A World Gone By

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

America was created by rural people. Perhaps 95 percent of its first citizens were farmers when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Now, despite all the talk of a “rural renaissance,” less than 1 percent are—even as we are awash in food and next year will become a net food importer for the first time in our history.

Industrialization, mechanization and suburbanization did away with the agrarian culture of the traditional family farm. The latest “-zation” comes as globalization. Almost every acre of our farmland—due to instant communications, easy transportation and free trade—is in competition with its counterpart abroad.

Yet, a rice producer in Asia or a grape grower in Chile does not assume the same costs. Few abroad pay sky-high liability insurance, worker’s compensation premiums, minimum wages—or much less deal with government restrictions that regulate everything from burning brush to disposing used fertilizer sacks. These are all necessary for an ethical society such as our own, but costly nonetheless.

By the 1980s it had become impossible for most of the last American farmers to continue on the land without assorted subsidies. The very few who survived found them in three forms.

Big cotton, wheat, dairy and growers of a few other targeted staples garnered government money—even though they hardly fit our romantic notion of “families” or even “farmers.”

Others less fortunate sought relief on their own and so went to town to work—diverting money into their money-losing fields from what they made teaching or selling insurance. Perhaps the romance of agrarianism or hope of a turnaround explains such an economically unsound practice of actually paying to grow food. All the same, the sweat subsidies of these quasi-farmers also meant land stayed in production that usually did not itself earn a profit.

A final source of money was vertical integration. Prices climb yearly for the poor consumer, even as they decline for the poorer farmer. In between the two, shippers, distributors, packagers, advertisers and brokers expropriated an always larger share of the farm dollar. Those who had the capital or the savvy to tap into lucrative middleman profiteering could use that gain to subsidize their actual losses of growing food.

Wise tax-planning, the desire to have steady supplies or long-term land speculation kept the conglomerates in the food-growing side of their new layered operations. A few small entrepreneurial sorts resisted the big guys by going straight to farmers markets (10 percent of all fresh food in many states is purchased through such direct sales). In any case, once more land stayed in production that itself did not produce profits.

The government mostly kept out of this revolution in American agriculture. True, worried about electoral votes in small farm states, both parties granted billions to a few thousand larger “family” farmers. Usually, however, administrations felt that unfettered imports enrich us all, granting the consumer more choices at cheaper prices, while pressuring squeezed food producers to stay lean by always shaving their costs of production.

That the United States promotes consumer capitalism abroad and democratic government in emerging countries often meant that free trade is not strictly fair. Cheap food is allowed in without reciprocity, as part of the larger aim of jump-starting the Third World and formerly communist states to enter the commercial world of civilized nations.

So here we are in 2005 with most traditional farmers gone and our cropland either vertically integrated or subsidized by commuting part-timers. Are there any dangers in our postmodern agriculture?

At first glance, no. Shoppers have more food, all season round, at cheaper prices than ever before. Obesity, not famine, is America’s problem. Despite questionable farming practices abroad and fears of agro-terrorism, so far our imported food supply is surprisingly safe. Dependency on foreign food has not yet meant that a hungry America—in the manner of its oil addiction—is at the mercy of illiberal producers.

Yet there is an insidious cultural cost to the end of agrarianism that we hardly appreciate. The family on its own land, using craft to work with nature, was a model practical steward of the environment.

Anyone who loses a crop to rain or hail hours before harvest can offer a needed tragic perspective to an increasingly therapeutic society. Public shame, not easy private guilt, was the agrarians’ benchmark—and why not when they were rooted for life among wide-eyed neighbors?

Words meant little if not backed by action—as if anyone cared to listen to grand talk of profits to come from an orchard never quite planted. In short, sober American farmers were a calming antidote to almost everything that makes us uneasy with popular culture, from gangsta rap and Martha Stewart to Enron and the hyped trial of Scott Peterson.

No, we will not starve without these crusty farmers, but we will sure miss them.

 ©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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