Why Small Farming Is Essential for Creating a Sustainable Future
With more farmers today than at almost any point in history, humanity’s future will likely be agrarian. We must imagine that world into being.
Let me start this journey with my feet on my farm. When people visit it, I notice three main responses. One is an unbidden enthusiasm for the rural paradise we’ve created, the beauty of the place, and our great good fortune in avoiding the rat race and producing honest food from the land. Sometimes, the words are spoken, and sometimes, I only see it in their eyes, but the sentiment that usually accompanies it is: “This is great. I wish I could do something like this, but I can’t because…”
The second response takes in our rustic accommodation, the compost toilets, the rows of hard-won vegetable beds, the toolshed speaking of the work to be done, and the reek of manure and compost with a kind of recoiling pity. It seems to say: “You went to graduate school and got a well-paid job. Then this. How did it go so wrong?” Or the more actively disdainful: “Each to their own. But nobody wants to farm anymore. All that backbreaking work!”
The third response is that of the harsher critic, whose gaze homes in on specifics—the tractor in the yard, the photovoltaic panels on the roof, the tilled beds in some of the gardens. “Look how tied in you are to the global fossil fuel economy and its cash nexus.” This critique comes from both sides of the green divide. “You haven’t properly escaped and found a truly natural way of life,” says one side. “You talk about sustainability, but you’re no better than the rest of us. Besides, small farms like this can’t feed the world,” says the other.
Small farms like this can feed the world, and, in the long run, it may only be small farms like this that can. But criticisms must be addressed—the compromises with the status quo, the low prestige, and the toil associated with an agrarian life, as well as the global flight from the land. One thing that encourages me is that, of the three responses I mentioned above, the first seems the commonest—it simply isn’t true that nobody wants to farm.
But people aren’t willing to farm under just any circumstances. Too often, farming is still a life of unrewarded toil, not because that’s intrinsically how it has to be but because farming is, as it were, the engine room of every society—including our present ones—where the harsh realities and dirty secrets of how it achieves its apparently effortless motion are locked away below decks. They need to be unlocked and shared more widely. But for now, my visitors who say, “I can’t because…” are correct. A congenial small farm life is a viable option for few—not for the massed ranks of the employed, unemployed, or underemployed in the world’s cityscapes, and not for its multitudes of rural poor, who can scarcely make a living from the land. But in both cases, the dream of the small farm lives on, and that’s an important place to start.
Of course, it’s only a place to start, and a sketchy one at that. Notions of the agrarian good life are commonplace around the world, but often, they figure as little more than bucolic symbols, empty of pragmatic content. They seem to lack the power of the urban case for supremacy, which has deep historical roots. City, citizenship, civilization, and civility: so much that we value about our world shares an urban etymology.
But if we want to build good lives on lasting foundations for the future, the time has come to abandon the unilluminating oppositions of city versus country and factory versus farm, as well as associated oppositions like progress versus backwardness.
Regrettably, that’s not how public debate seems to be going. There’s a veritable industry of opinion formers laying their bets only on the first half of those dualities and exhorting us to be “optimistic” about a future presented as urban, capital-forming, high-tech, and non-agrarian. This neo-optimist or progress literature often invokes recurrent myths of human technological problem-solving as an inspiration for transcending present problems.
Take, for example, London’s Great Horse Manure Crisis in the 1890s, where it’s said that people feared the proliferation of horses would bury the streets under their feces, only to find horses were soon displaced by motor vehicles. Or take the idea that fossil fuels saved the whales when kerosene-burning lamps replaced demand for whale oil.
I call these myths partly in the everyday sense that they’re untrue. There never was a Great Horse Manure Crisis in the 1890s. And the industrialized whaling of the 20th century powered by fossil fuels put whales in danger. But they’re also myths in the more profound sense that they’re mystifying and oversimplifying stories that reveal cultural self-conceptions. Our modern culture’s self-conception revealed in these myths is that our problems are discrete, technical ones with one-shot solutions.
These stories are mystifying because they tell tales of fossil fuel-based solutions to predicaments in the past at a point in our current history when fossil fuels present us with problems for which there are no apparent solutions. Right now, we need more than banal assertions that someone’s bound to think of something. And they’re oversimplifying because human capacities for technical innovation aren’t in doubt. What’s in doubt is the human capacity to find purely technical solutions for many current economic, political, cultural, ecological, biological, and geophysical problems with complex, interrelated feedback loops exhibiting imperfect information in real-time.
We need a different narrative that’s less impressed with techno-fixes or dominant notions of civilizational progress. I don’t deny that our contemporary civilization has its successes. But it has its failures, too. I see it in the eyes of those visitors to my farm—who, in material terms, must surely count among the wealthiest people in the world—which betray a life diminished, trammeled by too many of the wrong kinds of obligations. More importantly, I see it in the fact that the world we live in today is just about the most unequal one ever, where nearly 800 million people are undernourished, about as many as the estimated 800 million population of the entire planet in 1750 at the dawn of the modern age.
These undernourished people haven’t missed out on progress but, in large measure, are its victims. If global industrial civilization ever could help the poor and malnourished people of the world to achieve the standard of living we experience in the richer countries, the chances of it doing so now have been extinguished in the face of the numerous internal and external threats that have emerged globally during the questionable march of modernization. So I’d counter the neo-optimist view that the world’s problems can be solved with high-tech fixes delivered by the reigning capitalist economy, it cannot be solved with pessimism but requires an alternative optimism—an optimism that this reigning economy won’t endure much longer and will be succeeded by something that offers a better future.
The better future is a small farm future. I’m not completely optimistic that it’s the future we or our descendants will see. Still, I think it’s our best shot at creating future societies that are tolerably sustainable in ecological terms and fulfilling in nutritional and psychosocial terms. Now is a critical moment in global politics where we might start delivering that future but also where more troubling outcomes threaten us. What might a small farm future look like? How might we get there?
The small farm isn’t a panacea, but what a politics geared around it can offer—what, perhaps, at least some of the visitors who come to our farm can glimpse in outline—is the possibility of personal autonomy, spiritual fulfillment, community connectedness, purposeful work, and ecological conviviality. Relatively few farmers, past or present, have enjoyed these fine things. Throughout the world, there are long and complex histories by which people have been both yoked unwillingly to the land and divested unwillingly from it in ways that are misrepresented when we talk of agricultural “improvement” or progressive “freedom” from agricultural toil. These improvements haven’t been for everyone; the freedom hasn’t been equally shared, and the progress has landed us in a whole raft of other problems that we must now try to overcome. And none of it was preordained.
That’s why it’s urgent at this point in history to think about a small farm future. Taking each of the three words in reverse order, we need to think about the future because it’s clear that present ways of doing politics, economics, and agriculture in much of the world are reaching the end of the line. Wise authors avoid speculating on future events because time usually makes their words look foolish, but such dignity isn’t a luxury our generation can afford.
We need to start imagining another world into being right now.
Modern thinkers have coined numerous terms for how we live to distinguish it from the past: the affluent society, the effluent society, industrial society, postindustrial society, Industria, consumer society, postmodern society, the information society, and the virtual society. These all capture something significant about our times, but they too easily allow us to forget that our modern societies are agrarian societies, just like almost all other human societies over the past few thousand years.
Humanity today relies heavily on just three crops—wheat, rice, and maize—all of which had been domesticated by about 7,000 BCE and are still primarily grown using techniques having basic outlines that would be instantly recognizable to any ancient farmer. Despite the recent hype over industrially cultured nutrients, our future is probably a farm future.
Computers have millions of times more processing power than the ones available in the 1970s. In contrast, average global wheat yields are less than nine times higher than those achieved in the Roman Empire. In dimensions that matter most to our continued existence, we’re less distant from our ancient counterparts than we sometimes think. The agricultural improvements we’ve achieved since those times have often come through processes that draw down on non-renewable energy sources, soil, and water while imperiling climate and ecological stability.
Whether we farm or not individually, almost all of us ultimately are farming people. In fact, there are more farmers today by formal definition—around 2 billion—than at almost any point in history. There are good farmers and bad farmers. The best ones learn to produce what’s needed with a minimum of effort without compromising the possibilities of their successors doing the same or losing sight of their obligations as members of communities. It’s about time we started trying to tell the story of our world from their perspective—not a story of how we transcended agriculture (because we never did), but of how we might transfigure it—and ourselves—to deal with the problems we now face.