"Farmers were the true founders of the United States," said Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, "because they went out into the wild and built the first structures and communities that eventually became our cities and the nation." In 1800, 90 percent of Americans were farmers.
She spoke recently at the 21st Annual Conference of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) held in La Crosse, Wisc.
By 1900 after the frontier closed and the nation moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the percentage of farmers dropped to almost 40 percent. That's also when farmers began to shift in their role from "citizens" to "producers."
And they have been rebelling ever since over land and crop prices and agricultural policies, said Hamilton.
"They weren't looking to change the system; they only wanted their fair share of the wealth."
Meanwhile, other inducements moved them off the farm.
They were perceived to be "hayseeds" and helpless victims of droughts, floods and crop failures.
War in Europe exposed many young men to a more expanded view of the world, including the city's lures of wine, women and song as expressed in the World War I hit, "How "Ya Gonna Keep "Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?"
Economic opportunity and excitement in the city led to the gradual abandonment of farming as a career choice. Even during the Great Depression, income was three and four times higher off the farm than on it. In 2007, the USDA reported that farm income per capita was $28,781 compared to urban income of $40,570. Today, a mere 2 percent of Americans are farmers.
After World War II, the United States began a program of prosperity and productivity for all. Farmers who grew crops and stewarded the land were cajoled into resembling industrial workers from the city who produced piecework in a complex system overseen by major corporations, said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
Livestock are cared for by "employees" of big corporations rather than by farmers who once took responsibility for their businesses as well as the small communities where they lived. These were things that gave meaning to their lives. As a result, small farming towns have fallen into social decay with a disappearing middle class.
Then, the USDA's "cheap food policy" of the 1970s resulted in giving major food corporations almost total control of the food system.
"What have we wrought over these past 70 years?" asked Hassebrook.
"People yearn for greater authenticity and a genuine search for meaning and significance in life," said Hassebrook. "They don't just want to accumulate things. They are searching for community and meaningful relationships with people and with the land. They are yearning for more access to nature."
The Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), located in Lyons, Neb., a town of 980, represents a set of values that reflect the best in rural people, he said: fairness, widespread ownership, personal and social responsibility and stewardship of the land where it is preserved for the next generation.