So far, the protests have garnered farmers the attention they are seeking — but this tactic may ultimately undermine their cause. That’s what happened four decades ago when American farmers organized a tractor protest in Washington D.C. Alienating potential allies by causing traffic disruptions and even damage to city infrastructure and the National Mall, the farmers’ use of tractors back then, however attention-grabbing, ultimately backfired.
In 1977, a desperate economic depression for farmers caused by low crop prices and high production costs sparked the formation of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM). Legislative efforts at the time, including annual farm bills, encouraged increased production but without commodity price support, which left many farmers in deep financial despair when prices plummeted. The AAM pushed back.
Farmers staged protests to help publicize their grievances and sway lawmakers to act on their behalf. They sought “100 percent parity,” meaning fair prices that accounted for production costs through government assistance.
Their favorite method of protest? Riding tractors to government buildings to bring attention to the plight of American farmers. They began at the local and regional levels, often with farmers driving their tractors to their respective state capitols — but the protests soon escalated into a national event.
In March 1978, some 3,000 farmers marched in D.C. with a long, noisy “tractorcade.” Goats brought along to the protest were released on Capitol grounds and hijacked much of the media’s attention of the unusual event.
Initially it seemed that the farmers inspired goodwill in legislators, who were eager to appear supportive of farmers who fundamentally provided food for the nation. Yet, despite symbolic forms of support, the strike ended up having little effect on actual legislation. Farmer activists grew increasingly angry and felt they had been “sold out” and “set up” by Congress.
Enter the larger, louder and less peaceful caravan of tractors.
The following winter the farmers amped up their effort and in February 1979 nobody in Washington could ignore the more than 900 tractors that descended onto the Capitol. Traveling at a steady rabbit-pace of 15 miles per hour, the farm commuters stalled inner city traffic for hours.
The farmers received the national attention they desired — but much of it came in the form of negative press. Described as a “monstrous rush-hour traffic jam,” reporters called the demonstration “damaging” and stated that lawmakers became “turned off ” by the movement. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland called the protest a publicity stunt and said many of the farmers were “driven by old-fashioned greed.”
In the weeks that followed, rather than being honored for their role feeding and sustaining the country, farmers were framed as being untrustworthy “rednecks.” As the protest continued, the police frequently locked them in or barricaded them out of city buildings. When their tractors were confined to a small site on the Mall, they pulled up sod, scraped up trees and dirtied up the pools and benches, resulting in damages estimated between $500,000 and up to $2 million.
Public attitudes toward the farmers and their tractors improved only after a blizzard barreled through the city over Presidents’ Day weekend. With two feet of snow stalling D.C. operations, the farmers helped keep the city functional. Using their tractors, farmers dug out vehicles and transported essential personnel to hospitals. These efforts turned the “agitators into heroes” for the moment.
However, once the snow melted and farmers returned to protest, the D.C. chief of police banned all future tractorcades to prevent further traffic issues. After the ban, the multi-week demonstration in D.C. slowly died out.
But the efforts of AAM continued. They replaced tractorcade demonstrations with informational sessions, and members testified in hearings through the 1980s in attempts to influence farm bill legislation. Ultimately it was this legislative and lobbying work that helped secure the passage of the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act, which enabled farmers to restructure their debt to avoid foreclosure.
The lesson? Changing farm policy required years — not just weeks — of persistence, and winning broader public support for their perspective was critical. The tractors ultimately proved to be precarious tools of protest because they were disruptive and, as a result, fueled rural stereotypes. Traditional lobbying efforts, including proposed solutions backed by scientific evidence, promoted a more positive image of farm life.
Today, farmers are in trouble once again. This time, they face a grave economic depression targeting smaller operations, with farm foreclosures and farmer suicide rates across the United States on the rise. Farmers are also feeling pressure to change their practices for the sake of the planet’s survival and feel that blame for climate change disproportionately targets them.
But with the impending consequences of anthropogenic climate change, policymakers are looking squarely at agriculture to make dramatic changes. However urgently needed, such changes can be disastrous if the livelihoods of farmers aren’t protected in the process.
This is part of the argument that farmers in the Netherlands and other countries like France are making with their ongoing tractor protests. French farmers even disrupted the 2018 Tour de France to capture national attention. But, as with the 1979 U.S. tractorcade, the tractors have caused inconvenient traffic jams and damage to city green areas. What’s more, the large, loud diesel-powered vehicles make agricultural pollution more visible to an urban public — even though farm emissions are not nearly as damaging as those caused by aviation, electrification or construction.
But there may be a silver lining: the protests can remind the world of the presence of farmers whose work is necessary for our collective survival. It remains to be seen if the slow tractor will help quickly shift attitudes and policies in favor of the world’s farmers. Once again, meaningful change will require not only highly visible tractor protests but governments working with and listening to farmers to solve the problems we face together.