To put it succinctly, the green revolution is not what you thought it was. In Agrarian Crossings, Tore Olsson goes looking for the roots of the massive global agricultural change of the late twentieth century, and he finds those roots are not in the places that historians have expected to find them. Olsson pushes his analysis back into the late nineteenth century and the striking similarities of the US South and Mexico. Parallel problems faced small farmers in both regions, and the solutions advocated by agrarian reformers were also similar, with a great deal of admiration flowing back and forth across the border. From this beginning, a remarkable relationship developed. Olsson focuses on both governmental cooperation between the United States and Mexico and the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts. The New Deal years saw a flourish of cooperation between the United States and Mexico, as reformers pushing for better conditions for southern tenant farmers looked to agrarian reforms in Mexico for inspiration, and Mexican reformers studied the New Deal for ideas as well. While historians have focused on the Agricultural Adjustment Act, or the “agricultural New Deal,” as Olsson terms it, it is important to this story to study the Farm Security Administration (FSA), or the “agrarian New Deal,” that took a reformist position in favor of smaller farmers. Portions of the FSA took their inspiration from the Mexican ejido system, and Mexican reformers also took inspiration from elements of the FSA. Additionally, the Rockefeller Foundation’s work in Mexico had its roots in experiments made in the South, both in agriculture and public health. In both places, reformers began by attempting change on a scale and with methods appropriate to small farmers and their families’ needs. The green revolution in Mexico did not begin with wheat and high tech. Instead, it began with indigenous forms of corn and low-tech solutions that could be implemented with relative ease. As Olsson describes it, the green revolution did not have its origins in Cold War desires to stave off communism through agricultural development. Instead, it had its origins in the similarities between the plights of insecure farmers in both the South and Mexico, and the attempts of reformers, both in government and with private philanthropies, to improve their ability to stay on the land. That this particular kind of reforming spirit died in the conservatism of the post–World War II era was, in Olsson’s view, unfortunate. With a change in the political climate came a greater emphasis on getting big or getting out, and a massive movement from farms to cities. Whether they lived in Mexico City or Detroit, migration did not necessarily solve the problems of impoverished rural dwellers. It merely moved those problems to the city. Agrarian Crossings also tells the stories of the many reformers who contributed to this cross-border agricultural project. The people involved were a varied and unusual lot, some of whose careers took surprising turns as a result of their involvement in agrarian reform. None was as surprising as North Carolinian Josephus Daniels, who became ambassador to Mexico in 1933. The former white supremacist became an advocate for small farmers both in Mexico and the United States, and greatly aided the Mexican government in its nationalization of American property. He became an unexpected cheerleader for land redistribution and agricultural policies benefiting small-holders. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in twentieth-century agriculture, the New Deal, the green revolution, and US-Mexican relations. Olsson’s work is carefully researched and eminently readable, and tells an unexpected and useful story. It is a tale, unfortunately with a sad ending, reflecting on what might have happened had agricultural policies continued to develop with a focus on people, rather than efficiency and profits. It is difficult to find anything to criticize in the book. One suggestion, rather minor, is that the many “agrarian crossings” in the book might have benefited from actual mapping, given the intensity and complexity of the traffic in ideas and reformers both north and south across the US-Mexico border. Such a map would be useful, but it certainly is not necessary. Agrarian Crossings is a model study that encourages its readers to think big and across borders in their understanding of agricultural development. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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