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We've Been Going "Back To The Land" For A Long Time

From Gene Logsdon

Garden Farm Skills

Here are some quotes you expect to see regularly in the media these days.

“Today, from press and pulpit, from publicists and legislators, comes the cry, ‘Back To the Land’! The problem of the “small farm” is becoming a very interesting one. The cry is ‘Back To the Land’ but the drift is away from the land.”

“The question of the big farm versus the small farm is very hotly debated… Good farming must perish with the breaking up of large farms, contends one side. Not so, replies the other side.”

“Two classes of people enthusiastically advocate the ‘Back To The Land’ movement…editors of our city papers and the high-cost-of-living sufferers… The metropolitan editors usually say: ‘Be independent. Be good citizens. And by quitting the city for the farm, you will become both.”

But those quotes appeared in print in 1921. Almost a century ago. The writer was James Boyle, his book, Agricultural Economics. At that time, the first big wave of gigantic farming in the United States, called bonanza farming, was breaking up on the shoals of economic reality. Some of those farms were over 10,000 acres in size, powered by cheap hired help and hundreds of teams of horses. There was a great hue and cry both for and against them. If the reader replaces the word ‘bonanza’ with ‘big’, many of Boyle’s quotes read exactly like quotes today.

“Mr. Budge says there are several bonanza farms in North Dakota and mentions one of above seven thousand acres. He adds that he would like to see them all out of the way. They take up so much space that it hurts the school districts. The owners ship in supplies from the East. They ship their men in and out too.”

“Mr. Greeley considers bonanza farming to be a curse to the country and if carried too far, after population gets more dense, it will keep thousands of men from having homes of their own.”

“The bonanza farms are well conducted upon strictly business principles, the farming is done more scientifically and economically than on small farms and the percentage of profit is larger; but the general results to the people of the country are not good, and the people would generally favor the abolition of bonanza farming.”

But 1921 did not mark, by any means, the first “back to the land” movement, nor the first debate about farm size. The ancient Romans understood well enough what Cato wrote a century before Christ: “A farm is like a man— however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.” Boyle gives examples of how well articulated the debate over farm size had become in Norway and France by the 1700s (not to mention in the uproar that came in England when the government enclosed its public lands and threw hundreds of thousands of peasants out of a livelihood). One of the best commentators on the subject was Arthur Young. He was a proponent of big farms but admitted in 1787 that the small peasant farms characteristic of France were more productive than the bigger farms of England.

So there’s nothing new under the sun. Farming begins with small holdings and then slowly graduates to larger and larger units until it falls apart. Or starts with large holdings and breaks up into small ones and then repeats the cycle over and over again. Every generation must have its “back to the land” movement. I have lived through three of them now— in the 1930s, the 1970s, and now in the 2000s. They come about every 30 to 40 years, just like clockwork.

The bonanza farms of the northern and plains states that flourished from about 1890 to 1920 were the first orgiastic dance of big farming in modern times (not counting the cotton plantations of the South). But the economy these farms were built on was a false one, based on overcapitalized land and cheap labor, and so it died out, just as the present big farming balloon will burst.

I notice that economists at Iowa State University are predicting the same thing I’ve been saying— another crash in farmland values is in the offing. I do not presume to be a prophet. I just study history. Someone at Iowa State must do so too.

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Image: One of Gene’s back-to-the-land books (1980)

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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.

Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land), The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.

Gene’s Posts

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