- A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929
Born in a small rural community in east Tennessee the same month as the stock market crash of 1929, Paul K. Conkin has lived the entire span covered in his excellent history of modern American agriculture, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929. Part historical narrative and part memoir, this important book contends that the changes in food production have been truly revolutionary since the pre-mechanized days of rural land use in the early 1900s. Conkin shows that American agriculture experienced a nearly two-percent per-year increase in productivity throughout the 20th century, a rate of growth that outpaced most all other economic sectors. These gains in productivity did not always equate to steady improvements in profit and well-being for those dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Rather, the span of time covered in Conkin’s book saw tremendous social, political, and technological changes that would take the United States from a predominately rural country to a primarily urban one over the course of the author’s lifetime.
Conkin, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Vanderbilt University with an impressive array of teaching interests and research production (A Revolution Down on the Farm marks his 20th book), nonetheless developed a love affair with agriculture from a very young age that has never departed during his career in academia. His affinity for rural community life runs parallel to his telling of the rapid 20th-century transformation of American agriculture in alternating chapters through the first half of the book. While some might find this narrative approach a bit disjointed, I found Conkin to be a master storyteller. Whether reflecting upon his own life growing up in a family and community whose livelihood depended upon the sale of tobacco or describing the potentially mundane details of the history of federal agricultural policy changes since Roosevelt’s New Deal, Conkin never loses sight of his audience by diverting into needless historiography or burying his narrative in a sea of statistics. Indeed, where some have failed in the past to hold the reader’s attention while discussing agricultural topics, Conkin excels at keeping the narrative lively and approachable. While perhaps not as [End Page 283] comprehensive or expansive as Willard Cochrane’s classic economic history, The Development of American Agriculture, Conkin’s work stands out for its deeply personal, heartfelt look at the changes that the American agricultural revolution has brought, both good and bad, for himself and for generations of producers and consumers.
Conkin begins his book with a brief look at American agricultural changes leading up to the late 1920s, when everything would change seemingly overnight with the onset of the Great Depression. Before addressing the effects of New-Deal era policy changes, Conkin provides a first-hand account of what it was like to grow up on the farm during the 1930s. The land certainly meant a lot, but people did not depend upon it completely. While almost everyone in his community had hogs, cattle, and chickens, most farmers bought other basic foodstuffs like flour, bread, and sugar from the local general store. Then, after discussing the effects of 1930s policies and World War II on the country as a whole, Conkin returns to his home in rural east Tennessee, where he notes that slowly but surely, the number of farmers was shrinking, the number of farm owners working off-farm was rising, and profit margins were tightening, even with rapid increases in farm productivity and major social improvements like rural electrification.
Conkin points out that this was a trend that would continue to sweep across the country after World War II, affecting farm owners well beyond east Tennessee and up to the present day. American agriculture had fallen into a crisis of overproduction that would squeeze out all but the most solvent of land owners, the remainder of which...