“Two Sides of the Same Policy”: Rural Improvement and Resource Conservation in the Progressive Era

By Travis Koch

Therefore, friends, the conservation and rural life policies are really two sides of the same policy; and down at bottom this policy rests upon the fundamental law that neither man nor nation can prosper unless, in dealing with the present, he steadily take thought for the future.2

– Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Was ever a sillier movement than this, which ranks with Roosevelt’s attempt to revise spelling, and like it, is doomed to oblivion? … The rural American needs no patronizing solicitude from the Roosevelt commission or any other self-appointed coterie of busybodies.3

– Butte Intermountain, 1910

When President Theodore Roosevelt announced in August 1908 that he had appointed a Commission on Country Life to investigate rural conditions and make recommendations for how to improve country life, American farmers were immediately suspicious.  Many saw the Commission as nothing more than a pathetic bid for votes, and farm papers across the nation ridiculed “Teddy the Meddler” in cartoon and parody.4  What did farmers really need?  “More rain,” stated one paper, and “less fool questions by fool commissions about fool things.”5   “If Teddy can show me how to pitch manure except with a fork, or do the milking without using my hands, I’ll give in,” a farmer wrote.6

Newspaper clipping, Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342,
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Box 21.

Farmers expressed confusion over the motives behind Roosevelt’s “uplift” commission.  In a letter to Wallace’s Farmer, a popular Iowa farm journal, one writer questioned how Roosevelt could simultaneously praise farmers as the backbone of the republic and blame them for rural deficiencies.  “We are at a loss to know which of these … is intended for a joke on the poor farmer or whether or not both may be jokes,” the letter stated.7  The writer described how the economic and social status of the American farmer had dramatically declined since the Civil War.  Land speculation, diminished yields, falling commodity prices, and mounting debt had weakened American farming in the late-nineteenth century.  Meanwhile, cities continued to siphon the country’s youth off their parents’ farms, precipitating a scarcity of farm labor and an alarming increase in the number of abandoned farms.  “These conditions do not reflect much exaltation on the part of the farmer,” the writer concluded.  Farmers across the nation were galled by Roosevelt’s suggestion that they shared blame for their predicament and needed a commission of experts to improve them.  If anything, they were held down by an oppressive economic system controlled by corporate interests and supported by high tariffs.  As one indignant farmer put it, “You get off, and I’ll get up.”8

Roosevelt and other Country Life reformers, a diverse group of government officials, academics, physical and social scientists, editors, ministers, and businessmen, viewed the rural situation quite differently.  For them, the most pressing rural problem at the turn of the twentieth century was not an inequitable economic system, as farmers claimed; rather, it was how to maximize the efficiency of agricultural production to match the changing needs of a rapidly growing population.

Although there was no immediate scarcity of agricultural commodities in the early twentieth century, Country Life reformers believed that, in general, American farmers were neglecting their responsibility to develop and conserve the productive capacity of their lands.  Farmers, they claimed, needed to adopt modern, scientific methods, which would allow them to produce more food on less land while maintaining its fertility.  If farmers failed to embrace scientific agriculture, reformers warned, the nation’s rapid population growth would soon outpace farmers’ capacity to supply sufficient food.  Convinced that the future strength and prosperity of the nation depended on effectively addressing rural inefficiency, Country Life reformers conceived an ambitious plan to save America by stimulating, organizing, and stabilizing rural society.9

Beyond the need for more efficient agricultural production, Country Life reformers desired the stability and prosperity of the rural population for other, more complicated reasons.  They shared with many Americans the belief that farmers were the backbone of the republic.  “If there is one lesson taught by history,” Roosevelt stated, “it is that the permanent greatness of any state must ultimately depend more upon the character of its country population than upon anything else.”10

By pinning the greatness of the nation to the character of its rural population, Roosevelt was invoking the widely held nineteenth-century idea of agrarian republicanism.  The agrarian ideal was best expressed by Thomas Jefferson in 1781 in his Notes on Virginia: “Those who labor on the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”11  According to Jefferson, independent, landowning farmers were essential to the character of the nation because they were the repository of republican virtue—a combination of political independence and selfless patriotism.  Farmers functioned as the conscience of the nation.  Their close connection to the land preserved American ideals such as self-sufficiency and moral integrity.  As agricultural historian Earle D. Ross explained, Roosevelt believed that “the farm-owner, more than any other element of the population … provided an essential bulwark against dangerous social and political innovations.” 12 As long as independent farmers made up a significant portion of the population, the national character would remain secure.  According to Roosevelt, “We cannot afford to lose that preeminently typical American, the farmer who owns his own farm.”13

While Country Life reformers publically extolled the social value of farmers, their assessment of rural conditions was shaped by their broader commitment to resource conservation, which became a national concern in the late-nineteenth century.  Conservation was a response to the idea that human ignorance, laziness, and individual and corporate greed threatened to destroy the nation’s resource base, thereby undermining the potential for national progress.  Samuel P. Hays, in his 1959 book Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, described the Conservation movement as a broad effort by government officials to apply science and technology to the development and use of America’s natural resources.14  Conservationists believed that Americans were rapidly depleting the nation’s deposits of coal and iron, exhausting timber reserves, and mismanaging waterways.  In response, government officials initiated scattered efforts in the late-nineteenth century to take inventory of existing resources and manage their use, often with the goal of promoting settlement and agricultural development.  The methodology of conservation was legislative and administrative, and the immediate results were evident in federal projects such as the creation of national forest reserves, regulation of logging and grazing on public lands, and reclamation of arid lands through large-scale irrigation projects, primarily in the West.  As Forest Service law officer Philip Wells explained, conservation was the use of “foresight and restraint in the exploitation of the physical sources of wealth as necessary for the perpetuity of civilization, and the welfare of present and future generations.” 15

Farmers played into conservationists’ concerns because they controlled a vast amount of the nation’s most valuable resource—fertile soil.  Like other resources, soil fertility was in danger of being depleted by abuse and mismanagement, which would lead to shortages and, ultimately, national decline.  In Roosevelt’s thinking, conservation and rural betterment were two sides of the same policy.16  “Our first and greatest task is to set our house in order and begin to live within our means,” Roosevelt declared.17  An orderly house would operate at maximum efficiency, with every component coordinated, every resource developed, and all wasteful excess eliminated.

Roosevelt’s commitments to resource conservation and national efficiency led him to appoint two commissions in 1908 to investigate problems related to land-use and rural development.  The first, a National Conservation Commission chaired by Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, was instructed to provide a comprehensive inventory of the nation’s natural resources.  The second, the Country Life Commission, was chaired by Liberty Hyde Bailey—a world-renowned botanist, professor of horticulture, and director of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University—and charged with providing a summary statement of conditions in rural America.  Roosevelt asked both commissions to include suggestions for how the government might address existing deficiencies. 

The report of the National Conservation Commission, crafted by Pinchot and published in 1909, presented the Roosevelt administration’s official stance on resource conservation, which from its inception was closely tied to agriculture.  To establish the urgency of land-use reform, the report recited the common concern that rapid population growth would soon place even greater demands on limited resources, leading to shortages.  “The population of the United States in 1900 was 76,303,387,” the report stated.  “Probably it will double by the middle and triple before the end of the present century.  In view of this growth, the question of food supply assumes the highest importance.”18  Conservation of agricultural resources was a technical problem to be solved by better production methods and better management.  It was also a moral issue.  According to Roosevelt, “It is high time to realize that our responsibility to the coming millions is like that of parents to their children, and that in wasting our resources we are wronging our descendants.”19

Roosevelt insisted that federal management of the nation’s resources was necessary to ensure wise development, regulate proper use, and promote prudent conservation for future needs.20  But when it came to regulating farmland, aggressive government action presented a perplexing problem.  Simply put, the independence and self-sufficiency of farmers were considered essential to the moral character of the nation, even as the stability and efficiency of agricultural production was necessary for the progress of the nation.  Country Life reformers realized that government could not directly regulate farming practices without contaminating the nation’s wellspring of republican virtue.  Roosevelt tried to circumvent this dilemma in two ways.  First, he appealed to science as the final, politically neutral judge of best farming practices.  As the National Conservation Commission Report stated, “Scientific classification [of public lands] would ultimately fix with certainty, according to the productive values of the surface, a reasonable home-making area for each class of agricultural land, and thus solve that problem without mistake or friction.” 21  Second, Roosevelt focused on government aid to farmers rather than government control.  The federal and State governments should provide for the education and support of farmers, primarily through the experiment stations and extension services of the States’ land-grant agricultural colleges, but it would be up to individual farmers to voluntarily embrace a conservation ethic.  

It fell to the Country Life Commission to recommend ways for government to support rural development.  Given the ambivalence of farmers to outside interference in rural affairs, Roosevelt knew he needed to appoint well-respected, high profile figures to the Country Life Commission if it was to succeed.  For popular appeal, he chose several editors of influential agricultural publications: Henry Wallace of Iowa, editor of Wallace’s Farmer, and Walter Hines Page of New York, editor of The World’s Work.  Responding to demands for better regional representation, Roosevelt added Californian William A. Beard, editor of Great West Magazine, and Charles S. Barrett of Georgia, an advocate of Southern agriculture and president of the Farmer’s Cooperative and Educational Union of America.22  The inclusion of rural sociologist Kenyon Butterfield, president of the Massachusetts State College of Agriculture, gave the Commission additional academic credibility, while Gifford Pinchot’s presence ensured that the Commission’s work would not stray from Roosevelt’s conservation agenda.  To chair the Country Life Commission, Roosevelt selected Liberty Hyde Bailey, who at that time was the recognized leader of the Country Life movement.23  More importantly for Roosevelt’s purposes, Bailey was an acclaimed scientist and educator who shared the President’s enthusiasm for efficiency and conservation.


Newspaper clipping, Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Box 21.

 

Under Bailey’s guidance the Country Life Commission’s report outlined a broad program of rural reorganization that called for improvements in rural education, transportation, communication, sanitation, institutional coordination, and voluntary cooperation—all with the goal of increasing rural efficiency.  The report’s catalogue of existing rural deficiencies was neither original nor surprising.  It merely relayed many of the common grievances expressed by rural residents at the 30 hearings held around the nation between November 9 and December 22, 1908, and in over 115,000 written surveys (out of 550,000 sent) returned to the Commission during their investigation.24  Persistent complaints of bad roads, parasitic middlemen, and a discriminatory transportation system were redolent of the antimonopoly agitations of nineteenth century Populists.  

Echoing the sentiments of the rural population, the Commission claimed that federal support of rural improvements in areas such as road building, a rural parcels post, and more effective regulation of the transport and sale of liquor would remedy many of the “handicaps” that hindered rural development. 25  That some of these reforms were achieved during the following decade—the establishment of a national parcel post (1912), the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act (1916), and the ratification of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol (1919)—was more a consequence of the ongoing agitation for such reforms among existing reform groups than a direct result of the Country Life Commission’s report, which was ignored by Congress when Roosevelt submitted it.

For all the information gathered and weighed by the Commission, their final report provided few concrete proposals for how to achieve Country Life reforms.  The Commission recommended further investigation; it encouraged Congress to initiate “a system of thoroughgoing surveys of all agricultural regions in order to take stock and to collect local fact, with the idea of providing a basis on which to develop a scientifically and economically sound country life.”26  Additionally, it called for the expansion of the agricultural college extension system for the purpose of distributing “information and inspiration” to “every person on the land” in hopes that they might be motivated to adopt scientific agriculture and improve their own condition.27

The Country Life Commission’s report emphasized educational reform as the most promising solution to rural problems.  The failure of rural schools to teach agricultural and rural subjects was “largely responsible for ineffective farming, lack of ideas, and the drift to town.” 28  The rural school curriculum must be “fundamentally redirected,” the report stated.  It must be tailored to rural life, in order to “teach people how to live” prosperously and contentedly in the country.29  If rural education were better related to rural life, reformers argued, the country’s youth would be better prepared for rural pursuits and more likely to work toward rural development.  As it played out, the campaign for improved rural education did little to stem the tide of migration from country to city.  Contrary to reformers’ intentions, better education accelerated “the drift to town” by equipping rural youth to succeed in industrial pursuits while city-trained teachers encouraged their brightest students to pursue opportunities that could only be found in an urban setting.30

Bailey believed that the Country Life reform program, however indefinite, could succeed where previous rural reform efforts had failed because it would be built upon scientific investigation.  Science revealed truth, he claimed, and the truth would guide, reshape, and purify society.31  According to the logic of conservation, if scientific investigation, experimentation, data compilation, expert analysis, and rational planning could substantiate the need for specific rural and agricultural reforms, then there could be no reasonable objection to implementing those reforms.  Nor could there be any doubt that plans based on scientific analysis would ultimately succeed; any defects would be interpreted as occasions for further investigation and reorganization.  And farmers would have no excuse for noncompliance.  Those farmers who refused to conform could be justifiably labeled as selfish, willfully ignorant, and destructive.

In The Country Life Movement in the United States, published in 1911, Bailey insisted that “the conservation and country-life movements rest on the same premise”—that the welfare of the individual and the existence of the race “depends on utilizing the products and forces of the planet wisely, and also on securing greater quantity and variety of new products.”32  Because the wasteful and inefficient use of natural resources affected every citizen, Bailey claimed that questions of conservation and rural reform transcended individual or party interests.  Problems related to resource use must be solved by the rational application of scientific principles in the best interest (as determined by trained experts) of all people.33  Bailey emphasized the urgent need to educate farmers, as those responsible for maintaining the producing powers of the soil: “When he knows, and his obligations to society are quickened, he will be ready to become a real conservator.” 34

The Country Life reformers’ accentuation of social obligation over individual interest was a hallmark of progressive reform movements in the early twentieth century.35  According to historian Daniel Rodgers, “The yearning to purge society of what now seemed its individualistic excesses took several forms.”36  In certain cases, Progressive Era reform became “an assault on the idea of individualism itself.”37  Country Life reformers thought they saw excessive individualism in farmers who either refused to produce as much food as possible or neglected to farm in a way that preserved the productive capacity of the land for future generations.  However, Country Life critiques of rural individualism were not intended as protests against rural autonomy.  Any diminution in rural autonomy would weaken an essential social safeguard by undermining the repository of republican virtue—the independent, landowning American farmer.  Rural people, especially farmers, needed to remain free from corporate, political, and even ethnic influence, reformers explained, but they also needed a new outlook on the world and an appreciation of their special role as producers and conservators of American land.

“In the end,” Bailey wrote, “conservation must deal with the separate or the individual man; that is, with the person.”38 Bailey’s persistent emphasis on individual responsibility may be the greatest contribution of the Country Life movement to conservation, though it has not received due recognition.  Bailey understood that, as it related to agriculture, conservation was not a single problem; it was 6,406,200 individual problems—as many farms as there were in the United States in 1910.39  The diversity among American farms and farmers made it impossible to legislate farming on a national scale.  Legislation that might help one farmer would destroy another.  Furthermore, Bailey recognized that farmers must remain free to adapt to changing social, economic, and environmental conditions.  The idea that the state could lay out a workable farm scheme for each individual farmer was, in Bailey’s estimation, a chimerical notion. 40   While conservationists worked to implement their program on public lands, Country Life reform stalled when the progressive desire to stabilize rural society and make agriculture more efficient through scientific management clashed with the foundational American values associated with private property rights and rural individualism.

If the differences between conservation and Country Life reform were determined by public and private property, then the history of the Country Life movement was not so much a conflict between industrialization and a romanticized memory of farm life as it was an attempt to apply conservation principles to a particular landscape.  Recognizing this, future historical analyses of conservation should be expanded to incorporate Country Life reform efforts.  Similarly, the Country Life movement should be explained as an expression of Progressive Era concerns about resource conservation.  On the receiving end of rural reform, farmers’ responses to urban-based rural reform movements ought to be evaluated both in terms of farmers’ expectations and perceptions and in terms of reformers’ complex intentions.

Today, less than 1% of Americans claim farming as their primary occupation, around 2% live on farms, and less than 17% live in areas defined by the US Census Bureau as rural.41  75% of the total value of U.S. agricultural production is produced on 5% of the nation’s farms.42  Nevertheless, the image of the detached rural individual retains its power.  It endures mostly in truck commercials, country music, and western films.  Alongside individualism stands a growing awareness of the impact of human action on the natural environment.  As we strive to strengthen the bonds between conservation and agriculture, and between environmental sustainability and individual action, we encounter a tension similar to the one faced by Roosevelt and the Country Life reformers.  The individual citizen remains both the culprit and the solution to environmental problems.  Whether it is possible to reconcile a conservation ethic with our commitment to individualism without resorting to forced compliance remains to be seen.


1 For an expanded version of this article see Travis A. Koch, “Sowing Seeds of Progress: Liberty Hyde Bailey and the Country Life Phase of the American Conservation Movement,” (senior honors thesis, Stanford University, 2011).

2 Theodore Roosevelt, “Conservation and Rural Life,” Utica Observer, Aug 23, 1910, newspaper report of address delivered in Utica, N.Y., Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers (LHBP), #21-2-3342, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

3 “Rural Civilization,” newspaper clipping, Butte Intermountain, July 18, 1910, LBHP.

4 “Farmer’s Don’t Ask Help of Roosevelt,” newspaper clipping, Aug 10, 1908, LHBP.

5 “Hayville Answers the Uplift Queries,” newspaper clipping, Aug 1908, LHBP.

6 “Farmer’s Don’t Ask Help of Roosevelt,” LHBP.

7 “Agricultural Conditions in Indiana,” newspaper clipping, Wallace’s Farmer, Sept. 11, 1908, LHBP.

8 “Mr. Roosevelt’s Scheme to ‘Uplift the Farmers,’” newspaper clipping, Hearst N.Y. Paper, Aug 1908, LHBP.

9 “No country has ever achieved permanent greatness unless this greatness was based on the wellbeing of the great farmer class, the men who live on the soil; for it is upon their welfare, material and moral, that the welfare of the rest of the nation ultimately rests.” Roosevelt, open letter to Bailey, Aug 10, 1908, LHBP; “The weal and welfare of these persons who live under the open sky determine, therefore, to a great extent the welfare of the general public.” Liberty Hyde Bailey, “The Outlook for the College of Agriculture,” April 27, 1907, LHBP.

10 Roosevelt, “The Man Who Works With His Hands,” in Essays on Agriculture, ed. Shirley Dare Babbitt and Lowry Charles Wimberly (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921), 150.

11 Thomas Jefferson, quoted in Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 124.

12 Earle D. Ross, “Roosevelt and Agriculture,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 14: no. 3 (Dec. 1927): 297-298, LHBP.

13 Roosevelt, “The Man Who Works With His Hands,” 150.

14 Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920, Harvard Historical Monographs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 2.

15 Philip Wells, “Conservation of Natural Resources,” quoted in Hays, 123.

16 Roosevelt, “Conservation and Rural Life,” LHBP.

17 Roosevelt, “Special Message of the President,” from Report on the National Conservation Commission, 1909, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), 2.

18 Report of the National Conservation Commission, 1909 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1909), 79.

19 Roosevelt, “Special Message,” Report of the National Conservation Commission, 2.

20 Roosevelt, “Special Message,” Report of the National Conservation Commission, 6-9.

21 Report of the National Conservation Commission, 87.

22 Although Barrett contributed to the work of the Commission, as a defender of Southern agricultural interests he refused to approve of the final draft of the report because it did not strongly condemn foreign immigration in the section on “Agricultural Labor” (pp. 41-44).  See letter exchange, Barrett to Bailey, Jan 16, 1909, and Bailey to Barrett, Jan 23, 1909, LHBP.

23 See William L. Bowers, The Country Life Movement in America, 1900-1920 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974), 45; Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, 144.

24 Report of the Country Life Commission (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), 27.

25 Ibid., 15-16, 22, 44.

26 Ibid., 15.

27 Ibid., 19.

28 Ibid., 53.

29 Ibid., 54.

30 See Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2009).

31 Liberty Hyde Bailey, “The Point of View of Scientist,” 1926, speech manuscript, LHBP.

32 Bailey, The Country-Life Movement in the United States, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911), 179.

33 The controlling principle of conservation was, in Gifford Pinchot’s words, “the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.” Pinchot, “Principles of Conservation,” from The Fight for Conservation, 1910, quoted in Conservation in the Progressive Era: Classic Texts, ed. David Stradling (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 22.

34 Bailey, The Country-Life Movement, 189.

35 See Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (Dec. 1982): 125.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., 124.

38 Bailey, The Country-Life Movement, 191.

39 US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Data Sets,” http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/farmincome/finfidmuxls.htm.

40 Bailey, The Country-Life Movement, 187.

41 US Environmental Protection Agency, “Demographics,” Ag 101, http://
www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/demographics.html; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Rural Population and Migration,” Briefing Rooms, http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/Population/.  Over 50 million Americans live in non-metropolitan areas as currently defined.  See also US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Trends in US Agriculture,” http://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Trends_in_U.S._Agriculture/ Farm_Population/index.asp.

42 US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “2007 Census of Agriculture,” http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/farm_numbers.pdf.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:06