11 November 2022 — 12:00 noon — GAR 1.102 (Garrison Hall conference room)

Joshua Frens-String (UT)

“The End of the Salted Earth: Chile, the US South, and the World that Chemical Agriculture Created”

In the decades following the US Civil War, planters in the American South contemplated how their region’s extensive, labor-dependent agrarian economy would survive without the enslaved labor that chattel slavery had previously provided. At the same time, many also considered how the eroded lands on which formerly enslaved peoples had toiled before abolition could be revitalized after decades of retrograde agricultural practices (and an ecologically destructive war) had zapped southern soils of their vital nutrients. To both of these questions, agricultural experts responded with a single answer: southern farmers needed to increase their use of commercial fertilizers. And for that, agricultural reformers looked to the end of earth, and specifically to South America’s Pacific coast, to acquire nitrogen-rich minerals that could replace lost labor, transform antiquated agricultural techniques, and usher in a new economic era. 

My new project, tentatively entitled “The End of the Salted Earth,” seeks to tell a new transnational agricultural history in the Americas through the extraction, production, exchange, and consumption of Chilean nitrate of soda. I ask: what prompted southern farmers to turn to mineral fertilizers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—making the US South a global leader in commercial fertilizer consumption? When and how did the Pacific Coast of South America—a region that had largely produced fertilizers for European markets during the mid-19th century—become tied to southern planters’ aspirations for agricultural modernization? And what impact did the eventual invention of synthetically produced, chemical fertilizers have on the relationship between Chile-based producers of “all natural” fertilizers and a growing market of fertilizer consumers in the American South?


Joshua Frens-String is an assistant professor in UT’s Department of History. A historian of modern Latin America, he received his PhD in History from New York University in 2015. His first book, Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile (University of California Press, 2021), explores the role of food politics and policy in the rise and fall of Chile’s Popular Unity (UP) revolution. Prior to joining the faculty at UT, he was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in NYU’s Core Curriculum program and an editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas, one of the most widely-read English-language quarterlies on Latin America and its relationship with the United States. He has also served as managing editor of the Radical History Review and as a researcher with the Open Society Institute’s Latin America Program. His research and teaching interests include revolution in modern Latin America, popular politics, labor history, global agricultural history, food politics, and U.S.-Latin American relations.