Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/The Rotation of the Farm
IT was an English maxim, as old as Harold, and it is probably a safe one to-day, that "horses feel a famine first." The meaning, of course, is that, in the commencement of a dearth of cereals, the stables would be pillaged of the grains fed to the horses by a hungry populace before it clamored to the authorities for bread.
They seem to have changed all that in Massachusetts. There lies before me a pamphlet, issued by the authority of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, entitled A Descriptive Catalogue of Farms in Massachusetts, Abandoned or partially Abandoned (issued under the provisions of chapter 280 of the Acts of 1891), by William R. Sessions, Secretary of the State Board of Agriculture, November, 1891. Certainly this is a startling head-line, and those of us who had begun to have faith in modern methods, in agricultural colleges, in the chemistry of crop rotation, by which the element exhausted by the yield of one year should be supplied by the next, confronted by it might begin to weaken as to the compensations, and what had been supposed to be the eternal laws of reciprocal affinities! Is it possible, we would perhaps find ourselves asking, that the Massachusetts farmer, the nearest in the Union in point of mileage to the two or three greatest of its markets, should "abandon" the fields of his ancestors? That, after generations of tillage, any tracts of agricultural land anywhere are diverted to other utilities in the course of their prime function of supporting life is a familiar contingency. Lands once agricultural may be covered by residences or factories as neighboring towns spread out to include them. But absolute abandonment would seem the rarest of possibilities, so long, at least, as the United States is relied upon, as it is to-day, for its over-proportion of the food of this planet of ours. Almost three fifths of the grains, fully half of the meat supply—not to mention the cotton yield—of the civilized world, are expected to be forthcoming from this direction, and yet the New England farmer proposes to "abandon" his share in this great field—a field wherein the farmer, as a farmer, has practically no competition to meet at all! A great deal is being said about the surrender of the farmer class to the appetite for other pursuits. But really it is not, or ought not to be, as bad as that. If other things are equal, as they should be, and if all the adjustments are true, as they should be, there should always be a farmer class and always farms. And while the New England farmer suffers from the American failing of making farms too large, equally with his far Western brother, yet his offset is that, unlike the Western farmer, he does not suffer from immoderate or too numerous middlemen (handlers or brokers), but has, or can have, his market at his door.
The horses in Massachusetts have never yet raised the alarm of famine—not even in the days of the Embargo, or in the cruel times of 1812-'16, when the noble old Bay State was forced by her patriotism not only to send soldiers into a war of which she did not approve, but to see her own peculiar industries ruined, and the only ones ruined, while the war for which she was supplying bone and sinew stimulated every rival industry in her sister States: a pelican situation, which, bad as it was, did not dishearten her or make her falter in her duty. But even then the Massachusetts farmer, who paid a dollar for his hoe, sixty cents a yard for his calico, and thirteen cents for a nutmeg (not a wooden one from a sister State), did not "abandon" his farm. The horses then or since have not been heard from. Why, then, should the State in its paternal capacity step in, announce that her farmers had abandoned her farms, and offer them for sale to strangers? And, so far as the stranger is concerned, he might well ask why he should be expected to buy that which is advertised as useless. One can not exactly break up a farm, as one breaks up a ship, and sell it for junk. At what point, one might ask, does the interest of the stranger directly accrue? Again, there are so many ways of utilizing one's farm. It can be a stock farm, a grazing farm, a dairy, a fruit, a market garden, a poultry, a seeding, a nursery farm. Salt hay is cut from marshes. Cranberries grow in bogs; and if one could not raise cranberries, how about frogs? There is always a demand for the esculent hind legs of those interesting amphibians in some seaboard city; and, indeed, our political economy will not listen to any such thing as a failure in demand or supply of luxuries, however bizarre, any more than of necessities in their due proportions. It is related that even in the midst of the Reign of Terror many of the gentle born, who could not escape from the bloody French cities, hid in garrets or other penetralia, and kept body and soul together by making lace or decorating fans or tapestry; for there was always, it seemed, somebody to buy the yield of fripperies. As long as anything can be produced upon them there should be no abandonment of farms in the vicinity of markets.
We might note, too, that this curious phenomenon of "abandoned" farms in Massachusetts is seen to be further complicated by the fact that it occurs—if it occurs at all—in the face of the extraordinary efforts of that noble State for the educational, the agricultural-educational, betterment of her sons in her agricultural colleges. And, still more suggestively, it appears to the reader of this pamphlet that the Massachusetts farms now "abandoned," or sought to be abandoned, are actually nearer to natural markets or to adequate markets for their produce than any better lands, however served by competing railroads, can possibly be. Nor do I think that the cheap "long haul" which might be supposed to bring the Western prairie into competition with the New England farm will be found to have that effect. The haul is too long and not cheap enough to make the large difference necessary to any such theory. Statistics need not be quoted, surely, to show that the great cities of the Atlantic debouch some thousands untold of their population for at least a third—for certainly a quarter—of the year, into the vicinity of these very markets; or that the great transoceanic facilities—the huge steamships with their abridged transits which have made Europe into a sort of American watering place—have worked no appreciable difference in the mass of Eastern city life which, for that third or quarter of the year, summers in these New England States, and certainly does not draw its consumption of food from any other than these New England markets. Those great laws of compensation (quite as little capable of formulation perhaps as they are perfectly constant and understood) may be relied upon to provide at least this much, to wit, that the increased facilities for visiting Europe from our large trading cities would themselves enrich a non-Europe-visiting class sufficiently to enable it to itself seek a nearer vacation at home, in New England itself, let us say, and so offset the class which, with increasing wealth, yearly finds itself able to cross the Atlantic for its annual outing.
Why, then, in the teeth of this very law of compensating economy, in the teeth of applied science, and in the teeth of the constant rules of supply and demand, should farms in New England be or seek to become "abandoned"?
I believe that certain statistical societies find the reason in what they call sometimes "overeducation," and again sometimes "sentimental education," and yet again "classical education"—the vast numbers of public schools in which not only are all branches of learning taught, but the text-books for teaching them supplied at the public expense (we are confining ourselves to the New England States); the enormous diffusion of cheap literature, or of good literature at cheap prices; the great preponderance of fiction over other reading matter—all these, they tell us, surely and unerringly tend to depopulate farms and to render farm life distasteful to those who live upon them. The farmer's daughter is unwilling to rise early to milk the cows; the farmer's son does not care to fodder the cattle or drive them to the plow or to the harvesting. The daughter has read higher things and prefers her piano, and the son has heard of opportunities of amassing wealth galore in the cities, and every Sunday newspaper tells him of what others have done and of what, therefore, it is assumed that he can do in amassing equal wealth in their streets. This sort of thing is rehashed until it has become a literature in itself, and need not be more than referred to here. But is this the real reason after all? There used to be a proposition quite equally relied upon by these very statistical societies (though I have not heard much of it lately) which ought to counterbalance or compensate for this tendency of the rural youth to cities. It used to be said, I believe, that the cessation of a certain branch of any given industry released a certain proportion of power, which turned itself to some other; for example, that the loss by a city like Portland of its India sugar trade, or by New Bedford or by Sag Harbor of its whaling interests, would be no loss to the community at large, because the handlers of sugar or of whales would gravitate to other employments, and so the economical balance of the community be preserved. If this principle still obtained, then—in view of the large creation of entirely new industries within the last ten or twenty years, such as, for example, the electric power and light, the telephone, the typewriter, the clipper of newspapers (the last three of which certainly do not discriminate in favor of the stronger sex; or, if they discriminate at all, might be said to discriminate against it)—this principle of mutual release ought to be still to the fore; but somehow or other it is not as familiarly quoted now as it was once. I have, for example, heard it gravely argued by a gentleman in New York city, who writes much and well upon economical and politico-economical questions, and who is an enthusiastic free-trader, that, if the doctrine of protection was carried far enough to create new industries in the United States, those industries would require the building of great mills and factories; and that, while those factories were being built, the time of thousands of working people would be on their hands, and that the loss of wages incurred by some thousands of employees who were waiting for those factories and mills to be built would be a serious item in the national wealth! Most of us would not be kept awake of nights by the fear of decreasing national wealth, I think, from that particular state of affairs! Some labor, no doubt, would be required to build those same mills and factories. The laborers who were to build them would perhaps be drawn from somewhere, and so leave vacancies to be filled from somewhere else. But the prospect as it seems was enough to seriously alarm this gentleman; and I doubt not that, from a standpoint the reverse of his, it might still have its terrors to even less special and specious theorists, who still cling to the old fallacy that figures always tell the truth, and will not hear of the proposition of the Irish gentleman in Christie-Murray's delightful novel, who called figures the biggest liars in existence! Because, then, the farmer's daughter prefers her piano to her milking stool, and her brother his bicycle to his fodder scythe: or—let us say, because the one would rather sell ribbons and the other foot up columns of figures in city establishments than to continue in the duties which a residence upon the ancestral acres imposes—the whims or caprices of a few boys and girls are creating great gaps in the agricultural precincts which the supreme, even if elusive, laws of economical compensation are unable to fill!
It would seem to be a rather violent proposition this: namely, that one's personal whim can explode or dominate the laws of supply and demand.
Instead of the rotation of crops, is it not what might be called the "rotation of the farm," brought on by the exchange of farm for city employments by a constant or periodic ratio, which has called for the Massachusetts pamphlet?
The man who lives in the country yearns for the city. The man who lives in the city yearns for the country. The farmer would seek pent precincts of the town and bend over ledgers; the clerk, already bent double over his ledgers, craves the free air and the unconfined horizons of the farm, the distant hills, and the broad acres between. Variety, is it not, which they both seek? In opposite currents, doubtless, but both continually by immutable tendencies. Such is certainly the optimistic theory of the situation implied by these "abandoned" farm pamphlets. Is it the true one?
To assume that the farmer will farm no more would be a fearful prospect for our race—quite as fearful as to assume that the soldier would not fight for his country against any other country, that the tailor would not make us clothes, or that the shoemaker would not supply us with shoes. Surely it would be great gain, not only to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but to the national commonwealth, if, instead of drawing grewsome and doleful morals from a pamphlet with the pathetic title, Catalogue of Abandoned farms in Massachusetts (or New Hampshire or Vermont), we could infer that the issuing of these catalogues was but a rational and normal detail by way of facility in the progression of that great law which moves communities of individuals back and forward, and back and forward again, from one precinct to another, and from one vicinage to another on the map of societies and of States, but always conserving and preserving the equation of prosperity, of tranquillity, and of the general content in and between and around them all.
Taking the Massachusetts pamphlet as exemplary of them all, it seems to me that the above is the fact. For I find, first, that this abandonment amounts rather to a desire to sell at some fair or "lump" price (and I may add always one somehow approximate to the general value of the land, which certainly is not even as a figure of speech an "abandonment"); secondly, I find that the "abandonment" is larger the farther we leave the seacoast and traverse toward the interior countries. The pamphlet shows that 3·45 per cent of the total farm average of the State now offered for sale lies outside of the limits of cities, in the extreme interior, while only about 0·87 per cent of such farm land is situated toward the seacoast.
In Nantucket and Suffolk Counties—the one an island and the other a peninsular county open on three sides to the seacoast—no such "abandoned" land is offered for sale at all. In Essex County, adjoining Suffolk, where the interior nature of the territory is a trifle larger than in Suffolk, we have a return of salable land under this pressure, of a trifle less than 0·06 per cent. In Hampshire County, where several settlements are to this day without railroad or telegraphic facilities, containing perhaps but a single town of any size, and where intercommunication is about as rare as an eclipse of the sun, the percentage of land offered for sale is the highest, being 6·85 per cent; thus clearly proving, if figures can prove anything, that it is the desire for community, the weariness of isolation, the craving for society, rather than a seeking for the precariousness of new employments, or a failure of the land he has tilled so long, which leads the ruralist to woo forced markets for his farm lands and new industries elsewhere for himself. And not only is this the case, but in a study of this very pamphlet there appears the confirmation of this proposition that normal forces and attractions invariably find their counter-forces and attractions. It appears that as soon as the Massachusetts authorities announced their purpose of issuing this list of "abandoned farms," inquiries concerning these farms were received in considerable numbers. These the Bureau of Agriculture carefully tabulated to the States whence they came, with the following results: England (London), 1; Canada (Montreal), 2; Washington, D. C., 1; Texas, 1; Illinois, 2; Michigan, 3; Montana, 1; Ohio, 2; Florida, 3; North Carolina, 1; Virginia, 4; Washington Territory, 1; Pennsylvania, 5; California, 1; Iowa, 1; Connecticut, 10; New Hampshire, 4; Vermont, 1; Rhode Island, 9; New York city, 79; Massachusetts coastwise counties, 140.
It certainly seems to me that there could be no clearer proof than this that the desire to move inland comes from the thickly populated coast lines and the vicinities of the larger cities. That, after all, the greatest demand for Massachusetts farms comes from Massachusetts itself must be a glory and a pride to that noble old Commonwealth, and an acquittal from the charge that her thousands of common schools and hundreds of town libraries have cultivated in her sons and daughters a distaste for the life of an independent farmer. It is not abandonment, but rotation, and seems to illustrate one of Emerson's postulates, viz., that "demand and supply run into every invisible and unnamed province of whim and passion." But, apart from whim and passion, there is a great justice in this rotation. The catalogue might have been entitled A List of Farms in Massachusetts whose Owners are willing to sell them rather cheaply, and better express what actually appears to be the situation. The Rotation of the Farm, or the Rotation of the Owner of the Farm, would seem to be the better title.