The Back to the Land Movement: Why it Failed and Why we Need to Try Again Anyway

A review of: Back from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s, and Why They Came Back 

As oil and natural gas decline, many of us will have to go back to the land. There is something to learn from those who have tried this in the past. Although much has been said about why communes and Utopian communities failed, little has been written about the fate of individual homesteaders.

Part 1 is a book review of Agnew’s very insightful history of this movement, and Part 2 is why I believe we need to go back to the land again and how to do it right this time given the problems and failures of homesteading in the `70s.

Part 1. Review of Agnew’s “Back From the Land”

Eleanor Agnew, in her 2004 book, “Back from the Land. How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s, and Why They Came Back”, discusses the millions of young adults who tried homesteading. Agnew speaks from experience — she went back to the land with her husband and two boys in Troy, Maine.

Agnew estimates between 750,000 and one million people dwelled on communes then. Millions more went back to the land independently. On the whole the movement consisted of educated, young, white, middle class men and women.

Their rejection of the current system wouldn’t have been possible if the overall economy hadn’t been so wealthy. It was a luxury to be able to experiment.

There were many reasons people went back to the land. The value system of American society was repulsive to many. They abhorred the rat race, boring jobs, crowds, the corrupt establishment; consumerism, destruction of wilderness, and advertising to get people to buy things they didn’t need. Some also felt the need to “redeem their souls” because they’d done nothing to deserve the abundance they’d experienced. America has a long tradition of associating virtue with moderation, hard work, self-denial, and simple living. Many associated farming with the romantic notion of self-sufficient pioneers.

The oil crisis in 1973 led some to believe that the capitalist system was in imminent danger of collapse, so going back to the land would be a matter of survival.

Homesteaders wanted to invent a new and better civilization based on community, healthy food, a love of nature, and avoidance of toxic chemicals.

Many, if not most, were unrealistic about what it would take to make the urban to country transition.

Raising animals meant no days off, and the joy of raising them was shattered when they were slaughtered.

Farming was hard. Some bought land that was mostly rocks, which made building homes and starting gardens very hard. Good topsoil was washed away in storms. Then there were assaults by flies and no-see-ums, blistered hands, and aching muscles while tending crops, which in the end might be lost to drought, frost, hail, and pests. The surviving crops required hard work to harvest and prepare for storage.

In the winter, scraping ice off floors and walls, chopping wood, frozen pipes, broken cars, icy paths and roads, and uncovered wood piles frozen into a block of ice added to the discomfort and hard work.

Fires could be a problem if the wood hadn’t been aged long enough – at least a year – because it didn’t burn well and added creosote to the chimney – a fire hazard.

There were many new skills to master. Building a home, clearing the land, digging holes for the foundation through rock, fixing tractors, cars, chainsaws, chasing down escaped farm animals, cooking with wood, and canning food are just a few of the many skills needed to successfully homestead.

Although many had realized they’d be cash poor on the land, they hadn’t thought of this as being real poverty. After all, they’d grow their own food, build their own homes, and trade with other community members for anything missing.

But they found out they couldn’t be independent of the outside economy. Isolation meant even more dependence on cars, which were absolutely essential in the country, and repairs were expensive. People couldn’t grow all of their own food and needed to get some items at the supermarket. And just about everything required money on the farm: seeds, animals, stoves, and so on.

People and publications made it seem easy to live off the land

Books like “Independence on a 5-acre Farm” made it seem like it was no big deal to go back to the land. Mother Earth News had articles such as “Raise Worms for Fun and Profit” that misled people into thinking they’d earn enough money on the farm to pay for necessities.

Eliot Coleman told people that they didn’t need health insurance, and since everyone was young, healthy, and thought insurance companies were evil, they were glad to opt out. Agnew devotes a hair-raising chapter to how wrong Coleman was – just because you’re young doesn’t mean there won’t be a need for emergency care, especially on a farm doing heavy manual labor, where the odds are many times higher than an office job that an accident will occur.

Health care was often poor in the country – there weren’t enough doctors per capita.

Those who thought they could doctor themselves with herbs were sometimes dead wrong. Comfrey, which was supposed to cure just about everything, turns out to have liver damaging and carcinogenic effects. An alternative doctor prescribed Chinese herb cocktails that led to total kidney destruction in 100 women. Natural is not always better.

Scott and Helen Nearing were the role models for the back-to-the-land community. They built an ideal homestead working four hours a day, spending the rest of their time reading, playing music, etc. They made it seem possible to do this with very little cash.
But the Nearings made money from speaking, writing books, and donations. They had many followers who worked on their farm free of charge.

Thoreau made it sound easy to build a cabin and live in the wilderness. But the truth is, he was two miles from town, where he went nearly every day and visited friends, family, and where he dined out often.

Back From the Land – Why did people leave?

Economics. Many idealists had one-dimensional ideas about capitalism, that it was nothing but ruthlessness, and that they could avoid the capitalist system by becoming self-sufficient.

But Copthorne Macdonald believes alternative society never got large enough to separate from the mainstream society. You had to buy your tools at the hardware store since there weren’t enough people making them on forges. The basic infrastructure of the economy forced people to buy outside the alternative lifestyle community. The bottom line is that small economies like communes and homesteads don’t have the “size, complexity, cash flow, or diversity of goods and services to survive very well independently”.

Doing something at home didn’t pay well either. One farmer worked out he was making about ten cents an hour by the time he’d grown wheat and turned it into flour.

People had confused consumerism with cash – but even a sparse existence requires goods that can’t be made or grown on the homestead.

To afford necessities and improvements, people found they had to take jobs that were boring, low paying, with no benefits, and sometimes dangerous. Those who’d thought their middle class careers were hard or dull discovered otherwise. Since most lived far out in the country, it wasn’t usually possible to return to abandoned careers. By leaving homesteads to work outside, they lost the time and energy needed to make themselves self-sufficient – time versus money. They needed time to build homes and garden, but they needed money to buy cement and garden tools.

Homesteads failed as they tipped towards more time spent off the farm working than improving the homestead. People began to realize that rather than being homesteaders with outside jobs, they had awful jobs and happened to own a homestead. So many decided to return to the middle-class high-paying, rewarding careers they’d abandoned.

And many had no choice but to leave the land – they were bankrupt, out of savings if not deeply in debt. Many couples had children, and didn’t feel it was fair to them to lead isolated lives on farms, far from good schools.

Divorce. Despite love being what the counterculture was all about, the reality of never-ending hard work, poverty, and lack of privacy in small cabins took a toll on marriages.

When a marriage failed, one partner usually had to quit the land and go back to civilization. The other partner often found someone who didn’t want to homestead, or found no one and couldn’t cope with all the work alone.

Commune failures. Meanwhile, people on communes were returning as well. Agnew lists these reasons for commune failures: lack of clear goals and structures, aggravations of shared space, irritating personal habits, and not liking each other once acquainted. Factions developed over all sorts of things – religion, politics, etc.

The “unanimous consent” nature of decisions also caused problems – either there was a hung jury or underground resistance. Mutual consent favors the verbally aggressive and quiet people lose out, but giving in all the time soon made the silent ones resentful.

New members threw communes off balance if they weren’t screened well enough to see if they fit in.

Probably the most important factor that broke communes up was the resentment hard workers felt for slackers. People disagreed about work contributions and money making efforts. Those who worked hard didn’t want to share money with those who didn’t, and tried to get shirkers to work, but there was no way to enforce it, so these measures failed.

The Malthusian Die-off didn’t happen. Back-to-the-landers hoped to escape the famine, overpopulation, war, and chaos that threatened to result from energy shortages and ecological destruction. But life went on, and friends and family on the outside were having it much easier, having more fun, living in warm homes, and leading far more interesting and intellectual lives in cities.

Fatigue. The novelty and idealism of hauling spring water in heavy buckets over rough ground, endlessly chopping wood, feeding fires all night and other hardships grew thin.

Conclusion. According to Jeffrey Jacob’s research on the success rate of back-to-the-landers, only 3% subsisted on a combination of cash crops and bartering, only 2% through “intensive cultivation of cash crops”. The others all found themselves preoccupied with money:
44% worked full-time away from homesteads
18% had pensions and investments
17% survived on part-time or seasonal work
15% got their income from businesses they could run from home

In the end they found they had to participate in the economy, capitalism infused every aspect of life and was beyond overthrowing or disregarding.

Part 2. Peak Energy: Time to Go Back Again

In the 70s, ecology, energy, population, and environment were common topics of conversation. Not anymore. It seems as if institutions and people have retreated from reality and reason. Environmental groups have abandoned population as an issue, even though they know it’s responsible for all of the issues they’re seeking donations for. In social networks, there’s a taboo against discussion of ecological issues–the social pressures are to be witty and entertaining, yet another insidious influence of TV.

Most young people are aware they’re being handed a crummy planet, but they have a vague sense of unease, not a fine-tuned understanding of the situation, because the vast majority don’t read due to sedentary computer games, TV, and cell phones.

There’s little awareness, as there was in the 70s, that a back to the land movement is even needed. If there were, would Generation Y, overweight and suffering from nature deficit disorder, be willing to be at the forefront of a growing return to agriculture?

Those who are aware, and would like to go back to the land, usually can’t afford to buy a farm. Land is more expensive now than in the 70’s because there are 100 million more of us, the majority immigrants and their children. We are losing land from development, erosion, and population at a rate where there won’t be any crop land in 140 years.

Population has increased 165% since 1920. One of the reasons we were even able to grow to 318 million people in was to shift to vehicles from oxen and horses. Not having to pasture oxen and horses on at least two acres per animal for labor and transport freed up a lot of land, which was then used to grow food for people and build suburbia on instead.  It would be almost impossible to go back to horses and oxen again, who did much of the muscle power work for us, we will have to rely on the brutal human labor this time around when we run out of oil for tractors, harvesters, and trucks.

What needs to be done

Hirsch pointed out that you’d want to prepare for Peak Oil 20 years ahead of time with heavy oil, gas-to-liquids & liquefied natural gas, enhanced oil recovery, efficient vehicles, and coal liquids to mitigate the most critical weakness in our infrastructure: the utter dependence of diesel and gasoline combustion engines on oil.

We don’t have an alternative liquid fuel to replace oil, and it doesn’t look like we’ll ever have one now that we’re also at peak coal and peak natural gas. Chris Somerville, head of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), the joint $500 million collaboration between BP, U.C. Berkeley, LBNL, and the University of Illinois, has ruled out ethanol or biodiesel as potential biomass fuels. Instead, EBI is focused on researching how to make biofuels from bio-diverse grasses with end-products of gasoline and diesel rather than ethanol which can be 10% at most in gasoline engines only, more than that could ruin the engine. Somerville estimated such fuels are at least 25 years away since there are so many problems to overcome, and they might not be overcome.

Nearly everyone assumes that the next step is to throw huge amounts of money at energy research and building coal liquefaction and nuclear power plants, windmills, solar panels, and so on. Yet if all of the problems in all of these energy sources were solved today, if there were enough engineers (which there aren’t), and population growth stopped, it would still take decades to scale up enough to provide the same energy fossil fuels provide now.  Degrowth threatens our entire economic system, which depends on endless growth to pay debts off so more credit can be issued.  How can the capital to build wind, solar, etc be financed if the financial system collapses?

And as Congressman Bartlett has pointed out, there’s no point to all-out energy projects – because if we succeed, the population will double again, and the number of people experiencing hardship when the fuel runs out yet again will be even greater. Not to mention the continued destruction of fisheries, forests, and aquifers and potential extinction of humankind and other species.

Even if an energy “Manhattan project” is attempted, we will also need to employ more people in agriculture to make up for the coming shortfall in energy. Author Richard Heinberg has called for “50 million farmers”. Changing agricultural methods and infrastructure takes decades as well.  Most people live along the coasts, yet most food is grown in the midwest, but if you move people there, the development to accommodate millions of immigrants will destroy the prime farmland they’ve come to farm.

Government needs to be in the driver’s seat, since energy will need to be allocated across many other essential services besides agriculture, such as water purification, delivery, and treatment, garbage collection, military and police, roads, disaster recovery, and to keep our poorly maintained infrastructure from failing.

Educating and retraining people for coping with energy descent is essential. But since less than ten percent of Americans are scientifically literate, and any politicians who tried to educate Americans on how serious our energy and population situation is wouldn’t get re-elected, it’s unlikely any action will be taken at the top. The necessary changes and awareness will have to come from a grass roots movement of self-educated citizens.

The local food movement is one such effort. Many people are buying local organic food to encourage organic farming, assuming that capitalism will take care of the situation, because if we pay more for organic food, more people will become organic farmers.

But it’s likely that once energy shocks hit, there’ll be a stock market crash as people are forced to recognize that Peak Oil is real, and resultig massive unemployment. People will have a hard time affording enough food, let alone farm land.

The local food movement also ignores the potentially higher amount of energy used to deliver local food. Mariola, in his paper “The Local Industrial Complex? Questioning the Sustainability of Local Foods”, points out that energy used to move a large amount of food by ship or rail is probably less, due to economies of scale, than having hundreds of local farmers move tiny amounts of food to local markets which thousands of people drive to. Perhaps if customers walked, biked, took mass transit, the energy balance might be better, this needs to be researched further.

The most important lesson learned from the previous back-to-the-land movement is that we are all part of the capitalist system, and consequently, a new organic farming movement will not survive without government help. Large, industrial farms now depend on government help and receive billions of dollars in subsidies that would be better spend on small farms growing high-quality artisan food as in France. Over 5 million farmers were driven out of business against their will in the last century as farmers were forced to get bigger by mechanizing or go out of business. Now there are only 2 million farms left, mostly highly mechanized at a time when we are going back to manual labor.

So the most critical reform would be to shift subsidies to organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and small farms, and to stop all development of prime farmland.

Making a downshift to agriculture will take many years to:
* Train enough people in soil science, plant propagation, integrated pest management, etc for outreach to farms to make the industrial-to-organic transition
* Shift people from ecologically unsustainable regions to food producing areas
* Improve topsoil. Industrial farming has ruined soil structure and nutrition. It will take at least five years to for soil to recover before organic food production gets back to previous levels.
* The learning curve for organic farming done in a sustainable way can take up to ten years.
* Plant forests to provide firewood, lumber, etc

The downshift needs to start now to mitigate suffering. Our nation needs to focus on a return to agriculture, not new energy infrastructure. To stay under the depletion curve, the number of people returning to the land to grow and distribute food needs to steadily increase.

As far as reducing the energy used in agriculture, we can start now by cutting back on calories, eat a vegetarian diet, grow victory gardens, use less packaging, etc. David Pimentel has a paper that will be published soon on how to cut the energy used in agriculture by half.

We need university students to major in agricultural disciplines, and above all, to try to shift mostly petrochemical and mechanization-oriented agriculture departments to teaching and researching sustainable farming methods. Cuba’s success in coping with their downturn was partly due to having enough people trained in organic farming to train petrochemical farmers how to switch to organic methods.

The huge number of agricultural students we need doesn’t exist. The Los Angeles Times article, “Agriculture schools Sprucing up their image”, says that many professional agriculture workers in soil science, pest management, and growing crops are about to retire, but enrollment in these areas is declining.

Instead, students are majoring in professions that can easily be off-shored and will be useless in a world of declining energy.

Given the short window of time we have left, a better alternative than university agriculture departments would be John Jeavon’s bio-intensive workshops, Rodale Institute programs, and gaining experience on sustainable organic farms (not all organic farms grow food with topsoil sustaining methods).

This time around, the model to follow for a group endeavor is already here – Community Supported Agriculture. Lazy members who don’t farm their tract will earn far less than hard-working members. Pooling resources will be an advantage over individual farms, if the members can learn to get along, cooperate, and select good leaders.

CSA’s and homesteads should be forming now, with a government agency acting as the central agent for connecting people who want to farm, providing agricultural scholarships, training, outreach, buying land and loaning money to farmers, and so on.

It will not be simple to make the transition. The easiest path is to ration the remaining oil to essential services like agriculture and continuing on as usual, not only to maintain social order, but to have food to export in exchange for oil and natural gas based fertilizers. Land will continue to be concentrated in a few hands, pushing society towards feudalism and fascism as people work for minimal wages to survive. Business as usual, until energy shortages cause sudden dislocations, leads to civil wars and collapse.

If the U-turn can start now, there’s a better chance of remaining a strong democratic nation, and to finally do what we always should have done: live within our means — what the ecosystem can provide sustainably.

There’s no point trying to prepare for energy descent and climate change if the current levels of immigration, birth rate, and loss of prime farm land continues.

Everyone needs to get involved, because we’re a social, cooperative species, utterly dependent on each other as much as bees or ants are. Peter Corning’s brilliant book, “Nature’s Magic”, shows that synergy and cooperation at group levels were far more important in the emergence of homo sapiens than competition between individuals. We must all pull together and work towards the best possible future we can imagine, because we’re all in this together.

It would be better if people chose an agricultural future with hope and courage. Farming can be an immensely satisfying and rewarding way of life. It would be best for democracy and preserving our remaining resources if Americans could embrace reality and take appropriate back-to-the-land action.

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One Response to The Back to the Land Movement: Why it Failed and Why we Need to Try Again Anyway

  1. Ram?rez says:

    Hey Energyskeptic,
    Neat Post, Buying a raw land is promising. It allows you to plan your dream home and build it. However, you have to consider several things. This is because a raw land may present underlying issues that are not detectable right away. You have to be very diligent when purchasing one.
    Thx.