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.