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Agriculture and class: Contradictions of Midwestern family farms across the twentieth century

Elizabeth Ann Ramey, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In this dissertation I develop a Marxian class analysis of corn-producing family farms in the Midwestern United States during the early twentieth century. I theorize the family farm as a complex hybrid of mostly feudal and ancient class structures that has survived through a contradictory combination of strategies that includes the feudal exploitation of farm family members, the cannibalization of neighboring ancient farmers in a vicious hunt for superprofits, and the intervention of state welfare programs. The class-based definition of the family farm yields unique insights into three broad aspects of U.S. agricultural history. First, my analysis highlights the crucial, yet under-recognized role of farm women and children’s unpaid labor in subsidizing the family farm. Second I offer a new, class-based perspective on the roots of the twentieth century “miracle of productivity” in U.S. agriculture, the rise of the agribusiness giants that depended on the perpetual, technology-induced crisis of that agriculture, and the implications of government farm programs. Third, this dissertation demonstrates how the unique set of contradictions and circumstances facing family farmers during the early twentieth century, including class exploitation, were connected to concern for their ability to serve the needs of U.S. industrial capitalist development. The argument presented here highlights the significant costs associated with the intensification of exploitation in the transition to industrial agriculture in the U.S. The family farm is implicated in this social theft. Ironically, the same family farm is often held up as the bedrock of American life. Its exalted status as an example of democracy, independence, self-sufficiency, and morality is enabled among other things by the absence of class awareness in U.S. society. When viewed through the lens of class, the hallowed family farm becomes example of one of the most exploitative institutions in the U.S. economy. The myth of its superiority takes on a new significance as one of the important non-economic processes helping to overdetermine the family farm’s long survival, while participating in foreclosing truly radical transformations of these institutions to non-exploitative alternatives.

Subject Area

Economics|Agricultural economics|Economic history

Recommended Citation

Ramey, Elizabeth Ann, "Agriculture and class: Contradictions of Midwestern family farms across the twentieth century" (2012). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3498367.