REVIEW: Broken Heartland
Hard times in the Heartland
The long-term consequences of the 1980s Midwestern farm crisis

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto

Osha Gray Davidson,
University of Iowa Press, 1996 (expanded edn); ISBN 0-87745-554-6; 220 pp; $14.95

August 10, 2004: In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote of the displaced, Depression-era, Midwestern farming families who fled to a mythic California in search of a fresh start and a parcel of dirt. In Broken Heartland, Osha Davidson also writes—but as journalist, not novelist—of afflicted Midwestern farming families who lose their land. But the decade is the '80s not the '30s, and there is no great migration. Instead the farmers hunker down in the houses that are left to them and watch as the cherry trees and rhubarb patches they once tended are bulldozed to make way for corn. Or they lose the houses too and resort to scouring the roadsides for aluminum cans, covering eight miles a day for $12. Or in even more grim scenarios, they lose their land, their houses and their will to live, and commit suicide, sometimes murder. In 1987 the suicide rate in Iowa had risen to its highest level since the Depression. The communities deteriorated, folding upon themselves with a muted desperation, until they became what Davidson refers to as “rural ghettos.”

These rural ghettos—the result of the 1980s farm crisis—are characterized not by bullet-pocked housing projects, but by boarded-up downtown businesses. In the 1970s, land values rose and many farmers bought larger acreages and bigger tractors, all fueled by huge bank loans and government pressure to boost grain exports (Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz urged farmers in 1972 to “get big or get out”). But other countries began producing record crops, and to compete, the U.S. government lowered its support prices, causing the effective price of grain to drop. The debt-ridden farmers scrambled to compensate for the lost income by producing more grain, thus creating a grain surplus that only exacerbated the falling prices. At the same time, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, so farmers now faced higher payments. And the value of their land began to slide. It went from crisis to catastrophe. In 1981 the average farm net income in Iowa was $17,680; in 1983 it was -$1,891.

Davidson notes that many farmers prefer the term “farm condition” to “farm crisis” because the causes go back hundreds of years, well beyond the Reagan policies of the 1980s. Davidson traces the roots of the farm crisis back to the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian conflict over land ownership (Jefferson advocating ‘yeoman farmers,’ Hamilton for highest-bidders). It is a history of political wheeling and dealing, with government and industry often strolling arm-in-arm and hand-in-wallet while orating to the populace about independence and self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, the fact that food processors such as Cargill prosper while the farmers who grow the food itself are going bankrupt “is seen simply as an inexplicable paradox—one of those quirks of economic life to be recognized (begrudgingly), stated (infrequently), and abandoned (quickly)” (p. 31).

While researching and writing Broken Heartland, Osha Davidson lived in Mechanicsville, Iowa, for three years. The people he interviewed—hundreds of farmers, pastors, social workers, storekeepers, and other citizens—stand vivid and poignant against the backdrop of history and food policy. A counselor describes how one ten year-old couldn’t sleep at night because he thought trucks were going to come take his parents away: “He had, after all, watched strangers come and take the family hogs” (p. 97). An Iowan Catholic priest describes how he lent money to a bankrupt farmer so he could buy his daughter a prom dress; when the daughter found out what her formerly proud father had done for her, she drove the family car off a bridge.

The ‘myth of the independent yeoman,’ as Davidson calls it, doesn’t help the situation. The people most hurt by lack of regulation and assistance are often the most fiercely independent. Battered women try to “tough it out.” Those most victimized by the decisions of their leaders are the most blindly patriotic. Love It or Leave It, says the bumper sticker on the repossessed farm truck that recedes down the dirt driveway.

As a result of the late '70s and '80s spiral into poverty and desperation, many people turned to hate groups (a trend similar, though on a smaller and milder scale, to what happened in pre-World War II Italy and Germany). In an intriguing and disquieting chapter that opens with an Alice-in-Wonderland type visit to a Sunday meeting of the “Iowa Society for Educated Citizens,” Davidson explores the rise of the NAAWP, Aryan Nation, the Order, Identity, and group leaders like David Duke, Willis Carto, and Lyndon LaRouche. When Democrats and Republicans largely ignored the plight of rural Americans, hate groups stepped into the void, offering detailed—albeit mostly crackpot—reasons for rural America's deterioration. In 1978, LaRouche tried to recruit the farmers of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), who had descended upon Washington on their tractors, demanding agricultural reforms. LaRouche failed when the AAM leadership recognized the iron fist under his velvet gloves. Considering that hate groups have been instigators behind terrorist acts like the Oklahoma City bombing, one might wonder why we hear so little about in the current “War on Terror.”

Broken Heartland also addresses efforts at “rural development.” Rural states vie to lure in companies by offering tax breaks and environmental concessions. But the companies, which target impoverished communities, pay low wages, while the profits that were to circulate through the community instead get exported, in classic colonial fashion. Often consumer prices increase while the wages of the poor stay the same. The result is a downward development, which promotes hog factories that plague communities with unbearable stench and fouled water, drives residents to seek multiply low-paying jobs to make ends meet, and begets “cancer cluster” communities whose habitants have the double privilege of subsidizing the tax concessions to attract the companies and then living with the harmful pollution those companies generate.

Broken Heartland illustrates with intelligence and sensitivity the need for communal development over blind job recruitment. Well-funded schools, quality health services, public spaces, downtown businesses, small and middle-sized farms—these are some of the veins and capillaries of a healthy and vigorous town. Without them, aorta or no aorta, the heart will fail.

Constantine Markides is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Maine. He can be reached at