The hosts talk with a listener about the social difference between farmers. Did different crops create different classes?
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**
PETER: Hey, Brian and Ed, we’ve got a call from Chicago, Illinois. It’s Brendan. Brendan, welcome to BackStory.
BRENDAN: Great to be here.
PETER: Hey, we’re talking about farms. What have you got for us?
BRENDAN: Well, I was wondering– when I think of a farmer, I just think of a guy with a pitchfork, but I know that farmers farm different things. I was wondering, is there any difference in social standing between a farmer who farms grains and a farmer who farms animals? Were people who kept orchards treated differently from people who kept pigs?
PETER: Ed, you seem eager to jump into the–
ED: Well, yeah. In the golden age of American agriculture in the 19th century, I think there was a clear hierarchy, at least in the eyes of the people who thought they were at the top of the hierarchy. They would have made the distinction between being a farmer and being a planter. The more highly cultivated your farm, the more challenging the crops and livestock you grew, the more status that you had.
So therefore, as you’re suggesting, an orchardist was a high status thing, because it required skills in grafting and producing these exotic and somewhat vulnerable crops. At the same time, if you were involved in the breeding of blooded livestock, often with its origins in Europe, you were also very high of status. On the other hand, if you were just producing a monoculture– cotton, especially would have been at the bottom of the status hierarchy because it would have been a lot of tenants, especially African American. So I think that’s the general hierarchy.
PETER: Would you say, Ed, that’s for the late 19th century. And you wouldn’t say that for the antebellum period, would you?
ED: No, that’s a good point. Because I think that in the antebellum period, the goal there is not to actually farm anything, but to preside over the production of cotton. So the people who were richest from the land would have been the owners of slaves and of plantations.
BRIAN: What I would say for the last two thirds of the 20th century, Brendan, starting with the Agricultural Adjustment Act under Roosevelt, during the New Deal– legislation that provided subsidies to farmers to stop growing things. I’d say status depended on your access to those government supports, and it started out supporting wheat and cotton and eventually, within a couple of decades, grew to supporting 100 different kinds of crops. So your status and the hierarchy of farming could well turn on your access to those government subsidies.
PETER: Hey, and Brian, guess what. In my period, that’s the epitome of corruption. That’s the opposite of being a yeoman farmer is to take favors from government or manipulate government.
BRIAN: They didn’t mind getting all that subsidized land, did they, Peter?
PETER: Now, lets not be coherent, Brian. I’m talking about perceptions, and virtue is connected with independence. And from the perspective of independent, virtuous Americans of the 18th century, manipulating government policy in order to seek rents, advantages, tariff protection, you name it– that’s all corruption. And that’s anti-American. That’s unamerican.
BRENDAN: I’m wondering– do changes in international tastes for crops– does that change at all what crops are high status and low status? hosts in the 18th century London suddenly developed a taste for coffee, and that spread the coffee bush to the far ranges of the British empire.
PETER: Yeah, no question. And of course, sugar is the big one, as you know, and sugar and coffee go together very nicely. And the sugar planters had enormous wealth and status. Status and wealth are somehow correlated.
ED: Peter, you mentioned sugar, which is the big product of the early era of the Atlantic economy, but of course, here, Virginia, we were all based on another commodity for which the market was entirely extralocal, which was tobacco, and which was just as useful as sugar in advancing the human race. So there’s a case– the highest status would come to the people who could make something for which there was a very limited local market but a vast market on the other side of the ocean.
BRIAN: And here’s another division we might talk about based on your question, which is locally produced food. I think that certainly in the ’50s and the 1960s, locally produced food was kind of frowned upon, because it was so limited. And today, with the resurgence of interest in locally produced food, I think lots of small farmers who may only produce one or two crops are getting a lot more attention and, I would argue, higher status because of that. Because of changing consumer patterns, as you put it. And I would just say, I like very local food, meaning the food in front of me.
BRENDAN: I think I can ascribe to that form of locavorism, as well.
PETER: We make it our own, don’t we? Right.
BRIAN: Thanks a lot.
BRENDAN: Thanks very much.