Victor Davis Hanson on the Agrarian Idea in the Age of Trump

Before Victor Davis Hanson was a classicist, historian, author, and political commentator, he was a farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In 1996, Hanson published “Fields Without Dreams, Defending the Agrarian Idea,” a lamentation for the passing of the American family farm. Hanson joined Chris Buskirk to discuss that book, including how many of its predictions (sadly) have come to pass, the decline of a “tragic sense” of life, and how the crisis of the family farmer two or three decades ago helped set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump.

Chris Buskirk: Hi. I’m Chris Buskirk. This is The Seth and Chris Show. Welcome back. As promised, I’m very happy to be joined by Professor Victor Davis Hanson. He’s a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of a number of books, most recently, in fact, published just this October, “The Second World Wars, How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.” An excellent book, which I highly commend to you. It is Christmas time, by the way, so go on Amazon and buy a copy of that.

While you’re at it, though, you might want to take a look at a book of Professor Hanson’s that was published 20 years ago, more than that actually, that I’ve just completed reading and we’re going to talk about today. It’s called “Fields Without Dreams.” Professor Hanson, welcome.

Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me, Chris.

Chris Buskirk: It’s my pleasure. I’ve been talking to you off and on about how I’ve been reading this book. I don’t even know why. Maybe you mentioned it in conversation at one point that you had written it. It came out what, ’96? Is that right?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. 21 years, 22 years ago almost.

Chris Buskirk: The full title is “Fields Without Dreams, Defending the Agrarian Idea.” I can’t tell the story better than you do, that’s for sure, and not even as well. So maybe tell just a little bit about your background and what brought you to write that book in the first place.

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I was watching sort of the shakedown of American agriculture firsthand, that all of the small farms I’d grown up with in the central San Joaquin Valley, due to globalization, or the formation of the European Union, or protectionist policies of Japan and South Korea, or even you could argue the economies of scale [of] vertically integrated fruit concerns were sort of wiping out 40, 60, 80, 100, up to probably 500-acre family farms. In fact, 22 years later, I’m afraid I was kind of pressing it because I’m looking out the window now and I don’t see one family operated farm at all, including my own. They’re all operated by corporations or leased out to them. So I was trying to explain in the abstract way that was true, juxtapositioned against my own family and how I could see it was going to go broke and that very soon it would be all parceled out and sold off. I only have 40 acres of the original 200 or 180.

Chris Buskirk: Yeah. You write not as an observer, not as, I don’t know, a sociologist coming in to look as a voyeur, you grew up on a farm that had been in your family for a very long time, still lived there, and you worked the farm. Right?

Victor Davis Hanson: I did. For 20 years, as a graduate student I would come home every weekend. And then I came home in 1980 with a Ph.D. and helped my grandparents, who were very elderly. And I ran the 180 acres with my twin brother for about 10 years, and then I went back and got a teaching job at the local Cal State University campus, and I did that for another eight or nine years doing both. And then I stopped all entirely when I could see they were going to go . . . And they did go broke.

I was trying to argue—although I’m a proud member of the Hoover Institution, the home of Milton Friedman, and I do believe in the laws of the market, obviously. And I’m no neo-socialist by any means, which only bankrupt societies that have been stupid enough to embrace that system.

But there’s some human to creative destruction, that’s what I was trying to argue. In that period, a member of my family became alcoholic. My mother died of a brain tumor. Two or three people I knew killed themselves. I got really ill from pesticide poisoning. I had a tank and it had a leak in the pressure pump and I got sort of a strong dose of paraquat. It was just bad equipment, old things, losing $20,000, $30,000. We used to joke. We would count up the number of hours we were on the tractor and then figure out how much we paid to do that to the bank. What can’t go on, won’t go on. So it was just a matter of taking the equity out, or as I argued to my siblings, to rent out the place to a corporation and then get the rent. And they could’ve at least kept the land—and they weren’t willing to do that. Or to get a job, like I did, alternate employment and then a salary in town and then just work for free.

Chris Buskirk: Because working in that circumstance, working for free, was actually a trade up.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. It was. And then we decided to . . .  At one time I think we went to nine farmers markets. And they were 190 miles away, most of them, so we would do that. For a while, you know, it was kind of romantic. We grew our own food and we kind of mended our own clothes. I was looking at my Social Security statement the other day, I think from 1980 to ’85, I never made more than $6,000. But as you get older, you know, and you can see it more dispassionately, there’s just no room anymore for a family operated, do your own work, type of operation.

You have to be vertically integrated, and I mean by that is, you have to control your product from the farm to the packer. And you have to pack it. You have to distribute it. And you have to sell it because that’s where the profit is made. It’s not in growing it. It’s a joke now that even corporations will tell you that. I just talked to a guy that has 7,000 acres and he laughed and said, “What I lose growing 7,000 acres, I more than make up packing, distributing, and selling the produce.”

Chris Buskirk: It requires the economies of scale and vertical integration in order to squeeze money out of what’s basically a commodity.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. There were good things about farming that I thought shouldn’t have been ignored that people, when they work together physically from all different classes and levels of education, a lot of farmers are very educated. Then your identity, as we now know it, race, class, and gender becomes pretty irrelevant. I had grown up with mostly Mexican-American people. I have Mexican-American people in my family. But I worked side by side with poor whites and poor Mexican-American people and I never saw the type of bumper sticker identity and tensions and psychodramas and melodrama that I see on campus. It was just more of a natural affinity that was inculcated by mutual physical labor.

I was trying to argue that something was being lost by not having enough of these people who could tell whether the south . . . How the south wind smelled, or they’d look at the phases of the moon and tell you whether it was likely to rain. Or they’d look at the birds when they nested in trees and when they didn’t. They could look at a vineyard and tell you pretty much the chemical composition of the soil at any given time. And so all that knowledge was passed down, sort of folk knowledge. It didn’t mean that you didn’t . . . It hasn’t been sort of planted by scientific instrumentation and technology, but there was a value there. And then there was a shame culture as well that when you grew up and you were rooted to a particular place, you took care about your reputation.

I remember my grandfather always telling me it’s much better to pay a bill twice than not at all, if you’d forgotten or that person complained. That was sort of contrary to what the modern world was.

Chris Buskirk: Completely opposite to the way the modern world works. This is why I think I love this book so much is because it’s a very human reflection on a way of life and a way that you can build and shape a society that is strong. I think that was part of what you were getting at, that farmers have been a part of all cultures, but are an important part of the strongest and the best cultures. You reflect on the farmer’s role in ancient Greece because of your background, your educational background on that.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. I wrote a book called “The Other Greeks” that tried to explain the development of the Greek city-state through the emergence of a new class that was neither poor or rich. All of this seems to be . . . I think about that book a lot now because I had some affinity, a special affinity for the type of voters who voted for Trump. And part of the reason I think was, was that I know how it feels to fail and to be bypassed. I think one of the reviewers of that book said “a shout to the skies by one of globalization’s slow, sore losers.” I really do believe that the sort of people in the Republican Party and I speak as one who likes George W. Bush a lot, and Mitt Romney, but I think that wing of the establishment really has missed out on the losers of globalization and the people who works with their hands and the people who follow the rules, and their abstract support for open borders, or for supply and demand, low wages, that they’ve missed out on.

Chris Buskirk: Yeah. Everything’s theory. They never seem to understand the practical impact of some of the theory. You write here. I have this underlined. It says, you write, “Farming involves deed, not more word, reality over theory, substance over brag and big talk, for ugly trees can produce beautiful fruit. Rains come when they should not and kindly neighbors will press you until stopped.”

Victor Davis Hanson: There was an irony and paradox—

Chris Buskirk: Actually, can you hold that thought. We’ve got to run to a break.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes.

Chris Buskirk: But I want to pick up on this on the other side of the break. Victor Davis Hanson is my guest, discussing his book “Fields Without Dreams, Defending the Agrarian Idea.” It’s available on Buy one. Do yourself a favor. We’ll be right back.

Welcome back to The Seth and Chris Show. Professor Victor Davis Hanson is my guest. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author most recently of “The Second World Wars.” Pick that up. Great gift here at Christmas for yourself or for someone else. Today though we’re talking about an older book of Professor Hanson’s, “Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.”

When we went to the break, I had just read a short quote out of your book, professor. It says, “Farming involves deed, not mere word, reality over theory, substance over brag and big talk, for ugly trees can produce beautiful fruit. Rain comes when it should not and kindly neighbors will press you until stopped.”

You wound up being 20 years early, I think, in recognizing some of the fallout from globalization, from intense economic competition. I guess you saw it firsthand. Did you have any idea when you were writing the book that you were going to be, I guess prophetic, really?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I knew that there was something wrong with the free-market Republican position and I knew that … I don’t mean wrong in the sense of logically flawed, but wrong in the sense of being able to get a majority of people. I know the Reagan official came out and he said, “What in the hell do we worry about 5,000 raisin growers?” And then another person said to me—professor when I got to Hoover, a very famous professor said . . . I was telling him about some of the things. He said, “Creative destruction’s good. The lower the price, the more that you weed out the chaff, like yourself.” And he said, “If they subsidize and we don’t, then they’ll eventually go broke.” And the consumer gets all of this. It made perfect sense, except it never applied to himself.

So I think what Trump’s appeal was to certain constituents is they had been lectured about, you have to do this, and you must do this and you’ve got to do this. And then they thought to themselves, “The people who are lecturing me in the universities and the federal job swamp, the politicians, they’re never subject to the consequences of their own ideologies,” so they don’t get competition from the foreign producer. They write a column if they’re a state legislator, or they’re an author, like we do. If an open border is sending in a lot of people who are flooding the job market, they don’t face the same kind of competition as we do. Or their children don’t go to schools in which suddenly half the people can’t speak English. So I think that was the problem that we had with not winning in five out of six elections, 51 percent of the vote.

The last time we got 51 percent of the vote was, well, I think it was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election. And after that, no Republican could get 51 percent. I’m not saying that Donald Trump did. He did not. But we lost all four of the last five popular votes, or maybe it’s five of the last six. I think part of that is that the message on the economic front, at least, seemed callous, or abstract, or it was advanced by people that didn’t look like they’d worked with their hands.

Chris Buskirk: Yeah.

Victor Davis Hanson: I once was given a ride to Hillsdale College, and an ex-auto worker picked me up. He went on a rampage about Obama, that he didn’t like him. Hated him. This was an old United Auto Workers Democrat. When I got out of the car I said, “So, you’re not going to vote for Obama.” And he said, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to vote for Obama.” He said, “What’s the alternative? Romney came to Michigan and they had him on TV and he had wingtips with jeans on. Who could vote for a guy like that?” That was so silly, but what he meant was that he didn’t feel that Romney was empathetic to the working classes in a way that . . . That’s what’s hurt the Democratic party as much as the Republican because it’s become a boutique party, the very wealthy and the subsidized underclass.

This middle class is, it’s still the backbone of America. I tried to suggest that farming was once the anchor of it. And I think anything that we can look at in our economy, whether it’s an independent truck driver, or a guy who gets up at 5:00 in the morning and operates a 7-11, or one of these people that’s still a family farmer, I have enormous respect for because the society is really not in your favor, the regulatory state and contemporary values and the youth culture. It’s really not an independent, self-reliant person who uses his muscles.

Chris Buskirk: There’s not a middle-class party right now. Neither party, I think, does a good thinking about, talking about what it is that the middle class is, what it needs to be. How can it help the middle class? Right? Maybe the Republican party does a little better, and under Trump I think is trying to do better. But as you say, the Democrats are a boutique party based on coasts. I call it a plantation party, the very rich and the very poor. But the Republicans honestly aren’t that much better, even though I think rank and file voters on the Republican side are middle class. But we haven’t really thought through the people who kind of do the thinking for the Republican party have not thought through what it means to strengthen the middle class and why it’s important.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. And I think, to be frank, I think that was some of which galvanized the NeverTrump movement. I think there were people in the commentariat, if I could use that term, or the establishment, in the media, in government, in the universities, in the think tanks, that one of the repulsions they had for Donald Trump wasn’t just his agenda or his personal behavior, but they looked at those rallies where they just saw people there that they didn’t feel comfortable with, and so they … And I speak as somebody that writes for the National Review, but you could see some of the articles there and commentary, or The Weekly Standard, even The Wall Street Journal that had sort of a contempt. Let these opiate guys get in their pickup and follow the jobs rather than whining.

When I read that stuff I say, “Wow.” Should we go into the National Review, or Weekly Standard, or Commentary and downsize it? Or is there really a free market with people who write? Or do they really know what it’s like to take out a tractor transmission? Or do we really think it takes more? I mean, I’ve done both as a Ph.D. in classical languages and written academic books, and I’m not sure that takes more intelligence than it took me to change a big tractor tire, or help my neighbor overhaul his [inaudible 00:19:01] engine, or go out and prune effectively for eight or nine hours. Those are skills that we deprecate and I think that’s the problem that … When I drive and I speak and I meet people in the Midwest, and there’s somebody who’s farming on a big combine or he’s working in a machine shop, or somebody’s picking grapes, that has a certain dignity to it. And somehow the Republican party, which should’ve known more than the Democratic party, they forgot that. And that’s what this Trump phenomenon was all about. Trump was a reflection. He wasn’t a catalyst necessarily.

Chris Buskirk: Yeah. I think that’s right. I’ve been thinking about this more. The Republican party, capital R, needs to spends more time thinking about what it means to be a republican party, small r, which really is a party of sovereign citizens and a middle class. If you’ve got the time, we’ve got a short segment after this. I’d like to just ask you a couple of questions about farming in particular. Do you have the time?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes.

Chris Buskirk: All right. We’re going to go to a break, then we’ll be right back with Professor Victor Davis Hanson talking about his book, “Fields Without Dreams.” I’m Chris Buskirk. We’ll be right back with more of The Seth and Chris Show.

Hi. I’m Chris Buskirk. Welcome back to The Seth and Chris Show. We are joined by Professor Victor Davis Hanson. We’re talking about his book, “Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea.” The book is 21 years old and wears very, very, very well. More recently, Professor Hanson has authored the “Second World Wars.” You can find both of these books on If you have Prime, like I do, you could have them both tomorrow and your life would be a little better if you did. Professor, I wanted to just talk to you. We don’t have a lot of time in this segment, but I wanted to spend it just talking about . . . The subtitle of the book is “Defending the Agrarian Idea.” What is that? What is the agrarian idea? What do we lose by losing the family farm?

Victor Davis Hanson: Democratic society needs a few individuals, not maybe a majority in a technological society, but a few that are not connected with a guaranteed employment and they’re outside in the natural world and they have a practical rather than a romantic view of nature. And their success or failure depends entirely, or most entirely on their own tragic view of the universe, and they have to deal with insects, markets, weather, soil, family members, neighbors. And we need some of these people to sort of keep the ship of state on an even keel. When we’re all connected to a big corporation or a big government, then we just assume that they take care of us from cradle to grave, even though we have to change jobs, we’re still … And we’re all more urban or suburban. I think we really lost something.

And you can really see that all of these elites that are going out to the Midwest now and talking to people, that they’re anthropological specimens. They’ve completely divorced from that. I was in the almond orchard the other day and somebody called me from a New York network and said, “Where are you? Could you do an interview?” And I said, “I’m actually working on this orchard with my renter, the guy I rent to.” And she said, “What’s an almond orchard?”

Chris Buskirk: Yeah. Didn’t you know almonds come from the store? They don’t come from an orchard.

Victor Davis Hanson: No. And I’ve had people . . . I mention in the book . . . that happened to me the other day when I was in Palo Alto. I went to Whole Foods and somebody asked me about raisin plants because I mentioned I grew—

Chris Buskirk: Yeah. You say that in the book.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. I said, “Well, I once grew them,” and she said, “Well, what are they?” I said, “Do you think they’re plants?” And she said, “Yes.”

I think we’re losing . . . And you can see it’s been fueled in the last 21 years since I wrote the book by the internet and electronic instantaneous communication. There’s no sense of irony or tragedy. When you lose a crop and you didn’t do anything wrong, and a hail storm, and that happened to me on three occasions, just destroyed it. Lost, I think, $28,000 in borrowed money one day in about two hours.

Then you have a very different view of all of the … When I look at all of these epidemics of frenzy, the Confederate statues, or the sexual harassment, the NFL taking a knee, they’re all legitimate in certain ways. But in a sense, you just want to [inaudible 00:23:51] people say, “Take a deep breath. Stand back. Look at the way human nature is.”

And we’re not gods. We’re humans. But there’s this constant idea that we’re going to be perfect, and yet I guess these people think they can control their environment. The irony is that they’re completely dependent on their sewage, on their water, on their food, on their fuel from people who they don’t even know and they don’t even like. And so they’re in distant places like Wisconsin, or Kansas, or Bakersfield. And they produce our oil. They produce our food. They give us our water. They give us our sewage. They make houses. Yet, for some reason, we think you’re a loser if you’re not one of those people.

Chris Buskirk: There’s a sense of which people almost view themselves as being disembodied or just apart from the physical world, from the real world, because they type on a computer, they do something in an office. Whereas, the needs of life remain exactly the same as they were 2,000, or 3,000, or 4,000 years ago.

Victor Davis Hanson: They do.

Chris Buskirk: We’re just more efficient in providing for them.

Victor Davis Hanson: I would ask people where I work with in Palo Alto. If you go out to the gym and you work four hours a week, or five hours, why not just mow your lawn, or trim your own trees, or do something physical? Because it’s not the same, because when you’re doing physical work to improve something or to maintain something, there’s an added sense of achievement that you don’t get just on an exercise bike. And I’m speaking as one that rides a bike and does my yard. But that’s kind of a lost yore. It’s just been [inaudible 00:25:36] out of our existence.

Chris Buskirk: Professor, we’re going to have to leave it there, but this is a subject I’d love to pick up with you again. I’ll tell you this, and please take this as a very high compliment. This is “Fields Without Dreams,” your 1996 book, is a book that most reminds me, of any book I think I’ve read, of “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. Just one that I’ll read again and again. Personal and profound. Thanks so much for spending the time.

Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you for having me on, Chris.

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5 responses to “Victor Davis Hanson on the Agrarian Idea in the Age of Trump

  • I was surfing YT the other day and found videos of Lesters’ Santa Clara prune ranch twenty years before I worked there as a college student. It showed the same people that I worked with, and the same tractor, the same Model A truck, the same shed which roof I about pulled down. Now it’s gone, but I remember the people and place and prunes.

  • I foresee a return of the family farm in the near future. The industrialization of agriculture provided for many good things, quality of the produce was not one of them nor was affordability on a small scale. With recent discoveries of the past 15 years, it is now possible to store all anthropogenic emissions into the soil and to remove all existing anthropogenic emissions from the atmosphere within our lifetimes. Soil is a living system. As more carbon is put into the soil, the soil becomes more productive, the use of expensive agricultural chemicals declines, the need for fertilizer goes away, expensive specialized machinery is reduced and fuel is reduced. Sounds just like an organic farm, but it’s not really as the focus is on farming carbon and changing the fungi:bacteria ratio upwards. The products may or may not be certified organic as the focus is on reducing cost allowing a small farm to provide an upper-level middle-class income.

  • Nearly anything one does that’s hands on and dirty fingernails has many of the same benefits. I do nearly all my own car repairs, partly because most mechanics’ skills are dismal and it’s just much cheaper to do it myself but also for the satisfaction of it.

    And my wife and I breed dogs which is a whole lot like farming, including outcomes not being under your control and routinely losing money — but keeping on anyway for the satisfaction it brings. We ARE vertically integrated. We start with dog food and sell our puppies face to face to families for whom they’ll be a much loved member for 12-15 years. We still lose money because the market isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that the savings from the car repairs pays the difference.

  • It’s refreshing to see Hanson edging away from the Neocons. Keep on edging, Vic.

  • What a national treasure we have in Prof Hanson….

    I had a boss once. CEO of a Fortune 500 company, in the ’90’s. He also owned a small vineyard in Napa. And also came from a farming background. While brilliant and hard charging, he was someone who understood the ideas expressed in this piece. I distinctly recollect, in a conversation about globalization, him remarking that, “People need jobs. This globalization policy is wrong.” At the time, I disagreed because I thought the competition would discipline us into greater competitiveness. I now believe he was right. That comment always stuck with me because it was so at odds with the thinking of the day.

    Hanson also indirectly refers to the famous piece by NR’s Kevin Williamson, but is too diplomatic to call it out directly. After reading that piece, I was disgusted at thought of having ever been a reader of that periodical. NR’s behavior in the lead up to Trump’s election reinforced my view that they are just soulless liars and I haven’t been back since. I think the mindless emotionalism of Oprah and those who proceeded her is idiotic, but the raw misanthropy of Williams and the calculated deceptions perpetrated by the rest of those globalist, go-slow-progressive is equally stupid. They are the perfect mirror image of someone who knows what it’s like to stick his hands in the soil.

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