Bidwell's Rural America

Percy W. Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Bidwell based this book on the 1810 Census and related documents. So, he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier. He begins with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He is careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Farming was their primary, and fall-back, occupation. (256-7)

Bidwell attributes the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of division of labor to the lack of a market. Quoting the
Wealth of Nations, he says “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.’” (267, n. 1) The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies. (294) The problem was, getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further.” (309) Since transportation limited access to markets, one would expect farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale.

Bidwell says “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were good reasons for the state of farming. (345) “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insists. (346) “Land was cheap and labor dear,” he says, “Washington’s explanation.” (349) Bidwell agrees that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insists that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.” “The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” he observes, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded.” (353) “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insists, “were futile as long as a market was lacking...Between the years 1810 and 1860 such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns.”

Interestingly, in the final page of his appendix, discussing “Other Causes of Emigration,” Bidwell says “Some men were unable to fit into the rigid, Puritanical social and ecclesiastical systems. They emigrated in order to breathe the freer, more unconventional atmosphere of the pioneer communities.” (391) Also, while describing the Connecticut Valley, Bidwell says “Middletown depended for its prosperity chiefly upon its commerce...Up to 1810 the following manufactures had been established: A rum distillery with an annual output of 600 hogsheads, a paper mill...a powder mill...and a cotton factory.” (287) Middletown, with 5,300 inhabitants, was Connecticut’s third largest town in 1810, which was about the time Samuel Ranney moved from there to Ashfield.

20th century farming remembered

Paul K. Conkin
A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929

Conkin was 80 when he published this book. He includes his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, with a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal,
Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin, of course, is the reviewer who ripped
Danbom’s Resisted Revolution for saying the Progressives were urban idealists who despised farmers. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States.” (x) Technology, but also markets, economic changers and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 milion in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today.” (xi)

Conkin begins by addressing the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, “from the [they] beginning depended on markets.” (1) As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food.” (2) It now takes only a few percent. This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enable them or the social changes that go with them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it (both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability) is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded.

Conkin remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks.” (4) At harvest time, work was more strenuous and prolonged -- one of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000).” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may also have helped some smaller operators avoid the logic of expansion: if you don’t buy the combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date.” (30) Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting argument that may merit a closer look sometime. (52)

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he describes some of the details from his own experience. (49) These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s appreciation of the economics is shown in these passages to originate in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow.” (49) He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, just as it may not have been to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin witnessed “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices.” (84) And his family experience reinforces the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans. (94) But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the new deal to the present, without shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States.” (96) This trend towards concentration, he says, is still happening in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history.” (164) His perception that certain malcontents might wish to disagree seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion (phosphorus), and the risks associated with new techniques (GMOs) continue to change, the rational decision-makers he praises may need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “ now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of the sustainability argument or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products (and government policy) should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible.” “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” Conkin concludes, “so be it.” (205)

cf. Thomas Skidmore,
The Rights of Man to Property, 1829

Farms as Factories

Deborah Fitzgerald
Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series. Lots of good stuff in this series...

Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4). This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” took over farm life: “Every Farm a Factory” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

And this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both ag. markets and ag. inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and
not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its continuing production.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf
Postel). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines needed to be built that would be so big and cost so much that it made no sense to run one on less than a full section of land. It was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local associations, or harvest contractors. But it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this “logic,” and especially to IH marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something other than opinions. The binary nature of the types of questions that lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these “yes/no” choices exist in a wider range of possibility that the question simply ignores. Even prices (the ultimate “hard data”) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator. It might also explain why actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers.

I’ve really got to read
Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management soon. Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 AM Todd appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave! I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Gates' Farmer's Age

Paul W. Gates
The Farmer’s Age: Agriculture, 1815-1860

Gates is one of those obligatory texts. He was apparently a really experienced, hands-on farmer -- at least you get that impression from the detailed descriptions he gives of farming practices, techniques, and conditions. The chapters are organized thematically (land, then machinery, then breeding, etc.), which doesn’t enhance the historical story. In fact, the thread of the story was pretty well lost under all the detail, as far as I was concerned. But that was okay. The detail held a lot of good material for later investigation. I’m thinking of it this way (click it for a bigger version):

It’s a little random -- related more to my interests than Gates’ -- but that’s probably a good thing. While I think he provided a wealth of valuable detail, I don’t think he sustained his basic argument that everything in American history (including the sectional differences that led to the Civil War) was the result of agriculture.

Environmental History

John T. Cumbler, Reasonable Use

“What we have only recently come to appreciate is that there was a whole generation of reformers very much concerned about the environment who were neither antimodernists [like Thoreau] nor wilderness protectors. They were modernists who rejected not the modern world, but the way the modern world was being fashioned…they struggled to make the environment of the most settled parts of the nation more amenable to human habitation.”

“Henry Ingersoll Bowditch…pushed for a radical approach…saw environmental degradation as something to be confronted and ameliorated for the benefit of the poorest and weakest.”

“According to the
Connecticut Valley Farmer and Mechanic, farmers had to practice modern scientific farming in order to keep their farms productive and profitable.” (21, Springfield, May 1853) Other boks to look at might be Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley, Edwin M. Bacon’s The Connecticut River and the Valley…, and Dwight’s Travels. Other papers might be the Vermont Republican and American Yeoman and the Hampshire Gazette.

Brian Donohue, The Great Meadow

Read this right after Merchant and Cronon. Donohue examines the ecology of colonial Concord farming in extreme depth. Some of my classmates thought this led to questions of relevance, which seems a fair criticism. But Donohue’s detailed description of the land and the agriculture Concordians practiced on it was a welcome antidote to Merchant’s vagueness and ideologically-dominated narrative.

Part of the value in Donohue’s book comes from his approach to the project he’s undertaken. Environmental historians spend a lot of time alluding to sustainability and degradation. Donohue deliberately limits the question: “did the system of husbandry put in place by the first proprietors and their descendants undermine its own ecological foundations, or could it be sustained?”

The answer to this question, it turns out is, it depends. Fields were kept in tillage “for centuries, and some is being plowed to this day.” Despite the arguments of Rothenberg, Cronon and Merchant, that he says “have emphasized the ecological damage that resulted from this revolution to a ‘world of fields and fences,’” Donohue believes “these people knew what they were doing.” He concludes “Colonial husbandry in Concord …was intensive farming, in which…a workable balance among these lands was established and carefully maintained.” Ironically, the market-oriented agriculture that followed, according to Donohue, was “a far more extractive,
extensive way of farming” than the methods used by Concordians for nearly seven generations.

Donohue is so thorough in his descriptions of Concord farming, and his writing is so vivid, that a sense of inevitability seems to creep into the reader’s mind. He tries to avoid it, challenging assumptions as wide as the existence of the Holocene as a distinct period [in a passage that echoes “big history,” Donohue says we’re in a Pleistocene interglacial, and it’s nearly over]. But he does such a good job describing what happened in Concord, and how it was sustainable, that the reader can forget that Concord was not a closed system. The combination of crops is altered toward the end of the period, when farmers begin planting potatoes. In addition to being invisible on the records [and leading some to incorrectly assume that crop yields per acre were decreasing at a greater rate than they actually were], potatoes were a more efficient source of nutrition than the grain they replaced. So even if sustainable, the Concord system was not necessarily optimal.

Similarly, technological change and other resource substitutions complicate the picture at the end of the period Donohue describes. The increase in nearby urban populations, competition from newly accessible western farms [via the Erie Canal and railroads], and the sheer inability of Concord to feed all its people, necessitated openness to the outside world. There are a variety of possible solutions to sustainability, once you decide how many and what types of relationships with the outside are allowed. Maybe the lesson is that humans don’t seem to want to live within the constraints of the closed system [especially with its limits to population growth], and are always seeking a way around it. What happens when there’s nowhere left to look for energy sources outside the system?