Listener Call 1

The hosts talk with a listener about the pervasive image of the “family farmer” in America.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

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

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.