Rationalization of Row Crop Farming how the ever-evolving occupation of row crop farming compares to a fast-food restaurant

Madeline Chandler, SOCI 57H, UNC-CH

Picture this...

For centuries, row crop farmers have been accustomed to a routine of early mornings and long days. Rain or shine, these stewards of the land will spend the daylight hours toiling in a field to produce a meager harvest. That is, of course, if a bad season, weather disaster, or market fluctuation does not ruin crops-and profits.

What if row crop farmers have already left the days of arduous manual labor, unpredictable harvests, and financial instability behind them?

...An Updated image

In reality, today’s row crop farmers will spend just as much time behind a desk as they will with their hands in the soil. They are technologically competent, using sophisticated tools to monitor fields, manage fleets of powerful equipment, and gain access to standardized resources for yield and financial success. The modern row crop farmer is a multi-tasking professional, with opportunity at their fingertips.

What caused this change?

These transformations of agricultural work and the farmers who perform it can be in large part explained by the forces of rationalization. Popularized by sociologist George Ritzer, rationalization is an inevitable process of the industrialized world which can be seamlessly compared to the the tactics of fast-food restaurants, leading to the nickname "McDonaldization."

There are four key principles of rationalization:

  1. Efficiency- pursuing the most optimum means to a given end.
  2. Calculability- quantity always trumps quality.
  3. Predictability- Consistency in processes should produce the same results, every time.
  4. Control- Non-human technology regulates the actions of society.

How do these principles apply to row crop farming?

Control and Calculability Within the Organization of Row Crop Farming:

  • Beginning with the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, the federal government has become a key investor in row crop farming
  • Subsidies and support provided by the USDA, market regulation created by the Farm Bill, and increased opportunities for agriculture education have created a focus on calculable results as this policy helps farmers achieve financial and production success.
  • The growing influence of agribusiness has led to farm consolidation and market domination, a phenomenon called "corporate agriculture."
  • Corporate agriculture has created a powerful, streamlined system which regulates the decisions of row crop farmers from seed selection to market sales.

Technology Increases Efficiency and Predictability

  • The gradual integration of technology into formerly time-and resource- consuming processes has increased profits while decreasing waste.
  • Technological advances such as the takeover of the tractor and the adoption of precision agriculture have proved so efficient for row crop farmers that farm outputs have rapidly increased while farm inputs remained consistent over the last century.
  • The Green Revolution of the 1970's brought the development of transformational biological and chemical processes, creating and widely distributing genetically modified crops and synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and more.
  • Engineered chemicals and seeds create more predictable yields as harvests are less susceptible to pest damage, drought, herbicide use, and other once detrimental events.

The Digital Era Brings Increased Efficiency and Control

  • The accessibility of modern technologies like the internet, smart devices, and artificial intelligence have led row crop farming into the digital age, where efficient time and resource management through a system of non-human control will rationalize the future of the profession.
  • As the world at large adapts to increased connection and communication, row crop farmers are revising their farm management techniques to keep pace with growing efficiency.
  • These advances in digitalization further entrench a system of control that technology now exercises over farm operations, drastically changing how farmers manage their time and energy.

What are the irrationalities of row crop farming?

Great advances in the efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control of a row crop farmer’s job have undeniably transformed the industry of agriculture. While many farmers celebrate the benefits rationalization brings to them, the products they grow, and the consumers they serve, the consequences are apparent as well. These irrationalities, a term coined by Ritzer, are unintentional byproducts of any rationalized system

Ritzer identifies four key types of irrationalities:

  1. Dehumanization- Once adopted, new technologies may reduce manual labor times, but also remove an integral part of a farmer’s job- spending time in the field.
  2. Disenchantment- As the growth of food becomes more precise and environmental concerns arise, consumers and farmers have become disenchanted with the ruined image of farming as a natural, organic process.
  3. Homogeneity- standardization of row crop practices depletes soil nutrients, underestimates the importance of regional specialization, and makes crops vulnerable to disease and inclement weather events.
  4. Lack of Authenticity- Corporate control dominates decisions made by farmers, dissolving the authenticity of the profession, and degrading the connection between a farmer and their land.

How have farmers and consumers reacted to irrationalities?

Concern sparked by the irrationalities of row crop farming led to the creation of alternative agriculture. Emphasizing sustainability, community involvement, and regenerative agriculture practices, alternative agriculture has grown from a trend to a sustained movement.

Within this movement, consumer demand for products that were organic and locally sourced led to the development of a profitable niche for small row crop farmers, despite this production being more costly, time-consuming, and labor intensive than conventional methods.

Organic Agriculture

  • “Organic” is label provided by the USDA since 2002 for agricultural products which meet certain organic standards that promote consumer and environmental health.
  • On top of increased manual labor, intense regulation of organic products creates more work on the part of the organic farmer. However, for many, the market for organic products justifies the setbacks.
  • As long as there is a market for organic products, row crop farmers will be planning their fields accordingly stocking the shelves of environmentally and health conscientious Americans.

Community-Supported Agriculture

  • Community-supported agriculture promotes diversification in the crops that are grown and supplied to consumers, human connection between farmers and consumers, transparency of where commodities come from and how they are grown, and education of consumers to cultivate an informed population.
  • Local food took on a new importance during the Covid-19 pandemic when disruptions to the conventional food supply systems left farmers in need of a market and consumers lacking products.
  • Community- supported agriculture continues to thrive post-pandemic as seen in the explosive growth of farmers markets, a pillar of local food systems.

What do a row crop farm and McDonald's have in common?

Both have felt the impacts of rationalization. For a row crop farmer, who creates the products marketed by fast-food restaurants, efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control have been realized through monumental organizational, technological, and digital changes over centuries of rationalization.

These changes have introduced new challenges and opportunities for the future of row crop farming. With a growing population and a shrinking pool of resources to pull from, the future of row crop farming remains unclear. Still, whatever the next row crop farmer looks like, whether working with their hands in the soil, managing a sophisticated computer system, or doing both, the forces of rationalization that brought them to that point will continue to mold the occupation for the future as well.


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