[permaculture] America: Becoming a Land Without Farmers
lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Tue Mar 24 02:23:07 EDT 2015
America: Becoming a Land Without Farmers
September 10, 2012
Evaggelos Vallianatos (Photo Credit: Homini:))
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.
Abandoned Farmhouse, Washington, USA
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
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:
“Some Americans see the small family farm as an economically insignificant
reminder of an outdated, romanticized way of life. But the public’s
preference is for ‘a country which has a relatively large number of small
farms’…. Significantly, there is a broad-based consensus on this issue,
with strong support for the small family farm in evidence in every region
of the country and in every significant demographic subgroup of the
Bergland also heard from his own scientists. One of them was Don Paarlberg
who was an expert on the country’s agricultural universities. These were
known as land grant universities from the land the federal government
donated to states for the founding of these public schools. In a draft
report dated May 23, 1980, Paarlberg said:
“[E]vidence has come before us that the land-grant college system… has
served to speed the trend toward an industrialized agriculture. It simply
has not been possible to make such great advances in efficiency as have
occurred without having profound effect on the structure of agriculture….
The Extension Service, with its advice that a farmer should have a business
‘big enough to be efficient,’ undoubtedly speeded up the process of farm
consolidation and reduced the number of farms. In the classroom, emphasis
on modern management helped put the traditional family farm into a state of
total eclipse.” (6)
This and other damning evidence convinced Bergland to “modify” the programs
and policies of USDA, to slow down or prevent large farmers from becoming
even larger. He recommended changes to federal policies on taxation,
technological development, commodity, credit and marketing. Bergland wanted
federal policies to touch and favor the small and medium sized family
farmers. Even so, he knew his dream for the survival of the family farm was
being dashed by the reality that agribusiness owned rural America.
Despite Bergland’s noble sentiments, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in
1980. Indeed, the Bergland USDA issued its painful report, “A Time to
Choose,” in January 1981 under the shadow of Reagan. The Reagan USDA chose
to return to cannibalism as usual and the family farm was indeed brought to
the verge of extinction (7).
By 2005, from a farm population of 30.5 million in 1940, rural America had
a much-diminished number of people who made a living directly out of
farming. There are no statistics but I would guess that probably 100,000
small family farmers and their families make up this alternative rural
America. Most of these family farmers practice organic farming.
In 1983, another researcher, Dean MacCannell, professor of rural sociology
at the University of California-Davis, issued a severe warning that
repeated those of Walter Goldschmidt and Bob Bergland: Size of farms
matters in agriculture. Large farms destroy rural America.
MacCannell, like Goldschmidt, said pro-agribusiness policies “cut against
the grain of traditional American values.” His studies showed that giant
farmers were becoming “neo-feudal” lords who, with government assistance,
were propelling rural America into a Third World of poverty, injustice,
exploitation and oppression. When large farms are in or near small rural
communities they suck all life out of them:
“In the place of towns which could accurately be characterized as providing
their residents with [a] clean and healthy environment, a great deal of
social equality and local autonomy, we find agricultural pollution, labor
practices that lead to increasing social inequality, restricted opportunity
to obtain land and start new enterprise, and the suppression of the
development of [a] local middle class and the business and services
demanded by such a class.” (8)
MacCannell could also have said that black farmers suffered the worst fate
of any in the emerging empire of large farms.
In 1900, there were 746,717 black farmers in the United States. In the next
ten years black farmers increased by 19.6 percent, becoming 893,377. By
1920, black farmers had reached their highest number ever: 925,710. Then
followed a precipitous decline, with most black farmers abandoning farming.
The explanation for this decline lay with white society in the form of
government and large farmers, which hit the landed blacks with the force of
a cataclysm. They waged an invisible and unreported war of cheating former
slaves of their promised forty acres and a mule. Large white farmers,
agribusiness, and government agencies at the county, state, and federal
level intimidated black farmers, giving them faulty information, denying
them loans, and harassing them from their land (9).
When black Americans started demanding civil rights in the 1950s, the wrath
of the large white farmers boiled over. Black farmers fled to the northern
cities as fast as they could. The legacy of slavery and the failure to
distribute land to black Americans after the Civil War, which continued
with the racism of the land grant universities and the federal extension
service, took their toll. By the year 2000, fewer than 18,000 black farmers
were still farming, a catastrophic decline of 98 percent in the twentieth
On September 28, 2004, the Constitutional Subcommittee of the House
Judiciary Committee had a hearing about the legal problems of the black
farmers who were suing USDA. The Congressman who chaired the hearing, Steve
Chabot, captured the tragedy of the black farmers, saying:
“When slavery was ended in the United States, our government made a promise
– a restitution of sorts – to the former slaves that they would be given 40
acres and a mule…what is clear is that promise was intended to help freed
slaves be independent economically and psychologically, as holders of
private property rights. What also is clear is that the very government
that made this promise, the “People’s Agency” [US Department of
Agriculture] established in 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln, has
sabotaged it by creating conditions that make sovereign and
economically-viable farm ownership extremely difficult.”
On December 8, 2010, the first black president of the United States, Barack
Obama, signed into law a bill for the compensation of black farmers who had
been discriminated against by USDA. However, for at least some black
farmers this late policy did not heal the wounds of decades-long agrarian
racism. For example, it did not please Gary Grant, president of the Black
Farmers and Agriculturalists Association <http://www.bfaa-us.org/>. Grant’s
parents had filed a discrimination suit against USDA in the early 1970s,
but died in 2001, long before it was settled.
In 1998, I met both Grant and his parents. They were hospitable and gentle
people who had suffered greatly. Farming and the ownership of land were
In a press release dated December 10, 2010, Gary Grant said he was present
when Obama signed the 2010 act to bring a closure to the drama of black
farmers in the United States. Grant, however, was unhappy with the law,
especially the government officials who had harmed black farmers. He called
them “evil and recalcitrant agents of the government” who “never lost their
employment, and are now preparing for rich retirement with many benefits
from having stolen the land, the livelihood, the health and for causing all
manner of family destruction in the lives of so many black farmers.”
*USDA’s rural America: get big or get out*
The tragedy of black farmers, including small white family farmers, does
not exist in official statistics. According to the 2002 Census of
Agriculture the picture of rural America has not changed much in the last
quarter of the twenty century: In 1974 the United States had 2,314,013
farms and in 2002 there were still more than two million farms in America.
Exactly: 2,128,892 farms.
The other finding of the USDA census was that the average farm hardly
changed in size. In 1974 the average was 440 acres. That size became 491
acres in 1992 and then 441 in 2002. Even the number of the largest farms
did not change that much. In 1974 there were 62,225 farms of 2,000 acres or
more and in 2002 those giant farms numbered 77,970.
This apparent stasis, however, conceals a dramatic increase in the number
of very wealthy farmers. In 1974, for example, there were 11,412 farms,
which earned $500,000 or more. But, by 2002, the number of super-farms
making $500,000 or more was 70,642. Three percent of the farms making
$500,000 or more shared 62 percent of total sales and government payments.
Wealthier even than these were 29,862 farms making one million dollars or
more from sales and government subsidies.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, thirty-five percent of
America’s farmers in 2002 were completely impoverished. These farmers
earned less than $2,500, which, in 2002, represented one percent of sales
and government payments. Like the increase of billionaire Americans, this
divergence in incomes is the outcome of decades-long agricultural policies.
*Will the United States become a Brazil or an Argentina?*
If the United States does nothing to abolish its oppressive system of giant
agriculture, the remaining white family farmers – who declined by about 66
percent in the twentieth century — will “get out” like their black brothers
and sisters before them. Rural America will increasingly resemble the
routine horror of an animal factory or a plantation.
Such an agricultural system was described by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
<http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/users/nancy-scheper-hughes> in her
Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil*. Agriculture in
the United States is slowly becoming more and more like the
death-without-weeping haciendas of Northeast Brazil, but such a system is
not a hospitable place for ecology, democracy, family farming or even for
simple economic development.
Another cruel colony of agribusiness is Argentina. Nearly the entire
country is one vast field of bioengineered soybeans. Brewster Kneen
<http://ramshorn.ca/brewster-kneen>, a Canadian researcher studying
Argentina’s conversion to agribusiness, reports:
“Argentineans, who used to be among the best fed people anywhere, are now,
[in 2005], being, quite literally, forced to consume soy in place of milk,
meat, vegetables and pulses such as lentils which were once produced in
abundance on the small farms that have been overrun by large landowners
growing soy. Lentils are now imported from Canada… One does not even want
to wonder how many of the ubiquitous garbage pickers on the streets of
Buenos Aires were once small farmers.” (10)
The agribusiness developments in Argentina meanwhile, also destroy millions
of small family farmers in America and Europe, and take the land of
countless millions of peasants in the tropics. And what about the loss of
wildlife following the mass application of machinery and toxins to
agriculture? Brewster Kneen did not exaggerate when he said, “Industrial
agriculture is bad, from beginning to end.” It is. Another researcher, Bill
Mollison, an Australian promoter of intensive small-scale farming known as
“permaculture,” says, “Most things in [modern industrialized] agriculture
today  are really death systems.”
The international peasant and family farmer civil society organization, Via
Campesina <http://viacampesina.org/en/>, says that it is this monstrous
giant agriculture that is pushing family farmers and peasants throughout
the world to the brink of “irredeemable extinction.”
Which is why I hope Americans will not allow this project, however flashy
it looks in its science garb, to complete its evil trajectory.
Evil project? Yes, indeed. Platon said that doing wrong is bad, nasty,
evil. But doing wrong without making amends is the worst of all evils.
One would be hard pressed to find anything better fitting that description
than the work of giant agriculture as it slices land and rural communities
in its imperial conquest of nature and society.
ENDNOTE: Josef Hoppichler of the Austrian Federal Institute for less
Favoured Regions and Mountainous Areas sent us this report he wrote for the
UN FAO in 2007. It is a very insightful examination of the relationship of
traditional farming to agribusiness from a non-US perspective. The FAO
declined to publish it. Read the Report: Disappearance of peasant
(1) Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social
Consequences of Agribusiness (Originally published in 1947, Montclair, NJ:
Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978).
(2) US Congress, House of Representatives, Report of the Commissioner of
Agriculture for the Year 1862 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,
(3) US Department of Agriculture, A Time to Choose (Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office, January 1981) 4.
(4) USDA, A time to Choose, 16.
(5) USDA, Ibid.
(6) USDA, A Time to Choose, 129.
(7) The 2007 and 2012 farm bills only perpetuate this tradition.
(8) Dean MacCannell, “Agribusiness and the Small Community” (University of
California at Davis, 1983).
(9) US Commission on Civil Rights, The Decline of Black Farming in America
(Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, February 1982); Gary R.
Grant, Spencer D. Wood, and Willie J. Wright, “Black Farmers United: The
Struggle Against Power and Principalities,” The Journal of Pan African
Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, March 2012, 3-22.
(10) Brewster Kneen, “The Giant Made Visible,” The Ram’s Horn, October
Evaggelos Vallianatos, former EPA analyst, teaches at Pitzer College. He is
the author of several books, including “Poison Spring” (forthcoming from
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