Getting Your Mind Right About Farming
Getting Your Mind Right About Farming

Getting Your Mind Right About Farming

How To Be a Farmer” by M.D. Usher

book review by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

Agriculture is a set of discoveries and a slow gathering of practices in the Fertile Crescent that offered food sources humans could rely on. This began at least 10,000-12,000 years ago, although recent evidence suggests a far earlier beginning, perhaps as much as 23,000 years ago, in the weeds of a cluster of three sedentary living sites on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The twin secrets researchers found there were luxuriant weed growth and the use of fire to clear the land. Farmers all know about weeds, how they like disturbed soil, and how sometimes you have to burn off part of a field that’s gotten overgrown to make a fresh start.

Planting, raising and harvesting food has had a long and vigorous literature with two complementary aims – practical knowledge, and what the Captain in the chain-gang movie “Cool-Hand Luke” calls “Getting your mind right.” In that regard a farmer I know says, “If nothing is nibbling your garden, that just means it’s not part of the ecosystem.” Fine classical samples of farming’s philosophical and emotional mindset are to be found in M.D. Usher’s new work of selection and translation, How To Be A Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, A Work of Many Hands (Princeton University Press, 2021).

The first thing to note is that this is not a “how to farm” book at all. These selections by Professor Usher (himself a small farmer – he and his wife have raised lamb, eggs and maple syrup at the Works & Days Farm in Shoreham, Vermont for over 20 years) are fair representations of what we might call the Greco-Roman tradition of farming – mostly motivation and concept finely translated, with some touches of farming practice. The book covers a period of over a thousand years, from Hesiod in 750 BC (the earliest Greek “personal” poet, an alternative to the earlier bardic and perhaps mythic Homer) to the third century CE, when, with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the traditional ways of farming would change, disconnected from the old household gods and practices.

Both the Greeks and Romans realized early on that the state should not depend for its stability on slave labor, though the later economic excesses of both states would sorely test the model of the small, virtuous, independent and self-sufficient farmer. The main structural foundation of the state starting with the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley was the public storage of grain, that could be doled out to the populace over harsh winters and years of poor harvest. Without that promise and delivery of grain there would be no state, with resultant chaos and anarchy. So the motivation and success of farmers was key to larger political and social success. For many years in early Rome there was a program whereby faithful soldiers and centurions of legions who had spent years, often whole careers, guarding the frontiers and fighting back the barbarians, were rewarded with small plots of tillable land, with the usual amount being the modern equivalent of two acres. The virtues of the Roman general Cincinnatus were publicly extolled, where that good man after the war disbanded his command and promptly went home to work his farm. He would be the lifelong model for George Washington in balancing his careers as general, then political leader, and planter. But farmland on the boot of Italy ran out, and by late in the Republic retired soldiers were not as happy with the pieces of ground offered them in Spain and the shores of north Africa that had once been Carthage, from Algiers and Tunis to Tripoli. When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, he had just arranged retirement farming plots for 15,000 of his former soldiers.

A good deal of the writing in favor of farming was always deliberately aimed at the Greek and Roman heart, that espoused the simple virtuous life far from the metropolis. Then as now, young people flocked to Athens, Rome and other cities, where fame and fortune were occasionally found amid endless delicious distractions. All farmers have heard a version of that WWI song with its plaintive question, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” There were fine examples of poets like Virgil who maintained a foot in both worlds, who kept connections with the powers in the city, but retreated to the farm for its solitude and clarity of purpose, to write his epic poem the Aeneid. After Horace’s first successful publication he was given a farm in the Sabine hills, by a wealthy patron, where he withdrew to write, though the emperor Augustus kept drawing him back for social events in Rome. There were also poets like Ovid, exiled for their excesses, who never ceased to pine for the limelight.

In theory and in public discourse the small landholding farmer was always given praise as the backbone of society, although farming changed when the Republic effectively ended in 44 BC with the assassination of Julius Caesar and rise of his great-nephew Octavian as the emperor Caesar Augustus. As had happened with the Greeks in the recent past, during the period of the emperors the sizes of farms grew larger, and became known as latifundia. Picture the plantations of the American South before the Civil War, with large fields of lucrative single crops worked by slave labor. During the Republic the law had stipulated that the largest farms could be no more than 500 acres. But within several generations a Roman latifundium of about 600 acres guaranteed the owner a seat in the Senate, so the land became a power base for the ambitious as well as a genteel investment for the wealthy. Large plantations were farmed by slaves with professional overseers, which negated the old religious beliefs and practices. For instance, in earlier times the citizen farmers had often worked their fields naked and barefoot, to humble themselves, and be closer to the spirits that they believed must animate success and failure. When the Senate sent a delegation to summon the general Cincinnatus (c. 519-430 B.C.) to defend Rome, they met him plowing his four-acre farm outside the city, and despite the imminent danger, had to counsel him to put on his clothes first.

Professor Usher hopes that the thoughtful and anecdotal nature of his selections might awaken us to the richness of small farming’s past, and relieve us of what he calls “our blinkered presentism.” Hoping to widen our historical view of the craft and near-religion that has been small farming, his sequence of readings shows how Greco-Roman agriculture held onto its humble roots, hoping never to lose that quiet and reverend attitude toward the web of life that feeds and supports us. And yet at the same time there was a split, much as there has been more recently in our young nation of yeomen farmers, between the two-acre farm and the 600 acre farm, between the modest landholding farmer working barefoot and naked, and the overseer managing hundreds of slaves or their working equivalent in costly and powerful machines. When the scale gets large enough, it can be hard for the important man to kneel down in the furrow, study the problem, and attend to what really matters.

These selections speak of a culture that held many cryptic beliefs and suspicions, though its intellectual achievements were dazzling in the light of day. That balance of extremes holds moments of delight, as in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, (23-79 AD) he tells of a farmer, Chresimus, a freed slave, whose farming success made his wealthier neighbors jealous, so they charged him with sorcery in court, for spiriting away others’ crops:

…When the time came for the tribes to vote, Chresimus, fearing a guilty verdict, hauled all his farming equipment into the Forum and produced as witnesses his farm slaves, who were in good health, and, as Piso says, well cared for and well clad. He also produced his iron tools, which looked very well made, stout mattocks, heavy plowshares, and his well-fed cows. “This is my sorcery,” he said, “I am, however, unable to show you or produce in court my night labors, my early risings, or the sweat of my brow.” For this defense he was unanimously acquitted. (p. 143)

There is more than one reason to own and cherish this attractive, substantial and understated book. Few of us might have a work in our libraries with such a long shelf life, with its texts in Greek and Latin facing Professor Usher’s measured translations, that serve as reminders of the sustaining role the farmer has played for many thousands of years. Before the inventions of banks and currencies, what the farmer and his efforts have meant to civilization are an enduring legacy. Hesiod (750 BC) may as well be speaking directly to us when he advises farmers about neighborliness:

Invite your friend to a feast, but leave your enemy be. Invite in particular whoever lives near you. For if a farm-problem arises, neighbors will come in their bedclothes, whereas in-laws would get dressed. A bad neighbor is as much a pain as a good one is a blessing. The man whose portion includes a good neighbor possesses something of value. Not even a cow would be lost – unless the neighbor’s a bad one. Measure things out properly from your neighbor, and pay him back properly, too, with the exact measure – and even better if you can. That way you can find enough should you be in need later on. (p. 23)

By the end of the book I was recalling my student days, wishing Professor Usher had had the time to reach a bit deeper into farming’s roots. I found myself recalling the story of how Odysseus tried to get out of going to the Trojan War by feigning madness. In the lost epic, Cypria, a prequel to the Iliad written sometime after the Homeric epic and attributed to Stasinus, Odysseus had hitched an ox and a donkey to his plow and was plowing his fields, which he then sowed with salt instead of seed. The story suggests what would be madness for a farmer, but also by implication offers us a long look back at the normal. Odysseus is king of the island kingdom of Ithaca, yet he is plowing his own fields. A matched team of draft animals would have been routine, where an ox and a donkey would be madness, hard to get to pull together in a straight line. And sowing his fields with salt would insure that no crop would grow there. Palamedes, the messenger from Menelaus, came to the field and watched Odysseus’ mad antics awhile, then he went back to Odysseus’ house and took his infant son Telemachus from the cradle, brought the baby to the field and laid him in the furrow ahead of the plow. At the last moment Odysseus turned the plow aside, which onlookers took as an admission of sanity. The pretense of being a mad farmer is doubly revealing, since the Greeks valued Odysseus for his inventive mind, which must have also been seen as a farming asset. And his cunning mind would give the Greeks the hollow wooden horse that led to the defeat and sack of Troy.

Getting Your Mind Right About Farming
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” thought to be ‘after’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The news is still washing ashore, about how and when humans got started farming – how we could manage to stay put and sometimes wear out our welcome. The Nile River’s annual late summer flooding kept a huge population stable, and its valley fertile for many thousands of years, till the Aswan Dam was completed in 1970, then filled by 1976, when its mixed blessings arrived. One million tons of artificial fertilizer could not hope to replace the river’s annual deposit of 40 million tons of rich silt over the entire Nile valley. All of that silt is now filling the lakes behind the project’s several dams, reducing the efficiency of the electric power generated, and the irrigation canals. Most other farmers in the ancient world were never quite so lucky, and watched harvests dwindle without the additional guesswork and hard-won knowledge of feeding the soil compost and manure, rotating crops, and periodically letting some lands lie fallow to stay ahead of pests, disease and exhaustion.