Rethinking American Agriculture: Fertilized Farms and Victory Gardens
This post is the sixth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. Follow the whole series here.
With business interests poised to guide U.S. environmental, energy, and agricultural policy in the upcoming administration, it is imperative for environmental historians to bring the history of corporate capitalism and environment to bear in the twenty-first century. The work of Timothy Johnson and Anastasia Day rests on the premise that agriculture is a uniquely useful site to examine the complex relationship between business, the state, and the natural environment. Both examine the business community’s attempts to “naturalize” capitalism in American society and practice, particularly in regards to agriculture. Timothy Johnson examines how the growth of the commercial fertilizer industry in the late nineteenth century brought American farmers into contact with transnational systems of trade. Anastasia Day discusses how planting a victory garden allowed mid-20th century Americans to participate in the war efforts abroad, and effected changes on the landscape at home.
Fertilized Fields: Industry on the Farm
In 1908, Edward Hodgson left his home in Athens, Georgia on a journey to Europe by way of Chile. As the owner of the Empire State Chemical Company, he was pursuing the mineral resources needed to manufacture fertilizer: geological oddities-turned-commodities by new theories of plant nutrition and growing demand for agricultural products in industrial economies. With supplies of phosphate available by rail from Florida and Tennessee, Hodgson sought favorable prices for nitrates from Chile’s Atacama Desert and potash from mines in Saxony to produce a concentrated and balanced source of plant food.1
Farmers began using commercial fertilizer in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, when Peruvian guano and acid-treated bones known as “superphosphate” started to supplement manure and crop rotation in mid-Atlantic market gardening regions. Following the Civil War, however, the largest fertilizer market in the United States was the South Atlantic states, where commercial plant foods became integral to cotton and tobacco cultivation. As Hodgson set out to secure the raw materials needed manufacture fertilizer, he traversed oceans and political boundaries to help ensure that these southern staples would remain viable amidst agricultural landscapes marked by erosion and freighted by the strictures of debt peonage. He and others like him were assembling a global market that linked the fates of far-flung landscapes through new networks of credit, labor, and material. By demonstrating the ways that the American South became a key site in the construction of a global nutrient economy, my research details how the region served as a staging ground in the creation of a newly interdependent approach to agriculture constructed not just by the work of agricultural scientists and engineers, but also by businessmen like Hodgson.
Noting that environmental historians are often reluctant to study businesses, Christine M. Rosen has encouraged scholars to “open the black box” of corporate archives to understand how companies have been more than just sources of pollution or harbingers of lost ecological diversity. It is certainly true that the fertilizer industry has been a continuous fount of non-point source pollution in waterways and a common cause of devastating industrial accidents. In my encounters with the records of the fertilizer industry, however, I was struck not only by the immeasurable impact of these businesses’ activities upon landscapes, but also how their activities also entailed selling practices in addition to products. At annual conferences, executives and agronomists debated new ways of talking about and seeing nature to help peddle their wares. As a way to understand the inner-workings of companies that sent waves rippling through ecosystems around the globe, I became convinced of the merits of “seeing like a business” as an approach to doing environmental history.
What, exactly, does seeing like a business mean for environmental historians? In my case, it means understanding how the motivations, priorities, and structures of companies translated into changes in the land. With this in mind, I discovered rich evidence in otherwise dry sources, including trade literature, board meeting minutes, and promotional material. The records of the National Fertilizer Association, for example, document the efforts of manufacturers to open new markets outside the South and to integrate the rest of the nation into the global nutrient economy. To this end, this trade association created its own privately funded agricultural experiment station based in Chicago to provide “unbiased information,” that the association’s propaganda committee could use to promote its activities. To spread their findings, the group distributed publications and produced radio plays and films, all of which document the industry’s evolving strategy to sell products and by extension, shape new ways of encountering agricultural landscapes.
By the same token, the National Fertilizer Association’s strategy also entailed silencing those who did not see things as they did. Agents from the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service became a frequent target of this practice. In 1925, fertilizer merchants from Alabama reported that county agents were encouraging farmers to forgo fertilizer and use manure, and even helping farmers set up cooperatives to buy fertilizer at wholesale prices. Their goal was to try to help farmers escape the trap of fertilizer debt, contracted through documents known as “guano notes.” The National Fertilizer Association’s attorney tried to bring the offenders in line with legal action, and even threatened to use the group’s political connections to withhold federal Cooperative Extension funding to the entire state if its agents did not stop.2 In this, and other ways, I found that the fertilizer lobby leveraged its financial and political clout to protect the businesses of local merchants. Even more significantly, it used these tools to police the ways that federal employees reproduced agricultural knowledge among farmers. In other words, these businesses influenced agro-environmental practices in ways both subtle and severe.
In the century since Harry Hodgson set out on his transnational mineral quest, the fertilizer industry has grown exponentially. Today’s global fertilizer trade map offers a representation of the world that appears entwined by multicolored rubber bands, highlighting an obscure infrastructure that underwrites crop production, and therefore, most of the global fiber and food supply. In fact, this international exchange of materials has become so pervasive and reliable—with notable exceptions—that those who are not farmers seldom think about it. Like other large systems that undergird modern life, it’s a utility that is easy to forget until it ceases to function. As such, understanding how these systems were built, as well as the contingencies of the businesses that built them, remains a vital task for environmental historians.
From Activism to Academia via the Victory Garden
In environmental history, and twenty-first century environmental activism broadly, it can feel both passé and naïve to believe in the power of individual action. Whole Foods grocery stores indirectly help create food deserts; recycling your food packaging eases your conscience but participates in an energy-intensive, for-profit industry; and supporting organic certification supports another financial pressure on small family farms. Far more pressing is the need to change the systems that delimit and work to define the meanings of individual action—vote at the polls and in the streets, not just with your dollar! Push for radical legislative and economic changes in the next election and the next Farm Bill!
Such messages floated in the air throughout my undergraduate years at such gatherings as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services, at the Student Initiatives in Sustainable Agriculture conference I helped organize, and at my kitchen table every night in the Greenfire Cooperative of Lawrence University. They raised important questions for me—of activism, of individuals and systems, of food systems, of historical memory in modern food justice movements.
These questions, years later, started me on the path to my dissertation on victory gardens on the World War II home front. World War II represents a period where everyday citizens felt uniquely empowered to change the world around them. In propagandistic diatribes and in diaries, Americans linked their smallest actions—walking to work, saving bacon grease, growing tomatoes—to the fate of the United States, the Allied forces, and the free world at large. And they weren’t wrong, at least about their gardens; victory gardens in World War II stand as the most productive and successful local food movement in American history, radically changing national foodways almost overnight.
The victory garden movement began only twelve days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent U.S. entry into the war, when Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard called for a national war garden conference in Washington, D.C. Before the end of the weekend, garden clubs, youth organizations, media moguls and admen, as well as corporate executives from almost every major industry signed on to promote and participate in the gardening movement.
By 1943, close to 21 million families planted seven million acres of victory gardens across the United States. These vegetable plots produced over 10 billion pounds of food—42 percent of the total fresh produce Americans consumed in that year, supplementing American diets in a time of food rationing.3 That same year, Life magazine surveyed the variety of sites appropriated for local food production:
Every unprotected piece of ground was being dug up for victory gardens: in Boston’s Copley Square and in the Portland (Ore.) Zoo, in Chicago’s Arlington Racetrack and in the Wellesley College campus, in New York’s Schwab estate and in the Naval Air Station at Olathe, Kan.
A National Opinion Research Center Poll reported that 61 percent of Americans planned to have a victory garden in 1944.4 Over the course of the war, Americans planted over fifty million registered victory gardens in every state and climate zone.5 (This video on victory gardens provides a explanation and a look at how families ran their gardens.)
Through individual gardens, Americans wrought powerful changes in their national foodways—and yet these garden disappeared almost overnight in the postwar world, with gelatin molds, frozen meals, and canned soups replacing garden-fresh vegetables from the backyard. So what did these gardens mean for Americans? Did they think they were changing their food systems in a more local, equitable direction, or were they simply doing their part in the war effort?
The deeper I dug to answer the first question, the more questions appeared to guide my work: How did victory gardens interface with the factory culture of mass-production ruling the home front? What was the relationship, if any, between these gardens and the industrialization of agriculture across the fields of the United States, both prior to and during the war?
One of the founding texts of environmental history, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, traced the ideal of the pastoral/bucolic garden in American thought, and its fraught relationship with the disruptive machinery of American progress. My work suggests a new configuration of this relationship, whereby the garden became a metaphorical machine—indeed, a factory—on the American World War II home front. In this, wartime victory gardens continued the trend established in Deborah Fitzgerald’s Every Farm a Factory, discussing the industrialization of agriculture in interwar America.
My research demonstrates that victory gardens constituted an important part of the national campaign to rationalize the production of all war materials, including food. As a pamphlet of the time put it, gardening is “a manufacturing process in which you and Nature go into partnership.”6 With the factory metaphor at the heart of my analysis, I propose that victory gardens were a site for ambiguous and complex relationships to the natural world. Victory gardens were neither stepping-stones on the path to late-twentieth century environmentalism or twenty-first century food movements, nor were they straightforward manifestations of capitalist exploitation. They were a tool not only for sustenance, but for identity formation and performance, service to the nation, labor management, the creation of postwar domesticity, and even modern consumerism.
Ultimately, my work hopes to address questions relevant to both academics and activists: what do victory gardens tell us about the relationship between World War II and the environment on the American home front, and what did they signify for the Americans who espoused, promoted, and grew them? What are the importance, role, and effects of gardening in a modern, industrial society?
Featured Image: A farmer loads his manure spreader in Shelby County, Iowa, 1941. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Anastasia Day is a history doctoral candidate and Hagley Scholar in Capitalism, Technology, and Culture at the University of Delaware. She identifies as a historian of environment, technology, business, and society, themes that collide uniquely in food. Her dissertation is entitled “Productive Plots: Nature, Nation, and Industry in the Victory Gardens of the U.S. World War II Home Front.” Website. Twitter. Contact.
Timothy Johnson completed his Ph.D. in American history at the University of Georgia in December 2016. His research examines intersections between business, technology, and environmental history. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Edward Hodgson to Mary Hodgson, 5 February 1908 (Private collection of the Hodgson family, (Athens, Georgia). ↩
L.N. Duncan to C.W. Warburton, 21 February 1925 Box 1125, “Fertilizer files re county agents,” entry 17, 16, Box 1125, RG 16 (NARA II). ↩
National Victory Garden Institute, Manual for Company-Employee Gardens. (New York: The Institute, 1944), 3. ↩
Cantril, Hadley and Strunk, Mildred. Public Opinion, 1935-1946. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Pr., 1951), 996. ↩
Fox, Frank W. Madison Avenue Goes to War: The Strange Military Career of American Advertising, 1941-45. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 54. ↩
Seymour, E. L. D. Your Victory Garden. (Chicago: J.G. Ferguson, 1942), 12. ↩