The real Big Bang of European agrarianism were the last decades of the 19th century, when European agriculturalists faced a sudden surge in the quantity of grains imported from North America, Argentina, and Russia. Agrarianist movements reacted to this unsettling new reality. All of a sudden the quiet progress European agriculture had been enjoying in the first half of the century, thanks to demographic growth, was jeopardized by a dramatic worsening of the terms of trade between agriculture and industry, and harsh competition on international markets for agricultural commodities that had no equal in industry.
The expansion of the American frontier and the sudden shrinking of the Atlantic sparked the fears of European agriculturalists. The first reaction, as it is well known, was protectionism. But protectionism was by nature transient, a temporary measure at best. The truth was the traditional paradigm of European agriculture, the large mechanized estates that agricultural economists were never tired praising in their travellogs, could not really compete with producers for the New World(s). In North and South America, new land was so abundant and rich in natural nutrients that there was no way Europeans could keep on producing grains in extensive and inefficient latifundia or small quasi-subsistence farms.
The response that attentive observers of agriculture devised was the essence of agrarianist movements in late 19th and early 20th century Europe. Agrarianism was certainly an aesthetic, an ideology, a rhetoric, but at its core lay the reaction to the new economic situation on the world markets. Two ways lay open in front of Europeans. They could either (1) try to win the producers at their own game, by increasing the size of estates, invest in mechanization, expell much of the workforce from the countryside, transform agriculture in an industry; or (2) transform the very nature of family farms, and make them productive and competitive, but preserving them as the backbone of agricultural life, with the appropriate share of investment by the state. For obvious social and economic reason, the first solution was not viable. It would have been cataclismic for most societies of continental Europe. Agrarianism was the ideology of the second solution.
If only by keeping workers on the land family farms could remain competitive, then everything should be done to convince them to stay and toil on the land. Cooperatives of farmers, either as sellers of agricultural commodities or purchaser of instrumental good, would ensure that the farms could enjoy the benefits of the economy of scale without any dramatic change in the structure of property patterns. At the same time, as much new land was to be destined to family farm as was socially and agronomically feasible. And investiment had to be promoted first by saving and popular banks (Reiffhausen), and, if this was not enough, by the state (as it became increasingly the case during the 20th century). State intervention took the form of monopolies and fixed price such as the Office National du Blé in France or the grain pool entrusted to the Italian Federconsorzi or the Ente Risi.
The toiling, thrifting, but large farming families in their traditional clothes that the agrarianist propaganda was never tired of praising for their adherence to the values of tradition as the true source of national life lie at the core of all agrarianist movements of the 19th and 20th century, even when the politics of the movement was directed by large, often aristocratic, landowners. An ideal farmer – as Knut Hamsun (a real prophet of European agrarianism) described it in his Growth of the soil – would have many children, save money, be rooted in his land and traditions but should not oppose profitable innovation out of mere traditionalism.
If then European agrarianism is a reaction to what was happening in America, what did happen in the US in the same period. Was there a specific kind of agrarianism in the US? To a great extent, for as long as there was an “endless frontier” with fresh land ready to be brought under the plow, the situation in Europe and the US was dramatically different. When instead land became scarcer, American farmers began orienting themselves towards cooperatives and state intervention like their European counterpart. The birth of the populist movement, and the agrarianism of the Interwar period in the South seem to prove this point. The remarkable reconstruction that Charles Postel offered of the populist movement in The Populist Vision points in this direction.