Before Joel, There Was Louis

Dateline: 21 September 2012

Joel Salatin

Most people reading this blog have heard of Joel Salatin. He is probably the most famous farmer in America, if not the world. Joel is popular because the books he has written, and the farm he operates espouse many counter-industrial agricultural practices. More than that, Joel Salatin is a successful counter-industrial farmer. People from all over flock to Polyface Farm to meet Joel, see his operation, and learn from his approach to farming.

The current popularity of Joel Salatin and his farm came to mind when I read a very unusual book review (which follows) by E.B. White of Louis Bromfield’s book, Malabar Farm (published in 1945). Bromfield was the most famous counter-industrial farmer of his day. People from all over the world flocked to Bromfield’s Malabar Farm to see what he was doing and learn about his methods.

Louis Bromfield

Both Bromfield and Salatin started with severely impoverished farms and did a remarkable job of bringing them back to fertility and production. And I’m sure that they shared common methods in their farming. But as I read various internet stories about Bromfield, I realized that he and Joel were very different people.

Louis Bromfield was a financially successful novelist and screenwriter, who was friends with a lot of famous people before taking up farming. Joel started out as a simple dirt farmer, went into writing about farming and, one would assume, has done well financially at it. Bromfield was, as I understand it, a dour man, while Salatin is ebullient. Bromfield was not the best of fathers to his three daughters, but Joel’s approach to farming is family-centered (his book, Family Friendly Farming, is, in  my opinion, one of his best). Joel is a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer." I’ll bet Mr. Bromfield would not have described himself as such.

Nevertheless, the two men, Bromfield and Salatin, share a common place in American history as the preeminent voice of their day for alternative agriculture. 

E. B. White’s book review, as follows, is a clever and entertaining  glimpse into Louis Bromfield’s story—a story that was once well known but is now little known and largely forgotten.

Louis Bromfield and one of his Boxers

Book Review of
Louis Bromfield's 
"Malabar Farm"
By: E.B. White

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
It's got what it takes, to a large degree:
Beauty, alfalfa, constant movement,
And a terrible rash of soil improvement.
Far from orthodox in its tillage,
Populous as many a village,
Stuff being planted and stuff being written,
Fields growing lush that were once unfitten,
Bromfield land, whether low or high land,
Has more going on that Coney Island.

When Bromfield went to Pleasant Valley
The soil was as hard as a bowling alley;
He sprinkled lime and he seeded clover,
And when it came up he turned it over.
From far and wide folks came to view
The things that a writing man will do.
The more he'd fertilize the fields
The more impressive were his yields,
And every time fields grew fitter
Bromfield would add another critter,
The critter would add manure despite 'im,
And so it went ad infinitum.
It proves that a novelist on his toes
Can make a valley bloom like a rose

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
A place of unbridled activity.
A farm is always in some kind of tizzy
But Bromfield's farm is really busy.
Strangers arriving by every train,
Bromfield terracing against the rain,
Catamounts crying, mowers mowing,
Guest rooms full to overflowing.
Boxers in every room of the house,
Cows being milked to Brahms and Strauss.
Kids arriving by van and pung,
Bromfield up to his eyes in dung,
Sailors, trumpeters, mystics, actors,
All of them wanting to drive the tractors,
All of them eager to husk the corn,
Some of them sipping their drinks till morn;
Bulls in the bull pen, bulls on the loose,
Everyone bottling vegetable juice,
Play producers jousting the bards,
Boxers fighting with Saint Bernards,
Boxers fooling with auto brakes, 
Runaway cars at the bottom of lakes,
Broomfield diving to save the Boxers,
Moving vans full of bobby-soxers,
People coming and people going,
Everything fertile, everything growing, 
Fish in the ponds other fish seducing, 
Thrashing around and reproducing, 
Whole place teeming with men and pets,
Field mice nesting in radio sets,
Cats in the manger, rats in the nooks,
Publishers scanning the sky for books,
Harvested royalties, harvested grain, 
Broomfield scanning the sky for rain,
Broomfield’s system proving reliable,
Soil getting rich and deep and friable,
Broomfield phoning, Broomfield haying,
Broomfield watching mulch decaying, 
Women folks busy shelling peas, 
Guinea fowl up in catalpa trees.
Oh, Broomfield’s valley is plenty pleasant—
Quail and rabbit, Boxers, pheasant.
Almost every Malabar day
Sees birth and growth, sees death, decay;
Summer ending, leaves a-falling,
Lecture dates, long-distance calling.

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
It’s the proving ground of vivacity.
A soil that’s worn out, poor, or lazy
Drives L. Bromfield almost crazy;
Whether it’s raining or whether it’s pouring,
Bromfield’s busy with soil restoring;
From the Hog Lot Field to the Lower Bottom
The things a soil should have, he’s got ‘em;
Foe of timothy, friend of clover, 
Bromfield gives it a going over,
Adds some cobalt, adds some boron.
Not enough? He puts some more on.
Never anything too much trouble,
Almost everything paying double:
Nice fat calves being sold to the sharper,
Nice fat checks coming in from Harper.
Most men cut and cure their hay,
Bromfield cuts it and leaves it lay;
Whenever he gets impatient for rain
He turns his steers in to standing grain; 
Whenever he gets in the least depressed
He sees that another field gets dressed;
He never dusts and he never sprays,
His soil holds water for days and days,
And now when a garden piece is hoed
You’ll find neither bug nor nematode,
You’ll find how the good earth holds the rain.
Up at the house you’ll find Joan Fontaine.

Malabar Farm is the farm for me,
It’s the greenest place in the whole countree,
It builds its soil with stuff organic,
It’s the nearest thing to a planned panic.
Broomfield mows by any old light,
The sun in the morning and the moon at night;
Most tireless of all our writing men,
He sometimes mows until half past ten;
With a solid program of good trash mulch
He stops the gully and he stops the gulch.
I think the world might well have a look
at Louis Bromfield’s latest book;
A man doesn't have to be omniscient
To see that he's right—our soil's deficient.
We've robbed and plundered this lovely earth
Of elements of immeasurable worth,
And darned few men have applied their talents
Harder than Louis to restore the balance;
And though his husbandry's far from quiet
Bromfield had the guts to try it.
A book like his is a very great boon,
And what he's done, I'd like to be doon. 


That last word, "doon," kind of threw me when I first read it. Then I realized that it was a play on doin' or doing. E.B. White was a writer-farmer too. I've written about him Here and Here


Anonymous said...

E. B. White's poem was a delight to read! I get a kick out of the poetic license used with the word "doon", but also in the case of "written" and "unfitten". I'm sure a lot of your readers will have to look up the definition of "bobby-soxers" ;-).

As an aside, here is the link to a short animated film, based on a story by E. B. White and narrated by him. I like his Maine accent. I'm sure you will appreciate the layers of meaning in his story:

From what I read, Louis Bromfield was on the right track, but I'll take Joel Salatin any day, for his commitment to family and to Christian principles.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Brenda,

Thanks for that link! What a strange and delightful little film. And hearing E.B.White's voice was very interesting. The Maine accent was acquired. He was born and grew up in New York.

In reading about him I found it interesting that he was shy about public attention and virtually never gave an interview or speech in public. He would receive awards for his writing and write an acceptance speech for someone else to read.

Also, he was something of a hypochondriac, which may have influenced his odd story of "The Family That Dwelt Apart."

TimfromOhio said...

His place, Malabar Farm, is a little over an hour from my home. Let me know if you decide to take a drive our way sometime!