The Grass Problem: Agrostology, Agriculture, and Environmental Transformation in the New South


History and Philosophy

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When the nation emerged from the Civil War, good grass was still at the core of most people’s ideas about good agriculture. The American South’s two extensive systems of agriculture—plantation-based cotton growing and open-range husbandry—thus stood in marked contrast to the grass-based, inten-sive agriculture of the North and seemingly represented an obstacle to the region’s full economic and cultural reintegration with the rest of the nation. Beginning in the 1880s, crop scientists from the US Department of Agriculture embarked on a decades-long effort to transform the South’s extensive systems of agriculture, which had long been seen as archaic and increasingly came under attack as wasteful and environmentally damaging. Unable to challenge the socioeconomic system undergirded by white supremacy that was generating many of the region’s agricultural problems, scientists in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) framed the issue as a fundamentally ecological one: the South, in their view, had a “grass problem,” a phrase that referred to the difficulty of growing turfgrasses in the region, but served as a synecdoche for a suite of environmental, social, and economic problems related to cotton cultivation and open-range husbandry. Their efforts to facil-itate the emergence of a grass-based agriculture by circumventing the ecological constraints of turfgrasses in the South helped legitimize the efforts of the USDA in the region more broadly and provide important context for the development and acceptance of a cooperative research network that helped to transform a regional environment.

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Environmental History

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