From Green Acres to Big Ag 

A local historian describes the rise of industrial agriculture

A local historian describes the rise of industrial agriculture

It may be popular to denounce factory farming or watch PETA torture porn on YouTube, but very few people actually bother to learn much about the arcane policies and practices which really control the American food supply. Let's face it: Slogging through the morass of regulations and programs administered by the USDA is enough to glaze the eyes of even the wonkiest aspiring locavore. In A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture Since 1929, Vanderbilt emeritus professor Paul Conkin offers some help, guiding readers through the birth and development of the American agricultural bureaucracy and examining the culture, science and economics of U.S. food production.

Conkin is in a unique position to understand his topic. He was born in 1929 on a small farm in East Tennessee, which he still owns today. Members of his family remained in farming while he went on to a distinguished career as a historian. In A Revolution Down on the Farm, he brings his first-hand experience together with meticulous research to explain how the evolution of policy and technology has affected farming and ultimately shaped our eating lives.

Conkin devotes a sizable portion of the book to his own memories of farm life, which give a human face to the sweeping economic changes he documents in his research. He describes his Depression-era childhood in fascinating detail, down to the size of the wood for the cook stove, but he also provides a glimpse of the harshness of a rural upbringing. Recalling the annual hog slaughter, he writes, "In my home, my sister and I cried when we heard the shots, and my father could not bring himself to do the shooting." He makes a point of debunking some treasured myths of old-style farming, particularly the notion that the work was unbearably arduous. Although there were times of intense labor, such as during harvest, Conkin describes the usual pace of work as "leisurely" and the quantity as "significantly less that a 40-hour workweek in a factory."

The meat of the book, so to speak, is the saga of federal involvement in agriculture. Conkin argues that government intervention has long been a necessary component of U.S. agricultural success. He traces Washington's efforts from the Civil War onward to promote research, stabilize prices and deal with chronic production surpluses. This narrative of policy-making is bone-dry reading, but it provides an important context for his other area of discussion: the remarkable technological innovations of the past 80 years. He makes it clear that government, science and the marketplace have all shaped American food production, for better and worse.

Conkin doesn't dismiss the problems with factory farming. On the contrary, he advocates for more environmentally friendly practices, humane treatment of livestock—"no more drugged and cheap chickens"—and better conditions for farm workers. He points out, however, that those improvements will come at a price for American consumers, who enjoy the cheapest supply of food in the world—thanks to the style of agriculture many of them are so quick to condemn.

At the core of A Revolution Down on the Farm is Conkin's impatience with that fashionable dismissal in a hungry world. While farming's worst abuses need reform, the agriculture of the future, he writes, "must be efficient, which in most cases will require that farming remain mechanized, scientifically informed, and chemically supported. Only such an agriculture will be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050."

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