I hope you will forgive me for going on about a technicality for a moment, but I've been getting a lot of queries on this subject lately. Rather than write the same explanations over and over again, I'm going to publish this here and anyone who asks me in email will get a link to save repetitions.
At the end of the summer, I wrote a paper to present at the Community Solutions Conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Among other things, I called for a massive return to small scale agriculture in America as a way of ameliorating the affects of both peak oil and climate change. I argued that doing so would end the disaster of industrial agriculture, and also act to renew our democracy, by reducing our dependence on corporate interests and leading us back towards the Jeffersonian ideal that the US should be "a nation of farmers." In my paper I noted that in most of the 3rd world today, and through most of history, approximately 1/3 of the total populace has been involved in Agriculture, and for several reasons, knowing that the US population was about to reach 300 million (which it has since done), I chose to call for "100 Million New Farmers."
I picked 100 million, rather than 50 million (a figure I considered) because while 50 million represents somewhere between 25 and 30% of the fully employed adults in the work world in America, agriculture is something that doesn't actually work in the same ways as traditional employment. That is, when one member of a family farms, everyone farms. My concern about the 50 million figure was that it would imply that farming was a single breadwinner activity, and that the only farmers who "count" would be those who do it full time, on large acreage. I did not want to return to the "Farmer" and the "Farmer's Wife" model, in which only the primary breadwinner's work is calculated as farming. But on a farm, everyone works, including children, who do a good deal of the productive economic activity of many family farms. Women farmers are the fastest growing segment in agriculture. Retirees can and do farm for a small supplemental income. People who are employed to do agricultural work on farms, but do not own them, or farm on rented land are farmers. Many of this nation's farmers at present are Chicano, Latino and Carribean migrant workers, who we should dignify with the name "farmer". And many of the people who have traditionally been called "gardeners" can and should be re-named farmers, for what I think are important reasons.
Farming is not necessarily a full time economic activity - in fact, the majority of full-time professional farmers also either have an outside job or a spouse or family member who does. So even among the people we define as professional farmers, you don't have to quit your day (or night) job. In fact, I think any smooth transition to small-scale agriculture must include people who are both farmers and shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, construction workers, at home parents, retirees, truck drivers, dancers, and everyone else. Farming, I believe, cannot be an exclusive club if we are not to face food shortages down the line.
A month or so after delivering my Community Solutions talk, I was immensely rewarded and flattered to discover that Richard Heinberg, who was also speaking there, went on to write a now-famous paper entitled "Fifty Million Farmers" http://energybulletin.net/22584.html which in some part derived from my analysis. I was still more flattered to be credited at the end of the paper thus,
(This lecture drew on certain ideas earlier put forward by
Knox, New York farmer Sharon Astyk in her remarks at
the 2006 Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference
in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and on others that emerged in
conversation with Pat Murphy of Community Service and
Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute.)
For those of you who read this blog who don't know anything about peak oil (ie, some of the ones who are related to me), Heinberg is the GLF (Greatest Living Figure - although that makes him sound like he's 100 years old and carved of stone, and he's actually maybe mid-40sish, and is friendly enough) and I'm pretty excited to have had any impact on his thought at all.
I have recently published some material that refers to my own 100 million figure, and there has been some confusion, both as to whether I'm ripping Richard Heinberg off (I don't think I am) and also why my numbers are so much bigger than his. So I thought I'd clarify as best I can. As far as I can tell (and this is interpellation from Heinberg's paper, I don't know for sure), there is very little difference between what we want to see. In fact, I don't believe our numbers are very different in the end. Both of us chose a nice, functional, big wonking number based on numbers that are very rough estimates, but not, I think, wrong for all that. I suspect we are imagining a not-dissimilar number of total farming households in the US. I've sent a copy of this to him, and if he'd like to clarify beyond what is available in the paper, I'll happily publish it.
If there is a significant distinction between our numbers, it is probably located here, where Heinberg writes,
"Indeed, we need perhaps to redefine the term farmer. We have
come to think of a farmer as someone with 500 acres and a big
tractor and other expensive machinery. But this is not what
farmers looked like a hundred years ago, and it’s not an accurate
picture of most current farmers in less-industrialized countries.
Nor does it coincide with what will be needed in the coming decades.
We should perhaps start thinking of a farmer as someone with 3 to
50 acres, who uses mostly hand labor and twice a year borrows a
small tractor that she or he fuels with ethanol or biodiesel produced
If I have any difference with Heinberg (and I'm not at all sure I do), it is that I believe that the word "farmer" is more elastic still, and should be expanded to include anyone who produces a food surplus for barter or sale, or who provides a significant portion of their own food (ie, subsistence farmers.) I think the word "farmer" can and should include not just people who have returned to rural areas and are growing food on 5 or 10 or 50 acres, but people who are growing food for sale and subsistence on existing suburban lots, people who have been described as gardeners in the past. Because if our cities and suburbs are to survive or thrive, these will be the people who feed them, from their 1/4 acre lots and 2 acre suburban spreads. And farmers, ultimately, are the people who feed us.
So I personally would not use the size of one's land-base to narrow the definition of "farmer". In fact, many farmers in the world farm on truly tiny lots - subsistence farmers worldwide average 4.5 acres, with many growing enormous amounts of food on much, much smaller acreage. What matters is that we, as a nation, give up on the enormously destructive and inefficient industrial model and turn towards small scale agriculture, and that those who do so are dignified with the correct term.
I believe in this very passionately. Indeed, my friend Aaron Newton and I are writing a book on just this subject. And I can't begin to say how delighted I am that Richard Heinberg is also devoting his intellect and his considerable scholarly weight to this unbelievably urgent project. A New Yorker article a few months ago reports Bill Clinton describing in some detail how compelling he found Heinberg's first book on peak oil, _The Party's Over_. What Richard Heinberg writes on this subject has the potential to change the world. Having more than an average share of hubris, I have hopes that Aaron's and my book will have an impact there too.
Here is an excerpt from my own talk, in the hopes of persuading other people to become one of the 50 million or 100 million, or whatever.
"Now I know this talk is supposed to be about “large scale gardening” but I keep speaking of farming. That’s because there’s an untenanted space between the word “gardener” and the word “farmer” that needs to be addressed. A gardener is usually someone who grows things for their pleasure, from the sheer joy of it. When we talk about farmers, we usually mean someone with a profession is growing food on a large scale. But somewhere in between them is the idea we need to grasp with language - that there could be someone who grows a lot of food to eat, but still takes pleasure in the act, who may sell food, but whose work cannot be traded on the commodities market.
Or perhaps we don’t need a new word, because we have one. In nearly every nation in the world small scale or subsistence agricultural producers are called “farmers“. In English, the word derives from the word for “earth,” as in “firmament” or “terra firma,” but it also shares its origin with the word “form” to mean “to shapes or creators.” . It occurs to me that right now, we need to become a nation of people who see themselves as creators rather than conquerors or consumers, people who see our central work as the maintenance and sustenance of the earth and human cultures. So I’d like to propose to you that for the purposes of this talk, we think of all our exercises in food production as a kind of farming. In fact, I’d be thrilled if you’d go on thinking of yourself as a farmer after we’re done here, because I think that habit of thought could be a powerful one for most of us.
Because it isn’t such an outrageous leap to imagine yourself as a farmer. It turns out that only in our highly commodified culture, which values only large scale agriculture at all, and even that not much, is a farmer defined as a big man with a big tractor who grows a thousand acres of corn and votes republican. In fact, he’s not a he at all - the average farmer, worldwide is a woman, and not a white woman at that. Even in the US, the only really fast growing segment of agriculture is that of independent women farmers. The average farmer in the world is a woman, farming 4 ½ acres, growing 15 different crops on them. They own no tractor and do most of their labor by hand, and their household has at least one outside source of income (that last part is the only thing that is true of most professional farmers as well - 70% of them must either hold a second job or have a spouse work outside the home to support themselves). And the average farmer world wide doesn’t look all that different from what American farmers used to look like. Because the average first settlers in the US farmed only 7 acres, and by the time that Thomas Jefferson was rhapsodizing about the democratic possibilities of a nation of farmers, the average farmer only had 10 acres.
What we are talking about, then, is a return to human norms, in which many people are involved in a subsistence economy, producing most of what they need, with enough to create a small outside income for the things they cannot grow or barter for. We have been conditioned by growth capitalism to see such work as endless drudgery, grinding poverty and misery. But in fact, as Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen and Marie Mies describe in their book _The Subsistence Perspective_ (a book I highly recommend, btw), most small polyculture producers value what they have, their independence and their strong cultural ties. We should think carefully before we assume that a subsistence lifestyle is a step down - because for many independent small farmers in the world, our dependence on the money economy, military and economic expansionism and outside things like fossil fuels look like a kind of vulnerability and dependence that would be intolerable."
And if anyone out there knows what the correct form of citation is for the work of someone who was influenced by your work, but published first, and went on to influence your later work, please let me know. My brain hurts just thinking about it ;-).