Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott, From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. xvi + 376 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-253-34571-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Danbom, Department of History, North Dakota State University.

The changing nature of Midwestern agriculture is not a fresh topic. It has been addressed frequently over the past quarter century or more, both specifically [1], and as part of larger treatments of change in American agriculture generally.[2] Usually chronicles of agriculture’s evolution — or devolution — express regret that the world of small family farms, close neighborhoods, and one-room schools has passed from the scene.

In From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur, however, Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott take a path less traveled, generally avoiding expressions of nostalgia for traditional farming and regret for agriculture’s relative demographic and economic decline, and praising agriculture’s survivors as sophisticated entrepreneurs.

The origins of this book are noteworthy. Over the course of his long and distinguished career in the Department of History at Mississippi State University, Roy Scott “accumulated an extensive collection … on twentieth-century Midwestern agriculture” (p. xiii), which he hoped to make the basis for a book. Unable to carry out this task alone, he called on Dennis Nordin to serve as co-author. Nordin ended up doing most of the writing.

The authors define the elusive “Midwest” as “states that grow corn” — specifically, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota, along with eastern portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and the western part of Ohio (p. 1). They present the story of change in agriculture and, to a lesser extent, rural life in this region, guided by their thesis that “the 1900s can be considered a century of struggle on North Central farms, a period when a grower either invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession” (p. xv).

Most of the book details that struggle and how successful farmers overcame the myriad problems confronting them. Among the topics the authors emphasize are the challenges presented by the environment and the economy, technological change (toward which they take a decidedly whiggish view), shifting government programs (usually discussed in an administration-by-administration manner), and the increasing sophistication of farmers as producers and “entrepreneurs.” By the end of the century, “entrepreneurial agriculture” had triumphed, bringing forth the “Midwestern agricultural miracle, a blessing that continues to provide an ever-growing population of consumers with abundant food at low prices” (pp. 204-05).

The combination of techno-capitalist triumphalism and Social Darwinism within this book will be deeply offensive to many, particularly those with a romantic view of agriculture and rural life. But the main problem with From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur is not the destination so much as the journey. Indeed, readers will find this a deeply flawed book which lacks sophistication and nuance and which does not, in the end, defend its point of view effectively.

Let’s begin with the thesis. Can farmers really be divided into “those who invested wisely and succeeded or squandered opportunities and left the profession?” I would argue that most of those who left agriculture after 1945 were not failures who “squandered opportunities.” Most were commercial producers who saw better ways to deploy their capital or who grew too old to farm and lacked children interested in succeeding them. In my state of North Dakota half of the farm land is owned by out-of-staters, mostly heirs of commercial farmers who “left the profession,” but not because they “squandered opportunities.” In addition to ignoring the complex reasons why some farmers stay while others leave, Nordin and Scott embrace the false notion held in the least-sophisticated precincts of the discipline of agricultural economics that good managers succeed and poor managers fail. Well, poor managers succeed sometimes and good ones don’t. Real life is complicated.

Then there’s the problem of the focus on the Midwest. Even if we accept the definition of the Midwest as “states that grow corn,” we must recognize — as the authors too frequently fail to do — that other states and nations also grow corn, soybeans, beef, and pork. We have to recognize that their production decisions, and the production decisions of those who raise competitive meat animals and/or feed grains, have an impact on the farming economy of the Midwest. And we have to recognize that their experiences with technology, trade, and government agricultural policies are similar to those of the Midwest. The Midwest is unique only if similar places under similar conditions are ignored. Not always, but often, that is the course the authors take.

What is even more disturbing, however, in a book that celebrates farmers’ business sense, is the weak understanding the authors demonstrate of many of the fundamental economic realities of twentieth-century agriculture. Among other errors of commission and omission, the authors show little understanding of the significance of export markets to the well-being of Midwestern agriculture; they confuse increases in production with increases in productivity; they suggest that farm operators were actually harmed by rising farm prices; they fail to recognize how the United States’ new status as the world’s leading creditor after World War I diminished export markets; they seem not to understand that overproduction occurs when consumers are unable or unwilling to consume whatever is produced, regardless of what they consumed previously; they fail to note that the inelasticity of agricultural commodity prices contributes to disproportionate price swings; and they do not recognize the centrality of dollar devaluation in 1971 to the agricultural boom of the ensuing decade. The agricultural economy is complex, and is shaped by numerous forces beyond the ability of “entrepreneurs” to control, regardless of how advanced their management skills may be. Too often that complexity is lost or ignored in this book.

A series of misunderstandings, confusions, and contradictions further mars the book. The authors assume, incorrectly, that tenancy necessarily connotes economic disadvantage or hardship (p. 9). They fall into the farmer’s habit of blaming others (e.g., the government, the banks, and even vegetarians) for agriculture’s troubles. They misunderstand the nature of rural-urban population shifts during the 1930s. They contradict themselves, as when they argue that the Golden Age of Agriculture was and wasn’t. They impart “self-sufficiency’ to Midwestern farms in 1900, when they weren’t, and in 1945, when farmers couldn’t even remember being self-sufficient. And they overstate, as on page 172 when they contend that, after 1945, “farmers placed blind faith in science and technology.” The authors put sixty charts in the book to help make their points. Usually these help, but sometimes they are senseless, pointless, or simply curious. For example, what is a chart on stress in rural life in 1974 doing in a chapter on the 1900-1920 period? And why does a chart on the number of radios on Midwestern farms count the devices only in 1925 and 1927?

Adding to the confusion are infelicitous prose choices. The authors sometimes jump into the future tense, or mix it with the past tense, for no apparent reason. They believe that “distances from farms to … consumers increased as roads … improved” (p. 66). And they argue that hog producers “increasingly stopped” selling animals on open markets (pp. 184-85). Enough said.

Nordin and Scott have a lot of good material here and a valid point to make. Unfortunately, the numerous flaws in From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur prevent them from making a significant contribution to our understanding of agricultural change in the Midwest.

Notes: 1. See, for example, Jane Adams, The Transformation of Rural Life: Southern Illinois, 1890-1990 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), and Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

2. See, for example, David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Hiram M. Drache, History of U.S. Agriculture and Its Relevance to Today (Danville, IL: Interstate Publishers, 1996), Gilbert C. Fite, American Farmers: The New Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Agriculture, 1609-1972 (Ames: Iowa State University, 1975), and John L. Shover, First Majority, Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).

David Danbom is professor of history at North Dakota State University. His most recent book is Going It Alone: Fargo Grapples with the Great Depression (2005).