- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

By Steven Stoll
Hill and Wang, $30, 287 pages

American agriculture once a pastoral occupation is an industry nowadays. Vegetables, fruit, dairy products and especially beef and poultry production, come to us from farms that are more like factories than the "American Gothic" ideal of the small family farm that dominated 19th-century life. Other than a general understanding, we have no idea where, when or how our food is produced, maybe "manufactured" is a better word.
The $180 billion ten-year farm subsidy bill (mostly benefiting large agricultural conglomerates) recently passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, and the lack of outrage it inspired is indicative of this disconnect. The agricultural economy and related governmental policy is the only aspect of American commerce that seems to have been purposefully patterned on the defunct Soviet model. At least farmers aren't the recipients of government manufactured tractors that don't run. Steven Stoll's well written history "Larding the Lean Earth" helps illuminate for the reader how we got into this mess.
Americans have always enjoyed an embarrassment of riches in arable land. Unlike the Old World, the New World was literally always greener on the other side of the hill. This led to poor soil management "land killing," Mr. Stoll calls it and fertility exhaustion especially from market crops such as tobacco, cotton and corn. A generation after the American Revolution the farmland of the eastern seaboard was virtually spent, consigning the Jeffersonian ideal of a Republic peopled by virtuous and civic-minded farmers to the ash heap of American history.
Consequent westward expansion was wholly driven (except for an occasional anomaly such as the California Gold Rush) by the quest for cheap, fertile and unplowed land. As land became used up over years and generations, the constant westward push continued. Around the time of this initial demographic shift, the American pastoral movement was born out of necessity.
As early as 1818, former President James Madison was decrying the agricultural decline in a widely published lecture: "Any system or want of system, which tends to make a rich farm poor, or does not tend to make a poor farm rich, cannot be good," the Virginian wrote. Madison went on to criticize contemporary farming methods: "Shallow ploughing, and ploughing up and down hilly land have, by exposing the loosened soil to be carried off by rains, hastened more than anything else, the waste of its fertility … . The neglect of manures is another error."
Put simply, Americans did not guard against erosion, and they did not rotate crops. In Europe, most people were landless and farms were small. England's farms, for instance, were tidy affairs, where every square foot of ground was utilized with crops rotated and fields left fallow for a year while restored with manure. Influenced by British husbandry as articulated by the agronomist Arthur Young (a correspondent of George Washington), a new American model evolved in the 1820s among educated gentleman farmers, many of whom not only farmed, but wrote about it.
John Lorain, George Perkins Marsh, James Pemberton Morris, and Jesse Buel were of the school Mr. Stoll calls "The Improvers," and they contributed to the Niles Register, The Cultivato, and other new agricultural periodicals. Morris kept detailed journals and made intricate maps of his holdings in Bucks County, Pa. He experimented with dozens of vegetables, fruits, meadow grasses, and a variety of livestock and fowl.While many of his neighbors abandoned barren farms and headed West, Morris' was an influential showplace that he managed with a small, efficient labor force.
The secret of his success, indeed of all the Improvers, is best summed up by Jesse Buel, who wrote: "Farmers should hence regard manure as part of their capital as money which requires to be properly employed, to return them compound interest."
The employment of that capital became a labor-intensive activity in itself, giving employment to hordes of landless laborers. This because it required elaborate distribution methods from the cow to the field. Large barns some of stone became the norm as dairy herds grew. Manure was flushed out by aqueducts, or was moved by horse and wagon to huge dung piles that were covered with hay, and all the farm's vegetable waste was added (corn cobs and stalks, weeds, acorn mast from oak trees and rotten fruits from the orchard).
Cow manure is one of nature's wonders, in that a cow's four chambered stomach and intestinal tract are vast laboratories of bacteria charged with the production of many nutrients, including nitrogen and cellulose. And yet much cattle waste is undigested. Valuable seeds are returned to the field upon manure spreading. This "composting" as developed in the 1820s was the beginning of the "organic farming" movement that we know today.
This new agricultural ethic also made for a new "land ethic." The same period marked the advent of the American conservation movement. George Perkins Marsh a flinty Vermonter was very influential in stressing the importance of "woodlots," carefully thinned forests on farms to provide lumber and firewood, but also as part of the agricultural ecosystem for wildlife habitat and the prevention of erosion. By 1847, Marsh would write: "The increasing value of timber and fuel ought to teach us, that trees are no longer what they were in our fathers' time, an encumbrance." Marsh's work influenced Theodore Roosevelt, America's most prominent conservation- minded president.
Steven Stoll rises from his desk to close his book with a visit to a contemporary Fredericksburg, Ohio, Amish farm owned by one David Kline. Not only has the large Kline family rejected modern culture (they don't have a television, for instance), they have 120 acres that would make James Pemberton Morris proud. Though close to town and suburban sprawl, their farm is almost a museum piece, a nostalgic reminder of an American pastoral ideal.
An ideal that Mr. Stoll pines for. His book is an excellent primer for fledgling organic farmers and anyone interested in the history of American agriculture. As for the rest of us, hamburger comes in a cellophane package, and they don't make cow manure at Monsanto.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide