The 80's Farm Crisis: losses loom large

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. Of course, these are in no way totalizing of all of the viewpoints.

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.

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.

Additional Resources

Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin

The Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin is a resource that compiles United States and global information on weather and crop production in the form of short writing blurbs and a lot of maps.

It is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the World Agricultural Outlook Board.

The three following maps were pulled from the February 14, 2017 report that was just released. What I appreciate is that the report includes total precipitation, but then tries to put short term records into a larger context by making maps comparing the current state to historical averages.

In addition to the United States focused reports (including state crop progress reports that I didn't sample), there are maps that focus on summarizing current global crop production, as well as region specific maps like the one below of precipitation on Brazil.

The USDA has a significant number of resources that anyone can subscribe to (bottom of this page). They provide a synthesis of different information flows that would be time consuming to access regularly.

Using Adventure Learning to Teach K12 Students about Minnesota Agriculture

In the spring of 2013, I co-developed an Adventure Learning project with colleagues at the University of Minnesota aimed at engaging 7-12 students in exploring the diversity of innovative agricultural practices happening across Minnesota's landscape. Adventure Learning is an approach to experiential education that uses online and face-to-face instruction to engage students in the exploration of an issue in a specific place. The adventure consisted of an endurance run and bike across Minnesota.

The route for Grown to Run consisted mostly of highway 7. This route was chosen because it cuts across a representative set of Minnesota agroecosystems. Each color on the line represents a different day of travel, and each point on the map represents a location where we stopped.

The route for Grown to Run consisted mostly of highway 7. This route was chosen because it cuts across a representative set of Minnesota agroecosystems. Each color on the line represents a different day of travel, and each point on the map represents a location where we stopped.

We reached approximately 300 students with the social network, adventure update videos, and online curriculum. We also got some popular press through Minnesota Public Radio's Ground Level blog (article 1 and article 2). The project was sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and Coca Cola. See full project report here.

Because of the longterm costs of hosting the social network, it was taken down in 2014, but the materials from the project still exist and are posted below. The curriculum consisted of lesson plans, expert videos, daily adventure updates, and farm interviews.

Lesson Plans

The Adventure Learning curriculum has four lesson plans that emphasize student-centered teaching and experiential learning. Each lesson comes with a teacher guide and accompanying materials including student handouts. The lesson plans cover the following topics:

  1. History of Minnesota prairies and conversion to agriculture
  2. An overview of agricultures current challenges and innovations
  3. A look at how diet influences agricultural production by considering the Farm to School program
  4. A lesson on the future of farming.

These can be viewed and downloaded in Dropbox here.

Expert Video Interviews

Scientists from the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and The Nature Conservancy provided short instructional videos that accompany each of the lessons focused on their areas of expertise within food and agriculture.

Expert Video 1: Historical Midwest Land Use Change

Dr. Steve Chaplain, Senior Conservation Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, gives an introduction to what native Minnesota prairie is exactly, how to understand it aesthetically and ecologically, and how it produced highly productive agricultural soils.

Dr. Lisa Schulte-Moore, Associate Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University, provides an overview of landscape change across the Midwest United States by looking at the agricultural history of three townships in Iowa.

Expert Video 2: Current Agricultural Production and Conservation in Minnesota

Dr. Paul Porter, Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota, describes the productivity of Midwest landscapes for agriculture, how these landscapes have transitioned to corn and soybeans, and provides an overview of corn and soybean agronomy.

Dr. Steve Chaplin, Senior Conservation Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, gives a description of how prairie conservation, restoration, and the spatial arrange of prairie influences influence biodiversity, and how haying and grazing can positively influence ecosystem services.

Expert Video 3: The Future of Minnesota Agriculture

The video presents perspectives from four professors at the University of Minnesota on the future of Minnesota agriculture.

Dr. Donald Wyse, Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, provides an overview of the challenges of food demand, supply, and environmental sustainability, and the opportunities for young people in the food system.

Dr. Seth Naeve, Associate Professor and Extension Agronomists, describes some of the challenges of agriculture as an extension of our current challenges as they relate to agronomic production and landscape simplification related to pest pressures.

Dr. Jeff Coulter, Associate Professor and Extension Agronomist, describes the challenges and opportunities of crop production, including farm profitability and weed resistance.

Dr. Nick Jordan, Professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, provides a look at some of the potential research solutions that researchers are currently developing to solve the Grand Challenges associated with agricultural production and conservation.

Farmer Interviews

Each of the following videos came from a different farm stop we made along the route. We were graciously welcomed into the homes, businesses, farms, and lives of five different parts of the Minnesota food and agriculture sector. Following are the videos from the trip. The purpose was to explore the current innovative approaches farmers in Minnesota are using to improve productivity and conservation.

Fernholz's Farm

Organic farm near Madison, Minnesota.


Moonstone Farm

Grassfed beef farm near Montevideo, Minnesota (link).


Schueler's Farm

Convention corn and soybean farm emphasizing conservation through prairie buffers near Echo, Minnesota. Larry's son Dave and daughter-in-law, Leah, now run's a pasture raised hog operation called Fertile Acreage Farm (link).


Burn's Farm

Conventional corn and soybean farm utilizing precision farming technologies near Watertown, Minnesota.


Food and Farming in Minnesota Schools

Farming and food in Minnesota schools has two parts: 1) Watertown-Mayer High School FFA students shared their experience with FFA and its relevance to modern agriculture, and 2) Annette Derouin of Willmar Schools Food Service Director sharing about their farm to school program.


Garden Fresh Farms

Indoor aquaponics farm in Maplewood, Minnesota (link).