The Progressive Farmer: A Long Row’s Hoeing into Lespedeza
By Cary Fowler
Vol. 1, No. 10, 1979, pp. 4, 29-32
Southern politics in the 1880s was alive with the fever of a native-born Populism. Led by the Southern Alliance (renamed the National Farmers Alliance in 1887), the Populists gained political control of several Southern states and burgeoned into a national organization. Across the South literally hundreds of pro-Alliance newspapers and magazines sprang up with names like Comrade (La.), Toiler’s Friend (Ga.), Weekly Toiler, (Tn.), Revolution (Ga.), People’s Party Paper (Ga.), Southern Mercury (Tx.), and the Weekly Advance(Tx.)
Perhaps the most influential farm magazine in the country today, the Progressive Farmer was founded in the passion of the 1880s by a leader of the National Farmers Alliance. Clearly, its founder, Col. Leonidas Polk, saw the magazine as a weapon in his fight for the farmer. Polk was a native of Anson County, a poor, sun-baked, sand hills county bordering South Carolina in central North Carolina. A soldier, a farmer and a politician, Polk was also the national president of the million member Alliance. Under Polk the Alliance became increasingly critical of both major political parties, calling for reforms such as the nationalization of railroads and the establishment of a commodity credit scheme (later enacted by Congress in 1933). In the Progressive Farmer Polk urged farmers to organize and participate in politics. Meanwhile, Polk, who was North Carolina’s first Commissioner of Agriculture, was himself becoming a prominent and influential political leader on the national scene. Then, without warning, on the eve of the 1892 convention that would have nominated him as the first Populist Party candidate for president, Polk died. With his death, the Progressive Farmer lost its founder, its editor and eventually, much of its passion. The magazine was only six years old.
Hacking at Populist Roots
Progressive Farmer was handed down to Polk’s son-in-law who edited the weekly for the next eleven years until Clarence Poe, a young North Carolinian staff member and four others bought the magazine during hard times in 1903 for $7,500. The memory of Polk must have been fading fast, for the Progressive Farmer was quickly transforming itself into a big-time publishing business. Less than thirty years after Poe took control, Progressive Farmer had gobbled up fifteen other publications and increased its readership over one hundred fold.
Under Poe, Populist politics were drained from the veins of the Progressive Farmer. The magazine’s editorials were nominally well tempered and responsible. Support was given to parity, and the evils of drink and the credit system (“a greased runway to debt and poverty”) were discussed in some detail. But by the 1920s more and more of Poe’s writings were focusing on farming customs and practices. As the nation’s farmers entered one of their bleakest periods in 1929, Poe turned his attention to the virtues of planting lespedeza and red clover in crop rotations. He called for a 13 month calendar of 28 days each. And he began to attack what would endure as his life-long enemy, “one arm farming” – the lopsided emphasis of Southern agriculture on plant production and the shunning of livestock production.
By the end of the 20s, the price of cotton had dropped to a nickel a pound. The depression had arrived. In Washington, new agricultural policies were in the making – policies which would form the basis of our present-day agricultural system. Enacted into law in 1933 under the name of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, these laws encouraged farmers to take land out of production, and offered government payments as incentives to limit production and drive up prices. Land planted to cotton declined from 39 million acres to 29 million acres in one year. The law was a success. The results were disastrous.
Across the South, hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer needed and were expelled from the land. At the time, Southern agriculture was unmechanized – fewer than 20% of the nation’s tractors were to be found on Southern farms. Government payments to farmers participating in set-aside programs provided the capital to mechanize and modernize Southern agriculture. And this machinery provided the means to push even more farm laborers off the land. Distribution of income within the farm sector swung heavily towards the big landowners, while small farmers held on by their fingertips.
In the rich, flat Arkansas delta, the dispossessed began to gather in the humid, mosquito-filled night. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers organized meetings near little towns like Tyronza and Marked Tree. Against obvious and overwhelming odds a union – the Southern Tenant Farmers Union – was born, struggling against government policies that were driving people from their land and livelihoods. It was 1934.
In April, Poe, still the editor of Progressive Farmer, focused the magazine’s lead editorial on the “Six Great Issues Confronting Agriculture.” Sadly, the plight of the tenant was not one. By the middle of the summer, editorials were calling for more family reunions to be held. And by the fall of 1934, the reader was being given editorials with titles such as “Schools Must Educate for Leisure.” For the conscientious tenant there was the “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” column offering tips on how to beautify tenant shacks.
A Fair Shake For The Big Boys,
As the Progressive Farmer became more remote and insensitive to its own roots, it came to identify increasingly with the interests of the big farmer as opposed to the farm worker or small farmer. In 1943 the National Farmers Union was singled out for criticism. “The National Farmers Union might be fairer to our larger farmers.” The editorial went on to chide NFU’s president for asserting (incorrectly?) that “the profits are going to the big farmer.” By 1960 the division between big farmers and farm workers was clearly seen. “How much can wages paid farm workers be increased without decreasing the farmer’s net income?” was the question posed by an editorial entitled, “Farm Workers Union Poses New Problems.” Ten years later the Progressive Farmer was still at work looking out for the interests of the big farmer. It termed the Senate’s vote to limit subsidy payments to a maximum of $20,000 per farmer “a blow to U.S. agriculture” and called on the government to give a “fair shake” to the big farmer.
And Girls …
The Progressive Farmer did not ignore all dispossessed or oppressed peoples, however. Shortly after women won the right to vote, the Progressive Farmer in a column entitled “What Farm Women Need to Know” was advising its women readers that “good taste consists in being inconspicuous.” Today the Progressive Farmer boasts that it was the first farm magazine to hire a trained home economist (read woman) as “Woman’s Editor.” Despite such evidence of progressiveness, Progressive Farmer’s treatment of women has been both scant and traditional. In 1960, Progressive Farmer bestowed its “Woman of the Year” award on a deserving but surely unexpecting recipient. It was the first time the award had been given since 1939 – only the second time it had ever been given. No fewer than
five men were given “Man [sic]of the Year” awards that year.
Progressive Farmer‘s treatment of Black people has been less scant and more controversial. To its credit Progressive Farmer editorialized against lynching in the 1920s. Lynching it seemed was bad because it gave a poor image to the South. The magazine noted that lynching dissuaded business and industry from locating in the region. At one point, Progressive Farmer even suggested that lynching be declared illegal, as though murder itself were not already illegal enough.
At the same time the reader was being given anti-lynching editorials, the Progressive Farmer was offering up praise for the region’s good race relations. The old plantation owners were described as “sensitive,” “compassionate,” and “humane” masters by one writer, the son of a Confederate colonel. Ironic praise for these good race relations was given to the victims: “A fine spirit of harmony between the two races has always existed in our South Carolina piedmont section. No race riots and few heinous crimes can be traced to the Negroes here.”
By the 1930s standard garden variety racism permeated the magazine. On a single page in a 1933 issue, Blacks were termed “Negro,” “colored,” and “darkie.” An ad for Oliver plows announced, “Here Are The Tools For Your Boys And Mules.” Meanwhile the covers of the magazine celebrated a style of life increasingly out of reach of both Blacks and Whites – ladies with parasols chatting at the gateway of the stereotypical Southern mansion midst graceful live oaks festooned with Spanish moss.
As repugnant as such forms of racism are, they do raise an important, perhaps unresolveable dilemma: how severe can our criticism be of Progressive Farmer‘s racism during a period when this “style” was so commonplace? To what extent can we expect this magazine to have diverged from the norm of its time?
If our criticism of Progressive Farmer‘s stance on racial questions in the twenties and thirties is tempered by our knowledge of the times, so too must their positions in the fifties and sixties be judged in light of the events of those decades. School desegregation dominated the headlines of the fifties. Progressive Farmer was against it, explaining that “Certainly everybody must have noticed how much more quickly a group of Negroes will get to talking, laughing, and joking than a similar group of White people. They are happier in their own group.” In an early sixties’ editorial, Progressive Farmer assured its readers it was “vigorously opposed to school integration.” The ominous title of this particular editorial proved the point: “Abolish Public Schools Only As Last Resort.”
Progressive Farmer had its progressive moments. A 1960 editorial voiced support of voting rights for Blacks. But the editors could not be content with letting such a strong stance stand alone.
They added that with these new rights would come responsibilities -Blacks would have to solve “some of their problems of morals.”
The remainder of the sixties provided more of the old-fashioned rhetoric on the issues of race. Editorials coming out of Progressive Farmer‘s all White editorial and business staff bore titles like, “Is NAACP a Credit to Negroes?” and “Lawless Chickens Come Home to Riotous Roost.” The first Black person to be pictured on a cover of Progressive Farmer in the sixties appeared in 1965 – two Black farm workers were shown spraying an orchard with pesticides. The following month, Blacks were shown picking vegetables under the watchful eye of a White supervisor. These were Progressive Farmer-approved Blacks – Blacks who had stayed at home to roost, credits to their race.
The Farmer As Consumer
Over the course of Progressive Farmer‘s long, 93-year history, the magazine has lost sight of the interests and needs of the small farmer, not to mention the farm laborer. Ironically, it was Progressive Farmer‘s longtime editor, Clarence Poe, who on the occasion of the magazine’s fortieth birthday, observed that the Progressive Farmer was not and should not be just a “piece of property” or a business, but should strive to be “an educational institution devoted primarily to human service.” But Progressive Farmer was already quickly becoming a big business and destined to be even bigger. As if to prove the point, Emory Cunningham, Progressive Farmer‘s current president and publisher was elevated to that post from his position in the advertising department.
One can witness the big business trend of Progressive Farmer in the content of the magazine itself. As chemicals developed for use in warfare during the two world wars became available for farm use, Progressive Farmer was in the cheering section. The new capitalintensive, ecologically-destructive methods were hardly questioned. To read Progressive Farmer, one wonders how agriculture survived 20,000 years before the introduction of chemicals. “Organic” agriculture (the type all farmers practiced when the magazine was founded) was seen as impossible. “Some fruits would disappear …. Farmers are fed up with sharecropping with insects and other pests,” the editors warned. When Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, appeared suggesting that modern agriculture was backfiring, creating resistant super-pests while poisoning the environment, Progressive Farmer responded with vicious editorials and cartoons portraying a world over-run with insects. “Don’t let them get to first base,” the magazine advised.
Progressive Farmer presented the new chemicals as safe and effective. A Gulf Oil ad for one insecticide even pictured an employee gargling with his company’s product. From the twenties to the present date, ads for farm chemicals have become more and more prominent. The hand that feeds is rarely bitten. Despite genuinely useful articles promoting sound management and technical practices, the magazine continues to promote a form of agriculture increasingly relevant to fewer and fewer farmers – the specialized, large-acreage, wellcapitalized boys.
By the 1960s, Progressive Farmer‘s editorials were concentrating more and more on narrowly defined farm issues and “nonpolitical” agricultural questions. The politics that remained was conservative. As early as the 1940s, Progressive Farmer began urging its
readers to join the nation’s largest and most conservative farm organization, the Farm Bureau. Farm Bureau platforms were even printed in the magazine. But gradually the lure and comfort of the technological as opposed to the political captured the minds and hearts of the men of Progressive Farmer. The implicit message of decades of Progressive Farmer has been that if farmers will just use the right equipment and the proper chemicals and plant the appropriate crops, all will be well. But, as Progressive Farmer was encouraging its farmers to be good consumers, the farmers were steadily losing control of agriculture to the machinery monopoly, the petro-chemical industry and the various varieties of middlemen. Good markets disappeared. The new market system forced whole regions to specialize in the production of one or two crops like a banana republic. The diversified farm of old was killed . Land prices exploded as speculators entered the market. Farm debt skyrocketed. Farmers got squeezed. When they were down, the government kicked them. And when they organized to fight back, the Progressive Farmer was silent.
Along the way the Progressive Farmer lost sight of its original goals and repudiated its own roots. Worse yet, it seemed willing to poke fun at its history if a buck were to be made. Progressive Farmer‘s review of its own recently published collection of editorials, articles and ads from 75 years of the magazine was entitled, “Nostalgic Book Offers Chuckles.”
Were Colonel Polk still with us, he would not be chuckling. Nor would he be content to ignore the sad lot of the small farmer. Doubtless he would be using Progressive Farmer to spread the advice the Kansas Populist Mary Lease offered to the readers of her newspaper. “Farmers,” she said, “should raise less corn and more hell.”
Cary Fowler works at the Frank Porter Graham Agricultural Training Center in Anson County, North Carolina. He is author of the Graham Center Seed Directory.