The urban-rural divide has been a source of tension in American political, economic and sociocultural life throughout much of our nation’s history. As an historian, some of my work explores the often tense relationship between rural and urban and the ways in which Americans have mediated those differences, particularly during the Progressive Era.
In the last couple of years I’ve worked more in the spaces and communities made possible by social technologies. I’ve been struck at times by a pronounced disconnect between rural and urban perspectives, especially around food system topics.
And I’m not the only one.
Influencers such as former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman have also written about this urban-rural divide. In fact, he’s recently cautioned candidates not to forget rural America. In a piece that appeared in the Huffington Post in 2014, Glickman described the partisan split between rural and urban America. And he addressed how it jeopardizes in significant ways the bipartisanship needed to pass omnibus bills – such as the Farm Bill – which support agriculture, rural development, public nutrition and global food security programs. His piece remains relevant today.
Today’s Civil Eats piece by Siena Chrisman – “Want to Understand Trump’s Rise? Head to the Farm.” – hits on this disconnect. She links the history of the farm crisis to the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump. The piece is sparking real conversation between urban and rural folks in Twitterverse, with good reason.
Siena Chrisman is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including Edible Brooklyn, Modern Farmer and Grist. Just about a year ago, Siena and I had a long conversation about a project she’s working on…a much-needed book about the 1980’s farm crisis. I was sitting in an airport at the time and I kept telling her how important I thought this project was. Her deep dive into this topic is what attracted me to today’s piece, which is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.
In the piece, Chrisman discusses the Committee for Economic Development, which had a specific agenda about how the economy of rural America ought to be structured.
“Its goal was to eliminate a third of farm families, replacing a network of millions of self-sustaining medium-sized family farms with fewer, much larger farms producing the same amount of food—most of it commodity grains bound for animal feed and processed food—more “efficiently.” But efficiency didn’t account for the massive upheaval the new system wrought on the structure, community, and economics of rural life.”
She goes on to lay out a narrative framework of what ensued…and the kinds of social and economic damage wrought on rural America as a result. Among her conclusions:
“Agriculture policy is bigger than food; it has consequences for the health and stability of the nation.”
This is an important read. “Hie thee to it.”
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In the early 20th century – the Progressive Era – President Theodore Roosevelt convened the Country Life Commission, which sought to address some of the urban-rural tensions present at the time. Travis Koch has written an interesting piece about the Country Life Commission and rural improvement and resource conservation for Stanford University’s Rural West Initiative website. It’s worth a look.
To learn more about the 1980s farm crisis, view this 2013 documentary produced by Iowa Public Television. The documentary is – in part – based on the 1991 book The Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, written by Iowa State University economist Neil Harl. Don’t miss my Q&A with Ricardo Salvador, who discusses his work as a university agronomist in Iowa during the farm crisis. This post about the work of Farm Aid also provides some good context.
Some additional reading: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town – written by Nick Reding. Reding’s work is genius: he links the failure of small farms and the rise of “Big Ag” and “Big Pharma” with the methamphetamine drug crisis. It’s not a new book, but I had forgotten how many pages he devotes to analyzing and critiquing the consolidation of the food system and its impact on family farmers. #goodread
For a really deep dive into how Americans have “valorized” nature and all things rural in their construction of urban areas, read Pastoral Cities: Urban Ideals and the Symbolic Landscape of America, written by James L. Machor. Another interesting resource for those wanting to understand the relationship between urban and rural communities is David Danbom’s incisive The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900–1930.