Book Review: “A Small Farm Future”

Whether you’re a gardener, a farmer, or just an eater of food, the production of food is going to change as the climate changes. We’re seeing it already — droughts, fires, extreme heat, torrential rains, changes in habitats, catastrophic weather events that happen regularly. There are depleting soils, more poisons like PFAS in the environment, disappearing pollinators, and other detriments to the growing process.

Book Cover, A Small Farm Future
“A Small Farm Future:
Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity and a Shared Earth”
By Chris Smaje
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020
312 pages, softcover, $22.50

Farmer and sociologist Chris Smaje (rhymes with “stage”) has been preparing for a climate catastrophe. Smaje has written “A Small Farm Future,” subtitled “Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth.” It’s a blueprint for growing and producing food in a deteriorating climate. Smaje’s solution is simple — literally. Back to small farms and more human labor that does not depend on fossil fuels.

According to Smaje, all agriculture has to be sustainable, ecological, organic, and/or regenerative to minimize our impact on climate and nine other crises, including soil depletion, water scarcity, a lack of healthy and nutritious food, not enough farmable land, overpopulation, and a shortage of renewable energy. We can’t leave food production to large farms that depend on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and disappearing resources like plentiful water supplies. Forget about importing food from other countries or even California. We need a small farm future.

Smaje isn’t waiting for a technological fix or super crops that thrive in drought and adverse weather. Downplaying concerns about how much CO2 animals produce and the amount of land devoted to their maintenance, Smaje wants animals on small farms because their manure fertilizes the soil. After compiling data on available arable land, calories per person needed, and current or potential farms and gardens available, Smaje determined that the United Kingdom, where the author lives, could produce its own food supply, although potatoes would be the major crop, not wheat or another grain.

“A Small Farm Future” isn’t rigid about its projections or expectations. It’s one way to reduce the effects of climate disruption. The author thinks it’s the best alternative to messy climate catastrophes.

But, I don’t believe ”a small farm future” is realistic. I wish the problem could be solved as “easily” as many more people going back to the land, as happened in Maine 50 years ago. There are too many trends in the wrong direction for me to believe small farms will be a solution.

Despite Maine’s recent “Right to Food” constitutional amendment and long-time emphasis on local food production, most people want to spend their time either at paid work, if they enjoy what they do, or doing leisure activities. Some like gardening, but most would balk at spending one, two, or more hours a day during a growing season. Expecting human beings to embrace and enjoy a harder lifestyle seems unlikely. Knowing their parents and grandparents had it easier, it will feel like a failure psychologically.

My partner Karen and I grow most of our year’s supply of vegetables and fruits on between 1 and two-tenths of an acre in Bangor. Our lot is much bigger than most in the city. I have only seen one other home growing that much food in the entire city. There are many more foods we eat but don’t grow or produce — grains, oils, nuts and seeds, sweeteners, dairy products. Much arable land in cities like Bangor has too much lead and is not farmable; soil would need to be brought in for urban gardens.

I live next to public housing, where, except for buckets, gardening is generally not allowed. A nearby community garden was established, with about thirty 4-by-12-foot raised beds. Even with several years of support from local Cooperative Extension Service staff, my Bangor neighbors were not able to maintain a community garden within a few blocks of their houses. They may have wanted to grow food, but full-time jobs, kids, family, economic insecurity, health, etc., got in the way.

People have been moving from the country to the city for the past three to four generations. Reversing that would be a huge challenge, especially to get many more people to create small farms and grow food for themselves and others. Living in the city and commuting to rural farm land seems unlikely. The number of farmers has been shrinking; farms are getting bigger, not smaller, although Maine is an outlier with mostly small farms. Our capitalist economy tells us that small farms are the past, not the future.  

Is a small farm future possible? Yes, but, I think, only with an ability and willingness by millions/billions to do hard physical work, and if the alternative were food insecurity. We should all “grow our own” as much as possible, and get much of our food locally. However, most countries depend on imports for part or much of their food. For example, about 70% of Egypt’s wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine. Because of the war, Egypt plans to diversify, but not by growing its own wheat.

Population is a serious problem. In 1950, with a population of 2.5 billion humans on this planet, small farms could have fed everyone. Not now, with just under 8 billion people and most living a decade or two longer than nearly a century ago. More people means more demand for water, good soil, fertilizer and equipment. Can we find that on a planet gradually losing its resources?

I don’t think small farms will provide enough food. I have little faith in technological breakthroughs. What will enable us to produce enough food without overtaxing our environment and causing a climate catastrophe? I think humans will soon need to have a “live and let live,” non-dominant relationship toward “domesticated animals” regarding food. A recently released film, “Milked,” suggested we humans may no longer be able to share the Earth with billions of cows, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. The conclusion: eat only plants. Stop growing any food — corn, hay, soybeans — for feeding domesticated animals, and stop eating them and their dairy byproducts.

I think Chris Smaje’s book is worth reading, although the author does not tackle some of the real problems with a small farm future. The 10 crises discussed at the beginning of the book are all crucial and must be confronted when looking long-term at agriculture and food production for the billions.

Larry Dansinger, Bangor, Maine

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