The Vanishing Small Farmer
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Case for Redistribution
by Peter Barnes
It’s hard for people in cities to appreciate the need for land reform in the United States. Most of us have been so cut off from the land that, through ignorance, we accept present landholding patterns as desirable or inevitable. They are neither.
What are the advantages of giving land to the few instead of the many? Efficiency is supposed to be the main one: big farms, we’re told by agribusiness spokesmen, can produce more food at less cost and thus save the consumer money. That same thinking underlies Soviet collectives. What’s overlooked is that in societies where tractors are relatively inexpensive to own or rent, economies of scale contribute to agricultural abundance only marginally. Beyond a certain point, there’s nothing gained by having one vast farm in place of several smaller ones. In fact, small farms are often more productive per acre because their owners work harder and take better care of the soil.
Large farms in America are efficient at some things -they excell at tapping the federal Treasury and exploiting hired labor. Take away these privileges and the small farmer looks extremely good. As for saving the consumer money, the chief reason food prices have remained relatively low is not large-scale efficiency -it is intense competition. Allow a handful of agribusiness giants to gain control of the market and prices will assuredly rise a lot more than they have.
There is, furthermore, the question of how much efficiency, and what kind, is desirable. American agriculture is, if anything, too efficient; its chronic problem is not underproduction but surpluses; it is the only industry where people are paid not to produce. The argument that ever-increasing agricultural efficiency is a desirable national goal is, therefore, unsound. More-over, what kind of efficiency are we talking about? When a large grower increases his profit margin by replacing farmworkers with a fancy new machine, he’s not doing anybody but himself a favor. The farm-workers, now unemployed, drift to already overcrowded cities, where no jobs await them either. Welfare rolls and social tensions rise – transferring to society at large the ultimate cost of “efficiency” on the large farm.
If the advantages of large landholdings (except to those who own them) are scant, the harmful effects are legion. Several have already been noted: the impoverishment of millions of rural families, and the migration to cities of millions more, with little education or hope of improvement. We expect poor Americans to lift themselves up the economic ladder, yet by cutting them off from productive land ownership we knock out the bottom rungs.
The vitality of community life in rural America has also suffered because of maldistributed land. Main Street businesses are not appreciably aided by large absentee landowners who purchase their supplies in distant cities, or by underpaid migrants who buy nothing, or by sharecroppers forced to shop at the company store. A study in the 1940s by Walter Gold- schmidt, a California sociologist, found that communities in small-farm areas have a more sizable middle class, more stable income patterns, better schools and more active civic groups than do communities where large landholdings predominate. A recent incident in Mendota, Caiifornia – a town surrounded by large farms – helps explain why. A group of citizens wanted to establish a special taxing district for construction of a hospital, the nearest one being 40 miles away. Three agribusiness giants that owned more than half the land in the proposed district opposed the plan, and killed it. Two of the companies were based in other California cities, and the third – Anderson Clayton -was headquartered in Houston.
Protection of the environment also tends to be less of a concern to large corporations – who’ve been despoiling the American landscape for the better part of two centuries – than to small farmers who live on their land. Companies farming for tax or speculative reasons, for example, seek to maximize earnings over the short run. They can milk the soil, deplete the underground water supply or poison the land with pesticides, knowing full well that they will eventually sell. Resident farmers who hope to pass on their land to their offspring cannot be so careless with nature’s gifts. Moreover, small-scale farming lends itself much more readily than does large-scale monoculture to biological pest control – a technique that must increasingly be adopted if we are to avoid ecological disaster.
End of Part One.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you’ll be pleased — and perhaps shocked — to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.