This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of “As You Sow,” one of the most important books ever to get buried in the library stacks and not read. Written by anthropologist Walter R. Goldschmidt of UCLA, published by The Free Press in Glencoe, Illinois, it’s almost a miracle it made it to the printers. Reading the text can put you to sleep in three pages.

But the subject matter is hot, and continues to burn bright whenever it’s pulled off the shelf to revisit. The book contains two studies—one ethnographic case study, one two-town comparison—of the effects of large-scale, industrial agriculture on the development of rural towns. I have spent the last 40 years telling people about this book, but its importance became crystal clear this past weekend as I tried again.

We here in the valley live under a myth blanketing our eyes and ears, suffocating our thinking, stifling protest. It is the myth of our agriculture’s efficiency and productivity promoted by agribusiness: that we grow the food to feed the nation and the world, thanks to the size and industrialization of our farms. We have become convinced that bigger is better and thus inevitable, so even if there are a few flaws in the system, they’re acceptable, necessary costs.

You may have been in a room somewhere when someone, likely some critic from the coastal urban areas, brought up one truly uncomfortable contradiction of that myth: that although the three counties of the southern San Joaquin (Fresno, Tulare and Kern) annually vie for No. 1 in the nation as top-dollar ag producers, we also lead the nation in poverty and hunger. It’s not a paradox, it’s a myth-breaker, a problem that suggests the math needs adjusting. 

Unfortunately, this usually leads people to think the state and federal government should cough up more money and legislation to provide better conditions for farm laborers. We automatically think they’re the ones who are poor and hungry. And it seems we’ve become convinced the poor will always be with us, so we’ll just do our best by them and that’s that.

But farm laborers are not the only economic victims of agribusiness.

What the contents of “As You Sow” reveal is the way large-scale, absentee landownership patterns handicap rural towns and communities. It is the second, and even more important contradiction of the myth of agribusiness. It points out the diseconomies of scale that are never counted in the agribusiness math, not just to the families of farm laborers, but also the families of farmers, grocery and hardware store owners, clothing shops, insurance agents and restauranteurs. 

More important, though often missed, is what the book documents about the improvement in community conditions where smaller, owner-operated farms thrive. For some people, that seems to be the hardest thing to believe, especially now as small farms continue to disappear and their small towns dissolve under the weight of increasing industrialization of agriculture.

Large-scale, absentee landownerships and vertically-integrated food corporations—the foundation of agribusiness, erode local economies—concentrating political and economic power in urban areas, making serfs of every rural person. The system first emasculates smaller owner-operators of farms, stripping them of economic viability one by one. Their economic vulnerabilities transfer to the businesses they support, the town organizations, the school districts, the county tax bases. What used to trickle up and make small towns the incubators of democracy’s citizens now barely pools around the roots of our communities. Without seeing the cause, we are all slowly dying of thirst.

This is what made the book so volatile it had to be buried, trying to keep the lid on it.

What I’ve discovered about the book, however, is that after 75 years, it wasn’t volatile, but nuclear. The energy it contains is ongoing, still available for use in reworking the future to something different than the one we’ve sown and are currently reaping.

Keep checking here for updates.

Note: “As You Sow” was republished in 1978 with a third study about its implications. Both editions are available from the Tulare County Library System. 

Trudy Wischemann is a community disorganizer from Ninevah who writes in Lindsay. You can send her your trickle-up observations c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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