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The Small Farm



The mythology of the family farm goes deep in American history. It’s only recently that presidential elections stopped using this mythology for endless ads (if there’s one thing neither candidate cared about in 2016, it was farmers in Kansas or Ohio). Remember how tied up into being a small farmer the Carter campaign was. But the family farms have been stressed and declining for nearly a century, as automation and global commodity markets made efficiency the only thing that mattered. Despite the U.S. propping up these farmers through Nixon-era crop subsidies, they continue to decline. Given the relatively small number of people involved, I can’t get too worked up over the routine stories like this about their continued decline.

That said, this is part of the larger American problem that we have not come up with any sort of long-term industrial or employment planning to figure out what these people do when they lose their farms. Where do they go? What kind of dignified life can they lead? That’s even more true if they want to stay in small-town Kansas or Iowa, but not really that much better for most if they move to the cities. The lack of such a policy is really at the core of a number of our problems right now, including the sharp reaction to right-wing white nationalist politics with its very strong economic message of “screw brown people.” With millions of people about to lose their jobs due to automation in trucking and restaurants, this is not getting better as we on the left aren’t even articulating any good ideas on this point. We are at the starting point, ceding the rhetorical field to fascists. At least we can have some great songs about it.

Of course, no one epitomizes the Trump voter more than the white farmer, so it’s not like they would support any big programs to help themselves out anyway, unless it was more cash payments that went directly to them. As Donald Worster pointed out years ago in his excellent book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, farmers of the western Plains were big fans of the New Deal precisely up to the point where a) they saw an outsized amount of the benefits and b) the economy was so bad that they had no other choice. As soon as the New Deal was seen helping those people and the weather turned so they could be productive again, they turned back to the environmentally disastrous farming methods and hatred of the government that got them into trouble in the first place.

So there is no little irony that the California farmers who so strongly supported Trump and now worried about acquiring their cheap, exploitable labor force that has driven their agenda for more than a century.

Jeff Marchini and others in the Central Valley here bet their farms on the election of Donald J. Trump. His message of reducing regulations and taxes appealed to this Republican stronghold, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest bases of support in the state.

As for his promises about cracking down on illegal immigrants, many assumed Mr. Trump’s pledges were mostly just talk. But two weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump has signed executive orders that have upended the country’s immigration laws. Now farmers here are deeply alarmed about what the new policies could mean for their workers, most of whom are unauthorized, and the businesses that depend on them.

“Everything’s coming so quickly,” Mr. Marchini said. “We’re not loading people into buses or deporting them, that’s not happening yet.” As he looked out over a crew of workers bent over as they rifled through muddy leaves to find purple heads of radicchio, he said that as a businessman, Mr. Trump would know that farmers had invested millions of dollars into produce that is growing right now, and that not being able to pick and sell those crops would represent huge losses for the state economy. “I’m confident that he can grasp the magnitude and the anxiety of what’s happening now.”

Mr. Trump’s immigration policies could transform California’s Central Valley, a stretch of lowlands that extends from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Approximately 70 percent of all farmworkers here are living in the United States illegally, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. The impact could reverberate throughout the valley’s precarious economy, where agriculture is by far the largest industry. With 6.5 million people living in the valley, the fields in this state bring in $35 billion a year and provide more of the nation’s food than any other state.

Yeah, like he cares about you Mr. White Farmer.

Between this and $3 tomatoes in January thanks to whatever restrictions they are going to put on products coming in from Mexico, the reemergence of nutrition-based diseases among the American poor is sure going to work out for all of us!

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