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Casa Utopia: The Tale of an American Collective Farm

January 12, 2024

By Amity Shlaes

 

Casa Grande Valley Farms, 1940

 

This review is from Amity Shlaes’s regular column “The Forgotten Book,” which she pens for “Capital Matters” as a fellow of National Review Institute.

 

The failure of top-down efforts to launch collective communities is well documented.

Inducing strangers to cooperate with one another is tough work. “It is easy to make fish soup from the aquarium with living goldfish,” as Poland’s Lech Walesa said in 1996. “But just imagine what a challenge it is to try to make the aquarium with living goldfish out of the fish soup.”

Yet sharing either evidence or wisdom with younger Americans is also a challenge.

There’s scant utility in citing Walesa to them, or detailing the horrors of “communities” that Stalin or Mao established. Americans generally resist “lessons from abroad.” We prefer evidence from American experiments. Many assume that no such evidence exists because Washington never created entirely new villages and then watched over them as a scientist would over a petri dish. American empiricism has proven convenient to progressives, whose argument therefore runs along predictable lines: “We don’t know that American socialism won’t work, because it’s never been tried.”

But it has been tried.

 

A Cautionary Tale

 

Back in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt administration’s launched a number of isolated collective communities, including a 3,600-acre farming collective in the Arizona desert between Phoenix and Tucson. Physical traces of Casa Grande Farms are long gone. Roads, office parks, and malls line the site now, part of the conurbation known as the Arizona Sun Corridor.

Still, there are records. Throughout the project, officials at the Farm Security Administration—yes, there used to be such an entity—charged researchers with tracking the collective-farms project. One of them, a young field officer, found Casa Grande’s workings and wartime implosion so interesting that later, as a University of Chicago grad student, he made them the topic of his dissertation.

Espying the dissertation’s significance, editors at Free Press of Illinois in 1951 laid out the student’s report and published it as a trade book. For Cold War America—the same America that was about to elect a five-star general president—Free Press selected a provocative title: Government Project. The former field officer, Edward C. Banfield, became a professor and went on to produce books now better known: The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, a study of Sicily, and The Unheavenly City, a devastating treatment of the naivete of modern urban policy.

Yet for sheer authenticity, precision, and evidence, Government Project has always stood out. Among a few historians and social scientists in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—many of them operating in the orbit of the American Enterprise Institute’s then-president, Christopher DeMuth—Banfield’s monograph attained cult status. These scholars wrapped their precious rare copies of Government Project to mail to one another with as much care as they would a 1951 T. Hine cognac.

Now comes a new edition of this cautionary tale, edited by AEI’s Kevin R. Kosar. This publication is especially timely because younger Americans are indeed proving more receptive to socialism than their forerunners.

 

Collectivism Comes to Arizona

 

This Casa Grande story starts with the desperation of American agriculture in the 1930s, when farmed land turned into the Dust Bowl and when migrant farmers roamed the Southwest, camping on dirt floors without running water or electricity, as John Steinbeck depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.

Surely, thought the dreamers at Henry Wallace’s Department of Agriculture, something could be done about American farms. President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing what became known as the Resettlement Administration. As with the Green New Dealers of today, the original New Dealers’ motives for their experiment were multiple: modeling new communities, teaching better soil conservation, training farmers in the use of modern machinery, housing the underhoused, and ending “pauperization,” as it was called then.

The official who oversaw the project’s beginnings, Undersecretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell, had himself spent his boyhood watching the farms of western New York decline into poverty. “It was thus natural,” Tugwell recalled later, “that we should agree on trying to do something to better the situation of rural people.”

To lure its target of 60 settler families to Casa Grande, Tugwell’s shop crafted elaborate inducements. Each family would be assigned 40 acres to cultivate for itself, and a modern house, “painted in pastels, which softened the glare of the sun.” These homes featured comforts many migrants had never encountered: insulated roofs, electricity, flush toilets, and hot and cold running water.

To help their pilot project win the acceptance of citizens in the surrounding towns of Pinal County, federal officials said that building a farm community would “prime the pump” of the local economy. One of the gems in the project was a nursery school, where farmers’ children could nap on cots. Another was a Casa Grande Community House, where settlers’ wives could host “a monthly pie dinner,” inviting “the Lions and Rotarians who came from [the nearby towns of] Coolidge and Florence.”

Department of Agriculture staff members lovingly laid out optimal crop plans for each settler family: “18 acres of alfalfa, ten acres of cotton, ten acres of wheat and grain sorghum (double crop), with two acres in the farmstead and garden.” The plans detailed precisely what livestock each household ought to maintain: “ten milk cows, two brood sows, and 200 chickens.”

The planners had fun over their models, just as those who found summer camps or tinker with electric trains have fun: They were building a little world. Yet even as they played, the officials reconsidered. Their own arithmetic suggested that “the individual 40-acre unit when operated on a straight cropping basis does not yield an income large enough for the family.” To sustain itself, the planners determined, Casa Grande would have to exploit the economy of scale.

The officials therefore opted in the end to arrange the farm as a “community settlement,” a co-op with a collective hay barn, collective granary, collective dairy, and collective corral. Farmers would share heavy mechanical equipment—“two Diesel tractors, one four-wheel tractor and three-row type tractors.” Families would receive a “basic monthly allowance” of $60, like a factory salary, and the men would work factory hours—ten hours a day. And, as at a factory, a foreman would lead the project—a manager chosen by the Department of Agriculture.

The settlers were also carefully chosen. “An experienced home economist and social worker,” Theone Hauge, was tapped to serve as “family selection specialist.” Hauge and team subjected the families to at least two interviews. Robert A. Faul, the first farm manager, also grilled candidates. “Are you interested in irrigated agriculture?” Faul asked.

Hungry to please, the first residents dutifully pronounced their enthusiasm. “This beats anything you could find on an individually owned farm,” one settler told a researcher. “It’s up to us to make it pay.” Public officials and newspapers initially praised the Casa Grande pilot: “Many more of them are needed in the South,” commented a Richmond, Virginia, paper, “to provide both models for correct farming and employment for rural workers who have shown no signs whatever of ever being capable of operating farms of their own.”

In its first years, Casa Grande bloomed, and even earned some profits. After more time, officials hoped, Casa Grande would learn to run itself, with settler families receiving yet more profits from their share of the co-op.

But after more time, that was not what happened. Profits notwithstanding, those settlers who had believed they would be free to homestead after an initial land grant did not overcome their disappointment: “We came on the project because it was painted rosy to us.”

What’s more, the farmers found they didn’t like sharing. They wanted their own tractors. And their own cows, and even their own chickens. There was something in the settlers’ nature that resisted even a lavish collective. Outsiders found the resistance almost humorous, like slapstick: Why were the farmers rejecting their gifts? But the resistance was also deeply human.

An older local from outside the settlement, a farmer without access to the kinds of tools or stock at Casa Grande, conveyed his impression of the collective experiment. “It’s all right, I guess. But the thing I can’t figure out is how a man tells his own chickens apart, runnin’ them all together like they do there.”

 

Failure

 

The bureaucracy of the federal process grated on the settler families. To replace a single windowpane in the community house required a form, which could not be found. Similar paperwork delayed tractor repair.

Treated like factory workers, the settlers began to act like factory workers, finding reasons to fault their manager, the rather dictatorial Faul, and falling into factions. Invited to provide “a big feed” for Farm Security Administration dignitaries, some of the settlers sat at an end table with only water and fried potatoes, while high rankers feasted on their produce at the other end.

The mood at the meal darkened when an official stood up and announced monthly allowances would be cut $8, to $52 from the original $60. “There was no discussion, it was simply announced,” recalled one attendee. “It runs the place like a peon camp,” commented an angry Casa Grande resident, “and pays peon wages. All FSA officials are plain no good and liars.”

Less bitter, but likewise telling, was the conclusion of another settler. “I would like an individual farm better,” he said. “On an individual farm if you want to quit early in the afternoon and come in and say to the wife, ‘Let’s take in a movie,’ you can. Here at the co-op, you’re stuck.”

The darkness at Casa Grande spread when Faul quit and depicted the settlers as dupes to the press: Though the Casa Grande farmers didn’t realize it, Faul claimed, Casa Grande was very similar to “the Soviet economic set up.” Late in 1940, the regional director discovered the community house unused, “littered with dirt and rubbish,” and alerted colleagues. Yet another official wrote back his own view: “The present condition of the community house is more or less a symbol of community activities at Casa Grande.”

At least he recognized the failure.

So, to his credit, did the first administrator of the project, Tugwell. Half a decade later, and half a decade after the settlers left and the farm shares were sold off, Tugwell penned a preface for Banfield’s account of Casa Grande. “We did all we could,” Tugwell remembered. In lines simultaneously rueful and disingenuous, the former New Dealer claimed that “the struggle was a hard one because government, through which neighborliness had to be expressed, is a large concern.”

Tugwell did not ask himself whether the federal government was actually capable of expressing, or fostering, Tocquevillian “neighborliness.” Instead Tugwell assigned blame to the era’s anti–New Deal papers (a reference most likely to the Fox News equivalent of the time, the papers of William Randolph Hearst). Tugwell also chided the settlers and their neighbors across Pinal County: “It was character which failed,” wrote Tugwell. The settlers were so often “instructed by the press and the pulpit that President Roosevelt was wicked” that they themselves also came to believe that.

More accurate were the settlers themselves, who deplored this painful tragedy of their commons. “We not only killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” said one settler. “We even threw the goddam egg away!”

Closest of all to the mark was Banfield himself. Forced into the position of mendicants, the settlers fell into what Banfield termed “a ceaseless struggle for power” over the resources the Department of Agriculture doled out to the farm. Their lack of independence rendered them “unable to cooperate.” As Banfield’s editor, Kevin Kosar, notes, the settlers were occasionally called owners, but they did not truly own their farms. Their ownership depended on “obeying the rules set by federal government authorities.” Without property rights or a clearer prospect of them, the occasional successful harvest did not matter to them. The settlers could not form a cohesive community with mutual trust.

 

From Bad to Worse

 

After Pearl Harbor, the federal government found another use for this corner of the Arizona desert. The same president, Franklin Roosevelt, signed another executive order, the one that established internment centers for Japanese Americans. One of those centers was the Gila River War Relocation Center. The irony of this too-smooth federal segue from collective farm to concentration camp was not lost on some observers, including historian Robert Asahina.

How easily does a camp become a Camp.

Arbitrary government-led farm policy became arbitrary government-led management of citizens. At the internment camps, writes Asahina, “policies and procedures were invented month-to-month and enforced with an arbitrariness that should have alarmed, and should continue to alarm, both civil libertarians on the left and opponents of big government on the right.”

These days, Arizona’s experimental communities are not farms but more hopeful ventures: the charter and private schools that flourish across the state. No better text for their classrooms exists than this local tale, Government Project. Classrooms in the other 49 states can likewise benefit. “It is not a nice story,” as Tugwell conceded. But it certainly is a useful one.

 

Amity Shlaes chairs the Coolidge Foundation and is the author of Great Society. This article first appeared in National Review’s “Capital Matters.”

 

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