Ed. note: I am combining Chris’ latest pieces from his blog into one here. You can find the link to the second post, A Small Farm Future: Questions Answered, Part 1, here, and the third one, Questions Answered, Part 2, here.

A Sociological Farmer Speaks….

With my book launching officially in the UK, it seems a good time to start the cycle of blog posts about its themes that I’m planning to run over the next few months. Unlike my usual output here, my intention is for these posts to be short and frequent – but we all know where the road of good intentions leads…

Ah, the book, the book! When I started writing it, I naively thought it would give me the space to go deeper into all the major themes that I’ve explored on this blog. But, later than I should have done, I realized that a book is a much briefer thing than nine years of accumulated blog posts. So then I thought that the book might stand as a kind of pure distillation of my considered thoughts, at least on the things I chose to write about, like some miniature jewel in its box, perfect after its own fashion. Of course, that’s not true either – because I can’t write perfectly, and because there are so many different ways of seeing things even from the viewpoint of a single person. And time and ideas always flow on.

Still, the book is something, an intervention at a particular time in things that seem to me important. All the other things it could have been, all the words that have sloughed off it in files called things like “Part 2.ver6” that languish on my hard drive are suddenly neither here nor there. The book has left me and begun its independent journey in the wider world.

And it’s funny to see me and my biography enfolded third-person in that journey. In various online locations I’ve been described as a ‘sociologist and farmer’ or a ‘former social scientist and farmer’. These labels probably represent my strange career as well as anything. The longest salaried job I ever held down was as a lecturer in sociology, for six years – which I guess makes me a sociologist, despite the fact that I’ve never actually studied it as such. And since I’m no longer paid a salary or have a job title, perhaps indeed I’m now a ‘former social scientist’. I just can’t stop myself from thinking about society, though.

‘Farmer’ is the steadier label. On the one hand it seems a rather grand title to apply to the practical work I do as an aspiring shepherd now troubling my way through sheepless nights, as a former market grower, dilettante gardener, amateur plumber, tree-hugging chainsaw-wielder, tractor-botherer, blunt scythesman, weed-eater, hay-maker, grass-raker and mechanically-challenged engineer. But on the other, I think it’s important to resist breathing further life into that mythical imposter, the ‘proper farmer’. A planning officer at Mendip District Council once told me that I wasn’t one of those. When I asked her who counted among their number she said that if I had to ask, then I wasn’t one. Well, I’m not asking any more. As I outline on page 8 of the book, we are all eaters, we are all farmers.

In the webinar on Tuesday, Peter Macfadyen made the point that my book isn’t really about farming. I do have a fair bit to say about farming in it, especially in Part II, but I think he’s right – and it’s largely because the major problems we face aren’t really about farming. Nor are they about energy or technology, which I also touch on in the book. Fundamentally, they’re about how people organize themselves collectively, how we think about our place in the wider world, and what we think life is about. What better background for probing that than social science?

But what’s perhaps of greatest import are the points where our human self-conceptions confront the wider world – and here farming looms large. Since I’m hopeless at multi-tasking, how fortunate, then, that I’m a ‘former’ social scientist and a farmer, albeit improperly! And how curious that I should just happen to have these two attributes that uniquely qualify me to write my own book…

That’s probably just about enough for now by way of an intro to my book. I daresay important books on our current predicaments could be written by people with other CVs (agronomist/shaman; anarchist/mediator) but I’m afraid I’m stuck with my perspective as a (former) social scientist and an (improper) farmer. I hope you’ll join me in my subsequent posts as I work through the numerous implications of this happy duality…

…but just to say before I get into the meat of it that in my next couple of posts I plan, firstly, to try and answer some of the interesting questions that were posed at the webinar and that regrettably we didn’t have time to answer and, secondly, to post something topical in early November provisionally entitled “What growing edible cereal crops can teach us about fascism”.

A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

Two weeks ago week my publisher Chelsea Green hosted a webinar to launch my book and I then spoke about it at the Permaculture Convergence. I’ve struggled a little with the online format, but I appreciated the engaged comments from the audiences at both events who I knew were out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to answer all the questions in the time available, so I thought I’d reproduce the questions here and attempt to answer them, if only briefly. The book contains more in-depth discussion of most of the points raised. I’d strongly recommend buying a copy…

I’ve grouped the questions into these six overarching headings:

  1. Food & farm system economics
  2. Labour questions
  3. Property & access to land
  4. Settlement geography
  5. Politics
  6. Caring for the land

I’m going to work through headings 1-3 in this post, and 4-6 in the next one, which I’ll post in a couple of days.

Food & farm system economics

Q. I have recently been suggesting that the price of food should double – but how do we then ensure that we are not increasing food poverty?

Sounds about right as a minimum. The key is to consider food prices in relation to the price of everything else – land, housing, labour, energy, transport, welfare. For sure, if food prices increased without any other economic adjustments, food poverty would increase. But we need to rethink those other sectors too. That’s something I do, albeit in fairly general terms, in the book. I think we also need to decommodify food production considerably, so that non-commercial, locally self-reliant food production is more of an option for many people, including poor people – ‘recapturing the garden’, as I call it in the book, after Steven Stoll. If we get it right, food poverty and nutritional deficits will decrease.

Q. As the current large scale food system has to start internalising its costs, how do you think its affordability would balance out with agroecological production models

A similar question to the previous one, perhaps? My view is that if the existing food system fully internalised its carbon, soil, water, health and pollution costs we’d probably be questioning the affordability of anything other than agroecological production models. At the same time, I want to avoid an overly dualistic ‘mainstream bad – agroecological good’ framing. I argue in the book that farming of all kinds has to confront difficult dilemmas to which there are no perfect solutions.

Q. In Covid I’ve reinvented my not for profit company into a local produce wholesaler called Brighton Food Factory, to support small farmers and supply community food projects. Is that a service that small farmers need? To create the bridge from small farmer to food citizen, not just as a consumer but to shorten the supply chain and help people understand the upsides and challenges of local, small farm production?

The way food commodity markets work in my experience is that most of the financial value is captured at the point of retail sale, which is why small-scale farmers tend to sell direct to customers – volumes aren’t high enough to make a living from wholesale prices. But this does mean we spend a lot of time on the retail side of our operations when we could be farming. If other organisations took on the marketing, this could be a boon – but the question is how best to create these collaborative rather than competitive relationships between production and marketing. If your venture is succeeding at that, I’m sure there will be a lot of wider interest.

I think people sometimes over-emphasise the marketing difficulties facing small farm enterprises at the expense of emphasising the difficulties of production in the face of wider economic forces. The key problem facing small farmers probably isn’t a lack of sympathetic people offering to sell their produce. But that said, your points about creating bridges and public understanding do seem vital to me…

Labour

Q. If you talk about the global equity and the creation of livelihoods for small scale farmers – how can this be created for small scale farms which (often) heavily depend on volunteer work?

Not that many small commercial farms I know depend heavily on volunteer work long-term, because it can be rather a mixed blessing. But, as I said above, I’m in favour of considerable decommodification, and here ‘volunteer work’ broadly conceived can play various roles compatible with livelihood creation. Generally, small-scale local agrarianism isn’t well suited to generating salaried work, but it is well suited to generating livelihoods. I talk about this quite a bit in the book.

Q. Are farm volunteers (e.g. CSAs) included in the 1% who work on the land?

(Note: I mentioned in a talk that about 1% of the UK workforce was employed in agriculture). No, that figure encompasses only salaried and self-employed agricultural workers. So the true amount of work going into the production of food consumed in the UK is higher – not only CSA volunteers and similar, plus home gardeners, but fisherfolk and all the people working abroad whose labour is embodied in the food we import.

Q. I know you like to calculate Chris (perhaps your book addresses this): What is your take on how big a share of the population should/will have to be involved in farming if it is small scale, ecological and based on renewable resources (under European conditions). Or put otherwise, how many people could an empowered small scale farmer produce food for?

Is that you Gunnar? You know me down to a T! Yes, the book does address this for the UK – and the answer is … 15% of the working-age population working directly as farmers, or one farmer per twelve people altogether. As per the previous question, that ignores volunteer and backyard labour and fisherfolk. But it’s based on meeting national food needs entirely, without imports. It also ignores the various rural trades supportive of farming work. Of course, it’s only a rough guess…

Q. With the poor response by the general public to Pick for Britain and British Summer Fruits jobs in the face of (the recent) crisis, how realistic is a wider small farm approach and the need for more labour compared to our current industrialised farming practices?

At the moment, not very realistic – though the crisis seems to have changed the narrative about small farm localism a little for the better. But in the longer term I think it’s unrealistic to expect that our current industrialised farming practices will continue. Most of my book is addressed to that tension between the large farm present and the small farm future. I argue that agrarian localism will emerge in the disorder arising from the decline of the current global political economy – though it can happen in various ways, some better than others.

Property and access to land

Q. Do you talk in your book about new ways of looking at land ownership?

Yes – especially in Chapter 13 (‘Complicating the Commons: Holding and Sharing the Land’). Though, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. So many of the ‘new ways’ of looking at it that I discuss are actually old ways.

Q. Recommoning please!

OK, not a question as such, but a statement. And one that I agree with. But it’s complicated … hence my chapter ‘Complicating the commons’.

Q. As someone looking to enter into small scale farming it is clear just how difficult it is to access land in the first place, due to a wide range of factors, not least the price of land. What do you think can be practically done to encourage new entrant farmers, and specifically younger people, into farming, when it is currently so difficult for people to make that transition?

There are various organisations trying to ease routes into farming and people can be quite inventive at finding their way in, but ultimately I agree it’s difficult and the price of land is a major stumbling block. One way or another, there’s going to have to be a major reconfiguration of access to land – I discuss this in Chapter 13, and also in Chapters 17-20.

Q. Property developers artificially inflate value of land. Village of Cassington that has allotments at centre of village life is about to lose this invaluable food and community resource for local people as Blenheim Palace estate plans to build housing on the land. What can be done about this sort of situation?

As per my previous answer, I discuss this in some detail in the book – you’ll just have to read it! But I don’t claim to have all the answers and I’ve been unable to go into the issues at the level of deep policy detail, so this is an ongoing discussion I’m interested in having with people.

Q. In the UK, many pubs, cinemas, community centres etc have been registered as Assets of Community Value, giving local people the opportunity (although unfortunately not the right) to buy them rather than see them converted into accommodation or other uses for profit. Have any small farms been listed as community assets under the ACV legislation? Could be a great way to protect small farms and a way to exit on retirement if passing on to family members isn’t an option.

Interesting, and not something I’m very familiar with, so I can’t answer the question about small farms and ACVs. My guess, though, would be not many because land inheritance is the norm. I suggest in Chapter 13 that this will need to change, but the wriggle room for achieving this is extremely tight. Currently, the UK planning system generally protects farmland from development, albeit often in cumbersome ways that are obstructive towards a small farm future. But I get the sense that the present government would like to remove planning controls altogether, and this would be more obstructive still.

A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part II

Continuing my theme from last time with brief answers to questions posed at the online launch events for my book.

Settlement geography

Q. How important is the potential of city people to help out on the farm on a part-time basis, as happened in the past? Do we need new platforms or services to enable this to happen?

Potentially important. Certainly, there’s a need for people to be more fully engaged with and supportive of the food and farming system – ‘we are all farmers’, as I put it in the book. So, yes to new platforms and services, and to deeper engagement of cities, towns and villages with their hinterlands. And that could certainly involve city people helping out part-time on farms – though it would probably be of limited immediate practical use to the farmers, and more a means of building understanding longer term.

Ultimately, though, I think we’re in for a period of ruralisation or deurbanisation, and we need to devote a lot of our energies to thinking about that and managing it well.

 Q. Urban living is unhealthy and unsustainable, small farming is healthy and sustainable. So, what sort of movements/policies are needed to help move people out of urban areas in the Global North to rural small farms in an equitable way?

In Part IV of the book I discuss how this might happen less in terms of policies from the centre or even in terms of coordinated ‘bottom up’ movements but more in terms of the opportunities arising as centralized states begin to lose their grip, large urban-to-rural population movements develop by default and people have to improvise new ways of creating livelihoods. But it’s also worth thinking about how all this might play out in the form of small farmer movements – something that I plan to write about here in the near future.

But if I had any political power within central or local government right now, these are the kind of things I’d be trying to do: creating economic disincentives to urban and rural land speculation/landlordism; building welfare/human services as a counterpoint to increasing gift and inheritance taxes; framing planning policy to incentivize nucleated settlements with plenty of small-scale, mixed holdings, including Welsh-style ‘One Planet Development’ policies everywhere; supporting local, rural infrastructure; retaining all publicly-owned farmland/green space for affordable agriculture/horticulture; incentivizing the creation of allotments and community gardens; investing heavily in horticultural education; developing high carbon taxes.

I think all of these would help push in that direction.

Q. Many people have recently found they can do their white collar work from home: do you think there is a place for groups of people doing both remote white collar work AND small scale farming? And if so, would the balance need to be seasonal (in our UK climate)?

Definitely a place for it in the present state of things – especially if we’re talking about decommodified, self-reliant production (smallholding, essentially) rather than commercial farming as such. But with that comes the need to think about the implications for rural gentrification – something we’ve touched on in this blog but I hope to write about in more detail at some point soon. Managed well, white collar workers moving to rural areas can help to stimulate local farm economies. Managed badly, it risks creating social conflict.

Longer term, I’d argue there’s a need to rethink the balance and the rewards of white-collar work and farm work. Less of the former, more of the latter, as much as possible in its more rewarding forms. Energetic considerations will most likely push in this direction, perhaps making white-collar work a harder option as time goes on.

As to seasonality, there are ways of trying to stretch the workload across the year but, yes, a business trip in May is probably out. A quick Zoom call before you head to the seedling tunnel may be manageable, however. For as long as we still have Zoom…

 Q. What’s your view on Holmgren’s idea of retro fitting suburbia?

I haven’t read his book, so I can’t really comment. In a UK context, I don’t think retrofitting suburbia alone while maintaining existing urban and rural structures would be adequate to the task before us (actually, I doubt it would be in Australia either, but there may be more suburban green space to play with there). But I do firmly believe that it’s a good idea for people to make their neighbourhoods more resilient and productive of local livelihoods whatever their neighbourhood happens to be, so in that context retrofitting suburbia seems sensible.

Politics

Q. Just to say I can’t wait to read the book when I come out of Agriculture Bill hell – and to ask Chris how he aims to get politicians to read and listen to the sense of what it says.

Thank you! How to get politicians to listen is something I’ve been struggling with for years… The way I’ve written Part IV of the book, where I talk about political transformation, perhaps emerges from my failure to find an answer, or in fact for anyone else to find an answer – other than the charmed circle who do have their ear. Basically, I don’t think they will listen – but I think they’ll be increasingly overwhelmed by events that they’re no longer able to control in the ways they’re accustomed to, and in this sense they’ll become less relevant. In fact, we’ll all be overwhelmed by these events. But, unlike politicians, we’ll still be relevant – at least to ourselves and within our localities. The challenges we’ll face in all this are profound, but it’s on that slim ground that I try to build a case for political renewal in Part IV of the book.

Q. Peasant uprising?

Q. Sociocracy

Q. Citizens assemblies are useful

Questions and statements coming at me thick and fast about the means of political renewal here! In brief, I’m sympathetic to peasant uprisings but in many parts of the world – including here in Britain – there aren’t many peasants as such, and the big question for me is what happens after the uprisings. The outcomes of the uprisings in the countries covered by Eric Wolf in his Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century haven’t exactly been rosy… Nevertheless, I do argue that we need to engage seriously with peasant experiences (Chapter 3 ‘The return of the peasant’). Maybe things like sociocracy and citizen assemblies can help us address the issues that arise post-uprising, post-peasantization or however else we describe the rebalancing that will happen (I touch on citizen’s assemblies in the context of civic republicanism in Chapter 18). So these are definitely discussions I’d like to continue.

The land

Q. To dig or not to dig?

In her book Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day, historian Joan Thirsk describes the arguments in 17th century England over exactly this question – so it’s a debate that’s long been with us! Looking again at her analysis, it occurs to me that in permaculture circles we often use the same word – ‘tillage’ – to refer to digging a garden or ploughing a field, but actually they’re really different. Ploughing (and power harrowing) at landscape scales has the potential to be really destructive of soil, albeit in some places more than others, whereas that’s far less true of well managed ‘spade gardening’. In Part II of the book, I discuss the ecological reasons why digging and high-yielding food crops go together historically – high-yielding no till remains an uneasy compromise. So, to dig or not to dig … the jury’s still out, after all these years! But what I would say is that on garden or small farm scales digging is less problematic environmentally than at farm/landscape scales. And also that no dig systems that rely on importing a lot of compost from outside the system may be problematic in terms of generalizability and whole lifecycle ecological impact.

Q. I watched Kiss the Ground on Netflix yesterday. Great film and I was really impressed with how the regenerative rancher in particular articulated a really compelling economic narrative that holds the regenerative farm up as a far more economically viable (as well as much more healthful and enjoyable) farm model when compared with any big-ag enterprise that are miserable, deathly, unsustainable and subsidy dependent. I’m curious how small-scale, diverse and regenerative farming is being pitched as the most compelling economic solution of our time – the potential for many many thousands of long-term jobs in all manner of ecosystem restoration enterprises including, central to that, farming enterprises. When thousands are losing their jobs in unsustainable sectors, it seems to me this is the key argument to be made to a neo-liberal capitalist government. It is economically irrefutably logical.

I’ve not yet seen that film – I’ve heard mixed reports! What I would say (as I discuss in Part II of the book) is that regenerative ranching is probably easier to do than regenerative farming, but unfortunately regenerative ranching isn’t going to feed the world. Still, I very much endorse the second part of the statement. In an ecologically damaged world where the engine of economic growth is faltering, creating labour-intensive jobs in ecosystem restoration (with farming as the centrepiece) is an economic/ecologic win/win, and we need to broadcast this as loudly as we can.

Q. How do we restore “wrecked” or degraded global farmland – 40% no longer arable – 25% degraded?

Some may cavil at the figures – how do we define ‘degraded’, and can there be a simple binary of degraded/undegraded? – this is something I touch on briefly in Part I of the book. Nevertheless, it seems to me hard to dispute there are current farming practices that we cannot sustain long term.

No doubt there can be many different answers as to how to restore ‘wrecked’ farmland at the level of technical detail. But in general they largely boil down to two. One is to leave it alone and let nature take care of it. The other is to farm it more thoughtfully, usually with agroecological practices that typically involve a mixture of trees, well-managed pasture and well-managed, intensively cultivated (dug, but not ploughed?) cropland. I think this would involve a lot more people emplacing themselves in local farmed landscapes to produce personal livelihoods for themselves, while noticing and accepting the ecological feedback they get locally in response to their manipulations of the landscape. In other words, it would be a small farm future – and the prospects for humanity seem to me quite bleak unless people are widely able to emplace themselves as local ecological actors in this way.