Love of cultivated land is a gift—born not from the unbridled wilds but the furrows of tilled soil. This gift, neither wrought nor feigned, cannot be bought nor swapped like an old mule, but rather, is bestowed upon us as a boon from our shared Agrarian Patrimony. Wendell Berry is a fortunate heir and shares his Southern heirloom generously through his writing, for which I am grateful. As one reads Berry’s corpus, his vision of life well-lived emerges clear as Grandma’s crystal. The art of living a whole life partially entails cultivating the roots that tether us to a place, respecting the limits that come with it, nurturing the rural communities and economies by keeping the fruits of the land and the sweat of the brow local, practicing thoughtful stewardship of what we’ve been given, and never forsaking the old pietas.

Moreover, in his Agrarian jeremiads, Mr. Berry unravels the sky’s face and the time’s signs, warning of what’s coming—of who’s coming. He discerned the ominous cloud of industrial farming and the mechanization of life, the avarice of greed, the blight of aggression agin both humankind and the natural world, the plague of intellectual pride, the scourge of unlimited growth, the tyranny of technology, the erosion of community and precious topsoil, the steep cost of mobility, and the crushing grip of the global economy.

For four hundred years, many similarly gifted Southerners toiled beneath kindred skies seeking the good life of which Mr. Berry aspires to and so passionately heralds. These men penned arcadian poems, landed lamentations, and agrarian manifestos reminiscent of Berry’s essays. They have been styled Reformers, Agrarians, Planters, and Agriculturalists, branded as Book Farmers, Reactionaries, and Absentee Regionalists. Amongst their ranks are found the pennames Agricola and Rusticus, surnames such as Jefferson, Washington, and Ruffin. They published books, tracts, almanacs, journals, and agricultural magazines; and were front-porch familiar with past Philosophers of the Soil—reading Hesiod by candlelight, Virgil’s Georgics in Latin, John Taylor of Caroline’s Arator in the King’s English.

Some were dismissed as overly utopian, abstract, and mental. Surely, the Agricultural works were read and dog-eared by callused hands—them being practical, born of experience, and penned by outside-scented men. Yet, by gleaning from their works, Berry’s words, and history, we shall see from Colonial times to our Machine Age, the Book Farmers, Truant Regionalists, and Reformers made “the agrarian argument” to little avail.

They knew their soil. Their people. With ears to hear the ground crying out, “Listen!” they thundered. “Fix your eyes upon the land! O, the land!” Blame was cast—now they held the short straw. “No more!” They unfurled the banner of Land Improvement. “Stay home!” they pleaded. The new supplanted the old. “The Leviathan cometh!” The call to “Man the gates!” scattered the silence like that ole Rebel Yell. Like most of “the written record of agrarianism,” their words and endeavors, as sapped dirt, yielded little. Here they stand, the Unhonored Prophets.

Whether Jeffersonian, Agrarian, or Plain Folkian farmers, they could say as Simms in “The Good Farmer,” “the Earth is ours as a sacred trust, and we must put it to good interest. It is to go through the hands of our sons, and our sons’ sons—it is to be their patrimony, and is to provide the portions of our daughters. Originally yielded to man as a garden, shall we return it to the Giver as a wilderness?”

Mr. Berry might loose a hearty Full Gospel Holiness amen to these 1833 “Hints To Farmers” from the Southern Cultivator: “A farmer should never undertake to cultivate more land than he can do thoroughly; never keep more cattle, horses, sheep or hogs, than he can keep in good order.” I hear a laudatory “mmhhm” to the call in Arator to “Be a FARMER, not a mere earth scraper” and a loud “tell it” as George Ogilvie waxed poetic about the land acting the “sov’reign part,” how the soil tiller is bound by limits “as a loyal subject to the sovereign”.[i] I’m probably just hearing things. It’s hard to be warmed by the words of men with airish hearts, or so I’ve heard.

Mindful of the soil he called his own, the Southern farmer cultivated it accordingly. One such farmer noted in 1843, “my soil is loam, some parts inkling to sand and some to clay, and is well adapted to the growth of roots.” He ceased growing oats because it wasn’t fitting to his soil. He reminds the readers that he ain’t from the “silk-stocking gentry”—he’s more the “frock-and-trousers” type. “Nature has given us three very distinct kinds of soil in this county, and those again have their various aspects and constitutions quite as distinctly marked as the people who live upon them.” That’s not Berry writing—sans computer—from Port Royal, Kentucky. It’s an anonymous letter sent to Edmund Ruffin’s Farmers’ Register in 1833 from Fairfax County, Virginia.

Furthermore, in History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 Lewis Cecil Gray attests the earliest colonists and settlers “adapted to local conditions,” as Berry oft advocates. “Many of the Utopian ideals of colonization were wrecked on the jagged rocks of experience. Numerous agricultural experiments were undertaken and the limitations of the country for various crops more or less determined.”[ii]

While virtually sauntering through the Founders Archive I read about the time Thomas Jefferson risked death to smuggle rice from the Italian Piedmont in 1787.[iii] He sent some to the South Carolina Agricultural Society. Good ‘ol Ralph Izard, fearing corruption of his beloved Carolina Gold, asked Mr. Jefferson to cease his smuggling ways.[iv] Mr. Izard was thinking locally. Sure wish someone was thinking locally in the 1870s to stop S. B. Parsons and his Yan . . . Northeastern friends from introducing the Chestnut Blight.[v] As all living east of Eden, we understand knowing and doing are as far as the east is from the west.

In Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, Berry bemoans the bleak headlines of rural communities: “the departure of the young, soil loss and degradation, clear-cutting, and the loss of supporting economies.” These aren’t new problems. The history of soil woes is long as the Mighty Mississip. Dang nigh every page of 19th-century agricultural journals tell of practices that would make Sherman jealous. The land was scalped and skinned, bled and butchered—wouldn’t be so bad if they were talking Berkshires.

James Madison acknowledged the error of their clear-cutting ways in an 1819 speech printed in American Farmer. He told those assembled “of all the errors in our rural economy, none is perhaps, so much to be regretted, because none is so difficult to be repaired, as the injudicious and excessive destruction of timber. It seems never to have occurred that the fund was not inexhaustible.”[vi]

William Byrd was concerned about soil erosion in the 1700s, as was Edmund Ruffin in the 1800s when he wrote, “the damage caused to all our broken lands by the washing away of soil, has been much greater than all the exhaustion by the growth of crops.”[vii]

King James VI/I was notably agitated at Virginia’s tobacco monoculture. He commissioned a Frenchman (roll’s eyes) named Bonnell to produce a tract on crop diversification. The Virginia Company was dead set on putting it in the hands of every Virginian family.[viii]

Back to Berry’s rural headlines, specifically “the departure of the young.” As Southern land deteriorated, few decided to be “stickers.” Emigration was the old “social mobility.” A Virginian in 1796 observed their “most independent and married” were “running to the west.”[ix]  In the year of our Lord 1847, Mr. Newton of Eastern Virginia, wrote to the Southern Planter that “our citizens are constantly invited to leave the land of their fathers in search of profits abroad. We are advised in a spirit of wild adventure to abandon the finest region on the globe, rather than by the practice of the homely virtues of industry and economy to improve it. I deem it the duty of every patriot to endeavor by every means to repress this spirit by remaining at home than by going abroad.”[x]

Pioneer fever “ate up the South” like kudzu. Analysis of any antebellum census tells the story, so do the Agricultural journals. Speaking in 1852, Henry William Ravenel said, “An agricultural people are always more strongly attached to the soil on which they have been reared. They become identified with it.”[xi] Sounds a tinge like Berry, don’t it? Forsaken identities litter those old valley roads, horse paths, trails, traces, and mountain gaps as much as they do Eisenhower’s highways. Though piling all one’s earthly possessions in a wagon to carve out a homestead from virgin land ain’t even kissing cousins to moving into a studio in a city where the stars are veiled.

In “An Essay Against Modern Superstition”, Berry argues the goal is settlement. Not the frontier and its boomer ‘ethics.’ We need homecoming and homemaking—to rebuild, often from remnants or ruins. Edmund Ruffin argued similarly. In 1833, he describes the folks of the old states flooding west, chasing after “fancied El Dorados.” The mobility madness drained the ”wealth, population, enterprise, and talent” of a place. Ruffin called Virginians to remain home, to improve “the abundant resources of their own country, instead of abandoning the land of their birth.”[xii] One year later, a writer in the Southern Literary Messenger, warned those weighing leaving home for Texas, that it’s filled with Roman Catholics, Mexicans, and giant alligators.[xiii]

Berry describes a tragic pattern in an interview, of farm-raised youth who choose to seek refuge in industrial or professional pursuits to escape the financial hardships of their families at their folks’ behest. The Farmer’s Register received a letter in 1833 from A Reclaimed Wanderer, describing a similar pattern. Young Virginian men were seeking a “liberal profession” in “a new country” to “escape perils of flood and field.” They would just be gone until they could afford to return home and “rest his bones in his native soil. This hope is never realized.” He insisted “we must teach our youth to give up the notion that law, medicine, and politics are the only liberal pursuits. Above all, we must teach them by precept and example, that we can be sufficiently respectable as cultivators of the soil, even on a small scale, and that our soil is susceptible to great improvement.”[xiv]

Who’s to blame for the rural headlines of yesteryear? Our forefathers drove no tractors nor Rainbow Herbicided their fields, but “the skepticism of the planter towards new things, according to James M. Garnett, exceeded that of St. Thomas himself, for the planter believed nothing he heard and after seeing and feeling.”[xv] Their wariness of new was not always out of enmity or illiteracy but from hard-won experience or because “that ain’t how Daddy done it, nor his.” A wholesome contrariness may act as royal food taster, protecting a family from poisonous panaceas. PSA: If you ain’t itching to catch birdshot, you might not want do as one 1860 columnist did in the North Carolina Planter, hoping “of going out as missionaries to civilize the anti-book farmers of the State.” The farmer was in no hurry. Craven told about “a man who waited twenty years to see if plaster would make his neighbor’s clover grow.”

Some weren’t so keen on “how Daddy done it.” An 1843 editorial in the Southern Cultivator[xvi] stingingly critiques those who dismiss book farming, refusing to learn new ways. “He who is now satisfied to move along in the way his forefathers trod; to exhaust the soil without returning anything extracted from it; to dispense with the light shed on his path by other minds, is living for himself alone, and will leave no works to follow after him. It is our manifest duty to restore what has been lost, or else it may hereafter be justly said of us, that we have eaten sour grapes, and our children’s teeth are set on edge.” Gooooodness!

The yeoman was not only skeptical of the new, book learning was side-eyed as an “object of cunning suspicion” too. “Nowhere has the magazine been more ephemeral than in the American South, which in the 1800s gained the reputation of a magazine boneyard of dashed hopes,” writes Sam G. Riley in Index to Southern Periodicals. Jay B. Hubbell believed Southern magazines were the most accurate expression of Southern thought, yet they were never adequately appreciated. Today, only a few remain in memory. “It was indeed hard to get the farmers to innovate upon their old routine of Bible and newspaper reading which was the extent of that done by the few who read any at all.”[xvii]

A quote from DeBow’s Review in 1847 pretty much tells it. “Every farmer lives in an agricultural world of his own. He is monarch of all he surveys, but holds no communion with the rest of the world. His fence is his Chinese walls, and his grandfather’s ghost is his emperor.”[xviii] The one-horse farmer wouldn’t serve two masters. Hard to argue with that. Agricultural historian James C. Bonner detailed the fate of early farm journals in parts of Georgia, most failing in their first year.[xix] The trend is repeated throughout the South. The dirt farmers dismissed book farming, would have thought Liebig a politician—not a German chemist, and they lived way too over yonder to visit agricultural societies. It wasn’t entirely fruitless. So much ink was spilled by the Improvers and Reformers that it seeped like molasses into the ground eventually sweetening the yeoman’s water.

What about the “Absentee Regionalists,” as Berry called the intellectual and cultural Agrarianism of the Twelve Southerners? In It All Turns on Affection, Mr. Berry spotlights “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate’s vital contribution to the evergreen anthology Who Owns America?. Despite considerable intellectual heavyweights contributing prescient essays, the book “was utterly without effect,” and ”with other agrarian writings before and since, it took its place on the far margin of the national dialogue, dismissed as anachronistic, retrogressive, nostalgic, or reactionary . . .” Berry writes in “Still Standing,” no one read John Crowe Ransom’s “Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand, and this is a work Berry champions as “still the best summary of agrarian principles versus the principles of industrialism.”

An older way of farming existed. It withered away, overshadowed by the plow. See, early on, the hoe was more significant than the plow.[xx] Back when we tangled with Red Coats, Landon Carter was saying his daddy nary even touched a plow, “yet was able to gather larger crops than his son could in the ‘effeminate days of plows and carts’”.[xxi]

We now live in the days when “every place must anticipate the approach of the bulldozer,” as Berry tells it. Helming an armada of GPS-guided tractors and bulldozers, the rationally minded barbarians crashed right on through the gate—never reaching their destination—for progress has no end. All are under threat from the economy growers and job creators. Beware the industry and culture bringers—corporate tax breaks, break communities. Russell Kirk called the industrial North “the new iron order.”[xxii] It demolishes, crushes, strips; leaving nothing but productive, conforming machines. In 1958 C. Vann Woodward wrote of the “bulldozer revolution.”[xxiii] It appears all will be leveled by the city on a hill.

For most, the folk chain of memory was split asunder long ago. We can’t take the fiddle off the wall. No fiddle. No wall. No shared tunes—only unchained melodies. Antique harvesters—a rare breed. Can’t go back to the homeplace, don’t know the address. It was the Old North State in 1776, Georgia in 1812, Bama during the War. Ain’t been a farmer in the family since they heard there were jobs up in Nashville. Might become a book farmer, learn from one of those old registers—relink the chain. Didn’t know I was lost until Davidson and Lytle stopped by with friends in tow—taught me how to stand. ‘Ol Bradford helped recover what’s worth remembering. Sat with Weaver for a bit, learnt about tradition. I wouldn’t know Mr. Berry if Dr. Kibler didn’t introduce me. Hard to criticize folks who point the way home.


This essay was originally published in the second issue of Moonshine & Magnolias.[xxiv] See my other post on the subject.

My use of “debts” in the title comes from Conversations With Wendell Berry University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. p 40. The interviewer, Vince Pennington, asks Berry: You’re often compared to the Southern Agrarians for obvious reasons, but I wonder how similar you actually are to that group. Your novels, at least, portray the Port William community in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and one can’t help but get the feeling that—despite the community’s problems—it still represents a cultural ideal. The Southern Agrarians, on the other hand, reach back to the “Old South” for their vision of the good life, something you never do. Do you consider this a major difference between the Southern Agrarians and yourself?

Berry responds: I’ve never really thought of myself as a Southerner in a doctrinaire way. And I think one difference between the Southern Agrarians and me is that I’m much more local than they were. My work comes out of the study of one little place, really just a few square miles. In some senses, it comes out of the study of just a few hundred acres. The Southern Agrarians were approaching the issue of Agrarianism in a more general way; they were arguing Agrarianism as a policy more than as a practice. But I have obvious debts to them. I read I’ll Take My Stand when I was a student, and I still often go back to it and to Allen Tate’s essays about the South and about regionalism. To me, that’s an unfinished agenda.


[i] Kibler, James E. The Classical Origins of Southern Identity in LiteratureAbbeville Institute, 2023. See his lectures Part 1Part 2.

[ii] Gray, Lewis Cecil. History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1933.

[iii]Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c., 3 March–10 June 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 1 January–6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 415–464.]

[iv]Memorandum Books, 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series, Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, vol. 1, ed. James A Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 649–690.]

[v] Chestnuts and the Intoduction of Chestnut Blight.

[vi]Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, 12 May 1818,” Founders Online, National Archives. The Farmers’ Register, 1838.

[vii] Craven, Avery. Soil Exhaustion as a Factor in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606-1860, University of Illinois, 1926.

[viii] Gray. Ibid.

[ix] Craven. Ibid.

[x] Southern Planter 8.1, 1 January 1848.

[xi] Ravenel, Henry William. Anniversary Address Delivered Before the Black Oak Agricultural Society, April, 1852.

[xii] Southern Planter 15.12, 1855.

[xiii] Southern Literary Messenger 1.3, 1834.

[xiv] The Farmers’ Register 7.4 1839-04-30.

[xv] Craven. Ibid.

[xvi] Also printed in The Farmers’ Register 1.1, 1843-01-31.

[xvii] Craven. Ibid.

[xviii] De Bow’s Review, 1847.

[xix] Stewart, Jamene Brenton. “Informing the South: On the Culture of Print in Antebellum Augusta, Georgia 1828-1860.”

[xx] Gray. Ibid.

[xxi] Craven. Ibid.

[xxii] No clue where I read/heard this.

[xxiii] Woodward, C. Vann. “The Search for Southern Identity.” Virginia Quarterly Review 34.3, 1958.

[xxiv] I also provide a short reading list in M&M:

Magazines of the American South and Index to Southern Periodicals by Sam G. Riley.

Agricultural history writings of Avery Craven and E.M. Coulter.

Plain Folk of the Old South by Frank L. Owsley.

The Southern Tradition at Bay by Richard M. Weaver.

The Classical Origins of Southern Literature by James Everett Kibler, Jr..

Writings of Allan C. Carlson, M.E. Bradford, Andrew Nelson Lytle, and Donald Davidson.

The American Agricultural Press, 1819–1860 by Albert Lowther Demaree


Chase Steely

Chase Steely is a Tennessean, Veteran, and Student of all things Southern.


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