How Decades of Corporate-Friendly Farm Policies Wrecked Rural America

My father was born in 1903 and in his 92 years he saw the trans­for­ma­tion of farm­ing — from hors­es to trac­tors, hand labor to mech­a­niza­tion — that occurred in the 20th cen­tu­ry. I farmed that same Wis­con­sin land for 40 years and in that span of time I, too, saw dra­mat­ic changes in the eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty, social struc­ture, polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies and lev­el of mutu­al respect in our rur­al community.

As the economics of consolidation hollowed out small towns, rural folks began to feel some of the same resentment and sense of abandonment that was so widespread in the Rust Belt.

While no one was rich, New Deal farm pro­grams at least gave farm­ers the chance to be prof­itable. As those pro­grams were cut, many farms went out of busi­ness while the rest grew larg­er. The days of farm­ers work­ing togeth­er and shar­ing machin­ery came to an end. The coun­try­side depop­u­lat­ed, the kids left and com­mu­ni­ty activ­i­ties died out, to the point that now we sel­dom know many of our neigh­bors. These changes have trans­formed my town, and rur­al Amer­i­ca at large, into a very dif­fer­ent place, one my father would not rec­og­nize. How did this happen?

It start­ed with the first ​Farm Bill,” the Agri­cul­tur­al Adjust­ment Act (AAA) of 1933. Imple­ment­ed as part of the New Deal of the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion, the AAA was designed to ensure farm­ers a decent liv­ing by set­ting a fair base price for farm goods and reduc­ing sur­plus pro­duc­tion. The AAA came at a time when rur­al Amer­i­ca was in cri­sis, dev­as­tat­ed by the Great Depres­sion and the Dust Bowl. Suc­ces­sive years of drought and poor farm­ing prac­tices had stripped the top­soil from an esti­mat­ed 100-mil­lion acres of the Great Plains and Mid­west, forc­ing the migra­tion of 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple out of the hard­est hit states. Lost crops and low prices ruined many debt-bur­dened farm­ers. Between 1930 and 1935, some 750,000 farms were lost to bank­rupt­cy and fore­clo­sure. In March of 1935, these ​black bliz­zards” of wind-blown top­soil blot­ted out the sun in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., final­ly giv­ing Con­gress the impe­tus to pass the Soil Con­ser­va­tion Act.

The New Deal neglect­ed Black farm­ers in the South and trib­al nations, but those farm­ers who had man­aged to hang onto their land were saved by the AAA. Farm income was 50% high­er in 1935 than in 1932 thanks to the pric­ing pro­grams that set a min­i­mum price and pro­duc­tion lim­its on most crops. The AAA also looked to the long term, enabling future gen­er­a­tions of farm­ers to remain on the fam­i­ly farm and pro­duce a secure, fair­ly priced sup­ply of food.

Coun­ty Exten­sion agents brought New Deal pro­grams direct­ly to farm fam­i­lies, advis­ing them on land con­ser­va­tion, bet­ter farm­ing prac­tices, crop vari­eties and the lat­est uni­ver­si­ty research. The knowl­edge that the gov­ern­ment would be there to work with them, and that there was at least some assur­ance of mak­ing a prof­it, made tak­ing over the fam­i­ly farm an appeal­ing option for farm kids. The AAA, in turn, brought to rur­al com­mu­ni­ties the ben­e­fits of bet­ter trans­porta­tion, schools and, through the Rur­al Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Admin­is­tra­tion, elec­tric­i­ty, which had been most­ly lim­it­ed to urban areas.

Many of those farm pro­grams con­tin­ued into the 1950s and helped rur­al Amer­i­ca and the rest of the coun­try expe­ri­ence what has come to be called the ​Gold­en Age of Cap­i­tal­ism,” dur­ing which even the work­ers and small farm­ers ben­e­fit­ed. So, when did that rur­al pros­per­i­ty, that ​fair­ness” that kept small farms in busi­ness, start to col­lapse? When did both rur­al and urban Amer­i­ca start mov­ing towards cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion and what is now the high­est lev­el of income inequal­i­ty in the indus­tri­al­ized world? If I had to name the exact date, I’d say Nov. 41980.

Before he was elect­ed pres­i­dent, when he was gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia, Ronald Rea­gan vetoed the Agri­cul­tur­al Labor Rela­tions Act which would have giv­en farm­work­ers the right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. As pres­i­dent, he effec­tive­ly destroyed the air traf­fic con­trollers union, PAT­CO, by fir­ing 11,345 con­trollers. He was not a fan of fair wages for work­ers and felt no need to ensure farm­ers a fair price, either. In 1983 he com­plete­ly phased out par­i­ty pric­ing for milk, which had based the price of milk on the farmer’s cost of pro­duc­tion. With­out pro­duc­tion con­trols, farm­ers had to pro­duce more milk for less mon­ey. The result was pre­dictable. Last fall, Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Son­ny Per­due put it this way: ​In Amer­i­ca, the big get big­ger and the small go out.”

Along my stretch of Wis­con­sin coun­ty road, there used to be 15 small dairy farms. Now, there are three. In 1980, there were around 44,000 dairy farms in the state. Today there are only 7,300. Most of the old farm­hous­es and barns stand emp­ty or have been demol­ished, the land rent­ed or sold to large oper­a­tors that run larg­er dairy herds, pro­duce more milk per cow and exploit cheap, non-union immi­grant labor. The loss of almost 37,000 small dairy farms did not bode well for the small rur­al com­mu­ni­ties they were part of. With few­er small farms and few­er farm­ers work­ing them, less mon­ey was being spent in local busi­ness­es and few­er kids (and less prop­er­ty tax mon­ey) were going to local schools.

It is also impor­tant to note that as a cow pro­duces more milk, she eats more and in turn pro­duces more manure. As cows are no longer pas­tured but kept in con­fine­ment, all that manure is stored in open lagoons. Too much manure is often spread on too few acres, streams get pol­lut­ed, fish kills hap­pen and ground water and wells can get contaminated.

As the eco­nom­ics of con­sol­i­da­tion hol­lowed out small towns, rur­al folks began to feel some of the same resent­ment and sense of aban­don­ment that was so wide­spread in the Rust Belt. Lost jobs, lost busi­ness­es, lost hope. Wis­con­sin and many neigh­bor­ing states had always been solid­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic, but Repub­li­cans now tapped into this grow­ing sense of aban­don­ment, direct­ing their mes­sage at what they called ​the for­got­ten men and women of Amer­i­ca,” promis­ing to oppose the ​coastal elites” and give rur­al folks their fair share. The far Right sought to divert rur­al anger against immi­grants who were ​steal­ing our jobs” and away from the Reaganomics that allowed cor­po­rate con­trol of the food sys­tem and left farm­ers with few options oth­er than get­ting big or get­ting out. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, mean­while, large­ly stood by and failed to artic­u­late a dif­fer­ent vision, failed to push for and expand the pro­grams that grew out of the AAA and could have kept farms prof­itable, failed to enact social pro­grams that could have cre­at­ed new jobs in rur­al and urban areas alike.

If the 2016 elec­tion taught us any­thing, it’s that peo­ple in a tight spot, peo­ple who feel aban­doned, will vote to change their sit­u­a­tion. Delud­ed as it may have been, rur­al folks of my gen­er­a­tion, who over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed Trump, saw him as offer­ing a return to 1950s Amer­i­ca, where rur­al main streets thrived again. He told farm­ers they were great patri­ots and they believed he was a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, who promised new export mar­kets and so much win­ning they would get tired of it. But, in this vision, the coun­try was being held back by immi­grants, who were crim­i­nal at worst and lazy free­load­ers at least, and by out-of-touch lib­er­als who hat­ed Amer­i­ca. These peo­ple were the prob­lem and Trump would end it — that was the sto­ry. And so a wedge was dri­ven deep into the heart of rur­al America.

In the past, neigh­bors along rur­al roads got along even if their polit­i­cal yard signs were dif­fer­ent. In my neigh­bor­hood, these days, a sign sup­port­ing Black Lives Mat­ter or any Demo­c­rat is like­ly to be destroyed. Wear a mask around here and expect to be ridiculed and giv­en a lec­ture on what a hoax Covid-19 real­ly is. Some busi­ness own­ers, like their hero in the White House, may tell you to get rid of it.

If the Biden-Har­ris tick­et, and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in gen­er­al, wants to begin to heal this rift and regain what the Democ­rats have lost in rur­al Amer­i­ca, they will need to artic­u­late a clear vision for a future that includes rur­al Amer­i­cans. They will need to go big and go bold. In rur­al com­mu­ni­ties they have shown that they can­not win as Repub­li­can Lite. Hangin’ in the mid­dle of the road will not be an option. As Jim High­tow­er says, there’s noth­ing there but ​yel­low stripes and dead armadillos.”

A promis­ing way is being point­ed by those farm­ers wak­ing up to the fact that their fate is bound up with that of food chain work­ers. Wis­con­sin Farm­ers Union mem­ber Hans Bre­it­en­moser recent­ly put it this way: ​If you look at where val­ue comes from and where the mon­ey goes in the food indus­try, I, as Joe Farmer, have more in com­mon with Bob, the guy in the slaugh­ter­ing plant, than I do with the CEO of a for­eign agribusi­ness corporation.”

But these days, rur­al folks know that the work­er in the slaugh­ter plant is like­ly to be named José or Muhammed. This aware­ness is the start­ing point for a sol­i­dar­i­ty that has the pow­er to trans­form rur­al Amer­i­ca. I hope the Democ­rats are pay­ing attention.

This essay first appeared at In These Times.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin.