|An 1805 map of the property that became Van Buren's farm|
First, thinking through the ways that farming in the northeastern states changed during this period left me firmly convinced that large-scale capitalism and small-scale agriculture are fundamentally at odds. By "large-scale" I mean not just global or corporatized, but pervasive in its adoption of a logic that foregrounds efficiency in search of maximum profitability. In agriculture, that logic has historically taken us down the road toward increasing mechanization, consolidation of small properties into larger and more expensive farms, pricing based on often-distant and often-volatile markets rather than local circumstances or costs of production, and other trends that eventually led to a fully industrial, commoditized food system not accountable to local markets or conditions. The seeds of what some have termed the "paradox of plenty"  or "problems of plenty"  were sown in this period, with efficiency and consolidation leading to lower prices and greater abundance for consumers, but driving small farmers out of business and leaving the rest chasing an ever-receding threshold of profitability.
And my second takeaway is the realization that despite some level of early 19th century prescience about the problems inherent in letting those more generalized "laws" of supply and demand determine how food would be grown and sold, no one had enough experience yet with capitalist markets to see where this all might lead. As the riskiness of those markets became clearer--for example, after the Panic of 1819, one of the first systemic economic crises in the new republic--various efforts to strengthen and improve agriculture in the old northeastern states emerged. But the irony of these projects is that they often involved pursuing exactly the same kinds of strategies--efficiency, higher yields, open markets--that were undermining the ability of small farmers and other food producers to survive in the longer term.
|The New York of 1803, caught in bread wars|
The bakers were trying to assert their right to a fair piece of the emerging market economy, just as small farmers were. But both groups miscalculated, failing to understand their relative lack of power within a system increasingly dominated by concentrated capital and the unforgiving logic of efficiency. New York's bakers finally managed to get the assize of bread abolished in 1821, but their organizing had irked a group of New York financiers who saw older artisanal guild networks as a barrier to free trade. These well-heeled investors responded to the bread crisis by launching a new corporation, the Bread Company, that could provide cheaper bread to consumers. By helping to create the legal underpinnings for a more wide-open market system, farmers, artisanal producers, and their allies among politicians and reformers actually made small farmers and producers much more vulnerable to large-scale competition and economic volatility.
The really big takeaway here, and the reason why I think this particular period of history is well worth present-day food and farm reformers knowing more about, is that it shows how the attempts to compromise and chase after the new efficiencies demanded by capital-oriented markets in order to keep small-scale food production functional ultimately had exactly the opposite effect. This history lends weight to contemporary efforts to re-scale our food systems so that they are once again more accountable to regional and local conditions and markets. The "lessons" of the past aren't usually directly applicable to the present, but there can be a great deal of benefit from being able to say to those who argue for a fully market-oriented food system, "Look, we tried that, and here's why it didn't work."
Next: Martin Van Buren buys a farm and Cathy struggles with presentism.
 Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1993).
 R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the 20th Century (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).
 The assize of bread is discussed in Chapter 7 of Howard Rock's Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York University Press, 1984).
The 1805 map is by William Dickie, "A survey of the lands of John and William Van Ness...on the West Side of the Albany Road in Kinderhook" (from the collection of Martin Van Buren NHS).