Monday, July 18, 2016

Gene Logsdon, Norman Rockwell and farming

Gene Logsdon died recently.  I’ve been reading a lot his work over the last year or so, because we’ve bought a small farm, and we’re trying to learn, well, how to farm.  (That’s the reason for my complete silence since then.  No time!)  He’s a great source for small-scale farming techniques.  He had strong views on farming and many other things, and never hesitated to speak on those other things.  You’re just as likely to find philosophy as farming in his work.  I much prefer Logsdon as a farmer to Logsdon as a philosopher, to be honest.  But I just finished a largely philosophical book of his anyway—a work called The Mother of All Arts.

There, Logsdon tells of how his friend Wes Jackson interprets Rockwell’s “The County Agent.”

Jackson writes, “What is clear, with a little study, is that expertise and youth are central while tradition and experience are peripheral. Norman Rockwell painted what was, at the time. He was also painting what got writ large in American agriculture. For most of us at that time it was probably unforeseen. For that matter, it might have been unforeseeable.”

In other words, the local expert comes over to judge what the kids are doing in agriculture, and the parents and grandparents with their generations of knowledge and wisdom become irrelevant.  Well and good, you might say.  But tradition and experience keep people in agriculture, and expertise has spent the last century driving them out of it.  (Get big or get out, as Earl Butz has it.  And, of course, most got out.)

Jackson actually followed up on the kids who modeled for the picture.  The two girls left the farm.  The boy stayed, and farmed there until he died.

No grandchildren are farming.

It’s not that Rockwell was celebrating the death of small scale family farming, obviously.  But he did manage to capture the trends pushing in that direction.  I was struck by Jackson’s take on the picture, because I have a similar picture hanging on my living room wall, and I often look at it and feel that sense of conflict arising from it.

It’s a sweet picture of a large farm family (and some of their critters) gathered around the neighbors and their new Ford.  We’re a generation away from the time when, in the wake of World War Two, the internal combustion engine retires that horse once and for all, and drives those young boys and girls off the farm.  In the background, you can see another farm.  Maybe it belongs to the Ford owners.  A modern version of the picture wouldn’t have another farmhouse visible.  It’s far too close for modern tractor farmers.  In other words, within a generation or two, there will be no need for another farmer over there.  Or for his kids.  One farmer on a tractor can handle all that land.


Most of the farm family seems intensely interested in the new machine—one of the boys is down on his knees, looking up under the car.  Another boy is open-mouthed, lips in a little circle, as though he’s saying “wow!”  The horse looks on from the barn.  Perhaps the last horse to work on that land.

I don’t want to say that Rockwell meant to raise any warning flags with the picture, but you can see it as a moment of choice.  “Here’s this shiny new thing.  It’s pretty neat.  It can help you do stuff that would be much harder without it.  But beware.  This neat new stuff brings consequences you couldn’t possibly hope to predict.  Think carefully.”  The Amish have exactly this attitude towards technology.  They don’t adopt it without trying to figure out what kind of impact it would have on their community.  We “English” don’t operate that way.  We might think the Amish are cute and pastoral, but we surely don’t think we can stand to learn anything from them.

America’s farmers definitely bought into the new technology (though not without a good deal of pressure from Uncle Sam).  More than a century after the Model T first started showing up on our farms and cities, maybe we ought to think about it just a little bit.

Gene Logsdon spent a lifetime figuring out how to maintain a small farm using appropriate technology.  He was a wealth of wisdom.  I never met him, but I will miss him anyway.  We need a lot more like him.

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