The Mad Agriculture Journal
June 19, 2023
If you take a look across the modern American landscape, you’ll see evidence of some kind of an agrarian movement. This one’s not happening on farms, but rather in the cultural milieu surrounding them. Upscale and fast-food restaurants alike advertise their farm-to-table fries, cowboys sell you pick-up trucks, and tidy new neighborhoods of modern farmhouses seem to continuously sprout up.
This phenomena is known as the Agrarian Myth: an evolving ideal that praises the values of a rural agricultural society as the model for American life and democracy. The power of this myth has been influential since the very founding of this country. These days, the Agrarian Myth is used by marketers, politicians, and everyday Americans alike, and it has proven to have serious implications on the very real patterns of agriculture, building, consumerism, and more.
The romanticized imagery of the rural good life is becoming increasingly prevalent. All the while, the challenges of a mass-commercialized and land-detached society are on the rise. This dissolution of agrarian values–described by author and professor Norman Wirzba as the “the agricultural equivalent of tract homes”–has created a crisis of sustainability and culture reaching beyond farming. Could it be that the vast and powerful Agrarian Myth is at odds with the underlying values of regeneration and the New Agrarian movement?
History of the Agrarian Myth
Long before the myth was used to sell french fries, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers envisioned a rural utopia as the means for democracy and independence. They projected it onto the figure of an honest and virtuous yeoman farmer who lived on the tenets of direct contact with the land, small town life, and self-sufficiency. This expression of the Agrarian Myth became embedded into the cultural fabric of this new country, alongside the majority of early American farmers.
A myth though, like history in this country, is neither static nor absolute. Industrialization brought forth major shifts in America, and with it, a new telling of the agrarian narrative. Sudden reorganization of life, work, and land disrupted the practicality of a nation of farmers. As Amercians left behind life in the fields for cities and factories, they could only cling to the underlying ideals of agrarianism. At that time, the Agrarian Myth became a form of popular nostalgia.
Adjacently, there was a reform of agrarian ethics. What began as a direct resistance to industrialization and urbanization, New Agrarianism developed as a response to a greater loss in culture and spirit. The reestablished commitment to growth within natural limits, connection to place, and community all greatly inform the work of regeneration. As an ethic of cultivation, the Agrarian Myth can encompass anything that is “grown” in a modern sense–from agriculture and food to housing, consumer goods, and more. Suburban growth, in particular, exemplifies the intersection of the Agrarian Myth with modern society.
Agrarian Myth to Suburbia
Suburbia’s beginnings were not, in fact, farmhouses, but rather bourgeois countryside villas. During the 19th century, architect Andrew Jackson Downing solidified a new American style and movement by offering advice to transform an ordinary farm into a country estate. Gone were the straight and functional farm roads and modest stylings, to be replaced by picturesque rolling drives and ornamental details. The commercialization of the country lifestyle that followed pulled heavily from such images. Americans of enough status could enjoy the good life through large, open lots, free-standing homes and a benign relationship to nature while leaving the work of farming behind. Even during the postwar boom that sought to make suburban life more accessible by reducing homes to their most basic form, researcher Barbara Kelly noted how the plots retained generous oversizing, underscoring the intrinsic value of an Agrarian sentiment to the modern consumer.
Today, the overwhelming criticisms of suburbia include poor land stewardship and loss of community–themes that are reminiscent of the New Agrarian movement and pushes toward regeneration. Two examples of suburban systems can particularly illustrate how the ideals of the Agrarian Myth can be purely for show verses truly realized.
In one example of a midwestern subdivision, urban farmhouses are being built near the site of a historical farm-turned-event-space. The subdivision draws its name from the symbolic farm, and markets a premier countryside lifestyle. Winding tree-lined streets give homeowners a sense of being integrated with nature and their claim to the land. The reality of the subdivision, though, is inefficient land use and high reliance on automobiles. Gardening is only welcome in rear lots, with HOA approval needed for raised beds or any type of composting. The trees, ornamental Bradford Pears, are an invasive breed known for broken limbs and taking over adjacent farm fields. And the neighborhood also perpetuates the protection of individuality and wealth. Despite the facade of agrarianism, the reality of this subdivision is not aligned with the values of sustainability and durability.
Across town, on a well-connected infill site, the same developer is producing a different version of the agrarian lifestyle. Here, compact homes face into a common green. While they could have easily been built as a row of townhomes, they are distinctly detached. The separation is marked less by the few feet of actual space, and rather symbolically through a prominent front porch, steep gabled roof, and rustic stone announcing an individual dwelling just off the farm. Gardening is put on display in the common green too, like a pocket of countryside within the city. Sustainability on this property is much higher by virtue of density and connectivity. The close layout and common land produces an air of neighborliness while the encouraged gardens help foster a deeper connection to the land this community’s built on.
How the Agrarian Myth impacts the system we are trying to create
Harnessing the Agrarian Myth will be necessary in the pursuit of an agrarian revolution. Nonetheless, this myth currently works as much in favor of a new system as it does against it. Creating systems that are truly regenerative cannot rely alone on an appeal to superficial values. For this to happen, the Agrarian Myth requires some deepening.
First, the Agrarian Myth must reconcile with its exclusive history. The independent yeoman farmer that Jefferson envisioned was distinctly a landowning white man, whose lifestyle was held up by the unsung work of so many others. Sharing the stories of a new, diverse generation of land stewards is a good place to start. Working to dismantle historical inequities in access to land, capital, or community could help the new generation of agrarians thrive.
Secondly, the Agrarian Myth must adapt for modern sustainability. We’ll need high density housing, renewable energy infrastructure, and high yields alongside backyard gardens, birdwatching, and heirloom tomatoes. This rejects any environmental ethic that poses technology and nature as mutually exclusive, and rather invites these strategies to work in tandem. For the Agrarian Myth, this means building a new narrative that holds the duality of the demands of a modern food system with the sympathetic values of community, thoughtful land use, and the power of the individual.
The American landscape–suburbs, agriculture, nature, all of it–has long been just as much cultural as physical. The Agrarian Myth, as well, has long been diverse, dynamic, and contradictory. It is a challenge to work with, but it is also a narrative that is malleable and adaptive. And if we’re willing to take on the role of mythmaker, creating a sustainable future in harmony with life and land may just come naturally.