Industrial Farms and Objectivity

Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture Deborah Fitzgerald, 2003

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series.  Lots of good stuff in this series. This one is about how an overarching idea may have guided change in American agriculture. Timely, because I've been writing my chapter on "Farmers and Agribusiness" the last couple of days.

Deborah Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4).  This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” would take over farm life. the title, “Every Farm a Factory,” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

Even if it's difficult to quantify, I suspect this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both agricultural markets and inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its next harvest. Of course, the idea of the family farm is also complicated. Much more of a thing at the beginning of the twentieth century and an ideal (or political slogan) by the end.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values increased...farm size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf. Postel on Populists, but also Paul Conkin 2008 for a rebuttal). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines
needed to be built so big and so expensive that it only sense to run one on a field that occupied a full section of land. And it was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local coops and associations, or harvest contractors. But I'll grant that it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this logic, and especially to International Harvester marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity. It's worth remembering that IH itself was a trust created by J.P. Morgan which was hauled into court in an antitrust action in 1927.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something objective, rather than on opinions. The binary nature of the questions that often lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these yes/no choices exist in a wider range of unexamined possibility that the question simply ignores.  Even prices (the ultimate hard data) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator for some people. It might also explain why many actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers throughout the Progressive Era.

I’ve really got to revisit Taylor’s
Principles of Scientific Management soon.  Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 A.M. Todd, my Michigan Peppermint King, appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave!  I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.