Liberty Hyde Bailey

January 8, 2012

Last year we did Norman Borlaug, winner of the World Food Prize and I think unarguably the most famous agricultural scientist of his time. Not that there are that many famous agricultural scientists. There’s Luther Burbank, who has a potato named after him. And there’s Justus von Liebig, the German chemist who pioneered the idea that plants depend on nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. Liebig formulated the “law of the minimum,” which stipulates that a plant’s growth rate depends on which of these three nutrients is the limiting factor. We could include Humphry Davy, too. Both Davy and Liebig were bigtime scientific figures who made important contributions to fields other than agriculture. If we really stretch it, we might include Jethro Tull, though my guess is that, like me, if you know who Tull is, it probably has more to do with the flute playing of Ian Anderson than the cultivation of Onobrychis.

The most famous agricultural scientist of his time was probably Liberty Hyde Bailey, except that his time overlaps pretty much with Burbank’s and it’s hard to top having a potato named after you when it comes to the longevity of one’s fame. But we’ll go with Bailey because he is a native son of Michigan, born in South Haven in 1858. Bailey attended the Michigan Agricultural College, which has a street named after it in East Lansing. He was also on the faculty. There’s a building named after him on the MSU Campus today, and MSU has a special program for agriculture undergraduates named The Bailey Scholars Program. It’s not a potato, I’ll admit, but it’s got to count for something.

Bailey did a lot of things in his long life—he died in 1954. There’s a famous photograph in which he is standing next to a pile of books that he wrote, and the pile is taller than he is. A lot of what he did was pretty mainstream technical agricultural science, and I’m in no position to evaluate how influential that work is today. Bailey left M.A.C. (now MSU) to join the faculty at Cornell University, where he was the first Dean at the first formally organized College of Agriculture in the United States. He was also a public figure. He was well-known for advocating outdoor nature studies as a component of every child’s education. He felt that getting kids outside and engaging all their senses would stimulate their interest in learning. Learning would occur in a context where the knowledge imparted is immediately relevant, rather than abstract.

This reputation may have been the initial basis of his relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s autobiography also celebrates the importance of physical activity in the out of doors as crucial to character formation. It makes a person decisive—important if you plan to carry a big stick. Bailey chaired a government committee for Roosevelt called the Country Life Commission. Their report, written primarily by Bailey and published in 1911, explained why the decline of family-household farms was creating a crisis in rural America. It was partly economic: fewer viable farms led to unviable schools and business communities. But Bailey also believed that this crisis was spiritual, that the experience of growing up on and managing diversified farms created a population more geared to the practice of citizenship, and more attuned to the precarious balance between common purpose and individual self-interest.

A bit later in his career, Bailey published a series for the Methodist Church called “The Holy Earth”. Here Bailey argued that we need to recognize a moral obligation to “the land”. That is, we need to see land as more than just a resource, but as a locus of responsibility. This idea had a profound influence on Aldo Leopold. Today, Leopold is much more likely to get credit for the idea that ecosystems have moral significance than Bailey. For Bailey, all this fit with a more technically oriented agricultural research framework that was intended to create a “permanent agriculture”. Bailey saw that the farming methods of his day were depleting soils, and that emerging financial practices were creating economic vulnerabilities. Bailey’s “permanent agriculture” is pretty clearly a precursor of what we call “sustainable agriculture,” today.

I find Bailey pretty interesting for so many reasons. How did a set of ideas that were so mainstream in the early decades of the 20th-century get pushed so far to the margins by its closing decades? Are there lessons that advocates of local foods, better health and community development could learn from studying Bailey’s writings, or perhaps more relevantly, the fate of Bailey’s writings? Did Bailey have a philosophically viable way of interconnecting his work on farming methods, rural communities and the development of moral character? Could we learn from that? And I get my hackles up when young punks (maybe like myself when I was James McWilliams’ tender age) seem to think that they invented the food movement, that it came out of nowhere.

But although Bailey is clearly a food ethics icon, he’s also problematic. He was a racist, for one thing, and his writings include occasional sentences and paragraphs that are shocking to modern readers. His emphasis on family farms has been taken over by social conservatives who see him not only as an articulate defender of the traditional family, and but also as an opponent of women’s rights and gay rights. And in fact, I don’t doubt that they are partially right, the fact that Bailey was the first administrator to appoint women faculty at Cornell notwithstanding. Which brings me to another thing that I find interesting about Liberty Hyde Bailey’s legacy: I want to know whether present day food advocates can simply ignore the unpleasant side of Bailey, or whether there are reasons to think through the underpinnings and implications of a commitment to Country Life ideals more critically? And finally, is it really wise to have a significant undergraduate program at MSU named after Bailey, given these problems? Maybe it’s less troubling to hitch your reputation to a potato, after all.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University




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