“Gift for the Grangers” [Detail], c1873. From the Library of Congress.

Green Acres: A History of Farming in America

A History of Farmers in America

As the fall harvest comes in, BackStory takes a look at how farmers came to wield so much influence in American politics, and American life. In the 18th Century, Thomas Jefferson viewed farmers as ideal citizens, their agricultural lifestyle providing the foundation for a virtuous republic. Just 2% of Americans live on farms today. But farmers still occupy a special place in the national identity. In this episode, Peter, Brian, and Ed consider why the ideal of the self-sufficient, independent American farmer is still so powerful – even as the reality has largely disappeared – and who has invoked that ideal over time. From railroad companies to anti-imperialists, the image of the “yeoman farmer” has served many different ends over the years, and anchored one of the most successful government lobbies in history.

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**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this show. There may be small differences between the audio above and the text.**

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Like everything in Washington these days, the Farm Bill has fallen on hard times. The legislation, which grants subsidies to farmers, expires this week, and its future is uncertain. As for its past, well, that’s the subject of today’s show.

ADAM SHEINGATE: What happened in the 1920s is the representation of farmers as an interest group came to Washington.

PETER: Today on BackStory, we’ll explore the powerful impact of farmers in America’s politics and the national imagination. We’ll ask why the image of the family farmer has been so enduring, and we’ll go international, hearing now one Iowa farmer got the ear of an important visitor from America’s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.

LIZ GARST: I’ll drive up in my car, and I’ll open up the passenger door. Roswell basically kidnapped them from underneath the nose of Iowa State.

PETER: The history of American farming, today on BackStory.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. We’re the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hello, Brian.

BRIAN: In the middle of the 19th century, big railroad companies in the US faced a bit of a problem. Congress had recently granted them millions of acres of public lands in the newly acquired Western territories. But all that land didn’t amount to much for the railroads without products to carry on their trains.

PETER: They needed people. They needed towns. They needed goods to transport and farmers to grow those products. They realized that they were going to have to import a brand-new population, and so in the 1870s, they turned to Europeans– ideal candidates for relocation. European farmers and peasants were struggling at that very time under various forms of persecution, famine, and crushing rents.

ANDREW PIASECKI: And you’re moving from that to somewhere where there suddenly is real hope and purposefulness.

BRIAN: This is Andy Piasecki. A student of public relations, he argues that the campaign to track European settlers to America was one of the earliest examples of the kind of sophisticated corporate marketing efforts that we’d recognize today. Railroad companies established offices and vast networks of travel agents across Europe. They conducted a sort of market research to find out which groups would be the most likely to make the move. And, Piasecki says, the entire campaign was rooted in one basic message.

ANDREW PIASECKI: If you move out to the West, you become free and independent.

BRIAN: Across the European continent, railroad men visited agricultural fairs to distribute maps and pamphlets. Hired men masquerading as professors touted the idea that America was a farmer’s paradise. Some of these so-called professors said a farmer could grow crops nine months out of a year in America, or that Nebraska only had one month of winter. One even claimed that the speed of the railroads produced a magnetic affect that increased rainfall.

ANDREW PIASECKI: Nobody told them about the harshness of the climate. Nobody told them about the tornadoes. Nobody told them about the brutally tough winters. Nobody told them that in some parts of the prairie, the grass is so high that your children could actually get lost in the grass.

ED: Now, it’s not that the railroad companies were promising a walk in the park in the American West. In fact, some of them actually appealed to the Protestant work ethic of the northern Europeans. And Piasecki found a great example of this in a publication that came from the Santa Fe Railroad.

PAST’S If hard work doesn’t agree with you or you can’t get on without luxuries, stay where you are. If you are susceptible to homesickness, if you do not have pluck and perseverance, stay where you are. Wealth here is won only by work.

ED: In other words, it wasn’t going to be easy.

ANDREW PIASECKI: But behind the message from the railroad companies– we’re there to help you. We’re there to help you in every way, if you are made of the right stuff.

PETER: In the end, the PR campaigns were a stunning success. During the 1870s and 1880s, nearly four and a half million immigrants came to the Midwest. New settlers established almost two million farms.

BRIAN: As for what they found when they got here– that whole independence thing– well, for many, it didn’t pan out. The farmers found they were dependent on the very companies that had promised them independence in the first place. A lot of the farmers had taken loans from railroad companies to acquire their land, and those same companies were controlling the costs of moving produce to markets. No matter how hard a farmer worked, he couldn’t seem to ever catch up with the debt that he was saddled with.

ANDREW PIASECKI: Many people ended up mortgaging their houses to the railroads. About 25% of all those people who settled out in the West became tenant farmers by 1880s. 25%– one quarter. The irony that what you’re trying to escape from is what you end up going back to.

PETER: For the rest of the hour today, we’re focusing on that idyllic image that railroad companies capitalized on in the 19th century– the image of the independent, self-sufficient yeoman farmer. And we’re considering the ways subsequent generations have continued to capitalize on it.

ED: Consider the current Farm Bill, for example. The most recent version of that legislation awarded more than $5 billion in direct subsidies to farmers each year. Now, the Farm Bill is set to expire this week, and its future is very uncertain. Fortunately, history, not the future, is our beat, and so we got to wondering how those subsidies got started in the first place.

PETER: The most basic answer is that they started with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, created in the midst of the Great Depression. But farmers by then had been lobbying for political reform going all the way back to the populists in the 1890s. That third-party movement was defeated by voters in 1896, and two and a half decades later, when conditions for farmers had hit rock bottom, they came up with a new strategy.

ADAM SHEINGATE: What happened in the 1920s is the representation of farmers as an interest group came to Washington.

BRIAN: This is Adam Sheingate, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. Adam says that the powerful farm lobby we know today has its origins in the American Farm Bureau Federation.

ADAM SHEINGATE: So the Farm Bureau begins in 1919, and it’s really an outgrowth of the efforts by the federal government itself to promote the development of agriculture and increases in productivity by sending out folks called county agents through something called the Extension Service. The county agents really became an important force by helping organize farmers into County Farm Bureaus, and then those farm bureaus came together into State Farm Bureaus. And in 1919, the federation of states made the American Farm Bureau Federation. And they decided that they should employ a guy named Gray Silver to–

BRIAN: Oh, you’re making that name up.

ADAM SHEINGATE: To go to Washington and to represent their interests. In fact, there were other groups like the Grange that also employed Washington representatives at that time, and I think it’s a recognition by farmers, given their history of efforts to shape policy through electoral politics and the failures of those strategies in the late 19th century, to take their case to Washington, not as a partisan force, but as an economic or occupational interest that would potentially cross party lines and speak directly to members of Congress, senators who represented farmers, who came from the rural parts of the United States. And speak more directly to their constituency interests rather than their partisan identities.

BRIAN: Adam, something isn’t adding up here. You’ve convinced me that this is an innovative lobby that comes to Washington, but unless I missed something, there wasn’t any major farm legislation passed in the 1920s.

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, they tried. They were successful in getting Congress to pass legislation that would have required the government to step in and purchase commodities to lift prices, but that bill, which was called the McNary-Haugen Act, named after its sponsors, was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge twice, in fact.

BRIAN: So in other words, the farmers were successful in capturing Congress. They just forgot one important office.

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. That’s right, and they couldn’t get the bill signed. And then by the end of the 1920s, the Farm Bureau sees a massive decline in their membership in the latter part of the 1920s.

BRIAN: Is that because people can’t afford to pay the dues?

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. They can’t afford to pay the dues. They may leaving farming. You think about the Dust Bowl in the ’30s. And so the leadership of the Farm Bureau at the time is thinking about two problems, really. One is the problem of how to help agriculture. The other is the problem of how to maintain and build an organization of farmers. And with the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, they come upon a solution to both. One is a government policy which will control production and lift prices but also will be administered through those same county agents, and in fact, through the farm bureaus in those localities, so that joining the Farm Bureau becomes closely linked to receiving a government check.

BRIAN: Ah, there’s an incentive for joining.

ADAM SHEINGATE: That’s right. And through the 1930s, their membership takes off and they become the largest farm organization in the country.

BRIAN: Were there other factors in the ’30s that made farmers particularly effective? I’m going to throw out one possibility. When everyone is hurting, when everybody all of a sudden is feeling pain, perhaps it’s a little easier to get the same proposals through. Was that a factor?

ADAM SHEINGATE: I think that we have to remember that farming was a much larger part of the economy than it is today. So in terms of economic recovery, it would make sense that farming and agriculture would have to be a big part of the puzzle or a big part of the solution to the Depression.

BRIAN: So we’re not doing something special for the farmers. This is what we need to get the economy moving again.

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, I would say it was part of the larger fabric of weaving a welfare state in the 1930s, that we just happen to have a sector-specific form of a welfare state.

BRIAN: But of course, there were plenty of groups that were not successful. What made farmers particularly effective in the 1930s?

ADAM SHEINGATE: Well, I think we have to remember geographic representation. We have a lot of members of Congress, members of the Senate, who represent rural areas. And for those members of Congress and senators, the farm lobby becomes a very important and reliable source of information about what’s happening back home in their districts.

And that’s, I think, an important basis for the influence of the farm vote– creating that link between an interest group and elected representatives. And perhaps it’s easier to do that with agriculture, because for those rural areas, that’s very clearly the most important concern that most people have. Perhaps in other parts of the country, there’s a number of issues. There’s business. There’s labor. There’s maybe ethnic issues– immigration. Perhaps there’s more of a single-issue focus at the time in these rural areas that allows that linkage to become stronger.

BRIAN: So is this the 20th century variant of farmers being good citizens? What they’re adding now to the traditional notion of that independent incorruptible farmer as a source of information for DC? They’re kind of the first public opinion polls, in many ways.

ADAM SHEINGATE: I guess so, yeah. That they figure out a way to communicate. But I think your question is also getting at this interesting aspect of farming that on the one hand, is about the individual yeoman, but is also about claiming a certain exceptionalism for farming– that it’s different from other occupations. It’s subject to different challenges, let’s say, of the weather or other factors beyond farmers’ control. That it performs an important function in the larger economy– we all have to eat. That farmers are obviously are part of this fabric of democracy going back to Jefferson. All of those political, economic, cultural claims, I think, combine to make the claims of farmers particularly forceful in American politics.

BRIAN: Adam Sheingate is a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. He’s the author of The Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State– Institutions and Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan.

ED: It’s time for a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we made some unlikely advocates for Philippine liberation– Michigan beet farmers.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.

TONY FIELD: Hello there, listeners. This is Tony Field, Senior Producer of this show. Remember that if you like what you’ve been hearing on our podcast, there are a few ways you can help support our show. We gratefully accept financial contributions of any size on our website, backstoryradio.org. You can even set up a recurring monthly payment there.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about the mythology surrounding American farming throughout our history and the impact of that mythology on our politics and economy. In the first part of the show, we look at how the farm lobby took shape in the early decades of the 20th century. We’re going to turn now to one specific instance of how some farmers managed to influence US foreign policy.

ED: The story concerns sugar, and it begins with the sugar beet. Now, unlike sugar cane, beets flourish in chilly places, and in the late 1890s, sugar beet farming took off across the American Midwest, and a lot of midwesterners saw this as the future of their agriculture.

BRIAN: There was just one problem. In 1898, the US won the Spanish-American War. It had suddenly acquired an overseas empire– Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. American beet growers worried that cheap sugar from the new colonies would swamp the US market just as their own industry was getting off the ground.

ED: These farmers made their case to lawmakers, and they won some victories, but by the 1920s, things weren’t looking good. Sugar prices were falling, and by 1929 had bottomed out– just in time for the Great Depression. It was, of course, a major crisis. But at the same time, the beleaguered beet farmers saw a door opening.

KATHLEEN MAPES: And the door opening was a door opening to say, we are going to stop Philippine sugar from coming into the United States.

BRIAN: This is Kathleen Mapes, a historian at SUNY Geneseo.

KATHLEEN MAPES: They point to fact that factories are closing down in the United States, and this industry simply cannot survive with all of this sugar coming from Cuba and sugar coming from the Philippines.

BRIAN: What the beet farmers wanted was high tariffs on Cuban and Philippine sugar. That would bump up the cost of imported sugar on the US market, making it easier for domestic sugar beet farmers to compete. It was something they’d been clamoring for since 1898, and with the Depression highlighting the need for government help, they thought they might finally get what they wanted. So when Congress convened hearings to consider raising tariffs, beet farmers and factory owners lined up to testify.

KATHLEEN MAPES: And they weren’t shy about using very racialized language to describe US grown sugar beet as basically the sugar of civilized nations. This was the sugar of the future, versus cane sugar, which they saw as really the sugar of the past.

ED: They talked about coolie laborers who lived in misery, overworked and underpaid. It was little wonder, they said, that sugar could be produced so cheaply overseas. And wasn’t it unfair to allow hardworking American farmers to be run out of business by what were essentially slave plantations in the tropics?

BRIAN: But there was one obvious problem with framing the tariff debate as a showdown between American farmers and foreign workers. By 1929, American beet farmers depended on foreign workers. The US had started a guest worker program during World War I, and by the ’20s, much of the beet farms labor force was Mexican. Skeptical congressmen pointed out the hypocrisy of demanding protection from foreign labor in Cuba while relying on it in Michigan.

ED: The beet farmers’ foreign labor argument ran into another problem, too. A lot of their testimony had focused on Philippine sugar, which was more of a threat at the time than Cuban sugar. But the Philippines, unlike Cuba, was not a foreign country. It was legally part of the United States. To a lot of American politicians, it didn’t make sense to put a tariff on one part of the US to protect another part of the US.

KATHLEEN MAPES: Congress responds by basically saying, there is no way that we are going to impose a tariff on the Philippines as long as the Philippines remain part of the United States. So the sugar beet industry says, great. Then the Philippines should no longer be a part of the United States.

BRIAN: They become advocates for liberation.

KATHLEEN MAPES: They do. They become perhaps the strong advocates.

BRIAN: Within a few years, those farmers in Michigan had won the day. In the early 1930s, Congress passed measures providing for Philippine independence in 10 years time. That legislation included serious restrictions on the amount of Philippine sugar that would be allowed into the US duty-free. Americans who’d followed the debate had no trouble connecting those restrictions to the sugar beet industry’s political muscle.

KATHLEEN MAPES: The Washington Post carried an editorial heralding the act as quote, “fake independence,” charging that, quote, “instead of proceeding from a whole-hearted desire to give them liberty, it arises from a desire to restrict Philippine immigration and products, particularly sugar. The hand is the hand of Uncle Sam, but the voice is sugar.”

BRIAN: Many Filipinos were just as critical. If the Philippines were independent, it would lose its privileged trade status with the US. Trade would shrivel, and that would be disastrous. After all, in the 1930s, 90% of Philippine products were exported to the US. Most of that, sugar. Independence on these terms was too much of a gamble. So in 1933, the Philippine legislature actually rejected the American offer of independence.

ED: Fighting American agricultural interests, however, was a battle that Filipino leaders could not win. A year later, their legislature approved independence, hoping to negotiate better trade terms down the road.

BRIAN: Back in the US, beet farmers celebrated. They’d finally won their decades-long battle against that barbaric Philippine sugar. And while the Filipinos had won independence, many of them saw it as a Pyrrhic victory. As one leading Manila newspaper warned, one more such victory, and we are undone.

ED: Helping us tell that story was Kathleen Mapes, a historian at SUNY Geneseo. Her book is Sweet Tyranny– Migrant Labor, Industrial Agriculture, and Imperial Politics.

PETER: As we just heard, US farming and international politics can get easily entangled, and the Cold War wasn’t an exception. In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev came to America. Now, this was surprising to many Americans at the time. Just a few years before, Khrushchev had said the Soviet Union would bury the West, but here he was, shaking hands with Americans all over the country. He had specifically requested meetings with two men– President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a farmer in Iowa.

MALE SPEAKER: Nikita Khrushchev’s American tour swings into the world’s best corn country. On the Coon Rapids, Iowa farm of Roswell Garst, Mr. K has one of the most jovial and folksy days of his visit.

PETER: BackStory producer Andrew Parsons has the story of how this once-feared communist leader ended up in corn country.

ANDREW PARSONS: Liz Garst was eight years old when Khrushchev came to her grandfather Roswell’s farm. She says they were oddly compatible.

LIZ GARST: I did have the impression he was like my grandfather. He was sort of loud, had a big belly, big belly laugh. And just a little bit scary.

ANDREW PARSONS: She says Khrushchev’s high profile made the day a bit of a circus. The news media swarmed the two men, and then there was the security. Her grandmother couldn’t even make a simple meal for the Soviet leader without officials butting in.

LIZ GARST: As one of the security procedures, they had two food tasters– one American and one Soviet food taster– taste each dish an hour before lunch to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The whole hour before lunch, we did not let them out of our sight, just praying they would die of food poisoning. As an eight-year-old, that was just beyond exciting.

ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev was on his way to Camp David to discuss pressing matters, like this big arms race that was threatening World War III. So why was it so important for him to stop in this American farm? In a word, corn.

MALE SPEAKER: An effort toward the goal of more and better food for Russia.

ANDREW PARSONS: Ever since he rose to power six years earlier, Khrushchev had been crazy about corn. Well, the arms race was important. So was feeding a massive population with a long history of famine.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: The goal of my father was to improve life of the Soviet people.

ANDREW PARSONS: This is Khrushchev’s son, Sergei. His father knew that in America, corn mostly fed lucrative meat and dairy industries.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: So his first priority to was to increase food production in that most important meat and dairy product. So the agriculture was one of his main priorities at the time.

ANDREW PARSONS: In 1955, Khrushchev set a goal to create what he said would be an Iowa-style corn belt in the Soviet Union. Four years before that famous televised visit, he even sent a delegation to Iowa to take some notes on how it was done. Liz Garst says that’s where her grandfather first appears.

LIZ GARST: The delegation was hosted by Iowa State University, and Roswell always thought that he was way ahead on technology compared to Iowa State University.

ANDREW PARSONS: By technology, she means hybrid corn seed, which yielded huge harvests. The problem was that the state government hadn’t scheduled the Soviets to go anywhere near Garst farm. But Garst had other plans. He intercepted the head of the delegation and invited him to tour his land the next day.

LIZ GARST: Roswell said, so tonight, keep your mouth shut. Tomorrow morning, you load your delegation up in Iowa State’s cars to go on their planned tour to Newton. And at the last minute, just refuse to get in their car. And I’ll drive up in my car, and I’ll open up the passenger door. And you just get in my car. So that’s how it happened. Roswell basically kidnapped them from underneath the nose of Iowa State.

ANDREW PARSONS: The Soviets returned home with a 400 page report on Iowa corn, and Garst’s use of hybrid seeds and nitrogen-rich fertilizer stood out. He soon found himself sitting with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, drawing up contracts to sell his seeds. It was in this meeting in 1955 where the two men struck up their unlikely friendship. Their surface-level motives were clear. Garst got big contracts from the Soviet government, and Khrushchev got technology that could help his massive collective farms. But Sergei Khrushchev says there was something else. The Soviet Premier came from humble roots, and he really liked the image of a self-made American farmer.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: And I remember Garst. He was a strong man, big. And a real American farmer, as I understood at that time. Hardworking person. And my father was also a hard worker, not only in politics, but when he was a metalworker in the factory. Of course it increased their sympathy to each other. Two hard workers that understand each other.

ANDREW PARSONS: But selling American farming to the Reds wasn’t all smooth sailing. At first, the State Department was skeptical about Garst’s ventures in the East, and only reluctantly gave him the license to sell. And the Soviet corn belt? That didn’t exactly pan out, either. Liz Garst said corn was planted everywhere, including where it couldn’t be sustained, like Siberia.

LIZ GARST: A common joke of this era in the Soviet Union is, someone says to Mrs. Khrushchev, Mrs. Khrushchev, your husband’s planting corn every place but on the moon. And Mrs. Khrushchev says, shh! Don’t give him the idea.

ANDREW PARSONS: And technology wasn’t always applied consistently, even on fertile soil. The Soviet leader later claimed this wasn’t his fault. He said in a rush to please him, the Soviets just planted hybrids too quickly in too many places. Though yields improved overall, the program wasn’t nearly as successful as it should have done. Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs, corn was discredited, and so was I.

Garst’s short-lived attempt at American farm diplomacy was a big deal in the early ’50s. At the time, few Americans traveled to the Soviet Union, but by 1960, both governments had embraced the idea of cultural exchange. Khrushchev even said in 1959 that this corn diplomacy helped pave the way for his dealings with Eisenhower. His son Sergei says Garst’s impact was more than just agricultural.

SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: He became not only the farmer who sold his product. Through this, he became the politician who just put one of the first cracks in the Iron Wall, and was helping to move from the Cold War arms face to the normal competition between two economies.

ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev had used the image of Garst and of Iowa in general in state television, Soviet newspapers, and pamphlets, and had formed a lasting impression. By the 1980s, the Iron Curtain had opened wider, and the first privately-owned family farm in the Soviet Union was established. Its name? Iowa.

PETER: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers.

ED: That was a very interesting piece, but I must protest on behalf of earlier periods. This is an old story. As long as America had been around– even before it was actually around– people imagined it as the beacon of productivity from the land. People would come here and tour the showcase orchards of the North or the big plantations of the South. When we had big World’s Fairs in the 1870s ‘ and in the 1890s, what did we show? We showed the great agricultural bounty.

PETER: Hey, Ed. You know what Thomas Paine said in 1776 in Common Sense– as long as eating is the custom in Europe, they’re going to want what we have. They’re going to recognize us, and we’re going to gain our independence, because we produce a lot of food.

ED: Exactly. And yet, throughout all of this display, whether from big showy farms or fairs, one image endures, which is that of the individual farmer– the self-sufficient farmer.

BRIAN: Well, Ed, I wouldn’t dispute that the 19th century was all about selling the image of the self-sufficient American farmer, and I wouldn’t dispute the success of that. But I do think what’s distinctive in the 20th century is this notion of the American system. We apply the term to manufacturing, but I think in the 20th century, we also apply the term to farming.

What was in that system? Well, it started with the agricultural universities– the state universities. And tractors. Mechanization was a crucial part of that. Hybrid corn, and after World War II, fertilizer. Things like DDT. Put them all together, and what America was selling to the world was a system of agriculture. Not the self-sufficient farmer or the show farm that produced show fruit.

PETER: Well, Brian, what you’re describing to me is what you might call the agricultural industrial complex. You can’t extricate one element from all the others– from technology, transportation, chemistry. And it all requires tremendous private and public investment, and I do think that makes it different than the system that Ed and I would describe in the 19th century, which is the way international grain markets and cotton markets operate. It’s not that they lack sophistication.

It’s not that there isn’t emulation, that there isn’t development of more advanced kinds of agriculture, but this is a big change. And it’s important because the Soviet world, the evil empire– they have offered the world a new system, another system, collectivism. And so a lot’s at stake in these conflicting images. It’s system again system, but this is a system that has the enterprising human face of the farmer.

BRIAN: Yeah, and it was competing for the hearts and minds of those hundreds of millions of people in the third world and Latin America, in Africa. They were watching these two systems very carefully. They wanted to know, which way do we go? And the United States gave these countries subsidized food. We sold our surplus crops very cheaply. But more importantly, we sold them, and sometimes gave them, hybrid seeds. We gave them technology so that they could produce their own system in the likeness of the United States.

ED: So what do we make of Farmer Garst, the guy in the piece? He seemed to me like an independent farmer. What do we make of him?

PETER: Well, Ed, he’s a kind of hybrid. I think that’s the way to think about him. He’s both that old idea of the farmer, but he’s also standing on the shoulders of that agricultural industrial complex you talked about, Brian. And he thinks he’s smarter than all of the Aggies at Iowa State University, but hey, he wouldn’t have been where he was, he wouldn’t be producing these seeds, if he hadn’t had the benefit of the information, all the knowledge, all the investment that went before it.

So here you get the best of both. You get a system– and I think that’s really important, Brian– but you also get enterprise. And that’s the new face of agriculture that’s presented to the world. And I think that’s the context for food diplomacy.

ED: It’s time for another quick break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll take some of your calls.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, historian of early America.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, historian of the 19th century.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, speaking for the 20th century. We’re talking today about the myths and realities of American farming through all of our three centuries, and we’ve reached the point in our show where we turn to those of you who’ve left comments about today’s topic on our website and Facebook.

PETER: You guys, we’ve got a call from Northport, Alabama. It’s Charles. Charles, we’re talking about farms. They have them down in Alabama. You got a question for us?

CHARLES: My question is about the idea of the family farm, and why the idea of the family farm is still so powerful in America, even though that hasn’t really been the reality in American agriculture for decades now.

PETER: Right. So what’s the attraction or why are Americans obsessed with family farms? Is it just we’re a bunch of antiquarian nostalgists? We just can’t get over it. What’s the story, guys?

ED: I think it’s a symbolic degree of inclusion and self-sufficiency in various dimensions. Peter, our great Jefferson scholar, knows that Jefferson thought it was the very foundation, not only of a healthy society, but of a healthy polity. Isn’t that right?

PETER: Yeah.

ED: And where would he have come up with that idea, Peter?

PETER: Well, it’s really interesting. People like Jefferson are commercial farmers. They’re planters. They’re reliant on long-distance markets. They’re deeply in debt. They’re connected to the world. And it’s out of that notion of indebtedness and connectedness that Jefferson imagines independence– of being immune to the pressures of the larger world. Because after all, if the farmer feeds us all, he also feeds himself and his family. And I think you’re right about the notion of the self-sufficient family being an idealized microcosm or model for the larger society and polity.

Think of the whole nation as a great family of family farmers who are bound together, not by the sordid of interest and markets, but by affection and love. Because after all, the family models love, and that’s, I think, the great attraction Jefferson.

ED: That they can take care of themselves and then contribute to the larger good, as well. Right? So nobody’s dependent on anybody else. So Brian, do you think we’re on the verge of this idea ever fading away, or is it sort of hardwired into the American dream?

BRIAN: My own sense is that it’s hardwired. If you take something as recent as the debate over estate taxes, for instance– one of the arguments against estate taxes is that it’s going to hurt the family farm, if you reinstitute estate taxes. Now, we know that, in fact, a very small percentage of what we would call real family farms benefit from that, yet the language of the family farmer is still invoked to defend a very controversial issue. I think the notion of family farm is alive and well.

ED: If you think about representation in popular culture, the family farm seems to have disappeared. We’ll remember Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, of course, maybe the most popular. Andy Griffith. In the ’60s and ’70s, and even in the ’80s, those were mainstays in American popular culture.

BRIAN: Green Acres. Don’t forget Green Acres, Ed.

ED: Yeehaw. But that seems to have dissipated, so now you have Duck Dynasty, which, of course, is a huge corporation in which the guys live in these McMansions and drive these huge trucks and stuff. So it makes me wonder if the popular culture is signaling that while we still like having local food, we don’t really like thinking about what those farmers’ lives are like very much– either to make fun of them or to glorify them. So it makes me wonder if we’re not seeing the beginning of the end of something.

PETER: What do you think, Charles?

CHARLES: That all certainly makes sense to me. The farmers that I know are certainly not independent. They all have contracts and responsibilities that either they’re owned by larger corporations, or they’re essentially run by the larger corporations. But there’s still the idea that they’re running their own show, and I think that’s very appealing.

ED: So what’s the big crop there in West Alabama?

CHARLES: You do see a lot of soy beans, and you still see a lot of cotton, especially as you keep going further west. And both of those are crops where the whole structure of the market for them is decided by the federal government. It’s built on federal regulation and federal marketing.

ED: But we call them family farms, we don’t call them government farms, right? I can remember working with my grandfather on his farm, and we’d be digging a post hole or something, and he’d say, well, that’s good enough for government work. And that meant we could quit.

PETER: That’s wonderful.

ED: I hope this call doesn’t feel like government work to you– that we rose to the standard of the family farm.

CHARLES: Oh, certainly not. Certainly not.

PETER: Thanks for calling.

CHARLES: Thank you for having me.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot, Charles.

CHARLES: Bye-bye.

PETER: Hey, Brian and Ed, we’ve got a call from Chicago, Illinois. It’s Brendan. Brendan, welcome to BackStory.

BRENDAN: Great to be here.

PETER: Hey, we’re talking about farms. What have you got for us?

BRENDAN: Well, I was wondering– when I think of a farmer, I just think of a guy with a pitchfork, but I know that farmers farm different things. I was wondering, is there any difference in social standing between a farmer who farms grains and a farmer who farms animals? Were people who kept orchards treated differently from people who kept pigs?

PETER: Ed, you seem eager to jump into the–

ED: Well, yeah. In the golden age of American agriculture in the 19th century, I think there was a clear hierarchy, at least in the eyes of the people who thought they were at the top of the hierarchy. They would have made the distinction between being a farmer and being a planter. The more highly cultivated your farm, the more challenging the crops and livestock you grew, the more status that you had.

So therefore, as you’re suggesting, an orchardist was a high status thing, because it required skills in grafting and producing these exotic and somewhat vulnerable crops. At the same time, if you were involved in the breeding of blooded livestock, often with its origins in Europe, you were also very high of status. On the other hand, if you were just producing a monoculture– cotton, especially would have been at the bottom of the status hierarchy because it would have been a lot of tenants, especially African American. So I think that’s the general hierarchy.

PETER: Would you say, Ed, that’s for the late 19th century. And you wouldn’t say that for the antebellum period, would you?

ED: No, that’s a good point. Because I think that in the antebellum period, the goal there is not to actually farm anything, but to preside over the production of cotton. So the people who were richest from the land would have been the owners of slaves and of plantations.

BRIAN: What I would say for the last two thirds of the 20th century, Brendan, starting with the Agricultural Adjustment Act under Roosevelt, during the New Deal– legislation that provided subsidies to farmers to stop growing things. I’d say status depended on your access to those government supports, and it started out supporting wheat and cotton and eventually, within a couple of decades, grew to supporting 100 different kinds of crops. So your status and the hierarchy of farming could well turn on your access to those government subsidies.

PETER: Hey, and Brian, guess what. In my period, that’s the epitome of corruption. That’s the opposite of being a yeoman farmer is to take favors from government or manipulate government.

BRIAN: They didn’t mind getting all that subsidized land, did they, Peter?

PETER: Now, lets not be coherent, Brian. I’m talking about perceptions, and virtue is connected with independence. And from the perspective of independent, virtuous Americans of the 18th century, manipulating government policy in order to seek rents, advantages, tariff protection, you name it– that’s all corruption. And that’s anti-American. That’s unamerican.

BRENDAN: I’m wondering– do changes in international tastes for crops– does that change at all what crops are high status and low status? hosts in the 18th century London suddenly developed a taste for coffee, and that spread the coffee bush to the far ranges of the British empire.

PETER: Yeah, no question. And of course, sugar is the big one, as you know, and sugar and coffee go together very nicely. And the sugar planters had enormous wealth and status. Status and wealth are somehow correlated.

BRENDAN: Somehow.

ED: Peter, you mentioned sugar, which is the big product of the early era of the Atlantic economy, but of course, here, Virginia, we were all based on another commodity for which the market was entirely extralocal, which was tobacco, and which was just as useful as sugar in advancing the human race. So there’s a case– the highest status would come to the people who could make something for which there was a very limited local market but a vast market on the other side of the ocean.

BRIAN: And here’s another division we might talk about based on your question, which is locally produced food. I think that certainly in the ’50s and the 1960s, locally produced food was kind of frowned upon, because it was so limited. And today, with the resurgence of interest in locally produced food, I think lots of small farmers who may only produce one or two crops are getting a lot more attention and, I would argue, higher status because of that. Because of changing consumer patterns, as you put it. And I would just say, I like very local food, meaning the food in front of me.

BRENDAN: I think I can ascribe to that form of locavorism, as well.

PETER: We make it our own, don’t we? Right.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot.

BRENDAN: Thanks very much.

PETER: Ed, Brian, we got a call from far out back in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania– a farm. And we’ve got Melissa on the line. Melissa, welcome to BackStory.

MELISSA: Well, thanks. Hello. I was thinking about the whole independent farm family thing, and then I was thinking about how much time my children and I spend on the internet and texting. And I was wondering– back in the day when the federal government was giving out land out West to entice people to move there, that resulted in a lot of really isolated farm families and a lot of women who had no other women to talk to. They had no support network.

So I was wondering if the government at any level ever thought that that would be a problem or ever realized that it was a problem. Did they do any kind of outreach to try to help farm families in general and farm women in particular keep it together?

PETER: We’re talking about the mental health of farm families. We’re going to quiz you about yours shortly, but we have Ed on the line from the 19th century.

ED: Well, in the 19th century, long before the government identified it as a problem, farm families themselves did. And kidding aside, they identified exactly what you’re talking about, Melissa– that loneliness, especially for women, was very real with child rearing, childbearing. You get married. You’re a man. You ask your young wife to go with you to the frontier, and you’re asking her to leave the primary support network of her mother and sisters and friends who people have traditionally relied upon to help them bring new life into the world. Then, once the babies are born, there’s nobody to help out with them and no one that you trust as family. Everybody’s a stranger.

So in the 1870s– it took that long, as people were settling, especially in the West– to form the Grange, which was basically farmer self-help. And you still have Grange Halls around up there in Pennsylvania?

MELISSA: One or two. Not a whole bunch. Well, they’re a holdover from the 19th century, and the whole idea was that this is self-help for farmers on the psychological front, basically. You get together and swap tips about how to grow the latest crops and fertilizer and so forth, but a large part of it, too, would be to basically have fellowship.

PETER: And I think that business about the Grange is really interesting, because women played a very important role in the Grange movement, because it served functions far beyond market functions or improving agriculture. We were forging new forms of community, and that’s what happened in rural America. And it’s partly because rural Americans have dominated state legislatures and have used their power in government to get the government to work for them in order to forge connections.

You talk about text, Melissa. Well, people in the 18th and 19th century, as the frontier expanded, had the advantage of the post office, which followed them wherever they went. You couldn’t be a farmer if you weren’t linked or connected to markets, so farmers pioneer new forms of social communication. So in many ways, we think of farmers as throwbacks, as archaic figures from the past– a living museum is a modern farm. No, far from it. These have been right on the edge of developing new ways of communicating, connecting, especially in Brian’s century, the 20th century.

BRIAN: Yeah, well, the most important service in the 20th century are roads. And what did farmers want? They wanted roads, not only to get their crops to market, but so that they could meet with each other. So they could get to church. So that they could connect with each other. And those roads– we take them for granted today, but they are just so crucial to the social life of those farmers.

PETER: Melissa, we haven’t really addressed your problem with therapy. And of course, we can provide some of that now, here, on BackStory. But–

MELISSA: Well, hang on. How long is this show?

PETER: So tell us now, how do women form– do they form?– the kind of networks we’re talking about? Do they compensate for isolation? How do you compensate for isolation?

MELISSA: Well, I am umbilically attached to the internet. I’m a freelance copywriter, actually, so I have an office on the back of the house. And so literally, I’ve gone for half a week, sometimes, without ever leaving the hill. And I can see where if you couldn’t talk to anyone in that time, it could start to set you off a little bit.

Well, the other comment that you made that resonated a lot with me is about roads. And because our roads used to be so bad all the time, I really appreciated the fact that the world used to be covered with nothing but dirt roads and how lucky we were that the state runs a plow down the highway, and so I can get the kids to school in the wintertime. We don’t farm for a living. We farm on the side. And it is frustrating.

And almost every project you get into, at some point, there’s some morning in January where it’s dark and it’s five degrees out, and you think to yourself, I know why everyone got the farm as fast as they could. So having someplace to turn to– turning to radio for information and entertainment, turning to the internet because there’s lots of blogs and advice-sharing out there by farm people, to find out what to do with your broken hog panel when you have to get the kids to school in 10 minutes and you’ve got a lot of animals to keep in. And just being able to indulge in the basic human need to complain.

PETER: Well, Melissa, you should call often. We’re here for you. OK?

MELISSA: Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

PETER: All right. It’s been wonderful talking to you.

BRIAN: Thank you, Melissa.

MELISSA: Bye-bye.

PETER: Bye-bye.


BRIAN: And that is where we’re going to have to leave things for today, but as always, there’s plenty more for you explore online. Pay us a visit at backstoryradio.org to see the articles and books that shaped today’s show. You can also find all our past shows there, along with a link to our free podcasts.

PETER: Once again, that’s at backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jessie Dukes, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field. Emily Charnock is our researcher and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks today to Elizabeth Clemens and the White Rock Conservancy.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made everyday.


FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.