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The rise and rise of agribusiness

By Evaggelos Vallianatos - posted Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The United States has 68 agricultural universities, which are also known as land grant universities because of the land the federal government gave them after the civil war of the 1860s. The mission of these schools was to preserve democratic farming and to use the benefits of science and technology for the well being of the family farmers and the prosperity of rural people.

About a century and a half later, these universities have remade themselves in the model of giant agriculture, no longer serving the needs of the family farmer or rural people. Instead, they have been preparing the ground for the corporate control of rural America - and the world.

Scientists of the land grant universities have been legitimising the horror of changing the society of rural America from millions of small family farmers to a handful of food factories and very large farmers.


Don Paarlberg, a senior official of the US Department of Agriculture, admitted in 1980 that the land grant colleges failed their mission, boosting the industrialisation of agriculture instead of serving family farmers. He accused the Extension Service of speeding up farm consolidation with its propaganda that farmers had to be large to be efficient. In the classroom, he said, the emphasis on “modern management” just about wiped out the family farm, putting it “into a state of total eclipse”.

In 2001, Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, complained that land grant universities, in many cases, are the “cheerleaders” for animal factories, failing “to empower rural people to create a future that reflects their values”.

The University of Maryland, which is a land grant school, is such a cheerleader for factory farms. I was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland and noticed the tensions between agribusiness and family farming becoming acute. Most of my former colleagues in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, and not merely them, have nothing to do with family farming, refusing to use the words “sustainable farming”, “organic agriculture” or “family farming” in describing what they do. Their technical discourse is largely about ecosystems management and control: slogans intended to obscure their agribusiness allegiance.

These scientists keep teaching and researching “nutrient management” as if they are trying to hide the ceaseless suffocation of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland’s fishing and recreational treasure, by the chicken factory farms of Delmarva: Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Poisons flow into Chesapeake Bay from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania, but the great danger lurks next door in the animal farms.

This means that students have difficulty in finding schools where they can study family farming, especially the agroecological methods of organic agriculture, which avoid the hard approach of factory farming. Only Washington State is preparing to offer an undergraduate degree in organic farming. Iowa State University has a graduate program in sustainable agriculture. Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, West Virginia and New York’s Cornell prepare students for family farming, but don’t grant academic recognition in organic farming.

Wherever organic farming programs exist, however, they face discrimination, the dominant agribusiness model siphoning off most of federal and state support. In the late 1990s, about 0.1 per cent of federal agricultural research funds went to organic farming research. In 2003, 37 of the 68 land grant universities set aside 496 certified organic acres of land for organic farming research, representing 0.06 per cent of their land.


Agricultural university professors are shutting the door on students who want to become family farmers because they support continuing agricultural industrialisation and the mammoth-scale production of corporate farming. They train students to manipulate life with genetic engineering; students are fed a curriculum based on “fast food”; agriculture students are taught extremely narrow technical skills. All this makes the immoral, destructive factory farms palatable and inevitable, being products of science.

Academics feel comfortable in the remaking of rural America into an immense urban mall for corporate profits and industrialisation. Even the few who prefer family farmers remain silent about giant agriculture swallowing then up while democracy diminishes in rural America. They exalt over the success of some family farmers who, following the path of organic farmers and peasants, resist corporate farming and extinction. But these daring family farmers, including organic farmers, are not many in numbers.

For example, Maryland has about 5.5 million people and some 12,000 conventional farmers, 7,680 of whom received government subsidies in 2000, the rest being “hobby” farmers. Maryland has about 80 certified organic farmers. Since 2005, two or three students likely to practice organic farming are graduating every year from the University of Maryland.

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About the Author

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

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