Farming in America is no longer a “field of dreams,” according to Victor Hanson Davis, a fifth generation California orchardist and raisin grower. The United States is nearing the end of a historical cycle of American agrarianism. A period of agricultural depression began in 1983, marked by a decline of small producers suffering from overproduction, falling prices, and economic deflation. Since 1953, the number of American farms has steadily declined, so that by 1993 the Bureau of the Census had ceased counting them because they were statistically insignificant.
What is the cultural and historical significance of the disappearance of the American farmer? According to Davis, the United States is ending a very old idea in Western culture, tracing back to the ancient Greeks, that of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer who was the foundation of the polis, or city-state. The American population is also witnessing the end of the agrarian dream: that a family could own land, grow its own food, and feed and clothe its children. Because of increasing economic pressures to “get big or get out,” small family holdings are being consolidated into large corporate farms with salaried employees and absentee owners.
A classics scholar and farmer, Davis recounts his family’s struggles to hold onto a small raisin farm between 1981 and 1993, when the price of raisins declined precipitously and he was almost ruined planting worthless crops of Royal seedless grapes and Regal Red plums. He presents a scathing indictment of the corruption and greed in the wholesale produce marketing and distribution system that often leaves the farmer with all of the risks and little of the profits from his toil. His book also offers an excellent cultural portrait of the transformation of California from farms to suburbs. FIELDS WITHOUT DREAMS presents a disturbing account of a culture that no longer knows or cares how its food is grown.