Posted April 30, 2003:
One of the most enduring figures in American culture is the farmer
as Rugged Individualist -- sturdy, sunburned, standing proudly in
fields among bounteous crops or herds. It’s an image found
in the frontiersman of the 18th century, up through the lithographs
of John Steuart Curry in the 1940s. Thomas Jefferson believed that
such an independent yeoman was and should be the foundation of the
Yet the reality was often very different.
Farmers have confronted numerous adversities from nature, such
as droughts and grasshopper plagues. Yet they faced all such things
with stoicism. Curiously, we learn from the encyclopedia that in
ancient Greek philosophy, the Stoic was one who firmly believed
that all life, including humans, were part of nature. If our farmers
may be said to be Stoics, it is probably because of their close
dependence on nature and their intimate knowledge of her cyclical
Stoics do not easily give up. They will weather any storm, endure
any tribulation. My grandfather, who came to Kansas in 1888 when
he was 2, remembered that a terrible drought greeted the family.
Essentially, he said, it did not rain for 10 years. But the family
stayed. Among farming folk, the land is everything: You hold on
to it no matter what.
Farmers were not entirely isolated. They joined to break sod, to
raise barns, to help harvest crops in case of sickness. They were
individualists, but recognized the need and value of human community.
Furthermore, facing high prices for transportation of grain to
market only 15 years after the Homestead Act of 1862, farmers formed
the mighty Grange movement, which achieved government regulation
of railroads. Similarly, in response to the drought of the late
1880s and low prices for grain, a tremendous groundswell of revolt
produced the Farmer’s Alliance, followed by the political
expression of the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populists,
which the historian Lawrence Goodwyn calls "the largest democratic
mass movement in American history." The only way to deal with
the new industrial monopolies of railroads and grain markets was
through cooperation. The co-ops were born in that era.
When I was a young man in the 1950s, a co-op was to be found in
almost every small Kansas town. It consisted of a grain elevator,
a feed store and sometimes a gas station. I learned that farmers
could take shares in the co-op similar to shares of stock in a company.
The small city of McPherson had a co-op refinery, which supplied
farmers with lubricants and gasoline.
In time, this co-op became Farmland Industries Inc., with headquarters
in Kansas City, Mo. It expanded to meat-packing and fertilizer production,
including overseas plants.
But in the drought of the late 1990s, farmers couldn’t afford
fertilizer, and a year ago Farmland declared bankruptcy. Last December,
500 farmers gathered in Kansas City to learn that they "would
likely lose all of the millions of equity they have built up in
what had been the largest farmer-owned cooperative in North America,"
reported the Kansas City Star.
Farmers concluded that there was nothing they could do. It was
as if bankruptcy had become a force of nature.
By adopting the corporate idea, expanding and spreading itself
too thin, Farmland had laid the basis for its own demise. The cooperative
idea of the 1890s, which had survived droughts, plagues, wars and
depressions, finally succumbed to its old enemy, The Market.
Early in the 19th century, the English writer William Hazlitt wrote
that "corporate bodies have no soul." He argued that they
are "more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because
they have more power to do mischief, and are less amenable to disgrace
or punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor
Now, as a hundred years ago, America has a choice between Cooperation
and the Corporation. Whatever its virtues in the past, stoicism
is now no solution. Farmers should arm themselves with the facts,
discard what Goodwyn called "the politics of deference,"
and prepare to reclaim the cooperative ideal.
Fred Whitehead, who lives in Kansas City, Kan., has published
extensively on Midwestern cultural history. He co-edited "Freethought
on the American Frontier" and is a member of the Prairie Writers
Circle at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. http://www.landinstitute.org/