If you grew up on or around a family farm, the 80's means something very specific. It's the sort of thing that is said in passing, but with gravity, and often meant to imply a need for cautious decision making, or a general sense of down and out. The 1980's Farm Crisis still looms large in the minds of land owners, farmers, and rural communities
Students of the agricultural landscapes in the Midwest United States should study this history - doubly so if the work intends to comment on, or suggest potential changes to, rural land use patterns.
The following post is a compilation of videos that provide a range of perspectives on what happened in the Midwest in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, and the overall impact on farming and rural communities.
The videos range from the USDA's 1965 videos on rural development initiatives and the advocacy against Reaganomics in Down and Out in America, to the nearly ethnographic approach of God's Country and the modern documentary style of Iowa Public Television. Each provides a window into this time period to be viewed critically and reflectively.
Note: I have only linked to one video of many in each series. If it doesn't autoplay to the next, additional videos can be found on YouTube.
USDA's Rural Development Initiatives (1965)
The first video is a video from the USDA on Poverty in Rural America. This video provides a sense of the rural development policy (and the attitudes of it) that encouraged people to borrow money to modernize their farms. This comes from a long tradition in the US government, and obviously, development is not bad, but the questions surrounding how development can and should happen still requires research. In many respects, the pushes for "sustainable development" and "reflexive modernization" are extensions of this long-standing development tradition, rife with the same underlying ethical and practical challenges.
God's Country (1979 | 1985)
The second documentary is God's Country directed by Louis Malle that profiles Glencoe, Minnesota in 1979 and then again in 1985. A colleague made me aware of this recently. It provides an unsentimental look at small-town life and agriculture, which helps to cut through some of the dense cultural narratives of what it means to be "rural."
Down and Out in America (1986)
Lee Grant's Down and Out in America provides a vivid depiction of the individual price farmers paid and the resulting rural activism in response to the Farm Crisis of the 1980's. This film is unique in that it hits on not only rural American farming, but also manufacturing, and then looks at challenges of poverty and housing in the city.
Iowa Public Television Farm Crisis (1970-1990)
This PBS documentary, while at times dry and overly sentimental, tries to give a full perspective on what happened in the farm crisis. When combined with the more ethnographic story-telling approaches of Malle and Grant, I think a full picture begins emerge about how modernist culture in the USDA and across agricultural sector, combined with hard-line free-market policies, interacted with market dynamics, weather, and credit to create the Farm Crisis.
Obviously, the full picture isn't told by these films, but they do provide a glimpse into the time period from multiple different perspectives. If you come across other multimedia that you find compelling and thinks adds additional complexity to these stories, by all means let me know and I'd be happy to add to this post or link to other resources in the list below.
- Blog post with timeline on The History Rat: THE 1985 FARM CRISIS: WHAT ONE HAND GIVETH, THE OTHER TAKETH AWAY
- Demographic trends in rural America
- A review of Kansas, another film on the Farm Crisis.
- Thesis considering impacts in rural Canada
- Farm Crisis sociology
- Farm Debt Crisis and Public Policy
- Genetic engineering and the Farm Crisis
- Cognitive impacts of the Farm Crisis
- A look at variability in farm income and the role of off-farm income
- Theoretical piece on the role of place and social construction
- Website with many other videos related to rural landscapes and work
- Essex County, Lemire