Traumas of Dispossession

We're living through another crisis of American family farming. But don't expect a rural revolt any time soon.

Dave Fendrich helps Bryant Hofer harvest a field of corn on October 2, 2013 near Salem, South Dakota. Scott Olson / Getty

Where are Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young now? A generation ago, these musicians came together to found Farm Aid in 1985 and host a star-studded benefit concert that awakened the nation to the worst agricultural crisis since the Great Depression. Yet today, as a perfect storm of similarly adverse conditions gathers across the country, celebrities such as these are nowhere to be found.

Nonetheless, as tariff threats mount in Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China, America’s farmers once again find themselves at loggerheads with national policy priorities. Not since Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo weaponized food in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan has the fate of rural communities hung so precariously in the balance.

That 1980 policy blunder compounded an unspooling foreclosure crisis that had already given rise to the American Agriculture Movement, a grassroots coalition of family farmers best known for their iconic “tractorcades” — most memorably those that led three thousand farmers to drive their tractors to Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1979.

It remains to be seen whether the present trade dispute, which may likewise exacerbate intensifying distress in the farm sector, will lead to a political change of heart among rural voters who have otherwise been this president’s stalwart supporters. Lessons from the 1980s, however, suggest that further immiseration, not grassroots activism, is the most likely result.

Trump’s saber rattling comes in the midst of what has been dubbed the “next” farm crisis. Since 2013, farm incomes have plunged by 50 percent, 42,000 small and mid-sized farms have already been lost, and countless more are destined to follow if commodity prices tank and debt-to-asset ratios rise. Economists have reason to believe that the current contraction will not be as severe as it was in the 1980s — thanks in part to today’s low interest rates — but this is cold comfort for rural America.

Those who have experienced the wrenching scene of farms sold on the auction block first- or second-hand recognize these events as traumatic. Families are publicly dispossessed of their land and source of livelihood — the tangible products of their labor, often in service of an intergenerational project. This injury finds few parallels in capitalist societies. So fearsome is this degradation ritual that some farmers consider it a punishment worse than death.

During the 1980s, the suicide rate among male farmers rose to three times the national average; today it is over four times that of other occupational groups. Then as now, the specter of a simmering rage in search of targets casts a pall over the heartland as sensational stories of middle-aged white men who shoot their bankers, their livestock, and themselves grab headlines.

In the face of these tragedies, reporters issue rote disclaimers, often after ferreting out signs of mental illness, assuring us that farmers are no more likely to perpetrate a rampage than anyone else. Yet in contrast to media coverage of gun violence in general, the news usually treats barnyard mayhem with a carefully cultivated tone of subdued respect. As in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize–winning portrait of a Midwestern farm patriarch, we ascribe Lear-like qualities to the hardship that unfolds across vast fields and isolated homesteads. However deranged the protagonist, however dearly those within his orbit must pay for his sins, we recognize that he, too, is a flawed hero in capitalism’s signature drama of debt and dispossession.

Looking for Heroes

In the 1980s, small-scale agriculturalists would tell me, “Farmers are on the bottom rung of the food ladder. They get kicked on the way up and on the way down.” That is, farmers are exploited at the points of production and consumption.

The prices they receive for their commodities don’t always cover what it costs to produce them, and those payments represent a small fraction of what consumers shell out for their products after they are processed and sold commercially. Though examples vary depending on specialization — pennies on the dollar for the potatoes that make French fries, the grain that goes into breakfast cereal, or the milk sold in supermarket cartons — you can’t miss the point: profit accrues to those at the top of the supply chain, not those on the bottom.

Rural communities typically understand farmers’ persistence in the face of this abuse as a test of character. For those who endure, it becomes a matter of pride. In this worldview, low commodity prices and high input costs are inevitable adversities to be reckoned with, like pestilence or extreme weather. In the early 1980s, this stoic fortitude met its match when the Federal Reserve attacked soaring inflation and propelled the prime rate to a high of 21.5 percent, ushering in a recession.

The rest of the nation reeled, but family farm agriculture took a hit from which it has arguably never recovered. The spike in interest rates caused land values — previously propped up by rampant speculation — to crash, decimating the equity that secured most farm mortgages. Faced with loans worth far more on paper than on the market, banks and other lending agencies scrambled to initiate foreclosure proceedings, often before payments came due, forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers out of business and many more to refinance their operations with the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), the federal agency known as the “lender of last resort.”

Amid this maelstrom, neighborly codes of silence about financial management and economic distress began to break. All across rural areas, farmers listened to their counterparts who spoke out against farm auctions and called attention to the unjust loan contracts that allowed lenders to unilaterally seek repayment in full.

The history of this era is replete with the courageous acts of men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who dared to put a human face on the toll taken by neoliberalism’s massive restructuring of American agriculture, which by century’s end drove over a million farmers off the land, reduced the total number of farms by 50 percent, and consolidated half of the nation’s food supply in the hands of the remaining 1 percent.

Against this tide, activists staged “no sale rallies” and sit-ins. They drove their tractors and donkeys to Washington, D.C., lobbying for credit reform. They sued the USDA for racial discrimination and built “farm survival” hotlines, advocating for and ministering to those in financial, physical, and psychological need. And they planted white crosses in public squares, honoring farmers lost to foreclosure and suicide.

Journalists and scholars were drawn to these figures at the time, and now they are returning, hoping to find precedent for a liberal resurgence in the midst of another farm crisis. This impulse, however hopeful, privileges a historically specific, and perhaps outmoded, form of political consciousness.

The Left has often idealized a liberatory model of working-class heroism, and nowhere is this more true than in agrarian studies. From the eighteenth century’s English food riots to the Great Depression’s milk strikes to today’s global slow-food movement, we celebrate the appearance of salt-of-the-earth “moral economies” and believe that our food system will serve as ground zero for the kind of direct action that underpins participatory democracy. Only in the grip of the life-and-death urgencies of food politics, we think, can producers and consumers unite in resisting the forces that oppress them. These coalitions can topple kings, corrupt governments, and with luck, transnational corporations.

But what about the rebellions that never happen? What about the majority of farmers, who rally to no cause because they gauge the risk of public humiliation too great or, consumed by depression’s demons, berate activists for their moral failings and ideological errors? Does suicidality index the absence of historical agency or its assertion?

These questions draw us not only into the vortex of past and present farm crises but also into the social traumas repeatedly visited on those whose life and labor is deemed expendable.

Politics of Disruption

It was the spring of 1994, winter’s chill still in the air. Fingers of light stretched long across harrowed fields as the sun rose on a small homestead in western Minnesota. Puffs of breath formed like word bubbles over the figures of a man and woman bent toward each other beside an idling pickup truck, low-lying steam from its tailpipe swirling around their feet.

They were praying.

When they finished, the man jumped into his truck and left the driveway without looking at me. I had arrived early that morning to interview his wife, and she had asked me to wait in my car, explaining apologetically — or was it defiantly? — that her husband still refused to talk about what happened when they lost their farm a decade before.

Her story, like so many others relayed to me in farm kitchens and living rooms, began with a blow-by-blow account of how one misfortune after another — adjustable rate mortgages, refinancing with FmHA and its meddlesome oversight rules, costly accidents involving equipment, livestock, or crops — culminated in crushing debt that, after a protracted period of struggle, became too burdensome to bear.

But here, the story swerved unexpectedly. Instead of narrating an ineluctable process of foreclosure and dispossession, she explained that her husband had vanished. He took family photographs and mementos from a safety deposit box but left no message or sign of his intent. After filing a missing person report and overseeing the unsuccessful search for his body, she found herself unable to imagine a future.

Lenders temporarily backed off. Activists moved in, hoping to make her, a mother of young children fighting to save her farm, emblematic of their cause. But she demurred, intuitively sensing that the publicity would not bring her husband home.

As months passed, panic attacks left her feeling unable to cope — not so much with her financial predicament as with its social effects: the family doctor who dismissed her complaints of blurred vision and forgetfulness; the church friends who avoided her as if her suffering were contagious; the store clerks who whispered behind her back. When the Canadian Royal Mounted Police called to tell her that her husband had been pulled over for driving with an illegible, mud-splattered license plate, she felt God’s grace and found the strength to go on.

Five years later, a similar narrative disruption occurred in an otherwise quite different account of the same farm crisis. I was talking with a North Carolina family who had joined a 1999 class action lawsuit brought by African-American farmers against the USDA for racial discrimination in FmHA lending practices between 1981 and 1996.

This farmer and his wife, a public schoolteacher, lost their farm when FmHA delayed and eventually denied them the operating loans it continued to extend to neighboring white farmers. This couple was a pillar of their community, “staunch conservatives,” as they described themselves, in financial matters as well as moral outlook.

Here too, the story about the forced sale of the farm, where a white farmer bought their land for much less than they had paid for it, was interrupted. Voice breaking, this man described deciding to take his own life, unable to accept a future in which he could no longer do the work he had done all of his life. His wife discovered him comatose, an empty pill bottle in hand. While in the hospital, a vision of an angel in the whitest robe he had ever seen appeared at his bedside, assuring him that God was with him and giving him reason to live.

The trauma of economic dispossession — of land, of labor, and of national belonging — is never restricted to a single event, to a foreclosure notice or a farm auction. It is an ongoing experience of political-economic abandonment that links the loss of a person’s expected future to an intolerable sense of exposure and humiliation.

Rituals that hold us accountable for our own fate, even when we know that the suffering endured is due to forces beyond individual control, normalize our society’s recurrent abandonment of producers, forms of labor, and entire communities.

Emancipatory collective action is one way to combat the legitimation of this injustice. But it is not the only, nor a universally available, option. We must recognize that there are other strategies for dislodging trauma’s grasp on our political imagination, other ways to interrupt the repetition of injury.

It is no coincidence that rising “deaths of despair” caused by substance abuse and suicide are strongly correlated with support for Trump’s presidency throughout rural and postindustrial America. We must recognize, in these tragedies, that precarity’s affects, however fatalistic, contain their own politics of disruption.

We are living in a historical conjuncture in which the experience of dispossession and degradation is ritualized, normalized, and individualized in ways that continually reproduce the original injury. Those caught in this punishing regime of violence may turn to desperate, even self-defeating measures to counteract pain, powerlessness, and the theft of their dignity. But make no mistake: these are collective political actions nonetheless. Only by attending to how social trauma is produced — and how it forecloses a sense of futurity — can we begin asking how things might be otherwise.

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Kathryn M. Dudley is a professor of anthropology and American studies at Yale University. She is the author of Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America's Heartland, among other books on precarious cultures of work.

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