Book Review: “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, paperback, $22.50

For anyone who has taken more than a cursory look at the industrialized system that feeds much of the world, there is plenty to be concerned about. Chris Smaje, a social scientist turned farmer turned food activist, is one of those people. For the last 20 years he has been peering deeply into the food system and has become increasingly alarmed at the looming and intertwined crises that threaten global food security and the planetary ecology.

Smaje begins “A Small Farm Future” with an in-depth look at 10 such crises, before moving on to possible solutions, from a technical farming standpoint as well as through a political and cultural lens. From burgeoning population and hunger, to climate chaos and energy descent, to soil erosion and aquifer depletion, and on to inequitable land tenure and broken political systems, there is no shortage of issues to cause alarm.

After a thorough investigation into this “wicked problem” associated with our so-called progress, he paints a vivid picture of a different trajectory for our collective future. It is one that reverses the trend of rural to urban migration and repopulates our devastated agrarian landscape with diverse, human-scale agricultural enterprises forming the backbone of a “convivial” economy. Smaje explores various types of farm ecologies, always looking at the tradeoffs between input intensity, especially labor, in relation to overall productivity and environmental impacts, good or bad. He takes a sobering look at the role of livestock and the use of perennial polycultures in low-input “forest farming” models and also forms a deep critique of the notion of a perennial grain-based agriculture, both for its genetic improbability and for its reinforcement of current inequities exemplified in our annual grain-based food system.

Offering up no easy prescriptions, he seems to land on a labor-intensive model with strategic integration of livestock and heavy reliance on bio-intensive annual cropping and nutrient cycling, distinguishing between the skimming of renewable bio-energetic flows (sustainable), and the burning of energy stocks to generate yield (not so much!). Smaje also looks beyond the gamut of ecologies and enterprises that a reinvigorated rural farm economy might host, to examine social structures, scrutinizing both the family farm and collective models for organizing.

The final, and perhaps most significant, sections of the book critically examine the entrenched economic and political systems that hinder the transition of agriculture from its current extractive, exploitative model to one of restoration and equity. Smaje dives deep into historical models of how money can function either symbolically, i.e., invested in commodities to make more money, or to support markets primarily as a medium of honest exchange for goods and services. Critical and compelling, “A Small Farm Future” illuminates a plausible path forward toward a more just and peaceful future, but acknowledges the heavy lifting it will take to get there.

– Scott Vlaun, Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, Norway, Maine

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