"Lynn Nelson gets beneath the literature of nineteenth-century 'agricultural improvement' to the hard realities encountered by a Virginia planter who tried it. William Massie plowed deep, sowed clover, improved his seeds and breeds, and achieved some success by dogged good management. But in the end, Pharsalia foundered on the contradictions between high farming and ecological pushback from pests and weeds, crop markets glutted by cheap frontier production, resistance from black slaves and white neighbors, and the luxurious lifestyle expectations of Massie's children. Variations of this same dilemma haunt the dreams of soil conservation and sustainable farming in America to this day. Agricultural history needs more ecologically grounded studies like this one."
—Brian Donahue, author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
Nelson follows the fortunes of Pharsalia's owners, telling how Virginia's traditional extensive agriculture contributed to the soil's erosion and exhaustion. Subsequent attempts to balance independence and sustainability through a complex system of crop rotation and resource recycling ultimately gave way to an intensive, slave-based form of agricultural capitalism.
Pharsalia could not support the Massies' aristocratic ambitions, and it was eventually parceled up and sold off by family members. The farm's story embodies several fundamentals of modern U.S. environmental thought. Southerners' nineteenth-century quest for financial and ecological independence provided the background for conservationists' attempts to save family farming. At the same time, farmers' failure to achieve independence while maximizing profits and crop yields drove them to seek government aid and regulation. These became some of the hallmarks of conservation efforts in the New Deal and beyond.
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