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Farmers in Social History

November 4, 2009

Oooh! An academic topic! Well, I did just get back from my class on the Great Depression. Today we were talking about Huey P. Long and Father Coughlin, both of whom were radicals who supported farmers and progressives in farm states. They were also quasi-dictatorial demagogues who flirted with fascism, but that’s another story.

In our discussion of the book Voices of Protest by Allan Brinkley, someone mentioned a passage in which members of the 1930s middle class complained that chain stores were taking over locally owned and operated stores, to the detriment of the community.

Sound familiar? That’s what I thought! So I thought a little more, and I came up with this theory: Traditional American values (and I’m talking real tradition here, not “traditional family values” a la the Republican party) are deeply rooted in rural life. The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer existed well into the 19th Century. But by the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, industrialization, falling commodity prices, and a mass exodus from rural areas to cities by rural young people, led to a decline in rural communities. Increasing formal education, technology, and more easily accessible signs of wealth (automobiles, radios, electric lights, etc.) turned the once-respected yeoman farmer into a so-called “hick” or “hillbilly.”

There’s a problem with this, though. As the middle class expanded and people moved into cities, the sense of community and family roots from rural areas got left behind. Living conditions were much more crowded because people who worked in factories and government and other large employers had to live close to their workplace – unlike in rural areas where at least half of the population lived scattered on farms, not in the small towns they supported. Sanitary conditions were worse, especially before the widespread use and installation of city sanitation. The air was dirtier, due to nearby factories, electric plants, and automobile and train usage. The streets were more dangerous – children risked being run over playing in the streets, pedestrians ran similar risks, there were pickpockets in certain areas, etc. This was not the kind of life middle class America was raised on and did not have many of the things they valued (clean air and water, peace and quiet, close-knit community, trust, cooperation, etc.).

However, until the Great Depression, middle class America was appeased by a sharp increase in consumerism, heavily supported by the rise in available consumer credit. Now one could buy a car, a radio, ready-made clothing, machine-made furniture in the latest style, all for only 10% down! Once the Crash had come and gone, people realized that they were still paying for the radio they could barely afford the electricity to power, still paying for the set of fine china that should probably be hocked to buy little Johnnie a new pair of shoes and some meat to go in the stew pot, still paying for the car they couldn’t afford to gas up. Sound familiar?

The mass exodus out of rural areas was spurred not only by technology and education increases, but also by falling commodity prices, soil depletion, drought, and machinery debt hardship. The problem with this mass exodus is that it has since led to the near-total deterioration of what was once the source of our values and our pride: rural American communities.

Rural communities of the past depended upon farmers. The populations living inside the limits of small towns were not enough to support many of the services they boasted. They depended upon farmers to make up the difference. Once farmers were gone, in debt up to their eyeballs, or so poor they couldn’t afford to buy anything, small local businesses started struggling, which sent more people from the small towns to the bigger cities, exacerbating the problem. The farmers that remained got big, consolidating land that once would have held 50-100 small family farms (and the families that worked them) into one or two farms. That consolidation of farmland has supported low rural populations, which is the main problem behind the gradual destruction of rural communities.

With these small towns went the rural values of pre-WWII Americans. We’ve been dealing with this ever since.

I’m not saying that cities are a bad thing. Far from it, they are vibrant and diverse and strong supporters of the arts (something that is sometimes lacking in rural communities) and since they are generally so well-populated, they can sometimes better support small businesses than rural areas. However, not everyone wants to live in a big city (self included). Alas, the alternative of a modern rural town often includes few amenities (sometimes not even a grocery store, just a convenience store, or C-store as they are often called), no public transportation, and deteriorating and/or economically depressed neighborhoods.

So really, what we need are more farmers. Unfortunately, farms on the chopping block are giant, land is hideously expensive, and no banker in his/her right mind is going to invest loans in small-scale agriculture.

Thomas Jefferson had it right with is idea that farmers are the backbone of any nation. And it’s true. Industrial workers can only be the backbone when there are people (often farmers) to buy their goods. Everyone needs to eat, so everyone needs farmers. Not everyone needs a car or random plastic crap or cheap fashion trends made in China (one could argue that no one really needs any of those things). I once saw a bumper sticker from the American Farmland Trust that read “No Farms, No Food.” Perhaps we should add, “No Farms, No Communities” to that list.

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