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A Revolution Down on the Farm

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    A Revolution Down on the Farm
    Book Description:

    At a time when food is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world and food prices are skyrocketing, no industry is more important than agriculture. Humans have been farming for thousands of years, and yet agriculture has undergone more fundamental changes in the past 80 years than in the previous several centuries. In 1900, 30 million American farmers tilled the soil or tended livestock; today there are fewer than 4.5 million farmers who feed a population four times larger than it was at the beginning of the century. Fifty years ago, the planet could not have sustained a population of 6.5 billion; now, commercial and industrial agriculture ensure that millions will not die from starvation. Farmers are able to feed an exponentially growing planet because the greatest industrial revolution in history has occurred in agriculture since 1929, with U.S. farmers leading the way. Productivity on American farms has increased tenfold, even as most small farmers and tenants have been forced to find other work. Today, only 300,000 farms produce approximately ninety percent of the total output, and overproduction, largely subsidized by government programs and policies, has become the hallmark of modern agriculture. A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 charts the profound changes in farming that have occurred during author Paul K. Conkin's lifetime. His personal experiences growing up on a small Tennessee farm complement compelling statistical data as he explores America's vast agricultural transformation and considers its social, political, and economic consequences. He examines the history of American agriculture, showing how New Deal innovations evolved into convoluted commodity programs following World War II. Conkin assesses the skills, new technologies, and government policies that helped transform farming in America and suggests how new legislation might affect farming in decades to come. Although the increased production and mechanization of farming has been an economic success story for Americans, the costs are becoming increasingly apparent. Small farmers are put out of business when they cannot compete with giant, non-diversified corporate farms. Caged chickens and hogs in factory-like facilities or confined dairy cattle require massive amounts of chemicals and hormones ultimately ingested by consumers. Fertilizers, new organic chemicals, manure disposal, and genetically modified seeds have introduced environmental problems that are still being discovered. A Revolution Down on the Farm concludes with an evaluation of farming in the twenty-first century and a distinctive meditation on alternatives to our present large scale, mechanized, subsidized, and fossil fuel and chemically dependent system.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7315-3
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. 1. American Agriculture before 1930
    (pp. 1-30)

    From the beginning, English settlers along the Atlantic coast tried to find products that they could sell back in Britain. Many of these products involved the harvest of abundant forests or the purchase of furs from Indians. But very quickly the first colonists in Virginia found an exportable crop that was in great demand in Europe: tobacco. it was the first commodity, or money crop, for the new colony. it set a pattern. American agriculture from the beginning depended on markets. it was commercial.

    Despite their commercial endeavors, most of what these early American farmers grew supplied local needs. Some...

  7. 2. The Traditional Family Farm: A Personal Account
    (pp. 31-50)

    I was born in 1929 on a small, fifty-one-acre farm in Greene County in the valley of east Tennessee. My father had inherited the farm from his father in 1918, when he was eighteen. He borrowed money to build a good all-purpose barn and a small tenant cabin and then rented the farm for several years to a sharecropper. His net income from the farm was minuscule. He lived with a sister and her family and, at the time, had no interest in farming on his own. instead, he spent a short time shucking corn in Iowa (a great adventure)...

  8. 3. A New Deal for Agriculture, 1930–1938
    (pp. 51-76)

    The Great Depression necessitated new farm policies. otherwise, up to half of America’s farmers would have suffered bankruptcy (one-fourth did), and the overall depression, destructive as it was, would have been much more severe. over eight years, during two presidential administrations and four Congresses, the federal government, responding to a large array of interest groups and competing policy alternatives, matured a complex body of laws and administrative agencies to gain what everyone hoped would be fair and stable prices for almost all major agricultural products. Details have changed through the years, but aspects of every policy option undertaken in the...

  9. 4. World War II and Its Aftermath: A Family Report
    (pp. 77-96)

    Like World War I, the Second World War meant higher prices for almost all farm products. A high demand for food crops, based largely on events in Europe, quickly used up all the surpluses held by the Commodity Credit Corporation. The acreage controls and price supports of the 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act were largely unneeded. Enforced acreage controls remained only for tobacco. Agricultural prices remained at or above parity, and net farm income soared. Although the federal government did not place controls on farm prices, it enforced rigid price controls on all consumer goods. Food rationing prevented severe shortages. These...

  10. 5. Dimensions of an Agricultural Revolution
    (pp. 97-122)

    If one defines an industrial revolution as a dramatic increase (at least 50 percent) in full-sector productivity during a single generation, then American agriculture has attained the most important industrial revolution in American history. Just like manufacturing or services, agriculture includes many distinct industries (or crops). Shifts in production have not always been synchronized among these industries, with some crops lagging behind others. For example, cotton, and with it the South as a whole, lagged behind the rest of the united States, at least until the 1950s. But after 1950, very few crops failed to experience an almost unbelievable burst...

  11. 6. Surpluses and Payments: Federal Agricultural Policy, 1954–2008
    (pp. 123-146)

    In many respects, the agricultural revolution after World War II was a blessing. Consumers were able to spend a steadily decreasing share of income on food and fiber. The diversion of workers from agriculture freed up labor for manufacturing and services, leading to a higher growth rate in the overall economy and to a level of consumption undreamed of in the human past. One of the best indicators of a nation’s overall prosperity is the percentage of workers required to feed a population—more workers in agriculture usually mean a lower standard of living, unless a large share of that...

  12. 7. Farming in the Twenty-first Century: Status and Challenges
    (pp. 147-174)

    It is impossible to calculate the exact number of farms and farmers presently in the United States. Since 1974 the Department of Agriculture has defined a farm not by acreage but by the volume of sales. The production of agricultural goods that sell for $1,000, or would normally sell for that amount, qualifies an operation as a farm. In 1999 it added a few categories that do not meet this criterion: horse farms with five or more horses, even if sales did not amount to $1,000, and farms producing maple syrup or short-rotation woody crops. A farm census is taken...

  13. 8. Alternatives
    (pp. 175-200)

    Are there workable alternatives to the dominant agricultural system in the united States? Thousands of people believe there are, and they are hard at work promoting what they see as necessary substitutes for the present large-scale, specialized, mechanized, chemical-intensive farming that produces most of our food and fiber. These critics of the present system may agree on what is wrong with the present system, but they advocate different prescriptions for its reform. The labels they use for these alternatives also vary—permanent, sustainable, regenerative, biodynamic, holistic, natural, ecological, organic, low-input. in this chapter, I survey some of these alternatives.


  14. Afterword
    (pp. 201-206)

    The growth in population and consumption in the twentieth century was not only unprecedented but also unrepeatable. The world population quadrupled, from 1.5 billion to more than 6 billion. The U.S. population quadrupled between 1900 and 2008, from 76 million to 304 million. The level of consumption in industrialized countries grew much faster, reaching a level that would astonish and possibly dismay earlier generations, for at least half the consumption in wealthy countries involved luxuries and all manner of frivolous goods and services. Such a continued growth rate in the twenty-first century would mean a world population of 24 billion...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 207-214)
  16. Index
    (pp. 215-226)