These dysfunctions began long before the decline of the family farm. The U.S.D.A. has long been accused of discrimination in dispensing its services and resources, and of intentionally driving the commercial success and wealth building of white farmers while causing the failure, bankruptcy and land loss of Black, Hispanic, Native American and women farmers and ranchers. A series of legal actions from the late 1990s, including the Pigford v. Glickman and Keepseagle v. Vilsack lawsuits, resulted in settlement agreements that paid millions to eligible class members to compensate them for their discrimination claims against the department.
The U.S.D.A. still reflects the culture of 1862, the year of its creation and of the passage of the Homestead Act, which gave more than 270 million acres of Native American land to white settlers. At the same time, the Morrill Act “distributed” an additional 11 million acres of appropriated Native land to establish a network of state colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts, a network that to this day serves whites preferentially. (A series of underfunded land-grant universities was established in 1890 and 1994 in a feeble attempt to paper over this federally sanctioned racism.) The result of this social engineering is aggregate assets of around $2.7 trillion, held disproportionately among today’s farmers, 96 percent of whom are white.
There’s another sense in which the U.S.D.A. is bound to the past. Large-scale plantation agriculture, a major reason the South seceded from the Union, was a mercantilist economic system. The production of cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice and other commodities drove a web of global trade that enriched profiteers, corporations and nations at a distance from the enslaved people who labored under brutal conditions to generate that wealth. That same model of agriculture — cash crops grown primarily for processing or trade rather than for eating, a brutally exploited work force — has become the norm, and has been consistently promoted by recent secretaries of agriculture, most stridently by the incumbent, an agribusiness veteran.
That template still benefits mainly the global conglomerates that sell to and buy from farmers, to the great economic detriment of the majority of farmers and their rural communities, and especially to that of the largely immigrant work force that replicates the work of the formerly enslaved, with largely imperceptible improvement in their treatment.
Yet the American model of agribusiness profiting from low value commodities combined with through-the-roof production volume works so badly for farmers that the system is propped up by federal subsidies — until recently $15 billion per year — that are funneled into the bottom lines of mega-corporations. Since 2018, however, an additional $60 billion of taxpayer money has been splurged on this sector, making it one of the most socialized sectors of the economy.