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Part free-market polemic, part trivial pursuit. Solkoff has some surprising things to say about recent US agricultural policy, but his argument tends to get lost in a welter of detail that sounds like a breezy rewrite of The Congressional Record. Most Americans remember Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and Ford, for the astronomical food prices of the 1970's and the racist ""joke"" that propelled him out of office. According to Solkoff, Butz was a canny politician whose secret grain deal with the Soviets transformed the basic problem of US agricultural policy virtually overnight from what to do with surplus to how to deal with shortage. Thus Butz was able to dismantle the system of land controls and price supports established by Roosevelt during the Depression and to move agricultural decision-making from Washington to the commodity pits at the Chicago Board of Trade. Solkoff's other unlikely hero is Cesar Chavez, who, by forcing large growers to sign union contracts with fieldworkers, unwittingly demonstrated that large, market-oriented corporations are the dominant force in American agriculture, not some idyllic stereotype of the small farmer living in bucolic bliss. After Butz, the government again began bungling agricultural policy. Farmers descended on Washington, tying up rush-hour traffic in their tractors and releasing goats on the Capitol steps. Under Reagan, farm subsidies have swelled to unprecedented levels. The traditional four-year farm bill is up for renewal in Congress this year, though Solkoff sees little hope for reform by the ""intellectual and political lightweights"" currently in control of agricultural policy. On the other hand, Solkoff's own fascinating account of how six multinational grain trading companies dominate the world market (and how they made the four US grain embargoes from 1973 to 1976 totally ineffective) makes one wonder who really is in control and whether a free market in agriculture is simply another myth.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Sierra Club--dist. by Random House