A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929

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Overview

At a time when food is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world and food prices are skyrocketing, no industry is more important than agriculture. Humans have been farming for thousands of years, and yet agriculture has undergone more fundamental changes in the past 80 years than in the previous several centuries. In 1900, 30 million American farmers tilled the soil or tended livestock; today there are fewer than 4.5 million farmers who feed a population four times larger than it was at the beginning of the century. Fifty years ago, the planet could not have sustained a population of 6.5 billion; now, commercial and industrial agriculture ensure that millions will not die from starvation. Farmers are able to feed an exponentially growing planet because the greatest industrial revolution in history has occurred in agriculture since 1929, with U.S. farmers leading the way. Productivity on American farms has increased tenfold, even as most small farmers and tenants have been forced to find other work. Today, only 300,000 farms produce approximately ninety percent of the total output, and overproduction, largely subsidized by government programs and policies, has become the hallmark of modern agriculture. A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 charts the profound changes in farming that have occurred during author Paul K. Conkin's lifetime. His personal experiences growing up on a small Tennessee farm complement compelling statistical data as he explores America's vast agricultural transformation and considers its social, political, and economic consequences. He examines the history of American agriculture, showing how New Deal innovations evolved into convoluted commodity programs following World War II. Conkin assesses the skills, new technologies, and government policies that helped transform farming in America and suggests how new legislation might affect farming in decades to come. Although the increased production and mechanization of farming has been an economic success story for Americans, the costs are becoming increasingly apparent. Small farmers are put out of business when they cannot compete with giant, non-diversified corporate farms. Caged chickens and hogs in factory-like facilities or confined dairy cattle require massive amounts of chemicals and hormones ultimately ingested by consumers. Fertilizers, new organic chemicals, manure disposal, and genetically modified seeds have introduced environmental problems that are still being discovered. A Revolution Down on the Farm concludes with an evaluation of farming in the twenty-first century and a distinctive meditation on alternatives to our present large scale, mechanized, subsidized, and fossil fuel and chemically dependent system.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Author and Vanderbilt University history professor Conkin (The State of the Earth: Environmental Challenges on the Road to 2100) grew up on a subsistence farm in Tennessee, working summers as a harvest hand, and members of his family still farm. As such, he's personally witnessed many of the radical changes he covers in this practical, thorough and clearly-written story of the American farm's 20th century transformation into the world's breadbasket. Along the journey from family homestead to hyper-efficient industrial farm, the most useful chapters explain the origin and development of convoluted federal and state farm policy (and why attempts at reforms so often fail) for both rural and urban taxpayers. Throughout, Conkin documents from all sides the clever advances that began mechanizing agriculture right after the Civil War, driving spectacular improvements in efficiency, but also a complete dependence on cheap oil and a cycle of debt many farmers cannot escape. A final chapter examines even-handedly various types of "alternative" farming, proving Conkin no dreamy devotee of "organic" trends. This cogent, thorough history should prove fascinating for anyone interested in the changing landscape of American agriculture. 198 photographs.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"Conkin provides an original twist by narrating his own experiences of farm life as a youth in eastern Tennessee…he manages to personalize his tale without letting nostalgia blind his scholarly critical eye."—Journal of American History" —

"Historian Paul K. Conkin provides an interesting examination of the transformation that has occurred in American agriculture over the last eighty years."—Kentucky Ancestors" —

"This book provokes thought, and ideally it will provoke reflection and a study that addresses the social costs as well as the industrial gains made during the greatest industrial revolution in the history of the United States, the agricultural production revolution."—Ohio Valley History" —

"For a generation of students who know little about the agricultural past, Conkin's book will provide an important and well-rounded overview."—Agricultural History" —

"An accurate and straightforward account of agriculture in America down through the years, spiced with the on-farm experiences of the author himself. Perfect for the new student of agriculture who needs a quick but detailed introduction to farming history in the United States." —Gene Logsdon, author of The Mother of all Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse" —

"Conkin cogently describes agricultural life with particular attention to changes wrought by the world beyond farmyard and fields... about lost American country life."—Indiana Magazine of History" —

"Conkin provides a masterful survey of the major agricultural legislation of the 1930s, noting that the long-term effect of these programs continues to invite curiosity.... a friendly, approachable work on agricultural history... a map to new ways of thinking about the past and planning for the future."—Arkansas Historical Quarterly" —

"Clearly written and organized, Conkin's book will appeal to anyone interested in farming and the agricultural economy."—Book News" —

"Conkin's latest book — or perhaps, as he predicts, his final book — is a thoughtful and elegantly written survey of American agriculture since the 1930s."—Business History Review" — Sarah Phillips

"Revolution clarifies an immensely complex topic, not only changes in American agricultural practices and technologies, but also the politics of definition and the long term repercussions of what many might simply ignored as banal."—Southeastern Librarian" —

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813192420
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 7/28/2009
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 737,098
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul K. Conkin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of numerous books, including The State of the Earth, The Southern Agrarians, and When All the Gods Trembled.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     vii
Preface     ix
Acknowledgments     xiii
American Agriculture before 1930     1
Commercial Origins     1
Tilling and Preparing the Soil     5
Tools for Planting and Cultivating     6
Tools of Harvest     8
The Tractor     15
Research, Education, and Extension     19
Credit and Marketing     25
The Traditional Family Farm: A Personal Account     31
Profile of a Farming Village     32
Home Provenance     37
Household Patterns     42
A New Deal for Agriculture, 1930-1938     51
First Fruits: Hoover's Farm Board     52
Maturing a New Farm Program     59
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933     63
Other New Deal Farm Programs     68
Soil Conservation and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938     72
World War II and Its Aftermath: A Family Report     77
Wartime Changes in My Village     77
Postwar Transformations     80
Successful Farming in Pennsylvania     91
Dimensions of an Agricultural Revolution     97
The Great NewMachines     99
Electrification     107
Chemical Inputs     108
Plant and Animal Breeding     119
Surpluses and Payments: Federal Agricultural Policy, 1954-2008     123
Production Controls and Price Supports     123
Farm Policy in the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations     126
Managing Surpluses during a Productivity Revolution     130
The Farm Crisis of the 1980s     132
International Agreements and the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act     134
The 2002 Farm Bill and Beyond     138
Noncommodity Programs     141
Farming in the Twenty-first Century: Status and Challenges     147
Profile of Contemporary Farms     147
Farm Labor     154
Farm Income     157
Critics and Criticisms     164
Agriculture and the Environment     168
Alternatives     175
Lonely Farmers     175
Alternatives in Land Tenure     177
Agrarian Reform     180
Alternative or Sustainable Agriculture     183
Federal Support of Sustainable Agriculture     192
Certified Organic Farming     194
Afterword      201
Notes     207
Index     215
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