We’ve Been Going “Back To The Land” For A Long Time


From Gene Logsdon

Here are some quotes you expect to see regularly in the media these days.

“Today, from press and pulpit, from publicists and legislators, comes the cry, ‘Back To the Land’! The problem of the “small farm” is becoming a very interesting one. The cry is ‘Back To the Land’ but the drift is away from the land.”

“The question of the big farm versus the small farm is very hotly debated… Good farming must perish with the breaking up of large farms, contends one side. Not so, replies the other side.”

“Two classes of people enthusiastically advocate the ‘Back To The Land’ movement…editors of our city papers and the high-cost-of-living sufferers… The metropolitan editors usually say: ‘Be independent. Be good citizens. And by quitting the city for the farm, you will become both.”

But those quotes appeared in print in 1921. Almost a century ago. The writer was James Boyle, his book, Agricultural Economics. At that time, the first big wave of gigantic farming in the United States, called bonanza farming, was breaking up on the shoals of economic reality. Some of those farms were over 10,000 acres in size, powered by cheap hired help and hundreds of teams of horses. There was a great hue and cry both for and against them. If the reader replaces the word ‘bonanza’ with ‘big’,  many of Boyle’s quotes read exactly like quotes today.

“Mr. Budge says there are several bonanza farms in North Dakota and mentions one of above seven thousand acres. He adds that he would like to see them all out of the way. They take up so much space that it hurts the school districts. The owners ship in supplies from the East. They ship their men in and out too.”

“Mr. Greeley considers bonanza farming to be a curse to the country and if carried too far, after population gets more dense, it will keep thousands of men from having homes of their own.”

“The bonanza farms are well conducted upon strictly business principles, the farming is done more scientifically and economically than on small farms and the percentage of profit is larger; but the general results to the people of the country are not good, and the people would generally favor the abolition of bonanza farming.”

But 1921 did not mark, by any means, the first “back to the land” movement, nor the first debate about farm size. The ancient Romans understood well enough what Cato wrote a century before Christ: “A farm is like a man— however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.”  Boyle gives examples of how well articulated the debate over farm size had become in Norway and France by the 1700s (not to mention in the uproar that came in England when the government enclosed its public lands and threw hundreds of thousands of peasants out of a livelihood). One of the best commentators on the subject was Arthur Young. He was a proponent of big farms but admitted in 1787 that the small peasant farms characteristic of France were more productive than the bigger farms of England.

So there’s nothing new under the sun. Farming begins with small holdings and then slowly graduates to larger and larger units until it falls apart. Or starts with large holdings and breaks up into small ones and then repeats the cycle over and over again. Every generation must have its “back to the land” movement. I have lived through three of them now— in the 1930s, the 1970s, and now in the 2000s. They come about every 30 to 40 years, just like clockwork.

The bonanza farms of the northern and plains states that flourished from about 1890 to 1920 were the first orgiastic dance of big farming in modern times (not counting the cotton plantations of the South). But the economy these farms were built on was a false one, based on overcapitalized land and cheap labor, and so it died out, just as the present big farming balloon will burst.

I notice that economists at Iowa State University are predicting the same thing I’ve been saying— another crash in farmland values is in the offing. I do not presume to be a prophet. I just study history.  Someone at Iowa State must do so too.
~
Image: One of Gene’s back-to-the-land books (1980)
~~

10 Comments

Kyle, yep you said it. Gene

Gene,
I believe you meant to address Jan. Having run a semi-“cooperative” small business for a number of years, I’ve come to the conclusion that humans aren’t quite wired for utopian living🙂

Kyle, why do I have such an ambivalent attitude about “cooperative” projects. I want them to work but my reading of history and my experience is that they become safe houses for lazy people who allow the few industrious ones to run the cooperative and then invariably, the industrious ones say to hell with it, I’ll go on my own. Talk me out of this bias, Kyle.
Richard: What I love about Charles Smart’s RFD is his humility and deep respect for the working farmer even when the working farmer was doing other than what Smart agreed with. Often urbane, well-educated people who come to the countryside with new ideas are quite arrogant towards the farmers they find there. Not Smart. I think that was key to the success of his book. Thanks for commenting, all of you.

Gene,

Thanks for a great perspective. I was just rereading the reissued farm memoir RFD, which you wrote a powerful Foreword for, and was struck by how much conditions in 1938 mirrored our own. Of course, Americans were even more shaken then than they are now because they had suffered a lot more. The book was a bestseller even though–or because–the author was a political radical who saw farming as a way of life.

Richard

Jan,

Economic cycles are “real” – take a look at the unemployment numbers – that doesn’t mean they are natural or inevitable. I suggested they’re caused by financial speculation.

This is why I stopped buying the peak oil / peak population stuff. There is no way to infer the available oil reserves, the amount of population the earth can carry, the amount of farmland required, (the “energy economy”) based on financial data. Anything measured in dollars is governed by speculation and corporate profit, which also drive the political climate.

Profitable small farms could rebuild the national economy from the inside out, but they’ll never last without a national politics able to protect them from price speculation, foreign land investors and cheap imports. As Mr. Logsdon suggests, the current back to the land movement is likely another bubble.

The “peak everything” mindset is that things will devolve forever into some kind of Mad Max scenario, and we should all be islands unto ourselves. I think this is a mental trap to keep you away from effective politics. If you look at history, you’ll see a neverending rollercoaster of false paradises and false apocalypses, all used as carrots and sticks to keep the unwitting serfs on the primrose path. I don’t accept your pessimism about physical reality – but I wish you the best of luck with your new farm, which looks like a lot of fun!

Some fascinating and thoughtful comments here!

Kyle (et. al.) speak of “economic cycles,” as though such things have some basis in reality. What lies at the base of any and all economies? Energy. The upheavals of the ’70’s are about to be repeated, on a much grander scale. I haven’t studied the ’20’s enough to be able to tell where the energy was coming from to drive that process then.

Teresa stands up for the small farm — so do I! But I think the long-term trend in the coming energy decline will be in what I call (for lack of a better term) the mid-sized, cooperatively-run farm. With nearly 7 billion mouths to feed on this planet, I don’t see any long-term trend in the decline of farm values, quite the contrary. The only way that most individuals and families will be able to be involved will be as hired workers, renters, or as co-operative owners.

There will be more energy shocks. When oil drops to a mere $300 a barrel, people will breathe a sigh of relief as diesel fuel drops below $6 a gallon. But that’s just for a while, until the next energy shock happens. Meanwhile, automated agriculture will begin a slow, steady decline, and the only way we’re going to grow enough food will be to get more people on the land — people who will be willing to plant fruit and nut trees and perennial crops. In other words, land owners.

We’re not waiting for this to happen; we’re starting now… if you want a part of a lovely farm in SW BC, check us out!

Good column Gene. I hope you are right. The country side is getting more depopulated all the time.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House August 27, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Well, my vote is for the small farm. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would argue that big farming is superior (like my husband *grin*), but so far I have heard nothing to convince me other wise. I will continue to strive to be independent and as self sustainable as possible. All I have to do to confirm my belief, is bite into a juicy, homegrown tomato that was picked when it was ripe and not when it was better for a machine to pick it. As for the superiority of Science making big farms better, I say “in a pig’s eye.” The real science of making a farm work, is in the knowing of that particular piece of land and how it sits with the world. I think it would take serveral lifetimes to become so intimate with a piece of land that you could coax a bounty of harvest from it no matter what the season threw at you. To have that opportunity, now, that’s what dreams are made of. It’s what I strive for. What I long for. You can’t do that with hundreds of acres. For many reasons, the first, I think of is the bank. Big farming is under to much pressure to produce and make money so you can pay the bank, your chemical company, and your other suppliers. Too impersonal. Like I said, I’ll take a small farm any day.

Another great article. A few thoughts;

Economic cycles follow the expansion and bursting of farm bubbles, and farm bubbles follow the expansion and bursting of land and price speculation. It seems like the “go big” cycle is always an effort by speculators to simultaneously achieve profitability, inflated land value and low food price, which is great for Cargill and awful for an independent farmer. The “back to the land” cycle is when speculators walk away from their bad bets, and farmers get a brief window of cheap land and a strong farm dollar.

In other words, farm cycles are not created by the caprice of farmers, social trends or changes in technology, but by how those factors are influenced by the cycles of financial speculation.

This cycle will continue, to the continued detriment of family farms, until we can build a national government that will outlaw commodity futures trading, establish parity farm prices and tariffs, and tax speculation before income. We need the condition of stability to allow farmers to make business forecasts and drive decisions about the proper farm size and capital investment.

I’m one of those people who will likely go “back to the land” in the next couple years, but I hate the idea of pouring sweat into a farm for the next 30 years only to see it destroyed by another speculative bubble before I can pass it on to my kids.

There is a battle ongoing in my area to make sure farmland is preserved. There are still many human-sized farms operating, and many more tiny market farms starting up. The sad thing is, it is so tough for these smaller farms to compete with agribusiness that preserving farmland won’t do any good unless the farmers can make enough money to keep farming.

It’s really important to support local food production as much as you can. No matter how enthusiasically you go back to the land yourself, you can’t grow it all. Vote with your dollars when it’s time to buy offsite!

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