A Small Farm Future: Review

A Small Farm Future

Chris Smaje

Chelsea Green, 2020

Buy the book from Chelsea Green.

If you’ve read Chris Smaje‘s blog, Small Farm Future, over the last many years then there will be few surprises in his book — which is, I suppose, the point of writing a book based on a blog. I had hoped that he’d make use of the longer and more coherent format of book-writing to explore a few things more in depth. However, if anything, this book is the opposite — it seems to be a rough summary of his ideas. With this treatment he does reach a different audience, one that might need an introductory text. But…

I think it’s a fair assumption that a person who needs introducing to the idea of a small farm future might also need a bit more than Smaje’s book delivers in several important ways. First and foremost, he does a strangely poor job showing the need for such disruptive change. Yes, he spends a good part of the book talking about the problems we face. But then he fails to incorporate the effects of those problems into the future he is describing, nor much allude to how these effects are already felt in present populations. 

For example, he talks about climate change but neglects to apply reasonable predictions about climate change to his farming models. One comes away feeling that there is no real difference between the climate regime that he experiences on his farm today and the climate of the future. There is no accommodation for sea level rise or salinization of groundwater. There is no accounting for the effects of higher temperature and shifting growing seasons on crop plants. There is little acknowledgement that large portions of the earth — even his England — will be rather difficult to farm in a climate that has intensified evaporation. Indeed, his narrative seems to assume that the essentials of the future climate won’t be much different from the present. Which to me completely erases climate change and in turn any motivation to change our society. If we don’t expect things to be radically different enough to affect the basics of farming, why should there be any need to, for example, uproot the majority of people from urban environments and spread them out over the countryside?

The frustrating thing about this is that I agree that we do need to uproot billions of people and spread them out over the countryside. I think it is a dire need, in fact, precisely because of climate change effects. But I don’t think that we can blithely expect that farming is going to be at all similar in an affected climate. We can’t assume potatoes will grow where they flourish now. We can’t expect apple trees to be fruitful in most of the areas they currently grow. We won’t be growing grains in anything like present volumes because most of the grassland regions that grow grains are already undergoing desertification. 

Admittedly, these are details. If I were to make a case for uprooting people I would focus on the broad reasons for this to need to happen. I believe Smaje touches on these reasons, but the problem is that he then negates them by describing a future in which the climate — among other things — is not noticeably different from the present. A more convincing argument would have stated the problems, predicted the likely effects, and then incorporated those effects into the rest of the book. This is what I had hoped for in this book. And this is not what happens.

Another thing an introductory text might want to include is a better picture of what this future looks like to actual people. He does not do a very good job of describing an actual farm of the future, nor even of the present. And he does nothing at all to make this small farm future life seem appealing — nor possible for that matter. If these ideas were new to me, I would not stake my future on the vague assertion that I’d be able to meet most of my needs from a small plot of land. I certainly would not look forward to it. And that is where Smaje goes very wrong.

Several times in his book, Smaje claims — I think accurately — that most people want a small farm future in their own lives. Escaping city life has been a motivating goal for as long as people have been living in cities. Many, if not most, people dream of spending more time in a garden, raising their own food and flowers, tending the soil, growing beauty, relaxing minds while they work with their hands and bodies. Many people want to live more deeply connected to both the human and the more-than-human world. This small farm future is filled with the things we want. We want our relationships to be deep and meaningful. We want our children to experience the wonder of this world. We want to feel healthy and loved. We dream of perfect tomatoes, true and real experiences, a slower pace to life. And we all harbor deep misgivings about finding any of that in an urban environment. Not now, certainly not in an increasingly stressed world.

And a small farm future is appealing; it’s what we want. I’m not romanticizing here. I know there is deprivation and risk. I know there are more days of hectic tedium and hard work than blissful solitary reflection and convivial leisure. I know there is mud and muck and stink and sore joints. But all this is part of city life as well. What a small farm offers and city life lacks is relief from all that. Cities are stressful, unpleasant, ugly, and quite often toxic; it takes a good deal of conditioning and distraction to make us oblivious to our discomfort in urban environments. Yet Smaje never makes use of this powerful argument in favor of his small farm future. “You all hate your life now. It’s only going to get more hateful and increasingly difficult to maintain. Here’s this alternative you’re probably going to like. Why don’t we do that!” But I suppose that would have been a much shorter book.

Another problem with this book is the almost complete lack of an idea of how we get most humans out of their unskilled, urban, mostly impoverished lives where almost no needs are or can be met in a household to a life that is the exact opposite of all of that. A newcomer to these ideas is going to dismiss them outright as idealistic nonsense since there is no attempt to show some path from here to there. How do propertyless people acquire farms? How do we move billions of people? How do we build the infrastructure and communities for these transplanted populations? How do we teach urbanites entirely new skill sets? What happens to all the millions who are not physically able to farm? Who pays for all this? And how do we meet the needs that can’t be met on a farm?

This last question is not trivial. Smaje’s idea is that we learn to do without many of the things that can’t be produced by a village of autonomous and independent households. I have problems with both of these words; nothing on this planet is self-sufficient and independent. That aside, it is simply not possible to do without all the needs that can’t be met within your locality. “Going without” is more than just giving up air travel, luxury fashion and winter tomatoes — which aren’t going to be menu choices in a strained world in any event. For example, the list of things not produced in England includes most fruits, most plant and many animal fibers, most plant-based proteins and fats, most grains, most wood products, steel, glass, rubber, and most things made of these raw materials. England as a country is not notable for its pharmaceutical industry; it doesn’t seem likely that Somerset (where Smaje lives) is suddenly going to begin producing insulin or thyroxine. England has very few natural resources and manufactures very little today; that’s not likely to change in a stressed world. England can’t simply do without the things that can’t be made in England, and England has never done so. England has always had extensive trade with both near and distant regions.

Smaje ignores this history and implies that the England of the small farm future will be much more sufficient to its own needs than it ever has been, leading to some rather glaring logical flaws. For example, his future small farm toolkit will include tractors, perhaps collectively owned and maintained, but nevertheless extant. He talks about the problem of limited fuels and the long-term necessity of transitioning to human-scale power, but he goes no further. He does not seem to question that there will be spark plugs, tires, steel parts, and the thousand or so other things that make up a tractor. Things that are unlikely to be produced or even reparable in a small agricultural community in England (or indeed anywhere). Yet, one can’t simply learn to go without spark plugs if tractors are in use.

Similarly, many of us can’t learn to go without birth control pills, valve replacement surgery, chemotherapy, or even just reading glasses. And, in a less physical but no less essential sense, many can’t learn to go without things that take rare talent and resources to produce. For me, a life without good books and music is not living. (And no, a guitar in any old farm hand is not good music. I’d prefer silence to pedestrian strumming.)

Moreover the message that we simply need to practice abnegation is not going to win the hearts of many. Nor is it an accurate picture of farm life. No human society has ever been self-sufficient. Hominids always trade with each other — my anthill stick for an hour from you grooming the nits out of my backside, our quetzal feathers for your turquoise, this pile of seal skins for that basket of corn. Self-sufficiency is a macho aspiration; it’s not and never had been real. And by claiming that we need to make do in this small farm future, Smaje is unnecessarily alienating readers, when those same readers most likely want to live in a small farm future in which their needs are met. 

And that is the essential problem with A Small Farm Future. It is discouraging when it could be — should be — hopeful. I know hope is out of favor these days, but if you set out to write a book describing a future you’d like to see come to pass, isn’t that already an act of hope? Yet Smaje gives his readers very little reason to hope for this future and even less reason to believe it is possible. If you are looking for a future to believe in, you are unlikely to find it in this book. But maybe that was me hoping for too much. After all, he calls it “A Small Farm Future”, not “The Future”. And I guess I’d really like to read that latter book right now!

© Elizabeth Anker 2021