A Look at Farmers’ Bulletins (Part 2)

So I must admit that I’ve become enthralled by the Farmers’ Bulletins. I now know the best way to remove coffee stains from artificial silk – now commonly called rayon by the trade – from Bulletin 1474, entitled “Stain removal from fabrics: home methods.” And if I’m honest, I’m as pleased to learn that rayon was once called artificial silk as much as I am to know rayon is weaker when it is wet and must be handled carefully.

However, as fascinating as the historical language and large array of disparate topics – from “The Udder Diseases of Dairy Cows” to “Care and Use of Rope on the Farm” – there is also a lot of language that gives me pause.

For example, in the first bulletin (discussed in the previous post) just a few moments after the elevated language of the beauty of planets and blades of grass, the author assumes all aspiring farmers are male: the science of research stations “shows the boys that it is a profession in which brains can be used with profit.”

And in other bulletins, there are assumptions about race: “The most important supply of labor for cotton picking in Arizona is afforded by the Papago and Pima Indians. There are, conservatively speaking 5,000 to 7,000 people in these tribes who promise by virtue of their industry, patience, and honesty to play a most important part in establishing the cotton industry. The Indians are the most satisfactory laborers that can be had in Arizona for this work” (Farmers’ Bulletin 577, 1914). Though apparently complimentary toward these “honest Indians,” it is also patronizing and gives no suggestion that the reason why these communities need work is because they have been removed from their land, contained by reservations – typically comprised of land with soil of little agricultural use – to make way for European settlers, including the Arizona cotton farmers.

In other places, Indian crops like corn, acorns, rice and the “nomadic Indians sparsely occupying” the Great Plains are mentioned in de facto ways to give way to the Europeans, who use the land more productively: “Stockmen came into this country in the early eighties after the Indians were confined to reservations.” This is Manifest Destiny expressed in scientific bulletins about crop and soil science.

In another bulletin about malaria, the author laments black people moving out of a region because without them cotton farmers are going to have to find new white laborers – who are more susceptible to malaria: “The advance of the cotton-boll weevil into this section has had its customary effect of driving a considerable proportion of the negro labor into other regions not yet invaded, and unless the country is to become impoverished it will be necessary to import white labor. Negroes are more or less resistant to malaria, but this will not be true of the white labor coming into this region, which will undoubtedly become rapidly infected with the disease” (Farmers’ Bulletin 450, 1911).

I had to do a little more research to puzzle this out. It turns out that slaves from certain countries in Africa were more likely to be immune to malaria, and so for this reason slave owners paid higher prices for slaves who were less likely to get sick. This in turn incentivized slave traders to kidnap people from these countries because of the higher returns. The fact that in 1911, entomologist L.O. Howard can say, “Negroes are more or less resistant to malaria,” is a direct legacy of our country’s slave history. This passage also demonstrates that the USDA continues to see Black Americans as merely a useful category of labor, just like those “imported white laborers.”

Though they can be hard to read, I still value these bulletins for their historicity. But it leaves me with the question of what to do with this kind of language? At first, I just wanted to shrug it off and chalk it up to a pre-enlightened era when well-meaning people just didn’t know any better. But I couldn’t stop there. I realized that historical documents illustrate just how embedded racism and sexism is in our national history; it’s even found documents about growing corn and raising dairy cows!

But it also shows how far we have come. For example, the USDA now has special grants and loans for minority and women farmers and ranchers and the urban farming movement like the Urban Growers Collective in Chicago is making the empowering connection to land available to an array of city dwellers.

But the fact remains that more than 92 percent of the country’s 2.1 million farmers are white, and more than 86 percent of those farm operators are men. Though women’s history month has already passed, let us remember the women farmers and the unnamed partners of the male farmers who toiled with the best of the “boys,” but received little acknowledgement beyond the title “wife,” but who paved the way for female farmers working in the fields and barns of today. And let us also remember the systemic injustice that first brought black slaves here to toil on the land, and later disenfranchised them from continuing to work the land after slavery and Jim Crow faded into the background.

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