A Personal View of the Rise of Agribusiness

A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 Paul K. Conkin, 2008

Paul Conkin is an intellectual historian who wrote extensively about the Progressive Era and the New Deal. He's also the historian who bashed David Danbom's book, The Resisted Revolution, saying Danbom's work “illustrates how a historian, by the intellectual games he plays with his sources, can do much more to impede than to aid understanding.” Conkin said Danbom's “imprecise word use, indefinite or illegitimate groupings of people, the reification of ideal types, and unwarranted references from evidence all make it impossible for me to understand, let alone accept, Danbom’s major contentions.” This review appeared in Agricultural History, the same journal in which David Danbom had used more or less the same words in 1975 to bash William L. Bowers's The Country Life Movement in America: 1900-1920, which had basically followed Conkin's interpretation of the period. So the man had a long memory.

Conkin was 80 when he published
A Revolution Down on the Farm.  He features his own memories and the farming experiences of members of his family, which illustrate a history drawn from statistics and other primary and secondary sources. Conkin spent most of his career doing intellectual history, focusing on utopian movements. Arthur Schlesinger praised Conkin’s 1959 book about the New Deal, Tomorrow a New World, despite what he called its “certain woodenness of style and a consequent failure always to convey the human dimension of the communitarian experiments.” The personal reflections and recollections in this book provide a good balance for what might otherwise be a dry, slightly intellectual history of farming.

One of the points Conkin stresses is that the popular notion that agriculture has “declined” in America depends on your point of view. Conkin says, “agriculture has been the most successful sector in the recent economic history of the United States” (x). Technology, but also markets, economic change and government policy decisions, “reduced the number of farm operators needed to produce 89 percent of our agricultural output from around 6 million in the 1930s to less than 350,000 today” (xi). This was a victory from the perspective of economic efficiency, and Conkin seems to think critics of this change haven't focused enough on the benefits of this change. So, what does he think the benefits were, and who benefited?

Conkin begins by trying to change our perspective on the origin of commercial farming in America. While farmers supplied many of their own needs, he says, “from the beginning [they] depended on markets” (1). As recently as 1800, Conkin says, “it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food” (2). It now takes only a few percent.  This change is clearly beneficial in that it frees people up to do other things, but Conkin never really assesses the cost of these changes in terms of either the resources that enabled them or the social changes that followed them. In both cases, what happened is treated as somehow inevitable, and resistance to it, both by populists and by contemporary advocates of sustainability, is portrayed as backward-looking and wrongheaded. Ironically, this is the same portrayal of rural people by Progressive intellectuals that Danbom had objected to in the book Conkin didn't like.

Conkin's reminiscences of farm life in the first half of the twentieth century don't always seem to match his thesis. He remembers “the pace of farmwork to be leisurely, with rest periods, long lunch breaks, and the slow handling of more routine tasks” (4). At harvest time, he says, work was more strenuous and prolonged. I guess this is inefficient from a particular point of view. In my mind, it depends on what you spend those extra hours doing.

One of the important points Conkin makes in his reminiscences is that as new technology was introduced, its adoption took time. While larger farms may have jumped right in (“By 1860,” he says, reapers were at work on a minority of farms (60,000)” 9), many smaller farms continued using old tools and horse power well into the twentieth century. Resistance to new technology may be too strong a term here -- smaller farmers may simply have been unable to afford a new tractor or combine. It's also possible that smaller operators didn't buy into the the logic of expansion. If you don’t buy the big combine that only makes economic sense on a farm of 1000 acres, you may be able to continue to make ends meet on 250.

Conkin portrays Calvin Coolidge as an enemy of export bounties (28), and Herbert Hoover as a farm supporter who passed the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, “by far the most ambitious farm legislation to date” (30).  Conkin credits new deal farm policy largely to Hoover, which is an interesting claim that may merit a closer look sometime (52). But the digression into politics doesn't completely fit into what had been a story of what people experienced "down on the farm."

Farm life in 1930, Conkin says, “was closer to that of 1830 than 1960,” and he gives some examples from his own experience (49). These passages will be especially valuable to students with no farm experience of their own (note to self, for future classroom use). Conkin’s economic perspective seems to have originated in seeing farmers begin “to buy more food in town and grow less on the farm. For those who did not sell milk,” he says, “it was soon uneconomical to keep a cow” (49). He continues, “After World War II, the efficiency of production in almost every specialized area of agriculture and the efficiencies in the processing and marketing of foods made it cheaper to buy almost any type of food than to grow one’s own.” The fact that this change was enabled by a rapid increase in industrial inputs from off the farm (oil, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) is not apparent from Conkin’s point of view, nor are the externalities and subsidies associated with many of these inputs. But it's important to note that just as they are not obvious to Conkin, they may have been equally hidden to other people who experienced the change.

Conkin also describes the transition of his boyhood farm community to a rural suburb. Because his home was seventeen miles from three industrial centers, Conkin was able to witness “the gradual development of a single labor market embracing both urban and rural areas, accompanied by a complex array of lifestyle choices” (84). And his family experience reinforced the idea that expensive equipment created a “mandate to grow or die” and to specialize in corn and soybeans (94). But Conkin does not examine any alternatives to individual ownership of all this equipment, despite his professional expertise in historical communitarian movements. A large section of the book describes government farm policies from the New Deal to the present, without actually shedding too much light on the subject.

In 2002, Conkin says, “2,902 dairy farms had more than 500 cows, and almost all had annual sales of more than $1 million. The average herd size for farms with more than $1 million in sales was 1,500 cows. In total, these farms accounted for more than 45 percent of all milk cows in the United States” (96). This trend towards concentration, he says, continues in almost all areas of farming. Labor efficiency has also increased dramatically. In 1900, Conkin says, “it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6...In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour.” In this case, his metric of success isn't even overall economic efficiency -- it's strictly labor efficiency. Economic issues such as the corn subsidies that contribute to raising the chickens or the illegal-immigrant status of the people processing the broilers it only took a man-hour to raise are completely absent from his analysis.

Introducing his section on “Critics and Criticisms,” Conkin says, “Everyone has to concede one point: American farmers have achieved a level of efficient food production unprecedented in world history” (164). His frustration that certain malcontents might wish to disagree with that claim seems to animate this section of the book. It doesn’t seem to occur to Conkin that as conditions like energy prices, resource depletion, and the risks associated with new techniques continue to change, the rational economic decision-makers he praises might legitimately need to reconsider practices that have become as traditional for modern farmers as cradling and crop rotation once were for their ancestors.

The word “ now so popular, so widely embraced, that it always begs contextual definition,” Conkin says. This is absolutely true, but no more so than many of the concepts that support the agricultural status quo, which Conkin tacitly accepts. Conkin describes several of the leaders of alternative movements, like the Rodales and Wendell Berry, without giving much attention to the substance of their sustainability arguments or the strength of the movements. Only in his afterword does Conkin break free of the boosterism that has propelled him through the book, to argue that food prices need to rise. Farm products should be more expensive, and “the shift to higher costs should be based in large part on the pricing of as many externalities as possible,” he says, and I couldn't agree more.

Conkin seems to realize that something weird has just happened to his argument. “If this seems like a prescription for the types of alternative agriculture described in chapter 8,” he concludes, “so be it” (205). I think it's great that he ends with a call for more accurate cost accounting and greater responsibility for externalities. It's unfortunate that Conkin didn't really see the flaws in the arguments and experiential impressions that led to the present situation, but it's very helpful that he gave us a personal view of where those arguments and impressions came from.

Suggestive rather than Conclusive

The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 David B. Danbom, 1979

David Danbom portrays the Country Life Movement as an urban-led crusade to save rural America, but he argues that the movement's Progressive leaders were frequently hostile to rural people and their interests. Ultimately, he says, the goal of the reformers was to ensure steady supplies of cheap food to support urban growth and low-wage industry. This thesis interests me, because I've often thought the people leading the Progressive Movement were just a bit too urban, educated, and elite.

Danbom takes a sort-of cultural approach to demonstrating his claim, using a wide array of print primary sources, rather than letters or journals of the reformers or the testimony of rural people. So there's no smoking gun document, where one reformer says to another, "these damn country folk. All they're good for is feeding city wage workers." Luckily, many of his print sources are now available online via Google Books, so we can read them ourselves and see if we see the same things Danbom did.


Danbom's narrative tends to portray good guys and bad guys, when the reality (even in primary passages he quotes from, in my opinion) is clearly more layered and complex. But Hofstadter and others have done the same with the Progressives. It’s a contentious period, and one that seems to invite over-generalization. Or is that just my discomfort with the cultural/intellectual history approach? I often find arguments of this type suggestive rather than conclusive, especially when they rely mostly on elite sources. Although he cites a lot of texts, Danbom doesn't use some of the obvious ones you'd expect to see. There's no
Horace Plunkett, for example. Is that because Plunkett, though a foreign aristocrat, was too sympathetic to farmers to fit the mold?

In the end, Danbom concludes that, although there was a net loss in farms in the 1920s, medium sized farms fared worst. Tiny and gigantic farms both increased in number, just as they seem to have done in the recent Ag. Census (when the giant farms were agribusiness corn producers and the tiny ones were CAFOs). An inference that might be drawn from this is that the “farmers” Hofstadter focuses on in
Age of Reform may be different from the rural people Danbom writes about. A change in what we define as farmers in this transitional period might explain a lot. A more balanced sample of sources that included some rural voices might also help. Reading the sources Danbom cites, I get more of a sense of privilege and technocracy than hostility. But I'd really like to know how the farmers felt.

Of the eight reviews I found of
Resisted Revolution, several were positive, a couple called attention to flaws in characterization, and one (Paul Conkin's in Ag. Hist.) blasted Danbom for shoddy and ideologically tainted work. There's a story behind that, which I'll explore tomorrow.

Some of the sources Danbom used:

Bailey, The Country Life Movement in the United States Bailey, The Training of Farmers Bailey, New York State Rural Problems Bailey, The State and the Farmer Bryan, Farming as an Occupation Butterfield, A Campaign for Rural Progress Blackmar, Social Degeneration in Towns and Rural Districts Boyle, Agricultural Economics Butterfield, The Farmer and the New Day Butterfield, Chapters in Rural Progress Cance, Immigrant Rural Communities Carstens, The Rural Community and Prostitution Carver, Principles of Rural Economics Carver, Selected Readings in Rural Economics REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON COUNTRY LIFE Coulter, Influence of Immigration of Agricultural Development The Craftsman, Why Back to the Farm? The Craftsman, Getting Back to Our Base of Supplies Danielson, The Hill Folk (Hereditary Defectives) Devine, Misery and Its Causes Dugdale, The Jukes Dillingham, Recent Immigrants in Agriculture Fiske, Challenge of the Country Forbes-Lindsay, The Rural Settlement Galpin, Rural Life Gathany, What's the Matter with the Eastern Farmer? Gillette, Constructive Rural Sociology Gillette, Rural Sociology Goddard, The Kallikak Family Groves, The Rural Mind and Social Welfare Hall, Three Acres and Liberty Hall, A Little Land and a Living Harger, Middle West's Peace Problems Harmon, What's the Matter with the Pennsylvania Farmer? Harris, Health on the Farm James Jerome Hill, Highways of Progress Hill, The Natural Wealth of the Land and Its Conservation Hill, Addresses by James Jerome Hill Holmes, The Passing of the Farmer Holmes, Movement from City and Town to Farms Jenks, The Immigration Problem, “Recent Immigrants in Agriculture” Knapp, Causes of Southern Rural Conditions and the Small Farm as an Important Remedy Kolb, Rural Primary Groups C.L., Two Views of the Back to the Land Movement Lighton, "The Riches of a Rural State" McKeever, Farm Boys and Girls Mills, What's the Matter with the Farmer? Northrup, Rural Improvement (1880) Nourse, The War and the Back to the Land Movement Phelan, Rural Economics and Rural Sociology Ross, Agrarian Changes in the Middle West Spillman, Farming as an Occupation for City-Bred Men Steiner, Our Recent Immigrants as Farmers Strong, The Challenge of the Country Twitchell, Outlook for New England Agriculture USDA 1940 Yearbook: Farmers in a Changing World Vandercook, Rural Delinquency Vincent, “Countryside and Nation” Waugh, Rural Improvement Wilson, “Country Versus City”

Year of the Bird-flu

I decided to bring my chapter on the transformation of farms into agribusiness all the way to the present, and conclude with this:

2015 will be remembered by many American farmers as the year of the Avian Influenza. According to poultry industry sources, bird flu swept through the Midwest in the Spring of 2015 in the worst epidemic ever experienced. At least 223 outbreaks were recorded, causing the destruction of tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

By late spring, the epidemic was national news. The
New York Times reported on an Iowa farm that was being forced to euthanize 5.5 million laying hens. The farm, located in an Iowa county that earns close to $2 billion annually from agriculture, had housed its layers in battery cages in 26 barns. Although the farmers had isolated the outbreak to just two of those barns, the article said, they were being forced to dispose of all their birds and thoroughly disinfect the entire operation.

While this was clearly frustrating for the farmers and tragic for all the chickens that had to be killed, there was more to the story than the
Times reported. The Iowa farm they described was part of the Center Fresh Group, a corporation owned by eight Iowa families that controls 17 percent of the nation's poultry and is the largest producer of eggs and shell products in America. Although the operators of the farm in the story were "forced" by the USDA to destroy their birds, Center Fresh, like all the other operations that disposed of birds suspected of being diseased, was compensated by the USDA for the birds they destroyed. Birds that died of the disease were not covered by the reimbursement program, which provided growers with a lot of incentive to cooperate with the government's biosecurity protocols.

The outbreaks were blamed by the poultry industry on migratory waterfowl, and the
USDA issued instructions on maintaining biosecurity in commercial poultry operations. The precautions they recommended included eliminating wetlands and seasonal ponds used by migrating flocks of ducks and geese, and eliminating food sources for wild birds. Neither the industry nor the government commented on how the H5N2 and H5N8 influenza viruses, known to have originated in Asian commercial poultry, migrated to the Americas and infected migrating ducks. The industry and government biosecurity experts also failed to explain how so many flocks of commercial chickens, raised in cages indoors, managed to come in contact with the droppings of wild waterfowl. The media cooperated, reprinting the press releases issued by industry sources and the USDA without asking any questions.


The poultry industry did notice that 90 percent of the flu outbreaks were in commercial flocks and only 10 percent in "backyard" flocks. But when the media mentioned this statistic, it was usually to emphasize the potential economic impact to growers forced to destroy million-bird flocks. No one asked why most backyard birds didn't get the flu, just as no one had asked why wild birds, claimed to be the vector spreading the infection, weren't sick.

Turkey producers were especially hard hit. The Hormel corporation, whose Jennie-O brand is the world leader in turkey products, warned that prices would rise steeply and their corporate profits would suffer. Biosecurity experts in the turkey industry claimed commercial flocks had caught the virus from wild turkeys. In Minnesota, the nation's leading turkey-producing state, newspapers carried stories of the nightmare virus and helpless farmers. Once again, wild turkeys, which regularly survive outdoors through Minnesota's harsh winters, didn't seem to be suffering. And no one could explain how barn-raised birds had caught the virus from their elusive woodland cousins.


When scientists at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced there was no evidence linking wild birds to the flu outbreaks, the industry issued angry statements to the press,  discrediting the scientists and reiterating their wild-bird theories. In late April, Minnesota's Governor declared a state of emergency and visited a poultry company in southern Minnesota. A few miles from where the Governor commiserated with area residents, a commercial hatchery ships 45 million day-old turkey poults to Minnesota growers every year. But no one has examined any of the centralized supply chains of the commercial poultry industry as possible vectors for disease. Minnesota's leading newspaper, covering the Governor's visit, quoted a local woman worrying about the scary, mysterious disease threatening the region's economy. "What is the source?" she asked. "Are they ever going to find the source?"

Industrial Farms and Objectivity

Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture Deborah Fitzgerald, 2003

This is another book in the Yale Agrarian Studies series.  Lots of good stuff in this series. This one is about how an overarching idea may have guided change in American agriculture. Timely, because I've been writing my chapter on "Farmers and Agribusiness" the last couple of days.

Deborah Fitzgerald’s argument is that “although individual technologies, particular pieces of legislation, new sorts of expertise, and the availability or disappearance of credit opportunities are all key to understanding what happened in twentieth-century agriculture, it is essential to grasp the overarching logic of change that was taking place in bits and pieces and the industrial system that was being constructed across the country” (4).  This modernization was oriented toward improving “efficiency” to the ideal point when “rational management techniques” would take over farm life. the title, “Every Farm a Factory,” comes from and International Harvester ad (5).

Even if it's difficult to quantify, I suspect this has got to be a big part of the story. There’s tremendous pressure on both sides of the family farm throughout the twentieth century, as both agricultural markets and inputs become dominated by fewer, larger businesses. A combine is a huge investment, so the story of credit flows, and the control that goes with them, is key to understanding this change. It’s not just the farmers who are influenced by industrial logic. It’s their suppliers, their customers, and increasingly, the creditors (when they’re third parties and not those same suppliers and customers), who the farmer has empowered by way of the collateral they hold in the farm and its next harvest. Of course, the idea of the family farm is also complicated. Much more of a thing at the beginning of the twentieth century and an ideal (or political slogan) by the end.

One of the issues noted by Country Life interviewers, Fitzgerald says, was that “As land values size increased as well” (29). Partly, this change must be attributed to an “understanding” of economies of scale on the part of both equipment manufacturers and farmers (cf. Postel on Populists, but also Paul Conkin 2008 for a rebuttal). It was not inevitable that harvesters and combines
needed to be built so big and so expensive that it only sense to run one on a field that occupied a full section of land. And it was not inevitable that individual farmers would buy these, rather than groups of neighbors, local coops and associations, or harvest contractors. But I'll grant that it may have seemed inevitable to Progressives steeped in this logic, and especially to International Harvester marketing people and boosters of rural prosperity. It's worth remembering that IH itself was a trust created by J.P. Morgan which was hauled into court in an antitrust action in 1927.

Fitzgerald begins Chapter 2 with a quote from George Warren (I assume this is George F. Warren, the author of
Farm Management), who says “Statistics are very much better than opinions.” This resonates for me right now, since I’ve been thinking about the uses of data and anecdote in history. Facts and stories. The assumption buried in Warren’s claim, of course, is that his statistics are based on something objective, rather than on opinions. The binary nature of the questions that often lead to statistics can hide the fact that many of these yes/no choices exist in a wider range of unexamined possibility that the question simply ignores.  Even prices (the ultimate hard data) can be understood as momentary still points in a turning world of dancing exogenous variables -- so maybe we should think twice about building too much certainty on statistics. But I can agree with Fitzgerald that a belief that the complex, analog multivariance of a living system like agriculture could be reduced to “the numbers,” was a strong motivator for some people. It might also explain why many actual farmers looked at scientific Progressives with ongoing skepticism, and continued to resist “book farming” prescriptions by well-meaning Country Life reformers throughout the Progressive Era.

I’ve really got to revisit Taylor’s
Principles of Scientific Management soon.  Seems like it’s every bit as important as many of the standard American Studies sources. On p. 116 A.M. Todd, my Michigan Peppermint King, appears in a paragraph that begins with Pullman. Todd must be spinning in his grave!  I’m going to come back to this, and read it more closely -- for now, though, this book has been recalled by the library, so it’s going back.

Walsh deserves more consideration

The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry
Margaret Walsh, 1982

Margaret Walsh follows up on her 1972 book,
The Manufacturing Frontier, with a look at the transition (between 1840-1870 more or less) of pig butchering from a local, part-time activity to a major processing industry.  She says “pork packing is a good tool of analysis because agricultural processing early disseminated an industrial experience to newly settled farming country.” (ix)  I think this is an interesting claim, but it's not one I'm prepared to accept without some evidence. Sure, butchering a 400-pound animal and preserving the meat with salt is a strenuous process. But not much moreso than, say, butchering a bison and processing the meat into jerky. Would we call plains Indian practices industrial? Or are we just tempted to call early pork processing that because we know the end of the story?  Even so, I wonder if similar work could been done on flour milling, lumber, tanning, cooperage, and especially brewing and distilling?  By 1870, Walsh says, the Midwest was already “responsible for 27 percent of the nation’s value added.” (3)  William Cronon notwithstanding, a lot of that took place outside Chicago, and the things that made Chicago an interesting subject for Nature's Metropolis might also make its example less applicable to smaller, more "regular" places.

Early packers, Walsh says, were usually merchants in towns like Chillicothe, Hamilton, Circleville, Ripley, and Maysville Ohio, Terre Haute and Lafayette Indiana. (17)  Although she doesn’t elaborate much on the farmers raising these swine, Walsh says by the 1840s they had moved past semi-wild “razorbacks” to “foreign pigs, such as the Suffolk, Berkshire, Yorkshire, Irish Grazier, Poland, Essex, Chinese, and Chester Whites...They debated the merits of the different breeds...[and knew] the defects of particular strains could be countered by crossbreeding, a practice that most farmers quickly advocated” (19, sources for this include Towne and Wentworth, Clemen, H.D. Emery, Arny, and
The Prairie Farmer). But the same thing could be said about the breeding enthusiasm of the chicken fanciers who launched the "Hen Fever" of the 1840s. Most of them were not big producers or industrial in any sense of the word (I'll have more to say about chickens in a later post).


A closer look at the supply side of  pork packing would help explain what was happening on farms during this period.  Walsh shows farmers were making business decisions about the market by the 1840s, calculating “the value of corn when sold in the form of pork” to determine whether to fatten hogs or sell their grain. (23)  This calculation required knowledge of feeding yields and prices, but also of transportation costs and risks. And it involved either knowledge of or guesswork about demand in faraway markets.  So, farmers needed to be aware of the wider world even before the railroads came to town. But as I've seen reading the Ranney brothers' letters to each other, farmers in Western New York and Michigan had ready sources of information. And at least some of them had access to markets and even financing through relatives left behind.

The operational costs Walsh reports for even a medium-scale packing operation were substantial.  Fixed costs were low, especially relative to “machinery plants or textile factories;” but the cost of hogs meant that a “country pork merchant in the Middle Ohio Valley in the mid-1840s might need $45,000 to process 6,000 hogs.” (27) The “city capitalist in Cincinnati, Louisville, or Madison might process 15,000 hogs...[and] needed between $100,000 and $125,000 to carry out his season’s work in the mid-1840s.”  (28)  This suggests two things.  City packers had the backing of capitalists (Walsh traces several of these formal and informal relationships), and rural packers had extensive networks of trust and credit.  Assuming the average general store owner could not raise the money to do a cash business, his ability to pack hogs testified to extremely solid relationships between farmers, packers, and possibly retailers in remote cities.

So while I don't accept her claims and conclusion uncritically, I think
The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry explores a great topic and asks questions that deserve more consideration.

Market Failure in Minnesota

During a recent "special" session of the Minnesota legislature, a bill was snuck through the House and Senate eliminating the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen's Board. Established in the 1960s, the Citizens' Board had consisted of eight members and the Commissioner of the MPCA. Their bylaws called for one member to be "knowledgeable in the field of agriculture." According to former Board member Jim Riddle, "The Citizens’ Board came under fire from corporate agribusiness interests last fall, after we required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO)."

The owners of the CAFO didn't have enough land to spread even half the manure they would generate. They had no idea (or interest) how much their water use would impact existing farms in the area. Their water plan consisted of building a twelve mile pipeline from a well that had been permitted seven years earlier for an ethanol plant that had never been built.

The Board's request for an environmental impact statement angered the
Agri-Growth Council, whose Directors include executives from Cargill, CHS, and General Mills. Although Riddle says the Board didn't prohibit the CAFO, apparently agribusiness is unhappy with the idea that anyone has the authority to insure that "more information be provided on the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed facility, in order to demonstrate that Minnesota’s laws would be followed and the health and safety of area residents and the environment would be protected."

Advocates for a lot of schemes like CAFOs, sulfide mining on the Iron Range and pipelines through the Headwaters like to portray the opponents of these schemes as head-in-the-sand Luddites. Elimination of the Board, says Riddle, will make it "easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation."

The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny. The point is not that CAFOs should never be built, that copper should never be mined, or that oil should never be transported. People could argue those points, but that's not the point here. The point is that politically powerful owners and corporations want to do these things in the cheapest, sloppiest way possible, with no oversight. This makes good economic sense, if your economic perspective extends only to the next quarterly or year-end report. The corporations are acting rationally, from their economic point of view, when they behave this way. CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong.

But clearly this kind of sensible economic behavior is not in the public interest, or even in the long-term interest of the companies involved. The decision to do it anyway and try to silence the opposition is what economists call "market failure." It is precisely why we can't have a completely free market (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand-readers), and why regulatory agencies and citizen boards need to exist.