A Small Farm Future
Chris Smaje, Chelsea Green, 2020, 297 pages
Chris Smaje is almost certainly the only sociologist-turned-farmer in Somerset, and probably in England. This unusually ecologically-aware agriculturist hopes the sobering effects of COVID can encourage global radical rethinking that can reset society by restructuring rurality.
More of us now see the fragility of food-chains, caused by a combination of population pressure, climate change, energy demand, soil impoverishment, resource and water depletion, land availability, health and nutrition, and failures of political economy and culture. Smaje says these crises call for a new emphasis on small farms and local self-reliance over factory farming and mass-market consumerism.
These are old ideas, but in our Anthropocene age they feel increasingly urgent. He makes his case carefully, patiently sifting realities from fallacies on everything from organic farming to veganism, and property rights to the supposed vibrancy of cities. He discounts the “zombie liberalism” of both Left and Right, and the complacent fantasy that ‘innovation’ will somehow save us from the consequences of our carelessness. He combines academic insight with hands-on agronomy to argue not only that small farms can feed the world, but that eventually maybe only small farms can. Even now, small farms and organic practices can out-yield conventional agriculture, without causing comparable devastation.
He is gainsaying not just agribusiness, but the whole structure of the modern state, and centuries of cultural drift encrusted with snobbery – from the country to the city, manual work to mechanisation, ‘backwardness’ to ‘progress’. This is a lonely furrow, pointing towards far-distant prospects – “recaptured gardens”, “reconstituted peasantries” and a piecemeal transition from consumerist and urban-oriented economies to a “distributed, omnivorous, de-centralised agricultural order”. A minority will find this an attractive vision, because even now rural life is associated with authenticity, community, ‘escape’, and Cincinnatus-like moral virtue. But is it feasible as a mass movement?
Nobody wants to return to Smaje’s “hardscrabble life of toil retained in folk memory”. Few will forage for food, slaughter their own kine, or make their own wine, when they can just drive to the supermarket. His priority is therefore to make his “materially adequate” future seem slightly more appetising, not just to eco-conscious individuals, but more importantly the economists, philosophers, and politicians in thrall to economies-of-scale, ‘growth’, homogenisation, scientism and short-termism.
There are precedents, and hints of change. Small farms were the default setting for much of history, and many countries still have many small farms. Even the modern West is not that far removed from this tradition, and more of us are altering attitudes, growing different crops, eating better meat, and using fewer chemicals. If Smaje is right, these choices may soon become necessities, and the ‘easy option’ no option at all – and then we’ll be grateful for cultivators of his kind.
This review first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission