Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Report from the Farm

Earl Raab, city-born and bred, is now a dairy-farmer in Maine, whence be writes this report.

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We are in the “cow business”—permanently, we think—but the Fable of the Chicken and the not down. Most recently we have had this dramatized for us by an omniscient bartender in a coastal town, who has a way of dropping an eyelid when we talk about dairying. He simply won’t be convinced. Against our weary professions, he talks slyly and inevitably about the vicissitudes of the poultry market. The Jew, according to the legend, is by nature and incontrovertible tradition a merchant—and if he finds himself in agriculture, then his fingers are still soiled by the ink of the chicken farmer’s account books rather than the grit of the soil.

Many poultrymen do not manipulate the earth; they don’t bother or haven’t the facilities to raise their own feed. The productive image of the man with the hoe is replaced by the businessman speculating on the future price of meat as against the present price of grain. Not for the likes of them the ancient pattern of hardship farming, they are the “soft” ones, the “feather merchants.” The infantryman’s indictment of the headquarters clerk.

Factual refutation of the fable is futile and—as in the case of any fable—irrelevant. Nevertheless, for what little they are worth, available statistics indicate that about one out of every three American Jewish farmers is primarily a poultry man; one out of three is engaged in general farming (which may include poultry); and the remainder are chiefly dairy operators (one out of five) and truck farmers (one out of ten). There are Jewish grain farmers in the mid-West, fruit farmers in California, vegetable growers in the East, potato farmers in Maine, dairy farmers in almost every state, indistinguishable in the matter of productive sweat from any of the current crop of American farmers. But it would be pointless to deny the pointless fact that there is a higher percentage of poultrymen amongst Jewish farmers than there is in the common farm population. It would be even more foolish to deny that, as a genus, the American Jew turning farmer is quite apt to turn border-line farmer, in so far as he can economically afford it.

Farm life has traditionally revolved around two axes. The first is nature’s silence; the second is nature’s violence. The Jew in modern times has been big-city-bred, with noise his element, his friendly companion, often his only comfort. Not a definable noise, nor a conversational noise (and in this connection, the garrulity of the farmer has been monstrously underrated), but the constant, reassuring, indistinct gurgle of human activity. As for nature in the rough, city life is cushioned on a structure of intermediaries; the metropolite (and especially the middle-class metropolite) is protected on his every side. Even the unpredictable soil itself is separated from him by a carpet of concrete. He is softened by civilization, tender in the face of nature.

This softness and tenderness is the stuff out of which the Great Slander against the American-Jewish farmer is compounded. But it is also the point at which the Great Slander deflates itself as soon as one looks not merely at the “Jewish farmer” but at the American farmer as a whole.

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Witness the case of one “nice Jewish boy,” raised in the city’s cubicles, who last winter found himself alone on a farm in Maine for the first time. Came late November, and he awoke to a catastrophe of frozen pipes—and immediately remembered with fondness all the superintendents in his life. “Hey, Joe, will you come up from the basement and check our pipes?” But there was nothing in this basement but mice—and it wasn’t practical to call ten miles for a plumber every time the pipes froze.

So he scalded the pipes, and along with them, his hands. Then off to the barn, to milk the cows. The gasoline engine that ran the milking machine wouldn’t even sputter. It still wouldn’t sputter after he’d unscrewed the spark plug, glared at it, and screwed it back. The only thing he’d learned at the College of the City of New York about combustion engines was that the nearest mechanic could be found in the yellow pages of the telephone book. But it wasn’t as easy as that in rural Maine early on a winter’s mom. He fiddled and cranked and then he milked by hand.

Promptly a fine purebred Ayrshire cow, splendidly named Sunnybrae Mary VI, dumped him in the gutter with a short dispassionate jab. His instinctive metropolitan reactions were to be outraged, to sue, to demand proper, state-legislated safety devices, to write a letter to the proper authorities. But Sunnybrae Mary VI couldn’t read.

As he milked, he measured the rest of the day. There was garbage to be removed—and no Sanitation Department. There were places to go, vehicles to be started—and no Transit Company to complain to if buses were late. There was an animal to be buried, a roof to be fixed, a tree to be felled, and to the raw difficulties these projects presented he could oppose only his own raw strength, a few simple hand tools, and desperation.

These were black trivia, but they laid bare in pattern the primitive relationship that has traditionally obtained between the farmer and the natural forces with which he lived and worked. In the spring the land would have to be ripped violently from its place. At harvest times, the rains would have to be outwitted, the droughts outlasted, the frosts outraced. Without protection, without mediation, the farmer has had to stand barehanded against the whimsical violence of the primal furies.

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Slander-Wise, a Certain nervous shyness in the face of nature probably does apply to Jews—but then it applies equally to the urban population as a whole, and, of course, the Jewish population is eminently urban. But where the Great Slander breaks down most seriously is at the other end—in an idealized and false conception of the traditional farmer against whom the Jew (the urbanite) is measured and found wanting. The farmer, it is by now obvious, was tough only by necessity.

The farmer has always been a victim of cash poverty. With the golden tide of the recent boom years, farmers’ poverty-encrusted inhibitions popped all over the country. As one man they looked toward one goal: pushbutton farming, secure from the ravages of nature, fitted out with all the gadgets of a specialized industrial economy. Artificial hay-driers are no longer a rarity (and let it rain!); electric motors have replaced cantankerous gasoline engines; barns are cleaned with a flick of a switch; power loaders, large tractors, field choppers, com pickers, self-propelled grain combines in increasing numbers shift the odds more favorably to the farmer in his struggle for comfort and safety. Rural homes have blossomed out with central heating systems, modern plumbing (complete with defrosting cable), electric stoves, and washing machines. The callouses are softening on the hands of the farm wives. The farmer (who can afford it) is building his own intermediary structure between nature and himself.

The vaunted “creative” urge of the husbandman to wrestle a meager life out of the soil with his bare hands turns out to have been only a myth, an imposition of poverty. Turned on its head and applied in negation to a stylized figure of the Jewish farmer—it still remains a myth. There are handfuls of people, ideologically devoted to the Basic Life, gathered in ascetic subsistence settlements throughout the country, but they are largely excommunicated from the farming community. There are others who, for a variety of personal reasons, attempt to maintain a compromise position between the pleasures of agrarianism and those of civilization. But in the main, the low-down drive of new and generations-old farmers alike, is the virtual elimination of that bodily tussle with the elements which has always been supposed to constitute the traditional character of farming as a vocation.

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Today—the product of a counter-movement to the farm during the period of an overwhelming country-to-city population tide—there are about a hundred thousand Jews on American farms, working over a million acres worth over one hundred and fifty million dollars. As a movement, it can hardly be called socially significant, nor does it promise to be.

Attempts to settle large numbers of Jews on the land pre-date the Civil War, and coincide in the 19th century with peaks of immigration from Eastern Europe. Mass agricultural colonization has rarely been successful. The Sholom Collective of Ulster County, founded in 1837, was forced to support itself partially in trade and manufacture. In the 1880’s colonies were set up in Louisiana, the Dakotas, Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, and New Jersey, but they were all short-lived, except for the settlement in New Jersey, which is considered the cradle of the Jewish farm movement.

But, by and large, the Jewish rural current is only fifty years old. It has received much of its impetus from groups who felt that it would be healthier in this New World for the Jews to distribute themselves “in sounder proportions” than heretofore. This is an old sentiment often held by sincere theorists and as often propounded by confirmed city dwellers. If the Jews spread themselves more thinly over the face of the national economy, so the theory went, they would be generally less conspicuous. In 1894 Count Leo Tolstoy told Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, the outstanding figure in the Jewish agricultural movement at its inception: “Lead the tens of thousands of people of your cities to your idle fertile lands and you will bless not only them, but also your country, and spread a good name for your people throughout the land, for all the world honors and protects the bread producer and is eager to welcome him.”

Alas for such hopes, the mere presence of a hundred thousand Jews on American farms, even if they were to plow furrows with their finger nails, does not really penetrate to the various social psychoses catalogued as “anti-Semitism.” Perhaps a more substantial “correction” of city-farm population imbalance might have some effect, but as an eventuality that is completely improbable. American farms today are actually overstaffed, and there is no opportunity for a mass rural migration. American Jewry, like American non-Jewry, continues to move inexorably toward its white-collar destiny.

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Here in rural Northern New England, anti-Semitism is not a passion—but its pungent aroma lingers in the little corners. New England is, after all, an eminent part of the Anglo-Saxon world, and the Jew is the Anglo-Saxon symbol for the moneychanger. Roget’s Thesaurus lists five references for “Jew”: “cunning,” “lender,” “rich,” “extortioner,” and finally, “heretic.” A literature of jokes would crumble without that symbol, a whole colorful section of rural catch-phraseology would be lost (“A Jewish mortgage”—“Caught between the Jews and the Hebrews . . .”). A fertilizer salesman told me recently that such and such a company had once sold a good product, but the company had been taken over by a Jew. He didn’t bother to furnish the denouement. It was clear. Thenceforth the company would be more interested in making money than a fine fertilizer. A farmer pointed to a cow in his bam and twanged: “That’s a Goldstein cow” (a Holstein cow, bought from a Jewish cattle dealer). Farmers are wary enough of cattle dealers, merchants. They are just that much more wary of a Jewish cattle dealer, a Jewish merchant.

But examples of discourtesy or distrust toward a Jewish farmer are rare. An investigation conducted by the Jewish Agricultural Society indicated that only one farmer of those interviewed reported anything but amicable relations with neighbors. The Jewish farmer is usually accepted on his merits where the Jewish salesman or merchant is given whatever happens to be the customary treatment in the area. In converse, no matter how solidly a farmer accepts his Jewish neighbor, his attitudes toward the city Jew remain essentially what they were.

So, the effect of land settlement, as far as anti-Semitism is concerned, is normally operative only for the individual Jews involved. This has been generally characteristic of whatever benefits may have been expected to accrue from “Jewish farming.” It has effectively broken the myth of Jewish money-changing only for the individual Jews involved. It has effectively relieved metropolitan congestion only for the individual Jews involved.

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What then does it mean for a Jew, becoming a farmer?

The Jewish Agricultural Society found in a cross-section survey that sixty-one per cent of its allied farmers came to the land primarily because they were weary of city life and sought the active surcease of the country. Lesser reasons included the desire to improve financially or the demands of health. Jews do not become farmers to “normalize” their occupational structure or to fulfill any of the pet schemes of Jewish theorists. (The halutzim, preparing for life on the collective settlements of Israel, are an insignificant number.) Their motivations distinguish the Jews not at all from the non-Jews who turn farmers. In the matter of intimate objective, there is no more significance to the term “Jewish farmer” than there is to the term “Jewish mechanic.”

The fact that Jewish farmers do exist, however, has a certain distinction. It cannot materially alter the course of historical anti-Semitism, nor in America will it ever seriously affect the economic stability of the Jews as a group, one way or another. But for those who, for their own reasons, yearn for the land, it provides a precedent and an assurance. For the Jews, as a category, return to the soil with a special nuance of hesitation, and need a special kind of orientation. As individuals, the Jews are no more strangers to agriculture than other urban Americans. But as a group, through the centuries of modem history, they have been artificially urbanized, constrained from the soil. The gradual release of this inhibition has manifested itself in America, by the fact of one hundred thousand Jews settling on the farms of the country while the great population surge was headed in the opposite direction. And these settlers were not primarily immigrant farmers. Eighty-six per cent of the Jews who settled on farms up to the war were drawn from non-agricultural pursuits (twenty-eight per cent from the needle and fur trades alone).

But in so far as it is necessary to do something, organizationally, about Jewish land settlement, the only cogent approach is through those individuals who are personally weary of the impersonal city, or others who for special reasons feel the urgency of the farm call. The Jewish Agricultural Society, which spearheads the farm movement in this country, has always strongly believed that an artificially stimulated farming class meant a weak farming class. They have consequently refrained from mass propaganda, and have instead concentrated on assisting Jews who have already made their decision, the aspirant Jewish farmers who do face, as a group, special difficulties.

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Funds from government lending agencies, with which most young farmers are making their start, are not always easy to obtain for the city-bred Jew who has no agricultural background or spectacular collateral to support his request. The JAS, set up on Baron de Hirsch funds, assists on the basis of less tangible assets and qualifications, wherever a venture seems potentially fruitful and as far as Society funds will allow. As a matter of fact, the Society’s experience in agricultural finance led to its collaboration in drafting the first federal farm loan act, and its executive head became the first president of the Federal Land Bank having jurisdiction over New England, New York, and New Jersey. The critical Land Bank Commissioner Loan instituted by the New Deal was the type of loan the JAS had been making for thirty years.

But money is just the prime requisite. There follows a slippery course for the novice class. Every now and then in the Yiddish newspapers a piece of worthless farm land is advertised in beguiling terms, and money fraudulently extracted from some hopeful city dweller. But there are fewer victims of fraud than of ignorance. Exhausted soil, insufficient water supply, inadequate outbuilding facilities, outrageous price, any one of a hundred factors can doom a farming enterprise, which normally teeters on a precarious enough balance for the first years. The JAS has field agents who examine prospective farms for their pitfalls.

There is also, for those with no country contacts, the serious problem of approaching a farm with enough practical knowledge to make it run. Although the acquisition of farm know-how is not a severe strain on the reflective faculties, without tutorship it can be a comic-opera muddle. When we took over our first crop farm, we were versed in theories of agronomy, knew exactly how ladino clover was to be fertilized, how hay must be dried to best preserve its nutrient qualities, how the weight of a hay stack could be mathematically estimated, what the latest word was in legume research. But at the time, we were faced with the immediate problem of plowing up a farm full of weedy looking growth in order to seed down some late forage in the manner prescribed by the latest Department of Agriculture Bulletins. The hay season was close upon us, the winter was going to be long, and we were desperate. One blessed day a neighbor wondered mildly when we were going to cut our hay. Hay! My God, What Hay? We asked idly in what order the former owner had been accustomed to cut what fields, and in this rather unscientific manner, found out where our hay fields lay. This chance conversation resulted in about $750 worth of hay, which we were otherwise prepared to plow up as noxious weed.

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Of course, all cases of ignorance are not that extreme, nor that critical. There’s always a helping hand somewhere, and pride goeth before a farm, as we discovered when we tried to harness our first team of horses from a Sears Roebuck catalog picture. But because of the hazards involved, the JAS, in addition to conducting a formal school, maintains a farm settlement service, really the first specialized farm employment agency in the country, in order to give prospective farmers some earthy training.

For the established community, the JAS provides advisory and purchasing services, and publishes a farm newspaper in Yiddish and English, one of the first farm papers in America to be published in a foreign language.

Jewish farm leaders are interested in establishing a community of farmers wherever possible, so that an organized Jewish life may be sustained. Throughout New York there are synagogues and Jewish centers in every sizable farm community. In Colchester, Connecticut, where Jewish farm settlement dates back to 1890, there were before the war one hundred Jewish families, out of a total population of twenty-four hundred. But still, at the present time, less than half of the Jewish farm children receive some form of religious instruction—perhaps a little below the city average.

There is indication that, for some time to come, a percentile or two of Jews will continue their abandonment of the dingy or well-upholstered ghettos of the city. (And more than one-third of their children over eighteen are remaining on the farms to maintain a permanent community.) For good and personal reasons, they will choose the ancestral role, even if for many of them it means weathering a strange and unaccustomed rudeness on the part of nature. Those who embrace the rural mode for its own sake, will be reconciled with even the rudeness. But should the industrial revolution on the farm fulfill its imperative, as all industrial revolutions have a way of doing, not only will the rudeness be overwhelmed, but eventually the small individual farmer as well, and most rustic by-patterns of life.

Then, I suppose, there’ll always be fur-trapping in the North woods.

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