Now that the farm crisis seems to be officially over for the year (it's been several months at least since the last foreclosure appeared on my television set), the 97 percent of Americans who do not live on farms can once again freely eat three meals a day without having to think about where the ingredients came from.
Meanwhile, back in oblivion, the other 3 percent are once again facing massive debt, income as low as that during the worst years of the Great Depression, and a failure rate three times that of other businesses. In other words, the farm business as usual.
Farmers' organizations have never quite understood why the 97 percent should be so oblivious. Agriculture is America's biggest business: it accounts for by far the largest share of our much-needed exports. Yet efforts to prick the consciences of the 97 percent routinely fail in this day of special-interest politics, when farmers have begun to appear no different from a hundred other special pleaders. Car makers want import quotas, the steel industry wants tariffs, high-technology companies want tax breaks, farmers want low-interest loans. Each warns of dire consequences; apocalyptic rhetoric is cheap.
One school of writers far outside the farm organization mainstream is trying a different, and much more sweeping, approach to the task of pricking urban America's farm conscience. Taking a page from the environmental movement, they warn that farmers' financial complaints are just a symptom of a fundamental threat to the long-term sustainability of agriculture. Soil erosion, toxic chemicals, water pollution -- all speak to a profound problem of attitudes, a modern disrespect for the land upon which we all ultimately depend.
Who's to blame? Well, society, for starters. By the end of "The Vanishing Land," Robert West Howard, a conscience-pricker with a vengeance, has absolved no one who has lived on the North American continent for the past 150 or 200 years. The inventors of barbed wire, for example. Little did they realize back in the 19th century that they were hastening the dust storms and soil erosion of the 1920s or that they would be responsible for "lockjaw, blood poisoning, leg and arm infections . . . that took a greater toll of human life than all the cattlemen wars, cowboy shootups, badmen, Indian wars, and rattlesnakes combined."
Then there's the shopping cart, responsible for putting small grocers out of business, robbing the farmer to pay the supermarketing middlemen, and replacing fresh, wholesome food with processed, additive-filled substitutes. The parade of villains also includes Montgomery Ward (whose "ploy" of placing a catalogue in every rural household undermined farm cooperatives), applied science (which "crippled the individualism of the family farm"), natural science (which frustrated the federal government's efforts to curb farm overproduction), the USDA (which, among a multitude of other sins, failed to keep its scientists in check) and ad men (who persuaded farmers to buy things they didn't need and the rest of us to buy junk food).
Conscience pricking is a high-wire act; the slightest breeze of sentimentality or self-righteousness is enough to cause a fall. Readers who know something about the economics of farming may conclude that Howard fell off on Page 1 and never got back up. Nostalgia for the corner grocery -- even massive, widespread nostalgia -- probably could not have stemmed the forces that have left us today with half as many farms (each twice as large on average and considerably more mechanized) as there were just 30 years ago.
Calling for massive changes in society's attitudes is not usually the stuff that public policy is made of, either; and indeed the fire of Howard's indictment of modern society dies to a fizzle when in the final chapters he offers solutions: start a garden, write to your newspaper, don't eat junk food, replace the USDA with a "Department of the Land."
More's the pity -- because a better general understanding of the noneconomic forces that have shaped the modern farm could help to bring about a more rational federal farm policy. To take one telling example: some recent careful studies of farm efficiency by the USDA show that the medium-sized family farms -- those hardest hit in the current credit crisis -- achieve virtually all economies of scale that are to be had even by the biggest operators. Yet they are also the most vulnerable.
Taking a stand against progress itself, as Howard seems to have done, is less prudent. (Is anyone really going to tell farmers that they should not have adopted technology that has made their lives immensely easier, freed their children to pursue higher education, and lowered the cost and increased the variety of food available?) Howard does not do much for his case, either, with the bits of dubious folklore, spurious etymologies, and outright scientific howlers -- "the nitric acids, sulphuric acids, lead, and other technology wastes spewed into our atmosphere since 1958 have caused an 8 percent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide" -- that appear throughout.