- Perhaps no area was affected by the changing trends of the decades of the 1930s and 1940s as much as agriculture. Although for much of its history the United States was a predominantly agrarian economy, by the end of the 19th century, farmers were displaced socially and politically and experienced increasing economic problems due to overproduction and worldwide competition that resulted in falling prices. In the late 19th century, the anger of farmers—often directed at banks, railroads, and middlemen—found expression in the Populist movement that became incorporated into the Democratic Party.While some of the farmers’ demands were met during the progressive presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, it was rising farm prices that brought relief—albeit temporary—to the farmers’ plight. World War I brought a boom in agriculture as world trade was limited. The demand for grain and food to feed both the U.S. and Allied armies brought an expansion in farm acreage and output. Mechanization and the use of tractors contributed further to farm efficiency. After the war, however, world competition resumed, and the artificially high commodity prices fell. American farmers once again struggled to pay off their debts, and many lost their farms. The farm population, which was more than 32 million in 1910, was 31.9 million in 1920 and had fallen to 30.5 million by 1930. As a proportion of the total population, this represented a drop from more than 30 percent to just under 25 percent.Attempts in the 1920s to secure federal legislation to relieve the farmers’ situation largely failed, and the Great Depression only worsened the situation as agricultural prices collapsed after 1929. By 1932, the average farm income had dropped by two-thirds. With many farmers unable to meet mortgage repayments, almost a million farms were repossessed between 1930 and 1934. The drought and dust storms of the 1930s only added to the misery. Desperate farmers declared “farm holidays” in which they withheld their produce from the market or dumped it in the roads. Farm sales following evictions were often blocked, and farmers demonstrated in neighboring towns. By 1940, the number of farms had dropped from 6.3 million in 1930 to 6.1 million. President Herbert Hoover responded by signing the Agricultural Marketing Act in 1929 and attempted to stabilize prices through Federal Farm Boards. However, this had little immediate effect, and it was not until the coming of the New Deal that farming began to experience a recovery.Tackling the problem of agricultural overproduction and falling farm incomes was a major priority for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Loans were quickly provided to farmers through the Farm Credit Act in 1933. Under the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) established that year, a system of domestic allotments was created for wheat, cotton, corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and dairy products under which farmers were given cash subsidies to cut production. These payments were financed by a processing tax. By 1934, 40 million acres had been withdrawn from production, and although the AAA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, these measures, combined with the impact of the droughts and floods that hit parts of the country in the mid-1930s, led to a 50 percent rise in farm income. A second Agricultural Adjustment Act was introduced in 1938 establishing a system of parity price payments and production quotas. Soil conservation schemes were introduced through the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936, and the work of agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps. Farmers also benefited from the Rural Electrification Administration, which assisted farmers in establishing cooperatives among themselves to bring electric power to their properties. In 1935, only 10 percent of farms had electricity. By 1940 this had risen to 40 percent, and by 1950 it was 90 percent. The Farm Security Administration, established in 1937, assisted displaced farm workers through the Resettlement Administration and provided further financial aid to farmers.With the coming of World War II, American agriculture faced further change. The migration from the land continued during the war as people moved to take advantage of work in war industries across the nation. By 1950, the number of farmers had fallen again from 30.84 million in 1940 to 25 million, and the number of farms fell from 6.1 million to 5.3 million. While there were fewer farms, they tended to be larger. Shortages of farm labor were met by importing Mexican workers (braceros) and by the increased use of mechanization. Despite labor shortages, farm output per laborer increased by 36 percent as machines replaced horse-driven or man-powered equipment and as the number of tractors increased by almost 1 million between 1940 and 1945. Farm income rose by an estimated 250 percent during the war. After the war, various proposals were made to maintain the farmers’ position, the most radical being the Brannan Plan involving direct income-maintenance payments. However, after some debate in Congress, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s proposal to continue price supports was adopted.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.