John Sanderson, Farmer

I posted some thoughts about the "View From John Sanderson's Farm" a few days ago. I've been digging through terabytes of data I've stored up over the past few years, and came across this picture of the farmer himself!

Living on a Few Acres

In preparing to start living on a "hobby" farm, I read all kinds of gardening, permaculture, small farm, and animal husbandry books. I read Brett Markham’s Mini Farming, which I think is pretty good. Before that, I read Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal (also pretty good), Gene Lodgson’s Holy Shit! (very good), and Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (really great!). Each of these books, in addition to providing good information for aspiring homesteaders, comes with a point of view I’m starting to think of as the Chelsea Green perspective (after the Vermont publisher that produces a lot of these titles). The perspective is, basically, that the world is on an unsustainable path that could lead to some type of eventual collapse and/or descent from the high-energy lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to in the last century (at least for some people), and that we’d be well advised to learn how to feed ourselves before this happens. This claim comes both from science such as climate change and peak oil, and from a critique of contemporary culture that finds little to praise in global corporate consumerism.

I’m fairly sympathetic with these ideas, but I’m also a historian. So I wonder whether there have been other periods when this combination of apocalypse and “back to the garden” came together
or what other combinations may have occurred to our ancestors. After all, this is not the first time the country and the city have been set against each other as competing models of the good life.

So I was really excited when I found Bolton Hall’s 1907 book,
Three Acres and Liberty. Apparently, this is the book (and he’s the guy) credited with launching the “back to the land” movement in the early 20th century although he called it by the much more appealing name, “forward-to-the-land.” I’m struck by the number of times what I’m reading in this hundred year old book could have been written by Lodgson, Salatin, or Ussery (or for that matter, by me). Some examples:

“In truth, teaching is but another department of gardening.”

“It is hardly too much to say that when we are tired out or ill either we have been doing the wrong thing or doing it wrong.”

“You raise more than vegetables in your garden: you raise your expectation of life.”

And that’s just the first chapter!
My reaction after reading the rest of the book is mixed, but that’s typical of my reaction to everything from the Progressive Era, and for that matter, to the Era itself. On the one hand, I’m very impressed that a lot of what passes for state of the art innovation in the organic/sustainable farming world is in fact very old ideas that were abandoned and forgotten under the pressure of the twentieth-century consumer lifestyle and agribusiness model of agriculture. On the other, the author is entirely too impressed with the role of experts in helping poor, benighted workers of the world get back to the land.

The initial thought of the book is a great one, though. So I’ll repeat it again. Hall says, “We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.”

Among the other important ideas, which somehow we failed to act on in the twentieth century, is this one: “It is more important that small power be developed on the farms of the United States than that we harness Niagara.” Where would the power grid conversation be, that people like
Maggie Koerth-Baker are having now, if we had developed local, sustainable power sources?

Hall’s premise in this book is that “One hour a day spent in a garden ten yards long by seven wide will supply vegetables enough for a family of six.” He goes on to say “The world seems to be divided into those who have to count their pennies and those who couldn’t count their thousands.” And since this is the case, those of us who count pennies should take advantage of the opportunity to save most of our food budget by doing it ourselves.

A really interesting aspect of this program is Hall’s idea that by freeing people from having to buy their food, you free one parent from having to work outside the home. Hall is clear in his claim that this is better for the children and the family, and for society at large. Where Hall and his associates made vacant urban land available to poor or unemployed people, he claims that in addition to growing self-reliance they saw actual improvements in people’s health and in the strength of families. Working outdoors and eating an improved diet increased people’s physical health while solving problems and developing hope for the future improved their mental health.

That’s not to say the traditional gender roles are the only possible one. Only that, often, having two parents working isn’t a choice allowing women to fulfill career interests, it’s just how we get by. In addition to these interesting perspectives, Hall provides a lot of information that’s interesting to the historian. We don’t normally think about the fact that only a hundred years ago “what typically attract[ed] the gardener to the great cities is stable manure,” or “the backwoods of the Middle States [was] made accessible by cheap autos” in the first decades of the twentieth century. But this transition from horses and railroads to automobiles was happening just as Hall was writing, and beginning to erode the truth of the old adage that “Wealth, activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel.”

Hall’s writing style is very effective. He combines idealistic claims such as “The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves,” with practical observations, like “idle men and idle land are already close to each other—the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.” Then he throws in a little humor: “‘Quite right, mother, quite right,’ came from a man nearby. ‘The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.’”

Hall quotes several other writers whose conclusions match his own. For example, Liberty Hyde Bailey: “An area of 150x100 feet is generally sufficient to supply a family of five people with vegetables.” And here and there he adds a bits of contemporary wisdom that now seem hopelessly lacking in political correctness: “when there is a large job of…weeding to be done, you can hire Italians or other foreigners to do it better and cheaper.” But he also quotes Varro’s
De Re Rustica, written in 37 BCE, and says “historians have made a mistake in not reading it.”

Hall recommends a wide variety of intensive gardening techniques: use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” (which we might now call square foot gardening) where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (long known to farmers, but just recently discovered by agronomists when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens. He talks about Robert Owen-inspired British Rochdale cooperatives, politics, and economics as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he quotes a passage from Lincoln that I’ve never run into before: “Population must increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms. Such community will alike be independent of crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.”

Western Farms and the Safety-Valve

Clarence H. Danhof, "Farm-Making Costs and The "Safety Valve": 1850-60."
The Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 3 (1941): 317-359.

This old article by Clarence Danhof helped change the
Turner-inspired idea that the West functioned as a “safety-valve” for American society in the 19th century. Danhof finds the claim that western migration acted as a safety-valve for eastern wage-based industry, keeping wages high with the threat of massive migration, is complicated by the expense of actually starting a farm on the frontier. Using contemporary accounts and estimates provided in guidebooks, Danhof argues it was not only true that a settler needed a minimum of $1,000 “to equip and 80-acre farm, exclusive of land,” (325) but also that this fact was well-known. A wage worker in industry or agriculture was doing well in 1850 if he managed to save a dollar a week. There were very few people who could hope to save a thousand dollars, even in ten years.

Danhof quotes many interesting contemporary sources, including an 1852 address by Horatio Seymour to the New York Agricultural Society that “distinguished between the ‘old’ self-sufficient type of agriculture and the ‘new’ agriculture of the 1850s, focused on profits and markets” (318). Mid-19th century authorities knew “No error is more common that to suppose that the farmer does not require Capital,” according to the
Working Farmer magazine in 1859 (319). Even so, according to the Western Farm Journal there were “three hundred thousand men who, it was estimated, would emigrate in 1857 [and] would take $20,000,000 with them” (322). So the question is, where did these emigrants get the money. My own primary research suggests that for many, close family ties and serial family migration were the key.

Contrary to some accounts that complain about the “wage-slavery,” practiced by Western agriculturalists, Danhof says “Wage employment in the rapidly growing western towns and cities was frequently pictured to eastern mechanics as providing excellent opportunities to share in the growth of the West, since labor was in demand and wages were high” (323-4). Perhaps this Western labor demand, more than farm-making itself, was the safety valve and the force that helped keep eastern wages high. As
Thernstrom and Knights found, it’s particularly difficult keeping tabs on people who moved around often and didn’t own land. But that’s no reason to conclude the West didn’t have as many transient workers as the East.

Government land sales to individuals totaled nearly fifty million acres from 1850-60, Danhof says (329). And “Under the military land-grant acts of 1847 and subsequent years, the government presented, to more than half a million individuals, tracts of land varying from 40 to 160 acres each and totaling more than 57,000,000 acres. These lands came on the [secondary] market after the warrants granting them were made assignable in 1852, and an active market was conducted in them with prices substantially below the [$1.25 per acre] federal minimum” (330). The federal government assigned to individuals and grant--about 57 per cent of its total land transfers made during the decade. The remaining [43% of] land conveyances were made as grants to the states...and to canal and railroad companies” (But remember that until the Transcontinental Railroad project began, the federal government granted land to states rather than directly to railroads, 331). Many of these lands came back on the market in the 1850s; most notably those owned by the Illinois Central Railroad, of which by 1860 “1,279,382 acres had been sold at an average price of $11.50 per acre on terms of up to six years’ credit.” Land office officials downplayed the role of speculators, but President Buchanan warned that “large portions of 'the public lands' have become the property of individuals and companies, and thus the price is greatly enhanced to those who desire to purchase for actual settlement” (quoting 1857
Annual Message, 332). This certainly seems to be the case for the Illinois Central. If they got government land free, then bought more at $1.25 or below per acre and sold it for $11.50, they made at least a thousand percent profit on the land alone, not to mention their railroad revenue.

Danhof mentions that many farmers were able to raise “farm-making” money by selling existing farms in the east, where population growth had dramatically pushed up values. He suggests on this basis that the majority of new Western farmers were old Eastern farmers. This could be verified demographically using census data, and I suspect we’d find a lot of Eastern farmers like the Ranneys retiring onto their sons’ new farms in the West. Danhof notes in passing in his conclusion that there were a lot of other things you could do beside farming, if you ran away to the West. These other activities might have been tried by adventurous or desperate single people he says; families would usually have made more solid preparations and thought things through.

Based on my primary reading, I’d suggest that the BIG issue Danhof doesn’t directly address is extended family. Serial migration, I think, was often financed by extended families. People who had gone before and those who (temporarily or permanently) stayed behind contributed to the migrating family’s expenses; with the expectation that when the time came, the previous migrants would contribute to the next. Brothers or cousins in the East helped the new Western farmers find markets for their produce. And people seem to have lived with relatives for what we would consider ridiculously extended periods. I think next time I teach the “moving West” unit of my EnvHist survey, I’ll spend a few more minutes comparing the cowboy image of the West with a more complicated picture of western expansion.

Enriching the Earth, but for how long?

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production
Vaclav Smil, 2001

In a book that has recently been discovered and promoted by Bill Gates, Vaclav Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without the abundant nitrogen fertilizer provided by the process invented by Fritz Haber and brought to commercial scale by Carl Bosch, Smil says, the world population would not have been able to grow from roughly 1.6 billion in 1900 to the current 6 billion plus. Smil does mention that this human population explosion has not been without consequences for the rest of nature, and he notes that the Haber Bosch process is extremely energy-intensive. The reader gets the impression that if energy shortages drive up the value of natural gas, the cost of fertilizer -- and food -- can be expected to rise with it. But Smil doesn't really explore the question hanging in the air: did global population rise in the last century beyond a level that can be sustained? I imagine this is a question that doesn't seem serious if you believe that energy production and consumption will continue to increase -- perhaps changing forms as society transitions from fossil fuels to something new, but never really decreasing. Maybe it's best left to science fiction writers to wonder what happens to basic stuff like fertilizer and irrigation, if energy becomes scarce or very expensive.

The history of fertilizer is a rich (pun intended) story that has only recently begun to be told. Those with access to academic journals can read more about the earlier, guano-based fertilizer boom in my friend Ted Melillo’s award-winning article, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930.” It’s unfortunate this type of material is locked behind academic paywalls, but you can also read about guano in Charles C. Mann's
1493 (which quotes Ted's article). Melillo tells the story of the early 19th century, when the concentrated nitrogen of seabird droppings made islands off the western coast of South America hot commodities. Long before the Haber Bosch process, there was a global trade in nitrogen. After the guano period described by Melillo and before the Haber Bosch era, the Chilean deserts provided nitrate to the world agricultural and munitions markets. Chile had a virtual monopoly on Nitrate at the end of the 19th century, after winning a war of conquest against its northern neighbors, Bolivian and Peru. So yeah, there’s a lot of history surrounding how we fertilize our fields.

There’s little doubt Smil is correct in his claim that at least 40% of the people now living owe their continued existence to the cheap fertilizer produced by the Haber Bosch process. There’s also no doubt that questions about issues like quantity vs. quality of life, humanity’s impact on the ecosystem, and the distribution of the fruits of progress, which Smil avoids addressing, are valid ones. Maybe another question we ought to ask has to do with the role of Environmental History. Should it be about simply recording the things humans discovered they were able to do, and the positive consequences? Or should it call attention to unintended consequences like the ones Smil avoids, and suggest people think about these questions. Since we continue to develop technologies that allow population to rise, it’s a question about the future as well as the past. The way books like Enriching the Earth mix the history of science and technology with economic, social, and cultural history creates an interesting opportunity to really use environmental history (broadly conceived) to understand the present and speculate about the future.


In the postscript Smil mentions that in addition to his work on nitrogen fertilizer, Fritz Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service. Ten days after Haber supervised the first German gas attack at Ypres (4/22/1915), when he returned home, Haber's wife Clara shot herself through the heart with his army revolver. A brilliant scientist herself, Clara left behind not only Haber but their thirteen year old son, Hermann. “By the war’s end,” Smil says, the casualties of gas warfare amounted to about 1.3 million” (227). So there’s definitely a way to tell this story, as a sort-of Faustian tale of the double-edged nature of technological progress. Smil chooses not to focus on that interpretation, but to his credit he provides readers with all the details necessary to draw their own conclusions.

A Farmer's Letter from 1857

I was lucky enough, some years ago, to do research in the hill-towns of western Massachusetts. One in particular stood out. Ashfield is a town of about seventeen hundred people, located at an elevation of about 1250 feet in the Berkshire foothills. It was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, the first American to publish a birth control manual (in 1833. He was promptly jailed for it), who I wrote about in An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy. Ashfield was also home to the Ranney family, at least until they spread out across upstate New York and southwestern Michigan.

The Ranneys are great, because like many nineteenth-century families, they kept in close touch with each other -- and luckily, the
Ashfield Historical Society has held onto their letters! So I had the opportunity to photograph, transcribe, and read correspondence that spans four decades. I promised my friends at the Historical Society that one day I'd put all the letters together and publish them. Time to get back to work on that project.

Lucius Ranney has two 80-acre parcels in the section to the right of Duck Lake

So here's a representative letter, from Lucius Ranney of Michigan to his older brother Henry, who was the sole family member to remain in Ashfield. The Ranneys had moved first to Phelps, New York in the late 1830s. Then several of the brothers picked up and went to Michigan. By the mid-1850s, Lucius was well-settled on a 160-acre parcel in Allen Township. The parcel is no longer in the family, but you can still see the grid-lines from space.

The parcels previously owned by Lucius
Lucius writes to Henry in the summer of 1857, after what he describes as a long silence. The gap in their communication was probably not as long as the gap in the archive, because Henry went to Michigan in late 1856, and their mother Achsah had returned home to Allen (she actually split her time between Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan). Lucius writes about the farm and the family.  He says Achsah did not go to Coldwater to visit their cousin, Lucretia Ranney Hathaway in the fall, as she had apparently planned to do. Coldwater is about twelve miles from Allen. Their younger brother Harrison, who was married in early 1856, had a son in April, and (another brother) Anson’s son who is just over a year old “walks all over the house.”

Lucius mentions that he has traded his team of oxen for horses, and that Harrison and (yet another brother) Lemuel also have a team of horses. Horses were slightly more of a luxury than oxen, because they're faster and can pull a wagon quickly to town. But horses were more expensive, since they needed oats whereas oxen can survive on grass. So the brothers were doing well. Lucius also says Anson doesn’t have a team at all, so he has been doing his brother’s “team work.”

Lucius invites Henry to visit again in September, when their brother Alonzo Franklin will be coming out from Phelps. He also invites his niece and nephew, Henry's children, suggesting to Ralph that he take up a peddler’s basket and come out on west. This is a joke, because Ralph is only twelve — but Ralph does go out on the road as a Yankee Peddler several years later.


My Transcription:

Allen July 19th 1857
Dear Brother

It has been a long time since I have written you a letter, & the reason is not because I have forgotten you for I presume that there is not a day passes but what I think of you & also think of what a fine visit we had together last fall.  But it is my negligence.  We are all well as usual & also the other Boys & their Families for aught I know.  I see them quite often.  Mother’s health is about the same as it was when she came home last fall.

We had a very long & severe winter & the spring & summer are very backward, & very wet.  We had a very hard thunderstorm last night.  Provisions are rather dear here this summer, although there seems to be a plenty in the country.  We have a plenty of old wheat on hand yet, old potatoes & old pork &c.  Potatoes have been worth during the summer, one dollar a bushel. 

Wheat, the average price about $1.50 a bushel &c.  One year ago today I had my wheat harvested & in the barn & the most of my hay, and now I have just begun to hay & my wheat will not be fit to cut under about a week.  

Crops look very promising at present.  I think I shall have two hundred bushels of wheat.  I call it 12 acres.  You recollect where it was sowed.  I should estimate it higher, but the Weavle are injuring it some.  Don’t know how much.  The little piece across the road is injured by being too large straw, it is lodged flat to the ground the most of it. Grass is very good.  I shall cut double the hay that I did last year.  I have a piece of oats that looks well.  Potatoes look first rate.  Corn is backward but is a growing finely now days.  

Anson’s crops look very well.  He will have nearly two hundred bushels of wheat.  Harrison & Lemuel’s wheat is rather small, their other crops are good.  Lewis says that it has been too wet to hoe his corn much, but it will all be right with him in the fall.  

I suppose that you have heard that Harrison has a boy about three months old.  Anson’s boy walks all over the house.  Anson has not got any team this summer, consequently I do the most of his team work. I have no oxen this summer, I work horses.  I traded my oxen for horses last winter.  I have about such a team as the Boys had when you were here.  They have the same now. 

We have three cows this summer.  I sheared the same flock of sheep that I had last fall when you were here.  There was 66 of them.  We saved 2 fleeces, the other sixty-four sheared 291 lbs of which I sold for 44 cts a lb.  Beat that with a common flock of that size in your county if you can.

Mother says I must write more about my horses.  I keep that black colt that you saw.  She is raising a fine colt this summer.  I have the boy 2 year old colt, & I also have a yearling colt that I bought last winter.  Which makes in all six horse kind.  I have since shearing sold all of my wethers, both old & young.  23 in number for $2.25 per head.  Beef cattle are very high here at present.  There is a great many buyers about these days.  

I moved the house from across the road over near where you & I staked out & I find it much better or handier rather.  It also looks better.  We are a having a great deal of fruit this season.  We shall have a number of bushels of peaches from the old, apparently dead trees.  Our orchard is a bearing full.  We shall have a great many greenings & we are a having lots of currants.  In fact there is a going to be a great many beechnuts, butternuts &c.  

We have not heard from Priscilla in a long time.  She was well the last we heard from her.  We are expecting Franklin out here in Sept & we would like to have you come out with him if you thought you could make it pay.  We are a fitting up some roasters.  I think it will be doubtful about my going East this fall as A.F. is a coming out here.  Mother did not go out to Coldwater to see Mrs. Hathaway last fall.  It did not seem to be convenient for her to go until we was afraid that Mrs. Hathaway was gone.  Andrew is not a living with us now.  His mother got married last winter & wanted him to go live with her, so he went.  I have got a lad to work for me this summer, about seventeen years old.  

I might perhaps write many more things which would be interesting to you, but it is chore time & I must draw to a close.  I must try to write often & hope that you will do the same.  We want that you should all write.  We were all very much pleased with the large mail that we got from you at one time last winter.  Ralph, can’t you take a basket of essence & take a trip out into Mich and make a dime or two & see your kin?  They would like to see you very much.  Ella how can you manage to come out, try and study out some way can’t you?  If you cannot don’t forget to write.  Carroline goes to school to Mr. Howes this summer.  Down in Anson’s dist. 

Yours in Haste H. S. Ranney
From Lucius Ranney

P.S. Please do not delay writing but a short time after you receive this.  Mother says that Ralph is a great hand to write.  Can you make any of your townsmen believe many moderate Mich truths?  We all send our love to you all.

Bidwells' Rural Economy, a century later

I mentioned a couple of days ago that when he lectured in front of popular audiences, Hugh Raup was channeling the ideas of academics such as Percy Bidwell. Bidwell's work is part of the historiography of Agricultural History, and is interesting in spite of the challenges that it has faced over the years. So I thought I'd say something about Bidwell.

Percy Wells Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century, 1916
"The Agricultural Revolution in New England," The American Historical Review, July, 1921

Percy W. Bidwell (1888-1970) had a wide range of interests. He wrote over a dozen articles between 1930 and 1960 for
Foreign Affairs, mostly on raw materials, tariffs, and international trade. Early in his career, he wrote one of the central books of Agricultural History. Bidwell based Rural Economy on the 1810 Census and related documents. So he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier, and another century has passed since he wrote. Bidwell began with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He was careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Like everyone else, farming was their primary occupation and the source of family security. (256-7)

Bidwell attributed the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of an effective, full-time division of labor to the lack of robust markets. Quoting
The Wealth of Nations, he said “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’” (267, n. 1). Bidwell implies that agricultural markets were a precondition for economic activity -- that businessmen and professionals would not be able to thrive until people had money to spend. And that depended on farmers selling surpluses and, over time, producing for markets rather than home (or village) use. The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies (we often forget this lucrative market, 294). The problem, Bidwell said, was getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further” (309). Since transportation initially limited access to markets, Bidwell expected early farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and domestic critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale. Bidwell didn't inquire whether this characterization of New England agriculture was factual or a just a distinguished prejudice, and the image of sloppy farmers working rocky hillsides remained unchallenged until recently (in works like Brian Donahue's
Great Meadow, 2004).

Bidwell said “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were reasonable excuses for the poor state of farming (345). “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insisted (346). “Land was cheap and labor dear,” Bidwell said, echoing George “Washington’s explanation” (349). Bidwell agreed that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insisted that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.”

“The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” Bidwell reminded, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded” (353). “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insisted, “were futile as long as a market was lacking." This argument seems valid in an intuitive, theoretical sense, but it ignores the markets created by earlier events like the Seven Years War (1754-63) and especially the English Civil War (1642-51), which cut off Barbados from supplies from home and provided a West Indian market for New England farm products at the very beginning of colonial history.

"Between the years 1810 and 1860," Bidwell continued, "such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns” (353). He expanded this train of thought five years later, attributing change in agriculture to the growth of "factory villages…[with] a new demand for foodstuffs and raw materials," and ultimately cities ("Agricultural Revolution," 683). Between 1810 and 1860, the population of the southern New England states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) more than doubled. In 1810 only Boston, Providence, and New Haven had more than 10,000 people. "Taken together their population was only 56,000, less than seven per cent. of the total population. In 1860 the towns of over 10,000 numbered 26, containing in all 682,000 persons, or 36.5 per cent. of the total of southern New England" (685). This is a significant social change. In 1860, Boston was home to over 177,000 people and over a third of New Englanders were urban. Although these urban populations were mobile, other evidence (Like the work of Thernstrom and Knights, which I'll cover another time) suggests that transient city folk tended to move from city to city, not from the city back to countryside. So it's easy to imagine these two distinct populations beginning to grow apart from each other in interests and perspective.

Another interesting observation Bidwell made in the last few pages of the 1921 article concerned farm families' transition from homespun to commercial textiles. "The rapidity of the change from homespun to factory-made textiles," he said, "bears eloquent testimony to the hardship which the household industries had imposed upon the farm women" (694). Bidwell quotes Litchfield minister Horace Bushnell, who told his rural parishioners in 1851, "This transition from mother- and daughter-power to water- and steam-power is a great one…one that is to carry with it a complete revolution of domestic life and social manners" (from
Work and Play, 1881). We don't have to accept contemporary anxieties about the "evil work the Devil might find for idle hands" or the conclusion that moving to Lowell and Lawrence to work in the mills was the inevitable consequence, to recognize that contemporary commentators were right: a monumental change was underway.

John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles Environmental Historians usually read together although they’re separated by forty years; both about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, who was the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts on the site of Sanderson’s farm. Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond local residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of Raup’s essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a vivid picture of the inevitable decline of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s article is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse popular audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the widely-accepted, seldom-questioned history of Eastern agriculture. Raup’s description of farming popularized the work of Harvard and Yale professors
Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required historiographical reading for Agricultural Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. Raup popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the article has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the long history of the Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to Raup’s story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming because the roads were so poor. Farm products couldn't easily be brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy” (Raup, 3). Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and New England's ratio of cleared land increased to 60 percent (4). But although New Englanders like John Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” financial investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New England farmers were caught by surprise, Raup says, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were quickly overrun with second growth forests (6).

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor the sources he cites actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural New Englanders. And Raup’s description of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse. Transportation did not produce products. On the contrary, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the immediate use of portions of the Canal as they were gradually opened before the completion of the entire line. Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years. But perhaps the biggest flaw with the story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people” (8). “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued” (10). This claim is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson -- who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either oblivious to or opposed to the project. And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging element of Raup’s story is the assumption that capital is always external and (so obviously in Raup’s mind that he doesn’t even need to say it) urban. To be fair, this is a misconception that's at the heart of a lot of Banking History (more on that some other time). Economic development  projects from this perspective were always investments that “had to be made attractive to [outside] investors so that capital would flow into them” (8). Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he had complained that the Sanderson heirs had liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank” (8).

One final note, based on my own research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental (10). The story Raup tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind” (10). I don’t think this was the case. My own primary reading suggests that most New England farmers by the 1830s and 1840s had friends and relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money, and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. Some farmers even had relatives that had gone into commerce and even banking in eastern cities. So I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the economic changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” Environmental Historian Brian Donahue challenges Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the economic growth that Raup believed would always provide better solutions than "planning" actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests” (Donahue, 31). Donahue's conclusion implies that there's a mismatch of both physical and temporal scale in the ways these practices are judged. Externalities of distance (out of sight, out of mind), time, and distribution (short term benefits to the few, long term costs to the many) are hidden in Raup's conclusions. And along the way, Donahue challenges many of Raup’s facts as well.

In Donahue’s story of the early New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally and forests were cleared steadily. Population grew and farmers’ sons became farmers in their turn. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not” (18). Looking more closely at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with” (20). Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town” (18). Instead, pastureland was added; partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually took the pressure off New England farms. Corn and wheatfields were turned over to hay and pasture, and marginal pastures were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled” (20). Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Donahue admits the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says (20). But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation (I would have preferred sticking with the farmers a little longer, to find out what happened to them). Population decline could have been the result of children moving away, old people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who died, who moved away, and who decided not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the West, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of their children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. Somebody needs to take yet another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.

Saving the World with Manure

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon, 2010

Gene Logsdon is described on Wikipedia as “An American Man of Letters,” which seems to be accurate, since he has written dozens of non-fiction books and a handful of novels since the seventies. He’s about eighty years old, so he can write about his personal memories of many of the momentous changes in rural life in the last half century (and he can also get away with saying things like “Nothing is more overrated than sex and nothing so underrated as a good healthy bowel movement”).

Holy Shit, Logsdon’s 2010 book about manure and compost is based on his conviction that soil fertility is the key to human survival. He says it very clearly in the introduction: “My bias— it will be called bias anyway— is that only on smaller, decentralized farms and gardens can food and manure be managed in a truly economical way. Only if populations of animals and humans are spread out over the land will we be able to survive” (I’m going to quote without giving page numbers, because the Kindle version of this book wasn’t paginated). This is not unlike the position taken by many of the other Chelsea Green authors, the difference is that Logsdon is an old guy who has been thinking and writing about these ideas for almost five decades. For me at least, that adds a little something to his argument.

The soil destruction = collapse argument has some popular-history credibility, since it was Jared Diamond’s thesis in
Collapse. Of course, the situation in the ancient world may have been much different: they were not able to make up for used-up or eroded fertility with chemical fertilizers. But maybe that’s not such a bonus for us. Another way of looking at it is their problems were not exacerbated by reliance on chemical fertilizers, and they still failed. Logsdon observes that many ancient civilizations failed after depending on a monoculture crop (ironically, often maize), and then points out that we don’t understand how serious our situation is: “A society so utterly urbanized as ours may not want to face up to what that means, but the end of cheap chemical fertilizer would be almost as earth-shaking as a nuclear bomb explosion.”

Like some of the other guys I’ve been reading lately, Logsdon cites old books (like
F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries, 1911) whose authors seem to have been aware of the issues we’re rediscovering today. I really ought to go through the literature and do a history of soil fertility advocacy. When did it begin? Logsdon quotes a 1908 article in the Breeder’s Gazette, which says “. . . Southern Michigan, denuded of fertility by continued wheat growing, discovered a route to prosperity through the mutton finishing lot and farmers in that state now feed sheep and lambs regardless of the cost, to get a supply of manure.” Were these authors ignored or forgotten? Was it Progressivism? Agribusiness? In any case, Logsdon thinks the age of manure is ahead of us. As chemicals become more expensive, he says “People could raise their own meat, milk, and eggs almost for free by buying feed for their animals with the proceeds from selling the manure.” The big problem with this idea is that manure is heavy. The same oil crunch that’s going to make chemicals outrageously pricey is going to make it impossible to transport compost from where it’s produced to where people might pay big bucks for it. So the only lasting solutions, as he says repeatedly, are local ones.

Other books Logsdon mentions are
Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding, 1915, and Alva Agee’s 1912 Crops and Methods for Soil Improvement, which Logsdon says “basically announced the arrival of the manure pack.” Most of the rest of Logsdon’s book is devoted to descriptions of manure handling strategies for different types of animals, including humans. It’s interesting, looking at farm manure not as a nuisance by-product that needs to be dealt with, but as a central product of animal agriculture. Barns, Logsdon remarks at one point, “should have been designed for making and preserving manure of high fertility value and for ease of handling.” Maybe in the future they will be, at least among small farmers who read books like this one.

There’s also an interesting discussion of the differences between thermophilic composting, which is familiar to most gardeners, and the slow composting of the deep manure pack in animal stalls. I’ll need to spend some more time thinking about this – already we have about three or four potentially different things going on outside: a pack of horse manure we inherited from the previous owners, a pack we’re building under the sheep, goats, and chickens, a garden-variety compost pile, and a worm farm. Clearly I have more reading to do on this topic, as well as a good deal of experimenting!

And just when you think the whole thing is based on old, folksy wisdom from the depression era, Logsdon rolls out scientific research done by Harry Hoitink and his students at Ohio State University about the disease-suppressing qualities of composted manure. “We now know,” Logsdon quotes Hoitink, “what the genes are in plants that mediate the natural systemic, induced resistance in plants by active composts. Can you believe that?”

Finally, Logsdon points out the possibly surprising fact that unlike what we were taught for so many years in Agricultural Economics classes, the economics of small production is often better than that of highly capitalized, debt-leveraged corporate farming. For example, Logsdon says, “An up-to-date, 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm needed a corn price of around $ 3.86 a bushel to break even in 2009, economists at the University of Illinois said recently. Others say $ 4 is more like it today. A farmer told me just yesterday he thinks the number is closer to $ 5. Yet anyone with 40 acres of land— and it need not be an Amish farmer either— can plant it to corn and net at least $ 2 a bushel at a $ 4 selling price, using hand, horse, or small tractor power. At 150 bushels per acre, he or she could net $ 12,000 for their labor on 40 acres, a tidy little income for spare-time work, especially in these times of serious unemployment.” And that’s corn – there are any number of more profitable alternatives for small farmers these days. Holy shit! It’s a lot to think about!