The plutocratic remaking of America has a parallel in the countryside. In rural America less than 3 percent of farmers make more than 63 percent of the money, including government subsidies.
The results of this emerging feudal economy are everywhere. Large areas of the United States are becoming impoverished farm towns with abandoned farmhouses and deserted land. More and more of the countryside has been devoted to massive factory farms and plantations. The consequences, though worse now than ever, have been there for all to see and feel, for decades.
Walter Goldschmidt, an anthropologist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was already documenting the deleterious effects of agribusiness on small communities in California’s Central Valley as long ago as the 1940s (1).
He revealed that a community (he studied the town of Dinuba in northern Tulare County) with small family farmers thrived. Its economy and cultural life were vigorous and democratic. Thus the Dinuba of 1940 was a middle-class town whose residents were not divided in any significant manner by differences in wealth. They had a stable income and strong interest in the life of their community.
However, the town surrounded by industrial farms (he studied Arvin in southeastern Kern County) did not share in the prosperity of agribusiness. Its schools, churches, economic and cultural life were impoverished. Its residents were sharply divided in terms of wealth. Only a few of them had a stable income. The rest barely made it. Even the managers of Arvin’s large farms did not live in Arvin. The town had become a rural slum and a colony of the plantations.
For Goldschmidt the family farm was “the classic example” of American small business. He became convinced that its spread over the land “has laid the economic base for the liberties and the democratic institutions which this Nation counts as its greatest asset.”
Goldschmidt, who was well read in the Greek and American democratic traditions, knew that in concluding this he was not alone. He was aware that in 1862, Isaac Newton, the first commissioner of US agriculture, reported to his president, Abraham Lincoln, that haciendas brought down Rome. The message to the country was pretty clear: small family farmers were the foundations of the American Republic (2).
Goldschmidt’s employers did not care for history, however. By the early 1940s, USDA no longer saw the family farm as a national asset. It fired Goldschmidt and almost suppressed his work.
The Carter Administration’s Rethink
In the late 1970s, the Carter administration tried to postpone the decline of rural America. The Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Bergland, was a farmer from Minnesota who thought the family farm had served America well and needed protection. He admitted that all the USDA programs, as well as federal policies on taxation, economic concentration, and corporate power favored large farmers becoming super-large. He also admitted that he too had adhered to the dogma that assisting the “major commercial farmers” would eventually “filter down to the intermediate-sized and then the smallest producers.” However, he became doubtful of such a prospect. “I was never convinced,” he said, “we were anywhere near the right track. We had symbols, slogans, and superficialities. We seldom had substance.” (3)
Bergland, with family farming disappearing in front of his eyes, decided to find out how and why American agriculture had become almost synonymous with large farms. He ordered his scientific staff to study the situation and the result was scholarly research and a series of meetings all over rural America. In one of those public meetings, a family farmer named William C. Beach from Oak City, North Carolina, defended the idea of the family farm and explained who is a family farmer and who is not:
“The family farm is democracy and free enterprise at its best, a family running and working a business together, working together to produce food and fiber…. The family farm is not the agribusinessman in town, the lawyer at the courthouse, the doctor at the hospital, the professional man in his office. He is not people looking for a farm to buy as a hedge against inflation, nor the person looking for ways to reduce his income tax while making a safe investment. This group also includes the multinational corporations, food-processing industries and vertical integrators.” (4)
Bergland also received a 1979 report from Louis Harris and Associates. The pollsters had surveyed Americans about the role of agriculture in American life. The report confirmed Americans loved the family farm:…”
Bernhard Hack, a biodynamic farmer who emigrated from Germany to Canada in the early 1980s used to advocate that we should empty the cities and fill the countryside with people. But if those new immigrants to the countryside had no choice but to become serfs of agribiz, it would be hard to see a light at the end of that tunnel.