A report on locally grown produce

The Family Farm
Is Doomed

An Interview with
Victor Hanson

If you’re looking for an upbeat assessment of the state of family farming in America, don’t read Victor Hanson’s latest book. "Any book about farming must now not be romantic nor naive, but brutally honest: the American yeoman is doomed," Hanson writes in "Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea," published in 1996 by the Free Press.

Hanson appreciates farmers markets. They are a lifeline for his family’s farm. But they, too, are

Photo by Susan McLearan

'Our children are getting lectures every night not to farm.'

Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea
By Victor Davis Hanson

The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization
By Victor Davis Hanson


An excerpt from Fields Without Dreams:

'Apple-pears bruised easily. They could not be run over bin dumpers and conveyor belts, probably not even picked into bins themselves. It was a labor-intensive, small farmer’s operation all the way--a bucket pick; pails brought right into the shed; unloaded by hand; and hand-placed (the picker wearing soft cotton gloves at all time) in plastic cups inside padded boxes. What corporation would wish to fool with that?... Apple-pears were not almonds and wine grapes that could be planted in endless numbers, mechanically picked, their juice and nuts stored indefinitely in mountains that did not shrink.

'You are forced to consider silly things like this in farming now. You must at least ponder the (always fatal) lure of the difficult, the labor-intensive, the problematic species of tree and vine to plant if you don’t have a job in town. Otherwise the insurance money buries you; they come in with millions, plant what can be corporatized and mechanized, and destroy the market, pocketing the depreciation and writing the eventual loss off to either government or private investor. The small farmer then must sniff around the margins to track down the more difficult and bothersome tasks unwanted by the more affluent agribusinesses.'


relics of an era that has ended, in his view. Farmers markets are "the agricultural equivalent of theme parks and petting zoos," he asserts.

Hanson writes from deep-seated experience. He lives on the Central Valley farm near Kingsburg that his great, great, great grandparents carved out of 120 acres of scrub brush in the 1870s.

After he got his Ph.D. from Stanford in the classics, he made a go of farming for a few years, before getting wiped out in the "great raisin crash" of 1983.

So Hanson fell back on his schooling, got a job teaching Greek at Fresno State University, and started writing books. "Fields Without Dreams" is his fourth, and his second about small farmers.

In "The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization," published by the Free Press in 1995, Hanson stepped back more than 2,000 years to explore the emergence of a phenomenon on the Greek peninsula that had never been seen before: an economy based on self-sufficient small farmers who intensively cultivated their own land. This pattern of land use led in turn to the emergence of a unique new form of democratic government that respected private property, individual liberty, the right to bear arms and civilian control of the military. The small farmers of ancient Greece, in short, were responsible for the creation of Western civilization, Hanson asserted.

Their way of life came to an end in the 4th Century BC, destroyed by the same trends that Hanson finds wreaking havoc among his family and neighbors in the Central Valley today: increasing concentration of land ownership in the hands of wealthy, urban capitalists who mass produce crops exploiting vast gangs of laborers; the rise of a professional military supported by heavy taxes on the middle class to defend urban concentrations of wealth and far-flung commercial relationships.

In that earlier era, the political structure that arose out of the economy of independent, small farmers didn’t survive the demise of the yeoman, themselves. That history is now repeating itself, according to Hanson. As he writes in "Fields Without Dream": "I worry that when the agrarian yardstick has vanished completely, there will be no bridle on the present absurdity of random violence, growing illiteracy, and spiritual desolation, no one left to tell us how silly it is all becoming."

In an interview with In Season, Hanson didn’t lighten up.

IN SEASON: Can anything be done to save family farmers?

HANSON: Right now it seems to me that what could be done to help family farmers would be to break up vertical integration in the food industry. I don’t see why someone should be able to own 7,000 acres of farmland and also be a broker and an owner of trucks, controlling the process all the way to the produce section of the supermarket.

They they build a cold storage plant. If you put a box in there for five minutes, that’s 50 cents to a $1 fee. These cold storage plants will hold a million, two million packages. So the broker can get $1-2 million transferred in a day or two for boxes going out the door. Then they get a 10 percent commission on everything they sell and there’s absolutely no risk. In other words they make money on brokerage or trucking, and they break even or lose money on the production itself.

If you talk to them and you tell them that prices are too low, they disagree. They say they are efficient, or it’s better for the country to export food, or it’s good for the consumer. But what they don’t tell you is that they lose money on what they farm. All the land does is provide depreciation and a steady source of product that keeps their own packing operations, cold storage facilities and packers busy year round.

There is no reason why a person who has a brokerage or cold storage facility needs to make that much profit. It would be very easy to pass an antitrust law that said if you sell food across state lines, you can’t also grow food. You would have to take your pick.

They do that in other fields. Doctors are under very intense scrutiny for owning x-ray facilities and sending their own patients there. But in agriculture, we have this crazy idea that the broker is a person to worship. The broker turns out to be the worst representative for the farmer, and yet he’s on every board of every cooperative, every board of every bargaining association. I just don’t understand that.

IN SEASON: Do farmers markets offer farmers a way to get around the middlemen?

HANSON: We sell a lot of our produce at farmers markets. We have 18 acres with 17 different varieties. The harvest starts in March and ends in October with persimmons and pomegranates. Those 18 acres are designed for farmers markets. We have every little niche: apricots, figs, quinces. Each is designed to provide one week of produce for the farmers markets. We make more money off those acres than off the other 160 acres. That really tells me something, that we can sell direct from 18 acres and make enough to pay for the losses on 160. That should not be. I think farmers markets are great but we should not have to do that. We should not have to be peddlers. There should be people who make a living doing that.

IN SEASON: Will cutting agricultural subsidies to large farmers give small farmers a better chance to compete?

HANSON: I think cutting subsidies holds promise. I really disagree with a lot of farm activists who say that government programs, if they were reformed, could help. I don’t see it. I don’t think they will ever be reformed. All I know is that the farm programs keep getting bigger while small farmers get smaller. We’d be better off to get rid of all of it.

I’d love to see all the subsidies end. Cotton allotments, for example. If you go to north Fresno along the bluffs, that is the zip code that gets more subsidies than anywhere else in the whole United States. Those people live 60 or 80 miles away from their 4,000- and 5,000-acre cotton farms. I’d love to see them either try and make it in the real market or put the land out of production.

IN SEASON: Are consumers aware of the plight of small farmers and willing to do anything about it?

HANSON: I once saw a high school teacher stop right out here and pick $300 worth of peaches out of our orchard. I said what in the hell are you doing. And he said they’re just falling on the ground. I said would you go into Safeway and steal like that, and he said no. And he said but the prices are too high in the store and you don’t care, they’re just on the trees.

So the enemy is even the consumer who wants cheap food but doesn’t want to pay for it. His respect for the farmer is even less than for the supermarket. A person will go into a store and pay 90 cents for a Snickers bar and be outraged about paying 50 cents for an apple. So I guess what really makes me think that there’s not very much hope is that the whole mentality of cheap food at any cost whatsoever is within us all.

IN SEASON: By modern standards, were the ancient Greeks good farmers?

HANSON: From what we know about ancient agronomy, the level of expertise was absolutely astounding. When you read Theophrastus, Columella, the Elder Cato, they assume that the intelligent reader knows everything about pesticide control, the use of salts and soaps for insecticides, the use of integrated crop strategies. They tell you exactly which crops to plant so the insects are symbiotic. Theophrastus is full of the science of manure--goat manure versus sheep manure versus pig manure. I don’t think that level of agronomic expertise was reached again until the 19th century.

IN SEASON: What were the most important principles of ancient Greek agriculture?

HANSON: The whole foundation of agronomy, which is a Greek word, is that you can’t own a lot of land, and therefore on the land that you have, you must achieve maximum production. There’s not one piece of evidence of any farm in the history of the Greek city-state that is over 100 acres. But we know that in the Hellenistic era there are farms that go up to 70,000 acres.

So if you’re set with a social and cultural ethic that prohibits the accumulation of farmland and prohibits capital to be invested in expanding farmland, you have no choice but to intensify the production per acre.

Today, agriculture is based on economies not of intensification but of scale. Our farm is diversified. But I guarantee you it’s cheaper per acre to specialize and monocrop. You can buy specialized equipment. You can get people to just work on vines all day. There’s fewer decisions to make about employees, less record-keeping, and you can increase production with less cost with monocropping than if you’re interested in diversification, which requires much more hands-on attention and a lot more labor.

None of this has anything to do, unfortunately, with the availability of food. We’re still going to have food in the store. I used to hear people say that family farms are going to disappear and the corporations are going to take over and food is going to be expensive. That may or may not be true. It probably will be expensive but it will be ubiquitous for a while longer. That’s

what’s so insidious about the process. It’s beyond even good and evil sometimes.

IN SEASON: You have said that your daughter is the sixth generation in your family to live here. What sort of future do you see for her and for this farm?

HANSON: I don’t want to be too pessimistic. You’ve always got to have hope. But I know my brother, my cousin and I, we have 10 children and we don’t want them to farm. They’re getting lectures every night not to farm, because I don’t think there’s any future in it. We want them to work hard, and they do work hard. They’re seven, eight, nine, all the way up to 18, and they work 100 solid, straight days all summer long packing fruit, getting on a tractor, working. But that’s more or less a nursery. That’s what the farm is now, a nursery to teach children values that are not taught in mainstream America. It’s not an apprenticeship. We’re not saying, ‘I’m teaching you the tractor now because some day you’re going to farm.’ That’s what my parents and grandparents told us. Now it’s, ‘I’m teaching you this so you won’t be a gangbanger like your friends in town.’

Copyright 1997 In Season