27 March 2011

The How & Why
of Agrarian Nation

By: Herrick Kimball

I make part of my living writing and self-publishing books, and Agrarian Nation was originally going to be another book. Then I changed my mind. By the time of my mind change, the Foreword and Introduction to the book were written. The Foreword tells the story of how this book web site came to be and why I am publishing it. The Introduction gives you some very important historical perspective for the years 1825 to 1900, which are the primary focus of  this Agrarian Nation historical journey. What follows is the slightly edited Foreword. At the end of this page you will find a link to the Introduction.

The first almanac of my collection, an 1850 edition of Robert Thomas's Old Farmer's Almanac, looks much like the almanac in this picture.

It was curiosity that led me to the internet listing where, for only four dollars, I might buy a 161-year-old copy of Robert Thomas’s Old Farmer’s Almanac. On a whim, I placed the bid and won it. The slim, fragile, flyspecked relic was in my mailbox a few days later.

I settled into a comfortable recliner, opened the booklet, and found myself in another place and time. America was only seventy-four years old in 1850. There were thirty states in the Union. Zachary Taylor was the president. Legal tender was gold and silver coin. Paper money was not to be trusted (this is evinced by one page that lists by name ninety-two “Worthless and Uncurrent Bank Notes in New England”).

According to the almanac, America had a national population of twenty-four million people in 1850, and “Agriculture represents eighty percent of our whole population.” In other words, America was an agrarian nation.

Small family farmsteads dotted the rural countryside in mid nineteenth century America, especially in the Northeast, where my old almanac originated. Farms of that era were diversified, largely self-reliant, and surprisingly productive. The labor-intensive work of farming was performed by men and their wives, their children, horses, and oxen. Families were typically large and close-knit (big families were an economic asset).

Communities were close knit too. Rural people of that time and place shared common work, interests, and values. Their religious faith was almost exclusively Christian, and it was central to their way of life. It united them as nothing else can.

Yearly almanacs like the one I bought were as common as the farmers who purchased them. They were a fixture in every home. It was customary for the farmer to punch a hole in the top corner of his almanac and thread a loop of string through it. The book would then be hung in a convenient location for frequent reference. True to custom, my 1850 almanac was equipped with a yellowed loop of braided linen thread.

People would consult their almanac like a calendar (there was no such thing as our common wall calendar in 1850), keeping track of important days, like “Fasts & Feasts,” of which there were eighteen different ones in 1850. The almanac’s listing of each day’s sunrise and sunset times, phases of the moon and, of course, the weather prognostications, were important to farm families whose lives were dependent on the land, the seasons, and the elements. Most almanacs of the period also contained short poems, anecdotes, helpful admonitions and instructive essays, all geared to the rural readership.

My old almanac was a tangible remnant of a bygone era. It spoke to me from generations past, and I was smitten. I wanted to read more, to know more, and to understand more about America’s agrarian culture as reflected in the old farm almanacs. That first almanac was like a spark that ignited a flame in me.

Thus it was that I began to collect old, obscure New England farm almanacs, mostly from the 1800s. I have spent more money than I care to admit in this pursuit and now have a considerable collection of the tattered volumes. A few of the earliest ones are in pieces, with the print so faded that it is barely legible. Each almanac is, to my way of thinking, a historical gem.

Many old farm almanacs from the nineteenth century can be purchased for $5 to $10 at internet auctions. Almanacs prior to 1850 are rarer than after, and command higher prices. The more obscure and older almanacs can sell for hundreds of dollars and are, therefore, out of my league. I have, however, occasionally strayed beyond my budget. In one case I paid $35 for an 1825 edition of a Maine Farmer’s Almanac. The idea of owning a 186-year-old almanac for that price was hard to resist.

Some founders of the Republic yet lived in 1825. Notable among them was Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and a man passionate about agriculture. It was Jefferson who, with the shadow of industrialism looming over America, advocated that the country should resist and deliberately endeavor to maintain its healthy agrarian culture.

Jefferson believed a nation of husbandmen was the surest support of the government which he had helped to create. In his book, Notes on The State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:

“...we have an immensity of land courting the husbandman. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufacturers and handicraft arts for the others? Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example.”
Thomas Jefferson’s overriding concern was that when an agrarian citizenry left the work of farming and subsistence, they would, in so doing, exchange an important measure of personal independence for dependence on the industrial system. A nation of such dependents was a danger to the Republic because, as Jefferson so presciently put it:
"Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”
Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian America could not withstand the relentless industrial impulse. Nevertheless, the nation would remain largely agrarian for the rest of the 1800s.

Today, industrialism has so radically reshaped our way of life that agrarian America seems like ancient history. Actually, in a very real sense it was like ancient history. That’s because all ancient civilizations were fundamentally agrarian. The industrial and technological world we now live in is a complete historical aberration.

I never gave much thought to the aberration of our industrial age in the timeline of history until I happened upon a remarkable old book (published in 1952) titled, The Great Frontier. The book’s author, Walter Prescott Webb, was a history professor at the University of Texas, and a man of some renown. In his book, professor Webb explains that our advanced modern civilization was birthed with the discovery of Western Hemisphere lands (primarily America) by Columbus in 1498. This vast new unsettled land (which he called The Great Frontier), with its good soil and virgin forests, contained such an incredible store of natural wealth that it soon lifted medieval Europe out of static poverty, and resulted in a centuries-long worldwide boom.  The incredible prosperity from so many readily available natural resources facilitated the rise of industrialism which, in turn led to the unprecedented standards of living we have today.

However, Webb’s “boom hypothesis of modern history” further explains that once the newly-discovered frontier lands were settled and the natural resource wealth was tapped, the boom began to decline. Professor Webb pointed to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893 as the peak of the boom. Unless we could find another continent to colonize and extract natural resources from, Webb believed that the standard of living in the industrialized nations would inevitably decline. In other words, Webb saw that our  highly-industrialized civilization was not sustainable.

Another big-picture thinker (and contemporary of Professor Webb) was Shell Oil Company researcher and geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who developed a theory of “peak oil.” Hubbert  calculated that  the oil fields of the world were not sufficient to sustain future industrial demand. Hubbert’s theory was largely dismissed until the energy crisis of the 1970s when it was more clearly understood that America’s domestic oil production had, indeed, peaked, just as Hubbert said it would. Our nation was no longer self sufficient when it came to meeting energy demands.

The same peak theory applies to worldwide crude oil production as well as to the production of all nonrenewable natural resources. Without a sufficient supply of affordable oil, our complex, interconnected civilization can not continue to operate and expand as it always has.

Here in the beginning years of the 21st century there is ample evidence to suggest that Webb and Hubbert were onto something. Energy resources, once plentiful and inexpensive, are becoming increasingly scarce and costly. Theories are becoming realities. If fossil fuels truly are not sufficient to sustain our modern dependencies, what will life be like?

Well, think 1850. I’m not suggesting that we are going to go back to life just like it was. But I can imagine a postindustrial America (perhaps by 2050?) that has, of necessity, rediscovered and reapplied the most practical and sustainable virtues of its pre-industrial past. When these virtues are blended with the most practical and sustainable of industrial-era understandings, we will have ourselves a neo-agrarian era.

I like to think this new era will be characterized by much more decentralized government than we now have, and more localized economies. Small, vibrant family farms and self-reliant homesteads will once again populate the countryside. Expanses of useless lawns will be planted to gardens. The soil will once again be cherished and wisely husbanded, using organic practices to bring forth an abundance. Every home will have a flock of chickens and many will sport their own milch cow. Orchards and berry patches will be planted and carefully tended. Life will once again engage with the seasons, revolve around the production of food, and involve close communities of like-minded people working together, helping each other as needed. Larders will be filled. Simplicity, economy, and self-reliance will be pursued with vigor. Jefferson’s vision will be embraced with newfound respect.

Call me a dreamer but such things describe an agrarian culture much as it once was in this nation. And that which was could well be again. Which brings me full circle, back to the old farm almanacs.

As my collection of these largely-forgotten little volumes grew, it became evident to me  that they were packed with a tremendous amount of advice that modern, agrarian-minded people ( the serious gardeners and small-scale, sustainable farmers among us) would find interesting, inspiring, and even useful.

Beyond such practical advice, I discovered that the almanac writers encouraged their rural readers to some high moral ideals. Themes of responsibility, civility, piety, and economy— concepts so contrary to the industrial spirit, yet so necessary for sustainable renewal—are infused into the old writings. They are part and parcel of “husbandry” as it was once understood, and the thought of such husbandry rustled through my consciousness like an unexpected  zephyr on a sultry summer day. It occurred to me that we could learn a thing or two from our elders.

And so it is that I have resurrected a portion of the old writings, both practical and moral, here in this book. I do so with respect for the past, wisdom for the present, and hope for the future.

Herrick Kimball 

Moravia, N.Y. 
March 2011

To Read the Introduction to Agrarian Nation


IslandHome said...

Really looking forward to your writing on this topic and thank you for taking the time to make this available and sharing with us.

Sharon said...

I find this very interesting and will continue to return as I grew up on a Montana ranch, the original 640 acres of which were homesteaded by my grandparents in 1915.

Until I was 10 or 12 years old, this is the way we lived, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, coal stoves for heat and cooking and horses for most of the field and ranch work.


Jack Jennings said...

It was interesting to discover your website today and in particular to find your grandmother's diaries. I have just been given most of my own grandmother's diaries, from 1908 to 1941 missing a few years, whose entires were short and to the point like your ancestor. Although I too feel these diaries would be of interest to present day folks, I have taken a slightly different approach. I am annotating them heavily for three reasons:
1. To help explain some of the language.
2. To add historical perspective.
3. To better connect entries with my area.

I quickly realized that my own grandchildren would not have a clue to what "cleaning the strawberries" or "blackening the stove" meant, so I have added descriptive footnotes. In addition to being a farm wife in Southern New Jersey, my Grandmother was also the town paper hanger, who noted each and every job in her diaries including what work was done where and often how much she got paid. I have even constructed a map of how our town appeared 100 years ago and am marking the various farms and other spots of interest as best I can. I am also inserting time relevant photos as I find them. Remember that George Eastman introduced his first camera of ordinary folks in 1908 and photographs were rare. Grandmom paid a neighbor to take a picture of her farmhouse (which I am trying to find).

Good luck in your efforts. I am truly enjoying mine.

Jack Jennings
Sicklerville, NJ

Unknown said...

Liked your article on chicken, I alway thought they referred to the corn and milk as mash. Looking forward to more articles. The 1800's have always fascinated me especially the bartering and the way they made use of everything and absolutly nothing went to waste. Dorie

Yiya Yin said...

Love your work! Did you come up with the original quote for: "Respect For The Past. Wisdom For The Present. Hope For The Future." If so, I would like to quote you in my blog one day!


Herrick Kimball said...

Yiya Yin,

Yes, the tagline is my own concoction of words. Quote me and send folks here to check out the web site. Thank you.