MedHum Monday Book Review: The 4-H Harvest

Gabriel N. Rosenberg’s The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) offers an institutional history of the 4-H program from the evocative perspective of American and global biopolitics, asking readers to consider the ways in which 4-H has reflected and refracted state and business interests throughout rural America.  From its origins in Progressive-era efforts to modernize and American agriculture through to the U.S. government’s Cold War-era ambitions to export the 4-H model to countries such as Chile and Vietnam, Rosenberg documents how 4-H activities and literature have (often successfully) intervened in the American countryside to quell populist resistance to agribusiness models and constructed a white, heteronormative vision of rural America that persists in capturing the national and international vision of the American heartland. Throughout his narrative, Rosenberg persuasively connects the biopolitics of food production and agriculture with the politics of gender and sexuality, arguing that “the gendered reproduction of life [is intimately related to] the dramatic transformations of the global food system” (11) and together are a central concern not only to 4-H but also to the American national project. “As the American state produces heterosexuality in rural America,” he argues in his introduction, “heterosexuality also produces the American state” (14).

15441Rosenberg relies largely on 4-H and other government records and literature as well as a few personal papers to tell his tale, beginning with an examination of  the Progressive era clubs organized to keep promising rural youth from abandoning their agricultural heritage for the opportunities of rapidly-expanding urban America. Fears of American degeneracy around the turn of the twentieth century, he argues, hinged paradoxically on anxieties about rural decay and rural salvation, in which a degenerate rural population required an influx of technology and urban capital in order to produce healthy American food and a healthy (white) American population. Between the 1920s through the 1960s 4-H programs implicitly and explicitly promoted not only scientific management of crops and livestock but also a socio-scientific approach to human reproduction; 4-H programs were gender-segregated as well as race-segregated, with boys encouraged to become farmer-businessmen and girls encouraged to learn the home-centric labor of an idealized farm wife. Healthy, enterprising 4-H members were depicted alongside prize livestock as the fruits of America’s rural landscape — and 4-H youth encouraged toward heterosociality and ultimately rural family formation.

Rosenberg also turns his attention toward the racism of 4-H politics, in which segregated clubs throughout the South were starved of financial and government support and excluded from national activities; drawing on the African American press, Rosenberg highlights the ways in which black Americans resisted the narrative put forth by 4-H of a rural America in which all citizens were equal participants in the local and national democratic project. During World War II and the Cold War, 4-H created and promoted a nationalism that imagined equality within America and externalized and racialized threats from abroad; black youth, and young women of all races, meanwhile, discovered that there were limits to how far 4-H programs opened doors for participants who were not young white men — the imagined future farmers of America.

The 4-H Harvest is an examination of a nationwide program, its objectives and achievements in reshaping the landscape of rural America. I found myself wishing, throughout, for more of a grassroots understanding of how 4-H programs were actually received and leveraged by the youth who participated. I would have been interested in learning more about how messages about race and gender, citizenship and agriculture were digested by their intended audience — and whether they succeeded in shaping how individual people lived their adult lives.

To what extent, for example, did 4-H girls grow up to be women who aspired to spend their days being thrifty home-centric wives? How many of them in reality labored in ways indistinguishable from their husbands and children to keep family farms running? Were there women (or men) who used the opportunities provided by 4-H to establish economic independence and leave rural life for urban spaces? Did some women use 4-H as a way to resist the demands of marriage and motherhood? Were people of color about to manipulate narratives of implicitly white rural wholesomeness in ways that strengthened their claims to citizenship, or use segregated 4-H resources (however slim) to create opportunities for individuals or groups? Some of these more individual stories are hinted at but not fully explored.

Overall, The 4-H Harvest is a highly recommended read for any historian or sociologist interested in the relationship between environmental/food politics and human reproductive politics across the long sweep of the twentieth century. Rosenberg has brought us a deeply politicized (I mean this in the positive sense) history of a rural American institution that has often labored mightily to naturalize to the point of invisibility its role in creating the agricultural landscape of twenty-first century America.

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