Small Farm Futures: A Book Review

BOOK REVIEW: A Small Farm Future 
By Chris Smaje (who also happens to be a director of the ELC) 

This book is an exercise in joined-up, critical ecological thinking. For this, Smaje’s case for a small farm future is both a welcome and refreshingly realistic outlook for our future prospects.

Careful not to posit his argument as “the ANSWER”, or as a roadmap for a sustainable future (of which we have plenty of offerings - from the techno-utopianism of silicon valley to the earthiness of neo-paganism) Smaje’s book, and argument(s), draw upon a multitude of disciplines and wide roving research to sketch a picture of what a turn to agrarian localism might look like.

It is this realism and humility that is so rich with detail and argumentation. Smaje writes in a lively and convivial tone; his dashes of scepticism and well researched sources bring an academic flair to his writing making it both learned and accessible.

Choosing his words carefully, Smaje details in the introduction why the words ‘small’, ‘farm’ and ‘future’ are the headline concepts in his outline for a congenial and renewable society.

On futures (or ‘the future’) — we need to start imagining another world into being. As for farming, it is central to our way of life and involves us all. As he points out in a later section 20% of the global workforce — the largest slice of workers — are in one type or another of agriculture. And ‘small’ — not so much in the acreage but in the conceptual sense: where localism, locality, autonomy, labour-intensive techniques and self-provisioning are the patterns rather than the profit motive of hyper capitalism.

Smaje goes on to outline the ten crises of our current age and how each relate to his argument. The crises we face shouldn’t be considered in isolation, nor should “piecemeal solutionism” be the call of the day. This joined-up, big picture view is necessarily ecological as the various parts are seen in how they interact.

Thankfully Smaje deconstructs the first crisis he takes to task: population. Human population is often claimed as the problem and as such has a lot of air time in environmental circles. He kindly, yet confidently, dismisses this powerful cultural narrative. Continuing on to Climate, Energy, Soil, Stuff, Water, Land, Health & Nutrition, Culture, I was particularly struck by Political Economy. Again, Smaje chooses his words carefully reminding the reader that by placing ‘political’ ahead of ‘economy’ — ‘the economy’ is always spoken of as if it is some immutable, natural law — he is alerting us to its human artifice. The economy is always political. The analysis of this particular crisis draws upon economic theory, history and political concepts. And this is where we see the academic Smaje truly flourish.

However as he reminds us throughout, his book is not an addition to the solution-seeking pragmatics of policy. ‘A Small Farm Future’ makes the case for “agrarian producerism” equipping us with the language and understanding as to why this might be a good idea. Aware of what he terms ‘wicked problems’, a wonderful coinage from academic Kelly Levin, the deeper forces — the economic, political, cultural currents shaping our lives — can’t simply be fixed by technology. Reading this helped me understand the pathologically capitalistic, sometime boyishly charming, yet wrong-headed ideologies often spewing out of silicon valley and big think tanks.

We need another way. We need to think boldly but we also need to be realistic about our Utopias. Pleading guilty to what he coins as small farm essentialism, ‘A Small Farm Future' is a thoroughly researched synthesis of ideas rich in detail.

His core argument, that to ride and adapt to our multiple crises, land-based livelihoods might be our best way. Sensitive to the reality that change is slow, especially when running contra to mainstream mythologies our culture circulates, he nods toward activist organisations such as the Landworkers’ Alliance and ourselves, the Ecological Land Cooperative, who are doing the work. He remains relatively sanguine despite admitting that such labour, and good work, from organisations the world over is an uphill struggle.

Ending with an Epilogue - ‘Does Goldman Sachs Care If You Raise Chickens’ — Smaje draws it back to his personal life, addressing the reader directly. This generosity of spirit redoubles his case that despite our vast global problems, and the frameworks our culture continues to hold as sacred, and which indeed generates them, a Small Farm Future is perhaps the best way. The book refreshingly makes such case whilst also rejecting the seductions of grand ‘solutionism’. Despite the difficulties inherent in organising human societies around small-scale, local, agro-ecological farming, such a course may be our very best chance of navigating our way into the future.

Written by Phil Moore for the ELC.

Available to buy here.