Title Reviewed:
American Farmers: The New Minority

Author Reviewed:
Gilbert C. Fite

Mary W. M. Hargreaves


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 78, Issue 3, pp 268-270

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Farmers: The New Minority. By Gilbert C. Fite. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Pp. ix, 265. Table, illustrations, notes, index. $19.50.)

Gilbert C. Fite's volume is one in a series on Minorities in Modern America, edited by Warren F. Kimball and David Edwin Harrell, Jr. In discussing the transition of farming activity from majority to minority status in the American economy, primarily since 1920, the author focuses on the productivity factors which led to this change and the efforts by farmers and their political spokesmen to counteract these forces. While his approach is essentially that of an institutional historian, he is concerned, perhaps fundamentally, by the shifting national priority perceptions evidenced in the growing dominance of consumer interests during the past twenty years. His somewhat startling conclusion is that, "In all likelihood, the nation's agrarian heritage will lose most of its significance and meaning within another generation" (pp. 240–41).

Fite has directed his survey primarily to the general reader, rather than to specialists in agriculture, economics, politics, or agricultural history. He presents an excellent synthesis which academicians, also, may find highly useful in surveying overall trends of agricultural development and governmental policy relating to it. His first two chapters afford chronological and regional background summaries of the setting as small-farm America moved out of the "Golden Era" that ended with World War I. The body of the text centers upon the subsequent agrarian organizational effort in pursuit of governmental assistance, the legislative relief programs as revised to date, the management changes that marked the survival of commercial and agribusiness operators while more traditionally diversified competitors were squeezed out, and finally the "boom-bust" experience of the 1970s, which led the less than 5 percent of the population remaining in agriculture to hone, through "tractorcades," new skills in minority, special interest politics.

The author finds that the power of farmers through the period of mounting crisis has remained "fragmented not only among commercial producers, but between large farmers and small part-time operators" (p. 241). Increasingly, also, they have felt a closer identity with the interests of business than with those of labor. For a century or longer, however, they have derived their strongest support from the mystique of rural ideals and value systems cherished by a Society that no longer had "to make a living on the farm" (p. 238). What will be the effect, Fite queries, as those emotions and traditions fade?

Fite is too sound an economic historian to discountenance the trend toward commercial viability, but his personal sentiments are seldom far removed from the tenets he denominates as "agricultural fundamentalism." He defends agricultural colleges in their emphasis upon farm productivity on the ground that they "never viewed their role as that of a Social agency" (p. 187) to aid small farmers in making a living; yet he argues that "different tax, credit, and price-support policies … a generation earlier" might have retarded the concentration of farm ownership evident today (pp. 220–21). He repeatedly laments that "farmers did not possess that most basic right in business of being able to set the price of their product to cover costs and also leave something for labor and return on investment" (p. 236). He never recognizes that generations of marginal businessmen in all lines of endeavor have been driven out of the competitive market for want of the same "basic right."

University of Kentucky, Lexington Mary W. M. Hargreaves

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.