Historian Paul Conkin's latest book chronicles 80 years of agrarian life
by Jennifer Johnston
photo by Daniel Dubois
Paul Conkin was born on a small East Tennessee farm in October 1929. Though America was in the throes of an historic financial crisis, his household was largely unaware of the economic turmoil. Without electricity or indoor plumbing until years later, the Conkin family subsisted largely on food produced on their farm and heard scant news from the outside world.
Eight decades later, times have changed. Most dramatic is the fact that today, fewer than 2.2 million farm operators – many part-time – supply food for 305 million Americans, compared with just a century ago, when 30 million people were involved in agriculture. To a large degree, the “family farm” has been replaced by conglomerates – still family-run, but on a much larger scale.
These and other observations were recorded by Conkin, an esteemed historian and Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt, in his latest book, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture Since 1929 (University Press of Kentucky). Conkin’s 20th book, it is woven throughout with personal anecdotes to help “leaven all the data,” he said.
“The original title was In Only One Lifetime,” Conkin said. “The year I was born was the beginning of a rapid transition in agriculture. I wanted to know more about what lay behind the transition.”
Innovations in farm implements, techniques, chemicals, government policy, land use and other factors initiated a shift in agrarian life, said Conkin, who lives in Nashville but still owns his family farm in the Bethesda community. Only a few years ago he gave up growing its tobacco allotment.
Though Conkin relates his fond memories of farm living, he doesn’t romanticize the lost agrarian culture as did the Agrarian writers and Fugitive poets centered at Vanderbilt in the 1920s and 1930s, about whom he has written a previous book, The Southern Agrarians. Instead, Conkin wrote his latest book as a way to improve understanding of the transformation of agrarian culture during his lifetime. He hopes readers will consider how these rapid developments continue to impact their daily lives.
While contemporary folks don’t give a moment’s thought to the origin of the carton of cottage cheese they toss into their supermarket basket, Conkin knows how it’s made because he spent hours squeezing the moisture out of portions his grandmother made to sell in town. Her cheese was known to be of superior quality and was served at the table as a spread.
“She got on a bus about once a week with a great big basket and walked around Greeneville to her customers’ houses,” he said.
Today, farming is highly technological, industrialized and impersonal, Conkin said, adding that these days, many farmers don’t know the names of their migrant employees and barely interact with the livestock.
“In my book, I do reveal a sense of loss when anonymous people deal with anonymous animals with no personal concern,” he said.
“On our farm, and on many family farms, every animal on the farm had a name. Now, the average farm is over a thousand cows. A 5,000-cow dairy farm can operate with only 10 acres, with no room for the cows to graze. There are chicken farms where the chickens cannot even turn around, and in many of the hog factories, the pigs are never handled by humans from birth to slaughter. I’m sure my sense of unease comes through.”
Conkin predicts that food costs are likely to increase due to economic factors, such as oil prices and high fertilizer costs.
“Food has become so easily procured and takes so little of income,” he said, “that we don’t appreciate it as we should.”
Ultimately, Americans face a crucial dilemma, according to Conkin. A healthier, more responsible and environmentally friendly agricultural system is necessary. But it will cost more and require changes in governmental policy. He hopes his book will help educate the public and encourage Americans to take a hard look at something they’ve long taken for granted: the food they eat.