Saturday, May 25, 2013

The End

And there it ends.  My rough outline of the history of farming in western civilization has made it's way to the 20th century.  At some point I hope to transform this into a book, but I'm not sure that publishers will be interested in a history of agriculture and politics coming from a geology major with teaching experience.

Still, I have a working title: Life, Liberty, and Property: The history of farming, private property, and democracy.  Look for it in about 20 years at a bookstore near you!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Government's New Business

The crash of wheat prices in 1929 was followed in 1931 by one of the worst droughts that the Great Plains had seen in over a hundred years.  With no visible sources of water, farmers were forced to let their fields lie fallow.  The suitcase farmers abandoned their lands, leaving millions of acres of plowed-up dirt open to the elements.  When the high winds whipped across the prairie they began to pick up immense clouds of dust, which turned into dust storms that tore through towns and destroyed homes and crops.  As the dust storms continued farmers' lives were in danger, as the dust filled their homes and their lungs.  Over the next 8 years the drought continued, threatening to turn most of western Oklahoma into the Sahara Desert.  After starving and nearly losing their land many farmers began to do the unthinkable--ask the federal government for assistance.  Amazingly, the same man whose policies had created the Dust Bowl by arbitrarily fixing a high price for wheat, Herbert Hoover, was now President of the United States; but he would have nothing to do with helping the farmers.

Angered by Hoover's policies the nation elected Franklin Roosevelt, who was specifically elected on a platform the use the intervention of the federal government to aid the victims of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  He dispatched federal agents to the Great Plains, having them buy up and destroy surplus livestock and crops (what little there was left) to create a scarcity and drive up prices.  He also issued the first-ever farm subsidies, which paid farmers federal money for not growing crops.  He ordered banks to issue loans to farmers for new equipment.  For many victims of the Dust Bowl this was the first income they had seen in nearly a decade.  However, his policies led to an increasing number of farmers continuing to take farm subsidies.  Also, most farmers could not function without living in debt to banks and loan agencies.  Consequently, U.S. farmland has been transformed into being nearly entirely dependent on the federal government for survival.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Plowing up the Plains

The idealism that was a hallmark of 19th century Victorianism came to an abrupt end with the beginning of World War I.  In 1917 a businessman named Herbert Hoover was appointed head of the U.S. Food Administration, which was charged with stabilitizing U.S. food prices during the war.  As head of the administration Hoover created the first ever federally-controlled price limits on produce, effectively turning food into a commodity.  Up until this time Russia was the largest supplier of European wheat, but because of the war front, their farmers could not sell their produce.  Hoover wanted the U.S. to take over this market, and by artificially fixing a high price for wheat, U.S. farmers began planting lots of it.  Millions of acres in the central United States, espeically the plains of newly-settled Oklahoma, were plowed under for wheat.  This entire region, which had once been a dry grassland, was plowed up to make room for more wheat.  Wheat became so profitable that it led to the rise of "suitcase farmers," wealthy businessmen from the East Coast who would buy up land in Oklahoma and pay someone else to farm the land for them.  They bought up huge tracts of land, radically transforming the landscape of the Great Plains.  Hoover, meanwhile, won an humanitarian award for sending money to the starving Russian farmers that his economic policies put out of business.

Eventually, even in the U.S., the prosperity grown on wheat came to an end.  In 1929 the stock market crashed and the price of all commodities plummeted.  Farmers in the Great Plains continued to produce wheat, even when the price dropped below the cost of planting.  Since the price of wheat dropped, they just plowed up more land to plant more wheat, increasing the economic damage that was to come.  There was so much wheat that much of the stores rotted before they could be transported, and much of it was burned.  While unemployed workers and broke businessmen in the cities were starving, farmers in the Great Plains were burning their excess wheat crops because there were no trains to take them to market.

Without a source of income most farmers turned to subsistence farming, keeping their families alive with what they could produce in their own gardens at home.  That, however, changed when the Dust Bowl began.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Feminism and Consumerism

Another result of this movement away from the land was the rise of feminism.  In her book The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas describes the rise of modern feminism through analyzing 19th century women novelists.  In a rapidly industrializing economy upper-class women felt the need to justify their increasingly ample leisure time.  These ladies had the old-world benefits of servants, along with the new-world benefits of automation, which left them with a lot of time on their hands.  Douglas traces this movement from production to consumerism while analyzing Harriet Beecher Stowe's novels:

"In the newly commercialized and urbanized America of the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the woman consumer, Stowe demonstrates, is more important, more indispensable, than the woman producer; luxury items can and must function as necessities.  With her usual acumen, Stowe had grasped the actual meaning of the sentimental heroine and her crucial role in the rise of consumer culture."

This older feminism eventually gave rise to the newer feminism.  The sentimental idealization of women's roles included the idealization of any office they could hold.  Anything a mother did for her children was excused for sentimental reasons, and Douglas cites at least one early feminist who joined combat in the Civil War as a Mother to her country.

For the first time in history people were not measured and counted by what they could produce, but by what they could consume. Many children in a home was, until recently, considered a blessing.  Those little ones would grow the farm and provide for the community and their parents as they grew, more little producers eventually made more wealth for everyone.  Now many people forgo the privilege of having children because they don't want to raise little consumers who will take from their parents.  As Wendell Berry noted, "the present natural ambition of the U.S. is unemployment.  People live for weekends, or vacations, or retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Communism and Evolution

The unfamiliarity with the land, and consequent fear of destroying it, characterized much of the cultural reactions to the Industrial Revolution.  This is seen in Romanticism, but also in the political movement of Communism.  Much of Communism was in direct contradiction with not only the agrarianism that had undergirded society for thousands of years, but also with the political thought of the Englightenment, especially John Locke's writings on private property and the importance of labor.  As a result of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, the Communists desired a completely materialistic interpretation of history, one stripped of any gods, heroes, or villains.

Frederick Engels, a close friend of Karl Marx, wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884 to create a historical justification for Communism.  He argued that man's original communities existed of small, matriarchal tribes that held all women, children, and property in common.  This became the ideal to which Communists desired to return.  He argued that Greek city-states contained the origins of private property and that ancient despots set themselves up as kings over and against these matriarchal tribes.  He believed that these petty kings retained land for themselves which was the origin of private property.  Consequently, he also believed that our idea of a nuclear family only came about to provide some means of inheritance to the king's property.

Engels had no substantial historical backing for most of his claims, however, that would not stop them from being used to provide the foundation for nearly every 20th century metanarrative: from Darwinian evolution to modern feminism and socialism.  Evolutionary biology can even be seen in the transformation of land ownership from "husbandry" to "agricultural science."  This reinterpretation of a relationship to one of science-ism also reinterprets the world materialistically and into one without reference to human interaction.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Much like the Homestead Acts and the Morrill Act were political reactions to rising industry, the Romanticism of the early 19th century was a cultural reaction to industrialization. 

Many of the leaders of this movement were city-dwellers, not farmers, who would renounce the moral corruption of the cities and retreat to some wilderness cabin.  Not being farmers, these men and women were unacquainted with the land, and saw civilization as the enemy of the land; effectively making Romanticism the enemy of Agrarianism.  As Henry David Thoreau said, "if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a dismal swamp, I should certainly decide the swamp."  One might conclude that Thoreau was not all that familiar with swamps.

Wendell Berry noted that until the Romantic poets of the 19th century, "Western scholars and poets alike had taken for granted that man was part of nature, a part and not separate from it."  Romanticism was at war with the farmer because it viewed humans as separate from the land, instead of an intricate part of it.  Humans, through their machines, were destroying the land, and the only solution was some form of escapism.  Romanticism inevitably led towards present-day environmentalism, and further away from the ancient art of husbandry.