A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 (review)
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A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929. By Paul K. Conkin. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008. Pp. xiv+223. $29.95.

This is a brief overview of American farm life, technology, and federal farm policy during the twentieth century. Paul Conkin, distinguished professor emeritus of history at Vanderbilt University, draws on his personal experiences growing up on a farm in Green County, Kentucky, to “describe and explain the changes that have taken place in agriculture during my lifetime,” a period of dramatic change (p. x). Readers familiar with two of the most important accounts of this period, Bruce Gardner’s American Agriculture [End Page 927] in the Twentieth Century: How It Flourished and What It Cost (2002) and R. Douglas Hurt’s Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century (2003), will find much of the same broad outline in Conkin’s book. But Conkin’s is far more accessible than Gardner’s and, unlike Gardner, Conkin directly addresses the human costs of agricultural change. A Revolution on the Farm also includes a fuller discussion of contemporary farming and its critics than does Hurt’s Problems of Plenty.

Conkin contends that American agriculture has been commercial from the start, and that it became the most successful sector in the twentieth-century American economy. This agricultural revolution had numerous costs, but it enabled approximately 322,625 farms to produce 89 percent of the nation’s total production by 2002. Beginning with a survey of farming techniques in the years up to 1930, Conkin addresses changes in farm politics and policies as well as the ways in which farmers used technology to increase food and fiber production. The 1930s marked a major transition in American agriculture, with legislation providing large-scale direct government assistance for farmers in the form of payments for acreage restrictions, land use planning, and changes in farm credit policies. There was also an attempt, albeit limited, to assist the rural poor.

Although policymakers ended voluntary production restrictions during World War II, the federal government was no less involved in agriculture, promising price supports for the duration of the war and the immediate postwar period, when farmers turned to new technology to further enhance production, with attendant environmental and social costs. The proper role of government regulation became a central issue in domestic politics, with the culmination of that debate being reached in the 1996 farm bill, which eliminated acreage controls and ended price supports (but not the marketing loans) that had remained in place since the New Deal. Not surprisingly, when commodity prices worsened, Congress provided generous payments which—just as intended by the authors of the legislation—flowed proportionately to the largest and most successful farmers. Conkin also traces more recent developments, including the ethanol boom, and highlights the intersection of policy, technology, and production.

A Revolution Down on the Farm is a well-written and useful book. The concise descriptions of policy changes and technological innovations are valuable primers for historians of technology who may be unfamiliar with agriculture. The most rewarding parts of this book, however, are the author’s recollections of his own youth. Conkin discusses the work he and his family did to make a living by raising tobacco, corn, and wheat. His observations of rural Kentucky show the ways in which farmers depended on home production during the 1930s and the dramatic transformation of World War II. Yet, even in the late 1940s, only a small number of farmers used tractors, and farm income was still low in the author’s community because tobacco allotments were small and few farmers raised market live-stock [End Page 928] or dairy products. Rural electrification and the growth of industrial employment meant that many farmers, including Conkin’s family, abandoned farming altogether. While Conkin had assumed that farming would continue much as it had, and that he would become a farmer, he and his sister both went to work for the federal Production and Marketing Administration, the author as a surveyor of tobacco allotments and his sister as a clerk. That Conkin never returned to agriculture and instead became a...