I've witnessed firsthand the effects of "community-killing agriculture," a phrase Wendell Berry coined in The Unsettling of America, published in 1977. With respect to agriculture, the 1970s was the era of "farm fencerow to fencerow," advice coming from Earl Butz, U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
As the title of Berry's book implies, negative effects from U.S. farm policy began long before Butz's tenure. However, Butz's influence exacerbated depopulation of the countryside - and the killing of rural communities - because he repeatedly stressed, "get big or get out" and "adapt or die."
Butz was a proponent of using U.S. grain reserves to supply the export markets, the so-called feed-the-world strategy. Now, exports are married to the survival of farmers' enterprises, for better or worse.
Despite the disastrous social and cultural outcomes of Butz's hardheaded economic policies, his influence remains intact in some quarters. He became the dean emeritus of Purdue's School of Agriculture after he resigned as ag secretary, due to a vulgar comment that no man reading this letter would want his spouse or daughters to see or hear. Sound familiar?
Agricultural economists (Butz was one) might be tempted to advise a second-term Trump administration that farm policy should once again become more "efficient" - by ending the federal crop insurance program or privatizing it. If so, the third decade of the 21st century in North Dakota's farm country, specifically, could repeat that of the 20th century, a desperate historical period, indeed.
Hulse lives in Fargo, N.D.
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