‘A Small Farm Future’: could it happen in Wales?

By Carwyn Graves

A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje is subtitled ‘making the case for a society built around local economies, self-provisioning agricultural diversity and a shared earth’. Smaje’s surprising core argument in this ambitious and timely work is that some kind of ‘small farm future’ in the above vein is both necessary and in fact, inevitable. Necessary, in the sense that in light of the compounding crises that now beset western civilisation, a society of this kind offers our best chance of a humane, liberal society that both reflects the democratic values held dear by most in the West, and respects the ecological limits set on human civilization by the planet on which we live. This is a desirable small farm future.

A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green 2020

But a small farm future of some sort is, says Smaje, inevitable in the sense that as a result of the crises facing our civilisation a significant proportion of the world’s population will likely end up in a situation where they are dependent on cultivating small parcels of land for their economic basis – and, he intimates, this is likely to be the case for the majority of the world’s population regardless of the trajectory we take. This is far from a groundless assertion, describing as it does what is already the reality for 1.2 billion people globally[1], and as Smaje notes, without the inflated symbolic economy drawing people to the slums and peripheries of the early 20th century’s megacities, the security offered by the land will once more increase in weight in their decision–making. This phenomenon is already in evidence in economies rejected by the arbiters of the current system, such as Greece and now Lebanon: a dystopian small farm future.

Wales is not, of course, currently in that economic place. It therefore stands in a position where it could opt to set a course for the former, desirable small farm future.[2] Most of Smaje’s energy in the book goes into outlining the choices and trade-offs that societies across the western world will need to negotiate in order to avoid the latter future and land instead somewhere in the realms of the former, desirable one. And as a small political-cultural unit currently on the periphery of the global capitalist system (or rather, the western inner ring thereof), Wales is in some-ways well-placed to make choices that would lead to that desirable option. A number of phenomena in the Welsh cultural and political landscape also augur well for this, on paper: a government that has, in its rhetoric at least, long been supportive of ambitious action towards creating a sustainable society (cf. the Future Generations act, the early adoption of planning policies allowing for low-impact dwellings and livelihoods and other legislation in a similar vein); the small size of farm holdings in the country and the high percentage of owners, rather than tenants (in contrast to Scotland or England); the fact that the current economic settlement doesn’t work well for Wales, at least when in comparison with most neighbouring societies (so that government and civil society hasn’t much to lose in opting to chart an unorthodox course).

Cwmyrarian was once a prosperous mixed farm, known for miles around. It provided work for a large family and several farmhands into the mid 20th century but now lies in ruins with its lands split between other holdings.

There are however significant obstacles to the realisation of anything approximating Smaje’s vision in Wales. Many of these arise from the Welsh situation: perhaps the most important of these is the destruction over recent decades of the lingering vestiges of peasant culture in this country, as in other parts of north-western Europe. Add to this is the lack of a strong civic sphere: the peculiar fact that national conversation takes place within different bubbles (British/ Welsh-regional/ Welsh-language) with poor interfaces between these conversations. Much energy therefore necessarily goes into the creation and maintenance of those parts of civic society which many other comparable societies take for granted; and when you’re forced to argue about the terms of your own existence as a cultural unit, there is little bandwidth left for serious debate about issues which seem tangential.

One of these obstacles, however, illuminates tensions which will be of relevance to the discussion about desirable small farm futures well beyond the bounds of our small country. The attractiveness of the small-farm future option arguably applies in the western world most readily to people in marginalized rural areas, who already have emotional investment in the flourishing of the countryside and of farming in particular, and who can see with their own eyes the bankruptcy of the current settlement. The kind of society sketched by Smaje is likely to be intrinsically attractive to many in these contexts, and to be viewed as a solution to many currently intractable and emotionally draining problems for these communities (rural depopulation, lack of jobs, thinning of society).

But in a Welsh context, and undoubtedly many others, solutions touted for rural Wales’ problems (which are at their most acute in the Welsh-speaking parts that cover a good half of the country by area and represent an internal colony of an internal colony in the words of Seimon Brooks) are often bedevilled by a perception that they are foisted upon those communities from the outside. In other words, the kinds of well-meaning institutions and organisations that are the main vehicles for rebuilding the foundations for a positive small-farm future in rural Wales tend to draw their energy and support from outside the communities which they would depend upon and ostensibly benefit. Particular organisations are not the point here: culture and ownership are. From a Welsh perspective this cuts to the core of the greatest weakness in Smaje’s erudite tome: a reluctance, perhaps understandable given his project, to engage with cultural specificities – and thus to acknowledge the real-world implications of these specificities on the likelihood of a positive small-farm future of the type he outlines arising in many contexts.

In other words, there will only be a desirable small-farm future if the effort to create one comes from within the communities themselves: otherwise, all that happens is the creation of a new fault-line between the advocates of such a settlement and everyone else. This potential disengagement is a serious issue, which pertains to ownership – in the emotional sense. In a section touching on these issues in section 4 Smaje states that, ‘as communities develop new commons through self-provisioning from the local ecological base, everybody’s voice counts, not just that of local elites…’[3] But it is far from clear in real-world scenarios where efforts to make this happen are underway that everybody’s voice does count – not because of exclusion so much as the fact that not everybody (or everybody that ought to matter) is in the room. They won’t be in the room if they aren’t invited; but they also won’t come if they don’t feel any potential ownership.

This is about more than simply making the case for a small farm future within wider western culture (vital though that is). Local ownership only happens through the means of local culture – there isn’t an alternative for the kind of bottom-up shift that Smaje is advocating (top-down is different, of course). And so that local culture needs to be the prism through which an argument for a small-farm future is filtered. In other words, the very rationale for why a small-farm future could be a desirable future needs to differ in meaningful ways from context to context. Where this doesn’t happen, only the “likely candidates” will take this forward – which risks alienating those very communities who most need a future of this kind, and who will also be most needed to make it happen in many western contexts. To avoid this, the argument in favour of a local small farm future should therefore look substantially different in the US rust belt, and Welsh-speaking rural Wales and wealthy Bavaria (where much of the same applies, mutatis mutandis). This is a point which Smaje almost acknowledges and often touches on, but which may transpire in practice to be key to the balance between the dystopian and the desirable small farm futures he outlines.

Despite this weakness in his argument, A Small Farm Future is a watershed work – intellectually brilliant and strongly argued. Several of the heuristics Smaje employs are illuminating (the concept of stocks and flows, the centrality of trade-offs for his analysis or the term ‘symbolic economy’ used above); and his bold marriage of sociology, political economy and philosophy with food history and agricultural analysis is riveting. We have here the ambitious groundwork, global in scale, for exactly the case for a small farm future that Smaje set out to write. It now remains for those of us who share his vision to do the hard work of applying that to our own varied contexts.

Carwyn Graves is an author, public speaker and linguist based near Carmarthen. Author of Apples of Wales (2018) and Welsh Food Stories (on its way in 2021…)

Carwyn will be speaking about the history and future of food in Wales at the second Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 16-19 November. Get your tickets now!

Feature image: A small farm in post-industrial Glamorgan, summer 2019. Whither Wales?


[1] p.91

[2] This term is also repeated, slightly ad nauseam, in the book.

[3] p.260

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization PLANED, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

What farmers really care about

By the Food Values team

Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together. So we made a video…

We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.

We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.

Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.

Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care.  “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.

What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.

You can find out more  about Food Values on foodvaluesblog.wordpress.com.

Talking to the politicians

This article by Jane Powell appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here.

This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.

Food: A conversation we can all take part in

By Rosa Robinson (published in the Western Mail & Wales Online 27 August 2015)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a food expert or an environmentalist. But I am worried that our food system is making us ill, that it’s harming nature, and that the most vulnerable people in society are the worst affected.

I’m troubled by the increase in diet-related illnesses (NHS data analysed by Diabetes UK reveals that diabetes had increased by almost 60% in the decade since 2005) and the increase in malnourishment, often going hand-in-hand with obesity.

I think it’s scandalous that people living in the UK—the 4th richest country in the world—are going hungry while food goes to waste. (The UK is the biggest producer of waste in the EU, throwing away over 14 million tonnes per year).

And I’m concerned that the way we’re producing food is compromising the earth’s capacity to provide us with food in the future.

The truth is that a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, damaging to the environment, cruel to animals, and unfair to workers it depends on. It’s wasteful and unsustainable.

We need to change the way our food system works. We’re beginning by gathering opinions and experiences from people across Welsh society—academics, businesses and community groups—and we are identifying a list of practicable actions that government can take to support social, economic and environmental equity, through food. We’re writing a food manifesto for Wales.

By ‘we’ I mean a small but growing network of people who think sustainable food is important, and are contributing the time and skills needed to get the food manifesto idea off the ground.

The manifesto isn’t funded and isn’t owned by any particular person or organisation. That’s intentional – we want the manifesto to be developed collaboratively, with people working across society.

What should the Food Manifesto contain? The proposals in Professor Kevin Morgan’s recently published paper, Good Food For All provide an excellent place to start. The paper emphasises the importance of expertise in sustainable public procurement. It identifies the importance of the public purse in delivering value in its broadest sense—i.e. community benefit, training, jobs and other sustainability goals. And it recognises the importance of making ‘good food’ highly visible in the public sector by demonstrating commitment through a credible and recognised catering mark like Food For Life.

What should be included in a food manifesto doesn’t sound much like a dinner table discussion. It’s unlikely that deliberations about food systems, sustainability and ethics often seem relevant to everyday life—not when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for a hungry family—but it’s still vital that the significance of food at a family, neighbourhood and community level is addressed in any food manifesto that is written.

It’s vital because what matters to people – what people value – drives change.

There is substantial research from social psychology and other disciplines, which explains how values work. Values shape our identity and our society. Values influence what we do and how we feel. They connect people and issues. (If you’re interested in finding out more it’s worth looking up Common Cause).

Earlier this year I did a social research project, talking to people living in some of Wales’ least affluent communities about what food means to them. It means family. It means comfort. It’s a celebration. It’s an important part of culture. It’s about sharing with friends and neighbours. It’s about trust, fairness and friendship; it means home. It means nurturing and nourishing the people you love. It means the same things to them as it does to me, but we don’t often have these conversations about food or connect to that deeper meaning—the things we really value.

Food isn’t just a commodity. It brings families, friends and communities together. It connects us with the nature. It provides comfort and security. It builds skills, confidence and feelings of self worth. It increases resilience. These things make people thrive.

Food unites us. It’s a conversation everyone can take part in, and talking about food is how we can make sustainable development meaningful and relevant across society. By finding common ground and shared values we can build a collective commitment to creating a fair food system. This is what the Food Manifesto is all about.

Rosa Robinson is Director of the Work With Meaning Community Interest Company www.workwithmeaning.org.uk