E-coli, and frost. After “deportation of undocumented workers” there are no worse words that a California farmer fears to hear these days. In recent months California farmers have heard them all, but only E-coli and frost have eventuated. First, it was that E-coli caused the farmers to trash their lettuce and send consumers running for the iceberg faster than chickens are dispatched at an H5N1 outbreak. Still reeling from that and temperatures dropped to wipe citrus growers. The cost might reach a billion bucks, causing many to lament that “it ain’t easy being a farmer.” As more of us sit in chi-chi bistros eating our salads and buying our meat in bloodless shrink-wrapped packaging, it must seem that way.
Actually, it is easier; at least its easier than it used to be, especially if compared to when farmers were families that toiled from dawn til dark for results that typically rendered not much more than subsistence. And there probably was still E-coli (although not by that name) and frost to contend with. But a good case can be made that farming is indeed easier than it used to be—and a good deal different than it used to be.
In early America the “yeoman farmer” achieved an almost sacred status of the: his honest industry in the land, his closeness to nature and therefore to God, his simple enjoyment of abundance, his self-sufficiency, these being traits that in some ways came to define the ideal American character. Farmers were celebrated by Jefferson and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Enlightenment political philosophers. Jefferson distrusted cities and city people, but even urbanites like Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were complimentary of farmers. Doubtless that fact that it was primarily farmers, taking the muskets they used to hunt game, who were the ranks of the revolutionary army in America, that earned the farmer this somewhat exalted status.
This myth of the special status of the farmer was built however on the idea of the small, relatively self-sufficient, independent farmer, not the commercial farmer. In fact, the farmer, probably always saw it rather differently, that is, he saw farming as an opportunity to make money, and his self-sufficient status was more forced upon him by circumstances such as inadequate farm to market roads.
This notion that the farm and the farmer should enjoy a special status in American society translated itself into a powerful political consciousness. Because he lived and worked in close communion with nature his life was believed to have a wholesomeness and integrity which the populations of cities could never achieve. By the mid-19th century much of the expansionist policy of the country was based upon the notion of opening up and settling new territories with farms and farmers. Politically, politicians not only found it necessary to advance the notion that agriculture enjoyed a special status, but it was politically advantageous to have an agricultural background to be elected to office
In spite of the allure of the cities, and perhaps because of it, the agrarian myth maintained its power. And in spite of the realities of farm life farmers themselves were believers in it. But Historian Richard Hofstadter write that: “Like almost all good Americans [the farmer] had innocently sought progress from the beginning, and thus hastened the decline of many of his own values.”
Dedicated to the idea of progress, it was progres s that was the undoing of the yeoman farmer. As the cities grew and needed food, so did the commercial opportunities for farmers. Rather than remaining strictly self-sufficient, farmers sought to take advantage of these opportunities. In short, the prospects for profits—the same thing that cities were all about—tainted the farmer with urban values. Farmers began to concentrate on “cash crops,” bought more supplies from the country store, supported the building of farm-to-city roads to rush their produce to market, and began to introduce mechanization into agriculture. The “simple rural life” was getting more complicated because the farm entered into a compact of mutual dependence with the city.
In feeding and clothing the City, the yeoman farmer began sowing the seeds of his own undoing as early as the 18th century. Since his time, which is also the birth-time of the Industrial Revolution, swallowed farmland in the path of its expansion, and created an agricultural technology which has vastly altered the scale of farming in both acreage and capital investment. It has been one of the ironies of the American experience that many an erstwhile farmer has ended up working in factories making the tractors, threshers, and combines which would replace others like himself.
As farming went from a “way of life” to a business career the farmer became an employer of labor, went into debt to finance the purchase of more land and equipment and found it necessary to engage in politics to protect markets or enhance competitiveness. Even the land, which he worked as a God-given trust, became a commodity. Particularly as cities expanded to reach out to farms and land values rose, there was as much value in selling farmland for profit as in farming it, turning some farmers into speculators. The characteristics of farmers were becoming more like those of the urbanites from whom they had differentiated themselves. With the advent of the telephone, good roads, rural electrification and rural free delivery, the automobile and the tractor, then radios and television, and finally the Internet, the difference between the urban and rural ways of life were being obliterated.
If Jefferson were around to meet today’s American farmer he more than likely would encounter him in Washington, D.C., perhaps testifying before a congressional agricultural committee, or sitting in a corporate board room in Manhattan. An expensive three-piece suit would have replaced the coveralls, a more appropriate costume for plowing financial furrows with a depreciation table for massive tractors and combines. The contemporary farmer’s “farmhands” now consist of accountants, lobbyists, and ag-school graduates. Jefferson would doubtless wince at learning that these are the people who feed America (and some other nations as well) through something called “agribusiness.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average net worth of California farmers is between $690,000 and $800,000, and farmers use seventeen percent of the State’s water to irrigate their crops.
There is plenty of documentary evidence for this momentous social transformation, which has accelerated in this century. Since 1950 the number of farms had fallen from 5.6 million to 2.2 million by the end of the century. Fewer and fewer of them are family operated and thousands go out of business every year, or have given way to corporate farm operations. Nevertheless the agrarian myth has been responsible for a growing relationship between agriculture and government. Ironically, the dimension of the American economic section that has been historically associated with self-sufficiency and the independent rugged-individualist spirit, has evolved in to the most publicly-dependent sector of the economy. By 1987 federal subsidies to farmers had reached $26 billion, much of it to pay farmers not to produce farm products but to keep their farms in operation.
Today, although only about one-sixth of the nation’s farms are run by the family farmers, the American cultural attachment to the family farm remains relatively undiminished. Surveys still record a surprisingly high number of people who, when asked where they would like to live, express a desire to live on a farm. Most of those surveyed, of course, are born and bred urbanites that have never shoveled out a barn, milked a cow, or worked around the clock to out-race a storm. Fewer still, think about price fluctuations, bank foreclosure auctions, or about E-coli and frost until their salads are affected. But the Jeffersonian image of the family farm will probably continue to live on in the minds of city people, perhaps even more so as the reality fades. Today’s vanishing yeoman farmer probably maintains no such illusions; he knows that the city has conquered its erstwhile ally, the countryside, and that the factory has come to the farm.
©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.12.2007)