from farms to businesses: the 70s

The 1970s is where the real, tangible foundations of today’s food system can be seen- consolidation of farms, concentration on profit rather than subsistence, and the increased voice of industry in politics.  Earl Butz, Nixon’s colorful agriculture secretary (who, interestingly, was one of the first politicians dismissed as a result of political incorrectness in the press- look it up), encouraged agriculture to become a profit-driven enterprise through increased planting of commodity crops.  It didn’t hurt that that surplus of grain could be sold to the USSR- he who controls the food controls the power, after all.

Chapter 3:  The 70s, and Earl Butz’s “historic turning point”

In the wake of the boom years of American agriculture in the mid-70s, farm policy became definitively more market- than subsistence-focused.  Rather than attempting to ensure sufficient food stores while preventing the overproduction that had doomed American farmers in the past, increasingly global commodity markets enabled legislators to focus on making money off of surplus crops.  A steady rise of exports throughout the 60s took care of surplus grain, and Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture wanted to ensure that that would continue.  The 1973 Agriculture and Consume Protection Act was preceded by a doubling in grain exports between 1972 and 73 as a result of the Soviet grain sale of 1972, and Nixon’s administration emphasized a market-focused agriculture policy.

Nixon’s first agriculture secretary, Clifford Hardin, encouraged this market focus through further expansion of exports, a reduction of government payouts, and allowing for more flexibility in acreage conservation.  The government also worked to scale back payments to farmers, which had peaked at $3.8 billion in 1969.[1]  The 1973 Farm Bill was called “an historical turning point in the philosophy of farm programs in the Unted States” by Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz.  And indeed, the 1973 bill was geared towards producing large amounts of surplus for export.

The mid-70s were a prosperous time for farmers, but exports couldn’t ensure success forever.  Producing surplus for sale on global markets exposed US farmers to volatile fluctuations in the global commodities market, and the need for ever larger farms to supply this grain required the consolidation and commodification of farms and US agriculture.  Nonetheless, the early success of Butz’s go-big or go-home mentality played a crucial role in cementing big farms as the mainstay of American agricultural policy.

Politics and industry become increasingly intertwined in the 1970s, especially in the realm of farm policy.  Nixon’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Hardin, switched places with his second Secretary of Agriculture in 1971, Butz—they quite literally traded jobs as Butz left his post at Ralston Purina to become the Agriculture Secretary while Hardin left his post as Agriculture Secretary to work for Ralston Purina.[2]  New constituencies— namely, large food processing companies— in the 1970s began to demand a say in farm policy, and the government, industry’s once and future leaders, accommodated them.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Marion Nestle, Food Politics:  How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2002, revised 2007), 100.


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