On the History of the Impact of Family Farm on Families

Frank Tengle, an Alabama sharecropper, and family singing hymns. Walker Evans for the U.S. Resettlement Administration.

Gabriel Rosenberg, a women’s studies professor at Duke, has a lays out some intriguing history of agricultural America that challenges on central idyll of American mythology: The Family Farm. He starts with welcome reminder that agriculture in America has always centered around grains and meat production.

Agrarianism has an enormous footprint in American history, dating back at least to Thomas Jefferson’s famous celebrations of the yeoman farmer in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson’s agrarian rhetoric was good politics even then. An enormous portion of the population labored in agriculture — freely and in bondage — and flattering smallholders with talk of intrinsic virtue built broad-based support for the policies of agricultural expansion.

The kind of agriculture to be expanded remained a source of vitriolic and politically defining dispute. Cotton monocultures, largely tended by slaves, rapidly depleted soil nutrients. With each passing decade, the epicenter of cotton production moved steadily westward, as slavers abandoned old plantations to start anew on unbroken land further west.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the throne of the cotton kingdom sat in the Mississippi River Delta, but its frontiers extended well into Arkansas and Texas. Similarly, Northern settlers moved westward in waves, with farmers seeking fertile bottomland for bumper crops of corn, a crop they transformed into whiskey and pork for Eastern markets.

By the middle of the 19th century, an emergent grain-livestock complex stretched from Ohio to Colorado. In both North and South, agricultural expansion entailed the violent dispossession of indigenous populations, the managed integration of Western lands into settled agriculture, and the organization and importation of human populations necessary to both objectives.

Then pivots to the way the economic cross currents of rural and frontier life pulled apart and reconstituted families for slaves and freeholders alike.

For the millions of slaves laboring in Southern agriculture, the notion of permanent settlement ran afoul of the stark realities implicit in the traffic of souls: Slavers sold their slaves to cover debts, to hedge declining labor productivity as slaves aged, to dispose of difficult or rebellious slaves, and for a thousand other reasons. The movements of individual slaves often demonstrated a complex pattern not of settlement and permanence, but of internal flow, migration, and transience that follows precisely the trajectory of cotton cultivation: southwest and downriver. For indigenous populations, the history of agricultural expansion was the history of repeated dispossession and forced resettlement on increasingly marginal lands.

Such highly mobile populations meant that family structures tended toward flexibility and contingency on the frontiers of agricultural expansion. On Northern farms, the family retained centrality as the unit of labor organization and many people traveled West as families.

But these families bore little resemblance to the farmer-homemaker model we often falsely ascribe to family farms. Rather, such families were sprawling, maximalist, and multigenerational affairs with only rough notions of gendered divisions of labor. Men were responsible for staple and field crops, and women were responsible for dairying, poultry, produce, cooking, and cleaning. Ideally, men’s labor generated a lump sum at harvest that covered the cost of the next year’s planting; women’s labor, by contrast, generated a steady stream of income year round — sometimes called “egg” money — to cover daily expenses. Regardless, flexibility was the watchword of the day. With survival at stake, everyone worked — gendered ideals be damned — even if it meant women contributed field labor during harvest and men mended their own socks. Neighbors pooled labor, and farms took on regular hired hands, and this too created kinship beyond blood relations.

High morbidity rates, particularly during childbirth, meant that remarriage was common, and families might be composed of multiple primary couples or even the reassembled components of those pairs once severed by death or flight. Spouses often split over the decision to relocate. Other couples split and separately relocated as a solution to restrictive 19th-century divorce laws. As a consequence, casual, if quiet bigamists were commonplace in frontier communities.

Regardless, many settlers left families in the East and attempted to create new ones in the West. Constituting new families among the scattered and diverse population of the West often involved cross-class and cross-race marriages that would have been unthinkable in Eastern urban communities. Forced resettlement frequently shattered slave families and forced enslaved people to repeatedly reconstitute their families.

He then goes on to detail the fluidity of sexual and gender dynamics that followed from the ad hoc, makeshift economics of rural and frontier life during the fist half of the Republic. Fascinating stuff.

I’m curious as well about his book “The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America.”:

In domestic and global settings, 4-H’s advocates dreamed of transforming rural economies, communities, and families. Organizers believed the clubs would bypass backward patriarchs reluctant to embrace modern farming techniques. In their place, 4-H would cultivate efficient, capital-intensive farms and convince rural people to trust federal expertise. The modern 4-H farm also featured gender-appropriate divisions of labor and produced healthy, robust children. To retain the economic potential of the “best” youth, clubs insinuated state agents at the heart of rural family life. By midcentury, the vision of healthy 4-H’ers on family farms advertised the attractiveness of the emerging agribusiness economy.

With rigorous archival research, Gabriel N. Rosenberg provocatively argues that public acceptance of the political economy of agribusiness hinged on federal efforts to establish a modern rural society through effective farming technology and techniques as well as through carefully managed gender roles, procreation, and sexuality. The 4-H Harvest shows how 4-H, like the countryside it often symbolizes, is the product of the modernist ambition to efficiently govern rural economies, landscapes, and populations.

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