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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Jefferson's Dream: New Book About Homesteading History

An agrarian society, where most people live on the land and grow their own food. An emphasis on urban farming, composting, and aquaculture. Decentralized, small, local factories and home-based production of textiles and furniture. Solar houses, renewable energy, and complete nutrient cycling.


Is this the future, present, or past? It turns out that it’s all three—as John Ferrell describes in his fascinating book Jefferson’s Dream and the Search for a Sustainable Future (Self-published, 2024, 371 pages). From the Progressive Era to the sustainability work of the 1980s, Ferrell highlights the work of the “Pioneers of Permanence” who tried their hardest to make this dream a reality.


I’ve encountered most of these Pioneers of Permanence in my own historical research, so reading through Ferrell’s book was like a reunion with lots of old friends. There’s George Washington Carver, making compost at Tuskegee, Ralph Borsodi fleeing the city and starting his School of Living, and Friends of the Land preaching soil conservation in the 1940s. Ferrell follows the soil conservation, agrarian, and organic farming movements through their rise in the interwar years, their struggle to survive the hard years of the 1950s, and the resurgence of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and 1970s.


There were a few surprises for me, too. Ferrell not only consulted most of the published historical books about these figures; he also dug up previously unpublished material from an impressive assortment of archives that, at first glance, seem unrelated. For example, most of his information about the Natural Food Associates—an important organic/natural foods group in the 1950s and 1960s—came from the Gloria Swanson papers at the University of Texas. Swanson was a famous actress who promoted natural food and never threw anything away—and the combination of the three ensured the survival of an obscure magazine that few university libraries ever subscribed to.


For the casual reader who doesn’t have time to read all the books about all these people, Ferrell weaves all their stories together into a coherent and readable narrative. He follows a chronological approach, showing how different people at different times were working toward similar goals, even if they weren’t all aware of what had been done before. The thread that ties them all together is simply their dream of living sustainably and in harmony with nature, however that might have looked in the time and place where they lived.


As we continue to discuss how to make agriculture and society more “permanent,” “sustainable,” “regenerative,” or whatever word we choose to use today, it’s critical that we know the history of how people in the past have tried to achieve the same goal. Ferrell’s book is a great overview of this history, showing both the successes and failures of the Pioneers of Permanence during the tumultuous history of the twentieth century. By learning about the past, we can plan better how to move into the future—and I highly recommend that anyone interested in such planning read Jefferson’s Dream.

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