The South has long been defined by it’s rural culture, especially that of farms that once dotted the landscape and the families that inhabited them. In today’s world of agribusiness, mass consumption, and suburban sprawl, the rural world once known by many native Southerners is almost an alien country. But it is a country worth knowing. Historian Paul Conkin has shown that America was home to 6 million farmers in the 1930s. That number has fallen to less than 350,000 today. Most of those farms are highly mechanized operations outside the South, commonly in the plain states of the Midwest that rely upon technological innovations to feed an exponentially growing population. Conkin maintains that the greatest agricultural revolution in history occurred in the United States beginning in 1929. I think he is generally correct. In a single generation, American agricultural witnessed unprecedented change away from smaller farms that grew crops for both home consumption and the market, to a government subsidized industry now reliant upon a global economy. To properly gauge the extent to which a distinctive South still exists in a useful and meaningful way, I would argue that one must first understand the extent to which the South has moved away from its traditional agrarian culture.
One doesn’t have to go as far back as the antebellum South to get a picture of the South when it was truly an agrarian community writ large. As late as World War II, the South remained predominantly rural in most places. Travel was limited, church was the major social event of the week, and the weather determined everything about the course of the workday. If “turning modern” includes things like installing electricity in the house for the first time, many farms in the region didn’t have that until the late 40s and early 50s. I recollect an author of some note saying several years ago that in the 1930s, South Carolina was still Dixie, but by 1950, South Carolina had become America. It simply means that the rural South experienced a major cultural and economic shift between the 30s and the 50s. And so it did. Farmers sent their sons to study agriculture in land-grant colleges, just to find that their sons never came back to the farm but rather used their education to get away from the land entirely. Rural Southerners, like other Americans generally, adopted a cash-based economy whereby they bought food and household items traditionally grown and produced at home. Anyone even remotely familiar with the region knows this story rather well.
The South moves away from its traditional rural culture still. I don’t think that much of the recent back-to-the-land, organic food, locavore, and homestead craze is wresting this in any significant way. Agritourism continues to grow in the region, and restaurants that specialize in serving locally grown produce are booming with business. You know what all this looks like. Farmhouse chic is now in vogue. And the Nashville music industry has done a stellar job of capitalizing upon what remains of rural identity in the country as a whole. Does any of this represent a renewed interest among Southerns in agrarianism? Not really.
The type of landed society that once existed in the South is one in which few Southerners would now care to live. And it is highly doubtful many would have the ability to work and live outside the mass consumer culture. The spiritual and family-centered aspects of say, the 1930s South, would certainly find sympathy among many people, but not so much the idea that these aspects of life would be better preserved by living the life of a farmer. Is there a real connection between that older South that grandparents once told us about and what is not being called neo-agrarianism? I think the answer is an unequivocal no. Things like community supported agriculture, organic gardening, and hobby farming do not, in my mind at least, reflect the type of rural life the South once cherished and celebrated. Is modern “country” music an expression of a genuine rural identity in the South or anywhere? If so, it is a heathen one that celebrates drunkenness, lewd women, bar fights, and fornication to a degree that no self-respecting Southerner would dare want his Mama to know about.
No, I think these contemporary ideas of what country living means is no genuinely stable lifestyle at all, but rather a fad that permits the hobby farmer a return to modern conveniences as soon as the first patio tomato plant dies. The South that is worthy of celebration is one that rests upon a human consciousness of the history, people, and events that made a landscape a home. The continued relevance of knowing about the old agrarian South rests in the ways in which that knowledge helps explain why living in a particular place, a specific piece of land, and knowing its nature and history, is the best way to obtain steady order and stability in the face of a confused modern world.