Viewpoint: When government was neighborly

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Wendell Berry (Photo courtesy of Guy Mendes/NEH.gov)

By WENDELL BERRY

Because I was born in the middle of the Depression of the 1930s, I am a child of the New Deal. Because I was born to a farming family in Henry County, Kent., I am in particular a child of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, which was renewed in January 1941 under the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act. Starting in early childhood I learned the purposes and the politics of this program from my father, who served the Burley Association as vice president and as president for 34 years.

Because this has to do with tobacco, I must immediately beg your indulgence. Though the crop can no longer be defended, I do still defend the program, for it was right in principle, generously conceived, well organized, and effective. It was politically and economically sound because it solved, at minimal cost, one of the worst problems for farmers: the problem of overproduction, which always works to the advantage of the buyer of the product, never to that of the producer.

From early in the last century, efforts were made in various regions to form cooperatives, “pool” the crop, and so gain bargaining power against the tobacco companies. Through a disorderly and sometimes violent history, these efforts repeatedly failed.

Under the New Deal, the cooperative effort finally succeeded. The federal program established production quotas, based on each farm’s history of production; it established support prices, according to grade and based on expected demand; and it provided a federal loan “against the crop” to fund the purchase, by the program, of tobacco that fell below the support price on the auction market.

This was not “big government.” It was implemented and operated by regional leaders and by farmers. Its farmer members voted for its continuation time after time. In 1955, in the face of damaging surpluses, they imposed on themselves, by their votes, an acreage reduction of 25 percent. Because it controlled production, the program did not involve a subsidy or any government expenditure beyond the actual administrative cost. It gave the same economic advantage to the small producers as to the large. As long as it lasted, the program kept the small farmers of my region on the farm. And it helped the landless to buy land.

The “free market” would not, could not, and will never do what the tobacco program did. What it did was decent, just, neighborly, and democratic. It served people who had long been accustomed to taking their products to market and receiving for them merely “what they could get.” It served and was led by people who had, to quote my father, “vivid recollections of the days of six-cent tobacco, farm foreclosures, unpaid tax bills, and scarcely enough of anything except fear.”

Finally defeated after six decades by its longtime “free market” enemies, that program still seems to me an exemplary work of government. It provided to worthy citizens a degree of economic security that they could not otherwise have obtained. With appropriate modifications, it could render the same help to producers of any farm commodity. And so it might effectively replace the present system of extravagant subsidization of the largest and wealthiest producers of a few crops.

I am, of course, grateful, as I am necessarily humbled, by the kindness of this award to me. And I welcome this opportunity to acknowledge my respect and gratitude for an act of governmental kindness to my people that remains an honor to the memory of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer, who gave the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center. This article is the text of the acceptance speech he gave in 2013 when he received the Freedom Medal from the Roosevelt Institute in New York. The speech originally appeared in “The Progressive” and is reprinted with the author’s permission.