Reading Journal 2015 Week 7

Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield

What a great book. Special thanks to SailorsSmallFarm for sending it to me. I would not have gotten to it so quickly otherwise. In fact, SSF has suggested a number of books I have enjoyed and may be my favorite librarian.

I’m going to have some fun with this book because I really am enjoying it. But I also think the author was a bit windy here and there. Please don’t mistake my humor for a lack of respect. I will revisit this book soon and encourage you to do the same.

I am currently at the halfway point of this book. My goal is to read a book each week but I just couldn’t muscle through this book in a week. There is too much to think about.

What is the book about?

That should give you the basic idea. There was a certain tone expressed in the book…that of a wealthy intellectual out to set some things straight, addressing his adoring public. Maybe that was just a style of the time. Let me give you an example. As you read this, contrast it to Oliver from Green Acres puffing out his chest and pontificating on the virtues and values of the brotherhood of American farmers.

…our own philosophy that the good farmer is a man who knows as much as possible, never stops learning, and has the intelligence to apply his knowledge and information to the conditions and the program of his own piece of land. It is the kind of farmer we must have in the nation and in this world; it is the kind of farmer we will have inevitably because the other kind is certain to be liquidated economically, despite bribes, subsidies and price floors and their land will be taken over eventually by those who cherish it and can make it productive and maintain that productivity. In the world and even in this country, where there was once so much good land that we believed it inexhaustible both in fertility and in area, mankind, if he is to survive, cannot permit agricultural land to be owned and managed by the lazy, the indifferent and the ignorant.

I don’t know that I disagree. It’s a fair summary of capitalism too. But there’s something in the tone. Oliver sounds naive but entirely lovable. At times, Bromfield is just preachy.

I would also like to add that this book is a follow-up to another of his titles, Pleasant Valley. I haven’t read Pleasant Valley but I think I would like to.

Is it a classic?
Yes. Published in 1947 and affecting my farm today. For large portions of the book I felt he was dragging it out but every so often, in unexpected ways, he would cut to the quick. I would stop and read aloud to Julie.

Will you read it again?
I almost can’t wait. Reading this in a week is like trying to go to seven family Thanksgiving dinners in a single weekend. Too much. Even spread over two weeks it’s a lot to digest.

Does it belong on your bookshelf?
I think I always say “Yes” to this question. Yes.

Can you relate a favorite passage?
Brace yourself.

Mrs. Johnson appeared and turned out to be very intelligent having had many years of experience working along dietary and nutrition lines. She was very interesting about her experiences with the dreary Okie camps in California during the bad years. She agreed that after the post-war boom dies down, we shall have the armies of migratory workers, dispossessed from poor, worn-out land, back on our hands, a liability, not only in relief and taxes but a moral, physical, and spiritual liability to the nation. The economic-human problem of the “poor whites” and “Okies” is an extremely complex one which in the end can be solved only be dealing with fundamentals – soil, diet and education in that order. Poor, worn-out soil produces specimens handicapped physically, mentally and morally from the very beginning. Food grown on such soil from which calcium, phosphorus, and other vital minerals and elements are exhausted can only produce sickly specimens, both humans and livestock. Wretched diet aggravates sickliness, and poor, under-nourished, stupid people make bad farmers who only destroy the soil still further. Education comes third because it is useless to attempt education with people sick physically and mentally from deficiencies of vital minerals. It is no good trying to solve the problem by taxes, WPA, charity and relief, although these may be necessary in time of acute crisis.

From Chapter 4, he is often lamenting large cities and industry…though he is also pushing for more efficient, industrial farm production…away from generalist farming. (Cue the fife!)

It is remarkable how people are becoming interested in these things – a very hopeful sign. If we can overcome the evils, economic and social, which industry and great cities have brought us, we shall be making progress. That is the frightening element in the recent elections. A growing urban proletariat without economic security can wreck everything that America has been in the past and darken the whole of her future.

Going back in time to chapter 2 we can see what he wants for the regular family (as inspired by The Have-More Plan). Farmers should specialize. But everybody else?

The general, widely diversified, and self-sufficient program is, however, admirably suited to the small-scale enterprise of industrial, white-collar and middle-bracket-income citizens with a few acres in the suburbs or in the country itself. This category of small, largely self-sufficient holdings is increasing constantly in numbers and it provides not only a bulwark of security for the individual but a source of strength for the nation as well. A well-managed small place with vegetables, fruit trees, chickens, perhaps a pig or two and a cow provides not only a source of large saving in the family food budget, but it also is a source of health, recreation, outdoor life, and general contentment for the whole family.

At this point, I have to hand the reins to Oliver again.

On the topic of The Have-More Plan, I just want to point out that farms don’t solve problems. Relationships are hard. Business is hard. Work is hard. Life is hard. But harvest comes in due season…if you can survive that long.

When Ed asked for a divorce, Carolyn told Judge House, “I felt like a work horse being turned out to pasture.”

There is a chapter titled, “Malthus was Right”. I think Malthus was right. At some point, it is theoretically possible that we could breed beyond the population we can feed. But I think he is also wrong. The chapter is in support of the notion that we should scream in terror as we approach the Earth’s human carrying capacity. He points to inefficient agricultural methods as some of the reason but, really, proposes no solution. In earlier chapters he bragged that he could keep a cow on every acre of his land. There are 2 billion acres of agricultural land in the US. But there is no proposal to raise cattle and sheep instead of corn, corn, corn…though he does complain about the practice of raising corn, corn, corn and hogs, hogs, hogs and, worst of all sins, of feeding corn to cattle…though he feeds corn silage to cattle. All of Africa. Australia. Russia covers 12 time zones. What do you mean we can’t feed ourselves? We have not yet begun to graze! There were two chapters about what a great healer of the Earth grass is…and anecdote after anecdote supporting the idea that the Earth is better for our management than it would be without it…and yet, he suffers from hysteria and despair that there are too many people. Let’s not be hysterical. Let’s start doing. And while you take a break from all the doing, do a little writing, make a video…find some way to share what you are doing with others to help them get started. Then they can do the same. And on it goes. Like network marketing of global agriculture.

Who should read this book?
There are portions of this book that I thought were fluff. Whole chapters of journal entries that I thought I should skim. A chapter about dealing with bluegill populations (by catching them and dumping them in a stream or neighbor’s pond) and another on his love of his pack of boxers. But overall I think this is a great book…a book you should read to further your understanding of “modern” agriculture.

But there is a lot of fluff…or what struck me as fluff. Let’s talk about growing grass for two chapters, shall we? OK. Here’s the low down. Lime your soils with two tons to the acre then rip the hardpan. If you have weeds and poverty grasses, rip those out and cover the soil with them. Now, add in chemical fertilizer, barn compost, 9 pounds of alfalfa, 5 pounds of brome grass and one pound of ladino clover. Focus, over time, on increasing your soil organic matter so the land can sponge up more moisture. That’s it. Sure, it won’t work just anywhere but it worked great here.

I summarized two chapters in that paragraph above. Two whole chapters. However, Bromfield was writing to help change the future. I live in the future.

Take home messages:
I’ll wrap this up next week when I finish the book.

Can you believe that’s the only book I worked on this week? No links to articles about space. No lecture on the positive virtues of Minecraft. Just keeping busy and staying warm.

Hope you are doing the same.

Cold weather this week. I plan to spend a fair amount of time by the fire reading a book. I need to do some recreational reading this week too. Maybe another book by Wodehouse or a book in the Dune series.

Please discuss this book with me. I hope you are reading it too. Share your favorite quotes or let me know if I have missed the point. Please don’t let me remain ignorant. Help me explore these ideas.

Click here to see all entries in my reading journal.

2 thoughts on “Reading Journal 2015 Week 7

  1. Love all the Green Acres clips. Interesting contrast between Oliver and Louis B, which has most certainly never occurred to me before. I totally agree about the pontificating aspect of Bromfield’s writing in this book, but I try to keep in mind that he was at that point a very successful author, he moved in high political circles, and was as you, as note, very much an intellectual in his day. I don’t own Pleasant Valley, but I read it some years ago, and seem to remember it as different in tone – it’s about how he got started with Malabar. What came through for me in both books was the small army of people who made it happen (he had a farm manager, a couple of farm hands, a guy who looked after the massive veg garden, the cook, and many more), and the amount of money he must have been throwing at the project, leaving me with the question – was Malabar profitable?

    I am tempted to compare Bromfield to Salatin – highly successful farmer, tours for thousands on the farm, proven alternative methods, etc, etc A couple of differences. Salatin has basically bootstrapped his way up to this point. Bromfield derived most of the money he put into Malabar from his other work. Salatin is I think respected within the alternative farming and whole food arenas but not so much outside those – Bromfield had the ear of presidents and industry giants – due mainly to his background, not his farming methods – a case of “who you know”, not “what you know”.

    • The comparison I made was silly though I wonder if Bromfield influenced the writers of Green Acres directly or if Green Acres was simply lampooning the post war back to the land movement. Either way, I thought it was fun. I’m glad you got the joke.

      It can’t be a bad thing to have so many things going that he has 4 or 5 families and 5 or 10 teens employed on the farm. Henderson operated similarly. But what surprised me was the, apparently, thousands of people who would show up at the farm on Sundays. I can’t imagine that. I can’t imagine how they got anything done. He writes about keeping a tractor busy pulling out cars that got stuck. I know we see a lot of YouTube videos of Salatin giving tours but I think that has become the exception rather than the rule. But Polyface seems to keep the openest of open door policies…who knows.

      I think Mr. Bromfield is worthy of additional study and plan to read more of his work. This book is on the Polyface library list.

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