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The Spirit of the Agrarian Creed

Download a 60-second audio version of this column at http://bit.ly/1CGRjBd.

Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, but there was another set of principles the Founding Fathers held closely, although they never formally adopted them.

Those principles are the agrarian creed, also known as the agricultural creed. The creed is usually traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who placed a high value on agricultural pursuits. Jefferson felt that farming was superior to other occupations and resulted in good citizenship. Therefore, the creed expressed the belief that a high percentage of Americans should live on farms.

Other ideas incorporated in the creed were that farming is not only a business, but a way of life and ideally a family enterprise. The land should belong to the person who farms it, and the farmer should be his own boss. Anyone who wants to farm should be able to do so. Lastly, it is good to make two blades of grass grow where only one grew before.

According to Grant McConnell, who wrote The Decline of Agrarian Democracy in 1953, the tradition of an agrarian democracy was at its peak in 1890. He blamed its decline on the rise of capitalism. In any case, society was becoming industrial and urban. During the twentieth century, depressed farm prices, uncontrollable surpluses and an exodus from farms made the agrarian dream seem more like a nightmare at times.

Yet, the spirit of the agrarian creed lives on and its basic tenets remain, especially the concept of the family farm and the importance of private property rights. These and other parts of the creed helped form the philosophies and beliefs of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Today’s high-tech world is a long way from what Jefferson had in mind, but there seems to be a growing appreciation among the non-farm public for agriculture and a desire to get back to our agrarian roots.

One of the hottest real estate trends is developing homes around a working farm instead of a golf course or a man-made lake. According to an article in Smithsonian magazine there are dozens of so-called agritopian developments that are offshoots of the local-food movement.

The foodie culture and farm-minded chefs are bringing more attention to the source of our food—the nation’s farms and ranches, and give credit to the agricultural community for reaching out to consumers like never before through social media and television. Farmers have always had a good story to tell, but now they have an audience more willing to listen. Yes, some non-farmers may follow a romanticized version of what farming ought to be, and that’s why a dialogue becomes important.

Jefferson’s dream of having a large part of the population living on farms is no longer possible, but his premise for the agrarian creed is still valid. As a nation, we should continue to place a high value on agricultural pursuits and recognize the work ethic and good citizenship of those who farm and ranch.

Stewart Truelsen, a food and agriculture freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series.

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