The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 


Agrarian Economics

Families, Self-Sufficiency, and Limits

Allan C. Carlson

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I’ll Take My Stand, by “Twelve Southerners,” appeared in 1930 as a new statement of agrarian fundamentalism. In the American experience, Thomas Jefferson had framed the classic case for this outlook in his 1782 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God,” the Master of Monticello wrote, “whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Through farmers, God “keeps alive that sacred fire” that sustained moral order and human liberty. Jefferson drew a sharp contrast with a commercial, industrial order, where “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” Indeed, the number of a state’s citizens who were not farmers, when compared to its husbandmen, was “the proportion of  its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.”[1]

As suggested by Jefferson’s reference to labor, implicit to agrarian fundamentalism was a radically different approach to economics than found among the “schools” of that discipline beginning to emerge in the late eighteenth century: classical liberalism and socialism. For its part, though, I’ll Take My Stand seemed on the surface to be weak in laying out a clear and compelling agrarian economics. The “economy” chapter in the volume, Herman Clarence Nixon’s “Whither Southern Economy?,” was actually written by a political scientist. While sharing with his co-authors a distrust of unbridled industrialism and consumerism, Nixon primarily focused on lessons from recent efforts to protect small farm sectors in Scandinavia and France and on the case for a careful expansion of industry in the South.[2] Overall, critics of I’ll Take My Stand pointed to the shallowness of its economic analysis.

And yet, when viewed a different way, the Twelve Southerners’ “Introduction” or “Statement of Principles”—the one part of the volume openly affirmed by all contributors—contained the framework for a distinctive and robust political economy. It was hardly “new,” though. Shaking free from the Enlightenment-inspired economic ideologies of the late eighteenth century, the Twelve Southerners actually leaped back over two millennia to reground their economic analysis in Aristotle.

For the ancient Greek, oeconomia meant first of all “the management of the household.” Proper economic analysis began with the relationship of husband and wife, through marriage, building through children, servants, and extended kin toward the well-being of the polis, or city-state. True economics focused on making and using things needed for the virtuous and happy life. Leisure was also necessary for this life of happiness. Aristotle emphasized the important place of “use value” for goods made within the household and the necessity for reciprocity and justice in exchanges between households. Self-sufficiency should be the goal for both a family household and a polis, he said. Within such “natural” relationships, Aristotle also underscored the just limits to the acquisition of goods and property. And he was skeptical of retail trade (or commerce), because it knew no limits and imposed no restraints on individual wants. He particularly opposed “foreign” trade.[3]

The “Statement of Principles” actually affirmed all of these points. The Twelve pitted agrarian against industrial societies. The Statement defined the latter as “the capitalization of the applied sciences” in a manner that was “extravagant and uncritical.” Consumption within industrial society had no goals and knew no limits. The “incessant extension of industrialization” produced “satiety and aimlessness.” In addition, “production greatly outruns the rate of natural consumption,” leaving debilitating surpluses of goods and “an increasing disadjustment and instability.” Advertising—“the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself”—directly undermined the premise of self-sufficiency.  Industrialism gave “the illusion of having power over nature,” which corrupted “the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.” The “amenities of life”—including manners, family life, and romantic bonds—also suffered “under the curse of a strictly business or industrial civilization.”

In contrast, the Twelve Southerners defined agrarian society as “one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige.” It recognized “the culture of the soil” as “the best and most sensitive” form of work, recasting “[t]he act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life.” Indeed, “happiness” was the primary goal of an agrarian economy. The self-sufficient farm assured the laborer of “perfect economic security” and reconnected work with “leisure and enjoyment.” Agrarianism held “a right attitude toward nature,” a precondition for art to flourish.  It allowed for authentic humanism, “a kind of imaginatively balanced life” lived within “a definite social condition.” This humanism would be expressed in the agrarian “way of life itself”: from physical items like tables, chairs, and portraits to “festivals, laws, and marriage customs.”[4]

Visions of Economic Policy

Over the next few years, several of the Vanderbilt Agrarians sought to draw out the policy implications of their Aristotelean economic framework. John Crowe Ransom’s “Happy Farmers” appeared in The American Review in 1933. While denying the claim that “the American farmer is doomed,” Ransom said that the Tennessee Agrarians did believe “that the American commercial farmer is doomed.” When the United States had been a debtor nation, farm exports paid the foreign exchange bills. Now as a creditor nation, and with new competitors having cheap grain of their own to sell, America had a farming sector that was “over-capitalized” and “overproductive,” with unsalable surpluses.  American farmers had been crucified: “not . . . on a cross of gold,” but on the cross of “foreign trade.”[5]

The focus of American agriculture, accordingly, must shift away from mass production, toward the purposes “of home-making, for the breeding of citizens, [and] for the attainment of personal happiness,” such that the United States might be “blessed among the nations.” This meant a broad turn by American farmers toward subsistence agriculture. Among its “canons,” Ransom included:

. . . to raise the great bulk of the food for the family, including vegetables, fruits, poultry, dairy products, meats; to can, preserve, and cure for the winter (this involves the smoke-house), to do plain carpentry . . . to do amateur landscape gardening, in order that the home may be pleasant and decent; to work mainly with literal horse-power, mule-power, man-power; to feed all the animals, as well as the persons, from the land . . .

These principles would “cancel out” the farmers’ need for money, and transform the “economically ruined, spiritually desperate” farmers of 1933 into “men of unusual integrity and freedom . . . with more room, and more heart, than most of the farmers in the world; happy farmers.”[6]

Toward that end, Ransom proposed a tax on borrowing by farmers, to discourage them from commercial farming. He also would place stiff taxes on tractors and other heavy farm machinery and on commercial fertilizers. Ransom would replace the property tax on farmland with a graduated income tax. He would skew state and federal farm subsidies in favor of small producers and would reform the agricultural colleges and the Extension service to stop teaching “money making” techniques and instead focus on “the art of making a family decently and pleasantly at home on the farm.” Finally, all future land or homestead grants should require the homesteader to take instruction in “agrarian farming” and to face “a long period of inspection” to insure that he not slide into commercial activity.[7]

Writing in the same journal two years later, Frank Owsley outlined the “Five Pillars of Agrarianism.” The first would see “the restoration of the people to the land and the land to the people.” To combat the recent rise in tenancy, Owsley proposed a vast plan for land redistribution: The federal and state governments would buy all the farm property owned by insurance companies and absentee landlords, and give each qualified landless tenant 80 acres of land, a substantial log house and barn, two mules, two milk cows, and $300 for one year’s living expenses. This gift would require that the land never be mortgaged or sold; and if abandoned, the property would revert to the government for transfer to another worthy family.[8]

The second pillar sought “the preservation and restoration of the soil” through “a modified feudal tenure.” Owsley argued that poorly drained or non-terraced land should serve as clear evidence that a homesteader was not a responsible farmer. After fair warning, accordingly, such land should revert to the state, a modern stand-in for “the king,” who “has a paramount interest in the land.” 

Owsley’s third pillar was creation “of a balanced agriculture where subsistence crops are the first consideration.” Only after family subsistence had been achieved might the farmer move into cash crops such as tobacco or cotton. 

The fourth pillar was “the establishment of a just political economy,” meaning here a fair tariff regime. If Northern industrial interests refused to accede, the South must receive “a quid pro quo: a subsidy on every bale of cotton and pound of tobacco shipped abroad.” 

Owsley’s fifth and final pillar was “a new constitutional deal,” resting on regional governments (New England, the Middle West, the South, etc.) possessing more autonomy and power than the individual states. With those foundations in place, Owsley believed that no further state intervention would be needed; an agrarian society would blossom again:

The old communities, the old churches, the old songs would arise from their moribund slumbers. Art, music, and literature could emerge into the sunlight from the dark, cramped holes where . . . industrial insensitiveness [has] driven them. . . . Leisure, good manners, and the good way of life might again become ours.[9]

The same year, 1935, saw the Vanderbilt Agrarians recruit a valuable new ally: an authentic professional economist who knew “all the mystic signs, signals, passwords, and catch words” of that arcane trade. This was Troy J. Cauley of the Georgia School of Technology, “the first American economist to come forth with anything like a well-ordered analysis and defense of the economics of agrarianism.”[10]

For his part, Cauley defined agrarianism as a system “under which the chief method of making a living is that of tilling the soil, with a consequent rather wide dispersion of population and a relative meagerness of commercial intercourse.”[11] As with Ransom and Owsley, Cauley focused on the Aristotelean goal of self-sufficiency. Farmers must regard the sale of crops on the market as a “necessary evil.” The farmer should first insure that there is “meal in the meal-barrel, meat in the smokehouse, sorghum in the jug, fruits and vegetables in the cellar, and cows and chickens out around the barn.” A spinning wheel and a hand loom should also be present. [12] Why? Because the farmer so living on a farm that he owns without debt “can be about the most independent specimen to be discovered in this country. . . . He can afford to be independent.”[13]

Cauley noted that the common problem in economics was how to overcome scarcity. An industrial order solved this by increasing the amount of available goods and services. In modern urban America, this had come to mean “more and faster!” Senses of limits and inner peace—“contentment”—had no place in this society. Most advertising had the purpose of “making people dissatisfied with what they already have.” Industrial society also had no good solution to the dependency challenge: who should care for the “nonproductive,” young children and the aged? In contrast, agrarianism solved the scarcity problem simply by “reducing the number and variety of material wants.” In such a society, advertising of “the scarcity-creating variety” had no place; nor did conspicuous consumption. And the agrarian order sharply reduced the “non-productive periods” of the very young and the old. Farm work—“more or less spasmatic” and often seasonal—was particularly well-adapted “to the capacities and temperaments of growing children.”[14]

Cauley’s policy prescriptions were much like those of Ransom and Owsley. He would make the property tax on land steeply progressive, above a minimum that would basically exempt the small, self-sufficient farm. He would slap a still higher property tax on absentee owners. More broadly, he would shift the relative tax burden away from property toward income and sales taxes. As he explained: “People must come to desire the ownership of property as against the receipt of money income.” Government loans to buy land and make improvements should be readily available, at subsidized or below-market rates. The tariff structure should favor agriculture. The essential goal was to eliminate the investment value of land.[15] More radically, he proposed the abolition of business corporations, finding no reason why such entities should acquire special privileges such as limited liability. Cauley added:  “Democracy, both political and economic, is impossible once the principle of the corporation is established and developed.”[16]

Relative to the Vanderbilt Agrarians, the only discordant note came on the curious issue of birth control. I’ll Take My Stand avoided the question, and was at least implicitly pro-natalist. Oddly, given his distrust of most modern innovations, Cauley countered that “most farm people appear to have gone too far in the direction of procreation.” He openly welcomed the new knowledge “and the mechanical appliances” that now allowed men and women to “to thwart uncontrolled Nature’s design.”[17] Dissention over this question would continue to haunt agrarian economics in later decades, as well.

Agrarianism in  “The System”

On the appearance of Cauley’s Agrarianism, Donald Davidson mused that this event strengthened the impression “that we are entering a time, like that prior to the French Revolution, when ideas beget ideas and, so multiplying, at last carry all before them.”[18] Alas, this budding agrarian revolution would be quickly smothered in the early 1940s, as the United States entered World War II. Promising initiatives, such as the Federal government’s subsistence homestead program and various United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiatives to support family-scale agriculture, were swept away by total war. Seeing several of his fellow agrarians jump onto the war’s bandwagon, Davidson lamented in 1941: “I should have thought agrarians and decentralists would oppose our entry into the conflict when such entry, no matter what results might be achieved in Europe, would probably be ruinous to their hopes for a healthy reconstruction in America.”[19] Indeed, the war’s need for manpower did suck young men and women out of rural America. Tractors and other machines took their place, and the farm population experienced a sharp decline.

At the war’s end, though, there were signs of a possible agrarian revival. Novelist Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley, a non-fiction account of his homecoming to an Ohio farm in the early 1940s, was a bestseller in 1945. The book found a particularly strong market among soldiers and sailors yearning for a return to the land at war’s end.[20] A few years later, political scientist (and later President of Yale University) A. Whitney Griswold published Farming and Democracy, a book written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Griswold traced the origins of Jeffersonian agrarianism to both the latter’s own “homespun” views and the arguments of John Locke.[21] Griswold also turned away suggestions by other recent scholars that Jefferson had largely abandoned his agrarian ideals later in his life. While acknowledging the third President’s pragmatic acceptance of some manufacturing and commercial shipping as necessary to national survival, the furthest Jefferson would go “was to approve a balanced self-sufficient economy” where farming would hold pre-eminence: “To the end of [Jefferson’s] days, agriculture remained the occupation nearest to his heart, his ideal of a good society: a society of farmers.”[22]

Griswold did acknowledge, though, that by the mid-twentieth century—and after the economic battering of the prior decades—agriculture could no longer be seen as a “wonder-working democratic Providence.” Having once played their part, the romance and traditionalism of the agrarian order were “just about played . . . out.” All the same, he urged that family farming be protected and encouraged, for it was “still the outstanding form of individual economic enterprise” to be found in the United States.[23]

Among American farmers, meanwhile, a kind of organizational civil war was raging. On the one side stood the Farm Bureau Federation. Broadly speaking, it promoted “farming as a business” and argued that USDA “price and income support” should be tied to quantities of goods produced, which favored larger, corporate entities. On the other side stood the Farmers Union. More vocal and radical, it promoted “farming as a way of life” and urged that Federal controls and subsidies favor small family farms; in this sense, the Farmers Union might be fairly labeled “agrarian.”[24]

This form of agrarianism briefly flourished at the official level in 1949-50, when President Harry Truman’s Secretary of Agriculture—Charles Brannan—proposed a bold change in federal agricultural policy. Drawing on the agrarian fundamentalism still to be found within the USDA, Brannan presented his plan on April 7, 1949, to a rare joint session of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate committees on agriculture. He proposed the highest level of guaranteed federal support for agriculture in the nation’s history. His innovation was to extend income support through direct cash payments to farmers, calculated on the difference between a “fair” price and the market price. Notably, large commercial farmers would share in this benefit only on that part of their production which an efficient “family farm” might produce. Otherwise, market prices would be allowed to seek their level.[25]

Brannan defended his plan as in line with “the historic American tradition of supporting the family farm.” Since economic depressions were “farm-led and farm-fed,” the well-being of all Americans “is intimately tied up with farmer welfare.” His proposals, Brannan said, would also represent concrete steps toward restoring a free market. His plan would completely remove the Federal government from price controls, production controls, direct warehousing and shipping, and marketing controls. It would promote land conservation, he said, and encourage movement away from grains and cotton to livestock farming. Brannan’s agrarian fundamentalism seemed real:

I want to see no collectives taking over the farms of America—whether those collectives be of the Soviet design or the corporate pattern. . . . I believe that we should concentrate our efforts for increased efficiency upon the family-sized farm unit because of the important human values it contributes to our society.[26]

The Farm Bureau denounced The Brannan Plan as a socialistic scheme and led a political coalition which buried it in 1950. All the same, diluted versions of agrarianism survived in some of the USDA hallways for several more decades. John Brewster, a “philosopher among [agricultural] economists,” embodied one strain of this. In 1936, he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University, with his mentor the venerable John Dewey present. He joined the USDA that year, working there until his death in 1965. Like most of his generation of agricultural scholars, he grew obsessed with American farming’s “crisis of abundance.” Brewster affirmed Jefferson’s “causal relationship between free holders and democracy” and the related “Self-Sufficiency Ideal of Freedom.” Still, he said that subsequent economic and policy developments—the end of cheap land, a turn toward leaseholds, price supports, and a transition “from self-sufficient farms to contractual firms”—had eliminated the old ideal of family farming. In its place, Brewster defended a new form—the “proficient family farm”—which provided income enough for family living, for business expenses including depreciation and interest, and for capital investments in new technologies. Understood this way, he believed that “the family farm is no less a dominant institution of American agriculture now than it was in Jefferson’s day.” Brewster even suggested that the Master of Monticello, given his appreciation for scientific agriculture, would approve. Still, Brewster expected that this process would mean still bigger farms, fewer farm families, more business contracts, and a shrinkage in the social and political roles of agriculture. Indeed, he favorably anticipated a decline in the number of farms, from 2.4 million in 1959 to “one million proficient farms,” which led to his call for “more new nonfarm employment opportunities.”[27]

Brewster was actually part of a band of writers who sought to ground authentic American agrarianism in philosophical Pragmatism, with William James and Dewey as exemplars. This meant casting Jefferson as a proto-Dewey, with “a political economy of independence and optimistic expansionism” that would later be “intellectualized as pragmatism.”[28] It also meant attacking or dismissing the Vanderbilt Agrarians, for they had clearly “harbored a conscious antipathy toward Dewey’s thought.” As another member of this group, Paul Thompson, elaborated: the Twelve Southerners were “anti-progressive, anti-rationalist, and anti-humanist.” Unlike Dewey and company, the Southern Agrarians also insisted “on the irreducible mystery in life, the all pervasiveness of evil in human affairs, and the limitations of man’s capacity to understand and control his environment and his own nature.”[29] More directly, Thompson alleged that “relatively little of Vanderbilt agrarianism falls into the realm of ideas.” Instead, this group was “more interested in promoting a new and intellectually rich interpretation of southern culture . . . ”[30]

A more authentic agrarianism from within the matrix of the USDA system emerged in the work of Willard Cochrane. Like John Brewster, Cochrane grappled with—borrowing the title of one of his books—“the curse of American agricultural abundance.” From 1961 to 1964, Cochrane served as Chief Agricultural Economist for the USDA. Following his return to teaching at the University of Minnesota, he grew increasingly “disenchanted” with conventional farm programs, and turned toward advocacy for a sustainable, family-centered agriculture.[31]

In his 1979 history, The Development of American Agriculture, Cochrane noted that between 1951 and 1965, American agriculture had registered a 30 percent improvement in productivity. Only deep government intervention, amounting to a form of central economic planning, had prevented sharp declines in farm commodity prices and widespread bankruptcies. However, he continued, stable prices and a rise in the value of farmland actually papered over a “cannibalistic process,” where “the large, aggressive, innovative farmers gobbled up the productive assets of the smaller, less efficient, less aggressive farmers.” This rural form of Social Darwinism, happily anticipated by Brewster, had brought a sharp decline in the farm population, from 23 million in 1950 to only 9.7 million in 1970, creating a bewildered remnant, a “forgotten people” who “were on their way to slaughter in much the same manner as were their cattle and hogs.”[32]

Cochrane’s policy prescriptions grew ever more sweeping, and ever closer to the “Brannan Plan.” Noting in 1992 the unfairness of existing crop subsidies, which heavily favored big commercial operations while shortchanging small farms, he urged a redirection of subsidies to support family-scale units. Specifics included an income stabilization payment for field crops, calculated on a per-acre basis, but capped for any farm at $20,000; and initiatives to aid part-time farmers.[33] By the year 2000, when the number of family farms had fallen to a mere 471,000 (from six million in 1940), Cochrane called for a fixed annual cash subsidy of $20,000 (for farms grossing between $50,000 and $300,000), deemed a way “to help these family farms survive when they must compete against bigness in every direction.” He proposed additional “green payments” to farm families that adopted “sustainable” practices, such as switching from row crops to grassland. And he called for a new unit in the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute agribusinesses engaged in monopolistic practices.[34] Such ideas were broadly compatible with those offered earlier by Ransom, Owsley, and Cauley.

The Marxist Temptation

The Marxist take on the agrarian question had mid- and late-twentieth-century echoes in America, as well. Although Karl Marx had sometimes offered real insights into aspects of free peasant agriculture (the European equivalent of family-farming), he usually described the survival of peasantries after feudalism as but a consequence of capitalist underdevelopment; that is, they were “a form of transition” to modernity, and doomed in the long run. He also described the peasant personality as schizophrenic, combining elements of bourgeois exploiter and proletarian in one person.[35]

The later Marxist analyst Karl Kautsky, author of The Agrarian Question (1899), was schizophrenic in his own way. Early in his volume, he broke with Marxist orthodoxy by noting that, in farming, the larger enterprise was not always superior to the smaller. Indeed, it often appeared “that the smaller the farm, the more profitable the agriculture.” Large enterprises in the countryside, Kautsky concluded, were suitable only to forestry and pasturage. He even predicted that the average size of American farms would shrink in the future, toward the German average.[36] Later in the same book, however, Kautsky declared that “the independent peasant farmer has become untenable” and the family farm “is now losing its last foothold.” Should a socialist government expropriate peasant holdings? Kautsky believed that “dwarf holdings” should be seized, yet suggested that more prosperous peasants would happily and voluntarily surrender their property to state-run cooperatives. More fundamentally, he said, socialist policy in line with social-cultural developments would sever “the unique link between farm and household,” which would mean in turn “the disappearance of the economic foundation of the family,” and the end of the peasant mentality.[37]

Perhaps the most important twentieth century agricultural economist in America writing within the Marxist framework was Alain de Janvry of the University of California-Berkeley. Focusing on Latin America, he concluded that “the classical Marxist position of conceptualizing peasants as a transitory fraction of a class within capitalism is the most appropriate.”[38] All the same, other commentaries of his echoed Kautsky’s reports on the endurance of peasant agriculture. Between 1950 and 1980, for example, the Latin American peasantry, as a proportion of all workers there, grew from 60 to 65 percent. While state policies commonly favored capitalist farmers, “the family based nature of production” found among the peasantry contributed to their “survival strategies.” In addition, a turn to off-farm income allowed Latin American peasants “to cling tenaciously to land resources”; while “semi-proletarianized,” they survived.[39]

However, starting about 1980, a great wave of market and trade liberalization, combined with enhanced state policies that favored big producers, overwhelmed family-farm systems around the globe.[40] In the United States, the National Farmers Organization (NFO)—a populist movement similar to the Farmers Union—mounted the last great protest by remaining family farmers, before the wave of foreclosures in that decade marked their disappearance as a significant economic and political presence. In Mexico and Latin America, meanwhile, small-scale agriculture collapsed before the flood of cheap American grains brought in under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its predecessors and equivalents. Former peasants poured into the cities, or crossed the Rio Grande. Viewed from this angle, at least, it appeared that the human basis for agrarianism was dead by the twentieth century’s end.

But was it? Actually, other developments were stirring, quietly and often unnoticed, that pointed to a New Agrarianism. For example, the Old Order Amish—a German-speaking religious sect dedicated to a self-sufficient agriculture—grew from 5,000 adherents in 1900 to over 300,000 by the end of the century, with colonies spread across North America. The market for “organic” foods was doubling every three or four years. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the demand for “local” foods also soared, opening large markets for small-scale family farms. The number of farmers markets in the United States, where small producers meet buyers face to face, climbed from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,175 in 2011. Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), another form of direct marketing by family-scale producers to consumers, also soared, from only two in 1986 to an estimated 15,000 in 2012. Still another “back to the land” expression came from a group that Gene Logsdon called the “countrysiders.” These families settling outside suburbia commonly had “non-farm” income, supplemented by some income from the land. Logsdon summarized their aspirations:

We want homes where our children can know meaningful work and learn something useful as they grow up. We want an alternative to chemicalized, hormonized, vaccinized, antibiotic-treated, irridated factory food. We would like to establish home-based businesses . . . so that we do not have to put our children in day care centers.[41]

New Hope for “The Family Labor Farm”

As these New Agrarians become more self-aware, the need for an agrarian economics appropriate to the twenty-first century also grows apparent. Fortunately, the 1960s and 1970s raised up two alternative economic models containing deep insights into the nature and importance of family-scale farming. While both “systems” originated, in a way, in Eastern Europe and while they differ in important respects, together these systems of economic analysis create a powerful framework for a New Agrarian economics. They are also in broad harmony with the aspirations of the Vanderbilt Agrarians. The first model came from the mind and work of Alexander V. Chayanov of Russia; the second from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, of Romania.

In his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Lytle quipped that “as soon as a farmer begins to keep books, he’ll go broke shore as hell.”[42] Alexander Chayanov would have completely agreed. Indeed, between 1909 and 1930 he crafted a bracingly original “macro-” and “micro-” economics of peasant life resting in a way on that insight. Having earned the special ire of Joseph Stalin, Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and died in the Soviet Gulag in 1939. However, the translation and publication of his basic works into English during the mid and late 1960s brought him a new audience, and a new importance.

Receiving his doctorate in Agricultural Economics from the Moscow Agrarian Institute in 1910, Chayanov later became Director of the Institute of Agricultural Economy at the Timiryazan Agricultural Academy in the same city. With his associates, he created the “Organization and Production” school of analysis, which forcefully rejected both neo-classical liberalism and Marxism. For example, Chayanov challenged Marx’s list of four distinctive kinds of economy: slave, feudal, capitalist, and communist. He said that there was actually a fifth kind, the “natural,” “peasant,” or “family” economy where the production unit was also the consumption unit and where wages did not exist. This “natural family” economy could co-exist with one or more of the other kinds, yet had its own concepts, rules, and interactions that could not be accurately explained by either Marxist theory or “the modern Manchester School’s economic categories.” As Chayanov elaborated:

A single glance at the inner structure of the [peasant] family labor unit is enough to realize that it is impossible without the category of wages to impose on this structure net profit, rent, and interest on capital as real economic categories in the capitalist meaning of the word.[43]

Attempts to do so, in bookkeeping as in econometrics, would grossly distort economic realities. Moreover, Chayanov insisted that there was no consistent homo economicus, as posited by the liberals. Rather, individuals entering any of the five systems quickly adapted to its own unique psychology. As Chayanov explained, using a prominent capitalist of his era as example: “It seems to us that if Rothschild were to flee to some agrarian country . . . and be obliged to engage in peasant labor, he would obey the rules of conduct established by the Organization and Production School, for all his bourgeois acquisitive psychology.”[44]

Chayanov particularly annoyed Lenin, Stalin, and comrades by developing a non-Marxist explanation for income inequality in the countryside. Using the results of a vast survey of Russian peasant life gathered in 1910, Chayanov was able to show that demographic and familial factors, not exploitation, explained differences in wealth and income. Specifically, Chayanov traced “the natural history of the peasant family”—from marriage, through the growth of children, to working age, to retirement—and calculated a Dependency Ratio. He so showed a strong positive correlation between income and family size, particularly as children grew into young laborers on the family farm. This meant in turn that inequality was cyclical and reversible, concepts abhorrent to the Marxists.[45]

So too was Chayanov’s defense of the “natural family economy” from claims that both the family and the household economy were doomed. Instead, this renegade economist saw “the biologically developing family” as the key element in the dynamics of the economy. He defined “family” quite narrowly, as “the purely biological concept of the married couple, living together with their descendants [children] and aged representatives of the older generation.” Chayanov also assumed that the normal peasant family would count nine children: “In other words, the peasant provides himself with a family in accordance with his material security.” Within a system of flexible land tenure, as found among Russian villages in 1910, marriage, high fertility, and a three-generation household were economically rational behaviors.[46]

All the same, Chayanov’s peasant economic order was not static, nor trapped in technological stagnation. Rather, he placed great confidence in the ability of voluntary co-operatives to give peasant families the economies of scale needed to compete with giant capitalist farms, without losing their autonomy:

Beginning as a rule with the combination of small-scale producers for the procurement of agricultural means of production, cooperatives very soon turn to the organization of the co-operative marketing of agriculture products which they develop in the form of gigantic alliances combining hundreds of thousands of small-scale producers.[47]

So strengthened, peasants could control “the commanding positions” even in a modern economy. Also playing to their advantage were the very differences in “bookkeeping” that Andrew Lytle had also seen. As historian Daniel Thorner has summarized: “In conditions where capitalist farms would go bankrupt, peasant farms could work longer hours, sell at lower prices, obtain no net surplus, and yet manage to carry on with their farming, year after year.”[48] This explained the curious, yet common phenomenon of lowly peasants buying up failed “capitalist farms” (not unlike the Amish buying up failed “English” farms in contemporary America). Put another way, “self sufficiency” has its rewards.

Chayanov’s work was cut off by imprisonment and death before he could develop the full implications of his theory of the natural family economy. It is also true that he derived his insights primarily from pre-1914 Russian conditions, and that his theory works best in places with abundant farmland and a dynamic land market.[49] Still, his articulation of a distinctive micro- and macroeconomics of the family-scale farm, his stirring defense of the family home economy, and his warning about forcing neo-liberal categories—appropriate solely to capitalist industry—onto family-labor farms all remain highly relevant to the New Agrarianism of the next century.

Rediscovering Limits

Mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, while born in Romania and educated in Europe, actually taught at Vanderbilt University from 1950 to 1976. Appropriately, in his magnum opus, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, he referred to the Vanderbilt Agrarians in a curious, but telling way. Reacting to economists and others who argued that mankind faced no real limits and that the waste created by industrial processes was not a problem, Georgescu-Roegen wrote: 

The most extremist views of the literary group of Vanderbilt Fugitives, many of whom decried the effects of modern technology on the pastoral life of the countryside, would simply pale in comparison with those professed now by some members of the rising class of pollution experts.[50]

Georgescu-Roegen’s focus was on limits, both physical and human, concepts also dear to the Southern Agrarians. Like them as well, Georgescu-Roegen was deeply skeptical of technology. He thought it “pure fantasy” to expect that new innovations could rescue humans from their worst impulses. Actually sounding a bit like C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, Georgescu-Roegen asked: “Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic [technically created] comfort?”[51]

In addition, Georgescu-Roegen shared the Southern Agrarian animus toward what he called “the fiction” of homo economicus. He elaborated: “The complaint is that this fiction strips man’s behavior of every cultural propensity, which is tantamount to saying that in his economic life man acts mechanically.” This left the field of economics self-contained, isolated, and ahistorical. Moreover, he argued that all of the major economic models ignored nature’s contributions and limitations in their calculations. For both capitalism and communism, the treatment of nature was identical: “no deposit, no return;” completely ignored. And again like his predecessors at Vanderbilt, Georgescu-Roegen emphasized that the true purpose of economics was not expansion of output, but rather “the enjoyment of life,” which also underscored the vital importance of leisure.[52]

Central to Georgescu-Roegen’s economics was the Third Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy. This holds that matter and energy change only in one direction: from hot to cold; from usable to unusable; and from ordered to disordered. Without the daily flow of new energy from the sun, entropy would quickly transform the earth into a cold, lifeless wasteland. Georgescu-Roegen placed special emphasis on “Man’s Natural Dowry,” the stock of “low entropy” oil, coal, natural gas, limestone, and iron ore. These were all residues of Paleozoic biological life, and all capable of transformation into “high entropy” products such as automobiles and plastics, together with the inevitable “waste.” He underscored that “the highest estimation of terrestrial energy resources does not exceed the amount of free energy received from the sun during four days.” Accordingly, this low-entropy inheritance was precious, and limited.  Once used up, it could not be replaced. The human “entropic dilemma” was that industrial society required the relentless transformation of low-entropy “natural resources” into high entropy products and waste, and that the late 20th Century world was burning through humankind’s Dowry at a furious pace.[53]

Georgescu-Roegen also emphasized the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, which showed the impossibility of “perpetual motion” machines and other fanciful devices that might overcome the Law of Entropy. From this, he concluded that “complete recycling is impossible.” He also was deeply skeptical of claims for mechanically captured “solar power” and similar schemes of the “self-styled energeticists.” Their fantasies simply ignored the very real limits which humans as a species faced.[54]

These views led Georgescu-Roegen back to the agrarian question. He stressed the long-term impossibility of industrialized agriculture, for it:

. . . requires that a fantastic amount of resources now allocated to the production of durable consumer goods be reallocated to the production of mechanical buffaloes and artificial manure. This reallocation, in turn, demands that the town should abdicate its traditional economic privileges. In view of the basis of these privileges and of the unholy human nature, such an abdication is well nigh impossible.[55] 

Accordingly, he turned to a pre-industrial agriculture as the only viable future, where “we tap primarily the flow of low entropy that reaches the earth as solar radiation.” Georgescu-Roegen emphasized that “man was homo agricola before becoming also homo faber” and that agriculture “was, and still is, the nurse of all other arts.” Proper agriculture “teaches, nay, obliges man to be patient—a reason why peasants have a philosophical attitude in life pronouncedly different from that of industrial communities.” This meant that “the best use of our iron resources is to produce plows or harrows as they are needed, not Rolls Royces, not even agricultural tractors.” Indeed, mankind might soon find it advantageous once again “to use beasts of burden because they work on solar energy instead of the earth’s resources.”[56]

The “darker side” of Georgescu-Roegen’s stress on limits was the repeated implication that the earth now had too many people, artificially sustained by the accelerating consumption of humankind’s low-entropy Dowry. This form of overpopulation might continue for another century or more, but at some point would be over, the treasure exhausted. He concluded: “If we stampede over details, we can say that every baby born now means one human life less in the future. But also every Cadillac produced at any time means fewer lives in the future.”[57] At times he would cheer up, and see hope in technologies such as hydro-electric power, which he called “free energy.” And his respect for human happiness, leisure, and an agrarian-inspired art and his yearning for a renewed agrarian communitarianism brought a certain peace. Still, Georgescu-Roegen was largely pessimistic about the fate of humanity: “ . . . man’s nature being what it is, the destiny of the human species is to choose a truly great, but brief, not a long and dull, career.”[58]

Among the informal disciples of the Romanian-American economist was John Ikerd. He began his career at the University of Missouri as “a conservative, bottom-line, free-market” agricultural economist. However, the farm crisis of the 1980s shook his faith in “the invisible hand,” as he saw even the “good farmers”—those who had done everything that the experts had told them to do—go broke. He concluded that the fault lay with the growing corporate control of agriculture, involving excessive specialization, over-standardization, and ever more consolidation. “Corporations have no families,” he noted, “no communities, and increasingly no single nationality,” factors that made them especially dangerous to human-scale agriculture.[59]

Turning to the Law of Entropy, Ikerd noted that “capitalism is a very efficient system of energy extraction,” but failed whenever matters turned to waste and the use of solar energy. In short, capitalism vastly accelerated the entropy process. Importantly, Ikerd showed how capitalism also accelerated social entropy, an argument which the Southern Agrarian would surely have embraced. By its very nature, industrial capitalism required that people relate to each other impartially, and so impersonally. This weakening of personal relationships dissipated and disorganized social bonds. Ikerd continued:

Capitalist economies gain their efficiency advantage by using people to do work, while doing nothing to restore the social capital needed to sustain positive personal relationships within society. There is no economic incentive for capitalists to invest in families, communities, or society for the benefit of future generations. And it is typically more profitable to find new people to exploit than to invest in education and training programs.[60]

Capitalist agriculture pushed toward still another form of entropy. The huge gains in efficiency and productivity claimed by agribusinesses came as these corporations removed boundaries in farming to facilitate industrial production. Fences, hedgerows, and field markers disappeared, to accommodate the massive machines vital to the agribusiness bottom line. This meant, in turn, the loss of diverse crops and livestock enterprises: Ikerd summarized, “Rural landscapes have tended toward inert uniformity, without form, pattern, hierarchy, or differentiation.”[61]

He found prospects for a better agriculture in the biodynamics of Rudolf Steiner, which treated an entire farm as an organism itself, “ . . . an individualized, diverse ecosystem guided by the farmer, standing in living interaction with the larger ecological, social, economic, and spiritual realities of which it is part.”[62] Hope also lay in the surging members of farmers’ markets and CSAs, and in the organic farms, worked by “harvesting and storing solar energy to offset entropy and maintain long run productivity.”[63]

Humankind’s only sustainable future so lay in recovering this peasant, or family-scale agriculture.

Whether these families would have an abundance of children, or but one or two, remained the unanswered New Agrarian question.

Aristotle Lives!

Aristotle never developed a regression curve nor calculated a statistically significant correlation. Nor did the Twelve Southerners. Yet, their joint focus on the management of the household, the foundational role of marriage and family, the pursuit of happiness and the importance of leisure, the need for reciprocity and justice in exchanges, the goal of self-sufficiency, the acceptance of limits both human and physical, and a respect for nature framed an authentic agrarian economics. Over the last century, economists armed with the tools of their modern trade have translated these concepts into econometrically sound models. As the environmental crisis of late industrial society plays out in the decades ahead, and as neo-liberal economics with its narrow focus on homo economicus follows Marxism to the intellectual graveyard, this New Agrarian economics should come into its own.


Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Family in America.



[1]     Thomas Jefferson, Works, Volume IV (New York:  Federal Edition, 1904), 85-6.

[2]     Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand:  The South and the Agrarian Tradition (New York:  Peter Smith, 1951 (1930), 176-200.

[3]     An able summary of Aristotelean economics is found in: crEdward W. Younkins, “Aristotle and Economics”; at (accessed 7/2/2012).

[4]     I’ll Take My Stand,  ix-xx.

[5]     John Crowe Ransom, “Happy Farmers,” The American Review 1 (October 1933),  514-16.

[6]     Ransom, “Happy Farmers,”  529-31.

[7]     Ibid., 533-5.

[8]     Frank Lawrence Owsley, “The Pillars of Agrarianism”; reprinted in Harriet Chappell Owsley, ed., The South:  Old and New Frontiers.  Selected Essays of Frank Lawrence Owsley (Athens, GA:  University of Georgia Press, 1969), 180-2.

[9]     Owsley, “Pillars of Agrarianism,” 183-9.

[10]   Donald Davidson, “The First Agrarian Economist,” The American Review 5 (April 1935), 106.

[11]   Troy J. Cauley, Agrarianism:  A Program for Farmers (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1935), 3.

[12]   T.J. Cauley, “The Integration of Agrarian and Exchange Economies,” The American Review 5 (October 1935),  585.

[13]   Cauley, Agrarianism, 109.

[14]   Ibid., 111-17.

[15]   Ibid., 188-210.

[16]   Cauley, “Integration of Agrarian and Exchange Economies,” 598.

[17]   Cauley, Agrarianism, 156.

 [18]   Davidson, “The First Agrarian Economist,” 112.

[19]   “Decentralization:  The Outlook for 1944. A Symposium of Opinion,” Free America 5 (January 1941): 11-12.

[20]   Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945).

[21]   A. Whitney Griswold, Farming and Democracy (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948), 36-7. 

[22]   Ibid., 32-5. 

[23]   Ibid., 204-9. 

[24]   On the contest between the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, see:  Griswold, Farming and Democracy, 190-205.

[25]   Reo M. Christenson, The Brannan Plan:  Farm Politics and Policy (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1959), 3-4.

[26]   Reo M. Christenson, The Brannan Plan: Farm Politics and Policy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1959), 64-5, 70-2. 

[27]   John M. Brewster, A Philosopher Among Economists (Philadelphia, PA:  J.T. Murphy Co., 1970),  177, 182-3, 200-1, 204-5; and Gene Wunderlich, “Hues of American Agrarianism,” Agriculture and Human Values 17 (2000),  194.

[28]   Wunderlich, “Hues of American Agrarianism,” 191-2.

[29]   Quoting John Stewart, in:  Paul B. Thompson, “Agrarianism as Philosophy,” in Paul B. Thompson and Thomas C. Hilde, eds., The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism (Nashville:  Vanderbilt University Press, 2000), 28.

[30]   Thompson, “Agrarianism as Philosophy,” 30. 

[31]   Richard A. Levins, “Foreward,” in Willard C. Cochrane, The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance:  A Sustainable Solution (Lincoln and London:  University of Nebraska Press, 2003), x.

[32]   Willard W. Cochrane, The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 397-9, 404-6.

[33]   Willard W. Cochrane and C. Ford Runge, Reforming Farm Policy: Toward a National Agenda (Ames:  Iowa State University Press, 1992), 117-19.

[34]   Cochrane, The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance, 98-9, 103-4

[35]   Summarized in: Mark Harrison, “The Peasant Mode of Production in the Work of A.V. Chayanov,” Journal of Peasant Studies 4 (July 1977), 323-4, 328.

[36]   Karl Kautsky, The Agrarian Question, Volume 1 (London:  Swan Publications, 1988), 147-52.

[37]   Kautksy, The Agrarian Question, Volume 2, 305-7, 445, 449-50.

[38]   Alain de Janvry, The Agrarian Question and Reformism in Latin America (Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 102.

[39]   Alain de Janvry, “Peasants, Capitalism and the State in Latin American Culture,” in Teodor Shanin, ed., Peasants and Peasant Societies (London and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 391, 394-8.

[40]   Marc Edelman, “Bringing the Moral Economy Back Into the Study of 21st Century Transnational Peasant Movements,”  American Anthropologist 107.3 (2005):  336-7.

[41]   Gene Logsdon, “What Comes Around,” in Eric T. Freyfogle, ed., The New Agrarianism:  Land, Culture, and the Community of Life (Washington, D.C.:  Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2001), 87-9.

[42]   Andrew Lytle, “The Hind Tit,” in I’ll Take My Stand, 241.

[43]   A.V. Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Economy (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 1-4.

[44]   Chayanov, Theory of Peasant Economy, 48.

[45]   Mark Harrison, “Chayanov and the Economics of the Russian Peasantry,” Journal of Peasant Studies 2 (July 1975):  398-400; Basil Kerblay, “Chayanov and the Theory of Peasant Economies,” in Shanin, Peasants and Peasant Societies, 179; and Teodor Shanin, The Awkward ClassPolitical Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia 1910-1925 (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1972), 102-3.

[46]   Chayanov, Theory of Peasant Economy, 51-4, 64.

[47]   Alexander Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Cooperatives (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991 (1927), 10.

[48]   Daniel Thorner, “Chayanov’s Concept of Peasant Economy,” in Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Economy, xviii; see also: R. Roberts and T. Mutursbaugh, “Commentary,” Environment and Planning 28 (1996),  955.

[49]   Basile Kerblay, “Chayanov and the Theory of Peasant Economics,” in Peasants and Peasant Societies, ed. Theodor Shanin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 183.

[50]   Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1971), 20.

[51]   Quoted in T. Randolph Beard and Gabril A. Losada, Economics, Entropy and the Environment (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA:  Edward Elgar, 1999), 123.

[52]   Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 1-2, 18; and Beard and Lozada, Economics, Entropy, and the Environment, 127.

[53]   Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 3-6, 20, 304.

[54]   Beard and Lozada, Economics, Entropy, and the Environment, 103, 123-5. 

[55]   Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 306. Emphasis added.

[56]   Ibid., 21, 297. Also, Kozo Mayumi, The Origin of Ecological Economics: The Bioeconomics of Georgescu-Roegen (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 79-95. 

[57]   Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 304.

[58]   Ibid., 304-5.

[59]   John Ikerd, “Reclaiming Rural America from Corporate Agriculture.” Prepared for “Clean Water Week,” sponsored by the Clean Water Network, Washington, D.C., February 25,. 2007;  available at [accessed 8/9/2007], 1. 

[60]   John Ikerd, “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?” Presented at The Life Economy Session of The World Life-Culture Forum–2006, Gyengong Province, Republic of Korea, 20-3 June, 2006; available at (Accessed 8/9/2007), 3, 7.

[61]   Ibid., 7.

[62]   Ibid., 8; and Rudolf Steiner, Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture (Junction City, OR:  BioDynamic Farming and Growing Association of USA, 1993 (1924).

[63]   Ikerd, “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?,” 9.



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