How Farmers Became Slaves to the Corporate Masters

The story below is excerpted from an obscure little book I recently purchased. It’s titled, Divided We Stand: The Crisis of a Frontierless Democracy, by Walter Prescott Webb.  Here’s a picture of the book: 

I want to make it clear that this book is obscure but the author is not. Walter Prescott Webb was a well respected history professor at the University of Texas. Divided We Stand was evidently self-published by Professor Webb in 1937, then revised in 1947. By then, Webb had distinguished himself for writing two much more well-known mainstream books, The Great Plains: A Study in Institutions and Environment and The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense.

In 1952 Walter Prescott Webb wrote a third mainstream book that is one of the most profound history books I’ve ever read. It is titled, The Great Frontier. I wrote about the book at this link: Walter Prescott Webb's Boom Hypothesis of Modern History.

Webb’s Divided We Stand was evidently the precursor to The Great Frontier. But Divided We Stand, while anchored in the same thesis of The Great Frontier, departs noticeably in it’s primary message.

Divided We Stand is an expose of the domination of the corporations in America over the people of America and, in particular, the people of the South and West. The professor presents evidence to support the idea that America is composed of three distinct regions, with differing cultures and the controlling corporate interests were primarily in the Northern Region. These interests were pulling the wealth out of the other regions.

Of course, most of the data Webb presents is way outdated, and his thesis of the Northern Region dominating the others may no longer apply, but it is an interesting perspective. The realization that corporations were (and still are) exercising domination over every area of our culture is still spot on.

Nowhere is this  more true than in the area of agriculture. Corporate agriculture is in almost total control of our food system. Farmers have traded independence for subservience to the corporate food oligopoly. How did this happen? In the chapter titled, The Song of the Machine, Webb answers that question. The following excerpt tells the story (remember, this was written in a book published in 1937 and updated in 1947):

Thus far little has been said about the farmer in this study. The farmer is usually associated with the South and the West, despite statistics to show that the North produces more agricultural dollars than the West and about the same number as the South. All the farmers of all sections have been quick to give up their horses and mules for automobiles and tractors. In doing so they have saved themselves physical labor, have produced more goods, but they have added more strands to the bonds that bind them to the industrialists of the North.

Of Horsepower and Feed
I read in the Country Gentleman that the average age of mules in the United States is eleven years. The age of mules may not seem to be an important historical fact, but it is a significant one. A mule lives for about twenty years, but he begins to slow up perceptibly at twelve or fifteen. The census shows that  mules increased in number almost constantly until about 1926. Then a decline began and has continued since, along with the decline in horses and brood mares. The automobile and the tractor have displaced the intelligence of the patient and sarcastic mule.

But how does the death of mules serve to tie the farmer to the northern industrial chariots? Let us take farmer John Smith as an example. He has a farm of 200 acres. Formerly he planted 80 acres. The farm was selfsufficient with two brood mares that had mule colts and there were four mules to pull the plows. In addition there was a combination saddle and buggy horse for light travel. This was the setup on John Smith’s farm twenty, or even fifteen, years ago.

John Smith, a frugal farmer, raised enough feed—corn, oats, and silage—to supply his work stock and brood mares. He never bought feed and rarely bought a horse or mule.

John Smith first bought a Ford, to take the place of his saddle horse and buggy. Next he bought a tractor, and then a trailer for use as a truck. He bought the tractor because the International Harvester Company proved to him that horses have to be fed whether they work or not. The agent showed him striking pictures of horses “eating their heads off” on rainy days when there was nothing to do. The farmer was taught to begrudge the feed for his idle horses and mules. Moreover, the tractor and its gang of plows could turn the 130 acres in half or a third or a fourth of the time that the mules could do it. The Country Gentleman published beautiful pictures of tractors at work and wrote simple articles that John Smith could understand.

John Smith finally drove out the tractor and the demonstrator showed him how to use it. John Smith was now using as much horsepower as before, but he was getting it on quite different terms. He was buying horsepower in Detroit and Chicago and mortgaging the future to pay for it. The tractor came with a thin coat of paint and several coats of protection. It was protected by a series of patents that  made it impossible for more than a few competitors to supply him. It was protected by a tariff that made it impossible for England or Germany or Canada to get into his field. Moreover, this tractor was never known to have a colt tractor, or even a “mule.” On top of this the tractor carried a series of profits extending from the steel mills right up to the gates of John Smith’s farm, and John Smith had to pay for the paint, protection, and profits.

And Horse Sense
Now, in contrast to the tractor, the mule colt stood in the meadow lot and gazed at the strange contraption in awe and astonishment. Nobody has ever argued that the tractor did not take the mule’s job. The colt represented horsepower just as the tractor did, but the colt cost practically nothing to begin with. Nobody had a patent on him and he carried no tariff. He represented nobody’s capital except John Smith’s and no wages or interest were tied up in his skinny skin. He would start paying for himself at the age of three, increase in value for six or seven years, and would continue to give good service for twelve or fifteen years and service only a little less valuable after fifteen. He was so perfectly constructed that he would never have to have a spare part, not even a spark plug. He was a self-starter and a self-quitter when quitting time came.

Both the mule and the tractor had to have fuel to go on. The mule’s fuel was corn, hay, cane, straw. John Smith raised these things, had never had to go off the farm to get fuel for his hayburning horsepower. He raised mule fuel with his own labor, or nature gave it to him from the field and meadow.

John Smith could not raise feed for the tractor. It had to have gasoline and oil, batteries and parts. All these had to be purchased in the town from the northern corporations. In short, John Smith now buys his horses in Detroit and Chicago; he buys the feed for them from John D. Rockefeller in New York. In the meantime something else has happened. The mule that cost so little has grown up, but there is no work for him to do. When John Smith offers him for sale, he finds that nobody is willing to pay a fair price for him, perfect as he is. The neighbors, too, are no longer buying mules that do not need spare parts. They are going to Chicago for mules that deteriorate rather than improve, and to New York for the feed which will never be converted into fertilizer.

Though John Smith is still raising feed, he has little use for it. The brood mares have died; the mules have been sold; there is nothing to eat the corn, cane, and grass except a few cows. When John Smith tries to sell his surplus feed, he finds that there is no buyer for it. The neighbors are not using that kind of feed. They prefer the feed that comes out of pumps. John Smith no longer raises feed. He is now planting the 130-acre farm in cotton or in wheat, thereby wearing out the soil that supports him.

Liberty is Not Cheap
Something fine has gone out of that farm, and that is the spirit of independence and self-sufficiency that was present when the mules were pulling the plow and the colt that had not yet felt the collar was frolicking in the meadow.

Something fine has gone out of John Smith, something of the spirit of independence. In reality, he has become a retainer, and might well don the uniform of his service. He raises wheat and cotton for a world market, unprotected by tariff or patents, in order that he may buy mechanical mules, feed, shoes, and everything that he needs in a market that has every protection of a beneficent government. Disconsolately he comes from the field, cranks up his old car, puts a few tractor parts in the back to be replaced, and drives to town to see if he can extend his notes and stand off his creditors. As he passes the meadow, where the grass is ankle-high now, the shadow spirit of a sleek mule surveys him insolently. Who can deny that the mule was the best farm friend? The mule carries no patent; the farmer gets no protection.

In the face of this situation the business interests of America have the nerve to talk to farmers of rugged individualism, democracy, freedom, and the merits of thrift. In reality there is a rugged individualism among the farmers, and it is their misfortune. They are rugged, and they are unwilling as a whole to co-operate, either in the conduct of their affairs or in politics. As individualists they stand, unorganized and practically inarticulate, against the greatest organized forces of the world. They furnish the best soil in which these organized forces can grow. They are the manure at the roots of the corporate tree.”


Unknown said...

I'm left speechless...and with a great desire to purchase this book. I agree with all of Mr. Webb's thesis as stated here. How is it that we always look at technology and industry as saving time and money. I work in an IT department, and like you dream of coming home (I'm working on a several small business concepts now). And being in IT I know that although "headcount" (aka men and women with families and children) is reduced due to technology, the manpower required to keep a business network running is astounding. In addition to the increased IT headcount, most IT folks can work from home as needed and thus the workday, even the work week, is dramatically prolonged. I cannot see how this lifestyle is more efficient or effective. Rather, our submission to the master of "progress" is destroying the very moral fiber spelled out in the Scripture; namely our call to live in community with one another. Thanks for the post...and the tip on the book.

Christopher T. Patton said...

I just found this book for a reasonable price on Amazon and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the recommendation!

css said...

Great excerpt! There is an ache in my being to return to the land. Without skill currently, we plan on getting those skills. I'm in IT as well and the wear and tare on my mind and the long work days are robbing me blind.

Benjamin said...

Beautiful and sad post. Technology is seemingly an inescapable thing. The moment you try to slow it down just to breathe, it forces it's technique upon you just because of rivalry, competition and ultimately because of war. Yet technology, like all human things, is not always good. We have developed a technique for living sad alienated and shackled lives, when once we had peace, nourishment and the enjoyment of our labor.

Jaime said...

Thanks for writing about this. I'll be using Webb's conclusion to both challenge and organize new younger farmers at a conference we're hosting on February 29th as part of a Food Council initiative. Hopefully, the "rugged individualism" in the new generation can be focused into a more unified voice for this new machine we are driving. I'll be contacting you soon for a couple Whizbang Shebangs that will go into our Small Producers Equipment Cooperative for community food production projects - Tucson, AZ

John Cole said...

This sort of goes along with the book "Henry and the Great Society." If you haven't read it, it is a good one to check out. You can read it online (download the .pdf) for free at Plus you can get it from

BeStill said...

I liked the article “Divided We Stand”. Well worth the read. It reminded me of another book I highly recommend Rural Roads to Security. It is available archived on line here:

I have found very few libraries have this good book.

Herrick Kimball said...

That looks like a very interesting book. Thanks for mentioning it here. I'll look into getting a copy.

Henry & The Great Society is a great little book. I should read it again!

Anonymous said...

I don't know for sure how this
will be received but what stuck
out to me was the 'note' that the
farmer was now concerned about.
Without this 'note' the cost of
the land and the machinery
necessary to farm the land would
have been much more difficult to
SAVE. I note also the time
period, that is after the bank of
last resort AKA the Federal
Reserve was founded thus allowing
for easier credit to the larger
bankers first financing the
companies who made the equipment
and then the farmer who purchased
the equipment. I believe that
people will look for easier,
better, more cleaver was of
performing tasks and therefore
improvements will continue. The
speed of these improvements
however loses the need of
necessity when money i.e. credit
is made more available. All that
is left is to convince the farmer
that his doing it the 'same old
way' is a thing of the past.
Convince enough farmers of this
and you quickly get to the point
of trying to compete with
everyone else that has already
jumped on to ride the wave of the
future. The only mechanism I can
image to reintegrate absolute
necessity for the selling point of
convenience is to re-establish
the concept of purchasing what you
need with the funds that you
already possess.

Unknown said...

I absolutely love this book excerpt. It describes how I feel about farming and corporations so eloquently. Last year I moved from the suburbs to my own little homestead. I may not have a mule but being mule-headed, I plan on homesteading on my own. So far so good. And it feels really good to be moving closer to self-sufficiency.

Unknown said...

Am I an idiot? I have the hardest time trying to navigate this blog! I would love to read the past posts by month/year, but can find no way to do it. I have read posts in the right margin and blogazines, and clicked on the referals at the bottom but know there is a ton more material. AAAAAgggghh!

Herrick Kimball said...


Beth, no, you're not an idiot. If you go to the bottom of the right hand sidebar you will see a month-by-month collection of blog posts, starting in June of 2005. They're all there.

Best wishes,

Herrick Kimball

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