The Myth of Our Organic Past


By Jochen Welsch, Old Sturbridge Village

Visitors to Old Sturbridge Village routinely ask if, and usually assume, that early nineteenth-century farmers were “organic.” Most look perplexed when we answer that no, early nineteenth-century farmers were not organic. The public assumes that agricultural history and organic farming go hand in hand. This reveals a basic misunderstanding of both our agricultural past and of organic agriculture in general.

History is often imbued with more than a touch of romanticism and nostalgia for what once was. The problem is that what we think once was, in fact rarely existed. No, despite what we want to believe, our agricultural forebears were not organic. To understand this we need only examine the historical record found in town tax valuations, state and federal census data, and in an assortment of farmers’ daybooks, account books, and letters.

Organic and early American agriculture need not be mutually exclusive — many early techniques are appropriate to organics. It is wrong, however, to define one with the other, or to use the terms interchangeably. The introduction to the NOFA/Mass Certification Standards begins with a quote from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land that suggests why this should be so:

“An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.”

According to this criterion, few, if any, early nineteenth-century farms could be classified as organic. This is so primarily for what these farmers didn’t do rather than what they did. Some of the more obvious omissions were a near total absence of cover crops, effective or beneficial rotations, and most glaring of all, manure and soil management.

The key to any system calling itself organic is the establishment and maintenance of a healthy, viable, and productive soil. Simply avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or other caustic compounds (something our forebears did not do!) does not make a farmer organic, as that alone cannot maintain the soil’s fertility over even a short period time. Of all the criteria one needs to call oneself organic, feeding the soil is perhaps the most important. And more than anything, it is the one thing our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century farmers failed to do or, in many cases, did not do well enough.

They themselves recognized that fact. Manure management was among the most discussed and debated topics in the early agricultural press. Yet only a small percentage of farmers subscribed to such journals and fewer still incorporated what they read into everyday practice.

Even the best farmers, given the extensive nature of their farms and the comparatively small number of stock they could maintain, would not have enough manure to fertilize all their fields adequately. While the difference might have been made up through the use of cover crops and green manure, this was not a common practice at the time. It required an additional expense in labor, equipment, and seed. What crop rotations were practiced barely allowed the land to regain its fertility.

Although criticisms of such poor management practices filled the pages of many an agricultural journal, they apparently had little impact. Most farmers found it cheaper to buy more land when yields no longer met their expectations. This practice, as well as the zeal with which many farmers tried to acquire more land and tend to ever larger herds of livestock, was also roundly condemned by the day’s reformers.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. These criticisms parallel many of those leveled at conventional agriculture today. Yet somehow we have chosen to ignore the destruction our forebears wrought throughout North America. While the damage done prior to the development and widespread adoption of petroleum and chemical-based fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides is, in comparison to what has occurred in the last fifty years, small, we cannot easily write off the effects of the agricultural system created by our forebears in the first three centuries of European settlement of North America. Their agriculture was neither sustainable nor organic.

We should be careful not to judge the past through our own set of values. That would be both presumptuous and shallow. We must not, however, confuse the myths of the past that we so readily create for ourselves, with the historical record available for our examination. More often than not the images contradict each other. Keep that in mind next time you hear anyone speak of our organic past.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jochen Welsch, “The Myth of Our Organic Past,” in Susan A. Hanson and Lucia Stanton, ed., Proceedings of the 1992 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 50-53.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Our Organic Past”

  1. There seems to be a misconception of modern agriculture. The most recent studies show overwhelmingly that conventional agriculture is much better for the environment than organic farming.
    Organic is not something separate from conventional farming; many agricultural practices that people think of as “organic or natural” were pioneered by conventional farming. Cover crops, and crop rotation are two examples. It is good to think of a Venn diagram. Instead of organic and conventional agriculture being two separate circles, we can think of organic being a circle within the larger circle of conventional agriculture. A conventional farmer can use organic methods if they best suit what is needed. Organic farmers are limited to “natural” chemicals. Natural in any sense of the word does not mean that the product is any safer or better in any way than a product that is not generally found in nature.
    There are other misconceptions that people have concerning conventional agriculture, but I can leave those for another day. 🙂

  2. This is an important ground-breaking piece that we need to remember. Especially now as we get more involved with the Food Movement.

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