What Are the Lessons from the Last War?

What conditions will those who take up farming face after the war? What chance will a man have to make a satisfactory living from the soil?

These are debatable questions, and experts differ in their opinions. However, the past offers clues to the future. Those who plan on a farming career should know what another genera­tion of farmers faced after the last war.

Since 1914 the American farmer has lived through a dramatic but short-lived period of prosperity, 1915 to 1919, followed by an era of hard times, 1920 to 1932, and then a gradual upswing which culminated in the boom. of World War 11.

The farm prosperity of World War 1, like that of industry, was due to enormous European orders, to rising purchasing power in the United States, and the need of supplying our own large armed forces.

Before World War 1, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy depended heavily on other European countries, and on Australia, Argentina, the United States, and Canada for a considerable portion of their food staples. As the war disrupted these normal trade channels, they began to look more and more to us for their food imports, desperately needed to feed French and British civilians at home, as well as French and British armies and navies fighting on land and sea.

“Food Will Win the War!” was the slogan of the day. In response American farmers plowed up grasslands, pastures, and idle fields and planted them to wheat and corn. They raised and slaughtered more cattle and hogs; milked more cows, and pro­duced more milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.

Demand for American farm products soon exceeded the supply. As a result, prices skyrocketed.

A few figures will tell the story perhaps better than many words. In the five years before 1914 American farmers averaged about 90 cents a bushel for their wheat. As Allied purchasing agents began bidding against one another and speculators jumped in to take advantage of the situation, the average farm price rose to more than $2 a bushel by 1918.

Lured by high prices and urged by the government, farmers planted more wheat. From an average of about 50 million acres in the years just before the war, wheat planting increased to a peak of 76 million acres in 1919. And the gross income of wheat farmers climbed steadily from around $500 million a year before the war to over $2 billion in 1919.

In 1914 corn was bringing an average of 70 cents a bushel at the farm. In 1919 the price was $1.50 a bushel. The prices of livestock and livestock products, of cotton and tobacco, jumped almost as fast.

All this made farming quite profitable, at least for the half of the nation’s farms that produced on a commercial scale. Thus, the net income of all farmers, after paying for the supplies required to produce their crops, rent, taxes, and interest on loans and mortgages, increased 120 per cent from 1914 to 1919. In the same period, the net income of the nonfarming population rose only 75 per cent.

Was The Prosperity Permanent?

This situation did not last long after the Armistice. In 1920 agricultural prosperity vanished and farmers began a long uphill battle to gain better incomes.

How did the sudden reversal of fortune come about? American agricultural prices-at least for some staples-arc geared to a world market. It is not alone what buyers in Kansas and the Dakotas offer for wheat that determines the price which our farmers normally get, but what buyers in England, Germany, France, and Italy deem it necessary to pay. The prices offered by local buyers in the wheat areas of the United States reflect the demand outside this country for the amounts in excess of that needed by our own people.

Similarly, the price of raw cotton and tobacco, unless pegged, is fixed substantially by the competition of world markets. It reflects what British and other foreign buyers are willing to pay, as well as what American purchasers offer.

Consequently, when there is a great export demand for farm products, prices are apt to be high. When overseas demand declines, as it did in 1920, prices are sure to drop.

In 1920, European agriculture was returning to. normal. Millions of men, discharged from the armies of the warring nations, came home to plant and harvest crops on fields scarred by trenches and shellholes. Also, prewar trade channels were being reopened and even former enemies; such as Great Britain and Germany, were doing business with each other.

American farmers had to compete again for European trade with the other great food-producing countries of the world. Then, too, Allied countries had expended the credits made available to them by our government and did not have the money to purchase the foodstuffs they needed. All these forces led to the collapse of demand. This in turn caused the collapse of farm prices.

The turning point came about the time the 1920 crops were reaching the market. Within a few months agricultural producers of every class were swept along under the avalanche of falling prices. And meanwhile surpluses piled up and granaries and warehouses were bulging with wheat and corn, tobacco and cotton, pork and other products.

There was a recession in industry, too, beginning in 1921 and lasting two years. The agricultural decline lasted much longer. How bad was the farm slump?

By 1921 farmers were getting only about 52 cents a bushel for corn-a drop of 60 per cent in two years; 19 cents a pound for cotton compared with 35 cents in 1919; and 19 cents a pound for tobacco compared with 31 cents in 1919. The price of wheat also tobogganed-by 1923 it was less than half the 1919 peak.

All through the 1920’s farmers generally were encountering hard times compared with other sections of the population. In other words, agriculture generally did not share in the prosperity of the 1923 to 1929 period. Many farmers, in fact, were caught in a “squeeze”—getting relatively low prices for what they produced and paying heavy fixed charges, such as taxes and interest, on loans and mortgages.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and the swift decline of industrial activity, the plight of a large portion of those who made their living from the soil grew steadily worse. The rapid increase of unemployment and loss of foreign trade, the melting away of the national income, all helped to bring the demand for farm products down to a record low.

Thousands of farmers went broke. Many others, who had bought their land at inflated wartime levels, could not meet the payments, on their mortgages and lost their farms. Still others lost their holdings because of heavy arrears in taxes.

It was difficult for many who managed to retain their farms to make ends meet with wheat selling, as in 1931 and 1932, at 38 or 39 cents a bushel (at the farm) , corn at 31 or 32 cents a bushel, cotton at 6 or 7 cents a pound, and tobacco at 8 to 10 1/2 cents a pound.

What Happened to the Farmers?

Many formerly prosperous farmers had to become tenants or farm hands. For example, in 1935, over 40 per cent of the farms in the United States were being operated by tenants, compared with 25 per cent fifty years before.

Some operators and tenants were turned completely adrift, moving from one part of the country to another to earn a pitiful living, picking cotton in the South, “knocking” apples in Virginia or Maryland, working as harvest hands on the grain farms of the Middle West, or winding up as fruit pickers in the California valleys.

Many farmers had been literally blown off the soil by the fearful dust storms of 1934 and 1935. that swept over the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. Here years of overplowing and overcropping former pasture and grassland had left, the soil in a condition where wind and water could sweep it away. When the dust storms came, farming was impossible.

The roads were full in those days of impoverished rural families moving wearily across the country in their jalopies, sleeping in the open or in trailer camps night after night. Many could not afford even a wagon, and just walked from place to place, rolling their belongings in baby carriages or pushcarts. For these people there was only a pitiful hand-to-mouth existence.

More than a decade of agricultural decline left deep marks on the rural way of life. Many farmers who were able to retain their land had very little money to spend on clothes, other store goods, or recreation. Farm improvements were out of the question for many operators; barns, farmhouses, and other buildings were allowed to deteriorate and cars, trucks, tractors, and other equipment to wear out. A considerable proportion of American farm families went on relief.

The social consequences were equally deplorable. Boys and girls, growing up on the farm, could see no future there and migrated to the cities, where many of them joined the ranks of the unemployed. In some areas, rural schools and other social services had to be curtailed as tax collections declined. Country storekeepers watched their business dwindle away; and thousands of rural banks, loaded with farm paper that had greatly depreciated in value, closed their doors.

What Did the Federal Government Do?

In 1933 the federal government stepped in to help the farmer. In the next five or six years a number of agricultural relief measures were enacted. Thus, farmers were paid by the government for limiting the amount of acreage put to the plow and for curtailing production of basic crops, such as wheat, cotton, tobacco, corn, and hogs. Also federal agencies purchased a large portion of each year’s production of some commodities, such as wheat, corn, meat, flour, wool, hides, and sugar. Some of the government holdings were distributed free of charge to people on relief.

The federal government helped farmers who were paying high interest rates on loans and mortgages by making available loans at low rates, thus safeguarding them against foreclosure. And finally, some of the very poorest farmers and tenants—as in the cotton growing areas of the South, and the cutover regions of the Great Lakes states—were moved at federal expense to better land and given a chance to start over again. Some were loaned money to buy equipment, livestock, seed, and fertilizer.

By these and other means the condition of American farmers generally was improved in the years 1933 to 1939. Farmers were enabled to get fairly good prices for certain of their products and they did not continue to lose their farms at the same rate as in the 1920’s.