Published Date

April 1, 1945

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 35: Shall I Take Up Farming? (1945)

On the night of September 1, 1939, Hitler sent his legions thundering over the Polish border. Two years later, with virtually all of Europe engulfed, the war spread to the Pacific as well. As before, our allies found increasing need for the products of our farms, forests, and factories, our mills and mines. As a result, the United States entered upon the greatest era of prosperity it has ever known. And farmers shared fully in it as agricultural prices soared to record levels and production rose by leaps and bounds. Let us see exactly what the war has done.

Great Britain, cut off from the food resources of Continental Europe, turned to us as in 1914–18 for more and more of her food imports. The Soviet Union, some of its fertile cropland, such as the Ukraine, occupied by the Nazis for almost three years, sought food from us to help sustain the Red armies and to eke out the scanty diet of its civilian population. We shipped huge amounts under lend-lease-2,144 million dollars’ worth of food to Great Britain and 915 million dollars’ worth to the Soviets in the period from March 11, 1941, to June 30, 1944. There is a basic distinction, however, between the foods sought by our Allies in 1914–18 and in the present war. In the last war, there was a demand for bulky foods. In this war; there has been emphasis on prepared foods (dehydrated eggs, canned fish, and the like) and on processed meats.

The slogan in this war has been “Food Is a Weapon of War—As Important as Guns and Ammunition!” In response American farmers have planted more acreage, especially to high-nutrient  crops like soybeans and peanuts, raised more livestock, particularly hogs, and produced more dairy products—cheese, butter, and eggs needed by our allies. Despite a shortage of labor and machinery, but with the help of very favorable weather, 1942 agricultural production, including crops, livestock, and livestock products, rose 24 per cent and 1943 production 29 per cent above that of the average years 1935–39.


What Will Follow This War —Boom or Depression?

Will the present high prices and extraordinary demands for farm products continue after the war or will the balloon burst swiftly, as it did in 1920?

What do the experts think?

It is generally agreed that the two main requirements for a. healthy agriculture in the United States are: (1) full employment and high national income to provide people with the money to buy the bulk of our farm output at prices profitable to the producer and (2) a large volume of foreign trade—both imports and exports—which would take care of agricultural surpluses. The first without the second will not bring farm prosperity.

Thus, a United States Department of Agriculture report on “The Farmer and War,” issued in January 1944, says that “if improved farm returns are to continue after the war, ways will have to be found to keep industry producing for our needs in times of peace somewhat comparable to the way we produce … in time of war, so that consumers of farm products retain their employment and can earn enough to buy the food and other things they need and want.”. This report urges a freer international trade and suggests that the United States buy enough foreign goods to permit other countries to obtain the exchange—the dollars—needed to purchase our agricultural products.

Marion Clawson, an economist of the United States Department of Agriculture, writing in the Antioch Review in the summer of 1944, says that after the war our capacity to produce farm commodities will be greatly increased. Farms will be more mechanized. Land now used to grow feed for work horses and mules will be released for the production of human food. Better methods of cultivation and plant breeding will increase the yields from the same acreage and often from the same amount of labor.

Will Acreage in Cultivation Decline?

After every war plans have been made for settling veterans on the land. Frequently, and especially after World War I, these plans fell short of success. This time, it is urged, we ought not to make the same mistakes. As Dr. Raphael Zon, an eminent student of land-use problems, says, “There should be no helter-skelter settlement in remote regions away from existing social and recreational facilities. New land settlement should not be developed simply as a haven of refuge for the unemployed. . . Such settlements should be located on good land that has not been inflated in value, and the individual farms should be of sufficient size to provide a reasonably good income.”

It may be, as some students of the land problem declare, that farm acreage will have to be reduced after the war in order not to flood the market with surplus farm products. In the crop year 1944, some 354 million acres were in crops. Dr. Bushrod Allin of the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that after the war, if the national income stays at 150 billion dollars per year, overseas demand for American produce is sharply curtailed from wartime levels, and better farming methods and increased mechanization bring greater yields, 327 million crop acres will be sufficient to supply our own population.

Such a reduction would be difficult and painful. It would mean that thousands of farmers, especially those on poor land, would have to seek other ways of making a living, and some acreage now in crops would have to be put in pasture or allowed to revert to forest.

On the other hand, some students believe that, in order to meet the nutritional needs of all our people, considerable areas must be added to our present cropland, and that such acreage is still available. An expansion can be justified, however, only if the demand for agricultural products increases, and if people who cannot now afford proper diets have enough, income to buy more adequate food.

Whatever happens, it is clear that opportunities for new farmers after the war will depend in some measure on expansion of acreage in cultivation. If there is an actual over-all reduction, not many new farmers will be needed.

Regardless of the general situation, a certain number of developed farms will be offered for sale or rent each year. There are a good many over-age farmers on the farms of the United States at the present time. Many of them have done pretty well financially during the past few years and probably will want to retire soon after the war. If they do, they will make room for a good many young farmers. Judging by the record of the last five prewar years and other factors, it is estimated that from 250,000 to 350,000 good family-size farms may come on the market in the first five years after the war.

Also, desirable farms of various sizes will become available if and when new lands are developed. Their volume and location will depend on what kind of public work programs are undertaken, on the general condition of agriculture, and on the demand for additional  farms. Some private capital, of course, will be forthcoming for these land developments.

Next section: Where Will New Farm Lands Be Located?