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Outside the Box: The Story of Food Packaging

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36

2 Born in the U.S.A.

The Americanness of Industrial Agriculture

Peter A . Cocl anis

These are fast times for foodies, salad days for farmers markets, boutique producers, locavores, vegans, and the like. The words “local,” “organic,” and “slow” have assumed the status of mantras among many pious eaters, ostensi- bly facilitating spiritual transformations, even as “local,” “organic,” and “slow” in the real world generally translate into inflated food prices and plummeting agricultural productivity. There is a Food Network on TV; a lavish and lush journal devoted to food, Gastronomica; and wildly popular websites such as yelp.com, whose reviews can make or break restaurants anywhere in the country. The study of obesity has become phat, and an entire new book genre has emerged: commodity studies. Virtually every grain, spice, drink, and tuber now has its historian. I can’t get too snide here, of course, for I myself am working on rice! And in Chapel Hill, where I live, when the abbreviation “CSA” is mentioned, more people—dollars to doughnuts (Krispy Kreme or otherwise)—think of Community-Supported Agriculture than of the Con- federate States of America. Who would have thunk it?

Not long ago, things were far, far different. Indeed, in the late 1980s agri- culture seemed like yesterday’s news and the study of agricultural history atavistic. Around that time I began compiling a list of stories, anecdotes, and assorted (sordid?) facts suggestive of the diminishing hold of agriculture on the cultural imagination in this advanced postindustrial country. In 1988, for example, the venerable farm youth organization Future Farmers of America, founded in 1924, officially changed its name to FFA, in part to appeal to a broader “food system” constituency, in part, I suspect, because farming qua farming seemed off-putting and somewhat déclassé to modern teens. Inter- estingly enough, just a few years later—in 1991—Kentucky Fried Chicken officially changed its corporate name to KFC for much the same reasons: the

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The Americanness of Industrial Agriculture 37

company didn’t want to be associated too closely with the adjective “fried,” which at the time was becoming similarly déclassé, at least among some small but influential segments of the population. One intriguing, maybe even hopeful countertrend: in 2007, the company began using the old name, Ken- tucky Fried Chicken, as part of a corporate rebranding process in the United States. We’ll see where it leads: stay tuned.

On the whole, though, the evidence I kept coming across suggested that farming and farmers were long ago and far away. In 1998 a graduate-student columnist wrote in the Daily Tar Heel, UNC–Chapel Hill’s student newspa- per, that college was the time for young people to “sew” their wild oats, spell- ing the infinitive s-e-w. The troubling fact that the grad student was in history should be noted as well. In that same year, the actress Mary Frann—best known for her role as Bob Newhart’s wife on the TV show Newhart—died. In her New York Times obituary, a friend was quoted as saying that in the last few years before her death, Frann had had “a hard road to hoe.” Asphalt or concrete would prove quite difficult to hoe, I suppose.

Later in that same year, Auburn University changed the name of its Department of Agricultural Engineering to the Department of Biosystems Engineering. The Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “Auburn Seeks to Revamp Aggie Image” specifying the reasons for the name change. Accord- ing to the piece, the old name wasn’t very appealing to prospective students, who increasingly viewed agriculture in negative terms as “an unsophisticated, low-technology field.” When an institution such as Auburn—Alabama’s land-grant school since 1874—is embarrassed by its connection with farm- ing, you know agriculture is in trouble.1

Before quitting the 1990s, one last gem. I myself recall, ruefully, a break- fast gathering sponsored by the Agricultural History Society at a meeting in Chicago of the Organization of American Historians. The crowd at the meeting was modest. All ten or so of us in attendance were middle-aged or aged white males—although I promise I was not wearing a string tie like two or three others at the breakfast. Anyway, the meeting was going full bore (if you know what I mean) when two very chic, well-dressed young women slipped in and sat down at adjacent empty seats. They sat for about ten or fifteen minutes, listening politely to us old white guys, when one of them asked, again very politely, “Is this the Oral History Association breakfast?” Alas, we said no, and helpfully pointed them to a room across the hall and they were off, leaving us to gum the rest of our oatmeal and transact other difficult business in the manner in which we had long—too long—been accustomed.

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38 Peter A. Coclanis

As I suggested at the outset, however, over the last fifteen years or so things have changed—at least on the surface. Studying food has become hot. Work on agriculture and agricultural history has picked up, even though much of it relates not to the agricultural mainstream, but to fringe groups and movements, outliers and anomalies, alternative practices and traditions, and what is rather more environmental history than agricultural history per se. And although interest in agriculture has grown of late, there is still evidence out there that not everyone has gotten the message. In 2002 I was second reader on a senior honors thesis in history, the writer of which stated at one point that “in a capitalist society . . . one man weeps, the other sows.”2 At least he spelled sow s-o-w. A few years back one of my senior colleagues in history at UNC–Chapel Hill told me that he leaves farmers completely out of his U.S. History since 1865 survey because they interfere with his course’s narra- tive thrust; and historian Louis Ferleger has recently demonstrated that cov- erage of agriculture (particularly southern agriculture) is steadily decreasing in U.S. history texts. And in 2010, the American Farm Bureau Federation (a.k.a. the Farm Bureau), then in its ninety-first year of existence, sold off its web domain name, FB.com. Since the buyer was Facebook, and the price $8.5 million, we can perhaps cut the FB—the largest general farm organization in the United States—some slack.3 But no breaks for the historians!

So what is the upshot of these introductory remarks? Just a throat- clearing exercise or is there deeper intent? Although the author is never the sole arbiter of these things, I am opting for the latter interpretation. I started this piece by juxtaposing the rising interest in food, food studies, and certain epiphenomenal features of agriculture with some evidence regarding the lack of knowledge about or at times even interest in the basics of American agriculture. W hy? Because disarticulation of this sort has deleterious consequences, perhaps the most serious of which for our purposes relate to interpretative distortions of various kinds about American agriculture’s history, present condition, and future prospects. Not that the surging interest in food is a bad thing in and of itself, but without deeper grounding, the outgrowth of such interest, whether inten- tionally or unintentionally, can be misleading and result in serious misin- terpretation. In this regard the landscapes of Henri Rousseau, with their distortions in scale and perspective, are somewhat analogous: they are enriching, offering insights, but not closely related to material realities, to the facts on and in the ground, as it were.

With these points in mind, what I hope to do in this chapter is to make the case that despite the relative lack of interest today in normative

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The Americanness of Industrial Agriculture 39

dimensions of American agriculture or in core themes in American agri- cultural history, such topics are still important for many, many reasons. The most notable of these reasons is that America’s development into a postindustrial superpower, the world’s hyperpower to use a formulation the French like to throw around, has been inextricably connected to our country’s formidable record of success in the agricultural sector over the centuries. My argument comprises four parts. First, I’ll try to generalize a bit about the historical character of American agriculture and the principal factors responsible for the robust performance of the American agricul- tural sector over the past 350 or so years. The contours of American agri- culture, as it were. Second, I’ll present some historical data illustrating the long-term decline in the relative importance of the American agricultural sector. Third, I’ll make the case that despite its declining relative impor- tance the agricultural sector has proved central to American urbanization and industrialization, indeed, to the process of economic development more generally in the United States. Fourth, I’ll try to contextualize the (growing) place of alternative farming in the American agricultural system. In so doing I’ll spell out some of the impediments to its expansion and establish its proximate bounds and limits.

The readers of this volume all are interested in food and agriculture and likely have some degree of commitment to sustainable development. None- theless, it is important to recall now and then that even in our voluntaristic times there are a range of structural factors that circumscribe our actions, however well-intended, if at times unrealistic and, I believe, self-righteous they may be. In other words, then, with respect to food, Marx may have had it about right when he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.”4

With these considerations in mind, let us turn to the subject at hand: the contours of American agriculture, so to speak. First, to the explanatory factors, or, more properly, sets of factors most responsible for our agricul- tural success over time. And here I’ll be adopting the rhetorical style of economics rather than history, that is, privileging analysis over narration, patterns over variations, and explanatory parsimony over thick description. W hen we employ this m.o., four categories of variables come immediately to mind in explaining our agricultural success over time: (1)  resources; (2)  markets; (3) sociocultural values; and (4) institutions. Generally speaking, all four categories of variables were extremely propitious for agricultural success throughout most of our history; taken together, the

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40 Peter A. Coclanis

patterning of these variables goes a long way toward explaining America’s position of power and preeminence in the world today.

America’s resource “endowment” has been exceptionally favorable for agricultural development throughout our history. With a huge inventory of fertile, well-watered, and varied land, a person-to-land ratio very condu- cive to productivity and prosperity, good access to financial capital most of the time, and a heterogeneous population mix—European, African, Native American, Asian—possessed of different and often complementary forms of proprietary knowledge about farming, America’s agricultural sector has generally been extremely well-positioned for farm-building, technological advance, and development.5

For much of our history, moreover, the conjuncture of supply and demand possibilities for most American agriculturalists has been conducive to growth. With markets widening and deepening in the West over the past three centuries as a result of increases in population and levels of urban- ization and wealth, improvements in transportation, storage, distribution, and communication, and the greater commercialization of human values, demand for American foodstuffs has generally been strong, not only domes- tically, but often internationally as well. It should be noted, moreover, that in recent decades much of the growth in international demand for American farm products has come from Asia. Even as Engel’s law began to kick in and American families spent a smaller percentage of their income on food when their incomes increased, American farmers were able to adjust by shifting their output mixes to varying degrees toward agricultural products of greater income elasticity (higher-quality meats, dairy products, and specialty fruits and vegetables).6 The result of the conjuncture of strong demand and Amer- ican farmers’ relatively elastic supply response—we shall outline some of the reasons for the elasticity of supply momentarily—has generally been a high-output, high-price equilibrium in American agriculture over sustained periods of time in U.S. history.7

The elasticity of agricultural supply in the United States has histori- cally been related closely to our last two categories of explanatory variables: sociocultural values and American institutions, both of which have helped to condition responsiveness to market signals and signs. From the time of initial colonization and settlement, American farmers, by and large, have been of an entrepreneurial bent and have responded pretty vigorously and in what conventional economists would refer to as rational ways to price sig- nals. There was seldom a backward-bending labor supply curve in American agriculture, and most American farmers have pursued utility-maximizing

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42 Peter A. Coclanis

industries is greater today than ever before, reaching an all-time high of $992 billion—5.5% of GDP—in 2015.9 What may be less clear, at least on the surface, however, is the manner in which agriculture has supported, underpinned, and reinforced urbanization, industrialization, and American development more generally even as farmers and farming have receded both from the fields themselves and from the American historical imagination.

There are, at the very least, four important ways in which agriculture has played a crucial role in shaping, if not conditioning or even determin- ing the pace and pattern of American economic expansion over the last few centuries.10 First, because of our favorable factor endowment and the steady stream of productivity gains in agriculture over time, food and fiber prices in America have generally been very low in comparative terms. As a result, Americans have traditionally spent a very modest proportion of disposable personal income on food—in 2014 the figure was less than 10%, with about 5.5% spent on food consumed at home, and another 4.3% on food consumed away from home. In percentage terms, Americans spend less of their incomes on food than almost any nation in the world. Most people in developed coun- tries spend twice as much in percentage terms, and in less-developed coun- tries (LDCs) four to eight times as much.11 For the United States, low food

Table 1. agriculTure’s share of u.s. labor force

Year Percent Ca. 1750 75–85 1800 74.40–83.30 1850 55 1900 40.02 1950 12.04 2016 1.37*

*Workers involved in crop production, animal production, and aquaculture Sources: Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 41; Edwin J. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 57; Stanley Lebergott, The Americans: An Economic Record (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 66, Table 7.3; Thomas J. Weiss, “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800–1860,” in American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, ed. Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 19–78, esp. 22, Table 1.1; Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present, Millennial Edition, ed. Richard Sutch and Susan B. Carter, 5 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2:101, Table Ba652–669; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Household Data, Annual Averages,18b, Employed Persons by Industry and Age, last modified February 8, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18b.htm, accessed May 18, 2017.

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pe rm it te d un de r U. S. o r ap pl ic ab le c op yr ig ht l aw .

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The Americanness of Industrial Agriculture 43

Table 2. agriculTure’s share of u.s. gross DomesTic ProDucT

Year Percent 1800 46 1840 40 1870 33 1900 18 1930 8 1945 7 1970 2 2006 0.9 2012 1 2015 1

Sources: Marvin Towne and Wayne Rasmussen, “Farm Gross Output and Gross Investment in the Nineteenth Century,” in Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century, ed. William Parker, Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, National Bureau of Economic Research, vol. 24, Studies in Income and Wealth (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), 255–312, esp. 265, Table 1, Farm Gross Product, Decade Years, 1800–1900; Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present, Millennial Edition, ed. Richard Sutch and Susan B. Carter, 5 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3: 23–28, Table ca9–19, Gross Domestic Product: 1790–2002, esp. 23; Robert E. Gallman, “Economic Growth and Structural Change in the Long Nineteenth Century,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, ed. Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, 3 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996–2000), 2 (2000): 1–55, esp. 50, Table I.14, The Sectoral Distribution of GNP 1840–1900; Carolyn Dimitri, Anne Efflund, and Neilson Conklin, The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin, Number 3, June 2005 (Washington, D.C.: 2005), 2; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Chart Gallery, What is Agriculture’s Share of the Overall U.S. Economy?, November 25, 2014, http://www.ers.usda.gov/data- products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40037&embed=True, accessed January 20, 2015; “Agricultural Output Climbed in 2013, Recovering from Drought,” New York Times, June 20, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/business/economy/after- a-drought-agriculture-climbs.html?_r=0, accessed June 30, 2015; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy [2015], https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting- the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx, last updated May 5, 2017, accessed May 18, 2017. The author would like to thank Paul W. Rhode of the Department of Economics at the University of Michigan for help in calculating the estimate for 1800.

costs mean that a large proportion of American income is “freed” for other uses, whether for consumption of manufactured goods and services, leisure activities, or investment of one type or another. To be sure, some would argue that this percentage is too low, that negative externalities need to be factored in via environmental accounting, but I assure you, almost every other country in the world would love to start with our alleged problem.

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pe rm it te d un de r U. S. o r ap pl ic ab le c op yr ig ht l aw .

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44 Peter A. Coclanis

Second, because many of the productivity gains in America have been labor-saving (whether through mechanization or productivity-enhancing biological inputs such as improved seeds, herbicides, and pesticides), many workers were rendered redundant relatively early on in the agricultural sec- tor. Although this often posed assorted short-term traumas and difficulties for the affected workers themselves, technological change of this sort helped create the labor pool necessary for America’s massive industrialization pro- cess between 1850 and about 1960.

Third, the agricultural sector has proven to be a strong source of demand for American industrial goods over time. Indeed, many urban factories across the United States have kept busy producing machinery, implements, tools, biological inputs, and transport, storage, and distribution facilities deployed in/for the farm sector.

Finally, another huge part of the U.S. manufacturing sector has tra- ditionally been involved in the processing of food and fiber produced on American farms. Many of our biggest industries, historically and even today— meatpacking, other food products, textiles, paper and pulp, liquor and alcohol, leather, and so on—are all essentially processing industries for raw materials produced in America’s farm sector.

If the American experience reveals anything at all about the general process of economic development, it has, in fact, been the importance of the linkage, the organic interaction, as it were, between the urban and rural sectors, between factories and fields. In no place was this truer, historically, than in the so-called manufacturing belt of the United States: broadly speak- ing, the northeastern quadrant of the United States (the area east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River). In this region, commercial, agriculture developed simultaneously with cities and manufacturing. Over time, as agriculture developed (sending agricultural surpluses to the region’s villages, towns, and cities), the urban centers and factories in the region began to supersede outside suppliers of manufactures to meet the needs of the region’s increasingly prosperous farmers as well as other denizens in the region. Moreover, as the region’s farmers and manufacturers improved in productivity and grew in scale over time, they themselves began to export their products successfully to other parts of the United States and abroad. In so doing, this process brought sustained prosperity to the region as a whole, creating what has sometimes been referred to as our agro-industrial complex. The agro-industrial complex, once created, spread to the Great Plains, before jumping to California, a state that in agricultural terms drew inspiration

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The Americanness of Industrial Agriculture 45

from—and in many ways came to resemble—Iowa and other midwestern states for a considerable period of time.

For a century and a half this growing complex was the envy of the world and in some ways still is. If the experience of the manufacturing belt was not exactly a textbook case of what some development experts today call Agri- cultural Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI), it was at the very least an example of a “virtuous economic circle” established through the simul- taneous and balanced interactions between market agriculture and regional urban and industrial constellations.

The case of the U.S. manufacturing belt, and, to some extent, the case of America more generally, should give pause to historians, economists, and planners devising developmental strategies even today. The position of agriculture may no longer be as visible here as it once was, but without a prosperous rural sector—which in my view itself depends on a stable insti- tutional setting with enforceable property rights—sustained and sustainable industrialization, let alone development anywhere will be less a reality than a hope and a dream.12 It is a hopeful sign, then, that over the past few years, two of the world’s most powerful forces—the World Bank (whose 2008 devel- opment report focused on agriculture) and the Gates Foundation—have in the first case rediscovered agriculture and in the second case started paying systematic attention to it for the first time.13

Now let us situate alternative agriculture and what some call the L-O-S movement—local, organic, and slow—in this historical context. In order to do so, let me start, perhaps a bit counterintuitively, by reiterating and reemphasizing the close historical relationship in America between agricul- ture and industry. Indeed, if we take our cue from historians of technology and define industrialization broadly—and not equate it with machines or even with manufacturing—what we need to focus on is a particular way of thinkin

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