Vetter on Johnson, 'Farming'

Sarah Johnson
Jeremy Vetter

Sarah Johnson. Farming. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2016. 444 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-874267-89-8.

Reviewed by Jeremy Vetter (University of Arizona) Published on H-Environment (February, 2017) Commissioned by David T. Benac

Over the past few years, I occasionally heard about new books with extraordinarily short, simple, and broad titles--Bioinvaders, Landscapes, Indigenous Knowledge, Animals, Trees--that are part of a “Themes in Environmental History” series, and wondered: what kinds of books are these? Are they introductions to these topics synthesizing the work of many scholars for a wider audience? Are they historiographical overviews on the state of the field for students and established scholars? Or are they something else entirely? So when asked to review the sixth installment in the series--Farming--I jumped at the chance to see what this series is all about.

Farming reprints seventeen journal articles originally published either in Environment and History (most of them) or Environmental Values (just a few of them), along with a brief “publisher’s introduction” by Sarah Johnson, on behalf of White Horse Press. By reprinting articles to which they already owned the copyright, they presumably were able to keep their costs--and, commendably, the book’s price--quite low, and they seem to be aiming for a classroom audience. Since most scholars will already have access to these articles through institutional or personal subscriptions, or interlibrary loan, it does make sense to orient this collection to classroom use. For any instructors considering it, I would urge consulting the table of contents carefully to determine if a majority of the articles are ones that you might already be tempted to assign, and in that case, it may justify the modest purchase price simply for saving students the expense of printing out all the articles and inducing them to engage in the deeper reading practices that the book format enables. However, for others, the selection may not match up closely enough to merit course adoption, since the collection has both strengths and gaps.

Like the other themes in the series--if not more so--farming is clearly an enormous subject encompassing thousands of years of human history on practically every continent. The experience of reading Farming is rather like going to an academic conference, such as the the annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society, and randomly turning up at sessions on a wide range of specialized topics, some already well known and others distant from one’s own research area. It is a stimulating experience, often revealing new insights about previously unknown case studies and research methodologies from all around the world.

Despite the great historical depth of the human experience with agriculture, the clear majority of the articles (eleven out of seventeen) are focused on some portion of the recent period from the late nineteenth century to the present, while several others adopt a longue durée perspective over multiple centuries. Of the two remaining articles, one is based mainly on field work in Morocco in the early twenty-first century, and the other, which seems out of place in a historical volume, is a conceptual discussion of permaculture. Forests receive notable attention in many of the articles. Geographically, the case studies are located on multiple continents: two on North America, three on South America, three on Europe, three on Africa (including Madagascar), and four on Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, the vast and important continent of Asia is approached only at its outer margins, through a single case study on the Netherlands East Indies in the early twentieth century. Both the strengths and weaknesses of this distribution presumably reflect the best global coverage that was possible given the articles available, particularly from Environment and History. For the most part, this collection emphasizes recent scholarship, with eleven out of the seventeen published since 2008, and all but one of the articles--a splendid piece from 1997 by Mark Madison on the interactions of American ecologists Howard and Eugene Odum with agroecology--published since 2002.

The publisher’s introduction offers a serviceable scaffolding for arranging and integrating the seventeen articles, which, after all, were not originally written to be part of the same book. The connecting threads, by necessity, must be rather general, beginning with “traditional farming systems,” then shifting to disruptions of the colonial era, followed by a third section that “complicates this narrative by exploring cases in which the emphasis is on changing environment and changing attitudes, rather than on a simple narrative about power” (p. v). The remaining two sections present the industrialization of agriculture in the twentieth century and some recent challenges to it. Overall, this topical arrangement provides some coherence to a sprawling variety of case studies, but the historical approaches of the articles are actually quite disparate, ranging from cultural history, the history of science, and the history of environmental policy to the ground-level material and ecological history of farmers interacting with the natural world. This book offers a sampler of varying research methodologies in case studies from different parts of the world on the environmental history of farming.


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Citation: Jeremy Vetter. Review of Johnson, Sarah, Farming. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2017. URL:

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