Monday, December 19, 2011

Patrons of husbandry: Are non-profits the new gentleman farmers?

One of the things that I learned very quickly in my research for the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site Ethnographic Landscape Study that I've been working on for the past couple of years is that it's seldom, if ever, been easy to make a living farming, particularly since the emergence of a market-oriented society in the early nineteenth century.  And one of the big revelations for me during the study was just how long ago people in the American northeast started bemoaning the decline of agriculture and trying to revitalize, reform, and preserve rural agricultural places and communities.

Wayside plaque at Martin Van Buren NHS
When Martin Van Buren moved back to his native town of Kinderhook after losing his bid for Presidential reelection in 1840, there was an element of this revitalization urge in the way he approached the old Dutch farm property that he settled down on.  He wanted to help solidify and maintain the farming patterns he had grown up with (although he was the son of a village tavern-owner rather than a farm boy himself).  The key point is that he had the wealth to invest in trying to make the farm profitable, in a time when acquiring enough good farmland to make a prosperous living was already beginning to be beyond the reach of less well-capitalized Americans in the northeast.  It's not exactly clear how profitable Van Buren's farm actually ever was, but that's another key point:  he could farm in ways that he believed to be ecologically and morally sound, without having to worry over-much about how this affected his bottom line in an increasingly commercialized farming economy.

Gentleman farmers were often among the experimenters and innovators as agriculture became more and more industrialized and commoditized.  Sometimes they were pushing for modernization, but just as often they were trying to conserve older ways of life or--often paradoxically--trying to combine the two.  Much of the wealth that created model farm estates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries actually originated with industry.  Edwin Severin Clark, who turned James Fenimore Cooper's old farmstead into a state-of-the-art dairy operation in 1918, was a Singer Sewing Machine heir. In Vermont, the Vanderbilt fortune was largely behind the creation of Shelburne Farms out of a patchwork of 30 small properties into a 3,800-acre model agricultural estate by the turn of the twentieth century, while a succession of wealthy conservationists--George Perkins Marsh in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Billings in the later century, and Laurance and Mary Rockefeller in the mid-twentieth--left their mark on the farm and forest property that is now Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock.  In Ohio, best-selling writer Louis Bromfield started a grass-based operation at Malabar Farm in 1938 and produced fiction and non-fiction that popularized his ideas widely.

Edward Severin Clark's model dairy barn in Cooperstown, NY
One of the most interesting legacies of this history of gentleman-farming is that these model farms have very often been preserved as historic sites, moving from the sort-of-for-profit to the not-for-profit realm.  The farm estates of many of Martin Van Buren's political predecessors and contemporaries--George Washington's Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Andrew Jackson's Hermitage--are among the best-known American historic sites, with Mount Vernon arguably the progenitor of the preservation movement in the U.S.   Clark's Cooperstown dairy farm became the Farmers' Museum in 1944, while Malabar Farm became an Ohio state park and Shelburne Farms was reconfigured as an educational center in 1972.

The non-profit incarnations of these farms often preserve prime farmland, promote the virtues of local and regional agriculture and products, and are involved in educational endeavors, all things that also distinguished the original model estates.  But as some of these sites begin to connect with the local and sustainable food movements, another similarity is arising:  like the older gentleman farmers, the non-profit historic sites are engaging more directly with the contemporary agricultural economy, but without having to stand or fall on their ability to survive in the for-profit marketplace. 

I argued in last week's post that surviving "for real" is an important test of a farm operation's viability, and that farms at historic sites that remain entirely within the educational, representational, or social service realms aren't really challenging or changing the conditions of the farm sector overall.  But the question is far from a simple one.  It's also possible to envision these non-profits as a new version of the old gentleman-farmers, holding desirable farmland in trust, willing and able to support experimental or philanthropic ventures that respond to the problems caused by purely commercial approaches to agriculture.  Might Martin Van Buren NHS be a new version of Martin Van Buren himself?

A big question there, of course, is whether historic sites' own sources of support--mostly public funding of various kinds--will be robust enough for them to play this role of patronage within local and regional food networks.  If public funding continues to dry up--if the gentleman-farmers lose their fortunes--agriculture may become more necessity than philanthropy at these preserved places.  Or it may be that public funding will follow innovative, risk-taking projects that involve food production, rather than the kinds of more traditional exhibitry and programming that have been the bread and butter of public history.

In either case, looking at the history of these historic farm sites, as I hope to be doing in future posts, may point us in some useful directions.  Few of them are simply "ordinary" farms;  there's a lineage of elite patronage and reform there that we should pay attention to in this new era of reform and reinvention of the food system.  I'd be interested to hear of other gentleman-farmer examples, especially those whose properties have entered the preservation realm and perhaps the current agricultural economy as well.

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