A Small Farm Future: Just a Pipe Dream?

We need up to 10 times more farmers in the UK than we have right now, biologist Colin Tudge proposes in his forthcoming book, The Great Rethink: a 21st Century Renaissance.

Intensive urban garden for vegetables, medicinal plants and ornamentals, off Brasil street, Havana, 2015.

Farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje, whose book A Small Farm Future was first released in October 2020, argues that in a disturbed, resource-constrained world, with powerful states unravelling from the centre, it is only by farming for self-sufficiency that swathes of the population will be able to survive with a degree of dignity and the hope of persistence.

Chris Smaje, who farms in Somerset, England, is in favour of localism over today’s long global supply chains, of diverse mixed farming systems over monocultures dependent on synthetic chemical inputs, and of collaboration over dog-eat-dog competition. He makes very similar proposals to Colin Tudge, and both see clearly the elephant in the room —  land as a store of capital value unrelated to the value of output from it.

For Chris Smaje, possible solutions include heavy gift and inheritance taxes, to prevent land from being passed on from parents to children. He realises that for this to work, the children would have to be supremely confident that they too, and future generations, would have access to land. Colossal estate taxes have a spiky downside in that they can discourage farmers from thinking long-term. The Usufruct system of land tenure, in which land is inheritable as long as it is well managed, lacks the disadvantage (for the farmer) of colossal tax liability, but Chris Smaje does not back it strongly because the land right is conditional upon the judgement of someone else. Yet Usufruct has worked well in Cuba, and works to stabilise the social structure by keeping multi-generational families together.

The family or kin group is the default for humans. It’s understandable that today’s farmers mostly want to keep their holdings intact, and to enlarge them should the opportunity arise, often because of the wish to provide for one’s children. In the UK there are no broad sweeps of uncultivated land available for new farmers. The ‘utilised agricultural area’ is 72% of the total land area, and the scope for expanding it is small unless cities, towns and suburbs are Cubanised, with parks and open spaces given over to fruit and vegetable production.

So where is land for new farmers to come from? There would have to be a degree of dispossession, if existing farmers chose not to sell / lease / share some of their land. Chris Smaje suggests that taxes could result in dispossession. He also thinks that interacting climate / soil /population / capital and other crises – he considers 10 – would work against land as a repository of capital value. If we think of population, for example, in the mid-14th century in England the population crash caused by the Black Death increased the bargaining power of those labouring poor who survived, and their economic situation improved, if temporarily.

Even if land were shared out, the acquisitive souls labelled ‘big men’ by Chris Smaje would soon be plotting to gain control over it. That has not happened in Cuba, a much-studied example of land redistribution, but Cuba’s population pressure is lower, 103 persons per square kilometre, compared with 429 in England. The Cubans most hostile to the 1959 revolution mostly left for Florida (and unlike other Latin American migrants, were warmly welcomed in the US). The state farms that replaced the estates of ousted corporations were not a success but the Cuban government learned from the mistake and turned to small farmers, mostly working together in co-operatives. ANAP, the national association of small farmers, is a strong voice at the policy table, and farming is a popular career. Individuals can own, on the Usufruct system, up to 65 hectares (just over 160 acres). Life is tough in Cuba, largely because the USA next door wants to install unfettered capitalism and has maintained a blockade for six decades, but the food-first policies, allied to free (but resource-constrained) education and healthcare, have prevented collapse.

No fossil fuels here: a low-tech farming future is more sustainable, but less trendy than an eco-technic one. This was in Cuba, 2006.

Would it take a revolution to make land available to new farmers in the UK, at a cost they could afford? The British have not had a revolution since 1642, and then in 1660, only 11 years after executing King Charles I in 1649, they proclaimed his son as King Charles II. The naturally conservative British like tradition.

But how would they act if really, really hungry? I think they would dig up their gardens, swap produce with their neighbours, press for allotments on public land, but a social revolution of the sort to split up large farms into new, ecologically sound mixed holdings, along with capital to invest in and run those farms, is hard to discern even with a powerful telescope.

Chris Smaje is right in principle about the imperative for more small farms, making use of “renewable bioenergetic flows”, resources like soil that can and should be replenished. But as he writes (p.260):

“In many places, one of the hardest but most important dimensions of that scrambling is drawing rural land into a more localised economy, whether as private holdings or commons [land which individuals may have rights to use, but do not own]. Small areas of urban greenspace are easily, if often transiently, commoned into community gardens and allotments, but it’s also necessary to repurpose huge swathes of agricultural cereals and grasslands as small mixed farms, smallholdings, cottages and commons. Aided and abetted by zoning restrictions, the land tends to be locked in a world-system of Ricardian rent and entry barriers to farming that puts it beyond the reach of any but a lucky few. This is a key battle to be won.”

A Ricardian rent is a financial surplus in excess of the costs necessary to deploy and use a resource, often resulting from scarcity. Land in a densely populated country like the UK gives a high Ricardian rent because its supply is relatively fixed, it is an investment class, and valued as a backdrop for expensive homes as well as for productive capacity. In the 21st century so far, productive capacity is of minor importance because of the European Union’s policy to subsidise farmland, enabling producers to remain on their land even if they make trading losses. The UK Government’s publication Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2019, published in July 2020, reports that 34% of farms in the UK failed to make a profit in 2018-19, on the basis of net farm income, and another 25% made less than £20,001. That meant nudging six in ten either lost money or were low-income, despite the subsidies they received.  Subsidies from the EU, mainly payments per acre (benefiting large farms most), were 63% of total income from farming.

Farming employs just 1.45% of the UK’s workforce, about 476,000 people in 2019 both full- and part-time, and mainly farmers and their families, and the partners and directors of farming firms. It is a small industry in output terms, and governments have become used to treating food as just another set of tradeable commodities, and to disregarding food security.

Because of Brexit, farm subsidies from the EU to the UK are ending. While the downsides of Brexit are legion, it does create a rare opportunity for the nations of the UK to rethink farming support and land tenure, to improve national food security and social equity.  

A Small Farm Future, by Chris Smaje, is published by Chelsea Green, ISBN 9781603589024 for the 312-page paperback version, 9781603589031 for the e-book. Guide price £18.99 for the paperback, £13.95 for the e-book.


2 Comments on “A Small Farm Future: Just a Pipe Dream?”

  1. […] A Small Farm Future: Just a Pipe Dream? → […]

  2. […] of dramatic downshifting are colossal. Two new books and one older one reviewed on this site here, here and here, address aspects of the issue, especially the necessity to protect soils and farm in what […]

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