Land Reform and American Agriculture

Economics, it’s the elephant in the room that can’t be denied. And this elephant in its corporate exploitive mode is stomping on every one of us and destroying everything in its wake. How about a new paradigm, like a “just distribution of wealth and resources”? Now there’s a novel idea! Occasionally there is information that helps to justify this glaring need for economic justice, and for me the study by anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt in the 1940’s is one of the most compelling!

If we think we’ve been manipulated and lied to by the Bush administration in the 21st century at the behest of corporate America, just hearken back to the mid-20th century. Franklin Roosevelt was President. In response to the 1930’s depression, he had been successful in establishing his New Deal policies and for the first time the U.S. government assumed a central role in the responsibility for the economic security of the people and the economic growth of the nation. More than anything, Roosevelt probably saved American capitalism. A lot of the New Deal measures (i.e. social security, insurance for the jobless) served in the interest of American capitalists to ensure there was a pool of satisfied workers available to them. But these corporate elite were not going to let the government go too far in protection of workers and certainly not in wealth creation for average Americans.

The Roosevelt era was also a time of reflection and analysis on the impact of unregulated capital along with the concentration of wealth and its impact on the economy, society and culture. An abundance of questions arose as Americans lived through what is referred to as the Great Depression of the 1930’s. One division within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was central to this debate and it was the legendary and now defunct Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE). This is a rather innocuous sounding name of a USDA department that was so incredibly threatening to the American corporate giants. The BAE and the Bureau of Reclamation had the temerity to actually consider the impact of excessive wealth on the quality of life in rural America.

In the 1940’s the BAE wanted to study whether the 160-acre limitation should be applied to the growing California agricultural production sector. BAE wisely thought it best to engage in a scientific study of the issue. (Someone please tell Bush about this–that the impacts should actually be known or at the very least intelligently understood before initiating policy!)

The young social anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt was given the responsibility for conducting this California research. Now at age 91, Goldschmidt ultimately became the president of the American Anthropological Association. The results of his work resonate for today’s and the world’s rural and urban communities. Prior to him receiving the contract from USDA, Goldschmidt had looked at similar issues in Wasco, California. In his “What If” presentation in 1993, Goldschmidt said:

“Half a century ago I was in the town of Wasco, California making a study of community life and social organization. The study showed that industrial farming creates an urbanized social system. That is, where agricultural production is dominated by highly mechanized labor with necessarily high capital requirements and the use of large amounts of hired labor the result is a social order characterized by impersonal social relationships, social class differentiation and conflict, and the dominance of monetary over other social values. As you sow, so shall you reap? The study was published under the title “As You Sow.”

This finding was far from trivial, obvious as it may now seem. Republicans as well as Democrats have espoused the Jeffersonian agrarian philosophy; the Great American Myth is fundamentally agrarian and the small town has long been seen as the bastion of basic American values.

It is the very heart and soul of our egalitarianism and therefore our democratic institutions and central to our values. In this view the California situation was seen as an aberration, as had the slavery of our southern plantation economy — over which we fought a major war.

Three years after Wasco, I was asked to provide an answer to a simple question: What difference does it make if the farm units are large or small? The question was asked as part of the Central Valley Project Studies; a research program designed to examine the impact of that project and set the basis for policy matters.

The Central Valley Project (CVP) in California was developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau operated under a then 40-year old ruling that irrigation waters developed (and subsidized) by it must be sold to land units of 160 acres or less. The Question therefore was: Should this ruling be applied to the beneficiaries of CVP?

I initiated a study comparing the two towns of Arvin and Dinuba, one representing those communities dominated by large-scale enterprises and the other representing the towns where small family-sized operations were the rule.

The study showed unequivocally that the town surrounded by the small farms was far superior by every measure that I could devise.”

Agriculture scholar Al Krebs notes the following regarding Goldschmidt’s research:

“What the Arvin-Dinuba study revealed has become near legend in the argument for perpetuating the “family farm system” of agriculture throughout rural America. Dinuba was found far superior to Arvin as the quality of life in each community was directly related to the inequities in landholdings and directly reflected in the difference in the community’s economic, political and social stability.

‘Large scale farm operations was immediately seen to take an important part in the creation of the conditions found in Arvin,’ Goldschmidt reported. ‘Its direct causative effect is to create a community made up of a few persons of high economic position, and a mass of individuals whose economic status and whose security and stability are low, and who are economically dependent directly on the few. In the framework of American culture, more particularly that of industrialized farming, this creates immediately a situation where community participation and leadership, economic well-being, and business activities are relatively impoverished.’

The small-farm community of Dinuba was supporting 62 separate businesses with a volume of trade of $4.3 million, while the large-farm community of Arvin had 35 established business establishments; expenditures for household supplies and building equipment were over three times greater in the small-farm community; Dinuba had a larger dollar-volume of agricultural production; over one-half of the breadwinners in the small-farm community were independently employed, while in the large-farm community less than one-fifth were so employed: public services in the small-farm community were far better; the small farm community had two newspapers while the large-farm community had one, and the small-farm community had twice the number of organizations for civic improvement and recreation. As applied to a small-farm community the 160 acreage limitation principle was also found not only to be justified, but one that should be encouraged and supported.

Reaction to the Arvin-Dinuba study was immediate and ominous. Repeated efforts were made to block its publication, the study having been completed in 1944. When it finally was issued in December, 1946, due principally to the efforts of Dewey Anderson of the Senate Small Business Committee and U.S. Senator James E. Murray, committee chairman, it was with a quid pro quo that no mention WHATSOEVER be made of USDA’s involvement in the study.

Efforts, principally by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and its corporate agribusiness allies, were made in the press, on the radio, and in Congress to discredit the study and the activities of the BAE, a long-time adversary of the AFBF.

In fact, the USDA’s Appropriations Act for 1947 contained the following codicil: ‘That no part of the funds herein appropriated or made available to the [BAE] under the heading `Economic Investigation’ shall be used for state or county land and planning, for conducting cultural surveys, or for the maintenance of regional offices.’ (emphasis added)

In further reflection on the events surrounding this study, Goldschmidt now believes those who sabotaged his expanded research into a larger sample of communities knew exactly what it would reveal. It was much easier to discount the Arvin-Dinuba conclusions than it would have been to dismiss the results of a much more comprehensive study.

Nearly sixty years later that “sabotaging” by corporate agribusiness and its same allies like the AFBF who sought to discount Goldschmidt’s findings, continues to this very day.

(Goldschmidt said further that,) ‘My recommendations in “As You Sow” were that it was essential to recognize the industrial quality of farming, which clearly was already diffusing throughout the nation, and its urban consequences, (this) meant that the regulations of the Labor Relations Act should be applied to the agricultural sector and that unions should not only be allowed to develop, but should be encouraged. What was needed was a professionalization of the farm worker.’

He continues, ‘These recommendations were also not followed. Instead, we have had the continued exploitation of the farm workers, the increased concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few, greater difficulties for the small farmer precisely because they were not protected from such centralized control of the markets, and all the other difficulties that derive from an unregulated industrialized agricultural system.’

As mentioned above, corporate America and the USDA did not want Goldschmidt’s findings to be revealed and Congress made sure that the BAE no longer engaged in rural ‘quality of life’ studies. Once again, corporate America attempted to belittle the opportunities for wealth creation and creative competition in the American economy–both rural and urban. Americans lost considerably because the government, as it is inclined, bowed to corporate America rather then in the interests of the masses of American citizens.

Since the Goldschmidt study in the 1940’s numerous rural anthropologists and economists have attempted to replicate his study, which has never been successfully refuted.

More than that, however, we lost efficiency and land saving policies. As Goldschmidt and others have noted we have let industrial agriculture expand almost unabated. Yet, small family farmers and a diverse economy in rural or urban America are not only best for the development of a strong thriving economy, but for a healthy planet as well. Small farmers have always been known as the most efficient producers and the best conservationists and many Americans, at long last, are finally beginning to realize this fact.

What we have witnessed in the past century, of course, is the Walmartization of the American economy and it is being applied to American foreign policy as well as through trade initiatives and the likes of the World Trade Organization. Under the NAFTA agreement, for example, the U.S. forced Mexico to change its land tenure laws allowing for foreigners to purchase land for the first time and to open up more intensive dumping of industrially produced cheap corn and other products on the Mexican markets. As we expected, the trade policies, resulted in the undercutting of prices and destabilization of small farmers. This has had a devastating impact on Mexico’s excellent small farming communities and likely one of the reasons we are seeing larger numbers of Mexican economic refugees attempting to come across the U.S. borders. The “poor” immigrants are unfairly blamed for disruption when the finger needs to be pointed at corporate America and the U.S. trade policies.

Concentrated wealth is not healthy for any community–rural or urban – and is counter-productive to quality of life and democratic principals. The current U.S. paradigm of support for excessive wealth and trickle down economics doesn’t work, is not good for anyone. A new paradigm of common wealth and resource distribution is necessary to let human genius have an opportunity to flourish and be sustainable. Americans need to pay attention to this and stop bowing to greed. As Goldschmidt concludes, “the price of liberty is external vigilance. I fear that we have been insufficiently vigilant.”

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at



Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at