For many angry rural voters, Donald Trump is fueling a fire that started with the farm crisis of the 1980s.
October 27, 2016
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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