The Definition of
"Agrarian" and "Agrarianism"

Dateline: 4 January 2014

When I started this blog back in 2005 I listed one of my Blogger profile interests as "agrarianism" and looked for other bloggers with the same interest. I think there were 2 or 3. Now there are 89. That is an indication that more people are becoming aware of the agrarian worldview.

Another indication of this would be the e-mail I received from a writer who contacted me last November. He wanted to interview me for an article on agrarianism that he was pitching to a mainstream magazine. 

I politely declined the interview (I decline all interview requests). I told him I don't consider myself a leader in the "agrarian movement," and I don't want to be. I explained that this blog is the only media outlet I care to participate in.

He was okay with that but wondered why I felt so strongly about not being a leader in the agrarian movement. My exact reply…

"I see agrarianism and the agrarian movement as a bottom-up, decentralized, non-political phenomenon. No leader is needed."

Nevertheless, I do think somebody should step up to the plate and clearly define the words, "agrarian" and "agrarianism," and I feel compelled to do it.

Yes, those words are already defined in the dictionary. But it so happens that some words take on new meanings with the passage of time, and that has certainly been the case with "agrarian" and "agrarianism."

As an adjective, "agrarian" refers to the land; to a rural or agricultural context. That dictionary definition remains unchanged.

When it comes to "agrarian" as a noun, that's where all the dictionary definitions I've seen fall short. They define an agrarian as a person who advocates a redistribution of landed property, or a person who advocates more widespread ownership of productive land. That definition may be historically accurate, but it is inadequate for the current neo-agrarian impulse manifesting itself in the thoughts and lives of more and more people.

While the widespread ownership of productive land (as opposed to such land being owned by a privileged few) is, indeed, part of the agrarian ideal, it is now one small part of a much larger whole.

That said, I now propose that "agrarian," as a noun, be newly and more-properly defined as follows:

Agrarian (noun): A person who is ideologically and personally opposed to the exploitive, destructive and enslaving aspects of industrialism."

To be ideologically opposed means to see and understand. To be personally opposed means to take personal action based on what you see and understand.

The suffix of "ism" attached to a word typically denotes a system of belief or an attitude. Thus, "agrarianism" is the belief or attitude of agrarians.

More simply put, agrarianism is the antithesis (exact opposite) of industrialism. 

Personally, I like to think of agrarianism as the active pursuit of an agrarian (adjective) lifestyle, based on one's agrarian (noun) beliefs.

Agrarianism, per se, is not (or, in my opinion, should not be construed as) a religion. It is, however, an ideology that is motivated by concepts of right and wrong, which are ethical determinations, and are therefore based on religious beliefs.  Everyone who has opinions about right and wrong (and that is everyone) is expressing a religious belief, regardless of the organized religion they ascribe to, and even if they do not ascribe to any organized religion. 

So there are Christian-agrarians (like myself), Jewish-agrarians, pagan-agrarians, atheist-agrarians, agnostic agrarians, and so on.

As a Christian, I see industrialism as a worldly, Babylonian-like system that is continually centralizing and organizing for ever-greater efficiency, control, profit and power. I see industrialism as the destroyer of close-knit, interdependent families and family economies, as well as small, interdependent communities. I see agrarianism as a type of cultural repentance (turning away), and I believe that agrarianism meshes perfectly with my biblical worldview.   

So, there you have it….

Agrarian (noun): A person who is ideologically and personally opposed to the exploitive, destructive and enslaving aspects of industrialism.

Go now, and update your dictionary. Or, if you have a better definition, I'd like to hear it.


Pam Baker said...

Hearty Greetings Mr. Kimball,
It seems to me that in your definition, your sentence construction leads to the logical conclusion that there are only two types of lifestyle...agrarian and industrial. And that they are diametrically opposed.
Something about that concept keeps knocking at my brain case.
I guess that will keep me occupied for some time.

Gorges Smythe said...

So then, how would define a Luddite, other than historically? (Just curious, it's always easier to ask smart-alec questions than to provide solid answers) ;-)

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Pam,

Hmmm… Well, first, there are all kinds of lifestyles in the world. Lifestyles are based on cultural beliefs, with culture being defined as "the total way of life of a given people at a given time, as passed down from generation to generation" (the definition I learned in 9th grade). So I’m not saying there are only two kinds of lifestyles.

All cultures and lifestyles draw their sustenance from agrarian sources, so all cultures have an agrarian connection. But the agrarian connection, which was close and personal for most people throughout history, was fundamentally altered with the rise of industrialism over the past 200 (or so) years..

Industrialism brought revolutionary change to all cultures under its worldwide purview. Traditional ways of family and community life were radically altered in order to conform to and serve the best interests of Industrialism. People who once lived on the land, in close-knit families and communities, drew most of their food, fuel, and fiber needs directly from the land. They were independent and interdependent within their communities. That changed with industrialism.

Agrarians of today are people who see that industrialism is not the panacea it was once thought to be. They can see that industrialism has served to destroy some of the most endearing aspects of traditional agrarian culture. They can see that industrialism is not only a destroying force, but a force that will, in time self destruct. Those who see this are endeavoring to repossess their lost connections to land and to a culture that lives in closer reliance on the land. Agrarians are people who seek, through the lifestyle they live, to free themselves as much as possible from industrial-world dependencies.

I don’t know if that makes my definition any clearer, but it gives you a little insight into what I was thinking when I put it together. Thanks for asking.

Herrick Kimball said...


So now we need an updated definition of Luddite too? Okay, here goes... I think modern Luddites would be people who evaluate and make ethical determinations about all forms of technology.

Modern Luddites do not blindly accept all technology as "better" simply because it is new, or presents some "improved" feature.

Modern Luddites ask, how will this technology or that technology affect me or my family? Is it good or bad? Then they either accept and use it, or they refuse to use it.

For example, as a modern Luddite, I have determined that I like the computer, and I like blogging, but I don't want anything to do with Facebook or Twitter. Or, I don't like and don't play any form of electronic game.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kimball:

You wrote, "I see agrarianism and the agrarian movement as a bottom-up, decentralized, non-political phenomenon. No leader is needed."

I think I see what you mean here. I seem to recall Mr. Berry saying something about not liking the idea of agrarianism becoming some kind of mere movement. Movements are all too often simply fads that come and go with the whims of the zeitgeist at a particular moment in history, while from what I've gathered in my reading and thinking about it, agrarianism is one of the most hard-headedly practical and conservative of worldviews, attached vitally to reality itself. After all, we all need to eat, which then implies the need to care for all of the resources necessary to that end, including soil, water, air, plants, animals, people and their communities, etc. That reality doesn't change with the times; it is most "un-faddish"! What could be more rational?

No, we don't need fad "leaders", but we do need those who can articulate visions and ideas which then influence others in the same or similar directions. This I see folks like Mr. Berry, Mr. Salatin, and you in your own way do wonderfully.

Much gratitude,
David Smith

At the same time, while I agree t

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi David,

That is well stated.

Wendell Berry is, without a doubt, the most articulate agrarian advocate I know of. And his writings have certainly influenced my writings.

Thanks for the comment.

Doug Barhorst said...

Mr. Kimball
I like your definition though I prefer a bit more about what an agrarian accepts rather than what they reject - what they are for rather than against. Maybe what I see is a foundational contrast between agrarianism and industrialism found in the concept of "Respect". Industrialism struggles-battles it in drought-like conditions while Agrarianism overflows with it. Agrarianism is all about respect. It just gets in the way of industrialism.

Maybe Philippians 2:3 helps.

Thank you for all that you do. Those of us striving for the simple life in the middle of industrialism appreciate your window. Being an urban agrarian is a daily struggle defined by hope

A big fan
Doug Barhorst

Doug Barhorst said...

Now that the greenhouses are closed up after a temp drop of 20 degrees in forty minutes and 20 more degrees in the next four hours (pretty crazy in southeast Texas), I would love to get back to the subject at hand.

For your consideration...

Industrialism is the mother of corporatism. Both have "profit" as a foundational concept, without which neither can exist. Industrial society has allowed-accepted Profit as equal to Respect when, in reality, there is no relationship between the two concepts.

A measure of a man's worth in industrialism is his ability to produce-generate a profit. In agrarianism, a man's worth is measured in his respect for God and God's creation (the land and environment), respect for his family, respect for his friends, respect for his community, and, especially, his own self-respect. All are necessary for a man to reap respect in return. Profit is not really part of the equation-definition. It isn't bad, it just isn't necessary for existence, unlike for an industrialist.

I guess what I am trying to say is that "Respect" is a key component to being a true Agrarian yet is totally unnecessary for industrial society to realize their Profit.

Then again, maybe not. Philosophy isn't my strength. My strength is raising food for my family and friends and a bunch of worms for their castings.

Doug B.

Sheila said...

I just love this! My brain is working a mile a minute, and although I have not yet let all of this "sink in" I know it made me think a thousand thoughts, that I can now "chew" on.
We will all have to make decisions, until the day we die, however reading others thoughts, can often help me see something that was there all along, that I didn't even realize, was something I should have made a decision on, a long time ago.
I love it when something makes me think. This makes me think about everything in my life.
Thank you!

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Doug,

Respect is something that I try to practice towards all people, in accord with Philippians 2:3. It is the foundation of all good relationships.

It has been my observation (and experience) that respect engenders respect, and disrespect engenders disrespect.

When I had murderers, rapists, child molesters and the like working for me in my prison job, I gave them all a measure of respect (more than many of my coworkers gave them) and most of those who worked for me returned that respect. If they didn't, I fired them. :-)

I like what you wrote but I think it is okay to disrespect a system that has done so much harm. I'm not talking about people, but a destructive system that organizes and manipulates people to serve the system's best interests, and not always the people's best interests.

Also, industrialism is the dominant cultural paradigm that we live within and agrarianism is a countercultural "reformation" challenger. When the object is reformation, it is necessary to point out flaws, sort of like Martin Luther did when he posted his 95 theses to the door of the church at Whittenberg. He was upset primarily over the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church to raise money. He had lost respect for a system that was using its power to profit from the exploitation of those held in its sway.

So it is only natural to first focus on what agrarians reject. In so doing, they can then explain what they accept.

Thanks for your comments, and for making me think a little harder about this.

Doug Barhorst said...

What I see developing is the need for an "Agrarian Dictionary." Probably only needs a couple of hundred words listed.

Our industrial society has determined, by controlling education, that what God has created and man has created are somehow equal. Many definitions include the "someone or something" phrasing. Respect seems to be one of them.

Respect should not be given to man-made things...or man-made entities-systems. These things can never return respect. Only man can return respect. Thusly, to disrespect a thing has no value (a waste of time and energy) since that thing can neither recognize your respect nor your disrespect.

For many years I thought that I was tolerating industrialism, but I can now recognize the fear it uses to threaten me into submission. We shouldn't confuse respect with fear.

I have always felt that respect is reserved for God and my fellow man, not for things. Respect is an attitude of admiration or esteem, of deference - to honor. Respect isn't possible without knowing a person just as you cannot respect God if you do not know God.

Then again, this is just my perspective of a primary attribute of agrarians, and without an agrarian dictionary, I may be using the wrong words. Wouldn't be the first time. Bet it won't be my last.

Pardon my presentation style. I seldom share for that reason.

Herrick Kimball said...


Your presentation style is just fine. I appreciate your perspective, and your comments here!

Best wishes,

Herrick Kimball

Granny Miller said...

My definition is the marriage of people to land and community. Stay warm!

fact said...

Catholic social teaching discusses the principle of Subsidiarity. It is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Unfortunately, in America matters tend to move into the hands of the largest instead.

Everett said...

Hi Herrick, Absolutely great post. I even understood most of it as well as the comments.

This little Island was from its initial settlement by the Manisee Indians, and right up until the 1970's a sort of independent agrarian nation. I didn't realize it as a kid growing up here, that what I was witnessing was the end of an era. In the middle 70's we were "discovered" by the New Yorkers, Jersey folks and mostly by the people of Newtown, Darien, and a couple other affluent Ct. towns.
They arrived and began to buy up all the old farms and then putting upon them these monstrosities they called houses. And there went any chance at returning to a farming community. Well, that is unless we use them all for firewood when the economy collapses and we fill in the cement holes in the landscape and start making hay again. I am doing the best I can to get my family reoriented toward the agrarian lifestyle.

Oh yeah, I ordered and received from Amazon, 7 books by Eric Sloane. Haven't gotten chance to begin to read them yet.

Cold up there? -2 degrees here right now. I think Al Gores's Global Warming is on its way back to bite him in the ass!!!

Stay warm up there, Everett

P.S. I use the computer for the same reasons you do so I feel a kinship there also! Nite!!

Darren (Green Change) said...

I like where you're going, but I think your definition is too broad.

It feels to me that anarchists, communists, socialists, primitivists, and even some capitalists could be described as "ideologically and personally opposed to the exploitive, destructive and enslaving aspects of industrialism", yet not all of them would be regarded as agrarians.

The definition of the noun possibly needs some reference to the land, rather than just opposing aspects of industrialism; that is, after all, the root of the word.

Herrick Kimball said...


An independent agrarian nation! Now there's something to dream about. Sounds like what America once was. I'm surprised that Block Island wasn't taken over by the big-money people before that.

There is a lake near my house (one of the Finger Lakes) that has very expensive properties all around it. But there was a time not all that long ago (some of the old-timers still remember) when much of the lakeside property was owned by farmers and it wasn't worth all that much. A few farmers held onto the property for a long time and I know one old farmer who died a few years back who became a millionaire by selling some of his lake property.

I don't know if you have ever watched the "Road to Avonlea" television series but it is the story of a family and the agrarian community they live in on Prince Edward Island back in the years before WW2. It's a fun series to watch and I imagine Block Island must have been something like Prince Edward Island.

You're going to enjoy those Eric Sloane books.

Herrick Kimball said...


You may be right. I'm going to think on that. Thank you.

Herrick Kimball said...

Granny Miller,

I just noticed your comment. I like your definition.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps industrialism should also be defined?

While not a definition, it seems that an industry which exists to serve agrarians (vet, fixit guy) is Ok, while one that exists to enmesh agrarians in perpetual purchase & debt servitude (big seed, chemical, equipment, banking) would not be OK.

As to agrarian, AJ Nock in "Our Enemy the State" had a very worthwile explanation of true farming:

"A farmer, properly speaking, is a freeholder who directs his operations, first, towards making his family, as far as possible, an independent unit, economically self-contained. What he produces over and above this requirement he converts into a cash crop. There is a second type of agriculturist,who is not a farmer but a manufacturer, as much so as one who makes woolen or cotton textiles or leather shoes. He raises one crop only – milk, corn, wheat, cotton, or whatever it may be – which
is wholly a cash crop; and if the market for his particular commodity goes down below cost of
production, he is in the same bad luck as the motor-car maker or shoemaker or pantsmaker who
turns out more of his special kind of goods than the market will bear. His family is not independent;
he buys everything his household uses; his children can not live on cotton or milk or corn, any
more than the shoe-manufacturer’s children can live on shoes. There is still to be distinguished a
third type, who carries on agriculture as a sort of taxpaying subsidiary to speculation in agricultural
land-values. It is the last two classes who chiefly clamour for intervention, and they are often,
indeed, in a bad way; but it is not farming that puts them there."