The Identity Crisis in Modern Agriculture
(Masters Thesis, Draft)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
To go out for even a day or so into open country and talk intimately with farming people
brings a closer understanding of what it is all about than can the weightiest of pronouncements from afar.
-Russell Lord, 1932INTRODUCTION
There is likely not a single human livelihood that can claim a more vaunted spot in America’s shared cultural mythos than agriculture. Certainly no activity at its peak has accounted for a larger share of the nation’s economy or its workforce than agriculture did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. And yet perhaps no other sector of the workforce has been drivenby more dramatic technological, economic, and demographic shifts in such a short period of time. In the span of one century, agriculture has gone from being a largely self-sufficient lifestyle accounting for fully one third of the U.S. population and laying claim to a quasi-mythical status as the “backbone” of a thriving young democracy, to being an occupation no more self-sufficient than anyservice or manufacturing sector, employing a miniscule percentage of the population, and largely removed from the national consciousness.
The statistics are familiar to most agricultural observers. At the turn of the century, rural America consisted almost solely of farm families, and the number of working farms stood at 5.74 million (U.S. Census of Agriculture). This number peaked at 6.8 millionfarms in the mid-1930s, and it has been an unrelenting decline ever since, steeper in some years than others but always going down. Fluctuating national and international markets, government policies, the lure of off-farm employment, and the evolution of labor-saving technologies all worked together to render an increasing number of farmers superfluous. The labor hours required per unit ofproduction have been slashed for every agricultural product, while yields have catapulted upwards. The amount of land being farmed has not changed significantly, but the number of farmers it takes to farm that land has declined consistently throughout the century.
Today less than 5% of U.S. farms produce over half of its total agricultural output on less than 15% of its farmland (Doering, 2004).And yet, even with so few farmers in relative terms, this huge rise in output has dropped the price of our food relative to income to the lowest level of any country in the world. Since 1960, U.S. farmgate prices have dropped to half of retail food prices in real dollars (Ibid). Today there are 2.13 million farms remaining, a two-thirds drop since its peak. Farming families represent less than 2%of the national population, and a farm crisis that has never really abated since the early 1980s illustrates that, even for those still left, staying on the land is a precarious prospect indeed.
Scholarly works on these intense structural changes and their consequences have abounded for decades, but they have not adequately explored some of the more human elements of the phenomenon (Lobaoand Meyer, 2001). The extant research focuses largely on infrastructural or financial or demographic effects of agricultural transition, leaving aside more deeply rooted but less obvious personal and cultural effects. I believe that there is a more serious problem at hand than mere structural transformation.
As farmers become increasingly rare and increasingly pressured to boost outputs,farming itself is fractured into narrow and almost mutually exclusive spheres, and the very idea of what constitutes a “farmer” is called into question. Farmers begin to look so different from one another, and so different from the classic image of a farmer, that the notion of what a farmer is becomes problematic. An outside observer of farming today would not be entirely mistaken in thinking...