Steven Stoll - Larding the Lean Earth

Soil is a bank account for fertility that farmers draw upon, and the balance is always low. (p. 19)
In this unique, to me at least, account of American agricultural history Stoll writes very well and makes, what on the surface may seem, a dull topic come to life. Not being a connoisseur of the history of farming I found many new thoughts and views within Larding the Lean Earth's pages. Based on other, more expert reviews, that I've encountered, perhaps even those who are well read on the subject feel the same way.

Economics played a major role in early American farming, but not in the typical way that you'd think. Americans treated the land very differently than, say, Europeans of the same era. They did so because labor was relatively expensive and the land was relatively cheap when compared to Europe. Hence, the American farmer tended to use and abuse and then move on, whereas, that was unheard of in the comparatively populous nations across the Atlantic. As Stoll says on page 35,

Boundless expanses within the boundaries of the United States all the way to the Mississippi River made emigration more compelling than spending the money, learning the methods, and expending the labor necessary to create fertility. Furthermore, freedom from these costs allowed the great majority to own productive farms. Waste was democratic. Conserving land could be an expensive undertaking. Skimming allowed farmers to maintain yields with the smallest possible investment.
It also turned the land into worthless dust.

Fans of Daniel Quinn will nod their heads to some of Stoll's messages. For instance:

An epic of urban formation followed by dusty abandonment looks menacing next to millions of years of hunting and gathering, as though settled societies are inherently unstable. (p. 18)
Overall, Larding the Lean Earth is a surprisingly good book, written by an eloquent author, who will make you think about land and agriculture in a whole new light. (I apologize in advance for this final comment because I can't seem to resist making it... Due to its frequent references to, history of, and emphasis on manure, whether you enjoy this book or not, you are certain to come away thinking it's full of shit.)

from the publisher:
Fifty years after the Revolution, American farmers faced a crisis. The sods of the Atlantic states seemed to be failing, and some feared that the agricultural prosperity upon which the Republic was founded was threatened. Larding the Lean Earth explores the tempestuous debates that erupted between 'improvers,' who believed in practices that sustained and bettered the soil of existing farms, and 'emigrants,' who looked instead to the unbroken lands of the West as their soils gave out.

Steven Stoll here presents original and path-breaking research into ideas at the foundation of American conservationist thought. Drawing on dozens of journals that gave voice to the improvers, cause, he brings to life a critical political dispute that has been neglected for far too long. Focusing on two groups of farmers, in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, and analyzing the similarities and differences in their agriculture, Stoll illustrates all the larger regional concerns that the "new husbandry" faced in both free and slave states.

Farming has always been the human activity that most disrupts nature, for good or ill. The decisions these early Americans made about how to farm not only expressed their political and social faith, but also influenced American attitudes about the environment for decades to come. Larding the Lean Earth is a signal work of environmental and political history and an original contribution to the study of antebellum America.

"Larding the Lean Earth demonstrates brilliantly that topsoil and subsoil are indeed the very ground in which agriculture and other culture take root." --John Stilgoe, Harvard University

"In this marriage of agricultural and environmental history, Steven Stoll provides a fresh look at the ideology of agricultural improvement during a crucial period of our nation's development. Stoll tells an eloquent story of lost possibilities that still haunt us today." --Hal S. Barron, Harvey Mudd College and Claremont Graduate University

"Steven Stoll's brilliantly original Larding the Lean Earth unearths hidden layers of meaning in the farm practices of early America and in the westward movement. This thoughtful, far-reaching work traces the origins of today's ecological crisis to the failure of the antebellum ethic of 'improving the soil.' Evocative and provocative, written with verve and passion and with new insights on every page, this is a book that every nineteenth-century historian will want to read." --Daniel Feller, University of New Mexico

"Nineteenth-century Americans were overwhelmingly rural, agrarian, and westwardly mobile. No wonder, then, that ordinary folks and the profoundest minds were preoccupied with dirt -- with the quality, conservation, and abandonment of soils -- for civilization was, after all, founded upon thriving, stable agriculture. Now we have at last a thorough and imaginative history of American soil that is scientifically and agronomically astute, politically contextualized, and often poetic of expression." --Jack Temple Kirby, Miami University

Steven Stoll, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, is the author of The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.