Gabriel N. Rosenberg argues that public acceptance of the political economy of agribusiness hinged on federal efforts to normalize rural heterosexuality.
2015 | 304 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History | Women's Studies/Gender Studies | Agriculture
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Introduction. Signs of the State
Chapter 1. Agrarian Futurism, Rural Degeneracy, and the Origins of 4-H
Chapter 2. Financial Intimacy and Rural Manhood
Chapter 3. 4-H Body Politics in the 1920s
Chapter 4. Conserving Farm and Family in New Deal 4-H
Chapter 5. Citizenship and Difference in Wartime 4-H
Chapter 6. International 4-H in the Cold War
Epilogue. Future Farmers of Afghanistan: Agrarian Futurism at the Twilight of Empire
Signs of the State
Fretting about the countryside is a great American pastime. And contemporary anxieties about the state of rural America run as high as ever. Current worries range from industrial meat production and use of pesticides to depopulation and the scourge of methamphetamines, and they issue from across the political spectrum. Despite this anxious mood, politicians of all stripes and most voters are still deferential toward agrarian political rhetoric: the Jeffersonian ideal of the small, independent yeoman farmer and the belief that a virtuous rural past offers a model for a better future. In a time when increasing globalization pushes people to focus on local and small-scale action, the rhetoric of family farms is appealing. Yet that rhetoric sidesteps how, when, and why the current rural idyll came to such prominence. This book revises that political mythology by providing an overdue history to a key piece of agrarian Americana: 4-H, the homespun youth clubs that, over roughly a century of existence, taught millions of rural children how to be farmers and homemakers.
For my own part, rural places have rarely been a source of anxiety. Growing up in the Midwest, I was never a member of 4-H but was also never far from farms. Many of my most cherished experiences with the countryside, however, were linked to family vacations. Every summer, my parents hauled my siblings and me to a remote rented cabin near the western shore of Michigan for a week or two of swimming in frigid lake waters. We drove in the family minivan on U.S. 31 to a little town called Montague, cutting through endless fields of corn and soy on the way but missing any cities larger than South Bend. Travel with young children being what it was (and is), my parents made ample stops in the towns and businesses scattered along our route. We ogled an enormous stuffed steer in Kokomo—the world's largest!—and paused for ice cream in Rochester. My mother still swears that we stopped at corn stands—sweet corn, boiled, dipped in butter, salted, and served hot enough to burn your fingers—but I don't remember that. I do recall the many fresh produce stands as we drew closer to our destination in the heart of Michigan fruit country. At those stands, my mother bought enough tart cherries to bake a half-dozen pies and pints and pints of blueberries that we promptly devoured. At the cottage, I split time between the beach and riding my bicycle on country back roads, where I lost myself in the late summer fields of wheat and corn and occasional orchards. My sense of what was "beyond the city" was formed in this delightful milieu of lush agricultural landscapes, scrumptious treats, frenzied excitement, and the asphalt lanes that stretched to the horizon, dotted occasionally with peculiar road signs emblazoned with four-leafed clovers.
Deciphering those signs tells us much about the complicated political culture that guides their placement. Across the country, rural communities welcome visitors with signs much like the one in Tillman County, Oklahoma: "Tillman 4-H Club Welcomes You." The term "4-H" and its emblematic clover appear ubiquitously in American popular culture as quiet totems of rural life. Many readers of this book will be familiar with 4-H. Some may have been part of the 70 million Americans who, in the past century, joined a 4-H club. Other readers may have had only a vague understanding of the organization. 4-H clubs are voluntary associations for youth between the ages of ten and twenty. Through most of 4-H's history, the clubs were predominantly rural and focused on agriculture and home economics. 4-H'ers, the term for club members, worked hard on a specific project through spring and summer, with the ambition of producing something—a hog, a bushel of corn, a dress, a can of tomatoes—to show at the county fair at the end of the growing season. And if they produced something of exceptional quality, they might even win a ribbon and the chance to compete at the state fair. 4-H'ers, as both spectators and participants, are a ubiquitous presence at state fairs. Some may even be garbed in paraphernalia featuring the clover. Given the number of signs along county roads, 4-H and its clover stand not just narrowly for the club but for a broader sense of rural authenticity and pride, so much so that farm towns across America choose to express their civic identity in 4-H's voice.
If you look closely at an official 4-H clover, you will find the mysterious characters "18 USC 707" in the lower right-hand corner of the emblem. "18 USC 707" refers to the portion of the federal code that gives the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) full ownership of the 4-H name and emblem. It is this portion of the federal code that makes the unauthorized use of that name and emblem a felony. 4-H is a USDA program, now administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. At a time when rural political culture has become synonymous with skepticism of Big Government, the most ubiquitous symbol of rural civil society is the full legal property of an immense federal bureaucracy. How could this relationship between an icon of rural America and the leviathan of the American state be hidden so effectively?
The existence of this relationship is not exceptional but rather constitutive of the modern rural world. Contrary to the assumption that rural communities are the last bastions of an authentic American culture untainted by government bureaucracy, you can see the imprint of the state on every rural landscape. Rows of subsidized cornfields, once homesteads, are crisscrossed by interstate highways. They grow from hybrid seeds using technologies developed at public land-grant universities, purchased through a subsidized credit program, and vouchsafed by federal crop insurance. Along those highways, semis roll past federal penitentiaries and U.S. army bases, and they roll over irrigation ditches fed by massive dams. The semis are loaded with surplus commodities, purchased for distribution abroad under the USDA's Food for Peace program. Each of these images summons an intimate connection to state infrastructure that punctures cherished national myths about the American heartland—its robust independence, its nostalgic embodiment of a purer past. Rural America is not a resistant rump to the state's modernizing impulses; it is the outcome of those impulses. Yet in rural America, the state still hides in plain sight.
Seeing rural America as an embodiment of modern political economy structures my approach to 4-H's history. I take rural people and culture seriously, not as the remnants of a decaying past but as the keystones of modern industrial agriculture. At times, this demands accounting for 4-H's relationship to broader structures of violence related to commercial agriculture, racialized patterns of farm tenancy, and labor exploitation. At other times, however, it means examining how 4-H was positioned as a way to avoid direct violence—how 4-H worked as a strategy of alliance, an object of affection, and an instrument of sociability mutually constituted among rural people, urban capitalists, and federal bureaucrats. In all these instances, 4-H functioned as a mode of governance implemented through the bodies of participating children. In this, 4-H's iconic clover unlocks the unexpected history of the American biopolitical state. By biopolitics, I mean the political strategy that takes the management of life as both its fundamental object and means. By tracking the 4-H clover, inscribed on the chests of millions of youth around the world, we find the American state insinuating itself into the intimate spaces of the rural world and connecting national projections of population and crop yields to the vigor and health of individual bodies. Far from a benign feature of a bucolic past, 4-H is a sophisticated biopolitical apparatus—a state infrastructure built out of youth instead of concrete.
This book tells three stories as one. First, it is an institutional history of 4-H. Readers curious about the most critical dates, names, and events in 4-H's history will find them in this book. Given the size of the program, its centrality to the social experiences of many people, and its colorful and fascinating history, this is a task I tackle with pleasure. Notably, this is a task never before undertaken by a professional historian. Second, the book offers a cultural interpretation of the history of the political economy of agriculture in the United States. By this, I mean broadly the process of producing and regulating markets for agricultural commodities. My cultural perspective on political economy attends to structures of governance and capital, material conditions, labor relations (informal and formal, public and private), particular technologies of capital production and reproduction, and the gendered assumptions that formed and conditioned those various factors. Third, this book is a history of a biopolitical apparatus—how it came to be assembled and to what ends. I map the interlocking series of biopolitical units produced by and constitutive of that apparatus in an arc that proceeds successively from the gendered bodies of rural youth, to the familial and community bodies in which their productive and reproductive capacities were elaborated, and to the national and global bodies that defined their reproductive horizons. To comprehend 4-H's status as biopolitical apparatus, we must first locate it within a broader transformation of agricultural production and rural communities across the United States in the twentieth century.
At the turn of the twentieth century, most farming in the United States still obeyed a simple maxim of production: labor poor, land rich. Abundant land in the western United States, guaranteed by federal military power, and patterns of internal migration led landowners to develop particular labor strategies. Small farmers in the North, the Corn Belt, the Upland South, and the High Plains made extensive use of familial labor. The resulting operations frequently mixed some amount of subsistence farming with commercial-oriented staple production. Early twentieth-century Americans rarely, if ever, used the term, but such farms loosely resembled the contemporary ideal of "family farms," though the families in question—sprawling, contingent, and multigenerational—bore little resemblance to a nucleated "farmer and farmer's wife" model that featured rigid divisions of gendered labor. Regardless, even by the late nineteenth century, most Northern farmers had integrated into commodity markets of varying scales with non-market-oriented and subsistence farming appearing only at the margins. Meanwhile, in the South, the crop lien system, discrimination in hiring and public accommodations, sanctioned vigilante violence, and pervasive vagrancy laws constrained black labor mobility. By the turn of the twentieth century, Southern land tenure had stabilized around tenant farmers and sharecroppers, forming the basis of a "neoplantation" system that matched and then exceeded the South's prodigious antebellum cotton output.
Although relatively limited at the twentieth century's turn, agriculture in the Far West offered the key to farming's future in the United States. While the South concocted an extensive legal regime to retain its agricultural labor force, Californian landowners imported workers from Central America, China, and the Philippines (and then supported legal measures to constrain the employment opportunities of their new labor force). With productive land clustered primarily around costly irrigation systems in the Central Valley, California reversed the usual maxim of production. California was land-poor and labor-rich: its farms mechanized first and were soon viewed as sound investment vehicles by bankers and speculators. In other regions, such as the High Plains, similar experiments in capital-intensive farming proved less successful. Nevertheless, massive, highly mechanized farms stoked the imaginations of investors, reformers, and technocrats, who idealized "large scale production, specialized machines, standardizations of processes and products, reliance on managerial (rather than artisanal) expertise, and a continued invocation of efficiency as a production mandate." Proponents of this "industrial ideal" invoked "efficient," "progressive," "businesslike," and "scientific" agricultural nearly interchangeably to describe this prescriptive model of agriculture that privileged capital- and technology-intensive modes of production.
Wealthier landed farmers—those who could most easily absorb capital costs and afford luxuries that better accorded with reformers' sense of order, aesthetics, and hygiene—joined the fold first. Initially, poor farmers, including tenants, sharecroppers, and wage laborers, critiqued the enterprise vociferously and used the vestiges of the populist movement as a vehicle for structural reform of the agricultural economy that, in turn, vexed reformers and investors alike. Whatever momentum structural reforms like the nationalization of the railroads enjoyed in the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, the agrarian Left had lost momentum by the 1920s. Instead, a legislative "farm bloc" coalesced around the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization that further institutionalized capital-intensive modes of production and made them central to the collective political identity of farmers. By the end of the 1920s, the notion that farming should be organized primarily along industrial lines had achieved broad consensus among both farmers and reformers. Southern farm owners, however, evinced a notorious lack of interest in capitalization, and Southern agriculture remained predominantly labor-intensive until the development of the mechanical cotton harvester and the transition to industrial poultry production after World War II.
4-H developed as an integral part of this broader push toward mechanized, industry-backed agriculture and the politics of progressive agricultural reform that eventually rendered rural America safe for agribusinesses. Stymied by adult farmers, agricultural progressives targeted rural youth through clubs, contests, and home demonstrations. These youth-oriented methods were flexible enough to be used in racially and geographically diverse communities, and their emphasis on voluntary labor enrolled local allies and provided an organic, nonthreatening image for technocratic expertise. On the strength of this system of "agricultural extension," Congress created a permanent appropriation for the USDA's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) in 1914. By the 1920s, 4-H clubs were circulating the USDA's preferred technical farming methods and had created robust alliances of technocratic expertise, private capital, and local voluntary labor in every corner of rural America.
Buoyed by its relationship to the farm bureau and champions of progressive agriculture, 4-H grew considerably between 1914 and 1930. 4-H's prevalence in areas with the most labor-intensive agriculture reflected its transformational role in guiding farmers from labor-intensive methods to capital-intensive mono-cropping. With the farm bureau's support, 4-H aimed to take youth laboring on inefficient farms and teach them how to farm—and live—like businessmen. 4-H provided the technical details and mental instruments necessary for capital-intensive production. 4-H also provided local spaces where rural youth could network with farmers, businessmen, and agricultural experts. In these spaces, the USDA sponsored the circulated information, subsidized the salaries of county agents, and provided training for club leaders. In return, rural youth became accustomed to accepting the expert prescriptions of state agents as trustworthy and public-minded. In the wider community, the successes of club members advertised the advantages of scientific agriculture as well as the authority of the USDA. Club activities—daily labor, public demonstrations, fair exhibits, and community talks—constituted a form of everyday state building. Quotidian activities long accepted as constitutive elements of rural living, such as raising calves or sewing dresses, slowly and subtly insinuated state expertise into communities.
4-H clubs, and agriculture extension more generally, enjoyed their greatest influence in regions where rural populations were densest and where agriculture was most labor-intensive. In those communities, shorter travel times gave extension agents more contact with community members and made attendance at regular meetings manageable for club members. In addition, extension agents drew from larger target populations. 4-H clubs enrolled the highest percentages of rural youth in New England, states in the Deep South, and eastern Corn Belt states. The states ringing the Great Lakes, in particular, achieved impressive club enrollments, enrolling, on average, between a quarter and a third of farm youth by 1940. As the scale of farming increased west of the Mississippi and the land was less densely populated, club enrollments shrank—hovering in the Dakotas, for example, at less than 15 percent of the farm youth. Additionally, some western states with highly concentrated farm populations and efficient extension services—Oregon and Nevada, most notably—managed to enroll high percentages of their farm populations, even though, in raw numbers, their enrollments were comparatively smaller.
4-H organizers believed that they could better secure the attention and cooperation of rural people if they catered to the gendered interests and labor of farm youth. Accordingly, and with increasing uniformity from the 1920s on, most 4-H projects were segregated by sex. Few girls participated in male agricultural projects that focused on revenue production. Even fewer boys learned about home economics. Organizers encouraged girls to enroll in homemaking projects, which could hypothetically provide valuable knowledge to the entrepreneurial girl. But by the late 1920s, they were focusing primarily on the relationship of domestic labor to the care and cultivation of the self and family. By contrast, male 4-H enrollments clustered almost exclusively around crop and animal husbandry projects. While boys spread their attention among the various agricultural projects, there was almost no male involvement in home economics projects.
That sex-segregated structure allowed club organizers to turn their attention from the technical details of agriculture and home economics and to focus on the gendered bodies and psychologies of their youthful charges. By the 1930s, 4-H health programs had pushed rural youth to produce healthy bodies capable of laboring and reproducing for the nation and had positioned technocratic authority at the center of rural family life and social reproduction. 4-H material idealized the economic and biological union between a revenue-producing male "farmer" and a nurturing "farmer's wife" and promoted it as the normal form of organization for rural life. In rural communities, in the national media, and on the floor of Congress, the USDA and advocates of club work advertised the virtues of federal planning, using images of wholesome, white 4-H'ers conducting gender-appropriate labor on family farms. At the close of the 1930s, 4-H citizenship programs merged this vision of rural normalcy with American nationalism and the language of civic obligation, casting white, commercial family farmers as the backbone of the nation.
The lily-white public presentation of 4-H conflicted with the racial diversity of the organization's members. According to USDA statistics, African American enrollments were concentrated almost entirely in the states of the Confederacy and Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, and Maryland. In those states, the extension systems were segregated with a "negro" extension service, run out of each state's African American agricultural college, supervising a separate system of extension agents. Serious financial disparities between the systems left black extension grossly understaffed and black extension agents poorly equipped and ill-compensated. In many counties, where insufficient funds existed to hire a black county agent or home demonstrator, white extension agents were given responsibility for serving both black and white populations, although many white extension agents simply neglected black farmers altogether. Despite regular criticism from civil rights organizations and from African American extension pioneers like Thomas Campbell, financial disparities persisted. Even by 1946, black county agents were earning, on average, only 60 percent of what their white counterparts were earning. A racial ideology that cast African American farmers as genetically incapable of mastering the complexities of scientific farming informed this financial neglect of African American extension.
Even when figures within the extension service rejected the notions that African Americans were genetically incapable of practicing scientific agriculture or were prone to superstition, explanations of Southern race relations tended to elide the economic consequences of white racism and place unreasonable expectations on the education of "backward" black farmers. African American extension agents also tended to be constrained by this racial ideology. They focused their efforts on "break[ing] down superstitions" among black farmers and publicizing "outstanding" examples who defied the crude stereotype of the backward black tenant farmer, efforts that consistently focused on black self-improvement rather than white racism. 4-H material perpetuated that stereotype, presenting club work as a scientific curative for crippling superstition. African American extension services did their best to circulate the stories, real and fictional, of 4-H members who improved their homes and lives through club work and shattered the grip of the previous generation's ignorance. African American extension material in the interwar period also never questioned the basic racial division foisted by white supremacists in the Jim Crow South. In Alabama, for example, the extension service insisted on printing separate runs of material for white and black 4-H clubs. Despite being otherwise identical to the white club version, ledgers for African American livestock club members came emblazoned with the word "Negro" on the cover. Similarly, African American 4-H members were excluded from the national 4-H events—the National 4-H Congress in Chicago and the National 4-H Camp in Washington, D.C. In general, while Southern white 4-H'ers enjoyed subsidized access to camps and social outings, there was no parallel structure for African American members. As a result of financial disparities, inattention from white extension agents and obvious racism, and despite large rural black populations throughout the South, white youth were disproportionately active in 4-H clubs.
The Great Depression did nothing to dislodge the industrial ideal from 4-H or among farmers more broadly. The most costly and enduring component of the New Deal agricultural program, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA), enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the farm bureau. The AAA sent billions of dollars in price supports to farm operators by 1940 and integrated them soundly into the emergent corporatist New Deal state. These shifting links between capital-intensive agriculture and the American state placed the USDA at the center of the New Deal political coalition. It also situated 4-H as a key instrument of state power. The New Deal and World War II emerged as two key moments of emergency for the USDA, moments when the regulation of agriculture became inseparable from broader understandings of collective social and political health. In these moments, 4-H'ers performed vital services for the state. They rallied rural folk behind government programs at public meetings. They explained to their parents and neighbors how to fill out AAA contracts. They planted trees for the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). They mapped their communities for the Rural Electrification Administration. At war, they organized resource campaigns and provided vital agricultural labor.
In fact, World War II shifted 4-H's focus from the task of producing farm families to the task of cultivating healthy bodies capable of laboring and sacrificing in the war effort. "4-H Club work in its daily program is building men and women to live," declared one USDA official at the 1940 National 4-H Club Congress, "and to live the great life here and now. Its first purpose is not soldier building but man building. But, if the Nation needs men for its defense, it will find that in 4-H Club work men and women trained to live are unafraid, if need be, to die." Participation in 4-H became proof of civic virtue and able-bodied sacrifice for the nation. Despite vocal protests from African Americans, the USDA circulated a public image of 4-H that elided the wartime sacrifices of nonwhite 4-H'ers and thus cemented the links between authentic, rural citizenship and healthy, white bodies.
4-H's deployment as a selectively embodied tactic of state power coincided with the near-total integration of national corporations into the production and consumption of foodstuffs. Agribusinesses sold hybrid seeds, petrochemicals, and mechanical implements to farmers, and farmers sold unprocessed agricultural commodities to agribusinesses. Prewar reformers dreamed of a managed countryside that was politically compatible with and economically integrated into an urban capitalist order. By 1960, that dream had become reality, and the model of vertically integrated agribusinesses had come to shape every corner of life in the rural United States. Small farmers were more obsolete than ever, but the family farm enjoyed greater cultural idealization than ever before in the American popular imagination. Less a relic of an agrarian past, the family farm was now just an idealized link in an agribusiness chain that stretched from the American heartland to markets and farmers around the world. 4-H was an apparatus keeping those links in place.
It is inadequate to tell 4-H's story as one only concerned with the normalization of state-subsidized, capital-intensive agriculture in rural America. A history of 4-H must also be a history of sexuality, gender, and the body: a story about the gendered production of desirable bodies through heteronormative family farms. Neither of those histories is intelligible without the other. When articulated together, these histories raise crucial questions about the means and ends of biopolitics, as well as the history of state power in the United States. I interpret 4-H as a governing network dedicated to the orchestration of both nonhuman and human bodies within the framework of agriculture, a framework that is necessarily biopolitical. In doing so, this book places two seemingly different objects—the politics of gender and sexuality as well as the politics of food and agriculture—into a single biopolitical frame.
This move has important consequences for the objects in question as well as for the underlying political theories and disciplinary practices that have previously divided them. For scholars of the history of political economy and state building, the book demonstrates the vital necessity of an engagement with feminist and queer theories, as well as increased attention to the roles that embodiment, intimacy, and seduction play in the actual logistics of governance. For historians of gender and sexuality, it marks the urgency of connecting the gendered reproduction of human life to the dramatic transformations of the global food system. For theorists of biopolitics, it provides a precise, empirical account of how knowledge about the reproduction of nonhuman life conditions how actors approach the governance of human reproduction.
Agriculture is the governance and orchestration of life—plant life, animal life, and human life—to produce more life. In this, agriculture is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous forms of biopolitical governance. Today, agriculture's objective is the production of life at multiple scales. Individuals must eat or perish. Communities risk hunger. Nations obtain food security. And the globe has a food system. Each of these statements registers a problem of governance and a logistical challenge for the maintenance of life at its variously conceived scales: individual, communal, national, and global. Governing programs identify bodies at each scale in need of sustenance and management. Food stamps and agricultural education treat consuming and producing bodies, respectively, while crop subsidy regimes target a food supply that gives vitality, in turn, to aggregated national and global populations. The production of food is arraigned as a crucial factor in projections of growth, and, similarly, projected growth shapes agricultural practices, sometimes cloaking the bucolic in a shroud of apocalyptic urgency. This procedure links the quotidian practices of individual farmers, like plowing and spraying fields, to the growth and sustenance of life in its various collective configurations. The biopolitics of agriculture exists not just within each scaled entity. It dwells in the interstices and in the labors through which those scales are constituted and coordinated. A biopolitical history of agriculture thus reveals a state anatomy in which the governance of agriculture "orchestrate[s] the conduct of the body biological, the body social, and the body politic," to quote political theorist Wendy Brown's description of biopolitics.
Agricultural governance is never merely a question about how best to grow food and, thus, to produce life. It is also a constant calculation and negotiation of life's value and what sorts of lives are worth living. At an intimate scale, agriculture coordinates between life and death through the obvious fact that some life—both the hog and the nubbin for its slop—is only produced to ultimately die. Farmers systematically extinguish other life, such as pests and weeds, to preserve fragile monocultures and the precarious ecosystem of industrial agriculture. The geopolitics of agriculture is just as inextricably wound into this dialectic of life and death. Driven by the demands of U.S. Cold War foreign policy objectives, the Food for Peace program and the subsequent Green Revolution moved millions of subsistence farmers throughout the global South into precarious cash cropping and urban wage labor, rendering them dependent on the importation of food stuffs. Escalating petroleum prices in the 1970s and the Soviet purchase of American crop surpluses, sealed by the sudden diplomatic urgency of détente, caused massive increases in food prices and generated deaths from famine and political instability. Similarly, for the last half-century, the production of food for consumption in the global North depended on the widespread use of toxic petrochemicals in the global South. That dynamic placed the cause of life's attrition in the water, air, and soil of some communities so that other communities might consume what they liked.
The historical trajectories of 4-H, agribusinesses, and the reproduction of the American state illustrate precisely how agriculture is biopolitical and, in doing so, identify neglected biopolitical valences to state power and capitalist agriculture that I call "agrarian futurism." Historians have cataloged the influence of agrarian ideas, language, and politics in the American past but have tended to characterize agrarians as antimodernists—individuals on the margins of American political culture dedicated to protecting a vanishing agricultural past from an encroaching urban, industrial future. By contrast, American agricultural expansion often produced agrarianism that was radically modernist and futurist in its orientation and that enjoyed powerful influence in centers of government well into the twentieth century. I define agrarian futurism as an ideology linking the governance of human social and biological reproduction to the practice, theory, and language of agriculture. It is agrarian in the sense that it privileges tropes, technologies, and knowledge derived from plant and animal agriculture. It is futurist in the sense that it links the intensive governance of the present in an aspirational vision of the future. To understand the powerful influence that agrarian futurism holds in American political culture—conditioning debates on topics as diverse as development programs, reproductive rights, farm policy, and estates taxes—this book locates it in the powerful fusion of agricultural expertise and modernist ambitions in the modern American state.
Agrarian futurism is conceptually, rhetorically, and materially invested in the concept of generation as an instrument of biopolitical development. The context of nineteenth-century "improved" agricultural practice acutely informed how agrarian futurists sought to manage human reproduction. Beyond the gaze of the husbandry expert, human reproduction often seemed ill timed, like a field gone to seed or planted too late in the season. In nineteenth-century agriculture, the synchronization of reproduction brought uniform plants and animals, as well as paths to enhanced future prosperity. Like most farmers throughout history, nineteenth-century farmers manipulated nonhuman reproduction according to seasonal rhythms that created discrete generations of plants and animals. A hog farmer had the sows farrow at the same time so that their offspring would be of uniform size for market. The ability to organize reproduction also enabled farmers to selectively breed and, thus, to transform animal and plant bodies for human economic purposes over ensuing generations and time scales that exceeded the span of a single human life. In both cases, generational differences—differences between parents and offspring—offered a way for farmers to coordinate between banal present tasks and future bounties, especially when the agricultural present was often impoverished.
A futurist orientation, of course, eased some of the contradictions between America's mythological origin among independent Jeffersonian homesteaders and the material reality of the United States as a settler-colonial project. Westward expansion and settlement of North America required one of the most successful projects of planned land reform in human history: the calculated dispossession of indigenous populations, redistribution of land to European populations practicing settled agriculture, and, finally, integration of settled agriculture into Atlantic trade networks. Contrary to the rhetoric of individualistic independence and self-sufficiency, this project necessitated that rural spaces be laboratories of effective governance. The largely rural West, to quote historian Richard White, was "the Kindergarten of the American state." Modernist political projects ran directly through American hinterlands: innovative state-building programs, communication networks, public health initiatives, and regulatory mechanisms all emerged out of efforts to govern peripheral agricultural spaces. In the twentieth century, rural America served as a vital staging ground for international development programs, neoliberal economics, and the transition to the post-Fordist service economy. In all these cases, the guiding conflict was rarely between urban visions of change and a bitter and unified rural resistance. Rather, conflicts often pitted rural economic and racial classes against one another and designated some rural people as important components of governing coalitions. Indeed, many agrarian movements were modernist and utterly enamored of the ability of collective institutions to unleash powerful economic and political change. Farm folk, despite the homespun rhetoric, have possessed expansive political imaginations. Their work and their lives crystallize agrarian futurism.
Tasked with improving the impoverished spaces of America's sprawling agrarian empire, USDA experts turned to these generational logics for animals, plants, and humans alike. These technocrats placed the improvement of seemingly marginal locales and bodies at the core of the nation's reproductive future. Although these technocrats diverged in fundamental ways from the agrarian modernists of the populist rebellion, they shared populism's confidence that the nation's future hinged on the transformation and budding prosperity of nonmetropolitan spaces. This inverted the typical narrative of urban modernity in which movement into the future coincided always with movement to the city.
To map 4-H as a biopolitical apparatus makes this book a work of queer political history, a declaration that may seem initially counterintuitive, given that it makes no direct comment on the histories of sexual minorities. The history of 4-H challenges depictions of nonmetropolitan family life as more authentic or normal than its metropolitan counterparts. Instead, I embed the material production of youthful bodies and the reproduction of rural society squarely within the historical development of state power and capitalist agriculture in rural America. The nucleated family farm was the cultural effect of the managed industrialization of the American countryside. This site of healthy social and biological reproduction in the countryside was ever fragile, faltering, and in need of federal assistance. Such an explanation makes normalized relationships between rural people and the American state rural heterosexuality's prerequisite.
Just as the body of the 4-H'er allows us to historicize heteronormativity in rural America, it also illustrates the assembly of the American state. In other words, as the American state produces heterosexuality in rural America, heterosexuality also produces the American state. In rural America, we find the state assembled out of unexpected materials. 4-H was an infrastructure composed of prized calves, symmetrical ears of corn, hand-sewn dresses, cans of tomatoes, bags of seed, precise record books, and, most important, the gendered bodies of rural youth—these all testified to rural people on the state's behalf. They endowed it with credibility and insinuated its physical presence into barns, fields, and parlors. In those locations, through the bodies of 4-H'ers, the state became an object of desire and affection and operationalized that desire and affection in its governing technologies. This infrastructure, along with its affective products, became an indispensable part of the American state's functioning and capacity, rendering vital service at moments of historical necessity such as the New Deal and World War II. Burdened with the agricultural and military demands of the wartime state of emergency, 4-H's infrastructure clarified the biopolitical stakes of agricultural production. 4-H offered healthy, vigorous bodies—individual and collective—ready to live and die for the American state.
In identifying this infrastructure, I am referencing the historical sociologist Michael Mann's concept of "infrastructural power," originally defined by Mann as "[t]he capacity of the state to actually penetrate civil society, and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm." His concept shifts attention from the sovereign rights of the state to the technologies that actively and materially constitute governing networks; he pushes historians of the state to move from problems of law to problems of logistics and thus makes possible an empirical approach that historian William Novak calls a "bottom-up" history of governing and statecraft. 4-H'ers entered into alliance with the state, but their value to that alliance depended on their simultaneous ability to embody an innocent future; 4-H's political efficacy hinged on its political innocence. 4-H's state/civil status was always fluid, contingent, and contextual. At some moments, 4-H'ers embodied the state; at other moments, they embodied its antithesis, civil society. This ambiguity was not a problem to be overcome. It was, to the contrary, a strategic asset and the very root of 4-H's political power.
This book is organized into six chapters that proceed chronologically and thematically. Just as the chapters move in a generally chronological fashion, each chapter also maps a particular biopolitical unit. The book moves in an arc from a broad regulative field of discourse (rural degeneracy and agrarian futurism in Chapter 1) to particular localized embodiments of gender (rural boys in Chapter 2 and rural girls in Chapter 3) to the idealized reproductive units assembled from those local bodies (farm families in Chapter 4) to the aggregated bodies that harnessed and redirected the labor of those reproductive units (nations and global communities at war, hot and cold, in Chapters 5 and 6).
Chapter 1 begins by tracing the development of the 4-H movement from its origins in early twentieth-century rural reform movements to its central role in the creation of the USDA's CES in 1914. Progressive Era reformers believed that the countryside—and, with it, the nation—had entered a stark and dangerous decline. Many rural communities and households, they argued, corroded body and soul, driving the fittest to cities and leaving the countryside teeming with the infirm, foolish, and deviant. For a nation rooted in agrarian virtues and a "native" population demographically dependent on the fecundity of rural families, these facts boded ill for rural populations, imagined racial futures, and national bodies alike. Faced with intractable stubbornness of ignorant, lazy farm patriarchs, reformers turned increasingly to children as instruments of transformation. Youth clubs departed dramatically from previous methods of agricultural reform because they gave government agents direct access to rural homes, educated the next generation of farmers and homemakers, and allowed rural youth to carry the banner of rural modernization. Buoyed by reports of healthy, radiant youth canning tomatoes and growing corn, Congress created the CES with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. The legislative debate around that act crystallized the assumption that rural youth, when allied with the technocratic expertise of a federal bureaucracy, could bypass faltering rural fathers, transform rural households, and restore vigor to the national body.
Chapter 2 explores the intertwined growth of 4-H, capital-intensive agriculture, and technocratic expertise in the decade after the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. During that period, 4-H developed from an inchoate set of loosely affiliated clubs and contests to a well-organized network unified by a standard set of methods, symbols, and institutions—most notably, the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work (National Committee), a private, not-for-profit organization that handled 4-H's national fund-raising and lobbying. Through an alliance of state expertise, local voluntary labor, and private capital, the 4-H clover sprouted in communities around the nation, enrolling more than 800,000 youth by the end of the decade. By providing rural youth with an arena for cooperation, club organizers enticed participation and habituated club members to accepting the USDA as a reliable source of knowledge and advice. By enlisting a diverse array of private local actors as the face of the 4-H program and by tightly coordinating with county farm bureaus, the USDA packaged 4-H'ers as authentic representatives of rural communities and the apotheosis of a cooperative spirit. Crucially, this cooperative spirit critiqued extant rural masculinity: the stubborn rural patriarchs who, lacking the masculine self-discipline to run their farms like businesses, begged like dependents for public relief. 4-H's allies and advocates contended that through the clubs, rural boys could develop into farmer-businessmen: men characterized by both their homespun folksiness and economic self-possession; men as comfortable at barn raisings as at financial conferences; men for whom capitalist competition was a gate to rural cooperation rather than a barrier.
The gendered reform of rural households also had significant implications for the hundreds of thousands of rural girls engaged in club work. As Chapter 3 explains, 4-H programming encouraged rural girls in the 1920s to minimize strenuous revenue-producing labor and to concentrate on cultivating beauty, health, and careful consumption in rural homes. Like the businesslike agriculture taught to rural boys in 4-H clubs, modern homemaking required the acceptance of objective, quantifiable standards provided by external technocratic expertise. Advocates of club work, both public and private, used the health of 4-H'ers to promote a variety of different, occasionally contradictory, ends: for technocrats at the USDA, robust 4-H bodies advertised the benefits of the broader extension program; for the cluster of commercial interests organized under the auspices of the National Committee, 4-H bodies advertised the advantages of robust rural consumerism. In 1926, the National Committee initiated a sophisticated lobbying campaign for legislation to increase federal appropriations for extension. This campaign focused on the benefits of club work and, in particular, the healthy, attractive youth produced by 4-H. Even as the National Committee corralled support for the legislation from across the spectrum of commercial agriculture, maternalist activists raised concerns about the organization's exploitative and pecuniary interests. The debate surrounding the Capper-Ketcham Act of 1928 ultimately hinged on a question of expert biopolitical authority: Who was best situated to protect and cultivate the health of rural youth? Resolution of that debate pitted the production-minded agricultural modernizers of the National Committee against the authority of the science of motherhood: home economics. Crucially, that debate designated the bodies of rural youth as the territory to be won.
The Great Depression and the New Deal placed 4-H at the center of rural family life, national service, and new federal programs. Chapter 4 explains how the increasing material and symbolic value of 4-H pushed the USDA to regulate the National Committee and safeguard rural youth from the corrosive effect of urban commercialism. From 1930 to 1940, 4-H expanded from about 800,000 members to more than 1.4 million, growing in visibility and reach. During that period, the variety of activities available to 4-H members and the concomitant connections between technocratic expertise and rural youth also multiplied. By the end of the decade, 4-H members were serving their communities by cooperating with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the SCS, the Rural Electrification Administration, and a host of cultural programs designed to edify entire rural communities. The sum of these activities "conserved the youth," as one USDA expert put it, and reinforced links between the bodies of 4-H members, farm families, rural communities and landscapes, and the modern bureaucratic state. Even as mechanization and "production control" weakened the economic justification for the farm family, club experts at the USDA presented the wholesome 4-H movement as a reason for and a means to conserve the family farm, rural society, and national fertility. Just as perfected 4-H specimens advertised the broader extension program in the 1920s, the belief that 4-H created happy marriages and healthy heterosexual relations offered powerful proof of the wisdom of federal authority in 1930s rural America. Emboldened by this cultural force, club experts finally moved to protect 4-H clubs at the end of the decade from the crass commercialism and "exploitative" behavior of the National Committee that threatened to upend federal authority and its conservation of rural youth.
The growing threat of totalitarianism and probability of war in the late 1930s led the USDA to ponder how 4-H could prepare rural America for war and inoculate rural Americans against the virus of totalitarianism. As Chapter 5 shows, by the beginning of the 1940s, many states had launched 4-H citizenship programs and sought to provide rural youth with democratic practice. Citizenship programs mixed democratic procedure with nationalist ritualism and emphasized that rural youth needed to be ready to make bodily sacrifices for the good of the nation. With the outbreak of World War II, 4-H programs encouraged rural youth to cultivate healthy bodies and copious agricultural commodities as proof of national allegiance and good citizenship.
Contrasts between the fit, vigorous bodies of all-American, white 4-H'ers and depleted foreign bodies continued in the immediate postwar movement and provided embodied evidence of the virtue of American leadership in a global age. Even as such contrasts strengthened the case for American postwar hegemony, they also shifted the focus of rural youth away from pervasive inequalities in the United States. African American critics identified the hypocrisy of promoting democracy abroad while countenancing segregation at home, and they pilloried 4-H in the national press for racial exclusion at national 4-H events. In contrast to their vigorous efforts to contain the gendered threat of the National Committee in the previous decade, USDA officials hid behind a states'-rights argument when faced with criticism from leading African American civil rights activists. Although this criticism did little to change 4-H's policies, it revealed the larger symbolic politics at work in public discussions of 4-H, which, by 1950, had become synonymous with authentic rural living and white, middle-class commercial farmers.
In the postwar period, the USDA parlayed its modernizing expertise into a broad agenda of anticommunist development in the global South. Chapter 6 surveys the growth of international 4-H programs after World War II and contends that youth-oriented development programs constituted a vital piece of that broader agenda. Based on the precedent of 4-H's experiment in the rural U.S., American-trained and -financed development technicians crafted 4-H programs for the developing world that imagined American capital, technology, and knowledge flowing into and enriching the bodies of rural youth in the global South—the fecund soil from which a cultivated future would blossom. In seventy-six countries, on every inhabited continent, 4-H programs created robust alliances between modernizing technocrats, agribusiness firms, the U.S. military, and millions of rural youth. The chapter explores three particular international 4-H programs in detail: the Japanese Agricultural Training Program, a youth exchange program that brought thousands of rural Japanese youth to labor on farms in rural America; the Programa Interamericano para la Juventud Rural, a development agency financed by the American International Association that coordinated 4-H programs across Latin America; and 4-T, the Vietnamese 4-H affiliate financed and run by the U.S. military. Across the vast expanses that separated these three Cold War battlegrounds, the unique pliability of 4-H members promised to coordinate between the contradictory elements of America's modernizing agenda: agribusinesses premised on both capitalist enterprise and statist technocracy; democracies built on both liberal tolerance and violent anticommunism; and an international order structured by both the equality of nations and U.S. interventionism. Youth's coordinating power served as a black box through which development technicians could bridge the gaps between the contradictions of the impoverished present and the prosperity of an imagined future.
4-H aspired to crossbreed technocratic expertise with country life—scientific agriculture with rural social reproduction—to produce a countryside both fertile and modern and a state both powerful and hidden. A 1909 article in the farm journal The Homestead described the agricultural and homemaking clubs being organized by Oscar Benson, then-superintendent of schools for Wright County, Iowa, but soon to be a paid agent of the USDA, charged with organizing 4-H clubs across the Northern states. The article laid out 4-H's agrarian futurist agenda in no uncertain terms. Benson could "give the entire corn belt pointers on how to raise a crop of young farmers who will increase the fertility of the soil and solve the problem of how to keep farm boys and girls on the farm." By imagining Benson as a breeder selecting for the countryside's future and fertility, the article exposed a raw reproductive concern. That anxiety, in turn, forged a tangled relationship between 4-H's futurist ambitions and a commitment to farming as a privileged occupation in American life that persists.
Driving on U.S. Route 31 now, my eyes catch things I missed as a youth. We once drove past Grissom Air Base, just outside Kokomo. Today, the air base has been shuttered and converted into a prison. Most of the small towns I drive through are economically depressed. Northern Indiana and southern Michigan still suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. The last three decades have been unkind to automobile manufacturing and agricultural production in this corner of the Rust Belt. There are still fruit stands, but some operators will candidly tell you that they are selling produce grown in California or abroad and shipped in at prices that undercut locally grown produce. If grown locally or in California, Latino migrant laborers, many of them undocumented, do most of the fruit picking. (The proliferation of Mexican bars and restaurants in small Indiana towns subtly signals this fact.) Aside from these new details, there is, however, a constant. Those same signs—the ones with the four-leafed clover—cheerfully greet travelers up and down U.S. Route 31. Agrarian futurism still binds peripheries and centers, humans and animals, reproduction and governance even as the American century now fades beyond the last row.