Friday, October 2, 2015

The "Homestead" movement

 Nebraska homesteaders, 1884.

While most folks probably rush by in their daily lives oblivious to the Homestead movement, or Homesteaders in 2015, as I'm a fan of agriculture and all things agrarian, I've taken note of them.

But I wonder about them.

 Nebraska homesteaders, 1886.

For those (almost everyone) who wonders what I'm talking about, and who associate Homesteading with Little House on the Prairie, there's a subculture in the US today that uses this term to describe a small agrarian unit, but with no precision.  It's more than a little confusing.

Of course, by using the term "agrarian", I'm probably adding to the confusion. A lot of people associate the work "agrarian" with "agriculture", and they are not the same.

 Nebraska homesteaders, 1889.

Agrarian refers to a certain type of economics, which does tend to be farming centric, but which isn't really limited to farming. Used properly (as it tends to be by people who are agrarians) it refers to a Distributist economy focused on small freeholders, the majority of whom are farmers.


Okay, basically that means an agrarians look towards the same sort of economy that Thomas Jefferson wrote about as being the foundation for democracy.  Individual heads of households who own and operate their own farms, with those farms basically being subsistence farms.  If that sounds a lot like Distributism, that's because Distributist are Agrarians in terms of their agricultural thought, and they too were agriculture focused, but not to the same extent.  Agrarian farmers ("yeomen") in Agrarian thought weren't precluded from selling their surplus, but the basic idea was that by and large they and their families survived on the fruits of their own land and labor, and hence they were independent men.  That's why Jefferson thought them the core of a democracy, a thought that wasn't unique to him by any means.

 American farmer plowing with oxen.  Use of draft animals remained common in American agriculture up until the 1950s, but most of the modern "homestead" community (but not all), is tractor dependent, which means they're tied into the larger economy pretty directly but they might not realize it.

There truly were a lot of yeomen in the United States for a very long time, but the Great Depression, in part due to economic polices of that era, and the policies of the Department of Agriculture in the 1950s, tended to finish them off, although there are still farmers who could be considered agrarians today.  Almost all farmers who farmed land they owned, prior to mid 20th Century, were various degrees of yeomen, with the degree to which that was true varying considerably from region to region, but more or less true everywhere.  Big exceptions, we should note, existed in the form of "farmers" who leased the land to tenant farmers, neither of which can be considered yeomanry. That was always true, I'd note, as "Planters" in the Old South were not agrarians, so for instance Jefferson, the great American admirer of yeomanry, wasn't a yeoman by any stretch of the imagination.

Okay, so now we know what a yeoman is, but what does that have to do with being a "Homesteader".

Good question, and its not even entirely clear to me.

 How it was done, well into the 20th Century.

"Homesteading", to most people, is associated with the late 19th Century after Congress passed the first Homestead Act. That allowed individuals to obtain a workable piece of the public domain (you could also simply buy land from the Federal government as well), under certain conditions, those conditions all tending towards working the land. The act aided small farmers, which most Americans were.  Put another way, most Americans at that time were in agrarian families, to varying degrees.   The concept of homesteading had been around since colonial times, but in that final version of it, the Federal government took a direct role in it for anyone willing to work the land, irrespective of whether they'd ever served the government or even if they were American citizens.

On that, it probably comes as a surprise to most people that it was actually the 20th Century that saw the most homesteading of this type in the US.  The period just before, and during, World War One, saw the peak of homesteading.  It continued on until the Great Depression, when the Homestead Acts were repealed, with the final homesteads being "proved up" in the lower 48 in the 1950s.  The act actually continued on in Alaska until 1986, which given the attitudes and desires I had in my youth, it may or may not be a good thing that I was not aware of (particularly as in 1986 I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in geology and into unemployment).  Alaska does retain a state homestead statute, although the units it applies to are principally used by people who use them for vacation homes.  Michigan revived a type of homestead at one time some years ago for the impoverished Upper Peninsula, but I don't know that ultimately became of that.

 Sheep herders, Wyoming.  This is still done, where there are sheep (which there are many fewer of than even when I was young), but rarely are Americans the herders. They aren't willing, generally, to do it, at least at the wages it pays.  Peruvian herders may now be the most common.

Obviously members of the Homesteading Movement don't mean this sort of homesteading, although perhaps they sort of associate their efforts with it.  You can't go out on the Public Domain today and file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862 or the Desert Lands Act or the Stock Raising Homestead Act.

Most people couldn't make a go on a small portion of land either, which is where my problem sort of starts with this movement. What people seem to be suggesting is that they move off the grid to some degree, and they live by the fruits of their farming labors.  But living off a few acres in 1862 was quite a bit different than trying to do the same in 2015.

A lot of them seem to acknowledge that, and for that reason, a lot seem to cross into what some call "hobby farming".  I have my own problems with that, and in regards tot his, if you are working a day job in town and farming a small plot on the side, are you really "homesteading"?  I don't think so.

 Typical farmer of the late 1930s, early 1940s.

Beyond that, what's the motivation for "homesteading"? That's an interesting topic in and of itself.

For some, it's just a disgust or disdain with the modern materialistic world.  A person can't be faulted for that really, as materialism and consumerism aren't all they're cracked up to be by a huge measure.  For some its a certain type of idealism, that's now wholly unrelated really do  turning of the back to materialism.  For some other, and tied into the other factors mentioned above, it's tied in to religious sense that finds the current Western world intolerant or inconsistent with their religious beliefs.  Along those lines, I've seen blogs by Anglican homesteaders, Catholic homesteaders and various other Protestant homesteaders.  I suppose, in a way, the rural Old Believer communities of Alaska express this goal in sort of a way, and perhaps the various Anabaptist groups like the Amish are also a long lasting example of this.  Indeed, it's not uncommon in at least Catholic homesteading movement circles to cite the Amish as a practical example, even tough the theology involved is considerably different.

 Old Believer village in Alaska, a model for religious homesteaders?

And not only is it different, it's interesting in that in Europe the Distributist movement that existed prior to World War Two had a strongly agrarian element to it, that fit in well with the concerns of modern Catholic and Anglican adherents to the same, particularly as the agrarian distributist of that time considered this topic in the context of a desire for small scale economic independence and family rural isolation (in the European context) due in part to a belief that the aggressive Capitalist and Socialist economic forces of the time were inherently anti-Christian.

But whatever its origin, how well does the practice of these folks fit the reality for farming?  The evidence would be not very well.

Almost every single example of this I run across is either not practiced in the full, and hence its questionable if its practiced at all, or it's a failure.  At least two Catholic writers who publish blogs, one of whom is very dedicated to the concept, have failed at it.  Others of all ilks actually seem to mix it heavily with non farm activity, which perhaps doesn't mean it isn't "homesteading", but which at least raises the question as to whether or not it's actually hobby farming.

 Illustration for the front piece of a Chesterton book.  A Distributist, Chesterton, like other English Distributist, imagined "Three Acres and a Cow" for English (Catholic) agrarian farmers.  This view was similar to that of freed slaves following the Civil War, who imagined Forty Acres and a Mule as the ideal set of circumstances.

Why is that?

Well for one thing, even while there are farms and ranches today that are very self reliant (and some that are not), but they're all market farms.  The market controls the price of farmland, and frankly ranchland is priced at playground prices now, rather than by agricultural production.  The point is that farmers and ranchers have always engaged in agriculture in a the context of their economic community, and today that means production agriculture.

If a person is conversely hoping that they can live like 19th Century yeomen, they're probably fooling themselves and are definitely fooling themselves if they have a family.  But even if they don't, they likely are.  Yeomen of earlier eras, even in the first half of the 20th Century, were largely part of the national and regional economies.  What that tells us is that they lived tolerably within the range of their economic potentials in eras when there a lot more poor, the poor were poorer, the middle class was often near slipping down into poverty, and there were very few who were wealthy.

Indeed, it's been noted here before that the last year that American farmers had economic parity with their urban cousins was 1919.  That's because, in part, farmers had done extremely well during World War One.  So well, in fact, that there'd been a flood of urbanites into the farming belts, most of whom attempted to engage in grain farming.

After that, however, middle class urban dwellers began to exceed rural residents in their standard of living, and that by extension forced things out in the countryside.  At first big urban changes were easy to ignore.  People in town might have cars, but they weren't all that useful, at first, in the countryside.  People in town might have radios, but that wasn't much to a person who lived beyond the range of the station.  People in town might get to go to the movies during the week, but farmers could still catch them on Saturday or could go to something that a fellow agriculturalist was putting on by way of entertainment nearer to their farms or ranches.  All that began to change, however, by the 1930s.  Indeed, it would have changed more rapidly but for the Great Depression.

And that was because farmers are part of the population, after all.  At some point it becomes impossible to not live in the larger economic community.  "Living off the grid" may be all fine as a dream, or even as a reality for a dedicated person or perhaps a dedicated family, but for most it isn't really possible.  Most people can't home-school, for example, so they need to be able to go to town for their kids and that means having a car.  Most farmers will need to sell their products and that means having cell phones and computers. It also means having vehicles.  It's charming and romantic to imagine farmers going to town in a Model A flatbed like a scene out of the Waltons, and farmers and ranchers do use a lot of old vehicles, but that's less common than it used to be and they need to have some functional vehicle as well which means a modern truck.  In short, being a farmer in the market, even though they nearly all save where they can, is more expensive in 2015 than it was in 1955, or 1915.

And unless a person is completely self sufficient, at which point they're purely making a statement by their lifestyle or strictly living according to a personal philosophy, they're going to need to make some money, and hence the problem.

In order to make that money, you have to sell to somebody. And that person has to be willing to pay your price. For small units, and particularly those with children, that puts you at a huge disadvantage in most markets.  Indeed, most of the "artisanal" locavore type of farming that homesteader types imagine can actually only occur very close to urban centers, and in some instances large urban centers.

Indeed, it's interesting that one of the loudest voices for traditional farming lives in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a bucolic location we associate heavily with farming but which is also quite near some large population centers.  I've noted that a farmer whose blog I follow, who failed at this, tried the same thing in rural Kansas. But in rural Kansas, the market likely simply isn't there.  People in that setting might buy some vegetables from you, but they're probably more likely to price things out, by necessity, at the Safeway.  And many others (but not all) who assert they are homesteaders, are actually doing it on a hobby basis.

So, I guess, my skepticism here is brought about by the fact that so many "homesteaders" seem to come from the non agricultural community and they don't seem to know what they're getting into.  They're romantics, or in some cases romantic fugitives.  But farming has never been an endeavor for fugitives really, or at least it is rarely so.

Which doesn't mean that farmers aren't in many cases pretty darned self sufficient, or that there's not a lot of merit to it.  But I often wonder if the people who imagine living on a classic American Farm realize that farm was part of a larger economic community?

It isn't that I'm not  sympathetic. And I think the dream of owning your own piece of farm ground and living from it, on your own labor, and in a simple way, is an age old American, indeed North American, one.  But I wonder to what extent those trying to enter it in the 19th Century, or even the 18th Century way, but living in the 21st, are realistic.

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