The Colour of the Soil

How the discovery of the lies in one part of America’s agrarian tradition led to the discovery of deep truths in another.

Gracy Olmstead
Gracy Olmstead is a writer whose work has appeared in The American Conservative, New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is currently writing a book about the Idaho farming community where she grew up.

In 2016, I wrote a piece on agrarianism for Comment, considering the changes wrought in the world of farming by the Industrial Revolution, and arguing for a system of farming that put health and sustainability before machine efficiency. I was asked by the magazine’s editor to consider how the book I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition—written by the self-named “Southern Agrarians” in the early twentieth century—fit into the agrarian canon. I bought a copy of the book and perused a couple of its essays briefly before adding some notes and quotes to my piece.

My argument therein was that the Southern Agrarians, arguing as they did against industrialism and for the agrarian nature of the South, were fighting for the sort of modest, self-sufficient farms that advocates like Wendell Berry have also argued for. I wrote that they were arguing against a “technological ‘revolution’ applied to farming.” I saw their work, at the time, as an argument for the yeoman farmer: “not arguing for a return to the antebellum plantation and slave labour . . . [but rather] defending a preservation of the smaller-scale, self-sufficient farms that characterized many Southern communities.”

In all truth, I forgot this piece existed until a few weeks ago. When I reread the piece, however, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I knew my depiction of the Southern Agrarians was wrong, even though I had not revisited the book since I skimmed it four years ago. Call it suspicion, intuition, or the prompting of a pricked conscience: I began researching the Southern Agrarians—this time, delving into their background and their work and reading the entirety of I’ll Take My Stand word for word, not just briefly perusing a few pages from the book. I was filled with horror by what I discovered.

Continue reading at Comment.