7 September 2013

This summer I’ve been reading a lot of Jim Harrison. Harrison grew up in northern Michigan, and many of his novels take place there. Two of his novels Farmer and The English Major feature main characters who are school teachers and farmers in northern Michigan. In both of the books, state land abuts the hero’s farm property. I am going to write a paper exploring the role of public lands in Harrison’s work, and their significance in the Midwestern pastoral tradition.
Pastoral literature has always positioned the farm as an ideal balance located between the congested city and the unsafe wilderness. For Harrison’s characters, the public land abutting their farms serves as a place of solitude. They go to the wild to escape the troubles of the outside world by fishing and hunting.
This theme in Harrison’s work provides a particularly interesting look at the Midwestern pastoral tradition, because it directly addresses the intersection of agriculture and conservation. One idea that I’m trying to develop in my writing is that the land grant university has been central in the formation of Midwestern culture. The university is a source of new ideas, and these ideas are spread beyond the boundaries of the university through alumni and the extension service. One of the key sources of ideology for the land grant university was the Country Life Commission.
Teddy Roosevelt called for the Country Life Commission in response to the exodus of young people from farms to cities. The commission was to investigate the conditions of rural life, and suggest reforms that might make farm life more desirable to rural people. The commission was chaired by Liberty Hyde Bailey a native of Michigan. The commission put education at the center of its reform program, and highlighted the ties between the need for conservation and successful agriculture.
Harrison would have been steeped in the ideas of the Country Life Commission. His father was an agriculturalist – presumably trained at Michigan State University. Harrison himself studied at Michigan State University. His characters are MSU graduates who are steeped in the literature of American pastoralism.
My paper, then, will explore the significance of agriculture and conservation in Harrison’s intellectual upbringing. Including this history in an analysis of his writing will give a deeper understanding to the world his characters inhabit.

14 July 2013

I just started reading Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Bobrow-Strain sets out to explore the various debates Americans have had over “What bread should I eat?”. He explains how and why white bread’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years. His explicit agenda is to inject a historical frame of reference into our contemporary debates over food. His main thesis is that when we talk about “good food” we are rarely talking simply about food. For example, industrial white bread first rose to prominence because immigrant bakers at small bakeries seemed to be unclean.

The book is exciting, because I’ve long believed that the food movement’s main failing is a lack of historical rigor. Bobrow-Strain greatly complicates Pollan’s dictum that we only eat what our great-grandmother’s would recognize as food. Several projects spring to mind as I read White Bread, but the one I plan to work on in coming days regards the recent Atlantic Magazine article How Junk Food Can End Obesity. This deliberately contrarian article criticizes foodies like Pollan and Bittman for their rejection of fast food. Several food writers responded to the piece critiquing it and making apologies for the writers who take a beating in it.

I am going to try and use Bobrow-Strain’s perspective to bring some insight to the nature of the debate. I suspect that all of the writers involved are actually debating the value of industrialization in our contemporary society. The author of the Atlantic piece believes that industrial fast food can solve problems, but those critiquing him do not. Also to be considered is the role that class plays in these debates. Whereas the struggles investigated in White Bread often address class indirectly, it is no longer possible to write about these issues without making at least tacit acknowledgment of class. I will try and suss out the use and misuse of class. Also, a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek tells the story of the development of the McWrap. This article provides a real life case study of a fast food restaurant trying to develop a more healthy option.







1 June 2013

The common critique of industrialization is that the industrial capitalist economic model lends itself to materialism and consumerism. There is much evidence to support these claims. Especially in America, the increased wealth created by industrial capitalism has fueled rampant consumption of cheap industrial goods. In some segments of the educated middle class, a blanket rejection of industrialization has become a part of mainstream thought. Critiques of industrial society are hardly a new phenomenon. Much “modern” art was itself a critique of the changes brought about by modern industrial capitalism.

With the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, the anti-industrial mindset captured the imagination of a generation. When the counterculture looked around at the problems of the day, it quite logically placed the blame on the prevailing political economic system. Instead of looking to reform the faulty system they saw, however, the many young people saw it as incurably corrupt. They looked to form a new society that would reject all of the faulty values that had created the one they lived in. Modern Western Civilization was out, and non-Western pre-Modern was in.

The 1960s counterculture has grown up and they now comprise the elite class in our intellectual, academic, and artistic institutions. In the institutions that the counterculturalists oversee, the anti-industrial mindset has become the accepted position. While countercultural critiques served an important and vital function in challenging unjust and unsustainable systems, the usefulness of the countercultural mode is questionable, now that it is mainstream.

The anti-industrial critique is enticing. It is not, however, the only position one can take as an anti-consumerist or anti-materialist. In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”, Bertrand Russell offers quite a nice pro-industrialization anti-materialist argument. He turns his gaze towards society (British society, in his case) and questions the relatively uncontested societal value of hard work. We should work less not more, Russell says in defiance of those who claim idle hands are the devils hands. Increased leisure time will allow individuals to pursue their passions and interests, and allow them to develop as human beings. So far, this looks at a standard anti-industrial argument. Russell takes the reader in a different direction, though, when he asks how a society might be organized to increase the possibility for leisure.

Industrialization is, at its essence, the process of rationalizing production. What was once a labor intensive task in pre-industrial society, is now simple and efficient in the industrial economy. By rationalizing the means of production, people can create the necessities of life in less time, thus leaving them with more time to pursue their interests. Perhaps the best example of this is agriculture. Today a farmer can produce enough food for upwards of 100 people. In Russell’s day, farmers produced less than half of that.

28 May 2013

As I’ve gone on my journey of exploring the idea of Midwestern intellectual and cultural history, I’ve come to see the land grant university as central to my study. In the late 19th century when the research university was rising to prominence over the liberal arts university, the Midwest was rising to prominence as an agricultural and industrial center. Especially as it relates to agriculture, the land grant university was central to shaping the way Midwesterners adapted to the new world that industrialization wrought. First it helped Midwestern farmers increase productivity in order to feed growing urban populations. These public universities democratized higher education and helped to supply the increasingly complex economy with an educated workforce.

Universities are breeding grounds for ideas and the land grant mission meant that these ideas would be spread far beyond the walls of the campus. The scientific innovations of agriculture changed far more than just the way farmers grew food. They changed the very fabric of rural culture. By emphasizing the importance of empirical research for successful farming, the stature of the expert rose while the lived experience of the farmer became less important. The land grant university and the agricultural extension service was an important way by which modern values came to the farm.

One of the difficulties for Midwestern Studies is the seeming lack of distinctiveness of the region. The South has a very clear regional identity defined by the Civil War and a common economic and cultural history. The Midwest lacks any unifying historical events, and the region is often seen as simply the “average” of the country. One way in which we can begin to discover the distinctive traits of the Midwest is by comparing it to other regions. The realm of agriculture, I think, provides a particularly fruitful case study.

What I am suggesting is that the influence of the land grant university college of agriculture is an essential part of Midwestern identity and culture. When compared with the South, the impact of the land grant university becomes clearer. The rise of the land grant university is inexorably tied to industrialization and modernity. In the South however, there is a longer tradition (both real and imagined) of agriculture. When New South reformers were advocating industrialization as a path to Southern revitalization in the 1920s, adherents to this tradition pushed back against the imposition of industrial values. Twelve Southern writers contributed essays to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. These essays warned of the dangers of industrialization and longed for the pre-Civil War economy.

My interest in Midwestern pastoral-agrarian-agricultural thought is directly related to my interest in contemporary food issues. I would like to define and promote the Midwestern tradition as an alternative to the dominant discourse which I believe to be inherently Southern.

Wendell Berry is the grandfather of the contemporary food movement. In the 1970s, he was one of the major figures in the first wave organic movement. The reigning guru, Michael Pollan, constantly reminds his readers of his indebtedness to Berry. The commonality that runs from the Southern Agrarians, to Berry, to Pollan, is a rejection of industrialization. The Midwestern tradition with its more pragmatic and progressive stance towards industrialization, offers an alternative to this tradition.

Conservatives have been said to stand athwart history yelling stop. The Southern Agrarians were, broadly speaking, conservatives. They wanted things to stay the way they were. They didn’t want to the changes that industrialization threatened to bring to their South. Berry and Pollan, though, are asking for much more than history to stop. They are asking for it to reverse. Pollan even goes so far as to advise people to only eat what their great-grandmother would recognize as food.

One thing that Berry and Pollan are right about is the failure of our current food system. They have made great strides to raise awareness about this, but it is rather a banal observation. The problems are clear enough, but the solutions rather more difficult. By following in Berry and Pollan’s footsteps, the food movement continues their reactionary tradition.

8 May 2013

Last night I finished watching the PBS documentary The Botany of Desire based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same title. The film focuses on four different plants: apples, marijuana, tulips, and potatoes. Though the story of domesticated plants is often thought of in term of man’s control over nature, Pollan asks the viewer to consider how plants have “used” human desires to fulfill their own evolutionary impulse. It is an interesting and in many ways useful way of considering agriculture. If not for human’s desire for a sweet fruit, the apple would not have traveled beyond its native region in the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia.

I was happy to see that, for the most part, the film did not fall prey to Pollan’s usual reactionary stance towards modern agriculture. The bit on potatoes though, was a little unsettling. They tell the story of Monsanto’s Bt containing potato plant, and the public outcry that put an end to it. Much to PBS’s credit, they include voices from both sides of the issue, and end up giving a fairly balanced picture of the question of GMO crops. One of the potato farmers they interview was dismayed that he could no longer grow Bt potatoes, because he thought it preferable to spraying pesticides. This interview and others with pro-GMO people was unique amongst Pollan propaganda in that it did not demonize those who support industrialized agriculture.

The counter-point to the pro-GMO voices was someone from the Union of Concerned Scientists. This scientist saw the end of Bt potatoes as a great victory. One thing that she said gave me great insight into the anti-industrial agriculture delusion. She argued that Bt potatoes only benefited Monsanto, and that it was only logical and good that consumers should reject it. This argument is central to the organic movement’s critique of conventional farming. In this worldview, all of the negative consequences of conventional agriculture fall upon the average citizen, while all of the benefits are realized in the form of profits for agribusiness.

I’ve always been aware of this piece of the organic worldview, but I’ve never quite grasped its significance. It has always been difficult for me to grasp how organic advocates can possibly have such a lack of self-awareness about how their live fit into the history of agriculture and industrialization. Before national and global markets began influencing agriculture, there was little impetus for greatly improving the way food was grown. Most people were farmers, and grew much of their own food. As industrialization spread, the need for factory workers pulled farmers off of the land. A growing urban population and a dwindling rural population meant that fewer farmers needed to grow more food. Science and efficiency came to the farm both through merchants peddling their products and university extension workers peddling ideas. The system worked and fewer and fewer farmers were able to grow more and more food.

This has been the story of agriculture for the past 150 years or so. The efficiencies created by the industrialization of our food system and production system mean that we have more leisure time and more freedom to choose a career. The organic worldview requires a disregard of this history, and creates the need for an alternative narrative. This is where the evil corporations story comes in.

Though corporations disregard for human decency has been a central part of the progressive narrative since the beginning of industrialization, the organic movement has a special spin on it that has its origins in the 1960s counterculture. The counterculture sought change not through group action, but through individual action. They saw mainstream culture as incurably corrupt, and chose to reject it with the goal of creating a new culture that would exist alongside mainstream culture.

Though the most utopian dreams of the counterculture are mostly dead today, the intellectual framework of their worldview is held by much of the intellectual elite today. Nowhere is this more evident than in the organic movement. Now spending a summer working on an organic farm is fast becoming a rite of passage for a certain type of college educated liberal. Young adherents to the organic worldview are free to exist in a world where they see no contradiction in their rejection of industrialized agriculture and their love of travel, say, or mass literacy. Even the choice to reject industrialization and return to the farm is one only granted by modernity. The third world farmers whom so many in the organic movement are concerned about being able to preserve their traditional farming methods, have no such choice.

7 May 2013

When he came to the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture in 1936, John Steuart Curry became the first ever artist-in-residence at an American university. At first blush, an artist-in-residence at a land grant university college of agriculture seems odd. If thought of at all, state university colleges of agriculture are seen as technocratic institutions probably dedicated to figuring out a way to grow more corn. If Curry’s tenure at Madison seems odd to us, though, it is only because we know far less than we should about the role of these institutions in American history.
By way of introducing my argument, let us consider this Curry painting entitled Osage Orange. The Osage orange tree features large in Curry’s reimagining of his native Kansas. The plant is a major formal element in at least three of his paintings, it is featured in his mural at the Kansas State House, and he chose it as the image of his textile design for Richard Wright’s American Way design collection.
The prevalence of Osage orange in the Kansas landscape can be attributed to the work of one man, Jonathan Baldwin Turner. From Massachusetts, Turner came to teach classics at Illinois College in 1833. Once in Illinois, Turner’s interests turned away from the classics, and he is now famous for two major contributions: popularizing Osage orange as a hedgerow and popularizing the idea of the land grant university. Lacking trees to build fences, the pioneering farmers of the plains needed another option. In this dense fast growing tree native to region where Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi meet, Turner saw a solution that would within three years of planting be, “horse-high, pig tight, and bull strong.”
Turner’s work with the Osage orange anticipates the work of the land grant universities that his ideas would help establish. In the 1850s, Turner called for a system of higher educational institutions supported by the federal government that would teach agricultural and industrial arts. His ideas found their way into the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 that founded the land-grant university system that we know today. The land grant university was a major force in the modernization of the countryside. Through various extension outreach activities, the state agricultural college helped to bring the urban values of specialization and efficiency to farmers.
Considered in this context, I think that Curry’s Osage Orange takes on a deeper meaning. In my presentation today, after a brief overview of his life and work before Madison, I am going to situate Curry’s time at Madison into the history of American agriculture, the University of Wisconsin, American art, and rural culture. I will suggest what his role as artist-in-residence meant for each of these branches of history. Ultimately I will argue that Curry’s participation in the modernization program of the College of Agriculture suggest a particular reading of his work. While his often idyllic depictions of Midwestern agriculture and rural life have often been dismissed as romantic depictions of a bygone era, his association with and activities within the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture significantly complicate a simplistically romantic reading of his work.

6 May 2013

The problem, of course, with romanticizing history is that history is not very romantic. If your solution to the ills of the contemporary food system is to return to a golden age of sustainable agriculture, then you don’t have much of a solution at all. At times, Pollan seems to be willfully ignorant of the historical context of what he is writing about.

In an excerpt of his new book Cooked published in the Financial Times Pollan describes a visit to one of the most famous and historical barbeque joints in America, the Skylight Inn. The Skylight practices whole-hog pit roast methods that are dying out because of new health codes. Of his trip to Skylight Pollan says, “whole-hog barbecue over a wood fire represents the purest, most unreconstructed expression of that form. By learning what I could about how that work is performed, and how it fits into a community and a culture, I was hoping to learn something about the deeper meaning of this curious, uniquely human activity called cooking.”

In the description that follows, the reader learns some about how that work is performed, but little about how it fits into the community and culture. This is disappointing; especially because of the reputation Pollan has for promoting healthy and sustainable eating. Pork has a interesting history in the South, and Pollan largely ignores it. Luckily, Christine Baumgarthuber recently wrote a piece on pork culture in the South for her blog at the New Inquiry. Digging deep into primary sources, Baumgarthuber tries to give an honest appraisal of Southern eating habits. She cites international travelers in pre-bellum South who complain of unvaried and unhealthy meals consisting mainly of meat. The emphasis on growing cash crops (something Pollan abhors) left limited space for vegetables in Southern fields, and corn and pork were simple fillers for Southerners to get their calories from. A pork and corn based diet resulted in malnutrition, and to this day the South lacks nutritional diversity with corn and pork being replaced by soda and fast food.

By romanticizing the barbeque pits as something primal and eternal, Pollan allows his reader to forget about the complicated history behind pork culture in the South. It would be easy to dismiss Pollan as a hypocritical foodie elitist who wants to have his Berkeley farmers market with organic kale and barbecued pork with questionable health effects and sustainability. That probably would not be too bad. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too, and there is no reason that the occasional barbeque can’t be part of a healthy and sustainable diet.

No, more far more insidious is Pollan’s attitude towards industrialization. The Southern setting of this excerpt is especially telling. The South has a tricky relationship with agriculture. Before the Civil War, the Southern economy was based on cash-crop agriculture fueled by slave labor. After the Civil War, the future of the Southern economy was very much in question. New South boosters argued for increased industrialization that would give the South the economic engine that would allow it to expand and modernize. This New South boosterism was met with resistance from Southerners who bemoaned the loss of the Civil War as a terrible Lost Cause, and who saw industrialization as an unwanted imposition of Northern culture on the South. A group of writers and poets centered around Vanderbilt University called the Southern Agrarians wrote I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in 1930. The essays in this book gave voice to nostalgia for a pre-industrial South.

Due in no small part to Pollan’s writing, anti-industrialization is a common part of the liberal mindset. One of Pollan’s greatest inspirations, Wendell Berry, was inspired by the Southern Agrarians. Placing Pollan’s trip to the Skylight Inn within historical context problematizes it a great deal. If Pollan truly cared about exploring the complex history of food, he might consider some of these issues.