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  • EDITH COUCHMAN

Book Review: 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’s


Reviewed by Edith Couchman


Here’s a book for those who believe that E. F. Schumacher’s credo ‘Small is Beautiful’ is a vital guide. It’s a volume that patiently sets forth in fascinating detail the intellectual armature and historic foundations supporting the desirability of human-scaled agriculture and gardening – a vision of food production accomplished with care, creativity, and regard for justice and health. Indeed, A Small Farm Future suggests that relocalized, small-scale, diversified food systems, predicated on the sustainable skimming of incoming solar flows rather than the extraction and burning of climate-altering fossil fuels (or the fission of dangerous nuclear materials), could serve as robust, even joyful, life-rafts in the decades ahead. 


Labor-intensive / job-rich and meaningful, small-scale farming can enable communities to better navigate the approaching planetary turmoil with some measure of food security and resilience. This book gathers evidence showing how distributed, convivial food systems (integrating scientific knowledge, as needed, while also honoring local culture and food traditions) can allow humans to survive, pull ourselves together and redirect. (And, of course, it acknowledges our agrarian ancestors, all across the globe and over the centuries, who have offered initial proof of concept!) A Small Farm Future considers how we can rescue ourselves even as the modern industrial paradigm and underlying financial system splinters – cascading over the edge due to ecological overshoot and fundamentally misplaced values.


Author Chris Smaje (https://chrissmaje.com) is qualified to advocate for agroecological transition. He’s a sociologist and anthropologist who left his academic posts to become a farmer in 2007. He continues to work with others operating a CSA (known in Britain as ‘a veg box scheme’) on a smallholding he co-owns in southwest England (http://vallisveg.co.uk.) He’s written for Resilience, Dark Mountain, and The Land, among others. Smaje is also a former director of the Ecological Land Co-op in Britain. His newest tome, published this summer (2023), directly counters techno-saviorism and ecomodernism. It's titled Saying NO to A Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods. I hope it, too, will be reviewed soon in the pages of The Natural Farmer.


Returning to A Small Farm Future, this book provides an enormously helpful survey of the economic theories, cultural assumptions, and varied planetary boundaries that are shaping the way we live our lives, underpinning the ways we produce, obtain, and even eat our food, particularly in the Western context. The discussion is both wide-ranging and profound. It’s informed by current research in the social and physical sciences, the expanding historical record, and the author’s measured assessments of contending trends in politics, economics, and philosophy.


If you already know in your heart (or gut) that small-scale, Real Organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, and/or biodynamic practices are the way to go, perhaps you don’t need to read this book. The same is true if you’ve already embraced regenerative-organic, slow food, buen vivir, the via campesino, or food sovereignty movements (Indigenous or otherwise). Small Farm Futures supports all of these, but the book, while very well written, is not a breeze to read, and those of you cited above are already traveling on very good paths.


On the other hand, if you sometimes need to verbally justify localized, distributed, diversified farming to a skeptical neighbor, legislator, reporter, academic, potential customer, or your brother-in-law, then you might find a deliberate study of this book very rewarding. Given that the operant meaning systems of many people have been shaped since birth by powerful industrial interests (which are themselves expressions of particular cultural, psychological/spiritual currents), Smaje delves into the evolution of core value strands within prevailing outlooks and habits related to food production. There’s also an in-depth consideration of various forms of land tenure (including the nuances of the Commons), attitudes towards work and leisure, biointensification, colonialism, financialization, and corporate control versus personal and/or local autonomy. Intriguing ideas are examined, such as the differences between Market Societies and Capitalist Societies. Smaje’s difficult yet amiably open-minded and cogent weighing of facts, trajectories, and underlying logics helps illuminate the relationships between food provisioning and climate change, unemployment, peasant resistance, smallholding, mass migrations, and even spiritual malaise, not only now but historically. Reading this book might allow you to bring more sense - and even goodwill and humility – into your conversations about food.


Very usefully, Smaje outlines many arguments against small-scale growing and eating. He provides both data and insights that can help counter unwarranted claims, such as the following:


The modern industrial food system is essential to ‘feed the world.’


Large-scale, monocropping (including enclosed, hydroponic fruit and vegetable production), Confined Animal Feeding Operations / CAFOS (Factory Farms), and vat-grown, processed substances are somehow the best, ‘most efficient’ (for what?) ways to grow crops meat or dairy to supply people’s nutritional needs.


Yield’ and ‘monetary profit’ are the parameters par excellence indicating successful food production.


Farm work is always boring drudgery that should be mechanized whenever possible.


‘Free’ markets exist in the global, industrialized food system, and global ‘free trade’ is in the best interests of the world’s eaters.


and so many other widely propagated slogans and shibboleths.


As you can tell, I found A Small Farm Future quite bracing. I encourage you to combine this marvelous book with others, such as Tim Wise’s Eating Tomorrow or Vandana Shiva’s Who Really Feeds the World. A Small Farm Future also pairs well with Farm Action’s recent publication “The Truth About Industrial Agriculture: A Fragile System Propped up by Myths and Hidden Costs” https://farmaction.us/truthreport/ or the reports of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems / IPES: https://ipes-food.org/reports/ Here’s to cultivating good food, justice, and understanding – and an ecologically harmonious, small-farm future.


Edith Pucci Couchman is a visual arts and environmental science educator who currently edits the website evolvingbeauty.org

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