The first draft of A Small Farm Future had a chapter called ‘Labour on the farm’ which didn’t make the final version. I needed to cut the length, and although there were parts of this chapter I was quite attached to, I felt I hadn’t nailed the issues as well as I’d like, so it was easy to spike. Some passages found their way into other parts of the book, but I’d been hoping to make good on the issue in this blog cycle with parts of the deleted chapter and my own more polished thoughts. Trouble is, I still don’t feel I’ve nailed this issue sufficiently. So instead I offer this post as a placeholder for a more distant day when I hope I can offer something more up to scratch.

What I’ll do here instead is provide a few brief thoughts on the topic prompted by a deeper dive I took recently into Francesca Bray’s fascinating book The Rice Economies (University of California Press, 1986) – an old book, but a very good one. Then I’m hoping I can come back in the future with something a bit more expansive.

A key organizing theme in Bray’s book is her contention that wheat in western countries and dryland cereal crops in general offer economies of scale in production that don’t exist in the case of the wet rice cultivation that dominates much of the populous regions of East, South and Southeast Asia. The combination of relatively scarce labour and relatively abundant land in the west (albeit that the latter was too often a function of colonial dispossession) created a dynamic of labour substitution and mechanization geared to increasing the per worker productivity of farming as an economic sector that’s come to be seen as exemplary of agricultural ‘progress’. In the wet rice regions, on the other hand, relatively abundant labour and relatively scarce land created a dynamic of agricultural development where the focus was using more (skilled) labour to increase the per acre productivity of the land.

From this point of departure, Bray unfurls an enormously detailed and sophisticated discussion of poverty, development, mechanization, landownership, credit, state formation, agrarian organization and much else besides which I hope to draw and elaborate from in future posts. But for now I’ll restrict myself to a couple of main points.

In certain situations of economic growth and capitalist development, there can be a compelling logic to agricultural labour substitution of the western kind. People quit the toilsome agrarian life for better paid jobs in industry or services, helping fuel an accumulation of capital and resources that redounds to the net benefit of all.

This is a pretty idealized vision of how capitalism works in practice, but it has a sufficient grain of historical truth to it in western societies to colour notions of a more labour-intensive agricultural future with a sense of regress and misplaced romanticism. Nevertheless, it matters where the accumulated capital and resources go. If labour substitution helps generate extra income that doesn’t find its way back to labourers, then to them there is no benefit. And this is basically what’s happening in the present phase of the global economy.

In the rice economies, on the other hand, capitalism was often built out from small-scale rice farming based on the intensive application of skilled labour, for example in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. And even where it wasn’t, intensive labour on the farm created opportunities for crop diversification and increased rural income in relatively egalitarian rural societies.

Turning to the present and probable future global situation, I’d suggest that Bray’s analysis of the rice economies provides a firmer foundation for grasping the agrarianism to come than the recent historical experience of the western wheat economies. In the face of climate change, energy squeeze and socioeconomic crisis, the new normal will most likely be situations where a lot of people are gathered in the diminishing areas of the world still propitious for farming – in other words, where labour is abundant and land is scarce. Generally, capital will not be accumulating, but melting away. In these situations, the wise course will not lie in trying to release people from agrarian labour for largely non-existent jobs in a declining capital-intensive sector, but in intensifying agricultural labour to best produce the things that people need to live a good life locally.

If people were to do that, it seems likely they would move away from cultivating more than the minimum necessary amount of wheat, maize etc and towards more diverse cropping of fruits, vegetables and other such crops which have more the characteristics of wet rice than wheat. They respond to labour-intensive, land-sparing husbandry, which is why rich countries like the UK and the USA that are sold on labour-sparing agricultures terraformed to the largest possible envelopes for machine working import so much of their fruit and vegetables from abroad.

All of which is to say that we need a more nuanced approach to discussions of agricultural ‘efficiency’ than is commonly found in both mainstream and alternative agricultural circles (referencing this discussion with Ernie on the latter point, while conceding my elaboration here is sketchy – hopefully something to be filled out further in the future). In brief, efficiency is not an end in itself, but a way of saving on the means. So there is no virtue in having a labour-lean, capital-intensive agriculture when labour is abundant and capital is thin on the ground. It will not improve quality of life, which is a more powerful underlying aim than mere ‘efficiency’. In these circumstances, labour productivity will be less important than land productivity. And trophic efficiency may be less important than figuring out an agriculture that keeps people tolerably fed year-round, ideally with some periods of slack in the annual labour cycle that enables them to devote themselves to other pursuits. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be fleshed out in emerging agrarian societies.

Over at The South Roane Agrarian, Brian Miller has recently made much the same point implicitly with an enumeration of the labour on his farm over the last twenty-one years since he took it on. It’s a similar timespan since I turned to the farming life, though most of Brian’s numbers are well ahead of mine. Perhaps he’s more efficient?

Well, to compare farms and farmers is always to compare apples with oranges. Sometimes literally. But Brian closes his post with an irreducibly apples/oranges comparison of the kind that many farmers make.

“1,126 times one of us has said to the other, “This is too much work.” 7,929 times one of us has thought, What a lovely and a lucky way to live.

The challenge in the future will be trying to maintain that 1,126:7,929 ratio and make it the reality for as many farmers as possible. Because there won’t be many other options.


Teaser photo credit: