A Personal View of the Rise of Agribusiness

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 Paul K. Conkin, 2008

Paul Conkin is an intellectual historian who wrote extensively about the Progressive Era and the New Deal. He's also the historian who bashed David Danbom's book, The Resisted Revolution, saying Danbom's work “illustrates how a historian, by the intellectual games he plays with his sources, can do much more to impede than to aid understanding.” Conkin said Danbom's “imprecise word use, indefinite or illegitimate groupings of people, the reification of ideal types, and unwarranted references from evidence all make it impossible for me to understand, let alone accept, Danbom’s major contentions.” This review appeared in Agricultural History, the same journal in which David Danbom had used more or less the same words in 1975 to bash William L. Bowers's The Country Life Movement in America: 1900-1920, which had basically followed Conkin's interpretation of the period. So the man had a long memory.

Conkin was 80 when he published
A Revolution Down on the Farm.  He features his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, which illustrate a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States” (x). Technology, but also markets, economic change and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 million in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today” (xi). This was a victory from the perspective of economic efficiency, and Conkin seems to think critics of this change haven't focused enough on the benefits of this change. So, what does he think the benefits were, and who benefited?

Conkin begins by trying to change our perspective on the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, he says, “from the beginning [they] depended on markets” (1). As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food” (2). It now takes only a few percent.  This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enabled them or the social changes that followed them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it, both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability, is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded. Ironically, this is the same portrayal of rural people by Progressive intellectuals that Danbom had objected to in the book Conkin didn't like.

Conkin's reminiscences of farm life in the first half of the twentieth century don't always seem to match his thesis. He remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks” (4). At harvest time, he says, work was more strenuous and prolonged. I guess this is inefficient from a particular point of view. In my mind, it depends on what you spend those extra hours doing.

One of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000)” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may be too strong a term here -- smaller farmers may simply have been unable to afford a new tractor or combine. It's also possible that smaller operators didn't buy into the the logic of expansion. If you don’t buy the big combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Herbert Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date” (30).  Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting claim that may merit a closer look sometime (52). But the digression into politics doesn't completely fit into what had been a story of what people experienced "down on the farm."

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he gives some examples from his own experience (49). These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s economic perspective seems to have originated in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow” (49). He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, nor are the externalities and subsidies associated with many of these inputs. But it's important to note that just as they are not obvious to Conkin, they may have been equally hidden to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his boyhood farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin was able to witness “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices” (84). And his family experience reinforced the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans (94). But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his professional expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the New Deal to the present, without actually shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States” (96). This trend towards concentration, he says, continues in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” In this case, his metric of success isn't even overall economic efficiency -- it's strictly labor efficiency. Economic issues such as the corn subsidies that contribute to raising the chickens or the illegal-immigrant status of the people processing the broilers it only took a man-hour to raise are completely absent from his analysis.

Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history” (164). His frustration that certain malcontents might wish to disagree with that claim seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion, and the risks associated with new techniques continue to change, the rational economic decision-makers he praises might legitimately need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “sustainable...is now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is absolutely true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of their sustainability arguments or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible,” he says, and I couldn't agree more.

Conkin seems to realize that something weird has just happened to his argument. “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” he concludes, “so be it” (205). I think it's great that he ends with a call for more accurate cost accounting and greater responsibility for externalities. It's unfortunate that Conkin didn't really see the flaws in the arguments and experiential impressions that led to the present situation, but it's very helpful that he gave us a personal view of where those arguments and impressions came from.