Agrarian Criticism...
And My Response

Dateline: 1 November 2015

Yesterday’s blog post, The Christian-Agrarian Work Ethic, brought a comment that I am going to post here and reply to. The reason being, it reflects the modern mindset towards agrarianism in the 21st century, and the common misunderstandings about agrarianism. So, this is a great opportunity to clarify some things. I’ve written about this all before but it has been awhile, and few people have read all my writings here over the past ten years :-)

The Comment
"You do realize that if everyone returned to an agrarian lifestyle that we wouldn't have transportation, communication, healthcare, and a whole lot of other fields that make life healthy, pleasant and livable. Yes, we need farmers, and ranchers, but we also need almost every other worker also. I appreciate all the hard workers out there, not just the farmers. My husband in a retired Marine, now a school teacher; my father was a school teacher; his father was a painter/paperhanger; another grandfather owned a dry cleaning shop and was a tailor; another great-grandfather was a carpenter. I have brothers who are engineers and nephews who are in many of the trades (electricians, welders, plumbers). Unless you want to live like they did in the 18th and 19th centuries, we need workers of all kinds, and all honest work is honorable. We live in rural Iowa (though I was raised in suburban San Diego) and watch in wonder and amazement at the miles of fields of corn and beans raised here. I would not enjoy trying to raise all my own food; it would be too much work and never allow me to sew, quilt, write and enjoy travel. While I admire you in all your efforts to live the life you want, I don't wish that kind of life for everyone. Diverse specialization enhances life for the majority. Just an opinion here, from my 58 years on earth."

My Response
First, the excerpts from Mr. Nutting’s essay were primarily a celebration of the autonomy (freedom) and satisfaction found in the down-to-earth work of a homestead. Such work is vastly different from the common drudgery that so many modern-world workers experience as dispensable cogs on the wheels of various jobs in the industrial order.

Yes, there is honor in honorable, industrial-world work, but there is rarely the freedom and satisfaction that comes with honorable, creative, productive work done on one’s homestead.

That is no secret. Dissatisfaction with industrial-world jobs (“working for the man”) has been a driving force behind every back-to-the land movement (of which there have been many) since the industrial age started.

Willis Nutting’s essay does not imply that everyone should be a farmer, or that one need be a farmer to experience the human fulfillment found in agrarian work. He himself was an educator and, according to his biography, lived an agrarian lifestyle. His essay speaks of men working their industrial-world jobs for the necessary income and then, instead of pursuing industrial-world amusements, recreations or leisure in their spare time, they pursue productive, creative work on their homesteads.

That pattern for living an agrarian lifestyle is the one I have pursued most of my life. One can be a healthcare worker, engineer, teacher, tradesman, et., etc. and still pursue an agrarian lifestyle.

As for the world not being pleasant and livable if everyone returned to an agrarian lifestyle, that’s not an issue at all. Everyone will never (voluntarily) return to an agrarian lifestyle. Only those who see the wisdom of it. Or, from the Christian-agrarian point of view, only those who are called to it.

When it comes to understanding modern agrarianism, the matter of modern context must be taken into account. Modern-world agrarians can not live in an industrial world just like pre-industrial agrarians, and few would want to. The fact is, in many ways, it’s easier today to live an agrarian lifestyle than ever before in history. Electricity, the internal combustion engine, and all the helping mechanisms that come with those two world-changing technologies are something I happen to really appreciate. I also like it that I can use the internet as a creative, entrepreneurial tool to be able to break free from an industrial-world job and be home on my land every day.

I think it is worth defining what it means to be an agrarian, or to live an agrarian lifestyle. My fundamental definition of an agrarian…

An agrarian is someone who deliberately husbands (responsibly cares for) a section of land, working to make it productive, and drawing sustenance from it, while improving and preserving it for future generations. 

That definition is like a seed. You plant it in your life. It puts down roots. It grows bigger. In time, it becomes a tree that bears all kinds of good fruit (the tree needs to be continually pruned, but that's another story). 

"A section of land" can be something as small as a home garden, or as large as a farm. "Drawing sustenance" can mean  harvesting food, fuel, fiber, building materials, etc.

You don’t have to raise all your own food to be an agrarian, but agrarians naturally love to work the soil and grow food. You can be an agrarian and still sew and quilt and write and travel (though it’s hard to be a serious agrarian and travel a lot, or so it seems to me). Agrarian people are hands-on people, They naturally gravitate to being busy and creative in many different ways.

And a final clarification…. The typical modern mind is historically parochial. That is, it assumes that life in the old days (before electricity and internal combustion engines) was unbearably terrible; that we nowadays are intellectually superior and better off than our poor, brutish ancestors. 

Well, America today has it’s share of poor, and brutish people. But, more to the point, people of old got along just fine without electricity and internal combustion engines. The agrarian village-society of early New England had a lot going for it. It was a flourishing culture. And, lacking all manner of electronic amusements and distractions, there was more time for creative pursuits, human interaction, and true community.

Agrarians (especially Christian-agrarians) are people who look at the “old paths” of previous agrarian cultures with respect and curiosity, seeking to rediscover wisdom and worthy ways of life that were lost through the ravages of industrialism. The goal is not to create the old agrarian way of life, but a neo-agrarian way of life. Everyone who pursues this way of life for themselves and their families creates an island of grounded sanity in an insane industrial world that offers no real hope, and is coming apart at the seams. 


Mike R. said...

Herrick, your words read like a parable. They are so true. On the other hand, I think the way us agrarians live is somewhat altruistic. But what's wrong with alrtuism when it's backed by a noble principal. It may be harder to physically work the land and we may die younger than people who put less stress on their physical being. I personally would rather die younger and be happier in body and spirit. Being driven by a passion and knowing God is more important to us than material things. All these things being said, to sum it up, non-agrarian thinking people "just don't get it". I guess God intended us all to be different.

Gorges Smythe said...

Excellent reply.

Rozy Lass said...

Thank you for your explanation. Now I better understand your point of view. I've never thought the past was more brutish, just an awful lot of hard work. I've read enough domestic history, journals and memoirs to understand the amount of work women did. It makes me tired just to read about it. I firmly believe that we all can be better stewards of whatever land we possess; and I know that no store bought tomato tastes as good as one warm and ripe right off the vine. I appreciate your point of view and have learned much from your blog. Keep up the good work.

WhatIfWeAllCared? said...

Yes, you are correct in your reply! And I di believe this lifestyle is in the blood. I come from a long line of farmers and, as I prepare (due to financial reasons) to begin live aboard on a sailboat I have also begun plans for growing some food on deck And have located what I hope will be a good place fir a secret nearby garden!! We will also forage. I work 48+ hours/week at a job and will initially continue that practice in order to accumulate extra money for boat upgrades. Then, my new lifestyle choice will allow me to slow down and concentrate on being alive. By living without having to continually chase money I will finally have time for farming options!!

Anonymous said...

And, most of the jobs that the commenter mentioned their family held outside of the homeplace? Many of our agrarian ancestors knew how to do ALL of those jobs for themselves. Families were closer. Children KNEW their fathers.

The times I've spent (female) and my children have spent building barns & fences with my Dad and their grandfather? Priceless!

If the plumbing breaks and I've got a question? Call Dad.

If we ran against an algebra problem I couldn't solve during homeschool? Call Dad.

If the weebflizter is blown? Call Dad, he's an extra one in the barn shop and can tell you how it interconnects w/the whosit!

What was that special secret ingredient that Grandma put in her roast? Call Mom.

Need your trousers mended? Call Grandma.

Need meat? Call Uncle Jim the hunter, for the bullets & a box of sodie-pop he'll bag you a deer.

etc., etc., etc.


Everett R Littlefield said...

As I approach the end of my live, but NOT too soon I hope, I remember all the things all family
members did to contribute to the wellbeing of our family unit. I didn't get to spend the rest of the day after school playing. There were things that each of us were responsible for to support all of us. Just a couple of mine when I got old enough was to milk the two cows we kept, clean out the barn, put some hay for them down the holes from the hayloft. I didn't give two thoughts about having to work both before and after school. It was JUST SOMETHING YOU DID!
I would give up all the electronic gizmos that so dominate our lives now, and go back to a time even before AM radio. The whole family used to sit in the living room after supper, NOT DINNER, (that was reserved for Sunday) and we would either just talk about our day and what had happened. That is all gone in the hustle and bustle of daily life. People just have to be going somewhere or doing something or they are not fulfilled, or so they think.
Please transport me back to the early 1800's and I would be a happy man!

RonC said...

Everyone who pursues this way of life for themselves and their families creates an island of grounded sanity in an insane industrial world that offers no real hope, and is coming apart at the seams.

That exactly hits the nail on the head!

I took Friday off and loaded 3/4ths of a 20 Cu Yd dumpster full of construction debris. I took the wife and kids out to the farm Saturday to help me load the rest of the dumpster. The kids always grumble when they HAVE to go out there and work. A curious observation the wife and I've made is that they never seem to want to leave once they are there. I turned them loose once the heavy lifting was done and they scatter into the grove. They have a treehouse like structure they are working on. It is on the ground because the boy is deathly scared of heights, but it is built against a wind felled tree.

For me, the farm is my peaceful place. I go out there almost every day to pick up eggs and work in the garden or on the house. Some days, I just have to split wood. There are not many work problems that can't be solved with an 8 lb maul and a woodpile.

Anonymous said...

Shazam - you're back in time. :) You are one who has lived the life we desire to live. Have you put any memories in a blog format. It would be good to read first hand experience from the times we desire to draw from. You pick the topic you think would benefit the many.

Would you consider a guest post from Everett if he is willing?

The City Dude

Anonymous said...


Everett's comment centre on the family. The family is the answer. The reason, "Why?", outside the ultimate reason - for the Glory of God.

For reflection, below. From a Catholic perspective;



Nightowl said...

It seems like the 'commenter' in the post is coming from the modern Professional perspective. This is antithesis of the agrarian perspective. In the "old days", the farmer tended his land (for whatever it produced: hay, apples, cattle, etc.) but supplemented his farm work with other skills. Some made shoes, some were good at wood working, etc. The 'other stuff' of civilization got done, but was spread around. The capable agrarian -could- make his own shoes, or build his own chair. If Jim happened to be really good at shoes, then it was the better choice. It just wasn't the only choice.

Modern Professionalism presumes that only the trained, certified, specialized "professional" can (and should) perform given tasks. Only a plumber should plumb, a roofer should roof, etc. That sort thinking works it way down into the fabric of the modern soul. Professional launderers, oil changers, lawn care specialize such that the modern oil-change professional hires a professional lawn service to cut his grass, etc. Such narrow specialization can keep the fridge full, but has never really led to joy.

If anything, it would seem to foster a subliminal dread. As a professional oil change specialist, the fate of your fridge is at the mercy of competition (some new oil changer) or obsolescence (electric cars don't need oil changes). The neo-agrarian finds peace in distributed possibilities.

just two cents.

David Veale said...

A few thoughts on agrarianism vs. industrialism... We all used to be farmers (well, most of us anyway) not because we loved it (that's just an added benefit), but because productivity per farmer was so low. It's only the leveraging of fossil fuels that has allowed a single farmer to feed so many, and to free so many of the "bonds" of an agrarian lifestyle.

But, as with most changes, industrialization came with a cost. We're all hyper specialized in our "careers", to the point that we're bored, with super high rates of depression, and are more prone to addiction. Diversified farming is anything *but* boring, as I can attest to. Our health is worse (both from no longer doing the labor required for our own food production as well as from eating industrially produced crap), and perhaps most importantly, we've squandered the lives of countless generations that would've followed ours. Witness the biological collapse all around us, as the oceans now start to dissolve shellfish, and plankton disappear from the base of the oceanic food chain, and agriculture disappears from places like Syria, North Africa, and California.

No, agrarianism isn't perfect, but it offered a way forward which industrialism does not.

Missy Ivey said...

In this age of great industrialism, it is unfortunate that we won't be able to eat computers, telephones, cars, etc.. when/if it all comes crashing down. A little knowledge of a least on how to grow "some" good is worthwhile. One thing you can say about the "back then" people, is that they knew how to survive. Today....I'd hate to think how people are going to behave in a survival situation.

Farmer Liz said...

I like that you said the land can be any size, because I think you can be agrarian in the city, with a small garden or an allotment, its more about how you chose to spend your time than where you live or how much land you own.

Your comment about travel was interesting too, my husband and I usually find ourselves staying on farms when we travel, because we miss our farm and we are interested to see how other people farm in other countries.... I don't know why we leave sometimes!

Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy reading your posts.

Ross Gilmore said...

I think articles like the one in question tend to have large degrees of confirmation bias. People tend to defend and want to express the value of their chosen lifestyle. If we are honest, Mr. Nutting's article was much more than an expression of how having a garden can be a fulfilling activity. It is filled with references about how people not involved in agrarian activities do not understand work, about how they are drones, and do not produce things of "real" value. Whether or not that is what the author intended to say, that was a pretty strong message in the writing.

I personally do not believe that to be true. I believe there are many industrial and professional fields in which people can find fulfillment. I do not believe that working the land is a necessary prerequisite for such fulfillment, or that it is even the best way to get it. I have worked on a farm; one that didn't have all the benefits of modern industrialization, and I personally found very little fulfillment in it. My grandparents had to abandon their farm with my grandfather getting a job as a miner because staying on the farm was about to led to their death from starvation.

My point is, we don't have to romanticize any particular lifestyle or imply that any other lifestyle is unfulfilling, not truly meaningful, misguided, etc. Much of it comes down to personal choice. An agrarian life (however loosely we chose to define it) can be fulfilling to some and completely unfulfilling to others. Same goes for any other job. At least that's my opinion, as someone who has done both.

Tucanae Services said...

I have worked in the IT field for nearly 35 years. I had the gracious opportunity to hobnob with many of the founding individuals that made the Internet tick. I don't begrudge it a bit. But IT is morphing. Where once it was just a focus on getting bits from A to B and making devices faster and easier to manage; it is now becoming more physical. Amazon soon will have few floor stockers in their warehouses, robotics taking over the job. That is happening everywhere. The point I am leading to is that much of what used to require a human to do the work will be replaced. Then what? Its what the commenter misses, what to do with all the spare hands?

My goal is to provide as much as I can for myself and family off our small plot of land as possible. It will be the retreat if the worst ever comes. Besides there is a certain therapeutic value in the effort.

Jake said...

Great discussion here, both in the posts and the comments. The only thing I have to add is that on the compatibility of travel and serious agrarianism, check out WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming, You (the traveler) exchange labor for room and board from the farmer, for an agreed-upon amount of time. You also get to meet neat people and get a unique, first-hand learning experience about farming in other parts of the globe. I haven't done it, but it sounds fascinating.

SharonR said...

I like everything you've said here, Herrick.

May I say, too, to the commenter mentioned in the post that I applaud her down-home skills of quilting and sewing despite being brought up in the city. I noticed when we moved from the city to the country, that there were more "citified" people in the rural town than in the city we left. By that, I mean, we met a higher concentration of people who seemed to us materialistic and covetous of things. In the city, we knew more who seemed to us to be more down-to-earth and okay with living with what they had and where they lived. It was a big disappointment really.

However, that wasn't true among those who were of the generation who grew up or raised children during the depression era. Our old 83 year old neighbor was the oldest of 11 children. That woman was a hard worker in her yard, garden, house. When I first met her, she was rendering fat from a hog the neighbor had butchered, to make soap. This was in the 1990s! I had read a recipe for soap making, and though she was skilled in it already, she was interested in the recipe and wrote it down. This was the normal behavior among those her age in the community then. But, now, 20 years later, I can't say that of the 80 year old group here. I want to be more like her and her generation.

I really like your definition of agrarianism, Herrick. I especially like your words in the paragraph after. You set me to thinking about meaningful things whenever I read your posts.

WhatIfWeAllCared? said...

I keep coming back to this post 😊 you remind me of my roots (farming in the blood). I have found a way to do some of my farming from the deck of my sailboat (yet to be bought) and will also guerrilla garden.
So many of the old skills are almost completely lost now. Those skills are what keeps people alive in emergencies. Those skills sooth a weary soul and help a troubled mind untangle the knots of crisis. As I sit and work on my crazy quilt I pray and chat with my son. As we forage on our hiking adventures we discuss where would be the best place to put up a tent along the trail and why.

Lady Locust said...

What a great definition of the word. Also you make a good point that 'we' are not trying to go back and recreate that time period, but use it as an example to make this time period more valuable.