U.S. farm policy as fraught populism : Tracing the scalar tensions of nationalist agricultural governance
The scalar tensions of nationalism manifest acutely in agriculture—particularly in the contemporary United States. This is paradoxical because farm policy calls for and enacts nativist governance that undermines the conditions of farming: from labor to water, topsoil, and pollinators, to export markets. At the heart of these scalar contradictions is the fraught, shifting terrain of agrarian populism. The intertwined origin of the U.S. Farm Bill, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Cooperative Agricultural Extension shows how early twentieth-century fraught agrarian populism drove farm policy but how it also carried a pivotal consensus of recognition about the ecological and economic dangers of overproduction. Drawing on archival research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Library Special Collections, discourse and policy analysis of U.S. Farm Bills, and qualitative research with farmer organizations, this article traces how racialized xenophobia accentuates the hypocrisy of U.S. agriculture’s extreme dependency on migrant labor, as heightened borders also reveal their ecological farce in the face of intrinsically transnational climate change, soil erosion, and water constraints. The America First trade agenda decries imports while sidelining the crisis of commodity crop glut and the spatial fix of subsidizing exports as surplus disposal. Yet, even amidst the scalar contradictions of nativist agricultural governance and the fraught farm populism driving it, there existed a kernel of agrarian populism grounded in a collective honest recognition of the ecological, economic, rural, and social crises of overproduction—and that organized against it. This kernel catalyzed the origin of both the Farm Bill and the Farm Bureau but has been subsumed in and through both since.