Skip to main content

4. Imagined Farms

The Farmery of Farmer Snug and Farmer Slack

By the mid-19th century, farmers' actual practices were being measured against idealized standards. Here, a famous diptych from Solon Robinson's "Facts for Farmers" (1864) contrasts Farmer Snug's well-managed property with that of Farmer Slack (click image to see both items). This humorous lesson was paralled by ones taught via "Model Farms" and agricultural universities.

In Livingston County during the later 1800s, agriculture still was a dominant industry. Prosperity was due to the combination of fertile growing soil, readily available water, and a well-developed transportation system. But not all of its farms were the same. According to an 1825 treatise advocating “scientific farming,” there were four classes of agricultural enterprises: “the great farmer, as he is usually called, who improves from two hundred to one thousand acres of land; the common farmer, who cultivates from fifty to one hundred and fifty or two hundred acres; the third class is made up of professional men, mechanics and traders, or speculators, who live in the country, and do not make the business of agriculture their principal object, but calculate to derive from it some profits which may contribute to their living; and the fourth, of those who cultivate a garden only” (13). Leonard Lathrop’s concern was that American farmers (and especially so-called “great farmers”) would rather enlarge their territory than increase productivity on land they already possessed. They liked the idea of farming, but were “inclined to be looking after some speculative object, by which they may gain something without earning it.”

Were there really only a few farmers “willing to be confined exclusively to the employment of cultivating the soil”? Or did they cultivate imagined farms because the times demanded it? At about the same time as Lathrop, others were advocating for agricultural colleges and “Model Farms” along the lines of those in Europe to instruct “youth in the mysteries of husbandry.” The Smithsonian was envisioned as one such institution, and locally the Squawkie Hill Farm advertised itself as a model farm with superior breeds of horses, fruits, and flowers. By the end of the 19th century, any ideal of American yeoman farmers had been banished to the Gilded Age’s back forty. Both Herbert and W. Austin Wadsworth were members of “The Farmers Club” in New York city, whose exclusive roster included names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, and whose dinners rejected rural fare in favor of “rich soups, dainty pâtés, canvas-back ducks, and terrapin” (Coates 390).

The Farmers Club members all had come from agricultural families and most still owned farms; they arranged formal discussions of subjects like “The Sugar Beet” and “Rotation of Crops,” but as agricultural executives rather than working farmers. Nowadays, I think that imaginary farms are the norm; logos from companies like Cascadian Farm and Hidden Valley depict lush green fields and blue skies. Michael Pollan writes, however, that the farms pictured in logos are not where most of our food comes from. Cascadian Farm still maintains a small roadside stand in Washington, but the food it brands and sells is imported from places as far away as Chili.  Its motto is “Taste What You Can Believe In,” and that sort of consumer belief is necessary for food that comes from imaginary farms. 

Sources Consulted

—Coates, Foster. “A Club of Millionaire Farmers.” The Chautauquan 25 (1897): 388-392.

—Lathrop, Leonard E. The Farmer’s Library, or Essays Designed to Encourage the Pursuits and Promote the Science of Agriculture. Rutland, VT: William Fay, 1825.

—“Model Farms.” The British American Cultivator 1.2 (Feb. 1845): 43-44.

—Pollan, Michael. “Naturally.” New York Times Magazine 13 May 2001. Web.

4. Imagined Farms