Sustainable Agriculture in History
Tom Allen (HI500010@brownvm.brown.edu)
Tue, 05 Mar 96 19:29:31 EST
Greetings All, while I am only an amateur in matters agricultural, I have bee
n following the debate over organic and sustainable agriculture with a great de
al of interest. My own field is history, and specifically the history os socia
l and economic change during the early years of the nineteenth century. As man
y of you probably know, it was during this period that American farmers began t
o respond to the siren call of the market, and fundamentally changed the course
of American agriculture.
I find it of particular interest, therefore, to read some of the same a
rguments, ideological and practical, here that I have seen in agricultural peri
odicals from the 1820's and 30's. While their knowledge of chemistry and botan
y was fare inferior to that of the present day, many of the contributers to the
se publications share with the agricultural reformers of today certain fundamen
tal convictions, not the least of which was that soil was a resource that had t
o be nurtured and that farming was a way of life, not simply a vocation.
The articles and communications in these periodicals are full of helpfu
l advice about the best way to improve soil tilth, as well as arguments about
the best ways to use animal manure. I have even run across a lengthy debate ab
out nutrient run-off and the contamination of well water. The contributers to
these journals were most concerned, though, with changing the attitude of Amer
ican farmers. Beneath the often contemptuous characterizations of so-called "t
raditional" farmers was a conviction that American farmers were the stewards of
the nations greatest resource, and that in the practice of most that resource
was being frittered away.
Sadly for our own time, these idealists failed utterly in their attempt
to change the attitudes of their neighbors. While most farmers were willing t
o adopt some of the practices recommended by more progressive farmers, they nev
er subscribed, except in rhetoric, to the notion that the land was something to
be preserved, rather than simply used. Techniques changed, but American farme
rs continued to farm extensively rather than intensively.
Anyone interested in promoting sustainable agriculture today should pay
close attention to the fate of their spiritual ancestors. The progressive agr
icultural movement of the early nineteenth century failed for a number of reaso
ns, but a number of them seem to have been particularly important. Firstly, th
ose who recommended improvement were widely perceived as idealistic, unpractica
l, intellectual elites, and with a certain amount of justice. Most of those wh
o contributed to agricultural journals were clearly members of a social and eco
mic elite with money to spare on buying expensive breeding stock or soil ammend
ments, and who had the wherewithal to survive the loss of a crop due to experim
Secondly, despite contemporary mythology, the ideal of the independant
yeoman farmer was never particularly strong in America. Most farmers did see
agriculture as an avocation, a means of feeding themselves and their families.
Like everyone else in America at that time, they were most concerned with
"getting ahead," improving their social and economic condition. Travelers' acc
ounts of this era are full of descriptions of the almost unbelievable energy of
an American farmer engaged in the process of making his fortune. In short, th
e progressive crowd failed to convince the vast bulk of American farmers that i
t was in their best interest to farm more sustainably.
Finally, there appears to have been little concensus among promoters of
improved agriculture as to what economic course farmers, and governments shoul
d take. None advocated the impossible dream of individual self-sufficiency, bu
t some did favor regional independence. Others thought that regional specializ
ation was a more practical goal since many important crops, wheat for instance,
would not thrive in one area or another.
The moral to the story, I suppose is to understand that the current sus
taiable agriculture movement, like that of the early nineteenth century, is as
much an idealistic crusade as an attempt to promote practical change. Some of
the more vituperative exchanges on this certainly demonstrate this to be true.
In order to persuade people to abandon a traditional approach to their vocati
on, therefore, it is necessary to persuade them to want to do so. All of the p
roofs, experiemnts and debates will be only wasted efforts unless farmers can b
e convinced to share the ideal.
the motivation of those whom one is trying to persuade. Sustainable techniques
Well, that's my bit of moralizing for the moment. I just hope that you
all will spare a moment of quiet admiration for your forebears in this field.
They labored mightily in the cause, and although they failed they did so honora
bly. T. Allen, Ph.D.-at-large