The Agrarian Myth

Bennington College, 2010-2013

The “family farm” as a unit worthy of protection and replication is a construct deeply embedded in American culture. Thomas Jefferson was a devout defender of agrarianism. He believed that democracy, personal freedom, and virtue are dependent on a society in which people own and work the land in order to sustain the family unit (the yeoman tradition). The yeoman tradition, however, was never a reality in the United States. Since early colonial times farmers were engaged in commercial agriculture, and there were various forms of land tenure from near feudal relations to sharecropping. Curiously, however, agrarianism still holds a strong place in present day culture. Many historians have coined this contradiction “the agrarian myth.” Agrarianism is now even coupled with environmentalism; the small, family farmer is argued to be a better land steward, and the family farm unit has become a pivotal point of opposition to large, industrial farms. What evidence exists to support this argument? What is “good land stewardship”? How does land tenure, market structure, and regulation affect agricultural practice? In this class we will examine the agrarian ideals of past Americans like Jefferson and the Grangers to the current philosophies of the influential writer Wendell Berry. We will compare these ideals to records of practice by reading historical accounts of agriculture in New York State, studies of organic, conventional, and small-scale family farming, and farmers’ memoirs. The class will be reading and writing intensive, and will include a field trip to an area farm.

ENV 4107 The Agrarian Myth course syllabus (pdf)