Assistant Professor of Economics Elizabeth Ramey recently published “Class, Gender and the American Family Farm in the 20th Century,” an exploration of the ways in which agriculture, class and the roles of women shaped the current trajectory of U.S. agricultural development.
When Ramey began her research, she intended to examine the farm crisis of the 1980s, which, growing up on a family farm in Missouri, she had experienced as a child.
“But as I read more and more,” she says, “I realized that the roots of that crisis, as well as the industrial agricultural system we have today, lay with processes that were set in motion farther in the past.”
Considering “the contradictions in the previous general family farming system and its reliance on the hard, strenuous, ongoing work of family members including women and children,” Ramey expanded the project’s scope to focus on the under-recognized role of women in the survival of family farms and the implications for U.S. agriculture today.
Part of Routledge’s “New Political Economy” series, Ramey’s book offers, according to the publisher, a “class-based perspective on the roots of the 20th century ‘miracle of productivity’ in U.S. agriculture” and the “contradictions and circumstances facing family farmers during the early 20th century, including class exploitation.”
“At the turn of the 20th century, food was a much-discussed issue, like it is today,” Ramey says. “Stagnant agricultural productivity, rural flight (especially of farm women and daughters), and ‘backward’ agriculture were viewed as major national concerns.”
In the book, Ramey argues that “the roots of industrial agriculture — and concentration and consolidation of agribusiness firms” can be found in this time period.
“The book examines the processes shaping the rise of these giant firms,” she says, “including an extensive discussion of the role of federal farm subsidies in encouraging the overproduction of particular food crops that form the raw material in this industrial food chain, and situating small and medium-size family farms as conduits for channeling taxpayer funds to larger farms and agribusiness firms.”
With this project finished, Ramey is now continuing her exploration of the social, economic and political effects of industrialized agriculture, examining the work of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where researchers are developing “perennial forms of cereal crops as a means of preserving biodiversity, reducing soil loss and degradation, as well as environmental contamination from chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” Ramey says.
“Perennial crops would constitute a threat to agribusiness companies like Monsanto, because perennial crop seeds would not have to be purchased again and again, and would not require purchased chemical inputs or even much machinery, once planted. My new project is focusing on the economic and political context required to make such an alternative agriculture viable.”
Ramey earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; her M.A. from University of Denver; and her B.A. from George Washington University. She joined the HWS faculty in 2009.