Roosevelt moved aggressively to address the crisis facing the nation's farmers. No group was harder hit by the Depression than farmers and farm workers. At the start of the Depression, a fifth of all American families still lived on farms. These families, however, were in deep trouble. Farm income fell by a staggering two-thirds during the Depression's first three years. A bushel of wheat that sold for $2.94 in 1920 dropped to $1 in 1929 and 30 cents in 1932. In one day, a quarter of Mississippi's farm acreage was auctioned off to pay for debts.
The farmers' problem, ironically, was that they grew too much. Worldwide crop production soared--a result of more efficient farm machinery, stronger fertilizers, and improved plant varieties--but demand fell. People ate less bread, Europeans imposed protective tariffs, and consumers replaced cotton with rayon. Too much was being grown, and the glut caused prices to fall. In order to meet farm debts in 1932, farmers needed to grow 2.5 times as much corn as they grew in 1929, 2.7 times as much wheat, and 2.4 times as much cotton.
As farm incomes fell, farm tenancy soared; two-fifths of all farmers worked on land that they did not own. The Gudgers, a white southern Alabama sharecropping family of six, illustrated the plight of tenants who were slipping deeper and deeper into debt. Each year, their landlord provided them with 20 acres of land, seed, an unpainted one-room house, a shed, a mule, fertilizer, and $10 a month. In return, they owed him half of their corn and cotton crop and 8 percent interest on their debts. In 1934, they were $80 in debt; by 1935, their debts had risen another $12.
Nature itself seemed to have turned against farmers. In the South, the boll weevil devoured the cotton crop; on the Great Plains, the top soil literally blew away, piling up in ditches like "snow drifts in winter." The Dust Bowl produced unparalleled human tragedy, but it had not occurred by accident. The Plains had always been a harsh, arid inhospitable environment. Nevertheless, a covering of tough grass-roots, called sod, permitted the land to retain moisture and support vegetation. During the 1890s, however, overgrazing by cattle severely damaged the sod. Then, during World War I, demand for wheat and the use of gasoline-powered tractors allowed farmers to plow large sections of the prairie for the first time. The fragile skin protecting the prairie was destroyed. When drought struck, beginning in 1930, and temperatures soared (to 108 degrees in Kansas for weeks on end) the wind began to blow the soil away. One Kansas county, which produced 3.4 million bushels of wheat in 1931, harvested just 89,000 bushels in 1933.
Tenant farmers found themselves evicted from their land. By 1939, a million Dust Bowl refugees and other tenant farmers left the Plains to work as itinerant produce pickers in California. As a result, whole counties were depopulated. In one part of Colorado, 2,811 homes were abandoned, while an additional 1,522 people simply disappeared.
The New Deal attacked farm problems through a variety of programs. Rural electrification programs meant that for the first time Americans in Appalachia, the Texas Hill Country, and other areas would have the opportunity to share in the benefits of electricity and running water. As late as 1935, more than 6 million of America's 6.8 million farms had no electricity. Unlike their sisters in the city, farm women had no washing machines, refrigerators, or vacuum cleaners. Nor did private utility companies intend to change things. Private companies insisted that it would be cost prohibitive to provide electrical service to rural areas.
Roosevelt disagreed. Settling on the 40,000 square mile valley of the Tennessee River as his test site, Roosevelt decided to put the government into the electric business. Two months after he took office, Congress passed a bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was authorized to build 21 dams to generate electricity for tens of thousands of farm families. In 1935, Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to bring electricity generated by government dams to America's hinterland. Between 1935 and 1942, the lights came on for 35 percent of America's farm families.
Electricity was not the only benefit the New Deal bestowed on farmers. The Soil Conservation Service helped farmers battle erosion; the Farm Credit Administration provided some relief from farm foreclosures; and the Commodity Credit Corporation permitted farmers to use stored products as collateral for loans. Roosevelt's most ambitious farm program, however, was the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA).
The AAA, led by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, sought a partnership between the government and major producers. Together the new allies would raise prices by reducing the supply of farm goods. Under the AAA, the large producers, acting through farm cooperatives, would agree upon a "domestic allotment" plan that would assign acreage quotas to each producer. Participation would be voluntary. Farmers who cut production to comply with the quotas would be paid for land left fallow.
Unfortunately for its backers, the AAA got off to a horrible start. Because the 1933 crops had already been planted by the time Congress established the AAA, the administration ordered farmers to plow their crops under. The government paid them over $100 million to plow under 10 million acres of cotton. The government also purchased and slaughtered 6 million pigs, salvaging only 1 million pounds of meat for the needy. The public neither understood nor forgave the agency for destroying food while jobless people went hungry.
Overall, the AAA's record was mixed. It raised farm income, but did little for sharecroppers and tenant farmers--the groups hardest hit by the agricultural crisis. Farm incomes doubled between 1933 and 1936, but large farmers reaped most of the benefits. Many large landowners used government payments to purchase tractors and combines, allowing them to mechanize farm operations, increase crop yields and reduce the need for sharecroppers and tenants. One Mississippi planter bought 22 tractors with his payments and, subsequently, evicted 160 tenant families. The New Deal farm policies unintentionally forced at least 3 million small farmers from the land. For all its inadequacies, however, the AAA established the precedence for a system of farm price supports, subsidies, and surplus purchases that still continues more than half a century later.
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