A Postcard from Agricultural 1951

Last weekend when I was visiting a friend near Syracuse, an afternoon stroll in a small town resulted in yet another irresistible library book sale. I don't know what it is about these tiny libraries (not to mention the town dump's boxes and boxes of free books), but they just keep turning up the most amazing treasures. So not only do I have my usual tall stack of library books awaiting me, but a bulging shelf of books I now own, if only temporarily. Not having internet access in my trailer, and the slowly but increasingly noticeable longer and colder nights means that I am spending more time than ever with my nose in a book. If you've spent any length of time around me, you know that's saying something. Anyway, back in upstate NY, the roses and lawn maintenance guides of the gardening section gave way to a gem: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer, by Herbert Jacobs, sold in 1951 by Harper & Brothers for three dollars. Marked down to $2 in 2013 money, it was really a steal!

Later, when I flipped to the back leaf to learn just who this Mr. Jacobs was, I discovered that he was a farmer and journalist, and native of Southwestern Wisconsin who attended Harvard. What are the chances?! (Higher in 1951 than today, I suppose...). Well, I've read the book cover to cover and I think in 1951 it was most definitely a good buy. In 2013, it's more an exercise in perspective: 1951 was smack in the middle of the beginning of the end, so to speak. Chemical and munitions companies that converted to agricultural "advancement" in the years following the Second World War were captivating farmers with promises of higher yields and bigger farms with less work. I can't blame farmers for going along with it - farming was indeed back-breaking work. Jacobs' repeated reference to the joys of the newly-improved wheelbarrow (pneumatic tire instead of iron wheel) are a vivid illustration of how much farmers in the beginning of the last century were doing with so little.

But not all of the great new innovations Jacobs' describes for the aspirant farmer are as beneficial as the easy-rolling wheelbarrow:

"One further method of raising chickens for meat has become popular in recent years, and that is the 'battery' way. The battery consists of four tiers of cages, one above the other. Because they live on wire entirely, the chickens are remarkably free from disease, are easy to keep clean, and are very tender because they don't get much exercise. The battery can also be used as a brooder, and should be considered by anyone wishing to raise birds for meat or market with a minimum of care, dirt, and space." (pp 86)

Anyone paying attention to the food industry today knows what this exciting new method turned into, and with what results for the small farmers that Jacobs is advising. Similarly, he heralds the invention of new hybrid and crossbred animals that fatten faster, produce more milk, or fit the tastes of meat-packers. New hybrid strains of corn, oats, and other forage promise higher yields, disease resistance, and almost fool-proof farming. The new tool called a "combine" will save the farmer even from the vagaries of weather! It is not hard to put yourself back in time sixty years and regard this agricultural revolution with the excitement of a man soon to be unburdened. Science won the war, and now science will deliver even the hardest-working farmer into a life of leisure and prosperity. From today's perspective, it is hard to look back and regard these farmers as anything but shortsighted. But how could they have known that the very tools they heralded as a new dawn in farming would instead result in the death knell of the human-scale family farm?

Jacobs' was indeed writing at the beginning of the end of successful family farms, and the book is full of both gleeful descriptions of the newest cure-all sprays and tools and old-fashioned injunctions to thrift. A family should be able to grow the majority of its food in the kitchen garden, put up supplies for winter, and run one or two profitable enterprises. Pigs, he informs us, will make good use of the 10% of grain that passes through a cow undigested. One of the most striking examples of this thrifty mentality seems out of place, either coming 20 years too late or 50 years too early:

"Grassland farming, in fact, could be describes as a greatly simplified, prosperous and permanent type of agriculture. Because it involves much use of machinery and elimination of drudgery, it is the type of agriculture that should attract and keep youths on the farm. Instead of relying heavily on corn and oats for his feeding ration, the grassland farmer emphasizes hay and pasture - in fact, he expects to get fully 80 per cent of his feed requirements from hay and pasture. This means more land in grasses more of the time, and some land in grass all of the time... One of the great beauties of grassland farming is that the agriculturalist is devoting himself to basically good farming practice. He uses longer crop rotations, and practices manuring, liming, fertilizing, strip cropping, and contour plowing. He uses cultivation and drainage only where necessary. Instead of considering pasture and forage as something reserved for marginal or poor lands, he recognizes that the best land is none too good for hay and pasture." (pp 136)

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Reading A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer as just that over sixty years later was anachronistic in some ways and highly instructive in others. Thrift always has a place on the farm, as does the "good farming practices" described above. His advice on searching for the right land in the right community rings true as ever, as does his recommendation to avoid over-capitalization. But reading this book as a young farmer is a bit like watching a Hitchcock movie from the same era - you know the murderous madman is lurking behind the shower curtain, but no amount of screaming at the screen - or the page - will make anyone heed your warnings.

Herbert Jacobs, A Practical Guide for the Beginning Farmer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951)