As We Have Sown: The new struggle is the same old fight to make enough to survive
By Mark Ritchie
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 5, 7-11
History is a good place to begin. The important thing about agriculture in the United States from the beginning of European colonization is that from the moment this country was founded, small-scale subsistence farming was everywhere. That is how we think of our nation-as a nation founded by small farmers.
We were about 99 percent small farmers and somehow it has declined to about 2 percent now. We get the image of an inevitable natural process. However, agriculture in the U.S. until about the mid-1890s was pretty well split-the rural people who were small subsistence farmers, farming for themselves primarily and maybe a little trade, and the farming that today we call commercial agriculture. From the very start of European colonization, the latter was formed into very large-scale industrial units: chattel slavery and the plantation system in the South, Spanish land grants with huge haciendas in the West, bonanza farms. Not until the mid-1850s did families begin to control land and to farm in a commercial way-where farm families themselves could build their productivity to produce crops large enough to be sold on a more commercial basis.
From almost the first moment when families began being the dominant unit of commercial production, family farmers and the family ranchers of that time entered into the same kind of struggle that we face today, a struggle between the high prices of things they needed to live on the farm and the low prices they could get for their products.
At different times between the 1850s and the early 1900s that squeeze was enough to cause what we call a depression but was then called a panic, a much more useful term. We had five or six panics when what farmers were getting for the crops was too little to pay what they owed their creditors. In each panic rural people reached a point of desperation. Then they began to get organized. Sometimes they came together into cooperatives to defend themselves. Sometimes they came together into political parties-the Greenbacks, the Populists.
By the early 1900s it became clear that it was going to take more than just farmers getting organized locally to defend themselves. Farmers began seeing that they had to move nationally with federal legislation if they were to
begin leveling the playing field between the monopolies that were providing them with everything they needed to live and the monopolies they were forced to sell their products to on the other end.
In the 1920s, following the collapse of farm prices after World War I, farmers entered probably the most serious depression they had faced up to that time. They organized nationally and passed-three different times-federal farm legislation called the McNerry-Halgan bill. Three times that legislation was vetoed-once by Coolidge and twice by Hoover-with a pretty blatant public comment that they needed to keep food prices down so they could keep wages down. In each instance farmers knew they had to come back and keep pushing. Farmers were discouraged just as they are discouraged now. But they kept coming back and pushing and pushing and finally in the early 1930s-unfortunately not until after their depression had rolled into the cities and brought real misery to urban areas, too-they passed and made the President sign federal farm legislation to begin giving some security back to rural people, to farmers and ranchers.
That first farm legislation, often called the parity farm legislation or the Roosevelt farm legislation or the New Deal farm legislation, was based on three principles. First, prices in the marketplace had to be high enough so that farmers
could pay their bills and keep their families alive. The Roosevelt farm legislation through the Commodity Credit Corporation put a floor under prices. Second, that legislation tried to bring supply and demand into balance. Things would occur-the weather, insects, all kinds of issues-that farmers as individuals were unable to control but that influenced supply and demand for them as a group. The legislation effectively allowed farmers participation through national referenda and voting on establishing supply management that would help them keep supply and demand in balance. The third principle was protection for consumers. In the thirties we also had some droughts and dust bowls and all of a sudden we would find ourselves with the grain in the hands of the grain companies and a big shortage on the farm. Prices would suddenly skyrocket. Under the Roosevelt farm legislation, when prices rose to a certain level national reserves were released into the market to bring the prices back down so that they were kept within a fairly narrow range to make it possible for farmers to keep their families going but to keep prices from skyrocketing for consumers in the cities as well.
The farm programs that started in the thirties rested on these three bases for a long time. These programs were not without their own problems. The first programs were declared unconstitutional because there was a tax on the processors. Some of the benefits were not passed to the sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The same racism and discrimination that prevailed in this country was felt through those programs as well. But there was a struggle throughout the thirties to make those programs right, to find the formula, as in all of society we were looking for different ways to solve our economic crisis. By the end of the 1930s people had really settled into a good solid pattern of federal farm legislation that was to serve our nation well through the early fifties.
THESE PROGRAMS WERE a big success for a lot of people. They held farm prices to a fair level and consumer prices were also very low. We had a strong comeback for young farmers coming back onto the land. Farmers who had been foreclosed on in the thirties were able to come back onto their homesteads and continue farming. We had an explosion in soil and water conservation programs. The founding of the Soil Conservation Service and putting a few
dollars back into farmers’ pockets made it possible to begin terracing land to recover land and fix some of the things that we had done that had caused the great dust bowl.
The other place the programs were a success was for the taxpayers. Because the programs were based on getting a price for farmers out of the market the farm programs themselves actually generated profit. The farm program from 1933 to 1953 on storable commodities made about $12 million for the federal government. Now that is not much money, but if you compare it to spending $32 billion last year on the federal farm program you can see a pretty big difference between the programs of those days and what we have today.
Some people didn’t like those farm programs. We should be clear about this. In the same way that in the 1800s and the early 1900s farmers had to struggle with the people that were supplying them and the people they were selling to, those were the same forces that were opposed to the parity farm programs in the thirties and forties and early fifties. On the one hand the chemical fertilizer-seed companies felt that if farmers were imposing supply management, that if they were not planting every acre fencerow to fencerow, then the companies were selling less chemicals and less seed. Which was probably true. Somehow the companies did not notice that farmers needed to make a profit to be able to pay their bills. It turned out we had very very strong opposition from the agri-chemical and machinery companies as well.
On the other side we had opposition from the companies that were buying from the farmers. The cotton ginners, grain corporations, and meet packers felt that if the farmers had government assistance to put a floor under prices, that the commodity buyers were not going to be able to get those commodities at lower and lower prices, which is the way they thought they were going to build bigger markets. Also the speculators felt that if the government intervened to keep prices fairly stable, then this cut into their action quite a bit. IN FACT, IT CUT INTO the action of these corporations so greatly that they organized to repeal the parity farm legislation, for the most part, by the early 1950s. The corporations argued that cheaper food was needed to build industry. These arguments took place in the context of the McCarthy era when everything was defined in black and white and when racism and red-baiting were rolled together into one national hysteria. They were able to argue that the farm programs that were helping the family farmers were somehow communism or bolshevism or socialism. They were able to say that things that were keeping black farmers on the land were somehow anti-American. They rolled that sentiment together into a successful national lobbying effort to repeal laws, especially those on grain crops and some of the crops that were heavily developed in the midwest.
(I point out to Yankee friends that because the South had strongly organized itself in Congress, the crops that the South was very dependent on at that time-tobacco, peanuts, sugar, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables- were able to hang on. In fact, they have been defended until today though they are certainly under assault now. Tobacco companies are importing all kinds of tobaccos in order to break the tobacco program. There is an assault on the peanut program every time it comes up. But in the early 1950s when major parts of the parity farm legislation were being repealed, Southerners in Congress were able to keep some of those programs for some crops in the South. The effect is seen in the more stable conditions that some farmers in the South have had. A state like Kentucky that still has 115,000 farms is able to hold on to them because of the small tobacco quotas. Some of the success in Georgia has been that people have been able to hang on to those programs.)
From the late 1950s and early 1960s there was chaos in agriculture because these programs were being taken away. There were some production increases because when farmers saw their prices being cut, they intensified production to make up for what they were losing. Big surpluses built up so bad the government would then shut down whole counties and the soil bank was a really big program. Whole regions were shut down.
The 196Os were also a time with a lot of industrial development in this country. We were kicking a lot of people off their farms. It was an especially intense time for small black farmers being kicked off their farms in the South. There was the pull of the urban area and urban jobs, the
auto industry and the steel industry. In some ways the farm crisis of the late 1950s and early 1960s was masked by the ability of people to move to industrial jobs.
By the early 1970s the crisis, particularly for the Northern grain farms, wheat and corn and soybeans, became pretty intense. In the early 1970s, in Des Moines, Iowa, farmers were marching down the street and on the one side were anti-war demonstrators because Richard Nixon was in town, but on the other side farmers were throwing pitchforks at Nixon. By the 1970s federal farm legislation had forced down prices so much that many family farmers were in a rebellion. Nixon and Congress chose a solution consistent with the Great Society notion of that time, which was not to challenge corporate power but to throw some money at the problem to keep people quiet. Don’t make corporations open up jobs, instead make them give a little bit of money to a summer youth employment program. In 1972, Congress developed a new approach to farm legislation in which we had a floor under prices at a very low level and we provided farmers with what was called a deficiency payment. How about that for language?
For the first couple of years the low prices and the deficiency payments were enough for farmers to survive. But when Congress started this program-in the midst of the Vietnam war and our trade deficits and everything else in the early 1970s-they asked how much farmers need in a deficiency payment to come out okay. Soon they started asking how much they could afford to give farmers this year. It did not take too long between the Vietnam war and the rest of our foolishness to not have enough money to give the farmers. Soon, the low market price and the deficiency payment to farmers were not enough combined to cover the cost of production. Then we began rolling into the crisis that we face today.
WE HAD ONE MORE trick up our sleeves to keep this whole crisis covered up. The nation was on an inflation binge so farmland prices, like everything else, were moving up rapidly. You could go into the bank at the end of the year and say, “I lost money on my corn this year,” and the banker would say, “That’s okay. You lost money on your corn but your land went up another ten percent this year. By golly, I can just loan you more money-by the time you retire you’ll be a millionaire. Don’t worry about losing money on your corn ’cause you’re going to be a millionaire pretty soon.”
Year after year people lost money on their crops but borrowed money on their land. Farm debt went from around $20 billion in the early 1970s to a peak of $225 billion by 1983-a thousand percent increase in farm debt in a little over a decade. Not because farmers were being greedy and expanding, but because they were borrowing money to make up for what they were losing. They were borrowing money to pay for tractors that were doubling and tripling in price in the course of three or four years. They were borrowing so much money that by 1983 about a million farmers held a debt that was twice the foreign debt of Brazil. At the end of the decade, as land prices began to fall, the first young farmers who had borrowed to the limit were not able to borrow any more money, so their banks sold them out. Other farmers saw their land values go down and banks would tell them they no longer had enough collateral in their land and move them out.
The crisis of the 1980s has been that downward spiral land values have fallen 60 percent in my state. U.S. farmers have lost $300 billion.
As in other times when we have had crises farmers have begun to respond and get organized. Farmers in Tennessee in the early 1980s did a sit-in at a FmHA office and farmers from around the country came with them. Nationwide there has been a movement of farmers re-entering the political process to find a solution. Enough people were concerned about this in 1984 that although Ronald Reagan swept the country in some states, Democrats who took a strong position on the farm crisis were able to stand against that tide and get elected.
By 1986 farmers had organized enough so that the farm crisis was a motivating factor in moving millions of people to the polls. In Georgia 10 percent of the people who voted in 1986 said the reason they went to the polls and the reason they chose to vote was the farm crisis. I think that is the tip of the iceberg that is beginning to develop now.
Farmers are not only getting out voters but they have been in Congress writing legislation for new ways to approach the debt problem. They are also trying to reestablish those successful farm programs that put a floor under prices that was fair, and those supply management programs like you still have on peanuts and tobacco that kept supply and demand in balance and that were good for keeping rural populations on the land so they are not being forced into the cities.
The concerns of farmers today have moved beyond their own situations and their own financial problems. Farmers are looking at the environmental effects of legislation. If you are being paid a subsidy on each bushel you are forced to make the land grow more and more. Farmers know that is tearing us up. We also know that these low farm prices hurting our farmers here have ruined agriculture around the world; when we put rice at $3.50 here, you can imagine what that does to rice growing in west Africa and other parts of the world. Farmers are also concerned about where this
rolls into our trade legislation. We talk about “free trade.” What that means is turning over the world’s food system to that half-dozen corporations who control it now. We are talking about free trade with Canada. That means moving all our meat packing jobs to Canada. President Reagan is talking about removing subsidies for farmers worldwide. What they really are talking about is wiping out farmers around the world so that the crisis we now face here now will be worldwide.
It is not only that we have had a farm crisis but it is also a social crisis. The farm crisis has brought farm people back into the mainstream of the social justice movement. Farmers are worried about the same issues that urban people are. We need to bring that coalition together concretely, realistically, politically-not just to solve this farm crisis, but to solve the national and international crisis of human spirit and of health and safety.
We need to bring these people together to address those crises as a political coalition because that is the only way we will solve them-together.
Edward Pennick is director of the Emergency Land Fund. Mark Ritchie, a native Georgian, is an agricultural policy analyst with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
The articles by Pennick and Ritchie are based on remarks they made recently in Atlanta at the conference, “Urban Connections to the Rural Crisis,” sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the National Council of Churches.