Malabar Farm (1948)
Several decades have now passed since the first Earth Day awakened environmental consciousness and re-awakened America to the idea of going “back to the land”, back to an idealized vision of agriculture. In recent years that awakening, broad-based and bipartisan, has been magnified by several new, seemingly related concerns: fear for the safety of our food and water supply; anger over the depredations of agribusiness and its dependence on subsidies; and debate about energy and environmental despoliation. The environmentalist imagination at its best tells us that a new, wiser agriculture can free us from many of these problems.
This isn’t the first time in American history that a similar inclination has arisen. Among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson venerated the virtues of agrarian living and scientific agriculture. And he has had his share of disciples among transcendentalists, populists, progressives and Civilian Conservation Corps enthusiasts. Along the way, the contemporary environmental sensibility has collected a pantheon of heroes: Jefferson himself, Emerson and Thoreau, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Louis Bromfield.
Louis Bromfield used to be the most famous farmer in America. Not all that long ago, his Malabar Farm in rural Ohio inspired a lengthy verse celebration by no less a stylist than E.B. White. In November 1942, Bromfield was the sole subject of a hagiographic two-page New Yorker “Talk of the Town” article. Photos of his face and his farm were splashed over newspapers and magazines across the country for years on end. It was on Bromfield’s farm that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married in 1945; Bromfield was Bogart’s best man. Yet somehow he has dropped clean out of the pantheon of American environmentalist icons. A look at his life and works may persuade many that his place of honor deserves to be restored.
Bromfield was born in 1896 on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were farmers, and his mother was the scion of Ohio pioneers. While he started out by following in his forebears’ footsteps by studying agriculture at Cornell, at his mother’s prompting he moved to Columbia to study journalism. This profession took him to France as a member of the American Field Service covering the First World War. Before long he returned to New York, where he was married in 1921 to socialite Mary Appleton Wood, and where he began dabbling in fiction and theater criticism.
Writing turned out to be a hobby to which Bromfield was well-suited: He published the first of 31 novels in 1924, The Green Bay Tree, to great acclaim. His reputation as a writer was well on its way by 1925, when Bromfield returned with his wife and three children to France, which he had grown to love during his time in the American Field Service. He stayed for 13 years, becoming a fixture in an American expatriate community of artists and writers that included Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton. (Incidentally, it was Bromfield who first helped Ernest Hemmingway get published in the 1920s and who first steered F. Scott Fitzgerald to Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins.)
While Bromfield spent most of his time in France writing, he never lost his childhood appreciation for growing things from the earth. And so when he did not have a pen in hand, he had a spade in the soil, taking instruction from a master gardener, husbandman and concertina player named M. Bosquet, who schooled him in French-style intensive gardening, a continental sensibility he would eventually transplant back to his farms in his native Ohio.
The storm clouds gathering in France and Europe as a whole convinced Bromfield to return home. He decided to bring his family back to rural Ohio, where he would fuse gardening and farming with the help of both French technique and the science being taught in universities. Bromfield would take an art form and, with his enormous energy and industry, make it bigger and better. And then he would use his literary talents and connections to spread this example, and the message behind it, all across America and beyond: that agriculture is central to the stability of communities; that heritage and values such as hard work and stewardship of the land will decline without that centrality; and that rural living, and immersion in the natural world, can be intellectually stimulating if one learns how to appreciate it. Today, we recognize this message, in essence, as the organic farming movement, though it would be some time before it would acquire that name.
Bromfield chose what now comprises a 900-acre site near Lucas, Ohio to begin his grand project. A natural spring producing 2,400 gallons per hour was the centerpiece of the property in a remote part of the countryside where even today horse-droppings litter the roads. He expanded an existing farmhouse into an expansive, thirty-two room Big House, its design informed by both Jefferson’s Greek revival style (including an entrance hall with twin stairways and grand piano) and American (Ohioan, really) vernacular architecture. On one of the farms he bought, a jilted romance had turned to murder and then to a duplicitously obtained confession, giving Bromfield reusable plot material and a local ghost legend. Another property he acquired and assembled features an “Indian Cave”, a unique glacial-carved or ice-wedged sandstone outcropping of sheer-wall passageways. The same piece of land contains a cabin built with old telephone poles (site of the opening scene in The Shawshank Redemption), a grove of maple trees that yield unusually sweet syrup, native chestnut trees miraculously spared from blight, numerous spring-fed ponds, and an intermittent and wandering waterfall in the glaciated moraine.
Armed with the natural resources he needed, Bromfield’s farming adventure began with his basic ambition: to garden on a massive scale. He applied conservation principles based on systematic ecological observations, and he saw this discipline as an artistic one, as if tending to the natural cycles of farming echoed in a way the development of plotlines in good fiction. In the practical application of these principles, Bromfield halted erosion and re-fertilized his lands with grasses, legumes, organic mulches and compost. Bromfield thought of grass as “the healer”, a sort of agricultural panacea. Grass (as in pasture) was an indicator of the health of a farm and, along with other cover crops such as clover and alfalfa, was what nurtured the soil—the fundamental resource for the establishment of wealth.
Bromfield strove for diversity—of crops, animals and natural areas. He sought the light touch combined with patience; no-till technology and resistance to “artificial” chemical shortcuts. In essence, he wanted to substitute brains for brawn and cultivate wisdom as well as crops:
A good farmer in our times has to know more about more things than a man in any other profession. . . . A good farmer is always one of the most intelligent and best-educated men in our society. We have been inclined in our wild industrial development to forget that agriculture is the base of our whole economy and that in the economic structure of the nation it is always the cornerstone. . . . I have known all kinds of people, many of them celebrated in many countries, but for companionship, good conversation, intelligence and the power of stimulating one’s mind there are none I would place above the good farmer.1
Bromfield and farm manager Max Drake knew that to restore the old farms, they would need to replenish the nutrients in the soil. He decided to fix the nitrogen in the soil from organic sources alone. He was an early pioneer in successful mixing of hay and clover crops. He avoided industrial, synthetic fertilizers manufactured from ammonium nitrate, and for good reason. Bromfield had learned at Cornell about the Haber-Bosch process of producing artificial fertilizers, an invention that changed the world in the 20th century, allowing for a dramatic increase in the number of humans the planet could feed. Manufactured fertilizer was arguably the invention of the last century. Indeed, most contemporary success in crop development is based on modifications that help the plant better absorb fertilizer for faster growth, rather than on other modifications that improve plant yields.
The problem with this extractive way of doing agriculture, Bromfield believed, is that the naturally occurring resources of a rural area, the farms, exceed the long-term value society will pay for them. The result is that inputs of energy, equipment and labor will cost local communities more than the value of what is sold out. Human capital, and the skill sets involved in farming, are dramatically undervalued, furthering the impoverishment of the agricultural sector and the undermining of rural communities, the backbone of the culture. He also saw that this process would lead ultimately to a system of government subsidies for agriculture. He concluded that farm profits based on support payments would destroy the viability of small farms, and that as long as the financial value of food was applied in processing techniques after the crops and animals leave the farm, the farmer would continue to lose presence and respectability. This prescience lay behind Bromfield’s emphasis on organic growing techniques, value-added locally-raised meat, roadside produce stands, and planting a wide spectrum of fruits and vegetables to be consumed or preserved directly from the kitchen garden.
Bromfield’s views were ultimately based not on simple economic considerations, but on moral judgment. Toward the end of his life in 1956, he concluded:
In no other field of activity can the whole principle of the Reverence for Life, which may indeed constitute the very basis of the preservation of our civilization, be so thoroughly, easily, and profoundly understood and exercised as in the field of agriculture. . . . [I]t is the only profession in which man deals constantly with all the laws of the universe and life.2
This quasi-religious view of agriculture was shared by Thomas Jefferson, too:
Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. . . . While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff.
Like Jefferson, Bromfield saw in agriculture the grand metaphor for all the links of our daily lives. He saw how agriculture reflects fundamental truths and requires a broad base of knowledge, skills and character. Such wisdom, he thought, could be imparted by our literary and cinematic arts, which Bromfield effectively harnessed to convey the beauty of farm life to the public.
Mount Jeez, though not the highest point on Malabar Farm, is the best situated for dramatic effect and for breathtaking panoramas—and thus the origin of its name. The farm and the whole surrounding landscape form an amphitheater, with Mount Jeez as the podium. As soon as Bromfield got the place up and running, the farm received mass pilgrimages of onlookers seeking to learn and to be inspired. Black-and-white photos show cars lining the drive in front of the Big House and snaking up the county road into the distance. Part of the attraction, perhaps, was that Bromfield’s vegetable stand was staffed by movie stars, but the stars obeyed the house rules; room and board in return for chores. Celebrities seemed to prefer selling produce at “the roadside market to end all roadside markets” to digging fencepost holes. But that was fine, because locals hoping to catch sight of a movie star selling vegetables at the springhouse returned repeatedly (old timers still do). On weekends, Bromfield’s “sermons on the mount” drew up to 2,000 visitors (25,000 annually), some hoping to be fed. Barn dances, too, were a regular attraction.
Through it all, Bromfield was everywhere on the farm, discovering that the Willys Jeep was the perfect vehicle for getting around (an Overland-modified Army model CJ2A). It was an open vehicle, good for observing and being observed, and ideal for his constant companions, a handful of boxer dogs who could climb on and off at whim. Bromfield lectured extensively and experimented ceaselessly, one activity feeding the other. He successfully enjoined the rural-life conservation organization Friends of the Land to relocate to Ohio. He gave regular radio broadcasts. He took his message to far-flung venues, and his energy, literary acclaim and the novelty of his fame as a farmer attracted a rapt audience. Bromfield had a genuine impact on city dwellers in appreciating the rural experience.
Bromfield did not accomplish everything his imagination cooked up, nor was he entirely consistent in the application of his ruralist philosophy. Despite his thesis on the primary role of community banks in the development of a healthy agrarian society, he banked exclusively in New York City. He was also reputed to be a lousy bill payer and an overly-entitled client to local merchants. Though Bromfield understood the potentially renewable resource of fertility, his farm was hardly prosperous. Falling short of funds from the high cost of agricultural experimentation and his lavish social life, Bromfield began a then-innovative practice of product and equipment endorsements. He also sold off timber rights and a natural gas company bought a pipe easement. As we might say in Ohio farm country, Bromfield got caught between the baler and the wagon. In a reversal of the standard idiom, his reputed girlfriend, tobacco heiress Doris Duke, bought back much of the farm, his prize, after Bromfield’s death. Today Malabar Farm remains an operating farm, under the auspices of the Ohio State Park system. Staff members teach Bromfield’s principles even as the estate celebrates his achievements.
What did he accomplish? Bromfield infused three worn-out farms with literary and agricultural vitality, thus making agriculture relevant to the non-farmer and glamorous to the farmer. He gave farms and farmers alike dignity of place and preached from Mount Jeez the cultural centrality of agriculture to the larger community, a message we are hearing today when we are told that it takes eleven fossil-fuel calories to put one calorie on our plate, or that agriculture uses about three-quarters of the world’s water (industry and manufacturing use less than one-fifth).
The polyculture method that Bromfield espoused, moreover, though it requires a high eyes-to-acres ratio, has inspired the newly coined occupational descriptions of “agri-naturalist” and “agro-ecologist.” Texas A&M; calls its ag department “AgriLife.” Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute has coined “organiculture.” In Ohio, you can get a T-shirt with the approved slogan: “agriculture = applied environmental protection.”
In a way, Bromfield is the father of it all, not just because he understood the land and both its arts and sciences, but also because he was a gifted showman. He was a man who could plow straight, but—in a joke that only someone familiar with running a cultivator would appreciate—still cut the pigweed.
1Pleasant Valley, pp. 55–6.
2From My Experience: The Pleasures and Miseries of Life on a Farm, p. 305.