Dark Side of Ag Economy

"That farmers are poor, that they could not survive without government programs, that food supplies would be inadequate without the programs, that corporations would take over farming without the programs, that the family farm has got to be preserved because it's essential for democracy or that programs are essential to preserve the rural community: All of these things, all of it is myth. All myth."

Among those agricultural economists who seek to rationalize, defend and justify the role of corporate agribusiness in America's rural economy, no single individual is more outspoken than Ohio State's Luther Tweeten, a professor of agricultural economics.

For Tweeten, destroying the nation's family farm system, enslaved to the myths of the "dark side of the farm personality," has become a holy and righteous crusade.

Believing that social scientists must confront those myths that "may have made life tolerable for many farmers but which also have provided a psychological and ideological climate where paranoia, scapegoating, violence, armed confrontation, intimidation and fear" abound, Tweeten sees a number of "antisocial" roots that have precipitated this "dark side of the farm personality." They include:

1) Frustration over personal and industry economic problems in recent years;

2) A basic sense of superiority or "essentiality," in part motivated by "farm fundamentalism";

3) A strong problem-solving orientation; and

4) More intense social and economic ties by families to farming than ties by others to their industries.

While acknowledging that farmers "have reason to complain" when it comes to the "quantum failure of fiscal policy" in recent years, Tweeten seeks to lay the main burden of that failure simply on real interest and exchange rates and federal deficits, which he suggests are due in large part to over-generous subsidies to farmers.

Meanwhile, he ignores factors such as increasing economic concentration by corporations in the farm and food sector, and the failure of the "free enterprise" system to maintain a fair price for commodities, as having played any role in our recent ag policy debacles.

"Farm fundamentalism is the belief that farming is not only a superior way of life but also represents the highest ideals of the nation ... [it] holds that the nation's political and social system cannot survive without the type of person the farm way of life produces. In economic philosophy, the ideal holds new wealth derives only from raw materials and that the farmer must prosper for the nation to prosper."

Rather than naively sharing Tweeten's negative characterization of "farm fundamentalism," it is important to recognize it for the truth it contains and the manner in which it has been subtly used and cleverly manipulated by corporate agribusiness to subjugate family farmers through myths.

Rather than expressing admiration for the strong problem-solving orientation that people have come to associate with the farm character, some commentators like Tweeten contend that this too is also one of the roots of antisocial behavior which is reflected in the "dark side of the farm personality."

While acknowledging on one hand that farmers are "impatient with intellectualizing and bureaucratic procedures" and "are accustomed to improvising and taking matters into their own hands to create solutions by expedient means," Tweeten ignores the large role that corporate agribusiness has played in fostering such distrust by condescendingly declaring that "the greater economic problems of farmers have roots beyond the farm gate and are less tractable to individual action and initiative than are problems of a sick cow or nutrient-deficient crops."

But, as Tuskegee University Professor Emeritus Booker T. Whatley reminds us:

"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."

Tweeten, however, not surprisingly as a defender of former USDA Secretary Earl Butz's school of "get big or get out," decries the need for destroying such a myth.

"I have found widespread support among farm people for two propositions: 1) Washington and the market perennially have not favored them, and 2) they need more political and economic bargaining power to serve the needs of farmers and society. Each point has dubious validity."

The concern among family farmers that commodity markets do not favor them and that, unless the family farm system of agriculture is preserved, the nation's food production will fall into the hands of a few large corporations who would then have the ability to both control and raise food prices, Tweeten labels as "overblown and inconsistent rhetoric."

The Ohio State economist, however, a longtime advisor to the USDA, betrays his real fears and those of corporate agribusiness in general when he adds that "this incorrect assertion often prefaces the assertion that family farmers must organize to control production, raise farm prices and in general find their ultimate economic security in greater economic bargaining power." (Emphasis added.)

While totally ignoring the role and character of modern-day corporate agribusiness (multinational, economically concentrated and profit hungry by its very nature), Tweeten explains away his position. "First, farmers are too independent and numerous to congeal into the tightly controlled bargaining organization required to affect farm economic outcomes.

"Second, the auto and steel labor unions have demonstrated that even powerful bargaining groups are unable to preserve jobs and earnings when domestic industries operate in an open global economy.

"Third, given that a facilitative public policy is required for farmers to bargain collectively, the public is unlikely to give any group arbitrary control over food supplies. To do so would place the public at risk and at the mercy of groups whose first concern would be self-interest rather than safe, abundant, quality food supplies at reasonable prices."

By insisting that the family farm system does not suffer from federal neglect and that farmers do not need more economic and political bargaining power, Tweeten only demonstrates the validity of a major concern of the agrarian reform movement of a century ago: that the nation's "communities of economic interests" remain unalterably opposed to farmers organizing for their own economic and political survival.

"Agrarian reformers," in the words of historian Lawrence Goodwyn, "attempted to overcome a concentrating system of finance capitalism that was rooted in Eastern commercial banks and which radiated outward through trunk-line railroad networks to link in a number of common purposes much of America's consolidating corporate community. Their aim was structural reform of the American economic system."

The fact that populism thrived for nearly a decade in the late 1800s by preaching that genuine political democracy was impossible without economic democracy explains why, in the century that followed, "agrarian revolt," corporate America and its experts like Tweeten have sought to discredit and demean any renewed moves by the nation's farmers to assert that same economic and political power they so forcefully applied in the late 1800s.

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, which publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner; email

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2006

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