Land Where the Farmer is King

May 17, 2018

“This is a great land--one filled with resources not yet exploited and opportunities still ungrasped. Its prosperity is dependent on agriculture--upon the soil.” So speaks Professor Alfred G. Arvold, of North Dakota Agricultural College, in a talk probably delivered in about 1915. This country “is certainly a Land Where the Farmer is King. East of the Montana copper mines and west of the Minnesota iron ranges is the agricultural Mecca of the continent,” declares Professor Arvold, thus situating his own Flickertail State in the middle of things.

As my neighbors completed seeding this spring, I dug into the boxes of the Arvold Collection in NDSU Archives, plowing through the works of one of American agriculture’s great exponents. Most people who know of Arvold speak of him as the founder of the Little Country Theater, as an advocate and organizer of the arts. Arvold was, however, also a recognized and charismatic leader a century ago of the Country Life Movement, which sought to make country life better and farming more profitable.

Arvold had his feet firmly planted on the ground of old-fashioned farm fundamentalism. “The hungry people of America,” he says, “needed bread--bread kneaded by the soft hand of woman--flour milled from wheat--wheat grown in nature’s soil, nursed, caressed and cared for by the brain plus the brawn of man. These people wanted butter for their bread--good potatoes and wholesome meat to go with both. If by any means, these supplies were cut off, these people would starve. . . . the man who satisfies this enormous appetite and feeds the hungry is none other than the Farmer--the King--the Leader--the Ruler among men.”

Arvold lauds the achievements of agricultural science and also agricultural reformers. Scientists not only had increased the productivity of agriculture but also guaranteed the safety of food--here Arvold is saluting the work of his colleague Edwin F. Ladd, a crusader for pure food and drugs.

What was lacking, then? Arvold issues a clarion call for the return of what historians term the “moral economy” of agriculture. There should be a fair price for goods--one that sustained farmers but did not gouge consumers. “If you demand too high a price for your produce you are actuated by greed,” Arvold asserts. “On the other hand, if the price you actually receive for your products is too low--Your claim is right.”

Only collective action and market development could right the situation. This might require new marketing structures--which demand the Nonpartisan League shortly would answer with construction of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator. In the meantime, Arvold insists, it is time to abolish the Board of Trade, home of the “speculator who does not blister his hands. . . . He is the king instead of you,” rails Arvold. “He dresses his wife in silks and satins--you dress yours in calico.”

Driving home from the archives, I tune in a regional radio station devoted to farm interests, and I listen to its talkers offer their best wisdom about the state of American agriculture. None of them can turn a phrase as could Arvold, but more to the point, none of them has a clue why agriculture and farmers are in any way important to the country. Any more than do our political parties, even here in North Dakota, which have forgotten that farming is still going on, and still vital.

Switching off the radio, I hear the voice of Arvold ringing between my ears: “Of what should a man be more proud than to be called an American farmer,” he asks. “The very title bears a grand significance.” Who speaks to us in these terms today?