Odds are you don’t know farm life. Not only are few of us farmers or even from an ag background, but also time, mores, economics and politics have shifted considerably from the early 1900s. I straddle times and conditions. I have milked cows (manually and mechanically), collected eggs, scalded and plucked hens, and worked corn from seeding to weeding to harvesting to turning under.
On the other hand, I never was in a position to inherit a family farm. I grew, picked and sold vegetables but was never in effect indentured servant/slave to nasty father. I never even belonged to 4-H, while I knew many peers in WV, VA and SC who were all those.
Yet, The 4-H Harvest: Sensuality and the State in Rural America (Gabriel N. Rosenberg, U. Penn Press 2016) goes far beyond county and state fairs, farm kids with beloved pigs and cows, and FFA meetings.
One warning is that the book’s index sucks mightily. I’ve done large book indexing and am positive that the author had nothing to do with this one. Many complex and detailed citations are missing (homosexuality, venereal disease, and on and on); it lacks the ideas and uses only keywords. Boo. The other shortcoming is that Rosenberg is far more concerned with the political and economic relationships than the kids. We can infer about the social, intellectual and economic outcomes for the 4-H youth, but he tells us more about the political players individually. A third note should be that this is an academic press property; at $55, it’s a good meal price; get it at the library.
As someone who visited relatives’ and friends’ farms, I did the work, but I never actually owned and raised cows, sheep or pigs for exhibition (and eventually slaughter). My chums who did that grew up knowing the true script for animals. They had no apparent problem assisting at the birth, naming the cow, raising her, exhibiting her, then either selling or killing and butchering her, and in the latter case eating her little one.
Fatalistic comes to mind.
The 4-H book recalls other intersections. The Y is one. As a child in several places I belonged to YMCAs. When we moved to Boston, I found myself a member in the original Y. I learned it was the Garden of Eden for Northeastern University.
That is, the nation’s first Y started to be a shield for Christian young men who had moved to the (relatively) big city from the farm to earn a living. The new institution offered wholesome residence, free from bars and prostitutes and the moral perils of rooming house life. This Y offered evening lectures to keep the young men wholesome and occupied. Those in turn led to the college and university — evening activities for the mind and soul rather than the crotch.
Likewise, the 4-H clubs were specifically to counter the immorality and amorality of rural life. In contrast to our idyllic bucolic images, country life was rife with lust, pregnancy, venereal disease, bestiality, homosexuality and.well, non-refined ways to spend an evening.
The clubs viewed, described and treated the youth involved much as they did the produce and animals (other than not eating the kids). The descriptions of the programs and contests are embarrassing in their paternalism. Then again, this was largely the range of the 20th Century, start to finish. There was rampant racism and sexism, with the asininity of stereotyping, that continued well into the 1970s.
Oddly, the author keeps his academic distance and does not wonder specifically whether the good and bad balance on the 4-H scale.
As an aside, the book reminded me of a dinner about 1970 in Cape May, New Jersey. The hosts were the former mayor, Belford (Bucky) LeMunyon and his wife Ione. She was the aunt of the woman I kept company with in Manhattan. A guest (to my embarrassment I do not recall his name) was a retired local physician. He recalled performing seemingly unceasing Army physicals during the WWI draft in a field outside of town. There were stations of long tents and much longer lines of naked men, each wearing only a bag with personal effects. He remembered to that day one potential soldier after another with secondary or tertiary syphilis, sores and a fatal prognosis unknown to them. They were farm boys given to the amoral sexuality of rural life, young men who had no idea they were close to the insanity and death that end-stage disease brings.
The 4-H book refers to the raw and common sexuality of the farm life. We can sit at a distance and snicker at the self-righteousness of the clubs and Ys preaching about the risks to body and soul from city life, while farm kids were at least as likely to suffer…or more so.