Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's the petroleum, stupid: The surprising persistence of small-scale farms in the northeast

In my experience, every writing project presents some unexpected question that you have to wrestle with before you can get things to make sense.  In my Ethnographic Landscape Study for Martin Van Buren NHS, that question was, "When did working farms and historic or touristic farms in the American northeast actually part ways?"  I was working from the basic assumption that agriculture in the region was already in decline as a primary economic driver by the late 19th century, a basic tenet of the "farmers moved west in search of more fertile land" narrative.  I also knew that the historic preservation movement was getting into full swing by that time, with the national centennial of the 1870s, the colonial revival of the 1890s and later, the founding of groups like the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (1910), and then the first wave of American "living history" villages like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village in the 1920s.  I confidently expected to find that those two trajectories would overlap somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, or perhaps closer to 1920, when, for the first time, more Americans lived in urban than rural places.[1]

Undated handbill, Capital District Cooperative
But as I was casting around for evidence of this definitive split, I kept finding information that went in two different directions.  First, farms and farmers were catering to the tourist market in a variety of ways far earlier than I had realized, dating back at least to the mid-19th century Shaker settlements (which welcomed visitors for a variety of reasons) and creating a sizeable sector of what we now call farm-stay vacations or agritourism.  And these flexible strategies, along with a still-robust regional food network comprised of truck farms, urban markets, and cooperative ventures like the Capital District Cooperative in Menands, New York, helped small farms to remain active and competitive right through the first half of the 20th century.  The split I was looking for just wasn't there--until after World War II.

And that was the big takeaway from Chapter 7 of the report, which covers the years between 1917 and 1973, when Martin Van Buren's estate became a national park.  Small farming was by no means as ubiquitous in the northeast as it had once been, but it was surviving fairly healthily until the postwar oil economy clobbered it in the 1940s and 50s.  Long-distance trucking, supermarket chains,  expensive new "inputs" like petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and machines, and rising land prices as suburbs expanded into former farming areas all combined to make it exponentially more difficult for small farmers to survive.  In his book about Land's Sake, the community farm he helped to start in Weston, Mass., Brian Donahue points to this "sensible regional food system" and suggests that we might do well to aim for something very similar if we're serious about re-regionalizing now.[2] 

What's the utility of knowing this?  I would suggest that it's a crucial reminder of how extremely recent our current system actually is.  My parents grew up with much shorter food supply chains;  it's only been within their lifetimes, and mine, that the famed 1,500-mile Caesar salad has been conceivable.  And the fact that people are increasingly questioning the wisdom of eating this way begins to make it look as though we could soon see the second half of the 20th century as a stark anomaly, a moment when we let relatively cheap oil seduce us into thinking we could have a level of choice and convenience  far beyond what anyone actually needs.  Marianna Torgovnik has argued that World War II casts such a long shadow over subsequent U.S. war memories that it's difficult for us to see around it, and I'm wondering whether the same is true of the postwar shift into fully petroleum-powered agriculture.[3]  If it is, then the surprisingly interwoven histories of agritourism, preserved farms, and real-life farming before the war can be a useful counter-balance for the tendency to think of the robust small family farm as a thing of the much more distant past.

Next:  "A lot of ways to keep a farming going."

[1]  R. Douglas Hurt, American Agriculture: A Brief History (Ames, IA: Iowa State
University Press, 1994) p. 26. 

[2] Brian Donahue, Reclaiming the Commons:  Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town (Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 66, 74.
[3] Marianna Torgovnik, The War Complex:  World War II in Our Time (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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