Living on a Few Acres

In preparing to start living on a "hobby" farm, I read all kinds of gardening, permaculture, small farm, and animal husbandry books. I read Brett Markham’s Mini Farming, which I think is pretty good. Before that, I read Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal (also pretty good), Gene Lodgson’s Holy Shit! (very good), and Harvey Ussery’s The Small-Scale Poultry Flock (really great!). Each of these books, in addition to providing good information for aspiring homesteaders, comes with a point of view I’m starting to think of as the Chelsea Green perspective (after the Vermont publisher that produces a lot of these titles). The perspective is, basically, that the world is on an unsustainable path that could lead to some type of eventual collapse and/or descent from the high-energy lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to in the last century (at least for some people), and that we’d be well advised to learn how to feed ourselves before this happens. This claim comes both from science such as climate change and peak oil, and from a critique of contemporary culture that finds little to praise in global corporate consumerism.

I’m fairly sympathetic with these ideas, but I’m also a historian. So I wonder whether there have been other periods when this combination of apocalypse and “back to the garden” came together
or what other combinations may have occurred to our ancestors. After all, this is not the first time the country and the city have been set against each other as competing models of the good life.

So I was really excited when I found Bolton Hall’s 1907 book,
Three Acres and Liberty. Apparently, this is the book (and he’s the guy) credited with launching the “back to the land” movement in the early 20th century although he called it by the much more appealing name, “forward-to-the-land.” I’m struck by the number of times what I’m reading in this hundred year old book could have been written by Lodgson, Salatin, or Ussery (or for that matter, by me). Some examples:

“In truth, teaching is but another department of gardening.”

“It is hardly too much to say that when we are tired out or ill either we have been doing the wrong thing or doing it wrong.”

“You raise more than vegetables in your garden: you raise your expectation of life.”

And that’s just the first chapter!
My reaction after reading the rest of the book is mixed, but that’s typical of my reaction to everything from the Progressive Era, and for that matter, to the Era itself. On the one hand, I’m very impressed that a lot of what passes for state of the art innovation in the organic/sustainable farming world is in fact very old ideas that were abandoned and forgotten under the pressure of the twentieth-century consumer lifestyle and agribusiness model of agriculture. On the other, the author is entirely too impressed with the role of experts in helping poor, benighted workers of the world get back to the land.

The initial thought of the book is a great one, though. So I’ll repeat it again. Hall says, “We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.”

Among the other important ideas, which somehow we failed to act on in the twentieth century, is this one: “It is more important that small power be developed on the farms of the United States than that we harness Niagara.” Where would the power grid conversation be, that people like
Maggie Koerth-Baker are having now, if we had developed local, sustainable power sources?

Hall’s premise in this book is that “One hour a day spent in a garden ten yards long by seven wide will supply vegetables enough for a family of six.” He goes on to say “The world seems to be divided into those who have to count their pennies and those who couldn’t count their thousands.” And since this is the case, those of us who count pennies should take advantage of the opportunity to save most of our food budget by doing it ourselves.

A really interesting aspect of this program is Hall’s idea that by freeing people from having to buy their food, you free one parent from having to work outside the home. Hall is clear in his claim that this is better for the children and the family, and for society at large. Where Hall and his associates made vacant urban land available to poor or unemployed people, he claims that in addition to growing self-reliance they saw actual improvements in people’s health and in the strength of families. Working outdoors and eating an improved diet increased people’s physical health while solving problems and developing hope for the future improved their mental health.

That’s not to say the traditional gender roles are the only possible one. Only that, often, having two parents working isn’t a choice allowing women to fulfill career interests, it’s just how we get by. In addition to these interesting perspectives, Hall provides a lot of information that’s interesting to the historian. We don’t normally think about the fact that only a hundred years ago “what typically attract[ed] the gardener to the great cities is stable manure,” or “the backwoods of the Middle States [was] made accessible by cheap autos” in the first decades of the twentieth century. But this transition from horses and railroads to automobiles was happening just as Hall was writing, and beginning to erode the truth of the old adage that “Wealth, activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel.”

Hall’s writing style is very effective. He combines idealistic claims such as “The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves,” with practical observations, like “idle men and idle land are already close to each other—the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.” Then he throws in a little humor: “‘Quite right, mother, quite right,’ came from a man nearby. ‘The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.’”

Hall quotes several other writers whose conclusions match his own. For example, Liberty Hyde Bailey: “An area of 150x100 feet is generally sufficient to supply a family of five people with vegetables.” And here and there he adds a bits of contemporary wisdom that now seem hopelessly lacking in political correctness: “when there is a large job of…weeding to be done, you can hire Italians or other foreigners to do it better and cheaper.” But he also quotes Varro’s
De Re Rustica, written in 37 BCE, and says “historians have made a mistake in not reading it.”

Hall recommends a wide variety of intensive gardening techniques: use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” (which we might now call square foot gardening) where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (long known to farmers, but just recently discovered by agronomists when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens. He talks about Robert Owen-inspired British Rochdale cooperatives, politics, and economics as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he quotes a passage from Lincoln that I’ve never run into before: “Population must increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms. Such community will alike be independent of crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.”