The Land Magazine has just published a long article from me in which I sketch some key issues facing small farm societies of the future, anticipating much that I want to say in the remainder of this blog cycle concerning my book A Small Farm Future.

I’ll reproduce the article in my next post and expand on it in future ones. In this post, I’m just going to mention a few points from it, relating them to an issue that seems to have blown up in alternative farming circles in the USA concerning the alleged racism of small-scale family farms, and how media constructions play into this – what I’ll call the Salatin-Newman problem. But I’ll get to that shortly.

1. Household farming and the commons

Societies oriented to local agrarian livelihoods have frequently involved strong forms of collective organisation, but also a strong development of what are effectively private property rights, typically exercised by households comprising closely related kinsfolk practising skilled self-provisioning work individually. This can be upsetting to standard modern political positions, the collectivism offending cherished notions on the right, the individualism and kin structuring offending cherished notions on the left.

In my article, I explain why these jointly collective and individual forms are so frequent and outline some of their advantages – while acknowledging, I hope, the drawbacks too. I suspect these joint forms will figure heavily in small farm societies of the future. I’m open to the possibility there may be better ways to organise things, but to be persuasive I think the proponents of such possibilities need a thorough grasp of why the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual practices has been so frequent historically. Alas, this seems less common than invoking simplistic individual vs collective dualisms and advocating solely for one or other side.

I touched on some of these issues in a post I wrote a little while ago, where I offered some friendly criticisms of the cooperative farming model advocated by Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms.

Sylvanaqua’s response on Twitter was none too amiable, opting for an ad hominem attack on me along the lines that I sounded like a wannabe know-nothing with a permaculture design certificate, before suggesting to a woman who was advocating critical engagement with my position that “You can look for my work and read it, or you can go fuck yourself. Because who are you again anyway?”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced an aggressive and dismissive response from people (men, usually) who espouse egalitarian collectivism in agriculture. Usually, I’ve just shrugged at the irony of folks who can’t even engage in a Twitter exchange without combative putdowns while supposing they can handle the enormously more emotionally demanding reality of genuinely egalitarian collectivism in farming.

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t an irony at all. The people who stand to gain the most from formally egalitarian modes of local collectivism are the ones most skilled at implicitly dominating, bullying, cajoling or bending them to their own purposes where others will have greater difficulty in challenging the appearance of collective harmony. So it’s no surprise that egalitarian collectivism is often favoured by domineering characters – not least within historic Marxist-Leninist regimes where the ‘big man’ style of personal domination can justify itself with respect to the ‘scientific’ trappings of its power, and opponents can be easily dismissed as ‘bourgeois’, ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’ or whatever. The appeal of being able to walk away from this big man style of local domination, of not having to either submit to or waste precious time resisting the dominants, is one reason why more individualist approaches manifest in many agrarian societies. In my article, I trace a few of the implications of that point.

I can’t say whether Chris Newman fits that oxymoronic mould of the domineering egalitarian, and I don’t much care. My point is a wider one. But the tweets emanating from Sylvanaqua do give me the impression of the kind of status-aggrandizing big man micropolitics that so often blights people’s lives in rural places where you can’t just escape by turning your computer off, but you might just escape if you’re able to organise some personal autonomy through property rights.

After I’d submitted my article to The Land, I became aware of various recriminations emerging out of Sylvanaqua – as for example discussed hereherehere and by Sarah Mock here. I’m in no position to judge the various claims and counterclaims, except to say their very existence does seem like prima facie evidence for my basic argument that it’s hard to keep large-scale agrarian cooperatives on an even keel.

Indeed, this point is made by Sarah Mock, formerly of Sylvanaqua, thus: “[a] system of collective agriculture …. requires outstanding interpersonal skills, a deep commitment to shared goals, a thoughtful recruitment strategy and a rigorous onboarding and training curriculum, a strong and healthy internal culture, a bias towards continuous personal growth, and well-established and articulated structures for conflict-resolution that can be accessed and reinforced by each and every member of the group. Collective systems require collective power and an incredible amount of humility and patience from every individual, most especially the leader.”

Aside from the eyebrow-raising idea that genuinely collective systems of agriculture have ‘a leader’, this seems about right to me as a general summation of the challenges these systems face. In my twenty odd years around alternative agriculture, I’ve seen much-touted, supposedly mould-breaking new co-ops and non-profits fail time and again because of these inherent difficulties – often through social conflict between people of goodwill who end up bearing the wider dysfunctions of the food system as a personal burden. To be fair, I’ve seen a few household farms fail too for much the same reason. None of this stuff is easy.

But now imagine yourself in a tight and tough peasant farming situation that places heavy demands on your labour, with little time, energy or capital to spare. I’d suggest that the chances of pulling off the kind of system that Mock describes without conflict or personal domination emerging are minimal. Which is a major reason why local agrarian societies usually work collectively where they have to, but not otherwise. This raises other difficulties, which I discuss in my article and in my book. But the alternative of agrarian cooperatives is no panacea.

2. Is the small farm racist?

Another theme that’s recently emerged around the household vs collective farming duality, particularly in the USA and again with Chris Newman as a key protagonist, is the question of the small family farm model as being effectively racist.

The background to this is Newman’s argument with regenerative grass farming notable Joel Salatin, which is explained in this widely-aired article by Tom Philpott. In a nutshell, Salatin responded to some criticisms of his farming practice from Newman with ad hominem dismissals of the latter’s greenhorn status (well, I know how that feels) followed up with some heavily racist comments.

It’s a sad story of Salatin’s flaws but, in Philpott’s rendering, it becomes something more, with Salatin presented as an archetype of small-scale, regenerative, family farming more generally, his racism a lineal heir of the Jeffersonian smallholding vision and his individualist farming model merely replicating systemic inequities. Newman is presented as the positive to Salatin’s negative – someone who draws from a deeper, anti-racist, collectivist, indigenous tradition.

And so we arrive at this homology:

Salatin – Newman

Jefferson – Indigenous

Racist – Anti-racist

Small family farm – Larger multi farm

Individualist – Cooperative

Politically conservative – Politically transformative

Confirms existing food system – Challenges existing food system

Negative example – Positive example

I think this is problematic for various reasons which I hope to address in future posts. It’s true nonetheless that small-scale farming models have played their part in the history of US racism. If we’re going to point the finger at a president, however, I’d suggest a more telling target than the soft one of Thomas Jefferson is the more ambiguous one of Abraham Lincoln, on whose watch the 1862 Homestead Act was passed. As documented in Paul Frymer’s interesting book Building an American Empire, it was through this (and other) means, that US governments peopled the country in the late 19th century with land-hungry white settlers in ways that ensured white electoral majorities over black and indigenous people, and indeed in ways that helped create ‘whiteness’ as a modern political project in the USA.

There are other cases of racialized small farm settlement as a political strategy on violent colonial frontiers – for example in parts of Latin America, Southern Africa and Australia. But the history of these places is not the history of the world, and farm scale per se is not the decisive factor in them. The agrarian history of political racism in my home country of Britain worked in pretty much the opposite way. Britain’s colonial extension established it as a food-importing metropole, extracted most of its national populace from small-scale farming, and fostered large-scale commercial alternatives at home and abroad. If the small family farm can be represented as a racist institution, then a nodding familiarity with the history of the Atlantic slave system is surely enough to suggest that the large non-family farm oriented to supplying agrarian commodities to metropolitan regions is also a racist institution.

I suspect the dominance of settler-colonial history in folk memory within the Anglophone world, and the global political dominance of the USA, makes it dangerously easy to slide from the racist settler-colonial history of the small farm in the US to some over-generalized notion that small family farms are racist and inherently problematic. Yet there have been generation upon generation of small-scale, kin-based farms in South, Southeast and East Asia, in Africa, in precolonial Europe and in the Americas without the racism implicated in current US discussions of the small single farm model. This alternative small farm history includes African American farmers in the USA in the aftermath of slavery, as discussed in this interesting presentation by Noah McDonald. The notion that the small kin-based farm is inherently tainted by racism strikes me as an ethnocentric and Anglocentric over-generalization of more specific histories.

Perhaps I’m labouring the obvious here: the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. There is intrinsic racism in access to farmland, and most other forms of capital, in the USA and in Britain and other countries too. In my opinion, anyone starting up a small family farm, a large commercial farm or any other kind of land and capital-based operation is well advised to do it thoughtfully in the local historical context of who has had access to land and money and who has been denied that access, and to do their best to transcend that history, even if their best probably won’t be good enough. But the small family farm as a unit of production is not intrinsically racist. Indeed, often enough it’s been aspirational for people denied the possibility of creating one due to racism and other forms of oppression.

I won’t dwell here on the other problematic aspects of the homology I drew out above from Philpott’s article, though I hope to return to some of them. However, as I’ve said previously, whether farmers work in single family operations or in larger cooperatives, it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in redressing the iniquities and inequities of the food system, still less the everyday power dynamics of human interaction, bottom-up through their farm structure. So while I think Chris Newman and Tom Philpott are right to question the transformative potential of the small family farm model within our current political economy, the same doubts hang over the kind of cooperative models they espouse. I’m not saying people shouldn’t experiment with such cooperative models. On the contrary, I’m all in favour of experimentation. I’m likewise in favour of experimenting with family/household farming models. I just don’t think there are good grounds for suggesting that fully cooperative models are intrinsically better than household farming ones. Or for suggesting that either model alone can remedy the deep-seated problems of the food system.

The reason I still advocate for small-scale household farming is mostly because I think it’s best equipped to meet the looming challenges of climate, energy and socioeconomic crises to come, rather than being an intrinsically transformative model in the here and now. On that note, those of us who have white privilege, or class privilege, or rich country privilege, might be wise to look at the example of Thomas Jefferson with a little less self-righteous hindsight and a little more personal discomfort. Jefferson lived in a time of unprecedented social change. He addressed himself in some powerful ways to that challenge, but in the end failed to overcome the contradictions, compromises and bitter legacies of his time – a failure in my view grounded less in the fact that he advocated for small family farms than in the fact he didn’t advocate for them radically enough. In any case, many of us may soon find ourselves likewise living among epochal changes that will bring immense suffering to many people. In fact, we already are. Can we look at ourselves with honesty and be certain that we or the politicians we elect will meet the moral challenges facing us better than Jefferson did? I’m not seeing good grounds for that at present.

3. Farming the media

A problem with the Salatin-Newman imbroglio is the fact that it’s a media event, with all of the pressure for simple and satisfying storylines that entails. Joel Salatin has some interesting ideas about grass and livestock, but he’s never been an uncomplicated hero of the alternative farming movement (as opposed to people writing about the alternative farming movement) or been seen as a significant political theorist within it, and he’s long been criticized within the movement for several reasons – not least that his skills at media self-promotion somewhat exceed his results on the ground.

It now seems the same may apply to Chris Newman. I wouldn’t know. But I definitely think there’s a problem with the way that charismatic personalities appear on the farming scene, scornfully dismiss predecessors in favour of their chosen approach, get themselves amplified in the media and gather disciples around them who loudly squash any questions or criticisms, and then get invoked positively in boilerplate media articles as a shorthand critique for much more complex and ambiguous realities. I’ve seen it so, so many times across numerous dimensions of the farming scene. It’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to strive to do better – and we need to do better than this. In my view, the lesson of the Salatin-Newman problem is not that Salatin was a hero who turned out to have feet of clay and needed replacing with a new hero like Newman, but that it’s better to write about farming without invoking heroes at all.

So, here’s my suggestion: if a farmer has written a book, does a lot of social media, has a lot of articles written about them, or claims to have solved the difficulties that are inherent to farming or the politics of farming, then treat the claims they make or that are made on their behalf with a large pinch of salt. Of course, with a book, a blog and a Twitter account to my name, I thereby implicate myself within this rogue’s gallery of influencers and wannabes. To be honest, I feel a bit too old and tired to qualify as a ‘wannabe’. Except for one thing – there’s a vastly greater historical weight to the constellation of collective-household-kin-individual peasant farming strategies than there is to the mould-breaking claims of a handful of media-savvy present day farmers, and I wannabe a voice as best I can for those tried and tested strategies of innumerable small-scale and peasant farmers down the ages who for the most part never left a script, never had a book to sell, a big idea or a guru to promote, but who I believe have nevertheless still left much from which people today can learn. What I hope to do in the next part of this blog cycle is try to distil some of those lessons for present circumstances.