Historical Reflections on the Current Local Food and Agriculture Movement

Laura Kolar


University of Virginia


Across the United States today a local food and sustainable agriculture reform movement is in full force. The movement, which took off in the early 2000s, is based upon a fundamental critique of the dominant modern agricultural system in the United States, which local food and agriculture supporters argue is unsustainable, unhealthy for both people and the wider environment, and unnecessarily expensive. The rise and triumph of the modern system of agriculture and agribusiness in the middle decades of the twentieth century has resulted in social, economic, ecological, health and cultural crises, its critics charge. Americans are no longer connected to their food sources, have lost intimacy with the agrarian experience, and our society suffers on multiple levels as a result. At the movement’s core is the desire to support small-scale farmers, whose food is then ideally consumed locally, keeping profits local and cutting down on agriculture’s environmental footprint. This movement toward local and small-scale farming seeks to reconnect Americans to the land, produce healthier, more accessible food, support local communities, make the profession of farming viable for those who desire to pursue it, and create a more sustainable society.

Head to farm country, and the modern American landscape tells a particular story about American agriculture—one dominated by large-scale, mechanized and industrial production. Over the course of the twentieth century, American farms on average grew larger, the number of farmers decreased and land and resources concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Today, a mere 125,000 farms (out of 2,204,792 total) produce 75 percent of the value in U.S. agricultural production. Interest in agriculture as a profession has increased in the past ten years, as have the number of farms, and America’s story of the preeminence of industrial farming may yet be revised. But these current developments have not yet shaken the basic trends in agriculture that defined the twentieth century.

As the current agricultural critique continues to grow, find traction, and offer creative solutions to pressing problems, it seems worth pointing out that it is in good historical company. Concern over the direction of American agriculture is not new, though some of the current issues and solutions are. In fact, concerns over the state of the family farm, concentration and misuse of agricultural resources and a loss of an ethos of land stewardship were present throughout the twentieth century, even among those responsible for helping to create the dominant modern agricultural system: policymakers and officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While USDA policies and programs, including price supports and scientific research, have been instrumental in creating the dominant modern agricultural system, this development occurred amidst the throes of debate over the best course of agricultural America, and even the USDA questioned the system it was helping to build.

At the core of modern federal agricultural policy as it emerged during the 1930s lay a fundamental tension between ideologies: that of “progress” focused on increased efficiency, new technologies, such as machines and chemicals, and modernization, and the ideology of agrarianism, which sought to protect (and to some extent idealized) the family farm way of life and to keep farmers on the land at all costs. As historians have detailed, President Franklin Roosevelt and his close advisors believed rural welfare underlay national welfare and the nation depended on the strength of the family farm system. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), passed in 1933, created the modern farm commodity and price support system—supports that were intended to provide an emergency safety net from the market to keep farmers afloat during the Depression. At the same time, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sought to attack rural poverty and support the nation’s poorest farmers through improved conservation measures and more radical programs, such as rural rehabilitation colonies. Taken together, these New Deal agricultural agendas presented competing and sometimes contradictory aims. Making commercial farmers more productive and efficient often pushed out of business the small farmers supported by the FSA. The 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture called this unresolved tension a “conflict in agricultural thought” – the push toward agricultural efficiency with the consequence that fewer people would be needed to till the land, and the support of “inefficiency” through programs that supported subsistence and small-scale farming. To the extent that this conflict in agricultural thought remained unresolved, the Yearbook reflected, “we can only acknowledge that men are the slaves rather than the masters of their own machines.”

World War II accelerated the modernization trends in agriculture. The war years saw record-setting productivity from America’s farms in an effort to meet war demands, much of it made possible by scientific and technical advancements in farm equipment, pesticides and fertilizers, and innovations in plant and animal development. The ability to produce more out of each acre was heralded, and these trends only increased after the war. The commodity price support system, intended to be temporary, became entrenched, and ultimately had the unintended consequence of supporting larger producers. For many historians, World War II signaled the triumph of the ideology of “progress” over agrarianism, a turning point that would define agricultural development for the rest of the twentieth century. Indeed, the war years and the end of the New Deal saw the demise of the Farm Security Administration and many of its small farmer programs.

But the fundamental “conflict in agricultural thought” remained. President Truman’s Secretary of Agriculture, Charles Brannan, voiced concerns over the enlarging trends in American agriculture. In 1951 he ordered a comprehensive policy review to find out how well USDA programs were serving family farmers and how they could be improved to “better protect and preserve the traditional pattern of family farming.” Brannan believed this appraisal to be necessary because, “through all the pressures of mobilization and stepped-up production, we must safeguard the traditional family-farm principle as a valuable American institution.” It was the “backbone of our democracy” he declared, and never more so than at that time, in the midst of an unfolding Cold War. He urged reform in federal farm programs to mitigate the unprecedented acceleration of enlarging trends and support smaller-scale and poorer farmers.

While the USDA continued to promote modernization in agriculture, government officials and member of Congress continued to express Brannan’s concern. Some of this expression amounted to mere rhetoric; the USDA’s billion dollar commodity programs supported the most highly productive and successful farms most of all, and everyone knew it. But concerns about the effects of rapidly changing structure of agriculture were also taken seriously in Washington. In the 1960s, President Kennedy and President Johnson’s Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, attempted to implement a vision of an alternative agricultural landscape through new conservation programs that would support multiple-uses of farmlands, including for outdoor recreation use, in an attempt to increase small farmers’ incomes and preserve more diversified and beautiful agrarian landscapes. Like secretaries of agriculture before him, Freeman declared the American family farm a symbol of democracy on the land, an example to the rest of the world. Its production capacity was a marvel and exemplified American progress at its best. And yet, underlying these proclamations was the notion that “progress” had a dark side, and came at a cost. These costs: loss of outdoor agrarian space, rural poverty, and the disappearance of American heritage on the land were too high for society, Freeman and others believed, and thus, they attempted to develop an alternative agricultural landscape that would complement the dominant one in an effort to make a more harmonious, balanced society that reflected multiple notions of “progress.”

American agriculture’s production, thanks to technological advancements, only continued to increase, making agricultural surplus a major problem in the postwar years. In the 1950s and 1960s, if farmers wanted to receive price support payments for their commodities, they had to agree to production control measures, ie, taking acres out of production to curb surplus. But, in the early 1970s, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, eliminated all production control measures, advising farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow.” In films and literature advancing the current agricultural critique, including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and “King Corn,” Earl Butz’s time is seen as a turning point in agricultural history, the moment when American turned down its unhealthy path. In reality, while Butz’s decision to lift production controls reversed decades-long farm policy, his administration continued to support trends that had long been underway. At the same time, during the 1970s, an environmental critique emerged of American agriculture, citing concerns over energy-use and toxins among other worries, as well as inciting a movement in Congress to create a federal farmland preservation program.

All of this is to say that the current local food and agriculture movement is attempting to reform a landscape and a system that has enjoyed decades of support from federal policies and businesses. The movement’s critiques are valid and important, and its reforms necessary. But it is also important to remember that it was a landscape forged amidst controversy, conflict and concern, even among those who participated in its development. It is a landscape of many narratives. In its concern and passion for the fate of agricultural America, and those who depend on it, the local food and agriculture movement also has the backing of history.

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