Harry Braverman

Big Business Moves in on the Farmer

(February 1956)

From American Socialist, February 1956.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive in ETOL.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The newest farm census, just out, shows a sharp acceleration of the trend to concentration in agricultural holdings. On the other hand farm tenantry, which had been increasing up to the mid-thirties, has gone down to an all-time low.

DURING 1954, the Bureau of the Census conducted its regular survey of US agriculture, and the preliminary returns are just being made available. The picture they paint is truly startling. In particular, a comparison with the census of 1950 shows a pattern of change in extraordinarily clear and decisive form. It is very rare that a giant social trend can be isolated plainly in statistics covering so brief a period. The reason, in this case, is that the long-term tendencies of American agriculture, observed in slow-motion over the past half-century, have moved into high gear in the recent few years.

In 1950, there were 5,382,162 farms listed. In 1954 this had fallen to 4,782,393, a decline of 11.1 percent. In order to grasp the significance of this drop, it must be compared with the long-run trend, as shown by Table I. From many points of view, 1920 was the turning point for American agriculture. That was roughly when the previously unlimited foreign demand for American farm products seemed to collapse, when the US demand leveled off, when mechanization began to make its sharpest effects felt on the farm, and when the farming class appeared to go into a historic decline, relieved from time to time by spurts of recovery. It is not accidental that 1920 marks the rough turning point when the number of farms stopped growing and started falling.

Number of US Farms

(in millions)
























Census Bureau

But the speed of the trend has now been greatly rated. From 1920 to 1950, the number of farms declined from 6.40 million to 5.38 million, or about 15.5 percent. This drop, which seemed so ominous to all observers writing about the matter up to a few weeks ago when the new census figures appeared, has now been dwarfed by a steep downturn of 11.1 percent in only five years. Students of the problem have demonstrated that the previous trend of American agriculture was not fortuitous. But the past five-year period furnished the acid test for it was a period of relatively high prosperity for the farmers, in spite of the price declines they suffered during the last two years of the 1950-54 interval.

As we look a little more closely into the census returns, they become even more striking. They may not be exactly what the farmer wanted for Christmas, but they are a statistician’s dream in their unalloyed purity. Not only did the number of farms in the country as a whole fall off, but the decline hit every section of the country. There were fewer farmers in every state of the Union with the sole exception of Florida, which gained a few hundred as a result of the boom in cattle ranching in that state. The drop hit all but 180 of the 3,067 counties in the United States! In order to find a time when the number of farms in the U. S. was as small as it was in 1954, you now have to go all the way back to 1890.

The pattern of the decline is equally explicit. The poorest farmers suffered thc most; the family-size commercial farms were not far behind; while the giant factories in the field alone among all the classifications of farms increased their hold and scope considerably. In 1925, the average size of a farm was 145.1 acres; in 1950, 215.3 acres; and in 1954, 242.2 acres. If this last average is compared with the figures in Table II, it will be seen that it is just about at this point that the worm turns. The number of farms in all the classifications below the present average size declined in every case, with the worst decline registered in the smaller size-groups, while in the three classifications that are clearly above average, the numbers have increased, especially in the largest categories.

Change in Number of US Farms, 1950-54

(by size)

Under 10 acres


minus   0.1%

  10 to 29 acres

minus 16.4    

  30 to 49 acres

minus 20.0    

  50 to 69 acres

minus 18.9    

  70 to 99 acres

minus 16.6    

100 to 139 acres

minus 15.1    

140 to 179 acres

minus 11.8    

180 to 219 acres

minus   6.5    

220 to 259 acres

minus   2.6    

260 to 499 acres

plus       0.8    

500 to 999 acres

plus       5.1    

1,000 and over

plus       7.5    

Calculated from Census Bureau figures

Table III shows the same trend even more clearly and reliably, for in the last analysis a classification by money income is more significant than by acreage. All the farmers up through the middle group in terms of farm income are losing their place in the structure, while the farmers in the giant categories are gaining rapidly.

Change in Number of US Farms, 1950-54

(by value of product)

$ 250 to $1,199


minus 40.7%

1,200 to 2,499

minus 14.8    

2,500 to 4,999

minus   8.0    

5,000 to 9,999

minus   2.6    

10,000 to 24,999

plus    13.9    

25,000 and up

plus    27.0    

Calculated from Census Bureau figures

The same tendency is plain if we look at it in racial terms. About one-tenth of the nation’s farmers are Negroes – the poorest among the farmers, it goes without saying. While white operators of farms declined in number by a little over 10 percent, non-white declined by almost 17 percent. The important movement of Negroes to the cities, particularly in the South, is here highlighted.

THE information available to us makes it possible to get a general picture of the farming classes. First, of the 4,782,393 farms, some 1,455,718 or 31 percent make so little economic contribution either to the nation or to their owners that they are not even classed as ‘commercial farms.’ This group includes many types. The very poor, who sustain themselves on an annual cash income of less than $250, are in it. Those for whom the farm is a place of residence and part-income provider, and who work more than 100 days a year off the farm are in it. For others, the farm is a place of retirement, and is supplemented by other forms of income. Hardly any of the total value of farm output is accounted for by this group.

This leaves 3,326,675 farms as the total of the commercial farming class. At the bottom of the pyramid are the poorest farmers, with cash sales between $250 and $2,499. There are 1,225,701 farmers in that situation, a great many of them in the South. Together with the non-commercial farms, this group accounts for about 10 percent of the total output. On top are about 100,000 huge factories in the field, under 2 percent of all farmers, producing about 26 percent of farm output. And in between, there are some 2 million farmers, ranging in income status from that of the skilled worker in the city to that of the well-paid professional, producing the remaining three-fifths of the farm output. That is the general picture.

IN 1933, the historian Louis M. Hacker, then a Marxist, wrote an article the title of which has been much quoted: The Farmer is Doomed. He concluded that article with the following remark:

‘American commercial agriculture is doomed. No gifts of clairvoyance are required to foretell that the future of the American farmer is the characteristic one of all peasants for whom, in our present system of society, there is no hope.’

The expectation of that day was that the course of American farming would be marked by three main tendencies: concentration of ownership and thus a decline in the number of farms, growing tenancy and absentee ownership, and the division of the farming population into a capitalist class and working class, with the growth of farm factories matched by the growth of an agricultural proletariat. While the decline of the farmer has been marked, the scheme drawn up in advance by Hacker, Lewis Corey, and others turned out to be too simple.

Concentration of ownership, and a decline in the number of farms, there surely has been. But the smaller farmer, as he has been wiped out, has not been ‘proletarianized’ in the expected form, either as a tenant or as a farm worker. Instead, he has been proletarianized as an industrial worker in the cities. This aspect of the matter is very important, and is worth looking into more closely.

Up until the time when Hacker and Corey wrote, farm tenancy as a proportion of the nation’s farms had been growing steadily. In 1880, the first year in which the census reported on the matter, 25.6 percent of all farmers were tenants, in 1900 over 35 percent, in 1920 38.1 percent, in 1930 42.4 percent. These were the figures available to the Marxist writers of the thirties. But the depression itself started to reduce the previously growing percentage of tenants, and by 1940 it had dropped to 38.7 percent. During and after the war, more tenant farmers and sharecroppers were squeezed out, and the industrial boom enabled many to move to the cities. Others managed to acquire ownership or part ownership of farms – just how many is not clear, but apparently not many. By 1950, tenancy had shrunk to 26.8 percent of farm operators. By the 1954 census, this was further reduced to 24.4 percent, or below the 1880 level, so that farm tenancy is now at the lowest figure recorded as long as statistics on tenancy have been kept. Clearly, the farmer was not being converted into a European-type ‘peasant’ either in terms of tenancy or cramped size of acreage.

SUCH declining ratio of farming tenantry to the farm class as a whole should not be taken to mean that the tenants were becoming owners in any large numbers. The federal farm ownership loan programs reached only a tiny percentage of the farmers. Between the start of the program in the thirties of giving loans to carefully selected farmers and June 30, 1953, only some 60,000 farmers, a negligible percentage of farm tenants, were able to take advantage of it. A more accurate interpretation would be that, as the smaller farmers were being squeezed off the land, the tenants were getting the axe at a far faster rate than the owners or part-owners. Federal agricultural benefits hardly trickled down to the tenants, and, to the present day, the biggest farmers manage to snap up the lion’s share of federal payments. Market competition was harder on the tenants and smaller farmers, especially since they could not mechanize the way the bigger farmers could, having neither the capital nor the land area to make this feasible. And finally, the war industries opened up a place in the cities for the small farmer and tenant, who, stripped of cheap family labor by the draft and with his back the wall as a result of mechanized competition, often had to take the one way out that was open to him.

Was the farmer becoming a wage worker on the factories in the field? Here also, the evidence is clear. Figures for the fall of 1954 show that during the high seasonal time for farm employment, 2,731,321 hired workers were employed on farms. This is probably an understatement, as so large a proportion of migrant labor bootlegged across the Mexican border and fails to get recorded on any books, and other figures go higher – high as 3.7 million. But this seasonal high is sustained for only a few weeks, and it was determined in 1952 that only as few as 1 million workers were employed on farms for more than 75 days in the year, and only million for more than 25 days. The bulk of these workers, some 60 percent, worked for that top 9 percent of farmers producing a cash value of more than $10,000 year. Aside from the major factories in the field, which are growing but which do not yet predominate throughout American agriculture, it can hardly be claimed that the typical worker-capitalist relationship of our urban industries has been reproduced.

WHAT has happened appears to be this: The great rise in the productivity of a farm family with large enough acreage and sufficient luck and capital mechanize has permitted some 2 million family farms to survive through the ups and downs of recent decades, to survive on a family-operation basis. A farm with a capital value of $60-80 thousand can be operated today with very little or no hired labor, provided the members of the farmer’s family permit their unpaid labor to be exploited mercilessly, and can produce a return in the $5-10 thousand bracket; this is the upper third of the 2 million family-commercial farms that produce the bulk our farm products.

But American capitalism, in its insistent workings, added a proviso to this equation. Mechanization permits such farmers to exist, but it also limited their number to a small and rapidly shrinking figure. The rest are truly being proletarianized – not on the farms but in the cities, in the factories and mills.

Nor does this complete the story. The pride of the American farmer and the pride in the American farmer was that he represented an enclave of independence in our increasingly trustified economy. The measures which had to be taken in the past quarter-century to ensure his survival has put an end to the much-vaunted independence. Very large numbers of the remaining commercial family farms would collapse on the morrow of any removal of present government props and assistances. Thus to return to Hacker’s phrase, the farmers were not all doomed when he wrote it, many of them proved to be, and of the rest it can be said that the independence of the farmer was doomed and will never again play the social or political role that once loomed so large in our national life.

These conclusions may be drawn from the statistical trends up to this point. What is to happen in the future? Is it possible that the trend to tenancy will be reversed again, and the farmers fall in greater numbers into that dependent status, as had been expected in the early thirties? That does not appear likely, as the tenant setup lends itself only to small holdings cultivated with little machinery, and the technological trend is against it.

CERTAINLY, the commercial family-farm group will continue to decrease. At the very moment when the Census Bureau was releasing its figures showing the depth of the drop as of 1954, the farm pundits strongly influential in federal policy were pointing out that the number of farmers in 1955 is far too great. And the bulging warehouses holding $7.5 billion in surplus farm products – in spite of the Eisenhower administration’s reduction of price levels at which it would buy these products – seemed to prove the point. It is estimated that the nation needs, instead of its present three and one-third million commercial farms, only two, or even one and one-half, million.

The decline in the number of farms will therefore probably continue, and the smaller family farms will be hit hardest, as usual. Will the trend be, then, towards the eventual creation of a capital-wage labor structure in agriculture, with huge farm factories taking over the major part of production and the remaining farmers – or most of them – going to work as hired labor? Those who see this as the ultimate end will find much backing in the facts, and could put up a strong case that if American capitalism lasts long enough to work out the trend to its logical finish, that is just what will happen. It is true that the middle-sized family farms still produce three-fifths of our output. But farms of 1,000 acres or more, which were only 67,405 in 1920, expanded to 121,362 in 1950, and, although they are only a little more than two percent of all farms they produce one-quarter of farm output, and had taken over fully 43 percent of farm acreage in that year. There is still a long way to go for these agricultural capitalists to take over most of farm production, but the trend is there. They have an increasing capital to work with, and are ready to step in whereever the small farmer falters.

BEFORE the vigorous entrance on the scene of the modern industrial working class, all of the major movements of social protest in America were dominated by the farmer. Social revolt of significant dimensions practically had to be farm revolt, in view of the largely unorganized state of the working class and the overwhelming numerical weight of the farmer. When the Constitution was adopted, more than 90 percent of our population was rural and agricultural. At the height of the Populist revolt, it was about 40 percent. Today only some 10 percent occupies that position. The most recent figures only underscore what has long been apparent: The financial and industrial oligarchy has decisively won its epochal battle with the American farmer, a battle which once looked so hopeful to democrats.

The fact that this battle was won not by reducing the farmer to the status of a Europeanized peasantry or a Southern cropper tenantry, but instead by making industrial workers of most and mechanizing the rest on increasingly large farms is a very hopeful portent for the future. A peasantry proved to be a great revolutionary social force in Asia and many parts of Europe, but a terrible handicap where property relations were transformed to a socialist basis, as in Russia, China and Eastern Europe. In those countries, the process of rapidly modernizing and mechanizing the village, while at the same time getting enough crops to feed the city, has proved a costly one which holds entire nations back. American agriculture, on the other hand, may truthfully be said to be prepared – in economic and technological terms – for social or cooperative operation. Whether the farmer himself will be easily prepared for such a change is another matter beyond our present scope – his present thinking is certainly heavily capitalist or small-capitalist in character – but the evidence of past farm crises shows that the farmer can change his thinking rapidly under the impact of critical events.


Last updated on 19.7.2006