For Liberty Hyde Bailey, sustainability in farming went hand in hand with the cultivation of rural American life and identity. The Country-Life Movement was a twin sister to the Conservation Movement. At the Bailey Museum, we celebrate our southwest Michigan rural heritage alongside our educational efforts to spread the latest knowledge about a more sustainable food system for everyone.
The “Country-Life Movement” at the turn of the last century was a movement among country folk and city folk alike who were interested in the improvement of living conditions in the open country. Many of the conveniences which city folk were experiencing, like running water, electricity, and paved roads, were not available to the majority of country people, and children were growing up and leaving the farm, never to return. Bailey became a leading voice in this movement, but for him it was of utmost importance that the process of identifying problems and solutions would be democratic and that country folks, rather than politicians or academics, would have the freedom to participate in the process. These ideals, and Bailey’s leadership abilities, led President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Bailey to chair a national Commission on Country-Life, the results of which are credited with providing the impetus for such improvements as rural electrification, the parcel post, the modern highway system, and the 4-H Clubs.
For Bailey, the Country-Life Movement was also important because people in the country comprised a vital part of American culture and of the conservation of American resources. Rural culture, with its fairs, its distinctive music, its handicrafts, its appreciation for labor, and its deep connection to the natural world against which the farmer must live and depend, represented a serious asset to the character and outlook of the nation, and Bailey was determined to help save it from the more pejorative influences of industrialization while also helping to find ways to implement modern technologies into farm life in meaningful ways. He saw promise, if this culture were preserved and celebrated, that it could be a significant force in conserving our most valuable natural resource: the soil from which all our food comes. The relationship between we humans and the land that produces our food was preserved by the sensitive, intelligent farmer, and the best farmer, Bailey always said, was the one who left the land more productive than it was when he came to it. His understanding that “a large part of agriculture is to fit the crop-scheme to nature” reflects the ideals of the current sustainable agriculture movement and its insistence that agriculture be an important part of conservation efforts in the world today.
The central problem at the heart of agricultural conservation, for Bailey, was largely a problem of relationships. When consumers forget where their food comes from, or when farmers forget the great satisfaction of tending the land in order to leave it more fertile than when they took it, then society tends toward unsustainable practices, according to Bailey. So, in that vein, we strive to ask big questions about how we can be more sustainable and how we can better connect our eating habits with the impact those habits have on the earth we all share.