By Evaggelos Vallianatos, 12 July 2012
Walter Goldschmidt, 1913-2010, was an anthropologist who worked for the US Department of Agriculture. In the early 1940s, he brought to light the undoing of rural America by large farmers and warned USDA officials that large farmers were destabilizing rural communities in the Central Valley of California.1
Giant agriculture and democracy
Goldschmidt was the first American scholar in the twentieth century who documented the relationship between farming and democracy. He knew rural America had been under attack by large farmers for several decades. He witnessed American agriculture change from a way of life for raising food and sustaining democratic society to a business for making money and exerting political influence. This has had, as Goldschmidt predicted, unforeseeable deleterious consequences for nature, food, human health and democracy. One can visualize this giant agriculture as a massive factory that has taken roots in the land, industrializing both farming and food and farmers, making rural America a colony for the extraction of profit. Giant agriculture is leaving behind millions of broken family farms. It has contaminated water and land, disrupted and poisoned nature, and created a wounded rural America open to conquest by urban culture and power.
The trouble began in the nineteenth century when the mechanization of the world changed both society and nature. According to the 1884 California State Agricultural Society, the fear in the 1880s was that “there will be too few farms and these too large. A republic cannot long survive when the lands are concentrated in the hands of a few men. Any man will fight for his home, but it takes a very brave man to fight for the privilege of working for half wages.”2
This fear of large farms suppressing democracy materialized in the twentieth century.
F. H. Newell was the first director of the US Reclamation Service, implementing the 1902 Reclamation Act to water the desert in the American West for the purposes of creating family farms. Newell said in 1905:
“The object of the Reclamation Act is not so much to irrigate the land as it is to make homes. President Theodore Roosevelt… has emphasized again and again that the primary objective of the law was to make homes. It is not to irrigate the lands which now belong to large corporations or to small ones; it is not to make these men wealthy; but it is to bring about a condition whereby that land shall be put into the hands of the small owner, whereby the man with a family can get enough land to support that family, to become a good citizen, and to have all the comforts and necessities which rightly belong to an American citizen.”2
In April 1939, John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which he documented the tragic social effects and excessive political power of giant agriculture, especially in California. He portrayed the degradation of rural people fleeing a natural disaster, and the near slavery conditions they had to accept in the plantations of large farmers to avoid starvation. In the summer of 1939, W. B. “Bill” Camp, a pillar of the agribusiness community of California, supervised the burning and banning of “The Grapes of Wrath” from the schools and libraries of Kern County, California.4
World War II accelerated the closing of ranks between the state and large farmers. I define large farmers those owning more than 160 acres. Why 160 acres? Because the Reclamation Act forbade public water subsidies to any farmer with more than 160 acres of land. However, the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, which has been in charge of federal lands and water, ignored the Reclamation Act and put all their eggs in the large farmer-corporate basket. They did that with huge subsidies that allowed large farms to remain large and in fact grow even larger. In the American Southwest the subsidies took the form of nearly free water, which converted deserts into farms and the Southwest into a hydraulic empire.5
The effect of state support of large farms is evident in the Central Valley, which is a huge valley taking up half of California. It is some 450 miles long and about 40 to 60 miles wide. It starts in the north, in Shasta County, and goes all the way in the south, to Kern County where large farmers burned Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Most of the land of this 42,000 square miles region is flat and fertile, enriched by rivers, lakes, wetlands and great aquifers. Tulare County alone earns billions from its crops. According to its 2010 “Agricultural Crop and Livestock Report,” the county earned $4,863,705,000. Milk was worth $1,604,172,000. And fruit and nuts were valued at $2,091,230,000. Vegetables earned $20,245,000.
The Central Valley was also fertile in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Goldschmidt made it his laboratory. He detected signs of agricultural and political aggression and social and political decay. He focused his research on Arvin and Dinuba, two towns that captured the assets and problems of the Central Valley. Senior USDA managers tried to suppress Goldschmidt’s study, but it was too late. Goldschmidt passed his report to the US Senate Small Business Committee that published the report in the Congressional Record. USDA fired Goldschmidt.
I met Goldschmidt in the 1980s in Washington, DC, and Florida. He was an elderly scholar, by then professor emeritus of anthropology at UCLA. The moment I mentioned his Arvin-Dinuba study, he lighted up and defended his findings vigorously, saying the situation was getting worse, and not merely in the Central Valley. He had contempt for USDA, large farmers, and for most scholars who stay clear of controversial issues like the relationship between agriculture and democracy. The image of Goldschmidt never left me. His study and our brief meeting turned him into a hero in my mind. I always wanted to visit Arvin and Dinuba.
Finally, I fulfilled my Arvin and Dinuba wish in February 2012. I wanted to get an idea of the impact large farms had on those two towns. Were Arvin and Dinuba still towns? My mind kept racing to the fact that I was about to look at Arvin and Dinuba I knew merely from reading the pioneering study by Goldschmidt dated some 70 years ago.
I found only one person who recognized Goldschmidt’s name. This was Linda Barkley, Deputy City Clerk in Dinuba. Her colleagues described her to me as local historian. I talked to Barkley and a few local people in Arvin, Dinuba and the nearby towns of Hanford and Visalia. Very shortly after arriving in Arvin and Dinuba, I could see destruction all around me. The shopping malls, the few streets with nice-looking homes (only in Hanford), and the incredible number of cars everywhere, cannot hide the social and ecological disintegration brought about by large farms in the Central Valley.
My informants were cautious. They live in Arvin, Dinuba and Hanford of the Central Valley. One of them, a large farmer, grows walnut trees in hundreds of acres of land. The stories I heard from my informants complement scholarly research. In addition, they put meat and bones to usually abstract studies.
The emperors of rural America
Large farmers, with farms thousands of acres, tens of thousands of acres, and hundreds or thousands of acres in size, have tremendous power. You can visualize that power standing on the border of any such large farm. You see nothing but the horizon in the far distance touching the flat land. Coming as I did from Greek culture where farms are tiny, each bordering the neighboring farm with beautiful small stone walls or trees, the vast expanse of merely land without any fences or houses or trees, is always shocking. But after my bewilderment wears thin, I realize the monstrous farms I am examining produce most of America’s food. Large farmers are the emperors of rural America. The federal government lavishes more than $20 billion of subsidies on them every year. USDA has hundreds of scientists and dozens of laboratories devoted to serving large farmers. The country’s 65 agricultural universities do the bidding of large farmers: justifying their existence by equating what they do with science. For example, land grant universities invented and developed pesticides and the machinery of agribusiness. They also provide the numerous entomologists, crop disease specialists, soil scientists, agronomists and other experts monitoring the extremely vulnerable system of the one-crop plantations dominating the farming of America. The same agricultural scientists invented the genetic engineering of crops, now the mainstay of corporations like Monsanto.
Another example: In 2003-2004, I was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, which is a land grant university. I was teaching agrarian-environmental politics in a department known as “Natural Resource Sciences.” My colleagues were agronomists, soil scientists, biologists, and water experts. Yet, with the exception of a soils professor, the others did not even use words like sustainable or organic or family farming. They only studied and taught agribusiness. Large farmers were their models. This blinded them to the real threat of water contamination by chicken factories in Maryland. Indeed, chicken pollution is killing the Chesapeake Bay, the natural treasure of Maryland. Yet the agricultural scientists of the University of Maryland remain silent. They prefer the high-stakes political game of agribusiness to a healthy environment and a flourishing family farming economy and society.
While at the University of Maryland, I also discovered that all fast food chains had a niche in the student cafeteria. This is unfortunate because Maryland is a small state that could easily have been a model of good food, family farming, and environmental protection for the rest of the country. In 2011, Maryland had 12,800 farms whose average size, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is 160 acres. Only 90 of these farms are organic.6
Large farmers right away dismiss the hazards of pesticides. They know they could not be large farmers without them. That is why they defend pesticides, toning down their risks, equating them with modernity and science. Large farmers have also purchased the allegiance of the medical and scientific and regulatory establishments. This “purchase” does not take place out in the open. The process of corruption in America, for example, starts at the universities where scientists work very closely with the industry, which pours in money to professors for research. The government also blesses this relationship by funding academics and delivering their inventions to the industry. Then the industry sends its lobbyists to convert Congress and the government to its agenda. The product of this government-industry-universities complex is as much the nuclear bomb as it is industrialized agriculture. In fact, Rachel Carson decried this complex in her great book, “Silent Spring”. She spoke passionately against both the bomb and pesticides. Another American scientist, Robert van den Bosch, distinguished scientist and professor of biology at the University of California-Berkeley until his premature death in 1978, wrote “The Pesticide Conspiracy”, a scholarly book in which he accused the industry of behaving like the mafia. He was equally critical of the government and the academic community for their questionable and shady connections to the industry.7
Paul Ehrlich, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, wrote the Preface to “The Pesticide Conspiracy.” Ehrlich praised van den Bosch for his original contributions to ecology and biological pest control. He agreed van den Bosch was right directing his anger against the industry-government-academic complex that perpetuates the poisoning of our food and the natural world. According to Ehrlich, Robert van den Bosch documented a story of “stupidity, venality, and corruption”: “the suppression of research on alternative