then helps to actualize those assumptions, and so forth in a feedback loop. If you ask agricultural researchers about the impending climate catastrophe(1), dead-zones(2), soil loss(3), drug resistant bacterias(4), or the ongoing 6th great extinction event(5), well, they would probably answer that we are getting better at things, and besides, what alternative do we have?

The worldview of today’s agricultural scientist is followed to its logical conclusion by the eco-modernists(6), who say the way to solve the impending biospheric problems is to accelerate the adoption of technology. They state we need to expand genetic engineering of food crops, increase the urbanization of human populations, and bring online a new generation of nuclear power. Through smart design, recycling, and new technologies, city dwellers’ material needs will be met synthetically, with little input needed from the natural world. Cheap plentiful energy will produce more food using much less land or even indoors, sparing most land for wild regeneration.

Yet in the face of mounting real evidence of biospheric breakdown, I find it unsettling to continue waiting for technological solutions to manifest. We act as if there is only one option to get a handle on emerging problems – only through global economic integration, economies of scale, technological innovation, and growth. Yet there are very good critiques covering why this dominant strategy is (a) materially unworkable, (b) more of the same that has been promised for decades, and (c) very risky (by Degrowthers(7), Clive Hamilton(8), Chris Smaje(9), and Stan Cox(10)). Given the critiques, mounting biospheric problems, and the reliance on grand technological breakthroughs, I think there is a need to take an alternative worldview seriously – that of agrarianism. If not as a replacement worldview, then as an alternative that should be equally acknowledged and funded as a risk aversion strategy.

The goal of an agrarian alternative should be to figure out ways that people can live densely on the land, meet needs in a low material throughput manner, and live fairly content lives who’s existence is beneficial to the functioning of local ecosystem processes. It does not require GDP growth to sustain its actualization. Agrarianism prescribes ramping up smaller geographic circles of economy, which could function more efficiently at energy and material recycling. It would entail a return of many people to small landholdings, using appropriate technologies in conjunction with ecological knowledge to manage landscapes and provide a sufficient living for the landholder, and together with other small landholders, meet the needs of local towns and small cities(11,12).  What needs? Debatable I am sure, but a list may include good food, comfortable housing, the company of family and friends, meaningful work, clean water and air, beauty, and an equal say in the functioning of government – all things that do not require a global high energy technological interconnected marketplace.

Agrarianism need not be a return to the old practices of the 17th century and before, but a move toward an elegant design where humans are more likened to a conductor – making sure that natural forces are unleashed at the right moments and in the right mix and quantities. The details of an agrarian based future are not certain, but likely agrarian farms would need more ‘eyes per acre’ to know the land, watch, and act at the right time. If the agrarian vision was articulated, the scale was defined, and the priority was established, the ecological and technological knowledge that our culture has accumulated over the past century could be used for the benefit of returning people to the land.

Small agrarian farms could make use of the innovations that were still fairly new (in terms of the history of agriculture) about the time that input intensive methods took off and usurped them in the beginning of the 20th century. Practices like crop rotations (Charles Townshend), green manures (Harlan(13)), soil compost (Sir Albert Howard(14), F.H. King(15)), earthworms and soil biota (Darwin(16)), or crop/animal rotations.

Small farms could also make use of emerging ecological methods and technologies; today, new mobile solar electric fencing enables rotational management-intensive grazing to be implemented easily(17). New knowledge of soil organisms has led to the use of worm-castings and compost tea to help plants resist disease and insects(18,19). Efficient wood-saving clean-burning ‘rocket-stoves’ that use sticks are being used to heat homes and cook. Water-absorbing landforms such as bio-swales are being constructed with fruit and nut trees growing alongside(20). Rotations of hand-cast seeds are being used to eliminate weeds or the need for tillage(21). Composting toilets that use worms to crush E. Coli are being developed, where human waste nutrients can be collected, sanitized and used on small farms(22). In recent years open pollinated perennial grain crops have emerged that do not require annual tillage(23).

A first step in the agrarian alternative should be to put people on the land in geographically tight communities. To be more specific, one way forward could be to establish land trusts centered around hollowed-out rural towns or the peripheries of small to medium sized cities. Graduates from agrarian education programs could apply to these land trusts. If accepted, the new graduates would be granted a small acreage within the community to homestead. The land would be held in 100 year lease which could be passed to living children. Like all land trusts, there would be a covenant of permitable land-uses which are decided upon democratically by trust allotment holders. To jumpstart cooperation and shared learning the density should be substantial, with clusters of a thousand or more agrarian farmers to a region. Funds for trust establishment could come from either government or philanthropic funding.

A turn toward the agrarian could be done. It’s more technically feasible than the eco-modernist future; The agrarian future needs no grand technological breakthrough. Instead it needs foremost a will in the citizenry to degrow, to scale back, to live within limits. An increasing number of younger people want to live agrarian lifestyles(24). The nation’s agricultural universities would have no problem filling classrooms if an applicable education, land, and a community of neighbors was a possibility at the end.

A serious program of agrarianism could give society a soft landing if things go very badly with the dominant technological strategy. The agrarian alternative could be our backup in the wings that is low tech, resilient and easy to replicate. If things go well with the dominant approach, and technological fixes emerge, then the worst fallout of the agrarian investment may be people living fairly content lives decoupled from the global economy.

As an alternative vision of the future – in 500 years societies may be coupled with the natural world where human wellbeing and ecosystem functioning are intertwined. Where we have technologies of timing and interaction which enable humans to meet needs within smaller geographic circles of economies. The future may be a more creaturely world running on mostly plant-captured solar power(25) with a major part of people’s material needs being grown, harvested, and crafted within a few miles of their homes, and the earth’s biosphere functioning steadily, resilient to impacts, with humans playing a vital part as stewards. Such an agrarian civilization will see no impending ecological doom but instead a future of steady processes and patterns with no need for faith in great technological inventions of salvation. Not a utopian world – surely grappling with problems of their own – but a wise culture; taking the lessons of a past society bent on ever-more for ever-more’s sake to heart and respecting limits.



Teaser photo credit: School kids and their tiger toilet in the village of Adachiwadi in Pune district. Courtesy: Rahul Aluri.

Chad Hellwinckel

Chad Hellwinckel is an research associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville studying the links between local food and energy. Website link:

Tags: agrarianism, Building resilient food and farming systems, climate change responses