Back to the blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future with a little more about household-based farming.

A couple of posts back Greg Reynolds suggested I might write some short declarative sentences about my case for household farming, which struck me as a good idea. So here’s my best shot at it.

  • To reiterate my basic position, I think we face a future of high climate, water and land/soil stress, lower energy and capital availability, and socioeconomic/political turbulence and contraction. In these circumstances, I think farm societies will emerge that are strongly based on smallholder households devoting much or most of their attention to the intensive cultivation of small land areas for meeting their own food and fibre needs.
  • This is not my vision of an ideal society – it’s just what I think a feasible human ecology will look like in probable future circumstances. As I see it, there could be better or worse kinds of household farm society, and in future posts I’ll discuss some of the possibilities for creating better ones within the framework of what I’ve called ‘least worst politics’ – in other words, how people can try to make the best of the challenging circumstances to come. But I’m not going to get into that here. In this post, I’m just going to lay out why I think we’ll see household farm societies in the future.
  • Where there are global commodity chains supported by cheap energy and cheap capital, producers tend to concentrate on a handful of highly processable and transportable crops (mostly cereals, grain legumes and oil crops). This enables them to maintain profitability through seeking economies of large scale (large farms with few workers and a lot of energy and capital-intensive infrastructure). Where the writ of these commodity chains doesn’t (any longer) run and/or where energy/capital are not cheap, producers tend to concentrate on a wide range of food and fibre crops that can provide a full and agreeable diet and other household necessities (clothes, constructional materials, medicines) locally. In doing so, they optimise on per area and per water yield through economies of small scale (small farms with many workers and with low energy and capital inputs). Relative prices of processing, transport, labour and energy are such that the optimal customers for this produce are the people who produced it, ie. the household, with other local households second in line – except that they in turn will be incentivized to produce for themselves. So in this situation, household-based production will likely predominate.
  • In this latter situation, money will be harder to come by and market/retail commodities more expensive. People will try to limit market expenditures to things they really need and can’t easily produce for themselves. As I recall back-to-the-land guru John Seymour putting it somewhere, in self-reliant rural communities money is too scarce for people to waste on things like food and clothes they can produce themselves for nothing. So more non-monetary household resources (especially time, learned skills and land) will be devoted to producing these things.
  • In the future, there will probably be a lot of population movement towards and therefore population pressure upon areas where the combination of climate, soils and water makes them propitious for growing food crops. Such a view is often dismissed as ‘Malthusian’, but as I show in my book (pp.17-21) and as other people like Giorgos Kallis (Limits, Stanford 2019) have also shown, it really isn’t. Whatever the label, regrettably I think it’s unlikely that this re-sorting of the global population will be achieved without lethal human conflicts, but barring the distinct possibilities of really disastrous climate change or nuclear conflict it should ultimately be possible to feed the redistributed global population adequately, or even well. Analysis of diverse situations worldwide, including premodern/precolonial ones, suggests that the dominant form of human ecological adaptation to situations of continuous cultivation on scarce land is small household-based production predominantly for own use, notwithstanding endless local variations on exactly how this manifests in practice (aside from my A Small Farm Future see, for example: Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, 1965; Bray, The Rice Economies, 1986; Netting, Smallholders, Householders, 1993; van der Ploeg, Peasants and the Art of Farming, 2013).
  • With heavy pressure on land, local agricultures outside the humid tropics (if indeed these stay humid and habitable long-term) will have to place considerable emphasis on producing nutrient-dense crops for direct human consumption, with perennial crops and livestock as supplementary. Historically, farming situations of this sort have lent themselves to small household-based forms of organisation, and it seems likely the same will be true in the future.
  • There are economies of small scale in farm societies where availability of land, capital and energy are limiting factors. There are economies of large scale where these are not limiting factors. But prospects in most places point towards the former. Some people shrink from the idea of household-based farming, and prefer to think in terms of more collective or cooperative larger-scale farming. In many ways this is a false dichotomy, because cooperative structures are baked into any feasible farm society. Nevertheless, the day-to-day reality of most farms will probably be based around households or ‘hearths’, usually quite small in size – a point I’ll further explain in future posts. To argue contrariwise, it would probably be necessary to show that there are diseconomies of scale to small household-based farming as compared to larger scale cooperative farming under situations of land, capital and energy scarcity. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
  • In the longer term, these changes will probably be accompanied by changes in political ideologies which, especially with fresh historical memories of the disasters of modernity and global capitalism, might emphasize things like local self-regulation (ecological and political), frugality, personal-livelihood-within-community and a cautious approach to merchants, credit and financial connectors, which will reinforce commitments to household-based farming.
  • Nevertheless, the difficulties and contradictions involved in simultaneously being an individual person and also a member of a household, a family and a wider community are unlikely to disappear.
  • Distinctions between home gardening, homesteading/smallholding and ‘proper’ farming will probably be more fluid in household farming societies of the future. The idea of providing for yourself and your household, of being involved in food production at some level, will be a norm – there will be more producerism and less consumerism. People will also take local community provisioning and service to community seriously, more seriously than they generally do today, but a good deal of that will be filtered through ideas of community as an enabler of individual and household capabilities.

What I haven’t addressed here is the nature of the households doing the household farming and their internal structure. But there’s always the next post…