Gracy Olmstead revisits this piece in a later essay entitled “The Colour of the Soil,” in which she addresses some errors and misleading statements in the piece below. We encourage you to read her words below in the light of her follow-up essay. —The Editors
“I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadowlark.”
Thus spake Paul Harvey in his 1978 speech “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s the vision many call to mind when thinking of a farmer: pastoral, idyllic, virtuous, and (most often) small. But this vision, despite its roots in historical American agriculture, no longer describes most US post–Agricultural Revolution farm enterprises. When new machine technology entered the world of farming, it changed both the tempo and the ethos of farm work in seismic ways. The quaint, affectionate relationship between a farmer and his milk cow, for instance, was slowly replaced with a system of milk machines and nameless thousands of cows. The one-hundred-acre farms prevalent in the early twentieth century have since grown threefold.
Yet amid these transformations wrought via mechanical and technological flux, some Americans rose up and protested, arguing that change did not necessarily equal progress, and “big” did not necessarily mean “great.” Thus the Agricultural Revolution gave birth to its own anti-revolutionary party: the agrarians.
The Juggernaut of America’s Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution began to shape American agriculture as early as the end of the eighteenth century, when the first cotton mills were introduced. But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that new technology really began to transform agriculture. During this time, John Deere and Leonard Andrus began manufacturing steel plows, the first steam tractors were invented, and horse-drawn hay mowers and reapers were developed. New farm machinery began to supplant the agricultural worker while stimulating farmers’ singular efforts, helping (and pushing) them to produce more than ever before.
In contrast to the increasingly solitary vision of production developed during the Agricultural Revolution, most traditional farm work was an enterprise sought by and for families, who often grew and harvested everything themselves. Multiple generations worked side by side, tending crops and animals. Because these families were farming for sustenance, not just for profit, they built diverse and varied enterprises—enterprises that were good for the long-term health of the land, as well as the animals and people who lived on it.
But farming in the new, industrialized era began to favour quantity and specialization—because new machines worked most efficiently when farmers chose to harvest large, homogenous acreages instead of the small, diversified crops of the past. Farmers sought bigger and bigger swaths of land, seeing in them the promise of greater funds in the bank. Yet as their farms expanded, their neighbours grew ever more remote. In addition, more people were “freed” from such work and could move to urban centres, a migration away from the land that has seen the rise of megacities and the death of small towns and communities across the United States.
Standing Against the Current
When the Industrial Revolution began to transform American agriculture and, by extension, American communities, many embraced the new ways without question as emblematic of “progress.” But one group of essayists and scholars protested such naïve acceptance in a compilation of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand. Published around 1930, the volume considered the dangers inherent in unchecked industrialism, and cautioned readers against the belief that the new technological “revolution” applied to farming could only bring good and not harm. Its authors, who became known as the Southern Agrarians, aimed to uphold a vision of the Old South’s greatest strengths, alongside philosophical arguments for its preservation.
The Southern Agrarians’ greatest fear was that progressives’ advocacy of farm industrialization would demand ever larger, more expansive changes to society, without stopping to consider the unintended consequences. In contrast, the authors of I’ll Take My Stand urged a respect for the old rhythms and ways of doing things, a careful mindfulness that didn’t expand or abandon before remembering old traditions and mores.
This does not mean that the Southern Agrarians were simply reactionary, anti-technology Luddites. In I’ll Take My Stand, psychologist and professor Lyle H. Lanier said that new machine and industrial technologies were not problematic for the agrarian, but that an attitude of industrialism—in which “the notion that the greater part of a nation’s energies should be directed toward an endless process of increasing the production and consumption of goods”—was extremely dangerous. “There is nothing inherently evil about a machine,” he said.
This same attitude of industrialism, one could argue, had its roots in the South’s history: for slavery itself was excused and maintained out of a desire for the uninterrupted production of goods. And despite changes brought to the South via the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, these attitudes surrounding the rights of agricultural labourers took time and effort to change. New machinery that in theory might have assisted former slaves in gaining their freedom could not overthrow deeply entrenched discrimination and racism. It took more than new machine technology and farming methodologies to rectify the cruelty manifested toward the South’s African American population. The rise of sharecropping after Southern Reconstruction, in many ways, only perpetuated the debt, poverty, and exploitation among those bound to its system of production.
Of course, many progressives disregarded the Southern Agrarians precisely on this point, seeing them as hopelessly nostalgic dreamers willing to whitewash the South’s history of slave labour in order to preserve some romanticized vision of their homeland. But the Southern Agrarians were not arguing for a return to the antebellum plantation and slave labour. Rather, they were defending a preservation of the smaller-scale, self-sufficient farms that characterized many Southern communities. While imperfect, I’ll Take My Stand strove to preserve the most virtuous and exemplary facets of the Old South for posterity, those facets that the Industrial Revolutionaries were running roughshod over.
Much like slave labour before it, the Industrial Revolution encouraged farmers to pay more mind to personal profit than to the needs of their communities: to consider the short-term good of the greatest yield over the long-term goods of healthy soil, unpolluted water, thriving livestock, and vibrant neighbourhoods. Innovations that made it easier for the farmer to work in efficiency and profit also made it easier for him to work in isolation and in excess.
Economist Wilhelm Röpke, in The Humane Economy, warned that “the more man-made things pile up and crowd out nature and natural things, the more we lose the ability to hear the voice of God.” One might add that man-made instruments can also, if we’re not careful, deafen our ears to the sounds and demands of God’s nature. Whereas the farmer in Harvey’s speech is an attentive steward—a man whose ear is bent low, sensitive and responsive to the rhythms of his world—the modern farmer is most often nature’s conqueror, striving to bring flora and fauna under his rule.
Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking explications of this shift from man to machine in agriculture can be found in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
When a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.
Like any man-made invention, be it automobile or television or smartphone, the tractor can tempt us toward excess if we aren’t careful—to prize our own profit and success over the well-being of the people and landscape that surround us. The Industrial Revolution tempted its proponents to devalue human work and local community, suggesting that human souls and hands were cheap next to the shiny, efficient brilliance of new technologies. Mechanization and industrialization also induced farmers to break the chains of connection that forged them to the land, to their fellow workers, and to their communities.
But agrarianism sought to put money and technology back in their proper place—no longer seeing them as inherently good or as self-sufficient ends, but rather as tools to foster healthy land, family, and towns.
My farmer grandpa told me a story that helps explain this vision: one of his friends, an older farmer named Dick, grows conventional commodity crops. Dick’s large Idaho farm is surrounded by smaller subsistence-style farms run by neighbouring families. In these families, the father is still working an off-farm job, and the mother is often homeschooling and raising her children. They’re able to keep the farm going, but need help when it comes time to harvest. They can’t afford the equipment necessary to harvest on their own. So every harvest season, Dick gets out his tractor and harvests his neighbours’ crops. His machinery becomes a means of service, tying him to his neighbours rather than pushing them farther away.
In the time since I’ll Take My Stand, American agriculture has continued to follow the trends of industrialization and progressivism. In the 1970s, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz told his agricultural counterparts to “Get big or get out.” And they obeyed. The average farm size has increased 67 percent since 1900. Whereas early twentieth-century farms might grow five commodity crops, the average farm in 2000 grew only one. Farms are run much more like factories than most of us realize, perhaps because fewer and fewer of us have any connection to farm life. Many corporations disguise their less appealing sides with ad campaigns that paint pictures of quiet mom-and-pop farms and utopian rural life. The picture in our heads is still of Paul Harvey’s wizened old farmer splinting the broken leg of a meadowlark—not of egg-laying hens stuffed in cages, suffering from deprivation and neglect.
There’s a reason Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry often refers to farming by its classical title, “husbandry.” To him, it illustrates an important difference between modern farming and historic agrarianism. Husbandry is about a more loving, selfless care than most modern farmers exhibit. It’s about cultivating a holistic health in soil and land that surrenders short-term profit in exchange for long-term health and sustainability.
By turning agriculture entirely into an industry, rather than a domestic and familial vocation, we’ve lost an appreciation for holistic flourishing. “The modern farm is understood as a surface on which various mechanical operations are performed, and to which various chemicals are applied,” writes Berry. But husbandry is meant to focus not on depleting the goods of the land, but rather on fostering and cultivating them. It should pay mind to long-term goals over the short-term.
Such ideas may seem romantic or idealized. But farming—tied as it is to human, animal, and environmental flourishing—requires thoughtful, deliberate care. To view it as merely a job or means of making money is to endanger the many living things that rely on it for existence. “Husbandry,” writes Berry, “is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.”
And there are many signs of hope today. The public’s understanding of modern farming and its excesses has changed considerably over the past decade or so. It’s not uncommon to see local farmers’ produce sold at grocery stores—to see “organic,” “GMO-free,” “sustainably raised,” “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” and countless other stickers adorning our food packages. People are missing the strands of connection and community that have unraveled in our industrial age. They’re eager to be brought back into the “living network,” as Berry puts it. We see this reflected in the growth of the locavore movement, the exponential expansion of community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives, and the boom in farmers’ markets. Despite the challenges of municipal and rural decline throughout the United States, farmers are offering new hope in communities such as Detroit by bringing agrarian innovation and renewal.
More importantly, alongside these more commercial trends, we increasingly see a renewal of the ideas of vocation, stewardship, and love of place that characterized the more classical view of farming. Modern agrarians such as Wendell Berry have urged Americans to reconsider the farming methods they foster by their purchasing power and lifestyle choices. They’ve urged people to love their homes and foster the well-being of their communities—to not distance themselves from their neighbours, whether via tractor or smartphone.
This vision, when well-crafted, enables its proponents to embrace all the beauty of vocation and community while also employing the best that new technologies have to offer. Modern transportation can connect the needy with sustenance, providing farmers’ bounty to communities who need it most. New technologies can help us cut down on food waste, harness solar energy, cultivate soil-nourishing compost, and harvest with greater skill. The Internet can serve to connect eager consumers with visionary farmers, and aspiring agrarians with older husbandmen who have wisdom to pass along. The four-wheeler, the tractor, the combine, and the trailer can be used in ways that foster an attitude of neighbourliness and sustainability—not rapacious greed or consumption.
Such a fusion of care and innovation encompasses the mindful moderation necessary in our pursuit of virtuous living. As Röpke put it, “Man simply does not live by radio, automobiles, and refrigerators alone, but by the whole unpurchasable world beyond the market and turnover figures, the world of dignity, beauty, poetry, grace, chivalry, love, and friendship, the world of community, variety of life, freedom, and fullness of personality.”
It’s this sort of virtuous heedfulness that the Southern Agrarians fought for in their day. They gave us a foundation on which to build modern agrarianism, by showing the careful balance we must strike between calls for caution and reactionary Luddism. They demonstrated that while new technologies could be a boon to the farm, industrialism—as long as it replaced or impeded husbandry—could only hurt it. Such a balance of stewardship and innovation is worth fighting for, both on and off the farm.