Back-to-the-Land Movement

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The back-to-the-land, or back-to-the-soil, movement of the 1930s was a collection of relief and reform projects that sought agrarian solutions to the decade's social and economic crises. A single basic goal united the various groups and schemes associated with the movement: to open the nation's unused lands to a new class of small producers. But this common theme found expression through initiatives ranging greatly in practical scope and intellectual sophistication.

In the broadest sense, movement back to the land in the United States began soon after the stock market crash of 1929, when the country saw a temporary but significant reversal of decades of urbanward migration as city jobs dried up and millions sought what seemed simpler, cheaper living on old family farms or bits of unused, marginal land. The popular press fueled this widespread but largely unorganized upwelling of interest in subsistence gardening and small farming through a drumbeat of articles from such leading figures as longtime physical culture advocate Bernarr Macfadden.

A more organized movement took shape as a variety of public and private initiatives to resettle and retrain families for small production on both individual and collective small farms. A number of such programs were mainly ad hoc efforts by states and municipalities to reduce relief rolls, reprising similar efforts during previous depressions to use open lands as a safety valve for urban overcrowding and unemployment. But some leaders envisioned more concerted, long-term land use planning, often seeking to combine industrial decentralization with workers' gardens in small new towns. Franklin Roosevelt proposed such a plan as governor of New York, as had industrialist Henry Ford in his 1926 book Today and Tomorrow.

Indeed, much of 1930s back-to-the-land activity predated the Depression, though the crisis lent it new impetus. Sectarian groups like the American Friends Service Committee, the rural life sections of the Catholic church and various Protestant churches, and the Jewish Agricultural Society brought an emphasis on economic and social cooperatives to their own long-standing efforts at communal rural rehabilitation. Newly mobilized county agricultural and domestic agents revived a program for rural improvements codified in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission. But all of the foregoing strands of the movement had their culminating expression in a series of resettlement colonies built by the New Deal's Division of Subsistence Homesteads beginning in late 1933, which joined plans for regional and cultural rehabilitation to a new rural-urban synthesis of part-time farming and factory work in localized, cooperative settings.

Beyond rural resettlement and rehabilitation projects, the movement offered intellectual updates to the tradition of Jeffersonian agrarianism. The movement's unifying ideological positions included ambitious calls for a general redistribution of property and a return to localized production and government. These common themes found their most forceful expression through the Southern Agrarians, a group of intellectuals at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who argued for a return to the institutions and traditions of the landed Old South in their volume I'll Take My Stand (1930), and Ralph Borsodi, who had begun in the early 1920s to preach and practice household production as an alternative to unhealthy, wasteful mass consumerism.



Borsodi, Ralph. Flight from the City: An Experiment in Creative Living on the Land. 1933.

Carlson, Allan. The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. 2000.

Conkin, Paul K. Tomorrow a New World: The New DealCommunity Program. 1959.

Lord, Russell, and Paul H. Johnstone. A Place on Earth:A Critical Appraisal of Subsistence Homesteads. 1942.

Stuart Keith Patterson