One of the most enduring figures in American culture is the farmer as Rugged Individualist – sturdy, sunburned, standing proudly in fields among bounteous crops or herds. It’s an image found in the frontiersman of the 18th century, up through the lithographs of John Steuart Curry in the 1940s. Thomas Jefferson believed that such an independent yeoman was and should be the foundation of the Republic.
Yet the reality was often very different.
Farmers have confronted numerous adversities from nature, such as droughts and grasshopper plagues. Yet they faced all such things with stoicism. Curiously, we learn from the encyclopedia that in ancient Greek philosophy, the Stoic was one who firmly believed that all life, including humans, were part of nature. If our farmers may be said to be Stoics, it is probably because of their close dependence on nature and their intimate knowledge of her cyclical ways.
Stoics do not easily give up. They will weather any storm, endure any tribulation. My grandfather, who came to Kansas in 1888 when he was 2, remembered that a terrible drought greeted the family. Essentially, he said, it did not rain for 10 years. But the family stayed. Among farming folk, the land is everything: You hold on to it no matter what.
Farmers were not entirely isolated. They joined to break sod, to raise barns, to help harvest crops in case of sickness. They were individualists, but recognized the need and value of human community.
Furthermore, facing high prices for transportation of grain to market only 15 years after the Homestead Act of 1862, farmers formed the mighty Grange movement, which achieved government regulation of railroads. Similarly, in response to the drought of the late 1880s and low prices for grain, a tremendous groundswell of revolt produced the Farmer’s Alliance, followed by the political expression of the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populists, which the historian Lawrence Goodwyn calls “the largest democratic mass movement in American history.” The only way to deal with the new industrial monopolies of railroads and grain markets was through cooperation. The co-ops were born in that era.
When I was a young man in the 1950s, a co-op was to be found in almost every small Kansas town. It consisted of a grain elevator, a feed store and sometimes a gas station. I learned that farmers could take shares in the co-op similar to shares of stock in a company. The small city of McPherson had a co-op refinery, which supplied farmers with lubricants and gasoline.
In time, this co-op became Farmland Industries Inc., with headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. It expanded to meatpacking and fertilizer production, including overseas plants.
But in the drought of the late 1990s, farmers couldn’t afford fertilizer, and a year ago Farmland declared bankruptcy. Last December, 500 farmers gathered in Kansas City to learn that they “would likely lose all of the millions of equity they have built up in what had been the largest farmer-owned cooperative in North America,” reported the Kansas City Star.
Farmers concluded that there was nothing they could do. It was as if bankruptcy had become a force of nature.
By adopting the corporate idea, expanding and spreading itself too thin, Farmland had laid the basis for its own demise. The cooperative idea of the 1890s, which had survived droughts, plagues, wars and depressions, finally succumbed to its old enemy, The Market.
Early in the 19th century, the English writer William Hazlitt wrote that “corporate bodies have no soul.” He argued that they are “more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amenable to disgrace or punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor goodwill.”
Now, as a hundred years ago, America has a choice between Cooperation and the Corporation. Whatever its virtues in the past, stoicism is now no solution. Farmers should arm themselves with the facts, discard what Goodwyn called “the politics of deference,” and prepare to reclaim the cooperative ideal.
Fred Whitehead, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., has published extensively on Midwestern cultural history. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. This article is reprinted from The Land Institute web site: www.landinstitute.org.