The history of Jewish farmers in the U.S. is not widely known. We often assume that all Jewish immigrants to America went to cities, found work, and stayed there. If Jews eventually moved out to the suburbs, their work was still city-based. We don’t usually think of Jews settling in rural communities and making their living in agriculture. Yet there has been a continuous, if small, Jewish farming presence in the U.S. for more than 100 years. In 1911, there were an estimated 5,000 Jewish farmers in the U.S.; in 1925, there were an estimated 10,000 Jewish farming families or 50,000 Jews living on and working farms in the U.S.; and by 1966, when the number of Jews in agriculture was declining, there were still an estimated 7,000 Jewish farmers.
We can identify four distinct periods in the history of Jews in agriculture in the U.S. In the late 19th century, utopian farming communities were established by Eastern European Jewish immigrants with the philanthropic backing of American Jews. During the period from 1900 until World War II, many of the utopian communities failed, but some individual Jewish farmers succeeded by increasing and modernizing their agricultural output and methods. In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of young, idealistic, middle class Jews became organic farmers as a means of disengaging from the corporate culture of agribusiness, and many of their farms have not only flourished but have themselves become large corporations. Finally, since the turn of the 21st century, a new generation of Jewish men and women have begun a Jewish back-to-the-land movement to incorporate Jewish values and spirituality into their agricultural labor and environmental activism.
In the late 19th century, before coming to America, a group of Russian Jews became involved in a back-to-the-folk movement popular among Russian intellectuals at that time. Some had gone to live and work among the peasantry. It was a romantic movement, rooted in the idea that the peasants’ simple, down-to-earth lifestyle was healthier for the body and the spirit than urban living. As widespread, institutionalized anti-Semitism swept through Russia, these Jewish intellectuals came to realize that they would never achieve their dreams in Russia and they sought alternative locations for their utopian settlements, some going to Palestine to take part in the Zionist settlement of the land and others coming to America.
At the same moment that this group of Russian Jews aspired to a utopian ideal of living off the land, a group of American Jews whose families had immigrated decades earlier primarily from Germany developed the idea that some of the masses of new Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe ought to be settled on farms, rather than in crowded cities. They created the American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association, and with money partly donated by the German Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the founder of the Jewish Colonization Association and the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (which would become the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or HIAS and for decades helped settle Jewish immigrants in America), they began to establish Jewish agricultural colonies all over the country. (Baron de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association also founded large Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine, Argentina, and Canada.)
Jewish agricultural collectives were established in Kansas, Louisiana, Utah, New York, California, Oregon, North and South Dakota, Florida, Michigan, Arkansas, and New Jersey. Many of the collectives failed in a very short time, such as the Cotopaxi collective in Colorado that lasted only two years. Others, such as the Alliance and Woodbine agricultural colonies in New Jersey, were able to function for twenty years or more, partly because they included a certain amount of industrial production in addition to agriculture.
The Jewish Agricultural Society, which administered the work of the American Hebrew Agricultural and Horticultural Association, realized that part of the problem with the colonies was their collective nature. In the U.S., immigrants expected to be able to make their fortunes based on their own efforts and not have to share their profits with others. The Society stopped funding collectives and funded only individual farmers from the 1920s on. They also focused their efforts first in New York and New Jersey and then in California, in communities near large Jewish, urban populations. In such locations, these farmers could also take in boarders in the summer—urban Jews looking for a quiet, rural vacation away from the city—and thereby supplement their income.
By the 1930s, significantly-sized Jewish communities had grown up around farming towns like Farmingdale, New Jersey. The farmers built synagogues and community centers, held religious services, and celebrated Jewish holidays together. During the Depression, they raised money to help those in need, and during the years of World War II, they collected money, knitted, and sent care packages to Jews overseas. They also absorbed some of the Displaced Persons who arrived in the U.S. and were willing to work on farms. Indeed, some of these D.P.s even established their own farms, with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Society.
After World War II, American farming changed. Small farms were bought out by “agribusinesses,” large farms that had the financial capacity to buy lots of land and to modernize and mechanize many aspects of agricultural work. Few Jewish farmers were able to do this; some of those unable to make a living on small farms went into feed and agricultural machinery sales. In the post-War period, many Jewish farmers found that they could make a better living growing chickens than crops; many of these chicken farms survived into the 1960s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a new group of Jews entered farming. Young Jews who had grown up largely in suburban environments but were interested in pursuing a different lifestyle began to explore organic farming and other alternative food projects, such as food co-ops. Organic farming appealed to them for health and environmental reasons, and they embraced the challenge of producing food with a smaller ecological footprint and without the health risks of food treated with pesticides. Individuals such as Gary Hirshberg, Drew and Myra Goodman, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started out as small, organic farmers whose businesses were so successful that they have grown into the huge corporations Stonyfield Yogurt, Earthbound Farm, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
In the past decade, yet another generation of idealistic young Jews has come onto the agricultural scene. For the founders of new Jewish farms and food justice organizations such as KOL Foods, Adamah, Hazon, the Jewish Farm School, Kayam, Grow and Behold, and EcoGlatt, the production, distribution and consumption of food is a sacred act, bound up in Jewish ritual and theology. These organizations are also concerned with such issues as safe working conditions, living wage, humane treatment of animals, pollution prevention, and sustainable farming techniques that replenish rather than deplete soil nutrients. They are also using their farms, cooperatives, and organizations to teach Jewish values about these issues from Jewish texts, both ancient and modern. Finally, they are interested in forming communities of like-minded Jews who wish to imbue the growing and consuming of food with holiness and spiritual intention.