For everyone from yuppies seeking lifestyle blocks to former slaves seeking a life of freedom, small farms have always been an attractive option.
Making support for small farmers a priority is increasingly part of the development agenda, particularly in the light of the on-going food crisis. Oxfam’s Grow campaign follows the work of the Slow Food movement in valuing small farmers. Peasants have gone from being metaphors for poverty and backwardness to being praised as role models. Government aid has been slower to get on board, with NGO ONE International issuing a highly critical report saying governments haven’t followed-up on promised support to majority-world farmers.
Rather than the traditional development pattern of increasiing industrialisation, should a world largely comprised of small farmers be the major development goal?
For most of those able to make a free choice, small farming has been the most popular career choice for centuries. Haitians, freed from slavery, rejected plantation work and headed for the hills to live lives unencumbered by formal employment, taxation and the threat of conscription by the state. Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy saw the peasant lifestyle as a model for his utopian society. Tolstoy’s often accused of idealising poverty, but the land-owning peasants were the ‘middle-class’ of Tsarist Russia, often living quite comfortable lives, unlike the landless serfs.
Many Pakeha colonists, hoped for a place where they could regain the freedom of their forbears, leaving industrialised of Britain to become yeomen in New Zealand, albeit at the expense of Maori. In Mexico the original Zapatistas of the 1910-20 revolution chose to reject the methods of the modern world and rebuild the cooperative farming systems of their ancestors.
Yale academic James C Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed, suggests that the ‘hill tribes’ of South East Asia, rather than remnant cultures yet to be fully incorporated into organised states, are refugees from the burdens of citizenship. In all these cases, participation in an industrialising, developing nation was available, but was refused. For many, development on the usual model is still something to be feared and avoided.
The future of the small farmer isn’t all rosy, in Japan, a country built on small farms, farmers are increasingly elderly and many work their farms part-time. The reluctance of young people to take up farming worries many, who see farming as part of the soul of Japanese people (as expressed in the anime film Only Yesterday about a city worker who chooses to head to the countryside to work on an organic farm). But even here farming is celebrated – some people even pay money to take part in traditional rice harvests.
Is proposing a model in which small farmers are predominate just rural romanticism? Or, given the increasing evidence of the ecological unsustainability of highly industrialised economies, should this be an aspiration for developed, as well as developing, countries? Rather than trying to make developing countries resemble ours, perhaps we should be meeting in the middle?