'A Time To Act'
Echo From the Past

Special to The Progressive Populist

One has to read with considerable irony the recently released report, "A Time to Act," by the USDA's National Commission on Small Farms. It comes not only nearly two decades after USDA Secretary Bob Bergland's landmark "A Time to Choose" report, but also a half century after the now famous and prophetic Arvin-Dinuba study on the impact of big agribusiness on rural communities by the California social scientist Dr. Walter Goldschmidt.

The Carter Administration's Secretary of Agriculture, in a clarion call in 1979, declared "unless present policies and program are changed so that they counter, instead of reinforce and accelerate the trends toward ever-larger farming operations, the result will be a few large farms controlling food production in only a few years."

Now this latest declaration again states that "if we do not act now, we will no longer have a choice about the kind of agriculture we desire as a Nation."

Despite the release and the important calls to actions within this new National Commission on Small Farms study, however, there is still considerable skepticism concerning the resolve of the USDA and government policymakers to implement its much need recommendations.

For example, none of the 29 members of the commission were allowed to participate and speak at the January press conference announcing the commission's recommendations.

"Nothing was said about market concentration," according to Kathleen Sullivan Kelley, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Meeker, Colorado, and vice-chairperson of the commission. Meatpackers increasingly are contracting with huge cattle and hog feeding operations to the exclusion of smaller producers. "And nothing was said about the need for an open market. I went away from Washington with a resolve to tell family farmers that you don't have to take responsibility for the failure of the system. It's not our fault. The responsibility needs to be shifted to where it belongs."

Speaking to the 96th Anniversary Convention of the National Farmers Union in Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 8, Kelley said she will call for USDA Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman's resignation if his task force on the commission's report fails to implement commission recommendations.

Kelley said farmers have become sick and tired of being told that they have to be more efficient. She blamed many of the major commodity groups and the USDA for helping to create the failures in the system that has left so many small and medium-sized farms faced with foreclosure.

She noted that Glickman told the news media at a recent press conference that there was not one silver bullet to solve the problems of discrimination and market concentration that plague small and medium-sized farms.

"He's right," Kelley declared, "We gave him an entire arsenal. We have the solutions. We need people who do more than just fill a job. We need people to do the job. Again and again, we heard minority farmers say that the lack of a free and open market was their primary problem, not discrimination. When we can no longer get a fair price out of a market then we have lost our freedom."

It was that same concern for "freedom" that prompted the Goldschmidt study which came about when, in 1942, the Bureau of Reclamation expressed justifiable concern whether the 160-acre limitation principle in the federal reclamation water law should be applied to California's burgeoning Central Valley Project (CVP). It was the USDA's now long-defunct Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) that was enlisted to help and Marion Clawson, a USDA staff economist, was placed in charge.

Clawson, Dr. Paul Taylor of the University of California and the Division of Farm Population designed a study to "determine what difference it made to the character of rural life if farm units were large corporate holdings as against family-size units," such as provided for in the 1902 Reclamation law. Dr. Goldschmidt was given the responsibility of conducting the study.

A comparative study of Arvin, a town located alongside the mammoth DiGiorgio Corporation, long a symbol of California corporate agribusiness, and Dinuba, a community surrounded by small family-type farms, was undertaken. As Dr. Goldschmidt, now a social anthropology professor emeritus at UCLA, explains:

"The research plan that was devised from the outset included two phases. The first was a detailed examination of the two representative communities. From that experience a series of measures of community organization were to be devised that would reflect the quality of life in the towns, based upon data that could be easily attained without questionnaires or interviews. Among the items to be considered were everything from the number of local business enterprises to the rate of teacher turnovers. From this objective data an index was to be formulated that would enable some 23 other small towns in the upper San Joaquin Valley to be rated."

What the Arvin-Dinuba study revealed has become near legend in the argument for perpetuating the "family farm system" of agriculture throughout rural America. Dinuba was found far superior to Arvin as the quality of life in each community was directly related to the inequities in landholdings and directly reflected in the difference in the community's economic, political and social stability.

"Large scale farm operations was immediately seen to take an important part in the creation of the conditions found in Arvin," Goldschmidt reported."Its direct causative effect is to create a community made up of a few persons of high economic position, and a mass of individuals whose economic status and whose security and stability are low, and who are economically dependent directly on the few. In the framework of American culture, more particularly that of industrialized farming, this creates immediately a situation where community participation and leadership, economic well-being, and business activities are relatively impoverished."

The small-farm community of Dinuba was supporting 62 separate businesses with a volume of trade of $4.3 million, while the large-farm community of Arvin had 35 established business establishments; expenditures for household supplies and building equipment were over three times greater in the small-farm community; Dinuba had a larger dollar-volume of agricultural production; over one-half of the breadwinners in the small-farm community were independently employed, while in the large-farm community less than one-fifth were so employed: public services in the small-farm community were far better; the small farm community had two newspapers while the large-farm community had one, and the small-farm community had twice the number of organizations for civic improvement and recreation. As applied to a small-farm community the 160 acreage limitation principle was also found not only to be justified, but one that should be encouraged and supported.

While the first phase of the 1946 study was completed and reported on, the second, due to the extended controversy surrounding the first, was never completed.

Goldschmidt remembers:

"I had hoped to calculate a regression curve between these two variables [the size of farms measured by gross acreage and by `equivalent' acres, based upon the income potential, of diverse crops] but was prevented from making this sophisticated analysis. I have recently reexamined these data and have found that they revealed a most important relationship ... It showed that as the average size of farm increases, the number of persons supported in the rural area and local community declines."

Reaction to the Arvin-Dinuba study, later to appear in book form in As You Sow, was immediate and ominous. Repeated efforts were made to block its publication, the study having been completed in 1944. When it finally was issued in December, 1946, due principally to the efforts of Dewey Anderson, of the Senate Small Business Committee and U.S. Senator James E. Murray, committee chairman, it was with a quid pro quo that no mention WHATSOEVER be made of USDA's involvement in the study.

Efforts, principally by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and its allies, were made in the press, on the radio, and in Congress to discredit the study and the activities of the BAE, a long-time adversary of the AFBF and an agency that some called "the conscience of the USDA."

In a September 1946 article in The Nation, author Alden Stevens suggested that the AFBF was responsible for getting a provision written into a USDA appropriations bill which would prohibit any further studies similar to Arvin-Dinuba. He also went on to say that the study "was used to destroy one of the most honest and courageous organizations in Washington, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics." Goldschmidt, in recent years, recalls,

"I wrote a letter to The Nation saying that the study was not manifestly responsible for this action ... I am not so sure as I was when I wrote that letter to The Nation that the Arvin-Dinuba investigation was not a major factor in the curtailment of the BAE and its subsequent demise."

In fact, the USDA's Appropriations Act for 1947 contained the following codicil: "That no part of the funds herein appropriated or made available to the [BAE] under the heading 'Economic Investigation' shall be used for state or county land and planning, for conducting CULTURAL SURVEYS, or for the maintenance of regional offices."

In further reflection on the events surrounding this study, Goldschmidt now believes those who sabotaged his expanded research into a larger sample of communities knew exactly what it would reveal. It was much easier to discount the Arvin-Dinuba conclusions than it would have been to dismiss the results of a much more comprehensive study.

Fifty years later that "sabotaging" by corporate agribusiness and its same allies who sought to discount Goldschmidt's findings continues.

In 1993, Goldschmidt would write in an essay "What If ..."

"My recommendations in As You Sow were that it was essential to recognize the industrial quality of farming, which clearly was already diffusing throughout the nation, and its urban consequences, which meant that the regulations of the Labor Relations Act should be applied to the agricultural sector and that unions should not only be allowed to develop, but should be encouraged. What was needed was a professionalization of the farm worker."

He continues,

"These recommendations were also not followed. Instead, we have had the continued exploitation of the farm workers, the increased concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few, greater difficulties for the small farmer precisely because they were not protected from such centralized control of the markets, and all the other difficulties that derive from an unregulated industrialized agricultural system."

And Goldschmidt concludes, "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I fear that we have been insufficiently vigilant."

A.V. Krebs is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books: 1992) He is director of the Corporate Agriculture Research Project.

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