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Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times

“Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times,” by Jim Hightower details how coordination between agribusiness, government, and academic institutions from 1900 to the book’s publication in the 1970s favored big business over the family farms, creating the agricultural system we have in place today.

Back in the 19th Century, land grant colleges were established to educate farmers and research new methods of agriculture to help them. Lincoln signed them into existence to shore up his political support in the states we now call the Midwest, since they were discouraged with the Civil War, but they were the brain child of Senator Morrill, for whom the Morrill Act of 1863 is obviously named.

Over time, and increasingly so, the research facilities of these land grant colleges developed technology that could only be well used on larger agricultural scales, and the larger the better. Huge and expensive machinery could only be purchased by large farming establishments; if a smaller farmer tried to use them he would either break under debt or have to buy out other farmers and become a big farmer. Either way, this meant every year thousands of small farmers went broke and had to move to the cities. That meant the small towns had fewer customers, aggravated even more by machines replacing farm hands as well as farm owners, so towns shrunk. The Norman Rockwell life simply started fading away.

It wasn’t inevitable. CEOs would sit on university boards and academics would sit on corporate boards, creating an old boy’s network of cooperation. Graduates of the land grant colleges were more likely to choose the higher paying corporate jobs over actually being farmers, turning the network into a giant web. Corporations would convince senators to mandate certain kinds of research, cotton over corn, for example. One university poured money into researching golf courses because everyone on the board was an avid player. And the emphasis on machinery and chemicals meant researching new kinds of food that were easier to harvest with machines, hence the “hard tomatoes” in the title, hard so machines could pick them without damaging them.

Whether you think we are better off with vast farms with chemicals and machines or more labor intensive, organic farms, what should be understood is that this was not the result of the free market or democratic process. It was the result of corporations benefiting from billions of dollars in government funded academic research due to personal and political connections.

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