Originally published in Forum 91 (April 1934): 199-201.
It was a bright and sunny day in a mining camp in West Virginia, and a relief worker was walking down between two rows of houses, talking to a stranger as she went.
"In this house here, where we are going now," she said, "lives a young couple with two children. They have done remarkably well with the garden they started. He was a farmer before he came to the mines, and she is a very energetic young woman. She has canned dozens and dozens of things and sold all she is able in a nearby town. But their neighbors are not so fortunate. Right next door there is a family where the children undoubtedly have tuberculosis."
By this time we had reached the steps. We found the interior of the house clean, although the young woman who let us in apologized for the fact that her children were rather dirty, and her kitchen full of the mess which canning creates. It was easy to see that here was a young woman who was trying hard to bring up a healthy family and who had the standards of good and well-planned farm living in her mind. Before we had talked ten minutes, she asked the relief worker eagerly, "Is there any chance that we can get some land?" She knew that an effort was being made to persuade either the state or the mining companies to divide some land amongst the unemployed miners and she was most anxious to remove her children from the danger of tuberculosis and the family across the way, where the men spent a good deal of time drinking.
The case worker answered, "Yes, we hope that something will be done." As she emerged, she sighed a little and said, "I wonder when it will be done or if it will be done in time to serve any of these people." They had never heard of "Subsistence Farms" but they were the kind of people ideally suited to go and live on one.
The objective of subsistence farming is not to compete with regular farming or add to the burden of agricultural overproduction. The idea is that families engaged in subsistence farming consume their own garden products locally instead of sending them to distant markets. They are not expected to support themselves entirely by raising food, like the successful commercial farmers of the country. The plan is that they shall be situated near enough to an industry for one member of the family to be employed in a factory a sufficient number of days in the year to bring in the amount of money needed to pay for the things which the families must have and cannot produce for themselves. In this way farming will be helped by industry, and industry will be helped by farming. There will be no competition with agriculture nor with industry. Industry must be centralized in order to clear up the congested slum areas of our big cities. Subsistence farms will make possible shorter hours of work in the factories as well as the decentralization of crowded populations.
This new self-supporting manner of American living is being projected under the direction of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Interior. Last spring $25,000,000 was appropriated for study and practical illustration of this idea of new social and economic units. We have several models to build upon in this country, and there is always the example of the self-sufficiency of village life in France. Round about the country various model projects are being planned. In Monmouth County, New Jersey, a community is being projected for two hundred families of Jewish needle workers from nearby crowded manufacturing cities. A factory is to be built for their use; the best soil is to be set aside for homesteads; and the less fertile land is to be devoted to cooperative agriculture to serve solely the consumption of this community.
Recently I have observed at first hand the subsistence-farming project near Reedsville, West Virginia. In that state a great many mines have closed down; some will probably never reopen; some may reopen for a certain number of days a week during part of every year. It is being urged upon the owners of these mines that they use the land which they own above the ground for this new type of subsistence farm. The miners can still work in the mines even though their jobs may not be steady day in and day out.
The government experiment near Reedsville is designed to provide for one hundred twenty-five families especially chosen from those miners who are permanently out of work. The West Virginia College of Agriculture had made a study of unemployed miners' families and found that many of them had come to the mines only within the last few years and because they were attracted by the very high wages paid. The high wages, alas, lasted in some cases not even long enough to pay for the cheap car bought on the installment plan, and these homes are devoid of all improvements. Living conditions in the mining villages are so bad that many of the families who have come from farms long to get back again. There is good land available for the Reedsville project, with watershed hills and a certain amount of valley bottom, typical of much of the West Virginia farming land. A factory will supply the industry, and every homestead will have five acres. There will be some land suitable for pasture only, which will be owned by the community and operated on model cooperative principles. The houses, while very simple, are being planned to meet the needs and aspirations of comfort of the people who are going to live in them. They want certain very definite things, among these a chance to be clean, a shower or a bathtub in every house, a suitable tub in which to wash clothes, enough room so that each member of the family can have a bed of his own. These desires suggest some of the things which the miners lack in their present houses.
Some of the men who have been building the foundations for the first fifty houses, which are now nearing completion, will probably occupy them. You hear one builder saying, "I want to live on a hill," while another man declares emphatically, "I don't like hills." Each farm family will plan for crops suited to its own land: the man who chooses to live down in the valley will grow one thing, and the man on the hillside another. Both men will have, during the first year, the advantage of expert advice and direction from the State College of Agriculture.
These new farming families will all remain on public relief until the factory is opened and the first crops are harvested; but when a family makes its first payment the title to the land will pass to the individual homesteader. In twenty or thirty years the individual will own it free and clear of debt. This plan varies in different projects.
Plowing was going on near Reedsville all through last autumn. Now roads are being built. The question of the type of government which the community wishes to set up is a difficult one, but it is hoped that some way will be found to organize a town-meeting type which may be changed easily to fit into the state government at the end of the first year.
There are in the vicinity a number of high schools which can accommodate the children who will be sent to them. An old barn is to be converted into a local grammar school and made attractive under the direction of the Department of Education. In this building a number of experiments will be tried: for instance, it may be possible to give more vocational guidance and more handicraft work than is usually done in schools. It may also be feasible to have a nursery school to which the mothers themselves may come for a couple of hours at definite times during the week to cooperate with the teachers and learn how best to feed and discipline their children.
All these things are being discussed, and some will be actually tried out. There is the possibility that one hundred twenty-five families will be too few for this community of graduate miners, and that the population will have to be enlarged. Eventually there may be two or three factories instead of one, but in any case the farms will be kept out of competition with those farms which are run for profit.
If the West Virginia experiment succeeds it may be the model for many other similar plans throughout the United States. It is easy to see in advance, however, that the people living on these subsistence farms will be far more secure than the unemployed people living today in towns, whether small or large. It is possible, too, that on these farmsteads home crafts of different kinds may be started which will furnish added income. The Editor has asked me not to fail to mention in passing the modest village furniture industry of which I have for several years been chairman in Dutchess County, New York.
If directed from some central point where good designs and color schemes may be furnished by really good artists, and the products marketed in some cooperative way, a limited but still a good and remunerative occupation may be furnished to those who stay at home on the farms and yet can find spare time to do hand work.
We shall know more about subsistence farming when the first new projects have been working for a number of years. Already there is hope that this program will solve the difficulties of a good many people throughout our country who are now suffering from unemployment or the inability to better the poor standards of living imposed on them by slums and congested areas.