Want to Understand Trump’s Rise? Head to the Farm.

For many angry rural voters, Donald Trump is fueling a fire that started with the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Commentary, Food Policy

Rural America is mad. We’re hearing from people in places like West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania who are fed up with the government, the economy, the “establishment,” and taking out their anger at Trump rallies.

While the coverage is new, the anger is not. Donald Trump is today’s release valve, the latest in a line that has included the anti-government and militia movements, drug epidemics, and the Tea Party. This year’s support for Trump, of course, goes far beyond rural voters. A recent New York Times analysis finds support for Trump is strongest in places where “white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions,” cutting across other traditional political lines.

But what has too long been overlooked is how much of that economic dysfunction—and the anger it has caused—goes back to the dissolution of the family farm.

Yes, the farm. Rural America produces food as well as anger. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the farmers who produced that food, even on small parcels of land, could make a reasonably good living, with prices reflecting their costs of production. It was hard work, but they could support their families, and the money they spent at feed stores and coffee shops built thriving local communities. That ended in the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of farms went out of business and rural communities withered across the country—while the federal government did nothing.

Much of rural America has struggled to recover from the 2008 recession—but how could it, when it never recovered from the 1980s farm crisis? The 1980s was when rural America came apart at the seams, but plans were developed decades earlier to move farmers off the land, in the name of economic efficiency. U.S. farm policy has been slowly crippling the heartland for more than half a century—so it’s no wonder the people who still live there are mad.

Starting in the mid-1950s, a number of free market-oriented business groups proposed policies to address what they saw as the inefficiencies of farming in an age of increasing technological advances. One of these groups, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), described the chief “farm problem” as a “persistent excess of resources, particularly labor”—that is, too many farmers. The CED plan detailed how to move those “resources” off the land and into cities, where their labor was more needed.

Its goal was to eliminate a third of farm families, replacing a network of millions of self-sustaining medium-sized family farms with fewer, much larger farms producing the same amount of food—most of it commodity grains bound for animal feed and processed food—more “efficiently.” But efficiency didn’t account for the massive upheaval the new system wrought on the structure, community, and economics of rural life.

Agriculture policy since then has followed these recommendations, slowly dismantling support programs that had made midsize family farms viable, including effective supply management through price floors, a crop reserve, and conservation incentives. Instead, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously directed farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” flooding the market with grain and driving down prices. If farmers couldn’t survive the price drops, Butz encouraged them to “get big or get out.” And so they did: the number of farms dropped from nearly 4.8 million in 1954 to 2.1 million by 1990.

The policies enacted in the 1950s and ’60s came to a head in the ’80s, when the weakened farm support system combined with inflation, a bad export market, and collapsed land and commodity prices in what became known as “the farm crisis.”

Over a quarter of a million farms were lost in the 1980s, the land was sold to larger operations, families were forced to move, and lifelong farmers were pushed into new jobs (or lack thereof). At least a million people were displaced from their homes and livelihoods in just 10 years—in many cases from land their families had farmed for generations. As the farmers left, so did the Main Streets and manufacturing businesses that had relied on them. Whole towns died off in the course of a decade.

Throughout the crisis, rural America felt abandoned. Communities were going through catastrophic loss and the rest of the country didn’t seem to care. Many foreclosures were purposefully accelerated by the government lending agency that held their loans, and some were done illegally and without normal due process procedures—at the behest of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials.

President Reagan made deep cuts in price supports and rural development programs, and joked that he had found a solution to the farm crisis; he would “keep the grain and export the farmers.” Newspapers from the Omaha World Herald to the New York Times ran editorials praising consolidation or blaming farmers for their own plight.

The foreclosures slowed in the late ’80s, but it turns out there are consequences to removing an entire way of life. In his 1997 book, Harvest of Rage, journalist Joel Dyer draws a line from the planned devastation of the farm crisis to the rise of the 1990s antigovernment movement, including the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people.

Drawing on data from farm hotline operators, rural psychologists, and other mental health professionals, Dyer argues that farm loss was so emotionally and financially significant that it traumatized not only individual families, but also entire rural communities, leaving swathes of the country with chronic long-term stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Suicides, spousal abuse, and other violence spiked in the rural population.

The foreclosure rates have slowed in the last two decades, but today midsize family farms continue to go out of business at an alarming rate. None of this should surprise us, given that the supply management programs that had allowed midsize family farms to be the economic drivers of their communities have all been removed.

The change in rural America engineered by the CED and other business interests is still going according to plan. As of 2012, just four percent of farms produced two-thirds of agricultural value—that’s a lot of wealth concentrated in just a few hands. Today, a small number of farmers are “efficiently” producing more grain than ever (though it’s not very efficiently “feeding the world”), while metropolitan and suburban populations have ballooned.

But what of those who remain? 46 million Americans still live in the countryside, with many hollowed out towns, few job prospects, and the near impossibility of making a living off the land for all but the biggest farm operators. They’re not reaping the benefits of so-called efficiency, and they still feel abandoned. Joel Dyer writes, “The government’s lack of concern about rural America’s future made it possible for anyone to walk in and set up shop.” In the 1990s, it was anti-government and militia groups; today it’s Donald Trump.

Despite its continued relevance, farm policy has barely been mentioned in this race—Trump himself certainly isn’t talking about it. In both 1984 and 1988—the heart of the farm crisis—the elections ended up maintaining the status quo, re-electing Reagan and electing George H.W. Bush, but farm policy was solidly on the agenda.

Well-organized farmer activists and allies organized tractorcades and Farm Aid concerts, as well as social services for their struggling neighbors. They kept farm issues on the table; Democratic Presidential contenders discussed supply management at candidate forums and a progressive Farm Bill nearly passed Congress. Many of these rural advocates and their heirs are still fighting today; they’re bewildered by the Trump signs lining their roads, but they’re mad, too. Many of these folks voted for Bernie Sanders, seeking policy solutions rather than simply an outlet for their frustration.

This election year, in contrast, there has been near silence on food and agriculture, and little sign of relief for rural America. Hillary Clinton has given a nod to farm-to-school programs and support for new farmers, which are critical, but not on a scale to revitalize rural communities. Her recent remarks on antitrust enforcement hold promise for making a big impact—breaking up the consolidation of big agriculture companies would give farmers a better shot to compete—if she is able to deliver in a way that Obama wasn’t. Meanwhile, Modern Farmer called Donald Trump’s agriculture advisers “a who’s who of industrial agriculture advocates.”

For its part, today’s mostly urban-based food movement has been examining what passes for agriculture and rural policy in the presidential platforms and putting forth a platform of its own. The movement has changed the national conversation about food, but it “barely exists as a political force in Washington,” as Michael Pollan recently observed, and it’s not a strong cultural force in rural America, where corporate agriculture groups have painted good food advocates as “out-of-touch city elites.”

Feeding into the stereotype is the food movement’s relative silence on the larger implications of farm policy that rural America lives with everyday—from the festering rage that threatens to destabilize the country to the extraordinary economic inefficiencies of today’s system. Remember those dismantled supply management programs? A University of Tennessee/National Farmers Union study found that if just one of those—a farmer-owned crop reserve—had still been in place from 1998 to 2010, rather than the subsidy system cobbled together to patch the holes it left behind, taxpayers would have saved almost $96 billion, while giving farmers higher and more stable prices and keeping food prices more stable for consumers. But neither candidates nor most advocates are talking about anything of the kind.

With our national character and that kind of money at stake, perhaps it’s time to take another look at what’s been happening in rural America and the very real policy decisions that led to its decline. Agriculture policy is bigger than food; it has consequences for the health and stability of the nation. And failing to address the policy solutions that could make real changes in the lives of many desperate rural Americans will likely continue to make them feel ignored and forgotten enough to seek answers in a demagogue.

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  1. Thursday, October 27th, 2016
    In 1987, the League of Rural Voters published "Crisis by Design' (http://www.iatp.org/files/258_2_97261.pdf ), which analyzed the Committee on Economic Development, briefly and cogently summarized in this beautifully written article. Here in Minnesota much of the support for Trump comes from former farmers and miners cut out of the economy by CED type planning. Congratulations on very smart analysis.
    Steve Suppan
    Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
  2. Heather Pritchard
    Thursday, October 27th, 2016
    Policy, government, USDA nor FDA have true control over the food system. The monopolies that makeup the WTO are driving. Large commodity farmers no longer have many choices. Seed-chemical-pharmaceutical trio are killing Americans in vast numbers, by poisoning our seeds, poisoning our soil and poisoning our bodies with the food that comes from mass produced processed food and the drugs prescribed for the chronic diseases that develop directly from processed and 'sterilized' food. Grass roots education on how to grow food and what foods to eat for development of stronger local food systems. To help feed a growing population and develop a correct perspective on food production, people's choices and strong communities can rise above. Do your part. Grow some food or support local food.
  3. Thursday, October 27th, 2016
    It' east to see the reasons for Hillary's rise to power. Homosexuals, abortions, Muslims and illegal immigrants with drug money.
  4. Victoria Tatum
    Thursday, October 27th, 2016
    Outstanding, informative article. Thank you for the enlightenment.
  5. Mike corn
    Thursday, October 27th, 2016
    Yes, we in rural America are mad, fed up even. But the way this article gets there is flat out wrong. Another urban writer perhaps putting her spin on what she thinks. The farm community struggled in the '50s and again in the '80s. It's a cycle. We have recovered from the last downturn, only to be beset by low prices. You talk as if Reagan worked to banish farmers; instead subsidies skyrocketed. It was just too late. To author something like this, come to the country. Sit down with the farmers as I have. They will explain.

    As for trump, everyone is mad about government. Don't try to put a spin on it.
  6. George
    Friday, October 28th, 2016
    Do you think the removal of all of these policies and price supports were a prerequisite for the big free trade deals of the 80s and 90s?
  7. Tuesday, November 1st, 2016
    This is an important and under-represented area of progressive concern. It is time to include it in the dots we have to connect. Rage-filled people, deprived of respect, livelihood and community, are not the most adept at recognizing their own interests. The food movement's natural allies are the deep critics of capitalism: environmental and climate activists, social justice efforts, unions (who also have problems seeing their long-term interests accurately) and the current phase of industry consolidation and corporate interests dominating government at all levels. Yet the actual practices of food production are within everyone's capacity, and may represent the last real hope for our species.
  8. Victoria Tatum
    Saturday, November 5th, 2016
    This is such an important topic. Thank you for this article.
  9. Meredith Michaels
    Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
    Thank you for making clear how farm policy has contributed to the disaffection of a sizable swath of the American people. The election has focused on the "rage" of the disenfranchised manufacturing worker. This article serves very persuasively to round out the picture.
  10. Rachel Golden
    Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
    Excellent article. Direct. Clear. Hits the heart and touches the brain. Would be very helpful for people like me -- on the urban side in the rural urban divide -- to hear more stories laced with fact, not facts with a sprinkling of stories -- about life in today's rural America and factors that contributed to today's quality of life. In fact, what this article did for me was call to mind Grapes of Wrath. How about a contemporary Grapes of Wrath distributed through social media.
  11. Diane
    Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
    It is so unfortunate that these voters turn to a man that could do them the MOST damage. Voting against their self interest, into the mouth of the corporate czar Trump. Growing up on a family farm that has only hung on by raising crops for meat consumption, I often think that people could starve to death on the most fertile land that could feed them. We cannot sustain our nation by feeding animals off the limited land resources. Big corporations now run this country and we just elected a man to fast forward this economic and agricultural demise.
  12. Wendy LaRiviere
    Tuesday, December 27th, 2016
    This article suggests so many useful topics to be further discussed and considered as we come to grips with discontent and loss in our countryside. I just wish that more had been said about supply management programs which the author seems to believe will be critical to any revitalization of our rural spaces. We need more of a definition of just what this would mean.
  13. Thursday, January 5th, 2017
    Thanks for this great article. And a pretty sad story that really needs to get more exposure as it gives such insight to the plight of farmers, their anger, as well as the pitiful state of most areas in the red states.
  14. Monday, January 16th, 2017
    Not to mention the horrific treatment of living, sentient beings
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