The Return of Yeomanry

Phillip Longman is up with an excellent piece at MercatorNet, discussing underlying reasons for the comeback of small scale farming and manufacturing…and where these trends may take us in the future. Longman touches on many themes near and dear to this Yeoman Farmer, including:

This word “yeomanry” is now obscure in English, and may be impossible to translate into many other languages. But particularly in America during the 18th and 19th century, it stood for a clear ideal of human organization, which was small-scale production centered on a self-sufficient family unit.

One of America’s most prominent founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote frequently the superior virtue of the country’s then substantial yeomanry, which mostly comprised family farmers who owned their own land and small family business owners. Jefferson’s vision of America’s future was that widespread family ownership of small scale productive would remain the dominant form of social and economic organization, and that the influence of both Big Business and Big Government would be held in check.

Since then all manner of social philosophers in many different traditions and different generations, have articulated and defended this vision. It was the dream for example, of Pope Leo XIII. It was also the dream Bulgaria’s Alexander Stamboliski and the other leaders of Eastern Europe’s mostly forgotten democratic “Green” movement, who in the aftermath of World War I reconfigured the former Austro-Hungarian Empire by redistributing royal lands and converting tenant farmers into self-sufficient freeholders.

But until recently, real-life yeomen could be and were dismissed–often violently. Joseph Stalin, for example, made short work of Eastern Europe’s land-holding peasant class. During the 20th century, both capitalists and communists, for different reasons, were hostile to the idea of a property owning, prosperous peasantry. Capitalists wanted agriculture to be industrialized, while Communists wanted it collectivized, with both opposed to any possible third way. For both Capitalists and Communists, the future would be one of ever greater division of labor and increasing economies of scale, with the family stripped of nearly all productive function.

Yet today there are signs that the yeoman ideal of small-scale ownership and production, having already out-survived communism, maybe be poised for a big comeback around the world. This is not to predict the end of globalism, if by that we mean simply high levels of interconnectivity. But it is to suggest that for reasons of technology, demography, culture, and efficiency, big is no longer necessarily better and the yeoman has a chance.

Later in the article, Longman talks more about agriculture in particular. The whole piece is definitely worth a read.

H/T: Zach Frey.

How Do Civilizations Collapse?

Bill Whittle is up with a thought-provoking piece at National Review Online, asking how civilizations collapse. His answer: neither with a bang nor a whimper, but when the great bulk of people decide that the civilization is simply no longer worth defending.

The heart of the piece is this passage:

I live a few miles from Santa Monica High School, in California. There, young men and women are taught that America is “a terrorist nation,” “one of the worst regimes in history,” that it’s twice-elected leader is “the son of the devil,” and dictator of this “fascist” country. Further, “patriotism” is taught by dragging an American flag across the classroom floor, because the nation’s truest patriots, as we should know by now, are those who are most able to despise it.

This is only high school, remember: in college things get much, much worse.

Two generations, now, are being raised on this poison, and the reason for that is this: the enemies of this city cannot come out and simply say, “Do not defend the city.” Even the smartest among us can see that is simple treason. But they can say, “The City is not worth defending.” So they say that, and they say that all the time and in as many different ways as they are able.

If you step far enough back to look at the whole of human history, you will begin to see a very plain rhythm: a heartbeat of civilization. Steep climbs out of disease and ignorance into the light of medicine and learning — and then a sudden collapse back into darkness.

And it is in that darkness that most humans have lived their lives: poor, nasty, brutish, and short.The pattern is always the same: at the height of a civilization’s powers something catastrophic seems to occur — a loss of will, a failure of nerve, and above all an unwillingness to identify with the values and customs that have produced such wonders.

The piece goes on to discuss this central idea in more detail, and is worth reading in full. It should be noted that Whittle believes Western Civilization is under assault, but he does not believe we are doomed.

And who does he believe has the best chance of holding our culture and civilization together? You got it: the yeoman farmers of the nation. He doesn’t use that phrase, but his conclusion is Jeffersonian to the core:

It is the small-town virtues of self-reliance, hard work, personal responsibility, and common-sense ingenuity — and not those of the preening cosmopolitans that gape at them in mixed contempt and bafflement — that have made us the inheritors of the most magnificent, noble, decent and free society ever to appear on this earth. This Western Civilization… this American City… has earned the right to greet each sunrise with a blast of silver trumpets that can bring down mountains.

Founding Faith

NRO’s Katherine Jean Lopez has an interesting interview up today with Steven Waldman, an editor at BeliefNet (and author of a new book about the faith of America’s founders). It provides an excellent, balanced look at how the founders conceptualized religious freedom and understood the First Amendment.

Lopez: What do Americans United for the Separation of Church and State types have most wrong?

Waldman: That the First Amendment intended to separate church and state in every nook and cranny of our land. The First Amendment was a states’ rights compromise that envisioned separation at the national level but allowed a great deal of church-state mingling at the state and local level. There’s an amazing moment during the congressional deliberations on the First Amendment when Rep. Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut complains that Madison’s proposed amendment could be “extremely harmful to the cause of religion.” How could our beloved Bill of Rights harm religion? Huntington feared it might wipe out the official state establishment in Connecticut. Madison had to reassure him that Connecticut could keep having an official state religion. Madison actually wanted the First Amendment applied to the states, but he didn’t have the votes to carry the day.

Of course over time, the states got rid of the establishments, and the 14th Amendment did attempt to apply much of the Bill of Rights to the states, and that’s how we end up with prayer-in-schools cases. But it was a very gradual process, driven more by the framers of the 14th Amendment than by the framers of the First Amendment.

And for those who read the full interview and are curious: No, I do not share Thomas Jefferson’s view of God, religion, or the relationship between church and state. Just his love and respect for the yeoman farmer.

Maybe we’re not so unusual

Interesting piece from Joel Kotkin in The American Interest, discussing the quiet but increasing migration of educated young people from urban areas to places far less populated. Seems that the growth of the internet has been very helpful in making this happen, but the causes are more complex than just connectivity.

Perhaps more importantly, advances in telecommunications and transportation are helping to break down the traditional sense of isolation, intellectually and culturally, that has hampered the development of the sophisticated industries necessary to lure educated workers back to rural areas. According to researcher Sean Moore, between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of rural counties with a “skills surplus” dropped 14 percent, compared to only 6 percent for metropolitan counties, meaning that educated workers are now finding jobs. As Moore suggests, this reflects a shift in the location of information, business service and other technology-related business to the periphery. The Internet is rapidly diminishing the traditional near monopoly of information that throughout history has belonged to the metropolis; today a farmer, a securities dealer, a machine shop proprietor or a software writer in a small town enjoys the same access to the latest market and technical information as someone located in midtown Manhattan or Silicon Valley.

[snip]

In many other areas, smaller firms, often individuals working from home, are clustering in pockets of what researcher Amy Zuckerman has called “hidden tech.” These dispersed networks of knowledge workers, many of them refugees from large coastal cities, are particularly evident in places like Bellingham, Washington, the Rapid City area of South Dakota and the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachussetts.But perhaps no city epitomizes the dynamic Brain Belt more than Fargo.

Very interesting term: “Brain Belt.” Sure beats the Detroit-area “Rust Belt,” where I spent my first few years after college.

The conclusion of the piece was what really caught my attention, though:

The conventional wisdom of rural idiocy, depopulation and boredom in the American Heartland is already more than a decade out of date, if it was ever really true in the first place. Culture and technology are combining to create a new reality for rural America, and for America as a whole. One gets the sense that Thomas Jefferson is smiling down on all of this. This is an American Dream he would well understand.

Ah, yes. Jefferson would be very pleased.

How Did We Get Here?

Some time back, I was getting caught up with a friend from college. We’d both left Northwestern in 1991 with Masters degrees in political science, and hadn’t spoken to each other since.

I explained that I’d gone to work for a political polling firm, conducting survey and focus group research for Republican candidates and conservative causes. I’d enjoyed that work very much, and the firm kept me on part time as a telecommuter when I’d decided to go back to school and finish my doctorate at UCLA. Along the way, I’d gotten married and had a couple of children—and then, with the dissertation in its final stages, moved from Los Angeles to a five acre farm in rural downstate Illinois.

“You did what?” he asked.

“You know,” I replied. “Moved to the country. Bought a hundred-year-old farm house. Started raising our own food. Homeschooling our kids. Started my own public opinion consulting practice. Trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, all the while working as a pollster and trying to get my candidates elected.”

After a pause, I added: “We’ve basically become Thomas Jefferson’s ‘yeoman farmer’.”

He burst into laughter and replied, “I was just thinking, ‘Jefferson would be very pleased.'”

Jefferson romanticized the small agrarian freeholders of his day as being the country’s “most valuable citizens,” but becoming “tied to our country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds” was far from my mind (and my wife’s mind) in 1999. We were living in a small house on a small subdivision lot in the High Desert of Southern California. I was telecommuting with a political polling firm based in Detroit as I worked on finishing my doctoral dissertation at UCLA.

Y2K was closing in, and speculation was rife as to what kinds of disruptions we’d be facing when the new year rolled over. We didn’t think the world would end, but my wife and I found ourselves thinking and talking a lot about the aspects of daily life we took for granted. Somewhere along the way, we asked ourselves, “Where does our food come from, anyway?”

It was a fateful question, because it led us to study the whole industry of modern food production. And the more we learned about how livestock are factory farmed in confinement, how fruits and vegetables have been bred for shelf life and shipping rather than flavor or nutritional content, and how commodity grains are processed to death after leaving the field, the more troubled we became.

1999 rolled over to 2000 without incident, but we were facing a different set of problems: everything our three year old son was eating seemed to be giving him rashes and making him break out in hives. We tried switching to outragously expensive organic produce, meats, and eggs, and that seemed to help. My wife was soon on a first name basis with the staff of the local organic grocery store, but something still seemed to be making our son sick. Only by eliminating all gluten from his diet did we finally fix it. We began buying rice and quinoa (the only grains we could find without gluten) in bulk, and grinding our own flour by hand for his meals.

As our daughter got older and began eating solid foods, we discovered she had the same food alergies. Puzzled, we kept reading about food and where it comes from. We also spent hours reading Carla Emery’s book, The Encyclopedia of Country Living. Sometime in early 2001, both of us — but especially my wife — had had enough of trying to survive at the margins of Big Food. We’d also had enough of being thousands of miles from family, and living in a subdivision surrounded by neighbors who played stereos at all hours of the day and night. We longed for independence, privacy, and community. As I was in the final stages of my dissertation, and my boss had long grown comfortable with my telecommuting, it no longer mattered where we lived. So we asked ourselves, “If we could live anywhere, where would it be?”

For a variety of reasons, we settled on rural downstate Illinois. It was reasonably close to family, a reasonable drive to Chicago and a short distance from Champaign-Urbana (where we already had friends), and Illinois has among the least restrictive homeschooling laws in the nation. We found an excellent real estate agent in the general location where we wanted to be, and began working with him long distance. He found several promising listings, and we flew out for a weekend in the spring of 2001.

After a day of driving around, we decided to make an offer on a 1600sf, two-story, hundred year old farmhouse with five acres and a few outbuildings. We flew back to Los Angeles, put our house on the market, and by late July I was driving a Ryder truck across the country with all of our worldly possessions. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were becoming what author Rod Dreher would term “Crunchy Cons.”

The house was far from perfect, but seemed like paradise after the High Desert. We started out knowing nothing—absolutely nothing— about gardening, raising livestock, building fences, planting trees, or anything else, when we first arrived. And, apart from the buildings, there was nothing on the property but a lawn. Over the last 5+ years, we’ve slowly shaped the property (and our lives) into what we dreamed of back in California.

This blog will share our experiences — especially the learning experiences, and our reflections on them. We’re still learning, and still making mistakes, but still having a lot of fun doing it. It’s hard to think of a better decision we’ve made than to move to the country, and to become “Jefferson’s Yeoman Farmer.”