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A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 - Paul K. Conkin Conkin was 80 when he published this book. He includes his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, with a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin, of course, is the reviewer who ripped Danbom’s Resisted Revolution for saying the Progressives were urban idealists who despised farmers. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States.” (x) Technology, but also markets, economic changers and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 milion in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today.” (xi)Conkin begins by addressing the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, “from the [they] beginning depended on markets.” (1) As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food.” (2) It now takes only a few percent. This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enable them or the social changes that go with them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it (both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability) is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded.Conkin remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks.” (4) At harvest time, work was more strenuous and prolonged -- one of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000).” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may also have helped some smaller operators avoid the logic of expansion: if you don’t buy the combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250. Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date.” (30) Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting argument that may merit a closer look sometime. (52) Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he describes some of the details from his own experience. (49) These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s appreciation of the economics is shown in these passages to originate in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow.” (49) He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, just as it may not have been to other people who experienced the change. Conkin also describes the transition of his farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin witnessed “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices.” (84) And his family experience reinforces the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans. (94) But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the new deal to the present, without shedding too much light on the subject.In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States.” (96) This trend towards concentration, he says, is still happening in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history.” (164) His perception that certain malcontents might wish to disagree seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion (phosphorus), and the risks associated with new techniques (GMOs) continue to change, the rational decision-makers he praises may need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors. The word “sustainable...is now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of the sustainability argument or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products (and government policy) should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible.” “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” Conkin concludes, “so be it.” (205)