At the ‘Eel we were excited to get our hands on Chelsea Green Publishing’s recent release on small-scale farming as a way forward for society. ‘A Small Farm Future’ is a refreshing read, vital for food activists. Amy Luck spoke to author, farmer and former social scientist Chris Smaje, about his new release.
Can you sum up your latest book in one sentence?
We face numerous crises in the present world for which there are no magic bullet solutions, but one way or another they point to lower energy futures where a lot of people will be producing food and fibre for local consumption, and we need to celebrate the positives about that while also squarely facing the difficulties.
What motivated you to write this book?
If it doesn’t sound too ironic, I was motivated by a sense that we’re not confronting contemporary crises with enough originality, and one of the most original things we can do is to learn from the farming societies of the past – not out of misplaced romanticism, but because they addressed themselves to specific problems that we also need to wrestle with today.
What do you hope readers will take from the book and who do you hope reads it?
I hope that readers will take from it a sense that we’re in the midst of global transformations for which we have no easy blueprints or gameplans, and which require every ounce of our creativity, originality and shared goodwill – but we do have some maps and companionship to help us, a lot of which can be found on the farm.
I hope the book is read by thoughtful general readers interested in how small communities and small farms can fit into the bigger picture of our present world. I’d also love politicians and policymakers to read it and see the vital work they could do as community weavers and mediators if only they’d lay aside the clichés of existing power.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I try to do some actual farming and gardening. An irony of my present life is that writing about the need for people to take to horticulture has got in the way of me practicing what I preach. I need to get back to the garden!
Do you have any advice to people aspiring to write about food and farming?
Yes, a couple of things. First, recognize that there are endless dilemmas and trade-offs involved in producing food that people have been wrestling with for millennia – so take any claims from latter day gurus that they’ve ‘solved’ this or that problem with a large pinch of salt, and avoid heralding easy solutionism in your writing. Second, recognize that food and farming are intimately connected with everything else that people are and do as biological, social, economic, political, living, working, loving and spiritual beings, and can’t be separated from it. Writing about food and farming is a great way in to that bigger reality, but it’s only a way in.
Who inspires you?
Many writers, thinkers and modern-day farmers who have spread their ideas via the written word inspire me, but above all I’m inspired by the countless small-scale farmers down the generations who fed their households and played their part in developing renewable mixed farming societies without their names being recorded by posterity.
How can urban readers get involved in a small farm future?
There are lots of practical growing initiatives that urban people can get involved with – community gardening, allotment growing, backyard or back window growing and so on – and there’s lots of urban food activism to get involved with too. But I think it’s just as important to cultivate a critical mindset about our contemporary romance with the urban, and how urbanisation so often deforms rural environments. So, to paraphrase JFK, I’d say the challenge for all of us, but particularly urban dwellers, is to “ask not what your countryside can do for you, but what you can do for your countryside”.
Published 5 Aug 2021
London Food Link: London Food Link brings together community food enterprises and projects that are working to make good food accessible to everyone in London to help create a healthy, sustainable and ethical food system for all.