Class & American Midwest Agriculture

A review of Agriculture and Class: Contradictions of Midwestern Family Farms Across the Twentieth Century, by Elizabeth Ramey.

Elizabeth Ann Ramey’s dissertation infuses the changing agricultural landscape of the Midwest during the first half of the twentieth century with a Marxian class analysis. By identifying aspects of production, family labor, and government involvement in this class framework, Ramey provides a new perspective for agricultural historians, economists, rural sociologists, and women’s historians. Ramey asserts that the exploitation of family labor, the rapid expansion of some farmers at the expense of others, the industrialization of agriculture, and the state programs designed for price supports all connect the Midwestern corn belt to contradictory strategies that eroded their undeserved reputation as independent producers.

While a variety of historians (R. Douglas Hurt, Hal Barron, J.L. Anderson, Allen Bogue) describe the transformations on corn belt farms during the same time period, Ramey’s contribution is unique in the inclusion of Marxian categories to the farm economy. She expands these categorizations based on the more recent work of Kenneth Levin, Stephen A. Resnick, and Richard D.Wolf. Ramey uses the brief first section to define the terms of the class structure she employs for classifying both the farm and the farm home. In the feudal class structure, women and children labor to provide the farmer with surplus — for example by selling eggs and dairy products, growing produce, and stretching household resources to benefit the farm. This is a convincing explanation of the class taxonomy and is the focal point of Chapter 2; Agriculture and Class portrays the labor of women and children as an example of the exploitative nature of this class structure.

The farmer is considered using the other two class structures — “ancient” and “capitalist” — in Chapter 3. The farmer exists as an “ancient” by being able to appropriate his own surplus and controlling his own labor, but also crosses over into the capitalist class by hiring farm hands. Ramey expands this basic taxonomy to include hybrids of the classes, which are more likely to occur on the farm as opposed to in the farm home.

Farm women comprise a major element, and they are posited as the most subjugated class in the family farm enterprise and the best example of the feudal class structure. Ramey suggests that farm women’s lack of class awareness or language to identify their class hindered them from resolving their situations.  She provides examples of the “farm woman” problem through which the farm press, the federal government, and women themselves acknowledged their lack of power.  From “making do” to “helping out,” Ramey uses these popular terms to explore how women rarely controlled their own labor, that of their children, or the monetary contributions their labor brought to the farm. Ramey wisely points to the farm home as a separate area of production and in so doing follows the scholarship of historians such as Mary Neth, Katherine Jellison, Deborah Fink, and LuAnn Jones who argued that the labor and production of women played key roles in keeping farmers on the land and enabled them to expand and improve. Ramey cites these same efforts as proof that the feudal category accurately describes the relationship of farm women to the farm and the male farmer. That the value of their work, which Ramey provides in qualitative and quantitative form, was transferred from the home to the farm itself is additional evidence to support her conclusions.

Farmers needed this transfer of value throughout the period, but particularly during the time of rural transformation brought about by technology and increasing government involvement in agriculture. Efforts between the world wars to mechanize and expand are included in Chapter 3, as the farmer tries to adapt to the onslaught of external forces affecting how he can assign his own surplus and that of his family and workers. Those farmers who best fit the capitalist description based on Ramey’s class definitions are those who expand quickest, embracing new methods earlier than their neighbors and “cannibalizing” smaller less advanced farm operations. Productivity and output increase did not necessarily help price stability, but they gave farmers an opportunity to participate in the “hunt for superprofits,” a phrase normally associated with modern agribusiness. Incorporating the New Deal programs that rewarded ancient owner-farmers over renters and tenants supports the notion that government involvement endorsed the larger more exploitative farmer over his smaller less capitalized peers. In order to compete with this class of farmer, others looked elsewhere for income that could be transferred to the farm, with farmers and/or their wives finding off-farm employment.

Ramey is diligent in identifying other factors that affected the production capabilities of family farms during this time. Through her discussions of farm variables such as weather-related losses, the reduction of pasture acreage and horses, seed science, and mechanical improvements, Ramey connects her economic formulas with the realities of farming in the corn belt. The formulae provided are meant to be models of the class relations and not specific quantifications of the contributions of farmers, their wives, or their machinery. Ramey also indicates that the “vicious hunt for superprofits” on farms during the mid-twentieth century reflected the increase of government influence as well as that of corporations, such as implement manufacturers, with an interest in consolidating farms.  The review of secondary scholarship in Ramey’s dissertation explains the roles of labor as applied to both the farm home and on farms. Scholars of various subjects may find the unique combination of hybridized Marxist categorization as applied to social and agricultural history an enlightening concept for future inter-disciplinary work.

Megan Elizabeth Birk
Department of History and Philosophy
University of Texas Pan American
birkme@utpa.edu

Primary Sources

Report on the Commission of Country Life
The Farmer’s Wife
The Journal of Home Economics

Various publications, United States Department of Agriculture, Government Printing Office
Yearbook of Agriculture, Government Printing Office

Dissertation Information

University of Massachusetts Amherst. 2012. 189 pp. Primary Advisor: Stephen Resnick.

 

Image: This illustration “Products of a Corn Belt” is from The Home and School Reference Work, Volume II by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. The book was published in 1917 by The Home and School Education Society. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply