A Small Farm Future


Sunfarm de las Huertas, May 2007

As the din of calls to deal with all the profound crises—social, cultural, economic, and environmental—finally start to dominate the political discourse it might serve us well to start to build a coherent vision of where this is going to end up.

Author and farmer Chris Smaje has given us a comprehensive guide to realizing that vision in his “A Small Farm Future” where he takes a simple, very probable future and surrounds it with a not-so-simple body of thought. It might seem a little off to base our whole future on small-scale agriculture, but he points out that small-scale agriculture has been our lot for millennia and will be, if it goes right, our lot into the future. After all, our present existence is actually a short aberration in our history. So we need to get out of this aberration in our heads if we are to think about this with confidence. It is obvious that our present course is headed to all kinds of catastrophes that are likely to cause us to go extinct. People talk of applying brakes to this when what is needed is a head-on collision. A comfortable consumer profit-oriented society is not going to move off the couch without a major shove. I am convinced that much of our journey toward a small farm future will involve much digging in of heels, endless denial, and outright political hostility. We need to be serious and start to prepare for that. Soon, climate conditions will force us to come to terms with each other.

New Mexico has one thing going for it. We already have some small farm future things among us. Our water culture is very advanced, having been dealing with each other over this scarce resource for centuries. This is not reflected in our laws very well but is useful, nevertheless. Our tribes and acequias have continued their traditional agriculture by conscious preservation of their cultures. They can more easily return to a small farm culture because they are already there. There are lots of people who keep to elements of the small farm. We can look to them for advice and even leadership. If we can move on from that aforementioned aberration.


A Small Farm Future

Water Planners, by definition, are concerned with the future. Some of us try to plan for the last three decades and the following two, which is necessary to figure out where we have been and where we are going. This is not looking out for the real future, which must go beyond a fifty-year water plan. Present planning needs to recognize that we will be with our water much longer than that. Why stop there? We could include the future if we are to have a better vision of it.    

One problem or hurdle is a pervasive shroud of a development-growth “value” that has status high above all other values. This is tied to a society based on consumerism. Water is seen through this lens. Anything seen as threatening to this value is sublimated to the unconscious. We are trapped in this bubble and do not realize that development-growth will soon fade as the folly of following it becomes impossible.

What will the future be like? We can make some assumptions. It will be a lot hotter and drier. This will happen faster than generally assumed, as climate change is not linear, and will yield broad, spatial effects that feed back with one another. They will cause major readjustments in our civilization. Many things will not function and alternatives will be sought.

One of the tools we have to help us prepare is building scenarios. There are established processes for creating these and we should become proficient in them. Most of them will end up with us falling off a cliff. The purpose of such scenarios will be to see how we got there before we get there. Then we can start to modify our actions to avoid falling off a cliff.

I am going to promote scenarios on this blog, although scenarios cannot be built easily on comments, so we will have to find a place to work on them elsewhere. For the time being, we can explore the insights of this book and start to mull the ideas we come up with. The scenario below is only an outline. This is as far as I got as scenarios need more than just me.

A scenario:

The initial and most confounding issue we face is our perception of ourselves. Most of us believe we are the most privileged, superior civilization that ever existed. Author Chris Smaje has taken us to task for this in this excerpt from his A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth:

Yes, a small farm future. That means a small farm society. Contemplating this world, new and old, could serve us well.

As things get hotter and drier we will have less water. Flows are predicted to drop 30% over the next decades. But climate change is not linear and has always accelerated. So things will probably be worse, as the experts try and keep up. This is inexorable, always getting worse and more challenging. If we don’t plan and start to move toward meeting those challenges things will get chaotic. 

In order to realize this we will need water. We will need a “hydrological reality” vision of our water resource and what we are doing to it. Not using, consuming, diverting, or storing, but what we are actually doing to it. Trying to fix the resource with the former will not preserve our water for future generations. We can conserve water, in the sense of conserving the basic elements of the resource without letting human influence skew things. It is our only option. We need to do things for the water itself, which will become natural as we begin to embrace nature more. Water resource natural infrastructure is being diminished and the quantity is long maxed out. Not a good place to be when embarking on a small farm future.

Our awareness and regard for the water will expand exponentially, including spiritual and community values and a sense of all of humanity taking part. Every person will have a water allotment for their comfort. The remainder will go to agriculture and building a resilient infrastructure. It will be carbon based, from gathering all organic material possible to sophisticated composting and digesting methods to utilizing excruciatingly clever dry farm growing techniques given by the Hopi. Our acequia parciantes, having preserved their small farm culture, will be our professors.

There will not be waste. A resilient small farm is a closed cycle of resources. Any inputs are balanced by outputs. Regenerative farming principles will guide us as we learn to regenerate our society. We will do everything we can to get carbon back into the soil. Fertile soil will be our salvation. We will grow, or let grow, plants everywhere, as plants can put carbon in the ground better than anything we can do. We will live among our animals, which are essential parts of regenerative cycles. Reclaiming land will be arduous. Transforming unneeded roads and other infrastructure taking up space into gardens, orchards and forests will be relentless. It will be a lot of shared hard physical work. Living without fossil fuels will be much more difficult than we imagine now. We still believe we can maintain our present consumptive centered lifestyles with an alternative energy grid, which is ultimately delusional. There are too many deprived people in the world who will prevent that. We have to get to a point where we don’t have to kill others to live the way we do.

Our relationships, among ourselves and among our communities, will be essential. We should start working on them now. Survival requires cooperation. Having empathy and an urge to help others will be expected.  People will have to treat each other with more respect and goodwill. Manners will count more.

Our priorities will change, of course. Calories will be good, exercise will be irrelevant, dancing, even in one’s head, will be essential, and ceremony will be ubiquitous. A new culture will develop centered on the web of life and the resources that nourish it. These priorities will make water a sacred concern. We will do much to preserve and heal it. Clean, cool water will be a universal goal. Water for our provision will be fundamental. Provision will be what life is about. This is what humans do. No one will escape it. But if we do it right, we will eat and live well.

A scenario has a foot in both the present and future. They read a little awkward because of that. They ask that we occupy two places at once. This scenario lacks detail. But we can fill in the blanks and go off in other directions. Scenarios should be stories. We can build imaginary future worlds with them, which we can start to realize, so I hope we will explore creating them.

Meditation: Imagine where all the fossil energy usage is happening and then imagine if it weren’t there.