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22-New_American_GothicRobert Benchley observed that there are two types of people: those who divide people into two types and those who do not. This may be true when conservatives talk of agrarianism.

I may be the only visitor to this website who lives in an almost wholly agrarian society. Some 80 percent of Afghans work in agriculture. Mostly self-sufficient, eating chiefly what they produce from crops and livestock, they sell the surplus to buy little more than rice, edible oil and salt, sugar and tea, fabric and cutlery, tools and medicine. A quarter-mile off main roads stand new-built villages that look 500 years old: mud-brick homes, fences made of sticks, little sign of anything store-bought apart from window-panes and a few hand-implements. Indoors they have quilts and cushions hand-covered in factory-made cloth, pots and platters and jugs, a mirror and often a radio: not precisely self-sufficient but spartan by any standard. 

The dynamic minister of agriculture, a young age-50, regales me with his memories of growing up in a breath-takingly beautiful mountain village near Kabul: how carefree people played and sang and joked, rested and prayed for months once the crops were in and the storeroom full; how they worked together preparing for jolly weddings and seasonal festivals; how, before television appeared, the professional storytellers would come every winter and stay snowbound in local homes for a week. His kinfolk live there still.

Our chats are no romantic idyll, for we encourage economic growth to help farm-families climb out of the worst poverty while preserving or even strengthening Afghanistan’s agrarian heritage. That heritage is a major ingredient of the socio-economic glue that holds this society together: self-reliant and self-sufficient, family and village, clan and tribe survived invasion and other disasters for millennia. Their heritage is their safety-deposit box full of values and traditions, remedies, attitudes and everyday reactions.

Agrarianism is also crucial to Afghan national security: cash-poor but self-sufficient families are protected from the food shortages and price-hikes caused by another country’s famine or inflation. So we try to improve their lives, not by pursuing some egghead concept of economic reorganisation, but by working within the agrarian system that they have already. This includes reforestation: nature-loving Afghans are natural conservatives and hence instinctive conservationists. Our work involves irrigating or otherwise raising the yield of their unirrigated land; animal husbandry made more productive at a family scale; introducing more profitable new crops and better ways to grow the traditional ones; and encouraging small-scale agribusiness for packing and export. We work through community associations of local farmers or irrigation-users. We try to discourage the cannibalisation of farmland for suburban development, which is difficult as our cities and towns grow apace. Yet, with peace and a little luck, our slightly shaggy, bearded farmer-hobbits and their big, merry families will live more comfortably without ever needing to leave their Shires.

Surrounded by like-minded Afghan and foreign experts, we seem to understand what is needed to drag rural families into, perhaps, the late 19th Century. But, reading true American conservatives and especially the Neo-Agrarians, and thinking practically, it is hard to tell how much of what they say is lamentation versus what can be achieved and how might it be done. Knowledge, will and analysis are in short supply while hindsight and romance are ever abundant. Good at diagnosis, they seem to quit before writing a prescription.

It may be that no prescription exists or can exist, and like daguerreotypes or hand-cranked phonographs or spats, Western agrarianism is obsolete and survives only to look back upon in fondness. That may be true, for the material benefits of modern economic efficiency have a devout following. Any prospect of turning back the clock raises three problems.

The first problem is knowledge, so much of which is learnt in the family. My parents, uncles and aunts were all medical professionals and, unlike classmates whose parents worked in trade, we have not a commercial instinct among us. Self-sufficiency farming, not even in the full Afghan-style, may require growing up among rustic specialists: do you know when to vaccinate a chicken or how to pull a lamb? The once-popular, British sit-com of the 1970s, “The Good Neighbours,” had the scrumptious Felicity Kendal and her stage-husband attempt self-sufficiency farming in a suburban bungalow next door to a sniffy, upper-middle-class couple. Half of the humour revolved around their travails with agriculture and animal husbandry, and most of us are not half as knowledgeable as they were. I doubt that one can learn this stuff from The Whole Earth Catalogue.

Will or determination may be lacking as well. My great-uncle Ed, a small-scale dairy farmer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula whom I visited in the late 1960s, lived in a draughty clapboard farmhouse with few more appurtenances than Afghan farmers possess, apart from a 1930s gas range, a 1940s refrigerator, a black-and-white television set and a geriatric pick-up truck. If he ever took a vacation, it was perhaps to visit relatives in Detroit twice in his working life. His cows, I believe, were milked by hand but I cannot be sure. Want to live like Uncle Ed?

On the back of an envelope, calculate how many days you spend on vacation each year, how many hours you work every day in addition to twelve, and how often you put in seven-day weeks as my uncle did. Then, if you can actually squeeze into your kitchen around the refrigerator, freezer and cooker, the micro-wave, blender, juicer, bread-maker, toaster-oven, food-processor, the coffee-maker with the cappuccino attachment, the sandwich-griller, the Dutch oven, the French-enamelled cookware and so forth, add up all your culinary gadgets and subtract three for Uncle Ed’s cowboy coffee pot, his iron skillet and the box of matches with which he lit the stove. Multiply it all by a random number, say 6, then throw the data into the trash can, fix a stiff drink and ponder what you are willing to sacrifice for an agrarian life: not how you wish that America lived, but just you. Then after three more drinks phone a farmer if you know one, ask him how he services his debt, how many hours are spent filling in government paperwork, how much he receives in subsidies and price-supports, whether he fixed the stereo in his air-conditioned combine-harvester, whether he enjoyed his last vacation skiing in Vale and how his life relates to the Jeffersonian agrarian idyll. Then hang up before he knows who is calling.

I mean no mockery and only attempt to convey the changes in lifestyle that an average middle-class American family would face in becoming agrarian.

This leads to a lack of analysis. Modern leisure time, travel, physical comfort and material goods (that may or may not provide their owner with true happiness) accrue from the division of labour and its efficiency. Influenced by Diderot’s Encyclopaedia, Adam Smith famously described eighteen specialised steps that allowed pin-makers to be 24,000 times more efficient, making 240 times more pins than the same workers could produce individually. Every step toward self-sufficiency is really toward self-inefficiency and results in a lower material standard of living, culminating in my Uncle Ed’s draughty farmhouse or an Afghan village, depending on when you finally give up and drive to WalMart.

You can test this at home: modern, industrial economies of scale make it cheaper to buy a jar of half-decent spaghetti sauce than to acquire the ingredients, pay the electricity bill and make it yourself (even ignoring the opportunity-costs of your time). Chef Boyardee, plus the legions of accountants and industrial chemists in his behemoth laboratories of “home-cooking,” get a better price for tomatoes when they buy up the entire production of Guatemala than you get at the local Farmer’s Market or even Sam’s Club. Make it yourself and you have less to spend elsewhere: a fact for individuals or nations. Will people like giving up such comforts for self-reliance?

Being as persuasive as you wish, argue that spaghetti-sauce tastes better made from scratch. Contend that the non-material virtues of an agrarian life are more rewarding to individuals or, even if that is a personal hardship it is better for society as a whole economically or otherwise. But being candid, shall I abandon my rather comfy London club? Fire my Afghan driver? Quit my air-conditioned office in Kabul and my challenging and fulfilling work at the ministry? Rather than learn how to milk cows, rather than crawl out of bed before 5 a.m. every morning for the next twenty years and move into Ed’s POW-camp of a farmhouse, I would rather load the pistol and go into the garden like General Rommel. Many people would agree with me.

Dr Russell Kirk, in whose home I spent many a happy night, was an agrarian on paper but not in practice. His much-discussed tree-planting was a hobby, no more occupational (but more dignified) than Marie-Antoinette dressing as a shepherdess and gambolling with lambs at Versailles. I doubt that it built character or instilled virtues that Dr Kirk did not already have in abundance: tree-planting reflected his noble character rather than formed it. Michigan’s dark, satanic mills he knew first-hand, but the agrarian idyll he learnt more from sharing a library with Sir Walter Scott than from the equivalent of my Uncle Ed’s spare bedroom and cow-barn. Agrarianism was, I believe, something of which he wholeheartedly approved for others, but in which he would not have engaged personally except at gunpoint. This is prescription not hypocrisy, such as my supporting capitalism while having no wish to try it myself. Who is willing to live as Dr Kirk was not?

The two types of conservative agrarians, then, either have some imperfect notion of how to get there from here or do not. Having some mild knowledge of, and an occupational interest in, preserving and strengthening Afghanistan’s largely agrarian world, I have no inkling of how to move America into agrarianism short of force unseen since Lenin collectivised Russia’s farms. I never met anyone who professed to know how, and I truly would love to meet one: in sheer appreciation and in hope of finding a way to reduce materialism and strengthen community in the dying and atomised West. America and her communities would in many ways be poorer but stronger were Americans similar to Afghans once more, but where are the takers?

If people choose their modern comforts, they may be stuck with the efficiency-driven mobile job-market, the shift to cities, and the decline of rural community that comes with it, plus all of the knock-on effects to governance and society.

Anyone wishing for true agrarianism might ponder the following: (a) how agrarian is enough, from true self-sufficiency on “fifty-acres-and-a-mule” to just planting a small kitchen-garden; (b) what are the specific economic and “lifestyle” ramifications of adopting your degree of agrarianism, nationally and individually; and (c) how can it begin, from generating the will to acquiring the knowledge? No points will be awarded for answering, “marry Felicity Kendall and buy an English suburban bungalow” (I would have tried it but she is already spoken-for).

Those of us who lament the loss of the past, but who remain contented in having no clue of what to do about it, seem to be serious scholars of social decline, kindred misanthropes, incurable romantics and often my best friends. But sometimes I wonder if we are not like Edward Arlington Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, a romantic-depressive who, “born too late…missed the medieval grace of iron clothing…called it fate, And kept on drinking.”

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Published: May 15, 2011
Author
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. Steve,

    i don't think that Jefferson would have been an agrarian had he had to live like the yeoman farmers he sometimes thought were God's tillers.

    My own family, both Willsons and Fullers were nothing but farmers from the 1620s to about the 1890s, when every Willson who could went to school and became something else. Helen's people were Dutch immigrants, the Bremers and the DeMays, who came to the US mostly in the 1890s, so they stayed on the land until the great change of the 1950s. When Helen and I first went to the movies together in 1955, every member of her family was a farmer. When our youngest daughter was born in 1965, none of them were still on the land. And nobody was particularly unhappy about it! Because they were farmers they could do many things, and all got good jobs in town and could take vacations, which the cows never did.

    Later on, in the 1970s, at family reunions the older generation would sit in a circle (to which we were admitted only as the older ones died off) and talked about, you guessed it, the farm. The stories were warm and funny and sometimes tragic, but they were real stories that the current generation appreciates but has no real feeling for. And the agrarian life recedes fast. My own daughters, born while this last exodus from the land was taking place, figured out only when well into elementary school that the cow tongue sandwiches their mother was sending for their lunches (and which they loved) were gosh almighty really cow's tongues! My middle daughter, sixteen when I took her to her first Iowa farm, believed Ken Faucett when he told that what came out the back of his new combine when they were harvesting corn was Corn Flakes (although she wouldn't go for boxed).

    Our home town, PhelpsNewYorkHomeoftheBrave my dad used to call it, was a market town for a rather prosperous dairy and fruit farming township. After a few stumbles it survived largely because it was on the outer fringes of the Rochester behemoth and it has just enough interesting cobblestone houses and farms that it could be partly gentrified. Its great cultural attraction is the annual Sauerkraut Festival (first weekend in August, if you're interested), although it's been over three decades since there was a sauerkraut factory in town–in the 1950s we were the largest producers of sauerkraut in the world, and thus grew mountains of cabbages in the county. This strange combination of adaptation and nostalgia doesn't work in too many places.

  2. Later on, in the 1970s, at family reunions the older generation would sit in a circle (to which we were admitted only as the older ones died off) and talked about, you guessed it, the farm. The stories were warm and funny and sometimes tragic, but they were real stories that the current generation appreciates but has no real feeling for. And the agrarian life recedes fast. My own daughters, born while this last exodus from the land was taking place, figured out only when well into elementary school that the cow tongue sandwiches their mother was sending for their lunches (and which they loved) were gosh almighty really cow's tongues! My middle daughter, sixteen when I took her to her first Iowa farm, believed Ken Faucett when he told that what came out the back of his new combine when they were harvesting corn was Corn Flakes (although she wouldn't go for boxed).

    Our home town, PhelpsNewYorkHomeoftheBrave my dad used to call it, was a market town for a rather prosperous dairy and fruit farming township. After a few stumbles it survived largely because it was on the outer fringes of the Rochester behemoth and it has just enough interesting cobblestone houses and farms that it could be partly gentrified. Its great cultural attraction is the annual Sauerkraut Festival (first weekend in August, if you're interested), although it's been over three decades since there was a sauerkraut factory in town–in the 1950s we were the largest producers of sauerkraut in the world, and thus grew mountains of cabbages in the county. This strange combination of adaptation and nostalgia doesn't work in too many places.

  3. Let me suggest that agrarianism is not about "getting back to the farm." I am a city boy, and I have no intention of moving to the countryside. It is about restoring the proper relationship between town and country, so that the food we eat comes from our neighbors rather than a factory. In this definition, even a city-boy like myself can be an agrarian, which I am.

  4. I grew up on a crop farm in the heart of the upper Midwest, and would I were still there. Earl Butz’ policies rendered that undoable. It is neither as bleak as portrayed, nor something city folks would necessarily take to with ease – but some would.

    I think the heart of agrarianism is that the worker (or worker’s family, the family unit being the base of society, not the individual as in post-women’s sufferage America) -owning- the means of production. I myself prefer the land, I don’t mind the wind always blowing. But there are people who can’t hack it, and there is a need for some division of labor, and wholly-worker owned factories and so forth.

  5. I write these words as I procrastinate turning over my raised beds. I have 32 tomato plants and nearly as many spinach plants grown from seed waiting to be put in the ground. That said, I have no illusions about meeting all my food-stuff needs by my garden alone. I have a healthy paycheck, for which I am grateful.

    Still, the agrarians are getting at something. Forgetting the impracticality of sending everyone packing to the farm, or even staying put in a particular community–many feel deep down that the division of labor has gone too far. At some point you have to admit you can only get so many miles to a gallon of gas–same with the division of labor. That doesn’t mean you stop trying, but eventually you start to faking it, or eating your seed corn.

    You mention the hardships of agrarian self-sufficiency. Although I’ve never known those hardships I have a vivid imagination. I couldn’t bring myself to live that way. But I imagine I could if given a choice between that and death. I can also imagine a world in the not too distant future where many of the things we take for granted today: social insurance for instance, or a college education, or even relatively inexpensive international travel, are no longer granted to many people. In such a world things will be very different.

    For self-sufficiency allow me to substitute self-reliance, that a long with the strengthening of kinship ties and an emphasis on acquiring productive property; these are the things we should be shooting for. We are in the early phase of a great disillusionment. I no longer invest in the stock market–after losing tens of thousands of dollars I simply believe holding real property makes me more secure. My social safety net is my extended family and their closely held business concerns. Sure, I have other forms of insurance, but my hedges have hedges. And with all this some old virtues are getting dusted off: prudence, thrift, sacrifice, and the like. And technology, that double-edged sword, helps to keep the extended family in touch and the capital flowing freely to meet needs and and take advantage of opportunities. At the center of this new world order, I believe, will be the household–adapted to the opportunities and challenges of a post-modern world, but possessing a family resemblance to the pre-modern household.

  6. I would suggest you need to interact with the writings and life of someone like Joel Salatin and many others who have solutions to the issues you bring up. It isn’t nearly as hard or bleak as the article makes things out to be. And many other issues/factors are at play that the article glosses over or misrepresents, such as the cow issue. A cow only gets milked at most 9 months a year – that leaves 3 for vacation. Most Christian agrarians especially are multi-generational, extended family oriented. If the cows need milked for a few days, it really isn’t that big of a deal. Or many communities share a cow herd, and thus share milking duties. So many of the supposed problems only exist if one tries to wed agrarianism to radical individualism, which is like taking a beautiful steak and cooking it in the microwave. can be done, but the results are insult both the eater and the thing eaten.

    But this is definitely a topic that deserves more discussion.

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