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Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

Author(s):Fitzgerald, Deborah
Reviewer(s):Gardner, Bruce

Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Deborah Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. xi + 242 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-08813-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bruce Gardner, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland, College Park.

Deborah Fitzgerald, Associate Professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, investigates ideas about agricultural industrialization in the post-World War I era, promoted as the way forward for U.S. farming by a fascinating cast of characters. Her book takes the common core of their thinking as underpinning the technological and economic changes that transformed American farming in the twentieth century. She states that while many historians have addressed these changes, prevailing thought misses “the emergence of an industrial logic or ideal in agriculture” (p. 3). She documents the emergence of both the ideal and its implementation beginning in the late 1910s. Although the book draws on a wide range of agricultural experience, the major focus is on wheat farming in Montana, because “Wheat was the first agricultural product to be successfully industrialized, and it served as a model for all other farm products” (p. 8); and because the Campbell Farming Corporation, a paradigmatic instance of industrial practice, and M.L. Wilson, whose ideas about land use and mechanization commanded wide attention, both had strong Montana connections.

The book’s treatment is episodic and descriptive rather than comprehensive and analytical. Following an introduction setting out the agenda, five chapters cover distinct sub-topics. Chapter 2 reviews the development and dissemination of quantitative farm management principles. The leading characters here are Henry C. Taylor and George Warren among other USDA and Land-Grant University agricultural economists who played a much more hands-on role in the business of farming than their counterparts do today. Chapter 3 moves on to the role of agricultural engineers, principally in universities and farm implement companies, in inventing and marketing equipment for mechanized farming. Chapter 4 traces the emergence of “chain farms,” and other schemes for large-scale agriculture in 1915-1930. The chief characters here are farming entrepreneurs such as Howard Doane, one of several talented farm managers Fitzgerald discusses who directed operations on up to forty farms. Other multi-farm operations were established as cooperatives. With respect to these developments academic experts and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were as notable for being skeptics as for being boosters. And indeed the Great Depression appears to have wiped out most of these farms, although Fitzgerald does not document their overall success or failure quantitatively. Chapter 5 is an extended case study of the Campbell Farming Corporation, the creation of Thomas D. Campbell, whose story is well worth reading. His ideas were successful in maintaining a truly enormous farming operation for a long period of time, until the 1960s. Finally, Chapter 6 assesses the reactions of American observers to Soviet collective farms in the late 1920s, and the role of some notable U.S. farming entrepreneurs as advisors to the Soviets on agricultural development.

These chapters contain a wealth of information, well documented and tied together in a reasonably argued package showing how enthusiastic experts and farming entrepreneurs saw and acted upon opportunities to turn U.S. farming from what they saw as a backward, poverty-stricken sector of the economy into a progressive, prosperous engine of economic growth. But Fitzgerald does not neglect the many nay-sayers who saw industrialization of farming as a most risky venture or even a menace, a road to serfdom for farm people. The strength of expressed convictions both pro and con is similar to more recent debates about organic farming and agricultural biotechnology.

For me, the most surprising element of the story, given the well-reasoned and enthusiastic advocacy of industrialization by knowledgeable people, is how many of the twentieth century’s early experiments in agricultural industrialization came to grief, and how few ultimately survived. It is not, of course, the case that mechanization itself was a flash in the pan, or that increased farm size and new technology failed to transform much of U.S. agriculture. Rather the particular forms that transformation took turned out differently from what the early visionaries of the 1920s foresaw. Thus, while the original focus was heavily on grain growing in semi-arid conditions, the large and lasting changes in economic organization occurred in livestock feeding. While mechanization in field crops resulted in greatly increased acreage by farmer, grain growing remains today, as traditionally, the province largely of single-operator farms or family partnerships. And, while large cooperatives still flourish in rice, cotton, and dairy production, they function as collective marketing mechanisms, not on the level of farm management.

The book concludes with a chapter providing an overall assessment of agricultural industrialization in the United States which, while sensible, is not specifically grounded in findings from the earlier chapters. Developments up to the present day, including the “Green Revolution” that transformed parts of the developing world in the 1960s, are taken to be the legacy of the ventures described in those chapters. This is a stretch too far. Fitzgerald’s case studies, seen from today’s perspective, can as well be taken as lessons in how the best information available about possibilities for agricultural development, including ones that seemingly prove themselves in real-world tests and pilot projects, can nonetheless over the long term lead to dead-ends and insolvency.

Fitzgerald lists the benefits of industrialization as it has developed to the present as “a more plentiful food supply, tremendous food variety, a less physically taxing workload for farmers, a higher standard of living in the countryside,” and the costs as “continuing food distribution problems, both domestically and internationally, an increasing problem ensuring and regulating food safety, a chronic decrease in the number of farm families, a flow of people and capital from rural to urban areas, and an incomprehensible set of deals between federal officials and farmers that make little sense and potentially do as much harm as good” (p. 189). Those assertions might be viewed as suggestions for further investigation, except that they appear in the book’s concluding paragraph and may be read by casual readers as following from its evidence and arguments. Actually the book provides virtually no support for conclusions about the relationship between industrialization and food variety, the standard of rural living, food distribution, food safety, or capital flows from rural to urban areas. Fitzgerald’s accomplishments are further obscured by the back-cover blurb’s statement that the book addresses “a system of agriculture that has never served the best interests of farmers or farmland but that has always been presented to the public as necessary and inevitable.” That statement exhibits a level of tendentiousness that the book itself does not approach. In fact, fair use of the book’s content will provide many illuminating facts and vignettes about U.S. agricultural history, but will not prove a source of ammunition for either its celebrators or denigrators.

Bruce Gardner, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park, recently published American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost, Harvard University Press, 2002.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII