Growing food was once the consuming professional interest of most Americans; 95 percent of the population, for instance, were farmers at the time of the Revolution. But that interest has long since become a specialty, even a subspecialty. Though farmers still accounted for a third of Americans as late as 1910, this proportion had dropped to one in ten by 1955, and since then, according to Victor Davis Hanson, not a month has passed in which the number of farms in this country has not fallen; by the 1980s, two thousand family farms a week were failing. Today not quite one American in a hundred engages in farming. It’s hard to know for sure—in 1993, the Census Bureau announced that farmers were no longer “statistically significant” and hence could not be counted.
Put aside, at least for a moment, the question of whether this decline is good or bad. One thing it undoubtedly means is that we know less about farming today than ever before—less about the practice of coaxing food from soil, and less about the economics that drives this most basic of industries. We’ve left the farm because certain technological advances have, in one view, freed us from this labor, or, in another light, made food so cheap that it is almost impossible for a family to make a living growing it.
Americans born since the war have spent their entire lives in a condition of food surplus, both domestically and, increasingly, abroad. There have been famines around the world in that time, it is true, and many people suffer from chronic malnutrition—but in general these have been the product of poor distribution, low incomes, and political turmoil. In any event, there’s been no reason for most Americans to pay attention to agriculture, and we haven’t. A federal farm bill providing for huge subsidies, for instance, worked its way through Congress this winter without attracting any interest from the press or the public. Farms hit the front page only when cows begin foaming at the mouth and passing on their symptoms to children, or when local droughts threaten to add a few cents to the price of this year’s bread and pasta.
That may change. The debate over Lester Brown’s forecasts of coming food shortages in China has already been joined in these pages. But his larger point, made most recently in the journal published by his World Watch Institute, is at least as important.1 Viewed as a whole, he points out, the planet’s grain harvest has barely increased in the last five years—a stunning change from the huge annual increases that accompanied the post- World War II green revolution. As a result, nearly half a billion more people have to share the same amount of corn and wheat and rice as was harvested in 1990, so the per capita consumption of calories has steadily decreased. Global stocks of grain stand at forty-nine days’ worth, and since the harvest rates of alternate sources of food such as fish have also leveled off, or are declining, the ancient challenge to early agricultural societies—making it to the next growing season—might eventually become a challenge to many societies today.
There are many reasons to expect this shortage. They include the tremendous momentum of population growth, as well as the increasing environmental trouble caused by salinized soils, depleted groundwater, and soil erosion. Erratic weather caused by global warming could add considerably to this burden. If Brown and others are even partially correct, the implications are large. Food prices should start to increase (and indeed corn and wheat prices on the Chicago exchanges have come close to reaching record levels this spring). This could in turn cause political instability in many places; the list of past revolutions in which the price of bread has had a part is a long one. We may well be entering a period when the roughly two thousand calories a day our bodies need will in many places not be automatically and cheaply available. Just as the oil crises of the 1970s concentrated our attention, albeit briefly, on the hitherto overlooked question of long-term energy supplies, so we may find that the question of the food supply will become more and more controversial. This may be a good time to consider some of the books about farming that have been published in recent months. Taken together, they can help us understand the past and possible future of the meals most Westerners take for granted.
In Dream Reaper, Craig Canine attempts to tell the story of a new invention developed only in the last decade—a different kind of combine that Mark Underwood, a Kansas farmer, was convinced would make his fortune. (The combine, which cuts, threshes, and winnows any type of grain, is among the most important pieces of machinery in modern farming.) The book recounts the high moments and the disappointments of Underwood’s quest—the late nights working to improve the design of his “Bi-Rotor”; the wedding reception in the construction shed; the great day when the machine passes its first test. It’s not Canine’s fault that his story peters out anticlimactically when the big tractor companies refuse either to buy the combine or to stop paying small sums to continue research on it. (And an epilogue is even more disappointing: when the machine finally gets a test against its competitors, it comes in second out of three. Since we’ve been assured repeatedly by the inventor that this is the greatest combine of all time, this doesn’t make for much of a finale.) In the end, though, the fizzled central drama doesn’t badly damage the book. The story of the Bi-Rotor combine takes up only half of Dream Reaper; the rest of the book explores the history of the mechanization of the American farm, offering an excellent account of the vast transformation this process has wrought over the last century and a half.
The sickle is as old as human settlements; the long-handled sickle, or scythe, dates to the ninth century AD. Using one of these tools, and with four or five extra helpers to bundle the grain into sheaves, a farmer could cover about three acres of good land a day. “That is about where things stood in the United States in 1831,” writes Canine, “the year Cyrus McCormick tested his first mechanical reaper.” Though McCormick’s machine was not the first of its kind, he had the entrepreneurial drive to dominate the “reaper wars” with other manufacturers that broke out across the Midwest in the 1840s and 1850s. The machinery became even more important with the outbreak of the Civil War, when the North needed an export crop to rival the cotton grown on the plantations of the Mississippi Delta and machinery to replace the soldiers fighting Lee. Under this pressure, McCormick and other manufacturers refined the “slave of the North,” adding to the reaping machine a seat that let the whole rig move faster than the pace of a walking man and binding machines that tied the sheaves mechanically as well.
The story was told at Deering & Company that the first farmer to buy a twine binder took it to his field, hitched his horses to it, climbed onto the seat, and said, “What am I to do?” A Deering mechanic who happened to be on hand replied, “Do? Do nothing. Drive the horses!” The farmer obeyed, making a circuit of the field. He looked behind him and saw a row of beautifully bound sheaves. Shouting with amazement, the man swore there must be a genie hidden in the machine.
Many other “genies” followed. Some were mechanical—Canine recounts the invention of the combine, which both reaped and threshed, and the coming of fossil-fuel-powered traction to the farm, first in the form of the Model T and then the tractor. Others were biological—his book contains wonderful photographs of the “Corn Gospel Trains” that spread the news of seed selection across the grainbelt, and the story of Henry Wallace and the hybrid corn he helped develop. Still others were chemical, such as the discovery of the standard pesticide 2,4-D as a byproduct of World War II work on defoliants. Perhaps the most powerful influence on the grain market was the development of uniform grading for crops, which made the futures markets possible.
With its careful history of science and organization transforming the American landscape, Dream Reaper is a great credit to the new Sloan Technology Series (which also underwrote Richard Rhodes’s recent book on the hydrogen bomb). But its author understands, so he notes in his first chapter, that every innovation comes with strings attached. As the inventor of the new combine, Mark Underwood enthusiastically promotes his new machine; he keeps talking about how its efficiency will make the products of farming cheaper. “A problem in logic lurked here,” writes Canine, the same quandary that “made modern agriculture simultaneously one of the greatest wonders and saddest tragedies of Western civilization.” He asks Underwood,
Isn’t the invention of more and more efficient machines, like yours, part of the reason why grain prices are so low, and why so many farmers have had to leave their farms? I mean, American agriculture is already plagued with overproduction. By making it even easier for farmers to produce more grain, won’t the Bi-Rotor just make a few more family farms unnecessary?
Underwood accepts the argument and has no answer to it; nor does he lay down his tools. “He furnished living proof that the wellsprings of innovation flow regardless of the consequences, and from no baser motive than the desire to create something new, and maybe even start a retirement account with the proceeds.”
The argument for cheap food may seem self-evident—much of the world has by now grown dependent on the availability of huge stocks of American wheat, for instance. But it would be too much to expect agreement from Victor Davis Hanson, who has seen his farm wrecked by many of the forces Canine describes. His account of that ruination is so detailed, so angry and funny, that it will surely find a lasting readership. If John Steinbeck showed what it felt like to be a migrant picker arriving in California’s pastures of plenty, Hanson defines with similar force what it feels like to be one of the small growers who, several generations later, find themselves just as helpless against the overpowering forces of the market.
He grew up on his grandfather’s raisin ranch in the Central Valley, and the particulars of the fruit he grows make his story a highly concentrated version of the tale farmers can tell across the nation. Raisins are a risky crop—they must lie on the ground next to the vines for several days after they are picked in order to shrivel and dry, and if it rains during that time they become worthless. But though this peculiarity (and the fact that they can be grown in only a few sunny valleys around the world) should make them pricy enough to reward the venturesome farmer, they have another characteristic: they can be easily stored by the middleman, for years if necessary, which means that their price is usually depressed while long-held stocks are released into the market.
Occasionally, most recently during the high prices of the inflationary Carter years, the profits are considerable, and, like an aquifer recharging, the farm is able to repay the debts it has incurred over the years for such necessities as pesticides, machinery, labor, and irrigation equipment. But for the most part commodity prices have stayed so low (Hanson gets the same price for a ton of raisins in 1993 as he did two decades earlier) that the farm swallows up the wages the farmer might earn from town jobs, the payouts from his insurance policies, or the spare cash provided by any relative stubbornly sentimental enough to want him to keep farming.
Eventually, like the two thousand farmers a week that he says are failing across the nation, Hanson will have to sell, either to one of the agribusiness combines that are large enough to act as their own middlemen, or to a developer looking for new house lots near the freeways. His book is a lament for what the nation loses each time that happens: not the cozy farmhouses of Norman Rockwell paintings, but the citizen “different, vastly different, from almost all other types of citizens,” the “bothersome, queer oddball who…has been for 2,500 years the critical counter voice to a material and uniform culture that at its basic is neither democratic nor egalitarian.” Hanson, a classics scholar who has been forced by the economics of raisins to a clearly unhappy tenure teaching Greek and Latin at California State University at Fresno, scorns Virgil for romanticizing the harmony and community of the countryside; he favors instead Hesiod’s version from Work and Days, “a more melancholy, more angry account of the necessary pain and sacrifice needed to survive on the land.” Farming is a struggle, and so it creates independent men and women. It is often “distasteful,” but
What other profession is there now in this country where the individual fights alone against nature, lives where he works, invests hourly for the future, never for the mere present, succeeds or fails largely on the degree of his own intellect, physical strength, bodily endurance, and sheer nerve.
To Hanson this is the agrarian ideal, and “it is my simple contention, supported solely by instinct and supposition, that the entire cargo of our current unhappiness—materialism, crime, spiritual emptiness—is in inverse proportion to the number of people who are both rural and agrarian.” If only 10 percent of the population “lived on farms, did not move, never divorced, did not change jobs, and set the parameters of their day by dawn and dusk, the current madness could be stopped,” he insists. Ten percent is a figure pulled from the air, but it’s clear what he means—our rootlessness (the very word evokes abandoned farms) may be one of the things that’s gotten our society into so much trouble.
Hanson also explains by implication why we’re unlikely to ever return to the farm. It’s not just because most of us are long used to the soft life, and so removed from the soil that we ask raisin farmers if we can see the raisin plants. It’s because even those cantankerous enough to try to carry on the farming tradition, to continue the legacy of their parents and grandparents, mostly come to ruin. In 1983, with the onset of deflationary Reaganomics, the price of raisins fell dramatically; most of his book tells how Hanson and his neighbors tried to survive. They exhausted themselves attempting to replace capital with labor; they planted untested new varieties of grapes and other fruit hoping for a big payoff; they sprayed those new crops with every conceivable poison in the effort to bring as much as possible to market. (You will never again eat an unwashed pear once you’ve read this book.) And they failed. They failed because they were cheated by a bewildering array of middlemen (including the corporate descendants of the cooperative brokers organized by their parents and grandparents). They failed because banks no longer cared to deal with them, failed because they were trying to support too many family members on land that produced too little income.
More than anything else, low prices killed them, just as the cheapness of food has wrecked dairy farms and wheat farms and every other kind of farm. If what you are interested in is the survival of family farms, food is simply too cheap—as Mark Underwood told Canine, “We’re getting 1960s prices for our crops. My dad got $2.30 a bushel for corn in the sixties. That’s about what the [grain] elevator will pay me today.” Even those consumers who insist they want carefully grown food won’t pay extra for it. I know a farmer in northern New Hampshire who grows magnificent organic apples but is going out of business because his neighbors won’t pay a dime more a pound than the supermarket charges for mushy, subsidized fruit trucked in from California. “Shame on the American consumer who boasts of his organic preference,” writes Hanson. “At the store he ignores the natural smaller bunch with its bird peck, and irregular sized berries, a gnat or two circling in the produce section, like a miner’s canary attesting to the safety of the fruit.” We want our food “firm, fresh, and cheap,” whatever our preferences may mean for rural America.
Wendell Berry offers one vision of what we might do if we did care—if we were worried by the decline of family farming. Though they are united by many things, especially a feeling for agrarian life, it is hard to imagine a writer more different in tone from Hanson than Berry. A Kentucky farmer and writer, and perhaps the great moral essayist of our day, Berry has produced one of his shortest but also most powerful volumes. Titled (with what, for Berry, amounts to an explosion of humor) Another Turn of the Crank, this collection of speeches and short pieces is subdued, with little of the slightly shrill outrage that marks Hanson’s work. If you were to read three random sentences from each of the two writers and then were asked which one spent ten-hour days on a tractor and which worked with a team of horses, you’d have no trouble answering. Berry also has little to say about the working life of his own farm; for that you must read his fiction and poems.
What really divides the two books, though, is Berry’s conviction, or at least his hope, that we might see a revival someday of smaller-scale agriculture. Partly this comes from accident of place. Berry has spent most of his life in Kentucky’s tobacco country, where the government’s price-subsidy program, which guarantees growers small or large a set size, and price, for their crop, means that an indefensible, poisonous product is grown in a decent and even compassionate way. The all-against-all warfare of the Midwest wheatfields or California’s Central Valley is somewhat muted.
Partly, too, it’s Berry’s sense of history. For all the mechanization that Canine describes in his book, Berry notes that until World War II most American farms were predominantly solar-powered, the work “accomplished principally by human beings and horses and mules.” (Canine’s grandfather’s Iowa farm, in fact, got its first tractor in 1943, when the eldest son went off to war.) Returning in that direction, in Berry’s view, will require two things. The first is that farmers learn again to “farm in ways that minimize their dependence on industrial supplies.” They must diversify, aim at self-sufficiency, and worry less about increasing production than about cutting costs.
The second effort involves cooperation between local farmers and local consumers. If farmers hope to exercise any control over their markets, in a time when a global economy and global transportation make it possible for the products of any region to be undersold by the products of any other region, then they will have to look to local markets. The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their surrounding landscapes will have to be restored.
To say that these hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled is to seriously understate the case. But perhaps they are not entirely futile. The spread of greenmarkets in cities across the country during the last two decades is a promising sign. New York City’s network of farmers’ markets, many of them run by tenant groups in housing projects, supports several hundred farms. And there are now more than five hundred “community-supported agriculture” farms spread across the land, where local residents each pay a farmer several hundred dollars in early spring and come once a week to share in the harvest of fruits and vegetables. For such experiments to ever account for more than a token share of the nation’s agriculture, though, would require huge shifts in behavior and perception. It would require a change from an “economics of competition,” in Berry’s term, to an “economics of cooperation,” and from a culture of consumer hyperindividuality to one based on community.
It is his emphasis on cooperation, culture, and community that makes Berry a moral writer, and also explains why his book can range over many subjects, including abortion. (He’s against it, in complex and interesting ways.) But he always returns to the pasture and to the woodlot, and to the argument that all of us must make choices if anything is to change. We must, he believes, choose to pay more for food and wood, and demand that as much as possible be produced locally in ways that we respect. “If enough of us were to choose caring over not caring, staying over going, then the culture would change, the theme of exploitation would become subordinate to the theme of settlement,…the necessary examples would be more numerous and more available. The way would be clearer.”
But if the world of cheap commodities that informs all these books should begin to change, the way may become murkier instead. Hanson believes that “the collision of less land and more people is decades away,” that “the crunch will come only when most of the present generation of agrarians are dead, their children insurance salesmen and teachers.” But if analysts like Lester Brown are even partly correct, he could be wrong.
Technological optimists look to one more of Canine’s genies—biotechnology, the new science that allows the transfer of genes from one species to another—to keep the Malthusian wolves away. But as Brown points out, increasing yield is a difficult task. You have to persuade the corn plant to put out more ears per stalk or more kernels per ear. Conventional plant breeders have probably exhausted most of those possibilities, leaving the gene-splicers to tackle issues like the need to improve resistance to pests and disease. Whatever success they may have is unlikely to suddenly and dramatically boost the world’s grain harvest. Meanwhile, all the problems that environmentalists have been discussing for the last two decades—salinization of irrigated fields, depletion of groundwater, and, especially, erratic and hot weather caused by global warming—now seem to be more acute. This winter’s failed Texas wheat crop—and the murmurs about a new Dust Bowl in that region—is just one example.
In such a world, it is at least possible that, as Brown believes, “food scarcity may well become the defining issue as we exit this century and enter the next.” On the one hand, such a prospect would seem to vindicate the small farmers, who, as Berry has pointed out in great detail, can take much more precise and effective care of their soil. And by raising financial returns to big and small farmers alike, it might at least slow some of the continuing loss of farms. But such a world would not necessarily be any friendlier to the careful, smaller-scale agriculture Berry advocates. High prices might more likely cause consumers and farmers to push for maximum immediate yields and damn the consequences.
Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who have been writing about population for several decades, together with a Stanford colleague, Gretchen Daily, have tackled this dilemma directly in The Stork and the Plow, a book interesting in part for its moderation. (The Ehrlichs, for instance, have backed away from their previous stand that coercion might be necessary for effective birth control.) Though they recognize the deep environmental problems of large-scale agriculture, they argue that if there is to be an equitably distributed increase in the food supply, it must emerge from the current agricultural system. “An attempt to impose a wholesale substitute for present technologies would be extremely risky and no doubt politically impossible, but there is much room for evolutionary improvement.” Their proposals, aimed mostly at the developing world, include land reform to increase the size of the pitifully tiny holdings of many subsistence farmers, helping women (who often do most of the farming) get credit, and increasing services like education and medicine in rural areas instead of using farm taxes and artificially low prices to subsidize urban development.
The Ehrlichs also call for a reexamination of the international economic pressures that have forced governments to cut back on public services in order to repay foreign debts and to shift their economies toward international trading. While “the single most important element in helping the plow outrace the stork over the next half century would be to strengthen the agricultural sectors of developing nations,” the “structural adjustment policies [of bodies like the International Monetary Fund] have often done just the opposite.”
Perhaps more than any other force, the changes in agriculture during the last two hundred years or so have shaped the ways societies develop—for better and for worse. So if we do face a deep dilemma, the way out is not obvious or simple. Neither the current practices of corporate agriculture nor a simple return to Jeffersonianism seems to offer an adequate solution. It is a good sign that books such as the ones under review are appearing, however, for our long vacation from having to think about agriculture may have ended.2
July 11, 1996
See Vaclav Smil’s review of Brown’s recent book, Who Will Feed China?, in The New York Review, February 1, 1996, and Brown’s article “Facing Food Scarcity,” in World Watch (November-December 1995). ↩
Perhaps one more genre should be added to the list of historical, personal, moral, and socioeconomic treatments. And in that genre, I would recommend John Jeavons’s classic How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine (Ten Speed Press, 1995). It has recently been enlarged to cover fruits, nuts, berries—and wheat. ↩