“An informative, fresh history of food in America.”
Ever wonder if there’s a better way to live, work, and eat? You’re not alone.
Here is the story of five back-to-the-land movements, from 1840 to present day, when large numbers of utopian-minded people in the United States took action to establish small-scale farming as an alternative to mainstream agriculture. Then and now, it’s the story of people striving to live freely and fight injustice, to make the food on their table a little healthier, and to leave the planet less scarred than they found it.
Throughout America’s history as an industrial nation, sizable countercultural movements have chosen to forgo modern comforts in pursuit of a simpler life. In this illuminating alternative American history, Margot Anne Kelley details the evolution of food-centric utopian movements that were fueled by deep yearnings for unpolluted water and air, racial and gender equality, for peace, for a less consumerist lifestyle, for a sense of authenticity, for simplicity, for a healthy diet, and for a sustaining connection to the natural world.
Millennials who jettisoned cities for rural life form the core of America’s current back-to-the-land movement. These young farmers helped meet surges in supplies for food when COVID-19 ravaged lives and economies, and laid bare limitations in America’s industrial food supply chain. Their forebears were the utopians of the 1840s, including Thoreau and his fellow Transcendental friends who created Brook Farm and Fruitlands; the single taxers and “little landers” who created self-sufficient communities at the turn of the last century; Scott and Helen Nearing and others who decamped to the countryside during the Great Depression; and, of course, the hippie back-to-the-landers of the 1970s.
Today, food has become an important element of the social justice movement. Food is no longer just about what we eat, but about how our food is raised and who profits along the way. Kelley looks closely at the efforts of young farmers now growing heirloom pigs, culturally appropriate foods, and newly bred vegetables, along with others working in coalitions, advocacy groups, and educational programs to extend the reach of this era’s Good Food Movement.
Foodtopia is for anyone interested in how we all might lead much better—and well-fed—lives.
“Essential reading on the state of local and organic growing and eating, and a useful addition to the history of American utopianism.”
“Kelley puts a human face on the back-to-the-land movement with fascinating profiles of the “renegades” behind the centuries-old phenomenon . . . she excels at drawing the big picture around human relationships to food, resulting in a satisfyingly substantive work. Farmers and foodies will savor every delectable insight.”
“Insightful . . . empathetic . . . a thoughtful consideration of a topic that will have a substantial impact on our future.”
“Kelley’s well-populated narrative includes Scott and Helen Nearing, whose Living the Good Life became a transformative text for many idealistic farmers; Mollie Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook; and Alice Waters, who sparked a food revolution from her Berkeley restaurant. Recounting her visits to farms, conferences, and farmers markets, Kelley offers lively profiles of men and women ‘intimately and integrally connected to utopians who came before…’ An informative, fresh history of food in America.”
“A blend of history book and crystal ball . . . Foodtopia’s tapestry of food history refreshingly amplifies people and communities outside of the mainstream.”
—Civil Eats’ Food and Farming Book Picks for Summer 2022“Explores historic back-to-the-land movements and how they helped today’s young breakaway farmers succeed.”—Maine Sunday Telegram
“Foodtopia glides gracefully through the increasingly complex world of food, pandemic and all. An important contemporary book.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History
“Foodtopia gives us a generous overview of Americans’ historic and contemporary involvement in utopian communities through the lens of their dietary beliefs and practices. From Thoreau’s Walden to Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm, the search for agrarian values and food justice should inspire us to support—and join—these movements.”
—Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
“A fascinating account, moving easily across eras, never starry-eyed but always open to the idea that we can do better than we’re doing!”
—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
“In tracing the lineage of today’s small-scale sustainable farms back to the American visionaries and utopian communities of the past, Margot Anne Kelley has revealed a story essential for our times, one that illustrates the way the committed make their stand for the endurance of ideals. For Kelley, this is as much a personal story as it is a deeply researched one, and she proves herself equally at home with ideas and practice. With Foodtopia she has given us a spirited and beautifully written account of what dreams the soil can hold.”
—Jane Brox, author of Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm
“From graham crackers to heirloom carrots, Kelley offers an engaging and thorough dive into the long, strange history of American dreaming and eating. Essential reading for anyone wondering not just where their food comes from, but why.”
—Kate Daloz, author of We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America
“This book tastes so good—I ate the whole thing raw.”
—Mark Sundeen, author of The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America
“Foodtopia is an engaging, informative, and inspiring journey, exploring the deep political and ecological values that motivate alternative agriculture. Margot Anne Kelley reveals the historical continuity that weaves together healthy food, community agriculture, and racial justice. In so doing, she offers an exciting and hopeful vision of a great American tradition.”
—Mitchell Thomashow, author of To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning
“Margot Anne Kelley’s Foodtopia is a marvelous book tracking the history of five waves of utopian back-to-the-landers in America. From Brook Farm to the Diggers, from Henry David Thoreau to Farm Aid to Alice Waters, and on to the millennial farmers bringing queer and BIPOC perspectives to food production, this book is a gorgeous cornucopia. And it makes clear that these movements are not an escape from the struggles of race, class, and privilege. Rather they are ground on which to think anew about cultivating both healthy food and a just food system. A stellar and timely book!”
—Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress
“The impulse to escape the city and reconnect with a more authentic world through food and farming has been a perennial part of the American experiment, but as Foodtopia shows in clear and compelling prose, it’s much more than that: By challenging the centralized dogmas of mainstream culture through a kind of agrarian performance art, these troops of back-to-the-landers have not just held a mirror up to American society, but given us a lodestar so that we might re-find our way, again and again.”
—Rowan Jacobsen, author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields
“To tackle the dire ecological and social challenges before us, we need a profound shift of direction, away from the runaway corporate-dominated economy based on high-tech and urbanization. We need to rebuild local agrarian economies, to encourage a small farm renaissance that creates a healthier balance between rural and urban. Foodtopia expertly documents the past movements that already clearly saw the need for this shift and whose experiences will help light the way for today’s new agrarians.”
—Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of Local Is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness
“Having been a back-to-the lander in Maine in the 1970s, I was so pleased to read Margot Anne Kelley’s history of those days and her interesting insights into those Americans charting a sustainable rural life today. She does much of this through the lens of our changing relationship to food and farming. Kelley makes the strong case that changing our food system is central to everything from the quality and availability of the food we eat to the fundamentals of our very democracy. I agree.”
—Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
“Margot Anne Kelley elegantly unearths the deep roots of today’s back-to-the-land movement, linking Henry David Thoreau’s nineteenth-century essays to the twenty-first-century struggle for food justice. Foodtopia shows that the desire to leave the city, grow one’s own food, and live more simply is almost as American an impulse as building highways and skyscrapers.”
—Jonathan Kauffman, author of Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat
“It has been said that no reality was ever created by realists, and the utopian movements that Margot Anne Kelley explores in her joyful book all took that to heart. She observes that they share two great things: a love of good food and a commitment to a new social order. And, indeed, today the food movement in its many aspects is at the forefront of driving positive social change. Her book is full of good stories, well told, and highly motivational. Highly recommended.”
—Gus Speth, author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy