The Agrarian Writings Of
O. E. Baker
(Part 1)

Dateline: 26 March 2016 AD

I like to buy old agrarian-themed books. I buy too many of them. Many times that are not as good as I expect they will be, but every so often one will be exceptionally good. Such is the case with Agriculture in Modern Life, which was published in 1939.

The book has three authors. O.E. Baker, Ralph Borsodi, and M.L. Wilson. I bought the book because of the Ralph Bosodi connection. Borsodi was a famous economist and agrarian decentralist who I expect to be writing about here in the future. But O.E. Baker wrote the first ten chapters of Agriculture in Modern Life, which I'm now reading. 

Prior to getting this book, I had never heard of O.E. Baker. And I didn’t expect him to have much of interest to say compared to Ralph Borsodi. But I sure was wrong about that!

Oliver Edwin Baker lived from 1883 to 1949. His Wikipedia entry is HERE This is an excerpt from Baker’s biography at the American Philosophical Society (which has his papers):

Baker … was a strong advocate of a “rurban” lifestyle that would combine urban employment with suburban living and part-time farming. This, he believed, would help preserve the rural values he so admired, including the “family ideal,” “the worth of the human soul, patriotism, the dignity of labor, the necessity of sacrifice, and the widespread distribution in the ownership of property,” .… Baker also believed that a “rurban” society would help improve land-use practices and increase the birthrate. He called for farm ownership over many generations, with one dwelling reserved for the older couple and one for the younger. Baker and his wife Alice Hargrave Crew, whom he married in 1925, practiced what he preached. The couple raised four children on a suburban property where they grew a garden and raised cows and chickens. Baker eventually bought a farm in Virginia with the intention of leaving it to his son.

This is what the book says of him in the preface:

“O.E. Baker for many years has been an agricultural economist in the United States Department of Agriculture. He is probably the foremost authority in America on agricultural geography and farm population. He is a lecturer and author. His background is Methodist and Republican though he is not now a member of any party or church.”

O.E. Baker’s major themes in his part of Agriculture in Modern Life are the loss of land ownership and the declining birth rate in America. Unbeknownst to Mr. Baker, the declining birth rate would get fixed in the soon-to-come post WW2 baby boom. But the loss of land ownership, particularly of rural land ownership, and the attendant loss of rural family life would continue to this day.

In short, O.E. Baker saw trouble ahead for America as the nation’s rural families were decimated by the continuing industrialization of agriculture. He has some truly insightful comments, especially considering that he was writing in 1939. I think that much of his perspective is pertinent to the current countercultural trend towards agrarian revival in this nation. 

With those thoughts in mind, I’m going to provide a few quotes from the book here now. And I will continue to share the agrarian writings of O.E. Baker in future blog posts. I hope you enjoy Mr. Baker’s writings as much as I do.

Please Note: I have taken the liberty of italicizing some sentences.

This is from the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book…

“I hope in my part of this book to help those who are interested in the national welfare, particularly the farming people and their leaders, to understand more fully the values in rural life, the great contribution which the rural people are making to the national welfare, and the even greater contribution which they can make in the future, provided they can recover the ownership of the land and faith in themselves. The evidence indicates, in my opinion, that the destiny of the nation, indeed of modern civilization, lies primarily in the hands of the rural people, especially of the mothers as they teach their children by precept and example.”


“It is natural for man to own property, particularly the means of livelihood for himself and his family. Such ownership contributes not only a sense of economic security, but also a sense of dignity and responsibility. It is dangerous for a nation to develop attitudes and institutions that deny a feeling of dignity to a large proportion of its citizens.”


“Prudent people must have economic security if they are to accept the responsibility of raising children. This economic security must be based on widespread ownership of productive property by private persons…”


“I doubt if there can be … liberty without the widespread private ownership of property. A man immediately dependent on his job for a livelihood cannot with safety publicly differ with his employer, whether that employer be an individual, a corporation, or the State. Only the sense of economic security can make men wholly free. This is one of the great values of the private ownership of land by farmers.”


“Indeed, probably nothing less than the partial abandonment of the prevalent materialistic philosophy of life, especially monetary measures of success, will be necessary, in my opinion. and the acceptance instead of a philosophy centered on the family. … The great problem, upon the solution of which the destiny of our nation, indeed of our civilization, depends, I believe, is the alteration of our complex economic systems and social ideals toward greater dependence upon the family.”


“…Present trends indicate that in some way more families must be raised in a rural environment, where conditions are more favorable to family life than in our large cities."


“But, in general, the public schools in my opinion, quite unconsciously weaken the family as an institution for the reproduction of the race, the education of children, and the transmission of culture; and tend to strengthen the other economic systems, particularly the socialistic. The schools, almost of necessity, are preparing children for jobs, for urban economic dependency.


“But now the need is to strengthen the family, and those who determine school policy should realize that the more the children are separated from their parents, the weaker the family ties are likely to become…”


Lady Locust said...

He's saying the right things (to my ears at least.) I was only too glad to hear somewhat recently of the extraordinary growth of homeschooling in the US in the last 10 years. Sounds like he was ahead of the game.

Herrick Kimball said...

Right. And I don't know if you read his biography where it says he was homeschooled by his mother to the age of 12. Then he went on to graduate from Heidelberg College with a BS degree in history and mathematics when he was only 19 years old.

O.E. was clearly an intellectual, but he evidently had a lot of down-to-earth common sense too.

Jennifer said...

I had bookmarked these OE Baker posts to read later when I had more time. I am sitting at a coffee shop now and just read this first part, and I am having a hard time containing myself! Wow, this is great! I agree with everything Mr. Baker is said and I have for a long time. I am going to look for his books. Thank you for introducing me to him.

Herrick Kimball said...


I'm glad to know you appreciate these quotes as much as I do.

From what I've been able to learn, OE Baker's other writings are not anything like what we're reading in these quotes. And, in fact, his contribution in this particular book is mostly a lot of statistics with graphs and charts. He's clearly a numbers guy.

His personal feelings and opinions about the values of rural life are interspersed among all the numbers and economic conclusions. That he interjected his opinions is kind of remarkable considering that he was a a government employee. With that in mind, there is a footnote on the bottom of the first page that says:

"There are not only many facts given in these chapters but also much interpretation and some expressions of opinion. Interpretation almost inevitably has a personal bias and opinion is inherently personal. Since I have been for many years a research worker in the Department of Agriculture, it is fitting I should note that the Department of Agriculture has no policy, no attitude even, in many matters I shall discuss."

It would be wonderful to discover some little-known book of his that's focused more on his opinions of agrarian vs urban life, but these few chapters in this book may be as close as we'll ever get to that.

Thanks for the comment.

Christopher Hagen said...

His words remind me quite a bit of what Belloc and Chesterton were saying in the early 20th century. Actually, until you shared Baker's writings I'd never read a Protestant with these same ideas.