The time is nearly upon us when the feature-length version of my musings here will be released upon an unsuspecting world – A Small Farm Future (the book) will be available from 15 October in the UK and 21 October in the US. Various launch events are in the offing, and I’ll be gearing the blog for a while to come to riffing on various themes from the book. So watch this space…

Meanwhile, I have one final bit of outstanding business to attend to before turning my attention to the book – though in many ways this post serves as well as anything as an introduction to its themes. Whereas my last couple of posts addressed the politics of an agrarian localist future, this one addresses farm scales, styles and technologies in such a future. Again, it comes in the form of a critical engagement with a specific individual, in this case grower and small-scale farmer Seth Cooper, who I debated with a little while ago online. I promised I’d respond further to some of his points, hence the present post. Apologies if my excerpting of his comments and interpolation of replies seems combative (I’m going to try to stop doing this kind of thing!) – hopefully it will also be illuminating, and my thanks to Seth for drawing out this discussion.

Our debate focused in large part on the kind of tools and equipment appropriate to farming, small farming in particular, so I’m going to go with that in this post – but hopefully it’ll work obliquely as an entry into wider issues. Even more specifically, we talked about the virtues or otherwise of the scythe. Here, I find myself in a somewhat false position, since I’m far from an expert scythesman and I don’t use one all that much – whereas I do have a tractor (which I don’t use much either – mostly just for compost management, which I’ll come to in a second…). But I’ll happily speak up for the scythe over the tractor, and this is the direction my farming is going. For his part, Seth finds little place for either scythes or tractors in his agrarian vision:

“A tractor could be dispensed with in all fruit and vegetable cultivation that I’m aware of…Proof of this is all the people growing food for market without tractors in developed countries (where tractors are abundant).”

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of any unit of production (a farm, a factory, a household, a town, a country) you need to look at the energy and material flows ‘upstream’ that provide it with its inputs, the ones in-house that enable it to generate its products, and the ones ‘downstream’ that carry its products and its wastes to their final destination.

I know plenty of small horticultural operations that don’t themselves have a tractor in-house (or similar fossil-fuel intensive equipment – I don’t think we should get too hung up on tractors per se). But all of them make implicit use of them upstream or downstream (importing compost, manure or fertilizer and exporting produce to market). The energy and material dynamics of most small commercial farms in the rich countries are not at present that different from large farms in this respect.

But in future I think there will be a lot more people working in agriculture or horticulture on small farms, serving more local markets (starting with their own households), with much less of this extrinsic, implicit fossil energy at their command. My guess is that in this situation, there’ll be a lot more people using scythes.

Seth again:

“whether a scythe is more “efficient” than a tractor regarding grain production should be an empirical, not theoretical, question.”

No quarrel there. I drew Seth’s attention to a little bit of research I did on the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of different mowing technologies I conducted on my holding, in which the scythe comes out top. Seth wrote:

“your experiment 1) ignores the time required to master proficiency with a scythe — I’m sure you know using it is harder than it looks — in comparison to using a machine and 2) has nothing to do with grain production, which is the example I pointed to and which involves much more than mowing.”

We can go down these routes, but there’s only going to be one winner. Sure, let’s figure in the time (or, better, energy) it takes to be proficient with the use and maintenance of a scythe. And let’s add the time/energy it takes to make the scythe and the food that fuels it, or to earn the necessary money. Now let’s figure in the time/energy it takes to learn to drive a powered vehicle, add in learning the extra skills of tractor-driving, learning the extra skills of maintaining and fixing the tractor and its machinery, and then the time spent earning the money to buy the tractor, its spare parts and its fuel.

The mechanized route isn’t going to turn out optimal here on anything except labour input per unit output. It won’t beat the scythe on time input, EROEI or capital input. The reason that you see farmers nowadays with combines and not with scythes is because energy and capital are cheap, labour is dear, and most people don’t work the land. Like it or not, I think all this is going to change in the future.

Regarding grain production, on a small scale I usually find cutting cereal stalks with a scythe easier than cutting grass because it’s less dense, with less silica, though I can’t speak to the practicalities of hand-harvesting grain on anything bigger than garden scale. And yes, there’s more to grain harvesting than mowing. There’s also more to hay-making than mowing. But mowing is what scythes do. We could extend the analysis to rakes, wheelbarrows, flails and so on and compare the energy efficiency to combine harvesters, grain trailers, seed dryers etc. It would be a bold punter who’d bet the combine would come out on top.

But I’d like to turn the issue of grain production back around. Sure, intensive market gardeners don’t need tractors or (probably) scythes on their holdings. But they’re doing something pretty specialist. Take a town or a region and suppose that it has to produce almost all its food and fibre, and the inputs for them, locally, with minimal exotic inputs like steel and diesel. It’ll need to produce more than high value vegetables locally, and it can’t easily afford tractors. Suddenly the scythe – probably among the most energy-efficient tools ever invented by humankind – starts to seem like a worthwhile part of the local agricultural toolkit.

But why imagine this kind of self-reliance? Seth writes:

Suggesting I should imagine my farm with zero fossil fuel inputs isn’t exactly a useful place to start thinking about sustainable farming. While I have no tractor, I use some battery-operated tools, reusable plastic tarps, containers, and irrigation tubing, and a gas-powered push mower…I don’t see a world in which we don’t have greenhouses, irrigation, and power tools with plastic components. On the other hand, if we convert most to all food production to no-till, we could reduce the need for tractors and plasticulture almost entirely.

Whereas I’d say on the contrary that imagining a farm with zero fossil fuel inputs is an excellent place to start thinking about sustainable farming. Not an excellent place to start doing it within the present economy, but certainly an excellent place to start thinking about it, because it concentrates the mind on the dynamics of the whole system, and its vulnerabilities and external dependencies.

Here, we come to the crux of the whole debate – which is similar to the one I had recently with Maarten Boudry. If you think that the present climatic, energetic, economic and political structuring of the world is destined more-or-less to endure long-term, then Seth is probably right – scythes will mostly be museum pieces, and small-scale farming will be all about innovating small, efficient niches around the mainstream global food and farming system.

But if, like me, you don’t think those things are destined to endure long-term, then it’s probably worth imagining your farm with zero fossil fuel inputs as a starting point for thinking through how resilient it might be to future events. It may even be worth investing in a scythe. It’s probably also worth pondering the possibility that no-till won’t survive beyond the fossil fuel age, except perhaps at domestic scales. But that’s an argument for another day.

Seth writes:

I’d like to see needless toil reduced, without sacrificing humanity. [In] small farming as it actually exists in developed countries [t]here is toil, but also much effort to reduce that toil with sustainable and low-capital innovations. In my opinion, an eco-socialist future gestates in these developments, not in some fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants.

I’d also like to see needless toil reduced, but on this point we’d probably need to spend time unpicking both our respective definitions of ‘needless’ and our respective definitions of ‘toil’. We’d also need to take a global perspective – as I see it, there’s an awful lot of needless toil among poor people, especially poor people in poor countries, as a result of the toil-reducing technologies in the rich ones. So visions for a toil-free, sustainable, eco-socialist future need to provide a plausible account of its underlying energetics, economics and politics at a global level of a kind I’ve not yet seen (except in ecomodernist visionings … but I don’t find those ones plausible). Otherwise, I’m going to stick with my less fantastical vision of sustainable and low-capital innovations (scythes) in the hands of free and semi-autonomous political actors (neopeasants).

I can’t help feeling that scythes are less widely used in gardens and small farms than is warranted on strict cost-benefit terms because they have an image problem of the kind that stalks through Seth’s phrase “fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants”. The scythe seems redolent of agrarian ‘backwardness’ – something I wrote about a few years back in this post on the iconography of my scythe and discuss in my forthcoming book. But this issue only arises because of our modern culture’s hang-up with notions of progress and backwardness. Ask not whether your scythe looks modern, but whether it cheaply and successfully mows the darned crop.

Here, and (almost) finally, we come to the issue of innovation. In response to my grumbles about the modern obsession in the agricultural sector (and in fact in every other sector) with this troublesome concept, Seth writes:

Why wouldn’t farmers want to innovate their cultural practices? Farmers knew nothing of microbiology a hundred years back. Now they do, and if they’re smart, they can adopt techniques that harness microbiological processes to increase yields, pest resistance, etc

This is all true, and I’m not against innovation as such, provided the pros and cons, the winners and the losers, from the innovation are reckoned honestly. The mythology of innovation in our present capitalist society is that it saves people from work they don’t like to do and makes them richer. That’s sometimes so, but the other side of that coin needs more emphasis: innovation removes people from work they do like to do and makes them often poorer, or unhappier, and certainly less autonomous. Innovation in capitalist societies basically involves figuring out how to cut labour, destroy the competition or persuade people to buy more stuff. If we need innovation, we now need to innovate in some fundamentally different ways.

On this point, Seth writes, interestingly:

Every “advancement” in conventional modern agriculture has served only to decrease labor-inputs… at the expense of crop quality and social well-being. [T]he big ag paradigm has been marketed as less “backbreaking” … than traditional small-stead farming. Thus, big farm = less labor, small farm = more. For me, that’s a big ag narrative and modern market gardening proves that it’s untrue.

I agree with that, except for the last sentence. Small farm does equal more labour per unit area and per unit product (which is why most rich countries import a large proportion of their horticultural produce … and why modern diets involve too much refined carbs and oils, and not enough fruit and veg). The challenge is to show that this (along with less energy, less carbon, less water, less soil loss, more product and more fun per unit area) is precisely what makes small farming the wave of the future.

 

Teaser photo credit: By Unknown author – cf. license, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1127065