De-Romanticising Farming

Among a myriad of movements and individuals there is unfortunately a juvenile obsession with small-scale farming and agrarian society. This perhaps stems from a naïve view of farming as a ‘pure’ human activity, but is more likely the result of politicking that aims to use...

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Among a myriad of movements and individuals there is unfortunately a juvenile obsession with small-scale farming and agrarian society. This perhaps stems from a naïve view of farming as a ‘pure’ human activity, but is more likely the result of politicking that aims to use farming as a tool for power or an easy solution to complex problems.

The ANC, through rhetoric and policy, have shown a hypocritical obsession with farming. While claiming to want to promote its prosperity, the ANC have failed to support current farmers while even chasing them to greener pastures. Legislation such as the Expropriation Bill has scared off many of our farmers, and one cannot blame them.

Revolutionary rhetoric, stuck in a Cold War past, calls for the seizure of farmland and reform that could not possibly work. Among one of the minor demands is for farmers to give equity to workers. The merit of this proposal is up for debate, but not the topic of this article, however. This article wishes to dispel this political obsession with farming.

A number of nations in the past had an obsession with small-hold farming as a tool for the revolution – the most notable probably being Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The experiment didn’t turn out that well with 1.5 to 3 million people dying as a result of genocide.

The Communist obsession with small-hold farming is multifaceted and possibly founded in a misconception of Marx’s view of pre-Capitalistic society. Many Marxists, ignorant of Karl Marx’s actual theories, believe that there is a dichotomy between Capitalism and Communism – with the former always being bad. Actual Marxism does not espouse this, but rather presents itself as a theory of societal progress. Marx actually believed that pre-Capitalism (Feudalism) was fundamentally bad, but did romanticise some aspects of it. This may be why modern Marxists have come to romanticise farming, particularly small-hold and subsistence farming.

Demonisation of the Industrial Revolution is common, with many individuals presenting factory labour as alienating and exploitative. Some have taken this line of thought and concluded that the way humans should therefore live is on the land, scraping away on subsistence farms.

Even non-Marxists subscribe to this way of thinking. Many movements have erupted calling for people to grow their own food and to reject commercial farming. Others, especially Afrocentrists, have called for a return to subsistence farming as they believe it to be a more genuine way of living. Regardless, all these movements and individuals suffer from a fatal ignorance of how agriculture actually works.

Firstly, pre-Capitalist agriculture was archaic, entrapping and disastrous for many. Feudalism saw lords hold people in a form of half-slavery as serfs and places without lords were tormented by brigands or had their residents trapped in a stasis. There can be no social or economic progress when every day is a struggle to eat.

The Malthusian Trap is a term referring to a state where society cannot progress past a certain point due to a lack of resources. Some say that Africa is still trapped, and locked into a cycle of poverty due to this. The Agricultural Revolution overcame the Malthusian Trap through innovations in agriculture but most notably, efficient delegation of labour.

Commercial farming isn’t some sort of evil plot, like some conspiracy theorists would have us believe. It is a naturally-occurring phenomenon developing because not all of us want to break our backs picking crops. We want more as humans. We have hobbies, dreams and preferences. Trying to trap us on the farms is just the arrogance of a few assuming our lot in life.

We developed commercial farming because it works. There are problems with it; sure. There are problems with most aspects of life. We should aim to fix those problems – not completely destroy a system that feeds much of the human population.

Commercial farming is simply a delegation of labour. Instead of everyone spending all their time farming to barely feed themselves, a few people specialise to feed everyone else, and get rewarded for their efforts. Allowing other people to work in non-agricultural fields allows us to progress as a species. It not only allows us to pursue other interests, but to gain new interests and to uplift ourselves from lower economic echelons.

The obsession with encouraging subsistence farming is founded in ignorance and political rhetoric. Fundamentally, farming is hard work and not suited for everyone. In addition, it shouldn’t be for everyone. A society only made up of farmers does nothing but farm. That isn’t civilisation.

If South Africa wants to promote food security, as it should, then it should rather be encouraging the retention of farmers – not chasing them off and replacing them with those without the necessary skills, or no one at all.

We should be aiming at making food cheap and plentiful enough for all, so that other people can do better things with their time. And relegating the population to peasant farming is not the way to reach that goal.

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Leave a Reply


  1. Josh Reply

    I don’t see the point of the article. The author should find a more appropriate platform to push his political views, since he seems to know very little about farming and even less about farmers and what motivates their lifestyle and trade.

    1. Zaggeta Reply

      I think you need to re-read the article.

    2. Shadeburst Reply

      Josh perhaps you would care to share with us your credentials that enable you to make this criticism.

  2. Harald Sitta Reply

    The economic romantics will hate NWS for this article. @Josh; basically it about a past society in which due to low productivity of farming about 90 percent of the population had to make a living from planting seeds and herding cattle. This often went hand in hand with latifundias and 90 percent of the 90 percent being only serfs.At that time a call for land reform and building up independent farmers made sense. But with modern agriculture farming became a specialized profession highly supported by machines and natural science. Therefore a farmer does not need to much laborers any more.In Austria even after the 2nd world war about 1/3 of the population worked in the agricultural segment, now it is 3 percent. Anybody starving ? And of course the farmers hold title of about all arable land. So what ????

  3. Wogan Reply

    On the whole, I agree with the core premise – better farming means more food, which is good for everybody. The problems now seem to mainly be around distribution, and protecting the supply chain. Modern farming is better at yields per square KM, but heavily dependent on a stable fossil fuel supply, for example.

    But I do wonder if modern agriculture isn’t pushing us towards another issue. Humans expand as far as the available resources allow them to, and sometimes push beyond that. Modern agriculture is artificially yielding more food than nature originally allowed, and is allowing more people to live further away from their food sources. Most of us in metropolitan areas have probably never handled seeds or a livestock animal in our lives.

    Yes, we’re feeding billions of people today, where we could only feed millions hundreds of years ago – but *should* we be? And should we rely on such a rickety supply chain?

    While it’s absurd to expect everyone in 2016 to be living off subsistence farming, I do wonder if that may not be a smarter approach, from a distributed-systems and fault-tolerance perspective. Right now, it just takes one union and one wage dispute to knock out the commercial fuel supply to an entire province. And it takes one or two short-sighted government decisions to tank the exchange rate, and the oil price with it. All of that has a material impact on our ability to access food, and for something so literally vital, that seems like a shoddy design.

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