A Green New Deal for Agriculture

Agriculture policy in the original New Deal sprang from a heady mix of class struggle and uneasy alliances. The Green New Deal will have to stitch together a different coalition that can challenge the dominant mode of agriculture and create a more just food system.

Farmers during the New Deal.

The food system is breaking the planet. Nearly a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are driven by how we eat, and it’s impossible to tackle climate change without transforming agriculture. So the Green New Deal is wise to call for “a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” Better yet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s proposal includes a call to work “collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.”

This has the makings of a bonanza for rural America. Healthy food costs more and is harder to access than processed food. Under a Green New Deal that helped Americans eat better, more cash might flow back to the land. And if the federal government were paying more for better food, and understood that well-managed soil can sequester carbon, sustainable farming might be a way to end America’s rural poverty.

Yet almost as soon as the Green New Deal was released, members of the American Farm Bureau criticized the proposal as misguided and uninformed. Early in March, the National Farmers Union, one of the more left-leaning of the large farm organizations, snubbed the Green New Deal for not recognizing “the essential contribution of rural America.” And the recent Senate vote united fifty-seven members of the chamber in opposition. So, why the haters in farm country?

Of course, not all farmers are conservative. Nor is everyone living in rural America a farmer. Farmers carried Jimmy Carter to the White House in 1976. Farmers and others active in America’s rural social movements have written enthusiastically about the Green New Deal and its possibilities for family farms, about how it might spur things like rural repopulation, new farm pricing models, and climate-friendly agriculture. But those ideas are written against what the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony.

A key idea in Gramsci’s work on hegemony is that of a historic bloc, a coalition that licenses and polices a dominant social order. The power within that bloc extends beyond brute force — it tries to establish dominance at the level of “common sense,” styling ideas of what’s socially acceptable and what’s unthinkable. The dominant historic bloc in the United States today is an assembly of property owners, fossil fuel corporations, war-makers, tech giants, media outlets, health care management firms, industrialists, monopolists, and financiers, but involves cultural leadership from some workers and farmers. The reflexive criticism of the Green New Deal, before its details have even been hashed out, is an indicator of the bloc’s hegemony.

The Green New Deal’s success depends on refashioning this common sense. To rewrite common sense is to unpick the alliances that the current bloc works to maintain, to find the fault lines that can pry that bloc apart, and to develop the organizational links that can build a counter-hegemonic bloc. To do that, it’s worth understanding the source of some of the most important alliances in the current configuration of forces in America’s food system: the first New Deal.

The original New Deal today appears as a miracle, an incredible moment in which the nation stood united behind Keynesian policy to accomplish big things. Yet they were achieved not because the nation united behind them, but because the nation was profoundly divided. The New Deal was a project precipitated by class struggle, and is best understood as a series of victories and defeats in the management of that struggle by an anxious bourgeoisie, across rural and urban America.

US Militancy in Context

Labor militancy in the US is on the upswing. Last year, there were twenty major strikes involving 485,000 workers (a little more than 0.1 percent of the US population), led by an inspirational series of education worker walkouts.

But compared to the unrest that produced the original New Deal, we have a way to go.

Strikes in the US since 1947. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Strikes in the US since 1919. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In the 1910s and 1920s, strikes and labor activism in America reached a zenith. In 1919, there were 3,630 strikes involving 4,160,000 workers, or about 4 percent of the country’s total population. Rural America, where nearly half of Americans lived in 1920, was both a battleground and prize in that struggle.

The US government, through slavery, warfare, and its attendant political ecology, largely succeeded in banishing indigenous people and their foodways from the land. The nineteenth century established the foundations of capitalist agriculture. America’s twentieth-century battles were over the security of those foundations, with militant farmer and farm workers pitted against the owners and operators of agricultural industry. Class struggles in the early 1900s incubated the idea among the ruling class that part of the American agricultural project lay in cultivating the right kind of farmer: white, conservative, and above all, a man of business. That farmer could be given the right kind of education to become the right kind of American entrepreneur invested in the normal functioning of markets and governments.

Agricultural extension services, which date to the foundation of land grant universities in the early 1860s, were key to producing both commodity crops and conservative farmers. The original agricultural extension services were supported by the Chambers of Commerce and the General Education Board, funded by John D Rockefeller. Extension classes turned into national lobbying organizations for farmers who saw farming neither as a front line in class struggle, as some farmers unions did, nor as a keystone to broader community transformation and freedom from monopoly, as the Grange Movement did, but rather, as a bulwark against rural insurrection. These conservative farmers had their own organizational form: the American Farm Bureau, the spawn of the Chamber of Commerce (alongside the Chamber’s Roads and Alleys Bureau and Protection Bureau).

George Naylor, a farmer and member of Family Farm Defenders, describes the New Deal’s prehistory like this: “The big push to organize Farm Bureaus in the teens and twenties from Kansas on up through Iowa and north was intended to blunt the progress of the Socialist Party, Non-Partisan League, and Farmer-Labor organizing in the Dakotas and Minnesota.”

In the late 1940s, Naylor continues, “the Farm Bureau took a hard turn to the right and joined in the mantra that the government should get out of agriculture. But Americans were fighting the fascists at home before we fought them in Europe and Asia.” Fascism romanticizes and transforms the heartland. European fascists spun stories of blood and soil, while simultaneously breeding crops and animals to reflect their visions of national purity. In rural America, the state and private sector had laid the basis for a kindred approach, that the right kinds of commodities, and the right kinds of people to bring them to market, might build the nation.

Source: Tontz, Robert L. 1964. “Memberships of General Farmers’ Organizations, United States, 1874-1960,” Agricultural History 38 (3):143–156.

Today, the Farm Bureau has around 6 million member families. The number of farms in the US is around 2 million. The claim to be “the voice of the American farmer” rings hollow when most Farm Bureau members don’t actually farm. The membership numbers are goosed up by the bureau’s main revenue streams: insurance. This isn’t crop insurance for farmers, but auto, home, health, and life insurance for anyone who becomes a “member.” In order to benefit from discounts, you have to join.

It’s a rich irony. Climate change is speared into the heartland through climate catastrophe, and the politics of its payouts. And one of the ways climate change effects will continue to be mitigated is through the partisan politics of federal crop insurance. Farmers wouldn’t risk planting thousands of acres of monoculture crops in a market where prices are driven down by overproduction, without the knowledge that — on average — they might turn a profit. Climate change reduces the average. Subsidized crop insurance moves the average back up so that farming practices that promote climate change are in effect encouraged.

The Farm Bureau’s membership is also swelled by the interests that make up the large-scale industrial agricultural supply chain, like industrial hog farms — interests deeply opposed to the Green New Deal. The Farm Bureau has opposed unions and Medicare — indeed, the Medicare fight in the early 1960s saw the Farm Bureau side with the insurance industry and Chambers of Commerce against the Farmers Union and Socialist Party. More recently, the Farm Bureau has been at the front lines of opposition to the Waxman-Markey climate change bill. If the Markey-Ocasio Cortez plan wants to avoid another defeat, it’ll have to outsmart them.

Beyond the Farm Bureau

What sort of politics can take on the complex of industrial farmers, large-scale processors, and the chemical industry that supports them? Again, the original New Deal’s class forces offer some instruction.

The agricultural elements of the New Deal were the much-delayed response to a chronic farm crisis that had begun at the end of World War I. Political activism among farmers generated the farmer-labor politics of the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in 1922. The CPPA’s candidate for the United States presidency, Robert La Follette, won Wisconsin in 1924 with socialist support. The history of these farmer-worker alliances against monopolies and “plutocrats” offers a signal lesson for the Green New Deal.

Farmer-agitators in the 1920s and 1930s knew well that the fattest of the fat cats were to be found in finance. The Farmer’s Holiday Movement, which shared leadership with the Iowa Farmers Union, knew their enemies to be the Chicago grain traders, Wall Street financiers, and railroad monopolies. In their 1932 Union Farmer newspaper, they called for a strike against those interests:

We can’t continue longer now
Upon our weary way
We’re forced to halt upon life’s trail

And call a “holiday.”
Let’s call a Farmer’s Holiday
A Holiday let’s hold
We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs,
And let them eat their gold.

Iowa Union Farmer, Feb. 27, 1932

After all, the logic ran, if banks could have a holiday, why couldn’t farmers take a day off, withhold their output from the market, and see what the city swells would eat if they couldn’t eat greenbacks? It was tactics like these, deployed by militants in the Iowa Farmers Union, that helped push agricultural policies into the New Deal.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the first agricultural arm of the New Deal, was aimed at paying farmers higher prices in exchange for reducing production. It was, itself, a triumph of a new coalition, in which the Farm Bureau’s president, Ed O’Neal, earned special thanks from Agriculture secretary Henry A. Wallace for his work “so unceasingly to heal the ancient breach between the Democratic farmers of the South and the Republican farmers of the Middle West.”

For many, the AAA was a victory. As Naylor points out, “the early New Deal efforts saved many family farms from bankruptcy. My dad who came to this farm one hundred years ago, age thirteen, and farmed until 1962, would be emotional when recounting his neighbors losing their farms. He would tell you that the recovery of prices helped bring that to a halt. Even though the seeds of good policy were sown in the New Deal, the balance of political power at the time always limited the best provisions and implementation.” Many family farms made it through the 1930s because of the AAA, a program whose ultimate benefits weren’t fully achieved until the early 1940s.

Again, it doesn’t make sense to see the AAA as the permanent triumph of a particular group, but a moment in the making of a bloc, one that was itself the result of a process of struggle. The bloc was even given a name by a correspondent to one of FDR’s advisors: “There are no parties left. Farmers are members of the Roosevelt party.”

But the effects of the New Deal were never homogenous, and not all were members of the Roosevelt party. There were stark divisions along lines of race and gender. By delegating certain disbursements from federal to the state level, the New Deal furthered a notion of citizenship segregated by gender. For farmers who worked for a landlord, and particularly those who sold their agricultural labor in the South, the story was different too. By design, the AAA reduced crop production. That meant less land under production for tenant farmers. The payments made to Southern plantation owners were supposed to trickle down to the tenant farmers who actually did the work. Yet when the law required payments to renter-farmers, landlords downgraded their status from tenant to worker, thus evading the need to pay out federal funds.

In response, socialist organizers worked in Arkansas with white and black sharecroppers to form the first local of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union with the vision “to establish a co-operative order of society by legal and peaceable methods.” This put them in a pitched battle with Arkansas planters and “public officials who [were] firmly convinced that unless they [took] drastic steps, white supremacy, Christianity, the American flag and the sanctity of home and family will be overthrown by agents of the Soviet Union.” This is why Howard Kester, an organizer with the STFU, characterized the Agricultural Adjustment Act as “that economic monstrosity and bastard child of a decadent capitalism and a youthful fascism.”

But if the STFU was a critic of federal relief for landowners, they also fought the government for wage increases — which they achieved. In the end, they came undone both by the increasing number of conservatives at USDA, and their subsumption under a far less militant CIO union.

The STFU’s critique of the New Deal matters today. They were correct that the benefits of the Agricultural Adjustment Act favored landowners over laborers. And they were right to see the shortcomings of the New Deal that grew out of the Democrats’ dependence on southern white supremacist legislators. In one of the largest lawsuits in US history, Pigford v. Glickman, a class of black farmers who had been systematically excluded from the federal government’s agricultural largesse successfully sued the USDA. But the settlement, in excess of $1 billion, hasn’t addressed the deeper structural problems of USDA policy. The Green New Deal is an opportunity to organize through these social histories, histories that inform today’s understandings of what’s common sense and what’s absurd, in rural America.

The Costs of Being a Farmer in Twenty-First-Century Agriculture

This graph, showing the trend in farm size and number from 1850–2017 is one with which most farmers are intimately familiar: the number of farms has declined and their size has increased.

Trends in land size reflect shifts in ownership. More and more farmers, large and small, are renters, their landlords being either farmers or, increasingly, out-of-state rentiers who have found in farmland an asset class “like gold with yield.”

Farmers have become factors of production along with their land. In that commercial ecology, it’s no accident that larger farms have more of everything: credit, capital, insurance, relief, government favor, and, at the end of the day, profit. The market share of sales by the largest 5 percent of producers steadily increased from 38.3 percent in 1939 to 54.5 percent by 1987. America’s largest farms — with a gross sales value of over $1 million, representing 4 percent of all farms — made a net average of $515,000 in 2018. The poorest, with gross sales less than $100,000, representing 80 percent of all farms, made -$1,200 in 2018.

Source: USDA

As Ocasio-Cortez has also noted, there may be nothing wrong with automation if it reduces drudgery and promotes freedom. It’s certainly true that capitalist technology has always driven peasants out of agriculture. The number of self-employed and family farm workers on US farms went from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.06 million in 2000, but since then has remained relatively stable. Outside the heavy mechanization of commodity crops of corn, wheat, rice, and soy, the US continues to rely on farm workers for “specialty crops,” usually poorly paid. In 2015–16, two-thirds of all farm workers were from Mexico, and 49 percent of all farm workers were undocumented. Those workers were often driven by the displacement caused by the devastation of NAFTA and, more recently, CAFTA. Robots may soon pick apples or strawberries from fields that have more or less completed their transformation into factories, a final twist of the knife for those who were once peasants in the Global South, displaced by US economic policy.

Beyond Industrial Agriculture

The push towards robots in the fields highlights one of the biggest conceptual challenges for a Green New Deal. The financial arithmetic of a modern food system — from land ownership to insurance to the futures market — depends on a permanent exploitation of soil, atmosphere, and labor. At the moment, those who want to farm with dignity in the web of life plead a case for which there is no business logic.

To pay workers well, to grow a polyculture of crops that can help sequester carbon and battle the sixth extinction, to farm without chemicals that poison workers, air, and water — all are militated against by the arrangements of payments that currently prevail. It’s rarely profitable to farm agroecologically when the rules of the game reward ecological devastation, worker exploitation, and monoculture.

Corroborating evidence that the food industry is premised on destruction comes from an unlikely source. A 2012 report by KPMG singled out the food industry as the most environmentally damaging of any sector, with conservatively calculated externalities equaling 224 percent of the food industry’s revenues. This is the kind of result that ought to give defenders of the current food system pause. If this data is correct — and at a conference of donors in 2015 a senior Nestlé executive suggested that these ratios accurately reflected the findings of an internal audit at his corporation — then there’s only one conclusion: there’s no such thing as a sustainable food industry. Either the industry is profitable by dint of its externalities, or it stops making food and money.

Source: KPMG International. 2012, Expect the Unexpected: Building business value in a changing world. KPMG.

What’s the alternative to industrial agriculture? Smaller-scale farms (fewer than twenty hectares) produce more than 75 percent of most food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, south Asia, and China, with comparatively high yields on smaller farms reflecting the return to the skill and work of the farmers managing that land. One landmark report, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development suggested that for a sustainable future, the world would need more urban and peri-urban farming with sustainable farming systems. In the United States, large farms dominate, but the latest agricultural census, from 2012 (the 2017 census release has been delayed by the shut-down), points to growth in farms with irrigation and fewer than ten acres.

The twenty-five to thirty-four-year-old farming demographic grew from 2007 to 2012. And although some farmers under forty-five are conservative, there are reasons for qualified optimism. A survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition suggests that there’s a generation of young people who want to farm sustainably, organically, and as a part of a robust local food system. Their main concerns are an inability to afford land, student debt, poor health care, and a shortfall of skilled farm labor. Readers in urban areas may recognize some of these concerns as their own. And it offers an opportunity for the Green New Deal to build a bloc that might counter the dominant one.

Questions for a Green New Deal for Food Systems

When we think about how a Green New Deal might transform the food system, we’ve got no answers, but we do have a process. For years, the international peasant movement La Via Campesina has advocated the idea of food sovereignty, a demand that everyone have the right to have a say in what their food system looks like. Although this might sound like a milquetoast call for participation, food sovereignty takes questions of power and inequality seriously: one practical consequence emerging from the subsequent discussions around what food sovereignty might be has been an active battle against patriarchy.

La Via Campesina’s process — of discussion, research, teaching, and organizing — takes time, and struggles with complex politics across class. But that’s what building a bloc involves. No Green New Deal can emerge perfectly formed from the head of a single individual or organization. If it works, it’ll work because the process of articulating it will also be the process of building the alliances it needs to succeed as a counter-hegemonic policy.

And if it works, we submit that the Green New Deal will have managed to answer questions that for now, we can address only speculatively.

First, what issues might bind a front of farmers, farm workers, and others to win a Green New Deal?

From a farming perspective, there’s nothing that brings farmers together quite like a loathing of monopoly. From the Populists to the present, farmers have been shafted by concentrated market power and have sometimes managed to fight back and win. When the Federal Trade Commission was tasked during World War I with breaking the market collusion between meatpackers and railroads, it saw no way to achieve “fundamental improvements” without the federal government making a public service out of the rail distribution networks.

Unfortunately, the government didn’t nationalize the railroads. The 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act was the compromise. It was designed to police food monopolies and stockyards, and has been the target of industry attack ever since. Although the early Obama administration promised to use its power to regulate food monopolies, little came of it. Under Sonny Purdue, the Trump administration’s USDA has made regulators accountable to those whom they regulate, and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration offers dwindling protection for farmers against corporate power.

Today, that power is projected through the draconian monopsony of the meat industry. There have been successful rebellions against some of America’s monopolies, and the demands they make on the social purse. What might it look like if urban campaigns against subsidies to Amazon/Whole Foods were linked to resistance against the order promoted by Tyson and Purdue?

Another issue that binds rural and urban constituencies is around cheap food. It’s easy to satirize the coastal elite preoccupation with organic food as bourgeois and hugely out-of-touch with working America. Although we know through our own work that working poor families would love to eat organic food, but it’s too expensive. Cheap food is the corollary of low-wage cheap work.

There is potential for farmer-labor organizing that builds on the lessons of the last New Deal, and the reconfigurations of power through the 1960s and 1970s that allowed food stamps to enter the Farm Bill in 1977. For a rural Green New Deal to work in the twenty-first century, everyone’s incomes need to increase. Growing food justly and sustainably is expensive. Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s produced sustainably. Consumers must be able to pay for the knowledge embedded in, and carbon sequestered through, sustainable agriculture: through low-input, sophisticated agroecological farming, renewable energy, unprocessed fresh food, and farms run by all those who want to work the land. And of course, farmers and farm workers, too, must be paid fairly and appreciated for their work.

The New Deal offered the makings of a system that allowed farmers to survive, and the Texas Farmers Union has recently been asking what a new one might look like. Without getting too deep into the weeds, the idea is that farmers have a floor price for grain — sometimes called “parity” and based on the costs of production — with the government buying and storing excess production up to a set limit, and then paying farmers to reduce their acreage and plant cover crops like alfalfa or tillage radish that can sequester carbon on land used for commodity crop production. Variants of this parity pricing system provide farmers a fair price for their crop, one that can be adjusted to include the costs of good ecological management. In other words, parity pricing can pay farmers to do right by the ecology on which they depend.

Public grain storage is also a useful way of smoothing out the fluctuations in basic crop availability caused by extreme weather fluctuations, and the speculative frenzy on the global commodity markets that can accompany them. With more extreme weather on the way, a public grain storage system can short circuit the wild fluctuations that might otherwise drive food prices sky high after a harvest failure.

But it has a downside for the existing agricultural order. The abundance of cut-price feedcrops like corn and soy make Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) economical. CAFOs exist because of the subsidies they receive through low commodity prices, prices that are abundantly unfair, manipulated downward by monopolies far larger than the waste-lagoons into which CAFO shit drains. A parity price system would make CAFOs uneconomical. This will thrill neither CAFO owners nor lovers of cheap meat, but it’s absolutely in line with the dietary changes that need to be made for a net-zero carbon future.

Parity pricing will mean an end to “cheap food,” and that’s only thinkable in tandem with the end of cheap work. A front that brings unions and the urban anti-hunger lobby together with the right parts of the farming community could make this happen. But it’s hard to imagine CAFOs being a part of that bloc.

The impossibility of CAFOs under in a green economy begs a deeper question: what does an economic system that values labor, life, and carbon look like?

American corn farmers know what it’s like to transition towards renewable energy, but their experience has happened in ways that maintain the hegemony of the dominant bloc. Because of deals between the fossil fuel, industrial agricultural, and farm lobbies, more US corn goes towards ethanol than any other use. But renewable isn’t the same thing as sustainable, and ethanol production in the US is far from a winning ecological strategy. Any Green New Deal would need to embrace a far more comprehensive accounting for energy, biodiversity, land, water, and carbon flows than ethanol’s political calculus allows.

We know the outlines of what an energy future might look like, and even one for housing, we know what it might look like to supplant industrial agriculture to more sustainable food systems. We even know what it might be like to have a unified food and agriculture policy that’s mindful of climate change. But plenty of work remains around the process that gets us there, and in particular what the new financial and credit systems we use in order to invest in that transformed future.

Our third question looks beyond the US: How will the US movement for a Green New Deal act in concert with similar movements elsewhere in the world?

Greenhouse gasses don’t care where they’re emitted, so the Green New Deal has to involve international engagement. American industrial agriculture has been justified by the claim that “America is feeding the world.” But the world can feed itself, if America lets it. The US has for decades used its power in the Global North and South to make markets for its agricultural surpluses, dumping cheap grain and undermining local agriculture. US power has operated through the world food system, rewarding and punishing states through investment, market access, and technology for cooperation with the US national interest.

More broadly, the fossil fuel economy from which the Global North has profited for centuries, leaves agriculture in the Global South far more vulnerable to the ecosystem state-shifts ahead.

Large parts of the Global South were eviscerated in the nineteenth century through the militarized operations of a liberal food system, as Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts points out. One calculation puts the bill for Britain’s 173-year colonization of India at £9 trillion. Part of a Green New Deal has to be reparative, both domestically and globally.

Which points us to the last question, and the most fraught. The question of the land itself. Suzan Erem, a former SEIU organizer and now executive director at the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, asks: “Do we have the courage to face the original sin on which this country was premised: land theft”? It’s barely been 150 years since the Plains Wars and the conversion of bison rangeland to cattle territory. The United States is a settler colony, and when that land was enclosed, capital was always at the frontier, paying for arms and the cheap nature they secured. There is a reckoning long overdue that recognizes how the US was colonized, the claims of the descendants of those indigenous whom the United States wanted to exterminate, and the role of capitalism in settling the “heartland.”

Just as during the New Deal, we live in a time of incipient fascism, racism, and class divide. The Green New Deal can learn from its antecedent’s successes and failures, which provided a dramatic economic shift in rural America — not as dramatic as we might have wished for, nor as long-lasting as we would have liked, nor as egalitarian as it should have been. Yet the New Deal did make the case that environmental protection and paying people fairly for their work might go a long way towards limiting the power of corporations and creating a fair society for everyone.

Hindsight should inform the Green New Deal. This time, sustainable farmers need not be forced to choose between responsibility to the land and the communities of which they are part. Better living through farming can’t happen without canny political alliance-building, stitching together a bloc that addresses hunger, poverty, malnutrition, and inequities in wealth and wages, both in the countryside and city. The logic of building a counter-hegemonic bloc demands a militant rural presence. Not everyone will buy in, but there are farmers and farm workers who are ready to fight to make a net-zero-carbon world a new kind of common sense.

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Raj Patel is a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-author with Jason W. Moore of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.

Jim Goodman is a “repurposed dairy farmer” and president of the National Family Farm Coalition, a member of the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina.

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