Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Farm Press and the Roots of American Conservation

The American agricultural periodical is a largely forgotten medium. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, it was an energetic, popular, and in some respects, cutting-edge source of information. According to Richard W. Judd, in his 1997 book, Common Lands, Common People, the roots of the American conservation movement can be found in the farm press of the mid-1800s. And it is worth noting that Henry David Thoreau was an attentive reader of agricultural papers.

Most historians place the birth of the first real agricultural newspaper in 1819, with the publication of The American Farmer, edited in Baltimore by John S. Skinner.  The New England Farmer, edited by Thomas Green Fessenden, followed in 1822. By 1860 hundreds of papers had entered the field with an estimated total circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

In the earliest days of the farm press the papers were a mix of written editorial, reader correspondence, and extracts from material published elsewhere. The early readership largely comprised elites looking for scientifically-established innovations and best practices in farming, the raising of live-stock, and horticulture.  The American Farmer had a special relationship with the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society and the New England Farmer was closely linked to the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Among the topics discussed in the pages of the agricultural press was the issue of bird protection. In fact, Judd argues that debates about the issue in the mid-1800s "set the tone for the bird protection movement at the end of the century."  The utilitarian value of insectivorous and seed-eating birds to the farming economy (birds as "the farmer's best friend") was ultimately the reason non-game birds gained federal protection in the United States; agricultural papers along with the growing academic field of economic ornithology developed this line of thought. Judd, notes, of course, that the economic ornithologists' project of classifying birds into "useful, noxious, and uncertain" was always accompanied by aesthetic and anthropomorphized ethical judgements. (We've already seen the seeds of this in Alexander Wilson's writings).

Judd's account of bird protection discourse in the farm press begins in the 1840s but examples of arguments for and against the protection of certain birds can be seen early on in both the American Farmer and the New England Farmer.  The next series of blog posts will feature these papers.

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