Farmers have always fancied themselves as members of the land ownership class, which not only tends to magnify a certain conservative self-image, but in addition, because the head of most farm families are male, there also exists a certain reinforcement in the general public's mind of the patriarchial landlord figure once associated with a bygone era.
Thus, as property owners and imagined rulers of their own economic destiny, many family farmers today continue to mistakingly identify themselves with the wealthy and dominant class despite the fact that the steady erosion of the farm economy keeps consistently robbing them of all vestiges of any real financial or political power.
It is this crucial question of self-identity which all family farmers must sooner or later face; how they deal with the difficult question of whether they are in fact members of the managerial or laboring class; how they perceive themselves as land owners.
For example, the vast majority of those farmers in the 1970s who bought additional acreage, while the value of their land multiplied, were not for the most part acting as "greedy farmers," but rather they were following an American tradition as "responsible business people," trying to make the most out of the resources available to them. Unfortunately, their efforts to maximize the use of their own resources would only lead them a few years later into having to make choices which would ultimately result in the near complete undermining of their most cherished hopes and dreams.
It was James Madison who wrote that, "those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination." It was also Madison who, quite wisely, said that "all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."
For nearly a century now it has been exceedingly difficult for most commercial family-type family farmers to accept the fact that they have been evolving into proletarians, producers of raw materials for what has essentially become a oligopolistic food manufacturing industry. Instead, they have doggedly sought to cling to the myth of their own independence.
It was the American economist Thorstein Veblen who dwelt on this fact in his 1923 essay, "The Independent Farmer." He contended that farmers have mythologically held on to the "time-worn make-believe that they are individually self-sufficient masterless men." While often given to exaggeration in his generalizations, Veblen, however, does raise several valid points in respect to the modern farmers' notion of independence in their purusit of a livelihood.
They have become blinded, he writes, by "the system of business interests in whose web (they) are caught" and have offered their "unwavering loyalty" to the system in which they saw themselves acting like other independent businessmen. Ironically, however, most of these other businessmen were not independent, their units of operation rather were "drawn on a large scale, massive, impersonal, imperturable and in effect, irresponsible, under the established law and custom, and they are interlocked in an unbreakable framework of common interests."
Farmers, he continues, are surrounded by bankers, railroad magnates and food processors who profit from their "effective collusive control of the market, while the foolish farmer does little more than identify with the very people who are most adept at exploiting him. Some day he, too, will share in the prosperity of the system, at least he so believes. The poor farmer turns a deaf ear to the warning that it is certain that all cannot become rich in this way. All cannot be shavers -- - some must be fleeced."
It has not been until only very recently that most farmers have even come to realize that production costs and markets for their commodities are being determined by factors almost totally unrelated to the inherent physical or human resources or even the theoretical world demand for such commodities. The fact that there is really no such thing in agriculture today as a "free market" is often overlooked in the farmers' desire to successfully integrate themselves into the nation's present unjust economic structure.
Agriculture itself, it has been said, is competitive, although in reality it is totally dependent on noncompetitive sectors. It is sandwiched between a tightly concentrated inputs industry which protects its profits by passing on its cost to the farmer and an equally small number of commodity traders and food manufacturers able to play off producers on one side of a nation or globe against those producers on the other side.
Taking all these historical and economic factors into consideration, one can see that for farmers to abandon the long-accustomed idea that they are members of a unique class is a painful admission of inferior status. Yet, by taking just such stances in their communities, many farmers have traditionally developed an absolutist attitude toward their hired labor, generally regarding such workers as merely low-grade economic inputs, much to the glee of corporate agribusiness.
In adopting such stances, along with those others mentioned above, farm communities have generally felt that there is little or no reason why the laws of nature or humanity should be changed. Thus, their traditional, often fundamentalist, Protestant-ethic religious beliefs have only tended to underscore such basic conservatism.
Addressing this very question in a brilliant Gregory Foundation Memorial Lecture on "The Rural Foundation of American Culture" at the University of Missouri on January 26, 1976, the renowned social anthropolgist Dr. Walter Goldschmidt observed: "I said earlier that one aspect of the Protestant ethic ... is a belief that each individual's value is established by his accomplishment, and that for that reason each person should be allowed to grow as wealthy and powerful as he can. But this unfettered growth of wealth and power threatens the very social framework out of which it has emerged. It is not an easy dilemma to solve, for it confronts freedom with equality -- an age-old issue ...
"How much freedom? How much equality? Very much is at stake, not only for the farm communities, but for the whole of the American polity.
"If, as I have suggested, the growth of corporate control of agriculture is not a product of efficiency, intelligence and hard work -- of virtue according to the Protestant Ethic -- but a consequence of policies and manipulations, the matter takes on a different character. The task, is to reformulate policies respecting agriculture so that the competitive advantage of large scale operations are removed, so that the ordinary working farmer has an equal chance. If this is done, it may not be necessary to resolve the dilemma between freedom and equality."
It is necessary, therefore, that in any discussion concerning the shaping of the farm character and how that character has impacted on the development of US farm and food policy and that process from which it has evolved one must immediately recognize the importance of the questions posed by Dr. Goldschmidt. How much freedom? How much equality?
Honest answers to such questions are crucial if we are to properly understand the roots of and the significance of America's permanent agricultural economic depression, who are the key policy makers, and who in fact is benefitting from that depression?
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email firstname.lastname@example.org; see website at www.ea1.com/CARP/.