My title is a quotation from archaeologist Francis Pryor’s book about ‘prehistoric’ Britain, but it serves well enough as a summary of the general argument in my own book about our likely global future, and the need to refocus the household from a place of economy to a place of ecology1. Pryor suggests that early farmers in Britain grew mixed crops including vegetables in small provision grounds from which livestock were fenced out, provision grounds that were associated with small houses accommodating a handful of people. In fact, he argues that small-household sedentism stretches far back into the pre-agricultural Mesolithic in Britain, and we know that it’s been a common arrangement in agricultural and non-agricultural societies globally down to the present.

I’ll discuss in later posts the social and political implications of such household arrangements. Here, I’ll just raise a few points about their ecology that I touch on in my book, mostly in Chapter 7 (‘The apothecary’s garden’).

There are basically four reasons why I think a garden homestead commends itself as the habitation of the future (and, apparently, the past). First there’s an input-output circularity that’s ecologically efficient. The food and some of the fibre and medicines that the household occupants need is conveniently right there outside the house, and the waste products of the house – food scraps and human waste – are conveniently located as inputs into the garden to build its soils and organic matter.

Second, the garden requires a lot of human labour, which is most efficiently and effectively delivered when it’s associated with where people live. There are various dimensions to this – for example, noticing what’s going on in the garden and what the crops’ needs are because you’re there most of the time; finding time to deliver extra crop care at odd moments in the domestic round; the ability to protect the crops from the unwanted attention of human and non-human organisms because you’re on the spot; and of course reduced commuting and transport costs.

Third, talking of transport costs, it’s possible to grow a wider variety of crops in the home garden than in the commercial field. Produce that’s too bulky to transport long distances, that won’t keep long, that can’t easily be processed for final use without fiddly work, or that can’t easily be protected from pests – all of this becomes possible in the home garden, potentially increasing variety, nutrition and resilience.

Finally, production in the home garden is potentially self-limiting. You grow to meet household needs, then stop. There is no inherent external dynamic coaxing you to produce more in order to live well that results in over-exploitation of your local ecological resources. And, if you do overstretch productivity, the negative consequences will soon be directly apparent to you and likely remediable.

I’m not particularly suggesting that all households should be like this and that all farming should be of this sort – we’ll come to some quantifications around this presently. But, for the reasons just outlined, I do suggest that this is a promising direction in which to move our farm ecologies generally.

There are a couple of further points about small-household farming that I’d like to make. First, there’s been a long-running and sometimes fierce academic debate about the widespread finding that poor, small-scale, household farmers in low-income countries gain higher per acre yields than richer, larger-scale commercial farmers – the so-called inverse productivity relationship (IR). The main reason the debate has been long-running and fierce is that it contradicts the dominant narrative that larger and more capitalized is always best – and of course carries the implication troubling to various strands of ‘development’ theory that support for and land reform in favour of small-scale household farmers may be the optimum economic strategy. So people have spent a lot of time trying to disprove it.

The issues underlying the IR are interesting, but I’ve written about some of them before and I don’t want to plunge into them here (I touch on them lightly in Chapter 7 of my book). I think it’s possible to make too much of it on both sides of the debate. On the one side, Marxists and other proponents of mainstream economic development have tied themselves implausibly in knots trying to prove that the IR is either illusory or symptomatic of extreme poverty, and therefore not challenging to their depeasantization/industrialization narrative. On the other, the fact that small household farms can sometimes be a bit more productive than their larger counterparts isn’t ipso facto an argument for a small farm future, and only becomes relevant within larger social and agronomic contexts. Nevertheless, the existence of the IR does help underline the point that a world of small-scale farming is not likely to be one that fails to meet the challenge of feeding the world by virtue of farm scale.

Onwards to my final point. Going back to Francis Pryor’s description of fenced Neolithic provision grounds, it’s worth remarking that some of the productivity of the small farm stems from intricate and labour-intensive terraforming and internal differentiation. A small farm with a garden and some goats sited conveniently close to a river can greatly surpass the productivity of a farm with only goats, or only a garden, or with no reliable source of water. But to realize the productivity, a lot of work needs to go into creating internal flows and, by the same token, internal boundaries.

While the manure from the goats might usefully flow (hopefully in a more figurative than literal sense) into the garden, the goats themselves need to be kept out of it, and the flows of water from the river likewise need to be under the farmer’s control. I once did some fencing and ditching on my farm with the reluctant help from a visitor inclined to a more hands-off approach. To him these were unnatural linearities imposed on the organic world – “I don’t like to see fences. What are you trying to exclude, and what are you trying to contain?” Well, in the example above, I’m trying to exclude the goats and the river from trashing the garden, and I’m trying to contain – or just get – a tolerable harvest. Like the different parts of a cell separated by membranes, sometimes things only work well together when they’re kept somewhat apart. The route agriculture has often taken is to keep things radically apart – goats in the desert, leafy greens on the hydroponic urban farm, rivers dredged and canalized. But the ecology of the small, low-impact farm involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture.

I suspect also that the sociology of small, low-impact farm society involves internal differentiation with judicious mixture, but that’s a whole other issue that we’ll come to presently.

Notes

  1. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home. Penguin.