Action Alert!

Back to the Land!

by Emerson Hynes

Descriptive Title

Farming As Way of Life Seen As Escape from Social and Spiritual Chaos


This article was reprinted as “City Slickers and Dumb Farmers” by National Catholic Rural Life Conference. A discussion of the positive aspects of farmers, limitations of city life, but without idealizing work on the land.

Larger Work

The Wanderer Vol. 10, No. 1

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer, January 4, 1940

There was a time when there were but two kinds of people in America: city slickers and dumb farmers.

The city man was slick because he was working shorter hours and getting higher wages than the farmer. He was in the thick of everything—the fast life, the excitement, the luxuries from new improvements. Most of all he had always the vision of getting rich, of “making his wad,” which would enable him to retire to a life of ease. Things were booming in the city. People were getting places fast. Everything was on the move upward. And the city man had front seat.

The farmer was dumb because there appeared to be little chance of his ever making a fortune. He had to work long hours in the sun and rain and to do irksome chores every morning and night. He was old-fashioned and behind the times. His house had none of the new conveniences, usually no running water or even a bathtub! Everybody with any ambition, with any “get,” was migrating to the city where opportunities were golden. The man who stayed behind had to be dumb.

But today the true farmer is no longer dumb, and the city slicker is no longer slick. The modern urbanite is in one of the three classes:

  1. The small group of very wealthy who enjoy complete security, fine homes, servants, at least three cars, and a kennel of pedigreed dogs. They travel at will, have a country estate, and send their child to a fashionable school.
  2. The comparatively large middle-class whose members receive an income barely sufficient to maintain a comfortable home, a car, and respectable social contacts.
  3. The propertyless wage earners. They make up more than half the city population. Some of them enjoy the products of Progress, but most are underfed, insufficiently clothed, and poorly housed. They own nothing, unless it be a few pieces of personal property. Never do they own productive property. They live in apartments (if they are lucky), in crowded flats, or in squalid houses. They are harassed by economic difficulties at every turn. Often it is only relief from the Government that enables them to survive. Unemployment is common. They avoid complete despondency only because they know that countless others share the same lot as they—and misery is eased by company.

It is the truth that none of these three classes is any longer slick:

The very wealthy are dead in spirit. They haven’t the zeal and lust for adventure that moved the empire builders of the nineteenth century. They are fat and self-satisfied. Their ancestors made hay while the sun was shining. They are content to live on the hay. Nothing else matters.

The members of the middle class are concentrating to preserve their position. They want only to hold what they have. They dare not look to the future. They live—and often live well—today. They hope that it will last. Nothing else matters.

The masses are largely resigned to their fate. Occasionally little sparks of resentment, or even of revolt, fly up and make a noise. But generally these people are a picture of morose bewilderment. They survive. They continue to exist, but they do not know why, and sometimes they do now know how, so pitiful is their status. Their lives are aimless. When there is an opportunity they “blow off steam” with the aid of liquor and crude entertainment. Nothing else matters.

What city people need most of all is realism. They need self-analysis; they need to ask themselves about fundamentals, and they need to know the answers. Instead, they continue to blind themselves:

To be governed entirely by artificialities (if they are in the very wealthy class).

To engage in cut-throat competition.

To lie, cheat, and defraud in order to keep their business.

To view everything with an eye to business. They even go to church if it means more customers. And they will turn around and laugh at religion if it means keeping another client. Business comes first (if they are in the very wealthy or middle-classes).

To feel utterly helpless before the system, unable to change either it or their own state (if they are in the third class).

It is high time that these people begin to ask some questions:

That they try to find out what it means to be a man.

That they consider their basic needs as men.

That they survey other ways of life and try to discover if there are not better ways than their own.

Not every one in the city will do this. The very wealthy least of all. For they live in a world apart. They are encased in their own standards, so much so that they are unmoved by anything. They must be slightly bored with everything in order to remain in the “smart set.” They find their happiness in being bored.

Moreover, the city has its appeal. It grips men and prefers to see them die than to let them go. It spreads a vast cloak of impersonality and promises every man that he can do what he will and that no one will be the wiser. It teems with amusements and things to do, which enables one to pass away month after month without having to think. It is one great pageant, and men love shows.

But surely there are some who will ask the questions. And some who will listen to the replies.

What Makes Man to Be a Man?

A man is not a mere animal, like the ape and the dog. A man is not a pure spirit, like an angel.

He is a being in whom are substantially united both matter and spirit. He is the bridge between the two worlds. He has the characteristics of both. And thus he is indeed a strange business. Having part of his nature in common with animals, he has needs which correspond to animal needs; therefore, physical needs. Having part of his nature in common with pure spirits, he has needs which correspond to those of spiritual beings; thus, opportunity to exercise his will and to use his intellect. Being in many ways incomplete and unable to take care of himself, he has need of Society; therefore, social needs. And each of these needs has a corresponding virtue, which is the fullest development of these powers.

Since every person ought to strive for perfection, it is important that he choose an environment which will be helpful in his struggle. The person himself, of course, is responsible for his perfection, and the environment of itself cannot determine him. But it can be and is a powerful factor. If it is not suitable, the chances are that the person will not achieve the highest degree of perfection of which he is capable.

What are the Physical Needs of Man?

A man has several needs which must be filled if he is to remain alive. The principal ones are food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and in modern times, power. Now it is evident that these needs can be filled almost anywhere. No way of life has a monopoly on them. If necessary the Government can step in and see that each member of the Nation has a sufficiency. We are certain that the earth, utilized by man’s cleverness, has enough products to supply all the physical needs of all the men in the world today. But it is also evident that through many blunders, through much mismanagement, and especially because of greed, great masses of people do not have a sufficiency of these essentials for physical well-being.

And this is particularly true of people in the cities. A number of surveys have established the fact that at least one-third of city inhabitants are poorly clothed, housed, and fed. City people are more likely to be so impoverished because they are wholly dependent upon others for these necessities. They produce scarcely anything for themselves. They most they do is to contribute a wee part in the production of a single product or in the management of a single business, for which service they receive a wage. But as often as not this wage is too small to provide all the necessities. And frequently it is stopped altogether because business is poor. Then they have nothing to fall back upon. The man who works for a wage is never secure. There is always the danger that he will have nothing to eat, nothing to buy more clothing with, nothing with which to pay the rent and to buy fuel.

It is deplorable that such conditions exist. Perhaps if everything were functioning as it ought, no one would have to worry. But the very real fact is that things are not so functioning, and that millions of Americans are faced constantly with destitution. Without losing sight of the fact that, in the long run, the ultimate remedy for this deplorable situation lies in the Christian reconstruction of Society, and in the establishment of a corporative social order, we believe their exists for thousands of urbanites a present possibility for escape from their untenable condition. That escape lies in their return to the Land, to the more simple economy where the person produces the physical necessities for himself.

A return to the Land is moreover, a most practical solution, for the famer is able to satisfy his physical needs from what he has and from what he grows.

Especially is this true of the first essential: food. The farmer is the fundamental producer of foodstuffs. A farmer has meat, milk, grain, vegetables, and fruit. If need be he does not have to go outside his own acres to keep his body alive.

The two fundamentals of clothing—hides and wool or cotton—are also available to the farmer; and he can likewise shape them for use without the help of others. It may not always be wisest for him to do so, but if necessary he can do it.

The farmer has materials for building his own home: lumber and stone, or, if these are lacking, sun dried bricks or rammed earth walls.

The important thing is that the farmer is at the starting point of most of the necessities of life. He will naturally cooperate with others and exchange his surpluses for finished products if it is possible. But in an emergency, he is never left destitute. He enjoys a security which is surpassed by none, although he too may lose everything, for nothing in this life is absolutely secure.

The first great advantage, then, of farm life over the life in a city is the greater certainty of a supply of the physical necessities of life. In this age when destitution is so common in the city, it becomes a point which ought to be carefully considered.


What are the Spiritual Needs of Man?

The two most important faculties of the soul of man are the will and the intellect. The power which man enjoys because of them is what makes him different from animals, is what raises him to a higher and altogether distinct level.

Obviously a man must exercise these two faculties if he is to act as a man. If his actions are mechanical and if others make all his decisions for him, he is scarcely a man.

Freedom to exercise the will demands an environment in which it is possible for a person to make a choice, to express an opinion, to follow a course of action without being threatened. This means that the person must have economic liberty to a certain extent: that is, that he own or control some productive units, enough so that he need not fear loss of the physical necessities of life if he should choose one thing and not another. Unless a man has this economic liberty, his freedom of will is greatly limited.

Such is the case in a majority of jobs and positions in the industrial system. Few workers in the city are producers of fundamentals. They are wholly dependent on the cooperation of others for their supply of the necessities of life, and usually they are equally dependent on a wage in order to purchase these necessities. The superiors of these workers can command their opinions on religion, politics, and a hundred and one different things. The wage earner must be careful as to what he says and does, or he may find himself without a wage.

Economic liberty is enjoyed b the farmer and—to a more limited degree—by the owner of a small shop. They are almost the only workers left who have this fundamental prerequisite for freedom. The man who wants to be free to express himself, who wants to enjoy the maximum of independence, will do well to consider the farm.

Moreover, it is quite apparent that the industrial worker’s freedom is limited to the extreme while he is at work. The factory is the “totalitarian state” in the field of economics. Here the person is told what to do and how to do it. His own mind and his own will are rarely called upon. He performs an almost mechanical task which has been determined by a machine or by the will of his boss. As a result the laborer, while he is working, fails to develop or perfect those important faculties which make him to be a man. The average city worker has bound himself to a system which limits his power of expansion as a man. As such he is destroying his personality rather than developing it.

In contrast, the work of the farmer—in an agrarian economy—is determined and executed in a large measure by his own intellect and will. He is his own boss. He and he alone is responsible for what is done or neglected. He at least has the opportunity for conducting his work in a manner befitting the dignity of man.

Though that is one of the great values of the farmer’s work, it is rarely consider. Men have sold freedom for the fools’ gold of a “higher wage.” They have exchanged the chance for developing their minds for money. But if the soul be lost, of what value is money?

It is the same story when we consider the intellect of man.

The great majority of men must achieve intellectual perfection through work. A few have been gifted with talents of the intellect so great that all their time ought to be spent in developing them: thus, the contemplatives, the philosophers, the teachers, and some of the professional men. But most people will have to rely on work, involving at least some manual labor in order to gain intellection perfection.

Yet the work of the average city laborer, and in particular the industrial worker, involves little or no use of the intellect. He operates or “feeds” a machine, pulls a lever, pushes a button, tightens a nut on a bolt, or merely sits staring at a machine, watching for a slip-up. He mechanically checks accounts in an office and pushes buttons on an adding machine. He never has the opportunity of doing anything creative, or figuring out things for himself. A small band of specialists have done all the creative work. The average worker is only a glorified watchdog. He does not even have the satisfaction of making a complete product for himself.

Can such work be said to be human? Can it contribute much to the development of the personality? Is it in keeping with the honor and dignity of man, the rational animal, the creature with a soul; with man made to the image and likeness of God?

Again, by contrast, the work of the farmer presents an opportunity for developing the intellect; in fact, his work demands it. Unless the farmer is ingenious, calculating, creative, mentally alert, awake to the future as well as the past—unless he is all these things he cannot survive.

The intellectual virtues are four: art, science, wisdom, and prudence. The farmer is in a position to develop all of them. His work gives him opportunities to grow more perfect in them. His whole environment is a challenge to his intellectual powers and he receives every encouragement to respond.

The intellect and the will—these are the great glories of man. Why is it I that men in choosing a way of life ignore them? Why do they push them aside as secondary considerations? Why do they seek first the material things of lie: fine homes, fine cars, fine clothes; money, the largest possible income; the luxuries which money will buy; power; prestige (especially the social prestige which comes from being wealthy, being a money-maker, a success in the business world)?

When men begin to think first about choosing a way of life which will enable them to retain the opportunity for freedom, for developing the intellectual virtues, and for perfecting their God-like persons—then there will be a return to the Land.


What Are the Social Needs of Man?

There are three natural societies which minister to the needs of men and to which men in turn contribute: the Family, the Church, and the State. There are also secondary societies, such as guilds and parishes. All of these societies are handicapped by a predominance of great cities (and sixty per cent of the American people live in cities).

The family affords an example of the superiority of rural life as regards as society. The family on the land is ideally fitted for fulfilling the first end of marriage: the procreation and education of children.

The economic argument for birth control has little force on the farm. An additional child does not cause a drain on a family which produces most of its own food. And from the time children reach the age of reason they are contributing their part to the family production. There is plenty of space for the children to roam and play. There is an opportunity for training the children in the domestic virtues, of making them useful citizens, with a respect for work, discipline, property, and order. There is an absence of artificial dangers such as harass the city mother—busy streets and the like. There is a wholesome moral atmosphere, a healthy approach to the realities of life.

The secondary end of marriage, conjugal love, is likewise predisposed to develop in the rural family. The work of the husband and wife is common. They enjoy mutual understanding of problems, and there is necessity for close cooperation. They do not exist in two entirely different worlds while they work, but in a common shelter, which is the farm. The resulting unity enables them to know one another better and therefore opens the way for a deeper love.

As the family, so the other societies gain strength and vigor and enjoy increased solidarity among rural people.

The thoughtful person will conclude, therefore, that rural life has many things to offer which cannot be found in other ways of life. And he will see that it is precisely in those things which are most fundamental to the development of the person that the values of the farm are richest.


The farm is the home of the realist, and one considering a return to the farm must be realistic. There are many fanciful arguments for rural life. There are poetic and idealistic viewpoints of the grandeur of the farm. But one must be wary of such reasons. No strong foundation was ever built on fancy, and the one returning to the Land must not expect all beer and skittles.

For there are many things which one cannot expect to attain on the farm. There is little chance of becoming famous. There is little chance of accumulating a fortune.

There is nothing gotten without hard work on the farm. There is sweat on the brow. Sometimes there are extremely long hours of work. There is the summer’s heat and the antics of the weather. Moreover, there is less excitement on the farm; fewer “things to do” no rush and bustle of traffic and the fire trucks.

Life on the farm offers only a frugal living. But it also offers: the security that comes from producing for oneself; the regularity, peace and tranquility of an ordered life; the proximity to nature and fundamental life processes; the environment for gaining perfection of the person; the health of sound living; the safety for children which the open country provides.

It is the life for red-blooded men and women who have the pioneering yearning for adventure; who value liberty and independence more than money and a cozy apartment with the latest luxuries and conveniences; who love life and are willing to face it cleanly.


The true farmer is no longer dumb but there are thousands of “Dumb Farmers” in America today. In reality they do not deserve the name of farmers. They are only other capitalists, aping bourgeois standards and tactics.

They have commercialized farming and have changed it from a way of life to a purely business enterprise, a method of making money. They are the large scale farmers who own so many acres that the possibility of a community spirit is lost. They have concentrated on cash crops and not on making their own livings. They often raise only a single crop, keep no livestock, buy all their foodstuffs from stores. They exploit the land, using commercial fertilizers (not with the idea of building up the soil but solely to produce a larger crop). They buy expensive machinery, and then have to increase acreage in order to make the investment pay out.

They are fully as concerned with making money as the city man, and they seek none of the real values of rural life. They are among the people whom the capitalist economic regime has been “intimately affecting”—by its advantages, inconveniences and vices,” as Pope Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno.

And many of them have already paid for their heresy.

Their lands have been rendered unproductive by drought, dust storms, and erosion. Their lack of organizations has made them pawns in the commercial world, and their returns on their labor have been disastrously low and entirely out of proportion to the cost of production. Consequently, they have had to resort to mortgaging. Thousands have lost their land through foreclosure. Other thousands are owners on paper only. They have been forced to appeal to the Government, and in return for Government relief they have had to surrender much of their independence; have had to let the Government tell them what and how much to raise.

Let no one desiring to return to the land take as his model such farmers as these, who have abused their way of life.

Let no one view farming entirely as an economic system; better that they stay in the city than return to the land as a large-scale farmer, as a commercial farmer, as an individualist out to make money and profits. (Fortunately, the large investment in land and machinery will prevent most people from becoming farmers of this sort.)

A return to the land means first of all a new way of life, whose chief values are recognized as transcending economic and monetary considerations. It means a small subsistence homestead, the investment of which will not be large, the purpose of which will be, in as great a measure as possible, to make one’s own living. In terms of practical figures it means: a few acres, which are one’s own; a house, which is one’s own; a cow, pigs, and chickens, which are one’s own; a garden, plots of grain, an orchard, which are one’s own; equipment—carpenter’s tools, a loom, a grinding mill—with which one will make most of the things he needs. Finally it means membership in a community, a parish, a school district, where one is known and recognized and where his opinion counts.

The cynics will laugh at you. Those who hang on, vainly hoping to strike it rich, will laugh at you. The “smart” people who “just couldn’t bear” to give up the excitement and the cheap luxuries of the city will laugh at you.

But one can afford to be laughed at if he has his own land and home, garden and livestock, independence and security, and the happiness which comes from true farm life.

Emerson Hynes
St. John’s University
Collegeville, Minnesota

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