My father was born in 1903 and in his 92 years he saw the transformation of farming — from horses to tractors, hand labor to mechanization — that occurred in the 20th century. I farmed that same Wisconsin land for 40 years and in that span of time I, too, saw dramatic changes in the economic stability, social structure, political ideologies and level of mutual respect in our rural community.
While no one was rich, New Deal farm programs at least gave farmers the chance to be profitable. As those programs were cut, many farms went out of business while the rest grew larger. The days of farmers working together and sharing machinery came to an end. The countryside depopulated, the kids left and community activities died out, to the point that now we seldom know many of our neighbors. These changes have transformed my town, and rural America at large, into a very different place, one my father would not recognize. How did this happen?
It started with the first “Farm Bill,” the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. Implemented as part of the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration, the AAA was designed to ensure farmers a decent living by setting a fair base price for farm goods and reducing surplus production. The AAA came at a time when rural America was in crisis, devastated by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Successive years of drought and poor farming practices had stripped the topsoil from an estimated 100-million acres of the Great Plains and Midwest, forcing the migration of 2.5 million people out of the hardest hit states. Lost crops and low prices ruined many debt-burdened farmers. Between 1930 and 1935, some 750,000 farms were lost to bankruptcy and foreclosure. In March of 1935, these “black blizzards” of wind-blown topsoil blotted out the sun in Washington, D.C., finally giving Congress the impetus to pass the Soil Conservation Act.
The New Deal neglected Black farmers in the South and tribal nations, but those farmers who had managed to hang onto their land were saved by the AAA. Farm income was 50% higher in 1935 than in 1932 thanks to the pricing programs that set a minimum price and production limits on most crops. The AAA also looked to the long term, enabling future generations of farmers to remain on the family farm and produce a secure, fairly priced supply of food.
County Extension agents brought New Deal programs directly to farm families, advising them on land conservation, better farming practices, crop varieties and the latest university research. The knowledge that the government would be there to work with them, and that there was at least some assurance of making a profit, made taking over the family farm an appealing option for farm kids. The AAA, in turn, brought to rural communities the benefits of better transportation, schools and, through the Rural Electrification Administration, electricity, which had been mostly limited to urban areas.
Many of those farm programs continued into the 1950s and helped rural America and the rest of the country experience what has come to be called the “Golden Age of Capitalism,” during which even the workers and small farmers benefited. So, when did that rural prosperity, that “fairness” that kept small farms in business, start to collapse? When did both rural and urban America start moving towards corporate consolidation and what is now the highest level of income inequality in the industrialized world? If I had to name the exact date, I’d say Nov. 4, 1980.
Before he was elected president, when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan vetoed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act which would have given farmworkers the right to collectively bargain. As president, he effectively destroyed the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, by firing 11,345 controllers. He was not a fan of fair wages for workers and felt no need to ensure farmers a fair price, either. In 1983 he completely phased out parity pricing for milk, which had based the price of milk on the farmer’s cost of production. Without production controls, farmers had to produce more milk for less money. The result was predictable. Last fall, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue put it this way: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Along my stretch of Wisconsin county road, there used to be 15 small dairy farms. Now, there are three. In 1980, there were around 44,000 dairy farms in the state. Today there are only 7,300. Most of the old farmhouses and barns stand empty or have been demolished, the land rented or sold to large operators that run larger dairy herds, produce more milk per cow and exploit cheap, non-union immigrant labor. The loss of almost 37,000 small dairy farms did not bode well for the small rural communities they were part of. With fewer small farms and fewer farmers working them, less money was being spent in local businesses and fewer kids (and less property tax money) were going to local schools.
It is also important to note that as a cow produces more milk, she eats more and in turn produces more manure. As cows are no longer pastured but kept in confinement, all that manure is stored in open lagoons. Too much manure is often spread on too few acres, streams get polluted, fish kills happen and ground water and wells can get contaminated.
As the economics of consolidation hollowed out small towns, rural folks began to feel some of the same resentment and sense of abandonment that was so widespread in the Rust Belt. Lost jobs, lost businesses, lost hope. Wisconsin and many neighboring states had always been solidly Democratic, but Republicans now tapped into this growing sense of abandonment, directing their message at what they called “the forgotten men and women of America,” promising to oppose the “coastal elites” and give rural folks their fair share. The far Right sought to divert rural anger against immigrants who were “stealing our jobs” and away from the Reaganomics that allowed corporate control of the food system and left farmers with few options other than getting big or getting out. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, largely stood by and failed to articulate a different vision, failed to push for and expand the programs that grew out of the AAA and could have kept farms profitable, failed to enact social programs that could have created new jobs in rural and urban areas alike.
If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that people in a tight spot, people who feel abandoned, will vote to change their situation. Deluded as it may have been, rural folks of my generation, who overwhelmingly supported Trump, saw him as offering a return to 1950s America, where rural main streets thrived again. He told farmers they were great patriots and they believed he was a successful businessman, who promised new export markets and so much winning they would get tired of it. But, in this vision, the country was being held back by immigrants, who were criminal at worst and lazy freeloaders at least, and by out-of-touch liberals who hated America. These people were the problem and Trump would end it — that was the story. And so a wedge was driven deep into the heart of rural America.
In the past, neighbors along rural roads got along even if their political yard signs were different. In my neighborhood, these days, a sign supporting Black Lives Matter or any Democrat is likely to be destroyed. Wear a mask around here and expect to be ridiculed and given a lecture on what a hoax Covid-19 really is. Some business owners, like their hero in the White House, may tell you to get rid of it.
If the Biden-Harris ticket, and the Democratic Party in general, wants to begin to heal this rift and regain what the Democrats have lost in rural America, they will need to articulate a clear vision for a future that includes rural Americans. They will need to go big and go bold. In rural communities they have shown that they cannot win as Republican Lite. Hangin’ in the middle of the road will not be an option. As Jim Hightower says, there’s nothing there but “yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
A promising way is being pointed by those farmers waking up to the fact that their fate is bound up with that of food chain workers. Wisconsin Farmers Union member Hans Breitenmoser recently put it this way: “If you look at where value comes from and where the money goes in the food industry, I, as Joe Farmer, have more in common with Bob, the guy in the slaughtering plant, than I do with the CEO of a foreign agribusiness corporation.”
But these days, rural folks know that the worker in the slaughter plant is likely to be named José or Muhammed. This awareness is the starting point for a solidarity that has the power to transform rural America. I hope the Democrats are paying attention.