The Real Dirt on Farmer John is a 2005 documentary film directed by Taggart Siegel about the life of Midwestern farmer John Peterson, operator of Angelic Organics.
RALPH BORSODI (1886-1977) was the author of 13 books and 10 research studies. He was also physically active, a productive homesteader and a real doer who practised what he preached. He experimented and implemented on many levels-from good nutrition, through building his own home and garden; weaving his clothes and furnishings; organizing experimental small communities, a School of Living for a new adult education, and developing new social institutions-the Community Land Trust and a non-inflationary currency, which he called Constants.
No one of today’s specialty-labels encompass Ralph Borsodi. I am pushed to use more general and abstract terms-decentralist, liberator and human benefactor. This article will concentrate on his efforts to implement the community-use of socially-created values in land as part of his plan to encourage people to leave cities for more rural living. .
Ralph Borsodi was never in public school, infrequently in private schools, and did not attend college. (Yet St. Johns College of Annapolis later conferred on him a Masters, and the University of New Hampshire, a Doctorate.) He was educated mostly by wide readings in libraries, and by his father, a publisher in New York City. Borsodi Sr. wrote the introduction to Bolton Hall’s A Little Land and Living, which encouraged living on, and intensive production on, small plots of land, and the public collection of site-values.
Ralph Borsodi, Jr. joined the Single Tax Party which grew out of popular enthusiasm for Henry George and his two campaigns for the mayoralty in New York in the 1880s. Borsodi mounted his soap box in Union Square to exhort people to vote for the land-value tax. The Party named Borsodi editor of The Single Taxer. In it he discussed the need for a school to teach economics as George presented it, placing land in a category separate from capital, showing how the law of rent determined the law of wages, and how private use of land values resulted in the disparity of wealth-poverty on the one hand and riches on the other.
When still a young man, in 1910, Borsodi was sent by his father to dispose of some Texas land holdings. What to do with several hundred acres of land in the Houston area? He knew that this land was part of a “great Savannah” — in the path of progress. His errand brought him both conflict and guilt. As people would come to this area, the value of the Borsodi land would rise. What price should he ask for it? Should be accept money which he had not earned? “Don’t be foolish, man,” a local hotel-keeper advised him. “Hang on to that land and who knows you might become a millioriaire!”
Troubled, Borsodi bought a small-town paper, The Rice City Banner, wrote editorials, printed news, and discussed the land problem. After a year, he made a decision. He would sell the land at a modest price to a realtor. But Borsodi would go on to find ways to “solve” the land problem. The realtor would not worry about unearned increment from the land, and doubtless went on to pocket a large sum.
Borsodi returned to the East with a mission. Now, 1911, he saw Megalopolis with new eyes. More than ever he was conscious of ground space. On Manhattan’s 22 square miles, two million people were rushing to and fro, on, above and beneath its surface, needing space and giving to land its fabulous value.
At that time New York City represented 20 billions of dollars worth of wealth. Half of it was in land, most of the value concentrated in a small core at the centre. A few blocks away was an ocean of squalor, filth and poverty. Who had title to that land? Certainly not the two million people working there. Probably a few large holders with familiar names — Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt. Land bought and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars a front foot! Millions of tenants paid rent each month with barely enough left over to keep body and soul together. To Borsodi, New York was a devouring ugly monster.
His friendship deepened with Myrtle Mae Simpson, a Kansas farm girl. They married in 1912, and Borsodi’s father assigned them to a job in Chicago. Chicago’s Loop was even more concentrated, though with more over-all sprawl, destitution, slums and ugliness than in New York.
Borsodi contacted Louis Post, editor of The Public, a journal devoted to Henry George’s principles. Borsodi used its columns to challenge Socialist and Marxist ideas.
The Borsodis took other radical steps. Myrtle Mae’s anemia, the children’s coughs, and Borsodi’s rheumatism led them to investigate natural therapies. They turned to whole foods. Explaining it as best they could to the two boys, Ralph and Myrtle Mae gathered up the loaves of white bread and boxes of white sugar and packaged cereals and chucked it all into the garbage pail. In 1920 they left the city and moved to 16 wooded acres in Rockland county. They built temporary shelters and settled down to modern “homesteading”.
They used rock to build shelters for chickens, rabbits, goats and a pig; and for the first of a three-sectioned home for themselves. They added a craft section for looms and weaving; a breeze-way for pool and billiards. They planted, tilled, harvested and processed vegetables, and in a few years berries and fruit. They were 80% self-maintaining in food. They felled trees and cut wood for fireplaces and furnace. They built a swimming pool and tennis court, and installed a linotype in their basement — Borsodi had things to say about the modern crisis and what to do about it.
In 1928 Borsodi startled the world by publishing This Ugly Civilization, America’s first documented critique of over-centralized industrialism. which was widely read during the ensuing Great Depression. Because of it Borsodi was invited to Dayton, Ohio, in 1932, to deal with their overwhelming unemployment. Borsodi saw this as a way to extend “homesteading” as a social movement, and a way to implement a trustee-ship, rental-form of land-tenure.
He proposed that families should return to the land: “Ring Dayton with many small communities of from 30 to 50 families, each producing their food and shelter on 2 to 5 acre plots. Let a Homestead Association of families hold title to the land; let each family pay an annual rental fee to their association rather than pay an outright purchase price.”
Persons involved agreed. Social agencies advanced money to buy 80 acres. Independence bonds were issued to provide loans to families for buildings and equipment. Families applied, plots were assigned, individuals instructed in gardening and building: construction was begun. Suddenly the funds were exhausted.
To obtain more financial support, the only alternative seemed to he: “Borrow from the Federal Government.” Borsodi advised against it. “Government money usually means government supervision and control. Government is to protect persons and property from harm-not to build homes. Keep Government out of business'” Borsodi concluded that if the homesteaders chose government aid, he would withdraw and return to his homestead.
The homesteaders chose government funds. Borsodi withdrew, saying: “If we in the U.S. are to get a proper balance between city and country, and learn the proper function of government, we will need a new education.” Family and friends helped him plan and establish the School of Living in 1936, near Suffern, New York. On its four-acre homestead, the school was at the centre of 16 family homesteads, on a 40 acre plot called Bayard Lane Community. Here, too, Borsodi initiated the group-title to land, with member-families paying an annual rental rather than a fee for outright private ownership.
Affairs went well; sixteen lovely homesteads surrounding the School of Living, where gardening, home-production and workshops in adult education were continuous. Educators, authors, homesteaders, and social-changers attended, from 1936 to 1945. After college degrees and social work in Chicago’s slums, I studied with, and assisted, the Borsodis for the year 1939-1940.
One Bayard Lane homesteader, H.M., had good results with his homestead flock of chickens. He envisioned a thriving business of 1,000 laying hens in a 3-storey chicken house. But his contract under group-title to land prevented this. He would change the land-tenure back to private ownership. He was determined and energetic. By a narrow margin of votes, these homesteaders rejected group-tenure and reverted to fee-simple.
Borsodi resorted to writing and travel. In 1939 he analyzed predatory economics in Prosperity and Security. He described and advocated modern homesteading in Agriculture in Modern Life. Reluctantly he sold the School of Living building to a homesteader, and in 1945 moved its library and activities to the Loomis homestead in Ohio. He travelled to Mexico and India, studying and lecturing at a Gandhian University in Ambala. There he examined the village-title to land, wrote A Decentralist Manifesto, and began his magnum opus, a curriculum for adult education –the definition and analysis of Seventeen Major Problems of Living, along with alternative (including decentralist) solutions.
Returned to the United States, now past 80 years, Borsodi had a new opportunity to achieve his two most cherished ideas of land and money reform. A younger friend, Robert Swann, was in Georgia — hoping to prevent the racial tension from erupting into violence. Swann was appalled by the poverty, the helplessness and the illiteracy of both blacks and whites. “What these people need is an economic base,” he decided, and turned to Borsodi for guidance.
“What shall we do?” he asked.
“Get the families on the land!” Borsodi replied.
For weeks Borsodi and Swann worked on what in 1966 was registered in Luxembourg as The International Independence Institute (I.I.I.) — to teach and help establish the trusteeship of land. I.I.I. is a quasi-public cooperative corporation, in which individuals become members and in which they may invest funds. The I.I.I. secures land, by purchase or gift, and then declares the land in trust, never to be sold again. The I.I.I. is taking land, now, and making it available to users for an annual rental to the Trust. It does not wait until voters in a country, state or nation are persuaded to use the socially-created value of land for the community in lieu of taxes. It proceeds to secure land and turn it as a “gift to mankind” for users who contract to use it ecologically.
The history and goals of this effort are described in a book, The Community Land Trust, A New Land Tenure for America. Some 100 community land trusts, with impartial, non-land-holding trustees from the communities in which they exist, are now operating. The first Community Land Trust, New Communities, Inc. (Atlanta, Ga.), took 5,000 acres out of the speculative market into a community trust.
In almost every region of the U.S. — in Maine, in the mid-Atlantic, in the Great Lakes Region, Oregon, California, and even in Washington, D.C. — urban trusts are assisting people to learn and practise the concept that land is the common heritage of all people, that freedom and security require that land be not a commodity for buying, selling and profit-making.
Originally appeared in Land & Liberty, November-December 1978.
The general malaise which seems to grip America these days is often characterized as a “crisis of leadership.”
The implication is that our problem lies in the personalities of our leaders; that if only the right person could be elevated to the Presidency, our problems would be solved, our days brightened and our loads lightened.
Prudence, however, suggests an alternative view of our crisis, for even a cursory look at recent history appears to undercut conventional wisdom. Over the last two generations, surely, the American Presidency has been occupied by remarkably disparate personalities.
Obviously, the problem with America does not derive from personality at all. We’ve had experience with too many different types to seriously believe that. Our trouble is more basic.
The American crisis is one of structure and scale. Our great leaders have not failed, but our great – and huge – institutions are failing, at this very moment. New characters in the same old roles will not solve our problem, for the roles themselves, not the players, are at fault.
Whether one approved or abhorred the war in Indochina, it is clear that the federal establishment, manned by “the best and the brightest” miserably misled the citizenry in conducting that war.
Everybody knows that the federal government promises a lot and delivers damn little, and pays for most of what it does deliver out of the earnings of individuals rather than the profits of great corporations.
Scale is not just a problem of the federal government. Indeed, a classic example of structural failure with which we are all familiar is the contemporary American city. In fact there is no major U.S. city which can point to an increase in governmental scale as ushering in a better life for its citizens.
If big is indeed better, it follows that New York or Los Angeles should be as problem-free as any city in the world. Theoretically, the citizens of both cities should choose to live in the largest, most densely populated areas, rather than in the smaller scale environs of ethnic neighborhoods, as in New York, and the suburban cities-within-the-city, as in Los Angeles.
People do not choose such environments, however, because ordinary common sense provides an intuitive understanding that scale is crucial in social organization; that at every level of enterprise and government in America the advantages of increase sale have long since been passed.
What, then, should be the new focus of social scale? In my view, the tightest and best unit is the neighborhood, the place where people know one another – or at least have the geographical opportunity to know one another – and where most of one’s life is spent.
My own neighborhood, in a so-called ghetto area of Washington, D.C., exemplifies the benefits to be gained by redirecting attention from the largest to the smallest of social organizational units.
For approximately 3,500 of the 31,000 people in the Morgan Adams neighborhood, the most appropriate formal organization for making decisions has turned out to be an unofficial town meeting. This voluntary government by assembly requires each person to participate. No one can dodge responsibility by electing someone to do the job.
Without legal status, this town meeting has organized neighborhoodwide street cleaning; established forums to deal with tenant-landlord disputes; started work on a neighborhood health clinic; taken over the maintenance of some public spaces, and even now is addressing the crucial problem of street crime (with first efforts focused on establishing a shared anticrime culture rather than calls for more police). Indeed, Spanish-speaking residents of our triracial neighborhood have already instituted volunteer escort service and street patrols.
The worker-managed grocery stores we have established not only provide good, cheap food but also show how we can move toward industrial democracy, just as the town meeting points toward real political democracy. Worker-managed bookshops, record stores, alternative schools (including one at high school level), construction “collectives” and even an institute of science, with which I am closely involved – all these have emerged as well in our neighborhood. (Our science institute has successfully developed a way to produce significant crops of vegetables on urban rooftops, and to utilize a network of basement water tanks to produce tons of rainbow trout.)
So with government, which can be treated in much the same way. It too can operate on a human scale, with local interests represented in regional and national federations or forums called for particular purpose.
To do this, Americans might have to sacrifice the office and institution of “The Great Leader.” But since “Great Leaders” seem to be as much a part of the problem as the solution, that would be a small price to pay.
Americans are misguided in their continuing search for new leaders. Rather, they should seek rewarding social institutions to ensure a better life.
In this quest, the first thing to throw out is the old yardstick that measured quality by size and growth.
From the Tri-City Herald May 25, 1975(Originally appeared in the Washington Post)