My reading for the past few weeks has been heavy on subjects fairly foreign to me, but which seem critical to better understanding farm games: agricultural history and to a lesser extent agricultural economics. I’ve tried to cast a wide net, reading authors ranging from those who believe modern industrial agriculture represents “an outstanding, and somewhat neglected, success story” (Giovanni Federico, in the tellingly named Feeding the World) to those who see contemporary agribusiness as delivering a monopolistic deathblow to ancient and inherently anti-consumerist forms of peasant culture (John Berger in Pig Earth).

I’m just about finished with historian Paul Conkin’s semi-autobiographical volume, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929, which gives a reasonably balanced account of agriculture’s many shifts over the last eighty-plus years. While Conkin’s exhaustive attention to improvements in farm technology as well as changes in American farm policy (from the Depression-era and New Deal years of Hoover and FDR through more recent administrations) can leave your brain reeling, his methodical coverage is leavened by recollections of his early years on an eastern Tennessee farm and his piquant observations about what alterations the decades have wrought in his semi-rural hometown.

While Conkin clearly celebrates many of the massive gains in production efficiency enabled by tractors, combines, rural electrification, “chemical inputs” like synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, and selective breeding, he also acknowledges histories of exclusion based on race or socioeconomic status, describing the large commercial farmers of today as a small but politically powerful group reminiscent of an elite oligarchy. Conkin’s work is particularly relevant given recent, high-profile Congressional debate over settlements for black farmers who have experienced both outright and systemically embedded discrimination at the behest of our own federal government.

Yet conservatives are anxious to paint this most recent settlement, a follow-up to 1999’s Pigford v. Glickman, as an unmerited handout to yet another special interest group clamoring for government dollars. Articles like Foxnews.com’s “Black Farmer Mega-Settlement Clears Way for Discrimination Claims by Women, Hispanics” make the political right’s distaste for past injustices eminently clear. Fox describes the sum in question as “a whopping $4.6 billion,” though only $1.2 billion will go to black farmers (American Indians are also recognized in the claim), and to put things in proper perspective, a September report from the Congressional Research Service estimates that we have spent approximately “$1.121 trillion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care” for our post-9/11 involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other bastions of “terror.” Beside that, $1.2 billion seems like a hill of beans.

But as to the issue of merit, let’s get Conkin’s perspective… a long quote, but worth the time:

“Race is now a prominent issue in farm politics. This is a bit ironic, because the concern for African Americans, in particular, comes much too late. Most blacks have long since departed agriculture. Many reasons lay behind their exodus, but one was the unfair treatment they received from the federal government, beginning with the Morrill Act of 1862. In the South, they were excluded from the large, segregated land-grant colleges and had to make do with small, underfunded, academically inferior agricultural and mechanical schools for blacks. The outreach programs from the land-grant institutions also discriminated against blacks, with only a few black extension agents to serve their needs. Beginning in the New Deal, despite a long and bitter controversy in the Department of Agriculture, both sharecroppers in general and black sharecroppers in particular rarely received their legal share of payments to farmers. African American farm owners were rarely represented at all in the local committee system that determined allotments.”

While the concept of farm allotments is far too complex to fully explain here, suffice it to say that for much of the past century, federally established and monitored allotments (and related quotas and pricing and financial support mechanisms) determined what and how much farmers could grow. Farms were initially assessed as having a “base” or “base acreage” determined by previous production and area already under cultivation, and this base became the basis for all sorts of regulation and monetary incentives down the line–a higher base meant greater potential profit, favoring established large landholders and those with the capital to amass more land (a property’s base evaluation went with it upon sale). Though this may all sound a little murky, Conkin describes the procedure of establishing base acreage as “the foundation of an enduring aristocracy” akin to “primogeniture and entail laws in Europe.” From the get-go, then, modern American farm policy enshrined inequality, and only recently have attempts been made to narrow the gap between large and small farming operations.

Why, then, are characters like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) alleging fraud in this settlement case, because the number of claimants exceeds the number of black farmers? Didn’t we just read that bit from Conkin on the “exodus” of African Americans from farming due to institutionalized discrimination? And why are others complaining that such settlements are paving the way for other suits, like those currently in progress for female and Hispanic farm workers, as if those groups, given the changing workforce, aren’t similarly entitled to air their grievances and receive better compensation for supporting our nation’s food economy?

I leave you with Stephen Colbert’s testimony to a Congressional subcommittee in September, on behalf of migrant farm workers and their largely unrecognized and under-appreciated labor. Having spent a day in their shoes, Colbert describes the work as “really, really hard,” and admits “At this point, I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.” Not too far off base!