“Manure Manufactories”: Materializing the Metabolic Rift in Nineteenth-Century Deerfield, Massachusetts


DOI: 10.1007/s10761-014-0255-4

Cite this article as:
Lewis, Q. Int J Histor Archaeol (2014) 18: 242. doi:10.1007/s10761-014-0255-4


The modern world has seen a variety of agricultural crises deriving from a problem known as the “metabolic rift,” in which capitalist agriculture depletes soil nutrients through intensive monocropping and fertilizing. This problem is fundamentally historical and material, and visible in the archaeological record. A manuring platform found in Deerfield, Massachusetts, offers a material vantage point through which to explore the contradictions of early capitalist agriculture. Increasing market penetration into the New England backcountry in the early nineteenth century spurred farmers to increase productivity, at the cost of sustainability. Wealthier farmers were able to capitalize on this transition, while poorer farmers were forced into wage labor or out-migration.


Improvement Capitalism Ecology Agriculture 


There is no question that we stand today in a world that is hurtling towards large-scale environmental transformation. Global warming is perhaps the most discursively visible environmental issue, and evidence for human-produced global warming is unequivocal (Pachauri and Reisinger 2007, p. 2). However, other environmental crises have recently become more acute, particularly in the realm of agriculture. As sociologist Phillip McMichael (2009) has masterfully shown, there has been massive environmental fallout, particularly in soil fertility, from the neoliberal explosion of worldwide agribusiness concerns in the 1990s and 2000s. Briefly, the reduction of trade barriers and the insertion of structural adjustment programs into developing nations has led to multi-national agribusiness corporations crowding out smaller producers. Such corporations then set up massive monocrop operations in these countries, powered by massive amounts of imported chemical fertilizers, which drains local soils of nutrients. McMichael (2009, pp. 43–44) argues that such policies are leading us to an era of “peak soil,” paralleling cries about “peak oil,” and starkly notes:

inorganic fertilizers and monocropping…have intensified the “metabolic rift,” interrupting the natural carbon and nutrient cycles and degrading soils. This means that, while there is still arable land available globally, soil in use exhibit forms of exhaustion and erosion that suggest the world faces steadily declining yields under the present regime of dependency on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.

McMichael does not elaborate on this concept of the “metabolic rift” but the term has its origins in the Marx’s discussion of capitalist agriculture. It has been elaborated on and expanded on as part of a more general theory of Marxian ecology.

The principle of the metabolic rift is that human labor is a metabolic process that draws on a variety of ecological resources, converts them into energy, objects, and activities that, in turn, cycle energy and resources back into that ecology. As Marx (1990, p. 293) put it, labor is “a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” The “rift” occurred due to capitalism’s exacerbation of the historical tensions between urban and rural areas—the countryside and the city (Williams 1973). Marx drew on the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803–73), whose analysis of soil chemistry revolutionized nineteenth-century agriculture (Foster 2009, pp. 172–173; Merchant 1989, pp. 207–208). Liebig was particularly concerned with the impact of commercial agriculture and fertilizer on soil nutrition and long-term stability. Marx, following Liebig, argued that the division of labor, the concentration of populations in industrial cities, and market agriculture under capitalism led long term nutrient loss in agricultural soils, because the recycling of nutrients was broken with their shipping to feed industrial laborers in cities. The production of commodities for sale on a market removed resources from given ecological niches without replacing it, leading to environmental degradation (Foster 2009, pp. 180–181). This is the state that so concerns McMichael—in essence, cheap food produced through massive fertilizer inputs in rural Central and South America, Africa, and China is feeding urban populations in Europe and America, at a cost of destroying soil ecosystems. This is the metabolic rift, and it has been used with considerable theoretical efficacy by Foster and geographer Jason W. Moore to elucidate capitalism’s ecological consequences (Foster and Foster 1997; Foster 2009; Moore 2000, 2010). Moore (2000), in particular, has shown how the metabolic rift has been a central factor in capitalist global expansion since the sixteenth century.

The Metabolic Rift is not a unique fixture of neoliberal capitalism. It has a history and a material record, and it is possible to trace the metabolic rift back in time, and examine, through archaeological and documentary analysis, its development and social context. Abstracting it allows a better understanding of the social and ecological totality in which it is enmeshed (Ollman 1993). In what follows, I want to focus on an unusual feature recovered from an archaeological site in rural Massachusetts that points to broader issues of soil fertility and the metabolic rift. From there, I will contextualize this feature within the prevalent thinking on soil fertility by examining the improvement literature published in Massachusetts at the turn of the nineteenth century. I will show how fears about declining soil fertility ignored the role of capitalist agriculture and class processes in New England’s productive relations and located problems in productivity as failures of individual behavior. Finally, I will argue that responses to environmental crises need social, material, and historical contextualization, and that without an understanding the metabolic rift, solutions environmental crises often replicate the very conditions that created them.

The Materiality of the Metabolic Rift: The E. H. and Anna Williams House

To start, I want to focus on an archaeological feature recovered in the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Deerfield sits at the fertile confluence of the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers, in the western part of the state (Fig. 1). It is an area with particularly fertile soil, and has been occupied by human beings with quite diverse subsistence strategies for thousands of years (Dincauze 1990; Chilton 1999).
Fig. 1

Map of Massachusetts, showing Deerfield (Reinke and Paynter 1984). Orthophoto of Deerfield showing the location of the Williams Homelot (MASSGIS 2009)

At the north end of the mile-long street that makes up Deerfield sits the Ebenezer H. Hinsdale and Anna Williams homelot. Archaeology has been conducted at this house museum since the 1980s by Robert Paynter and students from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (Reinke and Paynter 1984; Reinke et al. 1987; Paynter et al. 1987; Reinke 1990), and has been supplemented by documentary (Longley 1982; Miller 1986; Proper 1990) and architectural analysis (Gordineer 1981).

One of the features uncovered and exposed at the Williams house in the 1990s were two cobble-stone platforms, approximately 12 × 15 ft (3.6 × 4.6 m) and separated an east–west gap approximately 1 ft (.30 m) across (Fig. 2). They are located in the barnyard area behind the house. Cobbles in these platforms average 6 in (15.2 cm) in size, though they vary considerably and there is a clay matrix that lines these cobbles, suggesting that they were set in place. The surrounding artifact assemblage suggests an early nineteenth-century date for the construction of both platforms. Whiteware ceramic sherds (post-dating 1820) found in association make it likely that the Williams family, who lived at the site from 1816 until Anna Williams’ death in 1852, constructed these features.
Fig. 2

Map of E. H. and Anna Williams House showing location of Cobble platforms. (Photo of North Cobble platform by Rita Reinke)

These platforms are theorized to be manure storage and processing areas, sometimes called dung pits or stercoraries. Similar features have been documented at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation (Fusonie and Fusonie 1998). It is likely that they have been recovered elsewhere, but their unassuming appearance has probably led to them being misidentified in some cases. The purpose of stercoraries was to create a durable location for long-term collection and storage of manure, to act as fertilizer and enhancer of soil productivity. They were often covered, and well lined with stones and clay, as the Williams stercorary was, so as to prevent rain and wind from carrying manure away.

The Williamses were wealthy agriculturalists, with long roots in English colonial society. E. H. Williams was descended from a branch of the wealthy Williams family (Sweeney 1986) who were known locally as the “River Gods” and controlled strategic positions in colonial Connecticut River Valley society and economy. He inherited substantial wealth upon the death of his father in 1816, and he was able to use that wealth to move into the house that currently bears he and his wife’s names, and to make substantial renovations to the house and yard (Lewis 2013, pp. 114–115). His agricultural wealth came primarily from the stall-feeding of oxen, a rigorous productive activity that required fertile lands to grow rich feed crops (Garrison 1987; Sheldon 1898). In addition to being a farmer, Williams served as a Representative, a selectman, Justice of the Peace, and Deacon of the Congregational Church in Deerfield (Gordineer 1981, pp. 17–21). He also engaged in land speculation (Rotman 2001, p. 108), buying and selling property throughout the early nineteenth century. The family also filled their home with the most fashionable English and American consumer goods, visible both in their probate inventory and in the archaeological record recovered from the yard.

Williams possessed some of the best land in the fertile Connecticut River Valley. His wife’s dowry included a large parcel known as “Carter’s Land” on the banks of the Connecticut River, which he added to over the course of his life, and worked with the help of farm hands and tenants (Miller 1986). The presence of a manure platform might seem surprising—the soils of the Connecticut River Valley had been farmed by Algonkian-Speaking people and English people for nearly a millennia prior to the Williamses tenure, and had supported large enough populations for both subsistence and export of agricultural produce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And yet the Williamses were actively storing manure, suggesting that they needed to add to the fertility and productivity of their soil. To understand this, it is necessary to move up levels of generality, and situate the Williamses practices within the regional understandings of agriculture and soil of the early nineteenth century.

Moralizing and Rationalizing Manure: Improvement and New England Farmer

One source for understanding stercoraries in their social, economic, and historical context comes from the literature of agricultural improvement published in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Improvement was one name for the nebulous social movement at the head of the English (and American) agricultural revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Zilberstein 2008). This movement applied scientific principles to agriculture, with the goals of expanding general knowledge. A close reading of one of the premier journals of this movement, New England Farmer, reveals an extensive commentary on the importance of manuring to the region’s farming intellectuals. The farmyard formed the spatial focus of such advocacy. Farmers were encouraged to turn their yards and fields into “manure manufactories” (New England Farmer1833; 1834b), and rationally mix in various types of household, farm, and street waste into manure to increase its vitality. The first volume of the journal, printed in 1822, serialized a lengthy essay on manuring, and advocated the essential role of the “dung-pit (or stercorary as the learned call It)” (New England Farmer1822c, p. 282). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word stercorary comes from the Latin stercus, meaning “of, or pertaining to dung,” and was coined in English improvement manuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Josiah Quincy, a prominent Massachusetts improver, was emphatic about the importance of proper manuring and the construction of these stercoraries. In a speech to the Massachusetts agricultural society, reprinted in New England Farmer, he stated:

let no man call himself a farmer, who suffers himself to want a receptacle for his manure, water-tight at the bottom, and covered over at the top, so that below nothing shall be lost by drainage; and above, nothing shall be carried away by evaporation....An excavation, 2 or 3 ft deep, well clayed, paved and “dishing,” as it is called, of an area from 6 to 30 ft square, according to the quantity of the manure; overhead a roof made of rough boards and refuse lumber if he pleases (New England Farmer1822b).

This description matches the Williams platform almost exactly. But more importantly, Quincy’s language reveals the twin poles of discursive coherence that lay within improvement publications: moralized language (“let no man call himself a farmer”) combined with a highly rationalized and managed technological advocacy. These two aspects run throughout the many discussions of manuring in New England Farmer, and color much of how improvers thought about the regions society and ecology.

New England Farmer contained numerous references to manuring and its importance, and contributors were emphatic that manuring was a necessary and constituent part of any farm. Indeed, manuring was one of the most frequent topics of discussion in improvement literature. A keyword search of the first 13 years of New England Farmer (from 1822 to 1835) revealed that the word “manure” never appeared less than 202 times each year. This is compared with the term “fallow,” which never occurred more than 45 times in a single year (Lewis 2013, p. 106). Manuring was, in the words of one anonymous contributor to New England Farmer (1824) “the life, soul, essence, and quintessence of profitable farming. A farmer without manure, is like a merchant without goods, cash, or credit,—a mechanic without stock or tools,—or a student without books.”

Manuring was important enough to agricultural improvers in Massachusetts that they offered cash prizes for its creation. From 1799 on the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture (MSPA) offered a prize for the farmer who could produce “the greatest quantity of Compost Manure in proportion to the expense” (Trustees of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture 1799, p. 6).

But the improvement literature did not merely advocate for using manure and building stercoraries. Indeed, colonial farmers had used manure on farms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sometimes quite extensively (Russell 1976, pp. 66–67). But these practices were discursively reconfigured as tradition-bound and wasteful in the agricultural literature.

Under our common management of manures, the practice is quite the contrary of what it ought to be; we do not increase and accumulate, but waste and disperse almost every substance, which can be converted into a manure and improve the soil (Trustees of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture 1799, p. 79, emphasis in original).

An 1834 article entitled “Farmer’s Work” suggested that “The too common practice of spreading barn yard manure over mowing or meadow land is very wasteful and extravagant. Most people think that they have nothing more to do than to pile on barn yard manure in great quantity on any soil, and for each and every sort of produce, and their crops and their fortunes are made” (New England Farmer1834b). An editorial in an 1822 issue of New England Farmer describes a farmer who: “turn[s] his cattle into the road to run at large, and waste[s] their dung, on a winter’s day. . . . Ten loads of good manure, at least, is lost in a season, by this slovenly practice—and all for what? For nothing indeed but to ruin his farm” (A Pennsylvania Farmer 1822). Even farmers who were collecting manure were doing so improperly, by allowing its vital essence to dissipate. An 1825 address, printed in New England Farmer urged farmers not to:

[leave] your manure to rot in your yards, exposed to the sun and air, you lose the greatest part of the salts and gases, which constitute its fertilizing powers. You must therefore either carry it fresh on your lands while ploughing [sic], so as to bury it at once, or put it in heaps and cover it with earth or lime, and have it under shade (De Chaumont 1825).

Improper collection and storage practices could even be harmful to humans and livestock. Improvers commented upon how important it was to simultaneously keep dung in a proper receptacle to keep it away from humans and animals, while simultaneously turning and mixing dung to expose its vital essence to plants (New England Farmer1822a).

Thus, improvers were not simply chiding farmers for not using manure in their agricultural production. Rather, they were urging them to practice better manure management—to rationalize their practices, and not to waste or improperly utilize this important resource. Manure management was the future, and improper management kept farmers stuck in the tradition-bound past. However, this simple binary glosses over a more complex history and geography. Indeed, manure management and the stercoraries that came along with it, including the one at the Williams house, were caught up in broader social and economic changes, wrought by the emergence of rural capitalism in the New England. But in order to understand this, it is necessary to elaborate on the nature of this “tradition-bound” agriculture that so frustrated and mobilized the improvers to change.

Manure, Agriculture, and Colonial New England Society

Manuring has long been part of a suite of strategies to mitigate soil nutrient depletion in agricultural production. Soil nutrients (particularly nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potassium) are essential components of healthy plant growth (Agee 1912), and genetic changes to domesticated plant species, as well as the increased pace of agricultural growth cycles can dramatically drain soils of these nutrients. Absent human intervention, these nutrients are replenished through cyclical ecological processes such as plant and animal bioturbation, succession processes, bacterial growth, and weather and climate cycles. But when crops are harvested for human consumption, the soil nutrients go with them and exit the ecology of the cultivated area. Eventually, this can lead to soils that are “worn out” and do not contain enough nutrients to facilitate crop growth.

Human beings have been adapting to the problem of soil decline from agriculture since the origins of agriculture itself. The two main methods to combat this problem are fertilizing (adding nutrients to soils) or fallowing (leaving whole areas out of cultivation to allow succession and climatic processes to replenish nutrients). Wilkinson (1989) has speculated that ceramic scatters in parts of Mesopotamia that were otherwise unoccupied during the pre-state (sixth millennium BCE), and state periods are best explained as remnants of manuring practices. At a minimum, farmers in Europe have been utilizing the dung of animals to replenish soils since the Neolithic (Bakels 1997). It was common in rural England in the medieval and late medieval periods and this practice carried over into English colonies in North America, particularly in New England. And there are other means of addressing soil depletion prevalent in agricultural societies. For example, the various Algonkian-speaking peoples of western Massachusetts (where Deerfield is located) utilized controlled burning of forests and plants as a means to replenish soil nutrients (Johnson 2003). Merchant notes that, in Europe, since Greek and Roman times, farmers had utilized, in addition to manure “legumes. . . fertilizing salts such as lime. . ., marl. . ., and niter” as chemical and natural fertilizers (Merchant 1989, p. 119). Perhaps the most prominent non-fertilizing means of replenishing soil nutrients is fallowing. In great generality, fallowing tends to sacrifice short-term productivity for long term land viability, while fertilizing tends to be more productive in the short term, but can lead to harsh nutrient depletion over the long term. Societies utilizing agriculture as a means of subsistence have generally focused on some mix of these practices.

This was especially true for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century farmers in New England, before improvement arose in the region. The system of land organization practiced by most farmers was known as the “extensive” field system. Extensive farming relied on polycultures derived from Native domesticates and European crops, variations within farming land plots that had internal cycles of crop rotations, and long-term cycles that moved from “unimproved” forest land, through cleared crop-land, pasture-land, and then back to forest again (Merchant 1989, pp. 166–167). This rotation was the primary means of returning soil fertility, more so than manure, which was collected from animals who grazed on common fields, and was spread on pasture land (Merchant 1989, pp. 116–118). Extensive farming was predicated upon a wide availability of land, low availabilities of labor, and polyculture production rather than staple crop production for markets (Merchant 1989, p. 156). Fallowing cycles, coupled with extensive land-holdings, allowed farmers to keep soils relatively nutrient-rich, and only occasionally supplement with manure.

This agricultural system was embedded in the social relations colonial New England and perpetuated itself largely through patriarchy and partible inheritance. Labor was brokered and organized largely through households, with fathers managing the agricultural labor of children, particularly sons, who would receive a portion of the fathers land as inheritance (Folbre 1985). Additional labor was acquired through reciprocal exchange and customary credit systems (Clark 1990, pp. 29–30). Thus, a farmer would have little need for cash, or to hire laborers, as means of subsistence and production could both be had through calling on neighbors or close kin for favors. Partible inheritance kept this system going, as children were expected to continue participating in the same economic credit networks, using land inherited from fathers (Dobkin-Hall 1984, pp. 87–93; Merchant 1989, pp. 185–190).

According to improvers, this system caused problems because it was leading to soil degradation. They argued that modernizing practices including proper manure management were the best means to arrest this problem. In the first volume of New England Farmer (1822a, b, c), the journal serialized the publication of an essay entitled “Saving and Making the Most of Manure.” It described many of the manure management practices listed so far, and the rationales behind them. But one passage stands out:

By proper attention to the accumulation and application of manure, our lands instead of wearing out, would improve under the hand of the cultivator, and produce crops greater in quantity, and superior in quality’ to those which grew upon them when first reclaimed by the axe and the harrow from a state of nature. Our hardy yeomen instead of leaving the land of their fathers to waste their lives in the wildernesses of the West, might remain at home contented and happy, in possession of all the privileges and comforts of cultivated society, together with as much affluence as is necessary for the pursuit and enjoyment of happiness (New England Farmer1823a)

Manure management in this situation was posited as both a means to “produce crops greater in quantity and superior in quality” to those harvested by earlier generations of colonists, but also that manure had the potential to prevent out-migration and social displacement brought on by New England’s poor soils. An address by Thomas Whipple Jr. (1823) to the Grafton Agricultural Society put the matter in stark terms arguing that “successive cropping, has exhausted [the] rich source of supply to the farmer,” and that this “is the great source of disquietude, and the promoter of the spirit of emigration.” On the other hand, some editorials even felt that improper manure management (and the ignorance it entailed) was the cause of out-migration rather than poor soils. An essay published in 1823 argued that improper management of manure was “not only absurd but ruinous” with the end result of misuse of manure being that “The poor farmer believes his land worn out, and thinks it high time to pluck up stakes and be off to the Ohio!” (New England Farmer1823b). But in either case, improper farming was leading to out-migration, which was seen to be a problem. Proper manure management was the technological solution.

Out-migration certainly was taking place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Particularly after the American government signed treaties with the French, English, and Native groups that controlled western New York and the Ohio River Valley, farmers began moving to open lands there in the last decades of the eighteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth century (Merchant 1989, p. 195). But there are some important caveats. First, Massachusetts was not losing population beyond that which was being replaced by immigration from Europe or from other states. Indeed, according to the Federal Census, the population of Massachusetts increased dramatically from 378,556 1790 to 437,669 in 1840 (Historical Census Browser 2004). Even narrowing to the Connecticut River Valley, the region (Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties) increased in population from 59,656 to 97,075—a greater percentage increase than the state as a whole.

But was soil degradation, resulting from the wastefulness of the extensive field system, really a universal problem in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Massachusetts? To answer this question, it is necessary to probe the complex processes and transformations that occurred in rural Massachusetts at this time, and to see where the improvers, as a group, fit into those changes.

Improvement, Mercantilism, and Rural Capitalism

The patriarchal, extensive-field village system was never an isolated, communitarian phenomenon, as it has sometimes been portrayed (Dobkin-Hall 1984, pp. 22–24; Melvoin 1984). It was an economy intimately connected to the wider Atlantic world. Entrepreneurial and mercantile enterprises had existed from the earliest settlements in Massachusetts, a seemingly prosaic record of which are the English manufactured goods common to eighteenth-century archaeological sites across the region. The Williams house is no different—there are hundreds of sherds of English-made stonewares and earthenwares dating to the early eighteenth century, and which were undoubtedly purchased from local merchants (Lewis 2013, pp. 122–123). Merchants in the Connecticut River Valley brokered long-distance trade relations, and linked hinterland villages like Deerfield to the great mercantile networks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Clark 1990, pp. 31–32; Siskind 2002).

Merchants were often also farmers, but principally they joined agricultural production with larger economic networks that moved beyond the village economy and connected villages to the wider world. Valley merchants brokered the distribution of agricultural surpluses from villages like Deerfield to entrepôts like Springfield, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, to ship out onto the English Atlantic market in exchange for English manufactured goods (Siskind 2002). By using debt to interface with the village credit systems (Sweeney 1988) and connecting them to long-distance commodity markets, valley merchants could become quite wealthy, and could command some forms of social control and political organization (Sweeney 1984) by aligning themselves with urban political and economic leaders. However, they were largely unable to alienate labor from its familial, reciprocal relations, and were thus unable to constitute themselves as a class of owners of means of production buying labor power (Clark 1990, p. 61). What they largely did instead of accumulating cash was to funnel their wealth into land (Clark 1990, p. 52), and into regionally distinctive Georgian mansions (St. George 1985; Sweeney 1984). The group of mercantile-political families in the Connecticut River Valley has become known, retrospectively, as the River Gods (Sweeney 1986). The most powerful of them was the Williams family, to whom E. H. Williams was related. And many of these families were some of the earliest adopters of agricultural innovations in technology. E. H. Williams’ grandfather Elijah, of Deerfield was both a merchant, and a prominent agricultural improver (Sweeney 1988).

Many other early improvers were also merchants or urban professionals. It is an interesting irony that the earliest efforts at publishing and advocating rural improvement emerged not in rural areas, but in cities. As Thornton (1989) notes, nearly all of the founding members of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture were merchants, lawyers, doctors, and magistrates living in or near Boston. The aforementioned Josiah Quincy was a Boston politician and educator. Other early MSPA members included jurist and signer of the Declaration of Independence Fisher Ames, and President John Adams. New England Farmer was published out of Boston by Thomas Fessenden, a former patent speculator and journalist. E. H. Williams’ father (a doctor) and brother (a lawyer), both of whom lived in Roxbury, Massachusetts, were both listed as members of the MSPA in 1799.

This is important to note, because it emphasizes that the social forces represented by these groups—particularly merchants—were responsible for the changing land-relations the Connecticut River Valley. By the end of the eighteenth century, concentrations of land-holdings and stratifications of landed wealth by families such as the River Gods, as well as the preponderance of smaller land-parcels in Valley areas due to partible inheritance created a land-crunch in the Valley. Historians have largely interpreted this land crunch as the result of increasing population in the eighteenth century (e.g., Clark 1975, 1990, p. 70; Henretta 1978, pp. 24–27), but this population increase must be contextualized within the relations of production, and the tensions between reciprocal village and mercantile exchange. For instance historian Clark (1990, p. 61) notes that in Northampton, a mercantile center to the south of Deerfield, 10 % of town residents owned 50 % of the land in the town 1798. Similar patterns appeared in other areas of the Connecticut River Valley, and these were largely a result of consolidation by wealthy farmers and merchants. In addition, there is some demographic evidence that valley farmers were curbing family sizes as a means of adapting partible inheritance to shrinking land-holdings (Swedlund 1975).

There were several important results of this land crunch. The first was the growing settlement of the hilly areas on either side of the Connecticut River Valley (Klimm 1933; Pabst 1941; Paynter 1985). The soils in these areas are somewhat thinner and stonier, making for more difficult, but not impossible farming (Garrison 1991, p. 12). The individuals moving up to these hill towns were often the sons of patriarchy-oriented fathers (Folbre 1985), particularly from middling or poorer families, and Folbre (1985, pp. 214–219) suggests that wealthier farmers, with more land to divide, were in a better position to keep sons from moving onto new lands of their own. Farmers who did move to hillier areas, or took smaller plots needed to produce more with fewer resources. The other common result of this crunch was dislocation and out-migration. Farmers who were not able to maintain their farms, or whose fathers did not have enough land to divide up, were forced to leave the state, take on a new trade, or become a laborer for someone else. Growing proletarianization is visible in the increasing record of landless people in Massachusetts as the eighteenth century progressed (Jones 1975). The effect of these changes on both wealthy valley farmers and poorer hill-town farmers was to put pressure on the extensive farming system. Poorer and middling farmers on smaller plots of land, or in less fertile upland areas shifted to produce vegetables to feed industrial laborers in growing cities like Holyoke, or non-agricultural staples such as timber and hay (Paynter 1985). Many others simply moved away.

This is because the changes improvers advocated were not easy, straightforward, or cheap. Assuming farmers owned cattle (which is not necessarily a given), collecting manure required constructing and maintaining the stercorary. It also required changes to yards (to prevent collectible materials like urine and feces from washing away), and the construction of larger barns or pens to keep animals enclosed to concentrate their waste. Any additives to the manure (e.g., lime, plaster of paris) that were not locally accessible would need to be purchased from merchants. But perhaps most importantly, collecting, storing, carting, and distributing manure are very labor-intensive practices. An improver articulated the nature of part of this work in 1835 saying: “There can be no doubt that in all cases where cows, or other stock are confined every night in yards, that it is good husbandry to throw the manure they make into heaps every morning, or at least every 2 or 3 days, and cover it” (New England Farmer1834a). And the continual nature of such work might not fit into the seasonal rhythms of farming and harvesting, and require the use of extra-family labor, perhaps even wage labor. Wealthier farmers like the Williamses were able to deploy new methods of agriculture and produce large volumes of crops. In other words, they could shift to capitalist agribusiness, with the rationalized organization of manure management as a technological means of expanding production on already large land-plots, and wage or tenanted labor as a relationship to direct it.

Not all farmers were as privileged as Williams, and the pages of New England Farmer suggest that many poorer and middling farmers rejected intensification on the grounds of cost. However, improvers recast this rejection as backward ignorance and conservatism, rather than as a critique of the new economic regime. For example, an essay on Manure management in 1823 noted: “The making of manure by raking and scraping, and every possible contrivance should be the first law to the farmer. We justify ourselves in our slovenliness and low ideas, by complaining of a want of capital—No, let us not mince the mailer, one to another, it is knowledge, pride and neatness, that we want” (Bates 1824). This cry of increased labor cost continued throughout the 1820s. Improvers urged farmers to forgo the cost, in favor of the benefits of properly mixing manure with other compostable substances:

The only objection to making composts in this country is, that they require too much labour. But we doubt whether there are many processes in agriculture, in which labour is more profitably applied. The good effects of composts made of materials suitable to the soil for which they are intended, are not confined, like those of barnyard manure, to two or three of the crops next succeeding their application, but by altering and amending the texture of the soil, as intimidated in the beginning of this article, they give a permanent, increased value to the land (New England Farmer1825).

Improvers thus linked increased costs with increased outputs, but also occasionally suggested that the alternative to intensification was not just lower value and out-migration, but impoverishment and imprisonment. An 1828 essay used the fictional character “Willy Snug” or “Farmer Snug,” who was used to denote a good farmer, as juxtaposed with “Farmer Slack”:

Willy Snug has no unprofitable land on his farm. Every rod is required to produce its due proportion of the yearly crops. Nor is this unreasonable, for the ground is so well manured, so well tilled, and so well fenced, that in a tolerable season it cannot help rendering a good account of itself at the time of harvest. Willy Snug knows as well as any other man the value of manure. Of course, he suffers none to be lost, nor indeed anything out of which manure may be made. You do not see large heaps of dung lying year after year in his barn-yard, for want of carrying out. He is not afraid of soiling his fingers with the dung-cart, well knowing that no man can keep his hands cleaner of debts, lawsuits, sherrifs [sic], and the jail (New England Farmer1827).

These characters appeared across US agricultural publications, as (Newcomb 1994) notes. Fictional farmers were clearly idealized types in the minds of the improvers, but the material conditions they described were quite real. Proper manure management, collection, storage, and treatment would lead towards wealth and away from poverty or “debts, lawsuits, sherrifs [sic], and the jail.” The increased costs of landscape changes, stercorary construction, labor increases, etc. . . would all be offset by the increased productivity and value of proper manure management.


The rhetoric of improvement reduced class privilege and pre-existing wealth to merit and hard work. It smoothed over differences between rich and poor farmers. Arguably, all had potential to succeed, if only they would cast off the shackles of tradition and embrace intensive, technological farming. This was a new ideology of the nineteenth century, as Eric Hobsbawm (1962, pp. 241–242) pointed out: “The middle class world was freely open to all. Those who failed to enter its gates therefore demonstrated a lack of personal intelligence, moral force or energy which automatically condemned them.” Intensive farming would thus improve the individual, but it would also improve the soil, reducing the waste and chaos of the extensive system, arresting ecological decline, and the out-migration and social dislocation that accompanied it. What was missing from this analysis was the idea that what was causing dislocation, out-migration, and soil decline was the increasing role of markets in rural life. Farmers in the Connecticut River Valley could succeed and thrive by selling their produce in a market, but that made them beholden to its whims, and to the instabilities that it wrought in the social and ecological landscape. Spatial fixes rather than technological ones ultimately ameliorated the worst excesses of New England’s environmental contradictions. The opening of the midwestern United States operated as a safety valve, funneling populations out. Expansions in transportation infrastructures lowered transport costs, allowing food grown in these areas to be consumed by burgeoning industrial centers. The problem was shifted, rather than solved, and what remained in place was a socio-economic system (capitalism) that demands and privileges growth, regardless of its social or environmental consequences.

This returns us to the “metabolic rift” that would so interest Marx a few decades after the Williamses died. The growing power of markets and wage labor in Connecticut River Valley agriculture fragmented the extensive farming system even as it strained the soils of the region. This system was certainly not ecologically stable, but it took account of nature as an active participant in growth; as a forced to be reckoned with and managed. Improvement discourses inserted the technology of manure management between humans and nature. While not the full step towards chemical fertilizers that so concerned Liebig, it functioned as an essential break with previous practices. Manure management in early nineteenth-century improvement discourse and practices was perhaps the initial genesis of this shift towards fertilizer farming. Even though manure was not, strictly speaking, a commodity, the transition from extensive colonial farming to intensive capitalist farming was, in part, a capitalist “annihilation of space through time” (Harvey 1990, p. 205)—the extensive space of the three-field system, with its long fallow cycles was collapsed in favor of the more immediate short cycles that manure management allowed. And the materiality of that break, along with the unequal social relations that under-girded it, are visible at the E. H. and Anna Williams house in Deerfield.

The metabolic rift continues today, though it now yawns much wider than it did in the Connecticut River Valley in the nineteenth century. Moore (2000, 2010) has argued quite cogently that the traditional strategy of avoiding the consequences of the metabolic rift are no longer possible. The “spatial fix” (after Harvey 2007) of geographical expansion into under-utilized areas, or recapitalizing previously used areas has become, in Moore’s view, untenable, with neoliberalism expanding capitalism’s economic, ecological, and political reach into almost the entire globe (Moore 2000, p. 123). What is more likely given the continued avoidance of confronting the metabolic rift, is a series of what Michael Klare (2013) terms “resource shocks,” where the scarcity or inaccessibility of basic resources like food, water, and energy escalates and exacerbates existing social tensions until they explode into conflict and violence. The only alternatives are ones that come to terms with the dialectical relation between society and nature, and the role of capital accumulation in the destruction of the livable planet. Resolving the metabolic rift is necessary in thought and in action, if our future is going to be more sustainable, equitable, and just than our past has been.


Thanks to Louann and Steve for including me in this collection, and for commenting on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Margaret Wood for her comments. Bob Paynter, Michael Sugerman, and Charlie Schweik read and commented on an earlier version of this research and their insights figure throughout. Conversations with Ronan O’Donnell and Tony Wilkinson have found their way into this paper. Thanks, as always, to Alanna, for everything else.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyDurham UniversityDurhamUK

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