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The Profit of the Earth

The Global Seeds of American Agriculture

Courtney Fullilove

The Profit of the Earth

Courtney Fullilove

288 pages | 43 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017
Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9780226454863 Published April 2017
E-book $40.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226455051 Published April 2017

While there is enormous public interest in biodiversity, food sourcing, and sustainable agriculture, romantic attachments to heirloom seeds and family farms have provoked misleading fantasies of an unrecoverable agrarian past. The reality, as Courtney Fullilove shows, is that seeds are inherently political objects transformed by the ways they are gathered, preserved, distributed, regenerated, and improved. In The Profit of the Earth, Fullilove unearths the history of American agricultural development and of seeds as tools and talismans put in its service.
Organized into three thematic parts, The Profit of the Earth is a narrative history of the collection, circulation, and preservation of seeds. Fullilove begins with the political economy of agricultural improvement, recovering the efforts of the US Patent Office and the nascent US Department of Agriculture to import seeds and cuttings for free distribution to American farmers. She then turns to immigrant agricultural knowledge, exploring how public and private institutions attempting to boost midwestern wheat yields drew on the resources of willing and unwilling settlers. Last, she explores the impact of these cereal monocultures on biocultural diversity, chronicling a fin-de-siècle Ohio pharmacist’s attempt to source Purple Coneflower from the diminishing prairie. Through these captivating narratives of improvisation, appropriation, and loss, Fullilove explores contradictions between ideologies of property rights and common use that persist in national and international development—ultimately challenging readers to rethink fantasies of global agriculture’s past and future.

Prologue: In the Field
Field notes. “Green Revolutions”: Hunting Turkey Wheat
Part 1. Collection: The Political Culture of Seeds
1. The Museum of Seeds
2. Seed Sharing in the Patent Office
3. Failures of Tea Cultivation in the American South
Field notes. “Local Knowledge”: What the Pastoralist Knew
Part 2. Migration: Wheat Culture and Immigrant Agricultural Knowledge
4. For Amber Waves of Grain
5. Spacious Skies and Economies of Scale
Field notes. “Indigenous Knowledge”: Diversity and Endangerment
Part 3. Preservation: Indigenous Plants and the Preservation of Biocultural Diversity
6. Elk’s Weed on the Prairie
7. The Allegory of the Cave in Kentucky
8. Writing on the Seed
Epilogue: In the Gene Bank
Review Quotes
Joyce E. Chaplin, Harvard University
“Seeds are one of humanity’s earliest and best technologies. Centuries of seed selection have generated small, human-tweaked packages that deliver life, health, and beauty. The Profit of the Earth offers an insightful and engaging history of that ongoing process.”
Eric Foner, Columbia University
“Fullilove is a genuinely original thinker whose insights transcend the boundaries between American and global history, as well as between the histories of science, technology, the environment, and capitalism. The Profit of the Earth shows how American agricultural development arose from the interactions with the natural environment—and one another—of farmers, government agencies, and entrepreneurs at home and overseas. It is a strikingly new portrait of how the United States became an agricultural superpower.”
Sven Beckert, Harvard University
“How did the United States become the breadbasket of the world? In this riveting book, Mesopotamian agriculturalists, Washington bureaucrats, plains farmers, and Russian scientists create new strains of grains, appropriate ancient knowledge, conquer foreign territories, and build a powerful state in the service of agricultural power and profit. Fullilove situates a quintessential national story—the farming economy of the midwest—in a global framework, forcing us to rethink the advent of modern agriculture in the United States.”
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