Pharsalia, a plantation located in piedmont Virginia at the
foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is one of the best-documented
sites of its kind. Drawing on the exceptionally rich trove of
papers left behind by the Massie family, Pharsalia's owners, this
case study demonstrates how white southern planters paradoxically
relied on capitalistic methods even as they pursued an ideal of
agrarian independence. Lynn A. Nelson also shows how the
contradictions between these ends and means would later manifest
themselves in the southern conservation movement.
Nelson follows the fortunes of Pharsalia's owners, telling how
Virginia's traditional extensive agriculture contributed to the
soil's erosion and exhaustion. Subsequent attempts to balance
independence and sustainability through a complex system of crop
rotation and resource recycling ultimately gave way to an
intensive, slave-based form of agricultural capitalism.
Pharsalia could not support the Massies' aristocratic ambitions,
and it was eventually parceled up and sold off by family members.
The farm's story embodies several fundamentals of modern U.S.
environmental thought. Southerners' nineteenth-century quest for
financial and ecological independence provided the background for
conservationists' attempts to save family farming. At the same
time, farmers' failure to achieve independence while maximizing
profits and crop yields drove them to seek government aid and
regulation. These became some of the hallmarks of conservation
efforts in the New Deal and beyond.
Subjects: History, Environmental Science
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