Rural History shows our food issues aren't new

First Majority-Last Minority
John L. Shover, 1976

In his history of American agriculture and rural life in the three decades following World War II, John L. Shover identifies a change he calls the “Great Disjuncture.” Although his name for the change didn’t stick, his observations have become widely-accepted truisms.  And yet, thirty-five years after its publication, many of the issues Shover calls our attention to in
First Majority are farther from resolution than they were when he wrote.

Shover begins by observing that “emigration from country to city in the years following the Great Depression has been greater in numbers than the entire immigration from foreign shores to the United States in the 100 years between 1820 and 1920.” (xvi)  Shover says rural exodus was enabled—actually forced—by increases in agricultural productivity.  In 1820, he says “one farm worker was required to supply subsistence for four people; in 1945 the ratio was 1 for 14.6; in 1969 the estimate was 1 for 45.3.” (5)  The first improvement was brought about by tractors and nitrogen fertilizers, Shover says; the second by pesticides, herbicides, and hybrid crops and livestock.  Along with these productivity increases went “consolidation.  Nine-hundred thousand fewer farms operated in 1970 than in 1960, but virtually all the land except that diverted by government policy, remained in production.” (6) Fewer but bigger farms; the beginnings of agribusiness as we now know it.

A lot of the information Shover provides will be well-known to the contemporary reader of agricultural or rural history.  But it’s interesting to see how much of the material publicized by others in the last few decades was already being discussed in the 1960s.  Shover says, for example, that “rural America has traditionally been on the move,” (38) and he notes that “surprisingly few studies of American farms and villages have given attention to their ethnic makeup.  This lack has produced a myopic view of rural politics, overlooking often intense and deep-seated ethnic and religious rivalries.” (48)  Both these observations are still quite relevant for historians and sociologists, especially in places where agribusiness has brought large numbers of migrant workers or low-paid semi-legals to work in meat packing and other ag-related industries.  Shover also notes that “the major market for motor vehicles shifted between 1905 and 1908, from the big city to the country town.”  (116)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of First Majority, which is fascinating precisely because the book is a generation old, is Shover’s coverage of agribusiness.  Recent bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s
Omnivore’s Dilemma, documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn, and Justice Department/USDA probes of Walmart’s “stranglehold” on rural communities, have sensitized us to problems facing food producers and rural Americans, but may also have created an impression that these issues and crises are recent.  In fact, Shover was calling attention to the same problems 35 years ago.  In 1968, he says, “the 1 percent of the feedlots that have a capacity greater than 1,000 fed 47 percent of the cattle marketed.” (160)  Poultry consumption, which had been stable at about 16 pounds per person in the first half of the twentieth century, rose to 50 pounds per person in the early 1970s. (146)  And even then, the industry was already dominated by “producer corporations” that paid the “farmer-caretaker in 1972…fifty dollars for every 1,000 chickens he raised.” (146) I'm going to make a point of mentioning this timeline of development when I talk about agribusiness next time I teach that unit. Maybe the Delmarva chicken industry after WWII would be a good illustration.

By 1970, the declining power of farm operators relative to their corporate overlords was already apparent.  In a 1970 report, the USDA declared that “poultry growers were working at an average wage of minus fourteen cents hourly.” (147)  “Us folks in the chicken business are the only slaves left in the country,” Shover quotes an Alabama striker saying.  “They call all the shots—they give you a contract for as many or as few chickens as they want and then they pay you whatever they want.” (147)  Shover also called attention to the environmental cost of agribusiness.  “In 1969,” he says, the nation’s 107 million cattle, 57 million hogs, 21 million sheep, and 2.1 billion chickens produced approximately ten times more biological waste than the entire human population.” (161)  And the factory farms were just getting going!

While the producer’s share of the food dollar “pie” wasn’t as low in the 1960s as it has become, the growing slice taken by manufacturers and marketers was already a concern.  “Thus in 1969,” Shover says, “farmers received 67 cents of every consumer dollar spent on eggs…50 cents for milk; 22 cents for fresh oranges; 14 cents for two loaves of bread…Producers of wheat and cotton could give away their entire crop free without creating more than a minor effect on the price of bread or shirts.” (177)  The fact that these problems have been known for decades, and during that time the situation has only gotten worse, should concern today’s activists.

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Shover shows some of the changes rural historians were beginning to explore in the mid-1970s, in the decade before the election of Ronald Reagan and the political sea-change it brought about (or reflected). I suspect it's important to locate these changes appropriately in time. They're not really recent effects of globalization and hyper-capitalism, as we often see them portrayed. Actually, they're part of the story of the middle of the twentieth century, along with the baby-boom, suburbia, and the wonder years.