Richard's Interview for the Off-Farm Income Podcast

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Our own Richard was interviewed recently for the "Off-Farm Income" podcast. It's a great discussion about our journey into raising landrace grains as well as old world farming practices, Volga German farming heritage, and Richard's highs and lows in high school FFA!

You'll definitely want to check it out:
http://www.offincome.com/ofi-606-if-you-like-bread-thank-a-german-dr-richard-scheuerman-franklin-county-historical-society/

P.S. Richard isn't exactly "technically inclined" as some may say. So when he shares our website at the end of the interview, he incorrectly states it as palouse colony dot com. He meant to say palouseheritage.com. Safe to say he truly is more comfortable involving himself with the "old days."

The “Good Old Days” — Sweet and Sweat

Once in a while I’ll spot something on Ebay that has special relevance to my musings on agrarian art, and when it falls into my price range that makes it doubly rewarding. So it was recently when I found an exceedingly dog-eared copy of James Wilson’s Art Designs in Harvest Machinery (1884). I know, not exactly a best-seller back in the day let alone now, but it was filled with thirty large exquisitely rendered, large format steel engravings of farm scenes that offer many interesting details about equipment used at that time. Extensive recent research by agricultural historians Jerome Blum (1978) and J. Sanford Rikoon (1988) using period documents indicates how romanticized modern notions have been about social conditions of pre-industrial agrarians.

The emergence of medieval tenancies on terms that favored landlords and small free-holder properties demanded a single family’s devotion to their own limited holdings to make ends meet. Although farmers tended to cluster in villages throughout Europe where they gathered for worship and to socialize, little need existed to join with others for most field operations. To be sure, the weeks of summer harvest were a critical time to ensure sustenance throughout the entire year, and therefore demanded full and creative deployment of all able-bodied personnel from the vicinity and beyond. Modern perceptions endure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “golden age of threshing” that fostered greater cooperation and neighborliness. These values were needed for grand “harvest rings” to pool labor and equipment but were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.

James Wilson & Son,  Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery  (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

James Wilson & Son, Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

As manufacturers in the U. S. and Europe developed more affordable mechanical threshers and steam engines, need for the larger cooperative endeavors diminished. The advent of internal combustion engines in the early twentieth century that replaced animals and steam to power threshing equipment further shifted the complex nexus of technological, economic, and social factors toward single family responsibility. Creative cooperative methods especially during harvest time have continued, however, with seasonal employment of additional workers, sharing and leasing of expensive combines, and organization of grain storage, transportation, and marketing networks.

Modern society’s reliance on convenience stores and relative abundance of provisions serve to obscure understandings of the stolid persistence required to seed, till, and reap lest the family and wider population suffer. Rural folk beckoned rain and sun in proper measure, and prayed that staples would not spoil or be stolen. Until recent times, much of the year for the masses was spent in hope and fear. Hope realized at summer harvest brought promise of sustenance through winter, and come spring it would all begin again. For rich or poor, survival came from what was grown in the good earth. The duties of sowing and harvesting, therefore, had religious connotations which have been reflected in a variety of creative forms of art, literature, and music.

Paul Tretyakov and the Russian Wanderers

I never tire of looking at the heavy coffee table kind of books illustrated with works of art from the world’s great museums—our own National Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute, and lots of places I’ve never visited like Madrid’s Prado and the Getty in Los Angeles. One place I have been able to visit many times is the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, Russia, which contains one of the world’s foremost collections representing a wide range of agrarian art styles and periods. Located on a quiet backstreet several blocks south of the Kremlin, the gallery courtyard entry hosts crowds year-round who first pass beneath the imposing statue of founder Paul Tretyakov, the prominent Russian businessman who established the museum in 1856.

Tretyakov Monument and Museum, Moscow; John Clement Photograph

Tretyakov Monument and Museum, Moscow; John Clement Photograph

Tretyakov’s brooding bronze seems to be judging the worthiness of approaching visitors who seek admission to the wonders behind the gallery’s grand fairy-tale facade adjacent to the Museum Church of St. Nicholas. No Early Church Father is more venerated in Orthodoxy than St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, the fourth century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. His righteous life is commemorated for dedication to the welfare of others retold in tales of his miraculous provision of wheat for the people of Myra during time of famine.

Alexei Venetsianov, The Reapers (c. 1828), State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, Russia

Alexei Venetsianov, The Reapers (c. 1828), State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, Russia

A member of the museum church congregation in the late 1800s, Tretyakov recognized the need to preserve priceless icons of St. Nicholas and other religious figures. He also risked material support of great artists even when clerical and state arts officials condemned their pastoral works because of realistic if sometimes unsettling depictions of rural life. Forbidden to exhibit and sell their works through official channels, a group of Russia’s greatest nineteenth century artists including Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, and Grigoriy Myasoyedov founded their own “Itinerant” art exhibitions for which their stylistic school is named. Tretyakov’s controversial generosity enabled them and other artists from Europe and Russia, where they were also known as “Wanderers,” to continue their mission. Tretyakov bequeathed to later generations the grand galleries that vividly acquaint viewers with Old World traditions of reaping, gleaning, and other vital aspects of agrarian life from an age when family and community survival depended on favorable summer harvests.

Monumental canvases painted by Venetsianov, Myasoyedov, and the Itinerants show fieldworkers in mixed groups reflecting the Slavic commune’s traditional practice of distributing harvest labor as well as bounty among the peasantry of the steppes. Their paintings are also among the first to realistically depict their subjects as individuals. Some contemporary viewers characterize these rural depictions of toil, revelry, and celebration as quaint. But the play of colors enlivening field labors enhances appreciation for the profound impact harvests past and present have had on the inhabitants of these places, whose work is the bedrock of any people’s prosperity. Art historian Neil McWilliam has written of the risks in offering commentary on the complex interplay of nineteenth century art, and presumably visual imagery from any period, with the era’s “social mythology.“

Gleaning’s Early Modern Revival

Through arrangements with the US Department of Agriculture made possible by my friend and fellow historian Alex McGregor of Colfax’s The McGregor Company, I was recently able to visit Washington, D. C. and document works of agrarian art in our national collections. Among many highlights was seeing the gritty paintings of 1930’s New Deal artists like Ben Shahn as well as classical European works. Among the most beautiful were paintings on exhibit in the National Gallery by Jean-Antoine Watteau who turned to prevailing art academy representations that emphasized the human form of workers rather than the conditions of their lives. Rembrandt van Rinj, Nicholas Poussin, and Bernard Fabritius also rendered the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz in exotic settings and costume with a sacred gravity far removed from the period’s gritty realities in rural Europe. Not until Enlightenment attitudes supplanted aristocratic sentiment were peasants more fully reintegrated with aspirations of the rising middle class through art and literature consistent with era’s ideals of fraternity, progress, and rights of the common man. Enlightenment literary attention to gleaning is also notable for its association with feminine aspects of harvest and the state’s professed benevolent concern for the destitute.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

Studies of customs and laws on gleaning challenge conventional interpretations that conflict over the poor’s harvest share arose with the emerging market economies of early modern Europe. But very few and obscure references to gleaning are found the late Roman period with the term virtually unknown in documents from the sixth century AD for the next six hundred years. References to the practice that emerge again in twelfth century English and French village by-laws regulate compensation of workers, describe limits to gleaning in village commons typically reserved as pasture, and are not explicitly associated with the poor. The raking of stalks missed by wielders of sickle and scythe had likely become one of the several steps embedded in the typical harvest cycle in which all able-bodied workers participated. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Ceres (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The dominant narrative has held that as private ownership of land and the enclosure movement weakened villagers’ traditional communal rights and the aristocratic great estates, capitalistic demands for productivity eroded moral commitments to the impoverished. But gleaning had become conventional harvest practice and had long since lost its distinct association with the indigent. Population increase since the seventeenth century and the growth of Europe’s cities created substantial numbers of landless poor. Rather than addressing the new realities with comprehensive interventions for public welfare, state officials variously enacted archaic gleaning laws that fomented conflict in the countryside instead of ameliorating needs of the dispossessed. Church leaders often invoked religious rhetoric to justify such government efforts by attempting to apply ancient Levitical imperatives and the story of Ruth to distinctly new economic realities emerging in Western Europe.

Golden Age Artists

Artistic expression of agrarian experience over the centuries has varied like the seasons. Medieval fatalism shown in the solitary religious renderings of agrarian toil gave way to the colorful renderings of joyful communal harvest and other farming endeavor. Greater appreciation of peasant ways emerged during the Renaissance was reflected in new styles of art and literature. The lavish sixteenth century canvases and detailed drawings of Brueghel and his popular imitators show lively scenes with mowers, binders, gleaners, and carters working concurrently. The division of tasks would have normally been done in a sequence, but the scene allows the artist to more naturally depict peasants as real persons who frolic and dine as well as reap and rake. As if storytelling through paint, Brueghel and his successors show workers again proliferating throughout the countryside as had been the case prior to the calamitous fourteenth century of plague and want.

Considerations of more favorable peasant experience through the harvest motif diminish, however, in seventeenth century European art and literature. The German peasant revolts and regional wars across Europe unleashed after the Reformation—often shown as menacing depictions of workers with upraised sickles and scythes, led genteel patrons of the arts to commission calmer representations of country life. The peasantry had become a force to be reckoned with, or at least redirected in energy in order to advance social tranquility and stability. Art that engendered public order and upper class privilege rather than cultural angst led to serenely bucolic works notable for the peculiar absence of rural residents. Yet without these laborers tending the very herds and fields shown in such paintings, no bounty would sustain the population.

John Constable, after Jacob Ruisdael (1648),  The Wheatfield  (1818);  Print Collectors Quarterly  7:2 (February, 1917)

John Constable, after Jacob Ruisdael (1648), The Wheatfield (1818); Print Collectors Quarterly 7:2 (February, 1917)

Harvest time canvases by Dutch Golden Age master Peter Paul Rubens often show more livestock than people, while some Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings and drawings like The Wheatfield (1648)—meticulously studied and copied by John Constable, depict bountiful fields tended by unseen hands. In van Ruisdael’s somber View of the Grainfields (c. 1670), the view is illumined by moonlight, a hint of hope in an otherwise shadowy landscape, with a distant cathedral hinting at reliance upon divine grace. The appearance of landscapes and certain plants and creatures might well foster artist intentions to inspire and illuminate. To be sure, Calvinist sermons heard by Dutch Masters may well have influenced their worldviews. But there is much to suggest from studying primary documents, period literature, and the paintings themselves that artists and those who first viewed their works saw real and imagined landscapes as sources of natural beauty and love as much as reflections for spiritual edification.

Shakespeare, Sickles, and Scythes

A few years ago my longtime Tri-City photographer friend, John Clement, and I found ourselves in the pleasant Hessian village of Schotten, Germany, about forty miles north of Frankfurt, a. M. We were helping to lead a tour of that scenic region and I had special interest in learning about farming practices there past and present. John, who is National Photography Hall of Famer, was quite taken by the colorful exhibits in the towns “Homeland” museum which presented information on rural life in past centuries. Liana Vardi (1993) has documented that since the Early Middle Ages gleaning was one of several essential steps in efficient communal harvest for lord or landowner. The process included cutting grain with sickles (or scythes more commonly after the twelfth century), tying and piling sheaves to dry and gather, gathering lost stalks with rakes, and finally carting the crop by wagon to a barn or shelter. Threshing the stalks to remove the nutritious kernels might take place soon after harvest or during winter.

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

That evidence of gleaning in the biblical sense is little known in medieval art or literature is not as much a matter of peasants understanding the ancient concept as the era’s cultural paradigm of communal sufficiency. Although substantially denied prospect of improved economic conditions, serfs nevertheless could expect the essentials of shelter and sustenance, and access to nearby pasture “commons” provided forage for cattle and sheep. Families and small groups could roam “open” forests beyond manorial fields to gather wood for fuel and gather berries, mushrooms and other resources to supplement diets.

Disruption of European cultural patterns during the fourteenth century took place in the wake of periodic crop failures from 1313 to 1321 due to changes in climate, followed by the Black Death of the 1340s. Famine, plague, and pestilence ravaged throughout the continent to render apocalyptic significance to reaper and scythe as harbingers of death, metaphors since ancient times for widespread loss of life. These conditions raised new considerations during the Middle Ages of mortality and the human condition in this present life. The “bending sickle compass [swath]” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 claims all mortal lovers as if stalks of ripened grain, and elsewhere the bard uses sickle and scythe (e.g., Sonnets 100 and 106) to represent Time.

Ruth and Boaz, Past and Present

There is much interest these days in “back to the land” efforts to reconnect folks with country life. It is encouraging to see examples here some rural communities in our area of sufficient revival evident in thriving local schools and main streets. Art historians remind us that life back in “the good old days” was not always that “good” for lots of folks, nor especially “sustainable.”  Writings of medieval theologians confirm the view of many present-day researchers that European peasants were practitioners of extractive farming methods who were often deemed unworthy by the Church for anything other than servile labor to await reward in the hereafter. In the main, depictions of harvest from the Middle Ages do not show happy workers gathered together in fields of plenty. Reapers and gleaners still seen in the surviving stained glass, frescoes, and bas reliefs of great European cathedrals typically show a single individual or pair of field workers armed with sickle or scythe in tall, thin stands of grain. The expressionless figures are typically cast in larger theological “Labors of the Months” narratives as emblems of Christian suffering intended to impress parishioners with the need to toil ceaselessly throughout the year as sinful consequence of humanity’s fallen state.

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome,  History of the Holy Bible  (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome, History of the Holy Bible (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

For three millenia the Old Testament Book of Ruth has been synonymous with the abiding theme of divine deliverance associated with gleaning, and served to inspire depictions of her and Boaz throughout the centuries from the vivid images of medieval illuminated manuscripts to the modern dreamy reverie of Surrealist Marc Chagall. The annual harvest of feudal times made possible the exchange of peasant labor for manorial protection and provision. Notions of upward mobility in moral or imaginative terms, therefore, are not found in the French Song of Roland, Slavic Tale of Igor’s Campaign, sermons of St. Francis, or visions of Hildegard of Bingen. (Hildegard did write, however, of the praiseworthy qualities of ancient grains like spelt and emmer.) The very constraints of social stratification fostered a degree of egalitarianism among serfs, who represented some 90% of the population, which significantly altered ancient Judeo-Christian concepts of gleaning intended to benefit the poor.