America’s Jewish farmers helped agricultural expansion

Many people are unaware of the fact that Jewish immigrants were part of the great agricultural expansion which took place in the United States from 1800 to 1900 and beyond.
The usual belief is that Jews were merchants, generally found in towns and cities and not farmers out in the countryside, tilling the soil.
Not quite so. Fleeing the disastrous pogroms and lack of economic opportunities under the czar, Eastern Europeans especially those with farming skills, found agricultural opportunities easily available.
A number of Jewish organizations such as the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society, the Jewish Colonization Society, and the American Hebrew and Horticultural Association attempted to promote and assist Jewish settlers to organize groups (collectives).
They would be trained, then formed into groups which would share the work and any profits thus derived.
The Jewish agricultural collectives which were established in 12 states eventually failed to last very long because the immigrants did not want to share their profits with their fellow workers, some of whom they felt may not have worked as hard as they.
With the eventual failure of collectives, the Association began to fund individual farmers instead of groups.
Many Eastern European Jews fleeing the hopelessness of bleak futures under the czar’s repressive measures against Jews, found work as farm laborers.
My father, of blessed memory, escaping as a teenager from being swept up in Eastern Europe’s pre-WW1 gathering storm, fled to America in 1914.
Joining his older brother, who was working on a chicken farm in New Jersey, he learned to work with chickens, eventually opening his own market in New York.
I remember during World War II when meat was scarce and rationed, that we always had meat on the table, chicken, that is.
Farming, in general, was changing during and after World War II. Smaller farms were disappearing, being bought out by large co-ops and corporations.
Modern farming now required lots of land and a highly mechanized and modernized approach.
While the number of Jewish farms has greatly decreased, there have been some recent developments.
Coinciding with the growing interest in organic foods, there is the environmental health movement. Organic farms are increasing and some have become large corporations, such as Ben and Jerry’s.
The Jewish Farm School centered in Philadelphia has been operating for nearly 14 years, but is scheduled to shut down as an organization this fall.
Yet, as one Jewish agricultural group fades, others, like newly planted seeds, pop up. Idealistic young Jews have helped to form farms, co-ops, and organizations in order to teach and incorporate Jewish values into food production.
Some of the groups which impose a higher standard during food production include Adamah, EcoGlatt, Grow and Behold, Hazon, Jewish Farm School and others.
Yet, as one Jewish Farm group, in Philadelphia, appears to be fading, another in Baltimore appears to be emerging.
For any TJP readers contemplating becoming a Jewish farmer, you may be interested in attending Cultivating Culture, the First Annual Gathering of Jewish Farmers, to be held at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore, Maryland Feb. 13-16, 2020.

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