Family Farming Myths Die Hard

Recent government figures show that there are 2.16 million farms in the United States, 68% fewer than 50 years ago. During this past half

century we have seen the emergence of what USDA calls a "dual structure" in agriculture -- a large number of small farms, a so-called highly productive group of mammoth operators and a shrinking number of mid-size farmers under economic pressure.

Of the 2.16 million US farms, 1.17 million are small farms with less than $40,000 in sales a year or what the department calls "hobby farms." There were 637,100 mid-size farms and 348,160 large farms with sales over $100,000 a year. Mid-size farm numbers have also dropped by 41,340 in five years while the number of small farms has grown. Likewise, large operator numbers are also up slightly.

Thus for decades we have witnessed a wholesale exploitation of our agricultural system by corporate agribusiness and its "communities of economic interests" directed not only at driving farmers, workers and consumers apart, but also at the same time attempting to divert the taxpayers' attention away from the root causes of the this nation's chronic farm crisis.

It has done this by preaching about farming practices, "excessive" government regulations, by creating artificial divisions within the farm community, and by replacing a fair price in the marketplace with an ever-escalating unfair burden of debt.

At the same time through corporate/government/land grant college planning during the past 100 years, coupled with the success of self-serving "communities of economic interests," corporate agribusiness has obtained its primary goal -- namely, destroying farmers' economic and political power through forced liquidation caused by enforced low commodity prices.

In his book The Myth of the Family Farm: Agribusiness Dominance of US Agriculture [Westview Press, Boulder, Colo.: 1981] University of Wisconsin-Eau-Claire geographer Ingolf Voegler pointed out, "in the United States the myth of the family farm continues to be used for the benefit of a relatively small group of large-scale producers and agribusiness firms, while the vast majority of rural and urban people, believing the myth, pay the economic, political, social and environmental costs of this fantasy."

Historically, therefore, we have seen the family farmers' plight as a never-ending struggle by ever-decreasing numbers to assert whatever remaining inherent economic and political power they might yet possess, a power which for decades has been in the process of being systematically stripped from them.

Meanwhile, Americans have tended to mythologized and romanticized farming as a profession, while at the same time they have tended to basically denigrate the farmer as an individual. As Voegler reminded us:

"The conventional account of contemporary US agriculture is widely accepted because it is based on the national ideal of the family farm derived from the Jeffersonian concept of agrarian democracy and from a small amount of truth. When a myth is widely accepted, this small amount of truth is perceived as the whole truth!"

Voegler further suggested that the "family farm" myth, so persistently perpetuated by corporate agribusiness, has been avidly supported by four other myths, namely, the work ethic myth, the free enterprise myth, the efficiency myth and the equal opportunity myth.

Together, belief in these myths form the basis of what many in agriculture have come to call "conventional wisdom." This so-called unquestioned "conventional wisdom" has held that family farmers operate in an economic system that is both moral and one that rewards individual initiative and effort.

Such long-standing duplicity on the part of corporate agribusiness, as Laura B. DeLind, a specialist in the Department of Anthropology at Michigan State University argues, makes family farmers readily susceptible to (and firm believers in) agricultural programs, services, technologies and research that promote "efficient," business-like farm management and production. In turn, such strategies of commercial "self-improvement" serve an economic and political system dominated by corporate capital.

"The family farm, like the 'emperor's new clothes,' does not exist, at least not in any analytically or programmatically useful way. It is a torturous twisting of reality, under the guise of 'conventional wisdom,' and it obscures far more than it reveals. By accommodating all major organizational variation within a single conceptual category, the systematic reasons, particularly the economic and political reasons, for operational differences among farming enterprises are obscured. These latter are built, not on personality, managerial ability, or individual effort, the perceived 'quality' of ownership, but on differential control over the processes and resources of production."

Efforts in recent years to help save the vanishing numbers of "the modern-day independent, yeoman family farmers" have in a significant way only tended to draw public attention away from the larger question of economic concentration and the policy and power relationships that such concentration exacerbates. By depolicitizing the plight of the family farm while reinforcing such "conventional wisdom" these efforts have tended to effectively help maintain a "status quo" compatible with the interests of corporate agribusiness. As DeLind concludes:

"The category family farm must be pried apart. It must be opened up so that its internal contradictions can be seen, not hidden, and used as a basis for identifying and comparing the relative class positions of producers. This would provide a keener awareness of the structure of agriculture (why and how policies do and do not work and for whom). In addition, any long term action to reform the system -- to bring about a more equitable distribution of power and income -- must rest on class-based alliances which cut across the 'family farm' category and which are not coincidental with it."

Clearly, the self-supporting "family farm" myths designed to give family farmers a false confidence in their position in the economic affairs of the nation have been in fact carefully manipulated through the years by our economic system's various " communities of economic interest" to strip away farmer's real political and economic power.

In acknowledging such a process it was Professor Emeritus Booker T. Whatley at Tuskegee University who called upon farmers to reverse those trends by recognizing yet another myth:

"Farmers must destroy the myth that there is a divine law which states they must lose title to their commodities at the farm gate. We have reached the level of sophistication in this country where everybody is making a profit on agricultural commodities except the farmers who produce them."

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free e-mail newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email avkrebs@earthlink.net; web site www.ea1.com/CARP/

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