The Ideal of American Pastoralism and the Reality of Farming Technology

Kassie Barroquillo

Pastoralism has been idealized throughout history. Authors, artists and musicians through the years have embraced this idealization of pastoralism and used it as inspiration for their works. Yet, pastoralism is not as simple as it seems. It requires the land be tamed, introducing farming to the scene. Farming seems simplistic, but in reality it is a huge industry. As Leo Marx claims, this industriousness contradicts the very idea of pastoralism. This will be a continuation of Marx’s ideas into a more modern argument, using the Actor-Network Theory to create a support system for this argument.

A Look at Pastoralism

What is pastoralism?

In Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, he explains that pastoralism is a romanticized ideal which is commonly used in art, literature, music and film. Merriam-Webster says pastoralism is “social organization based on livestock raising as the primary economic activity.” Marx explains pastoralism, as well as urbanity and nature. Marx explains that nature is wild and dangerous; nature needs to be tamed. He also explains that urbanity is stressful and chaotic, people have the need to escape from urbanity. Pastoralism is the perfect meeting of both. The wild is tamed from nature, but the stress from urbanity does not impede upon the soothing scene.

What coincides with the pastoral ideal are the American pastoral values. When one thinks of pastoral, he or she will think of a calm and soothing setting. American pastoral values are intimately entwined with agrarian culture. Together, they create an idealistic view of how life “ought” to be. Although both pastoral and agrarian ideals seem to hint toward quiet and simple, they can also be equated with a sense of community. When considering an urban setting, people may be close in proximity, but may not know one another. In a pastoral setting, the community completely supports one another. An Amish community raising a barn is an example which perfectly illustrates this point. The community is able to work together, although they are often working on their own with their products of agriculture, for the good of the people.

Pastoralism in literature, film, music and art

The idea of pastoralism has been perpetuated by literature, film, music and art. Marx specifically cites how literature often uses a pastoral setting to signify peace, only to have the peace ripped apart by the sudden appearance of a train. He considers the train to be the perfect example of industrialization infringing upon the pastoral scene. He writes, “But the disturbing shriek of the locomotive changes the texture of the entire passage. Now tension replaces repose; the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety.” The way the train ruins a serene moment is almost as if it has ruined the virginity of the moment, a most phallic representation of how industry rapes the innocence of the pastoral setting.

In film, a pastoral setting can mean a number of things, but it almost always is something worth saving or fighting for. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett wants nothing to return to Tara, the plantation. She is willing to risk her life for the safety of this land she considers sacred. Her father explained the importance of Tara to her, “Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for because it’s the only thing that lasts,” ( Angels in the Outfield also takes advantage of a serene pastoral setting. In the end, something “magical” occurs during the film. Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wants to do nothing except return to Kansas.

Country music is notorious for singing longingly about growing up in rural setting. Brooks and Dunn sing “Red Dirt Road.” The song goes on to talk about how he learned all of his important lessons on this dirt road in the middle of the country and how he would not relinquish that experience for anything. Many other country songs go on to talk about how the singers are proud of their country communities, reliving the agrarian values.

American scene painting is the epitome of an artist trying to recreate a romantic moment of life. It was made popular in the 1930’s and drew from scenes of everyday life in America. American Regionalism concentrated heavily upon rural living from 1930 to 1935. The Great Depression forced many artists to stay in America, instead of traveling to Europe. This changed the very subject of many paintings which depicted during this time. One of the most well-known paintings of this genre was “American Gothic.”

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"American Gothic" is a famous example of American Regionalism.

Romanticizing Pastoralism

The idea of pastoralism has been romanticized because people yearn for a more simplistic and stress-free time. Believing that chaotic train which appears during the most serene moments is destroying the calmness of the moment is naive. One cannot forget how the pastoral setting was first created. Tools were necessary to harness the land, to take away the “wild.” This disruption of the environment creates its own industry. People choose to ignore this industry because it is what creates the pastoral scene which is so craved, but it is there. It is not to say people ignore that this process has to take place. Instead, people have tried to make this part of the background, but it cannot happen this way. Farming, which is how the scene may be created, is a huge industry and has been for years. It cannot be ignored.

Industry of Farming

The reach of farming contradicts the ideal of pastoralism. Using the Actor-Network Theory, one can see a multitude of ways in which farming is more than a quaint, idealistic way to live. It is a large industry which dominates many areas in the United States. It is naive to believe that pastoralism exists in the romanticized way which may be found in literature, film, music and art when farming is necessary to create the very idea of pastoralism.

History of Farming

Farming was one of the first industries created. Tools have always been necessary to complete the tasks required in any agricultural area. Farming shapes how people work, eat and consume other goods. To better understand how agriculture is far more than the romanticized pastoral ideal, one must first start with the history of agriculture.
During the 17th century, land grants were made available to individual landowners, meanwhile, large pieces of land were sold to “well-connected colonists.” During this time, Jamestown was created as the first permanent settlement. This was also the time where the first African Slaves were brought to Virginia. These African Slaves replaced the indentured servants in the South (AgClassroom).

During the 1700’s, two Land Acts were passed which set a precedent for future laws. The Land Act of 1785 stated that there would be a “a system of six-mile square townships that supposedly crossed at right angles, an impossible request on a curved surface. Later, this would be recognized and correction lines would be directed,” (Robillard & Wilson). The Land Act of 1785 goes on to state that the lines would be measured with a chain and demanded that lots be numbered. The Land Act of 1796 fixed some of the loopholes in the Land Act of 1785, like the measurement of the chain and that the numbering of these lots would start in the northeast corner (Robillard & Wilson). Most importantly, these land acts authorized “Federal land sales to the public in minimum 640-acre plots at two dollars per acre of credit.” In essence, this was the very start of creating rural towns.

The United States of America saw great growth during the 1800’s. The purchases of the Louisiana Territory from the French, Florida territory from the Spanish and the expansion West all created new opportunities for farming. As the country was expanding, it also found itself in a great conflict. A large issue which caused the Civil War was that of agriculture; the use of slaves on farms, as well as the major difference in industry between the South (rural) and the North (urban). One result of the Civil War was the Homestead Act; the Homestead Act was a “program designed to grant public land to small farmers at low cost. The act gave 160 acres of land to any applicant who was the head of a household and 21 years or older, provided that the person settled on the land for five years and then paid a small filing fee,” (The Homestead Act). This was able to be passed after the South seceded from the Union. Southern farmers had been fighting such proposals before because they believed small farms would create an alternative to large farms which used slave labor (The Homestead Act). After the Civil War, sharecropping took the place of the large plantations which had flourished in the South. “Sharecropping is a system where the landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop,” (Sharecropping). Often, former slaves rented land from white landowners. About one third of all sharecroppers were black (Sharecropping).

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The Louisiana Purchase, along with other purchases, was key to the steep increase in farming.

With a stream of new immigrants coming to the country, the late 1800’s and early 1900’s saw the Great Plains being settled at an increased pace. This time also saw a number of new acts put in place. The Reclamation Act confronted the issue of irrigation in dry lands. “The Act required that water users repay construction costs from which they received benefits,” (USDI). The Stock-Raising Homestead Act provided land for ranching purposes, which meant the land did not require cultivation, just normal maintenance. This act was unique in that it separated surface and subsurface rights (AgClassroom).

From the 1920’s on, there has been a decline in the number of people working in farming. First, the Immigration Act diminished the number of workers coming to the farms. Then, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl started to destroy the work of many farmers. In the 1940’s, people who normally worked on farms started working in war-related factories. As fewer and fewer people started farming, more technology was needed to keep up with the demands of agriculture.

Technology in Agriculture

The technology used in farming is far more advanced than most people realize. Farming is not just the simple act of sticking a seed in the ground and making sure it has water. Nor is it still the Wild West, herding cattle in the same fashion. Farming is much more meticulous. In a poor economy, every penny counts, so farmers have turned to technology to eliminate as much waste as possible. Precision farming, cattle management and genetic engineering have all seen advancements which should shake the idea of pastoralism to its very core.

According to Ag Leader Technology, precision farming is “adjusting production inputs and practices based on in-field variability through the use of site-specific information and precision technologies.” Many different aspects of farming are managed through precision farming, from the actual tractors to the irrigation. This management is the key to making the most of the land the farmers have at their disposal.

GPS technologies are the most prominent when considering precision farming. In “Agriculture,” the use of GPS
positioning is explained, “GPS-based applications in precision farming are being used for farm planning, field mapping, soil mapping, tractor guidance, crop scouting, variable rate applications, and yield mapping,” ( By understanding what is needed in different parts of the field, which can vary greatly, the farmer will know which pesticides are needed where or which areas of the field need more water. This will result in a higher yield for the farmer. Not only does this make the farmer money, it also saves the farmer money because he or she is not unnecessarily use chemicals or manpower where it is not needed.

Livestock management is key to helping the farmer save money and also to maintaining the safety of the public.Without livestock management, an outbreak of disease could not be monitored and controlled. The United States Department of Agriculture has created mandates which has set a standard across the country for the quality of animal care and the meat which is produced from said animals. The National Animal Health Surveillance System, or NAHSS, was created in order to “improve protection of national animal health and food supply, increase the efficiency of existing animal health surveillance programs and initiatives, and meet international demands in relation to trade,” (

Similarly to precision farming, range and pasture management has fine tuned agriculture as a business. Range and pasture management have helped farmers determine where and when to move cattle to different parts of the pasture. There is also technology which can monitor the fields in order to know if a new plant should be grown in the area.
Genetic engineering is the most controversial farming technology. Genetic engineering can be found within both crops and cattle. Biofortified Soya Beans are grown the most of any genetically engineered crop (Danigelis). Edible cotton beans, yeast and castor beans are among many of the other most commonly genetically engineered crops (Danigelis). At this point, the USDA has not approved consumption of genetically engineered, but this does not mean genetic engineering is not being experimented with.

There is a debate growing on whether or not genetically engineered foods are safe to eat. In November, Californians voted on a proposition which would require all genetically engineered foods be labeled. It was not approved, but it did find its way into the limelight. “Opponents are making the case that labeling the food implies health dangers that haven’t been proved,” (MCT Information Purposes). Although genetically engineered animals are not approved for consumption, they could become part of our everyday diet. There is currently an experiment in New Zealand which could help people with milk allergies. Scientists have made a genetically engineered cow which can produce milk that does not contain detectable levels of beta-lactoglobulin, which triggers an allergic reaction to milk (Gardner).
These different technologies used in farming should be a clear indication that pastoralism is a romanticized idea.

Organic Farming

There has been a great push for organic foods in the past decade. People claim to want to live healthier lives and organic foods are some of the first places people look. If a farmer were to decide to switch to organic farming, it would be a drastic change. Currently about 2 percent of farms organic (

The first step the farmer should take is to become “certified organic.” “Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards, verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by the USDA. All products sold as “organic” must be certified,” ( Both crops and animals can be certified organic. Certified crops must not have any pesticides used on them, as well as fertilizers. In order to have a yield which will make money, the farmer should “build a healthy soil.” This means they should tools like cover crops and compost to build a healthy soil. Organic dairy products, meat and eggs are considered organic if they are given organic feed. They must also be given ample space to live, instead of enclosed quarter cooping (

Agriculture and Numbers

About 960 thousand people claim farming as their main occupation, that is about one percent of people. Two percent of people in the United States live on farms. About 90 percent of farms are owned and operated by families or individuals. Meanwhile, 6 percent of farms are owned by partnerships and 4 are owned by corporate farms (

The average tractor costs between $25,000 and $50,000, this does not include the plow, sprayer, etc. A sprayer with a 120 foot boom could cost over $200,000 if purchased brand new ( Consider, the average family farm has one sprayer, 5 tractors and a combine, how much money could that add up to? A family farm could be spending over $500,000 on tractors alone. Only 7.5 percent of farms make that much money in a year (
Sprayer with a 120 ft boom, valued around $175,000.

Department of Agriculture

President George Washington recommended a “Board of Agriculture” be created during his 1796 State of the Union Speech. It only took 50 more years for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be created while President Abraham Lincoln was in office (Brandt). According to, the current mission statement is, “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.”

The USDA has grown into something President Lincoln would be quite astonished to see. It is home to programs like WIC, Drought Assistance and the National Organic Program. It is also responsible for outreach programs in rural communities like Farm Loans or FSA makes loans to family farmers who are not approved by the bank credit process. There is even a program which is meant to bring broadband to rural communities.

One of the most important things the USDA does is monitor importing and exporting of products like eggs, poultry, fruit, seeds, live animals, meat, etc. “FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) is responsible for assuring that the U.S. imported meat, poultry and egg products are safe, wholesome, unadulterated, and properly labeled and packaged,” ( The USDA is also key to overseeing tariff negotiations.

The USDA is also responsible for food security. This means that they are monitoring any biohazard situations, like Mad Cow Disease. This also means the USDA inspectors monitor poultry and meat situations. This USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should not be confused. The FDA monitors most other foods. This helps explain why genetic engineering is allowed in plants, but not in animals, as they are monitored by different organizations.

This much government involvement in agriculture should make it clear that a large part of the pastoral ideal is merely a myth.

Family Farms vs. Corporate Farms

Even within the very act of farming, there is a conflict. There is currently a David versus Goliath battle between family farms and corporate farms taking place in America. This fight can be found in all different arenas of farming - dairy farms, crop farms, etc. According to, a family farm is “\a business producing food or fiber products where the ownership of the productive resources and management decisions are made by members of a family and the majority of the labor is provided by the family owner-operators.” states, “A corporate farm is a business producing food or fiber products that is organized as a corporate entity for tax purposes. It is owned by stockholders and run by a board of directors.” There are also family corporate farms, nonfamily corporate farms and nonfarm corporate farms.

Some argue that corporate farms are harming the family farms because they are able to invest more into the farm. They also argue that corporate farms are creating “anticompetitive market conditions” (FarmAid). When considering the dairy industry, Dean Foods controls between 70 and 90 percent of the market for all fluid milk products (FarmAid). Some arguing in favor of corporate farming say that because of the increased investment, they are able to create a better product. This has been specifically stated by the cotton industry.

Nine states have anti-corporate farming statutes. This anti-corporate farming laws are in place to protect both family farms and the environment, as some claim corporate farms have a harsher impact on the environment than family farms. “Corporate farming laws vary from state to state but typically establish a general prohibition on corporate farming activities, set out certain exemptions to the general prohibition, and provide a legal mechanism for forcing corporations to divest ownership of land held in violation of the law,” (The National Agricultural Law Center). Antagonists of these laws claim that is not only unconstitutional to place restrictions on these corporations, but it is also ineffective and anti-capitalistic. These laws have been challenged in courts as high as the Supreme Court, but the law has been consistently upheld (The National Agricultural Law Center).

Education and Agriculture

A very common misconception about people involved with agriculture is that they are not educated. As agriculture has come to involve sales, precision farming, genetic engineering, the use of chemicals, etc., people working in agriculture have had to become educated on all of the topics. Numerous universities have extremely popular agriculture programs. Now, nearly 30 percent of farmers have attended college, of those, about 50 percent graduate. Some are even pursuing higher-level degrees (NC State University).

Purdue University, in Indiana, has one of the most well-known agriculture academic programs. The school of agriculture has over 50 bachelor of science degrees available to students, as well as numerous minors. Agribusiness degrees are the most popular in the program, but they also offer degrees in Crop Sciences, Agricultural Engineering, Animal Sciences, etc.

School is not just for new farmers, as the technology becomes more and more advanced, experienced farmers have to attend classes to learn how to use the technologies. Farmers also have to receive certification to work with different kinds of chemicals, such as certain pesticides.


Pastoralism seems simplistic, calming and easy. Marx explains it as a great balance between the wild and urban environments. Pastoralism, along with its partner, agrarianism, create a romanticized idea about the nature of true rural settings. Literature, paintings, music and film all perpetuate this romanticized idea.

Using the Actor-Network Theory, one can see that farming, which is necessary to create this pastoral environment, is a great industry. The history of farming is vast and the government has been heavily involved in the creation of the farming industry. Farming has become completely technological with use of precision farming, livestock management and genetic engineering. Farmers have also started to move to organic means. The numbers do not lie, farming is expensive, but it can be worth it. The USDA has become key in helping farmers get their start, as well as monitoring the state of agriculture. New farmers are being educated every day, even at the university level.
One should recognize that pastoralism is not as simple as it seems. The entire industry of farming debunks the myth of romanticized pastoralism.

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