Northern Advocate Column

‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

14 November 2020

Imagine no Fonterra, no mega-dairy farms, no super-sized avocado orchards. Imagine that shiploads of rice, wheat, and—oh my god!—coffee, weren’t landing on our shores. Imagine instead that all the food we eat is grown locally on small farms, less than a few hectares. That’s the future for the world envisaged by Chris Smaje, author of the new book A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green Publishing in the UK. 

There’s long been recognition in permaculture and ecological circles that small-scale mixed farming is the future we need. The strength of Smaje’s book is that he tackles head-on the possible criticisms of this small farm future. Like the idea that small farms, with little or no fossil fuel inputs, couldn’t possibly feed the world. To counter that argument, Smaje makes a case study of Britain in 2050 with an increased population of 83 million (thanks to the benevolent acceptance of refugees fleeing from countries worst affected by climate change). 

He goes through the process of dividing up the land and labour of the country, factoring in conservative estimates on yields, and making choices about what needs to be grown to produce the necessary calories. There would be more vegetables eaten, including potatoes a thousand ways, and a lot less sugar and red meat. The figures he comes up with, carefully explained and justified with scientific rigour along the way, say, yes, it can be done. There might be political, economic and social reasons why Britain doesn’t immediately embrace small farm self-sufficiency. Still, this doesn’t mean, according to Smaje’s analysis, that it’s not possible. 

You often hear from New Zealand export farmers—of dairy and meat in particular—that they’re performing the necessary service of “feeding the world.” But the rest of the world, if land was owned and controlled differently, and if different social and environmental considerations reigned, could, in fact, feed itself. 

Being a small farmer himself, and with a science background, Smaje is careful about any claims he makes. It’s this sober analysis that actually makes Smaje’s book inspiring and worthy of repeated reads (he’s also a great writer). A Small Farm Future is theoretical, but it’s grounded in the limits that farming (and nature more broadly) has always imposed on the human species. One of Smaje’s common themes, bringing together economics, lifestyle and sustainability, is that accepting limits is healthy. Less destabilising and stressful of people and eco-systems than the illusion of no limits. 

Our high energy, high waste, globalised economy is clearly overreaching the limits of what the Earth can support. Cities, according to Smaje, for a host of social, economic and environmental reasons, will start to empty out. With a city exodus leading to an expanding rural population, then land ownership, Smaje predicts, will be a flashpoint political issue. They’ll be an urgent need for land reform that makes land available to small farmers to own. 

The later parts of the book are perhaps the most fascinating and also original. Smaje speculates on what a small farm society might look like. He stresses, for instance, the importance of avoiding the exploitation of women’s work by patriarchal farmers. There’s no reason why the values we currently hold dear—like gender equality—can’t be part of the legal framework of a small farm society. Smaje does anticipate, however, the eroding power of the centralised state, conceding more power to local populations to decide things for themselves. One interesting chapter is titled “From Nations to Republics.” 

Smaje has lots of good things to say about peasants, both historically and today. As someone who fancies himself as a neo-peasant (more in my dreams than in reality), I’m attracted to his unapologetic advocacy of the peasant life. Though it would have to be free of domination by colonial or financial elites. Rehabilitating the peasant as a positive term might stress them as autonomous, multi-skilled, fiercely independent, creative types, who are keen scientific observers of their environment. 

Smaje never presents his small farm future as a utopia. Without fossil fuels, whether restricted due to attempts to reduce carbon emissions or because of increasing costs over time, farming will require a lot more human and animal labour. Smaje is sceptical of a super high tech world of robots and the automation of everything. The energy inputs of such a world—truly utopian—just don’t stack up. Besides, as Smaje persuasively argues, we might find that working on a farm to sustain ourselves and our families, and generating a small surplus, makes us quite happy. That life might be better than doing a bullshit job working for someone else and addicted to whatever passive entertainment global internet-based media companies feed us. Smaje isn’t afraid to make moral judgements. 

An ever-expanding global economy requiring more and more energy inputs—which renewables can’t possibly satisfy—is the delusional future. In one hundred years (probably less), whether we plan for it or not, more people will be working on the land, cities will have declined in population and influence, fossil fuels will be scarce or non-existent. Getting started on embracing the positives that derive from necessity, and trying to make that transition as orderly, just and fair as possible would probably be a good idea. Books like A Small Farm Future are important. They’ll plant seeds in the minds of farmers and searchers for an ecologically-centred and spiritually satisfying way of life. 

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