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article number 203
article date 01-24-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Farms Change Rapidly, 1920
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After. 1914-1928.

AGRICULTURE in the United States occupied a paradoxical position of simultaneous progress and decline. Never before in history had so considerable a majority of the American people dwelt in towns and cities. The profits of manufacture and trade overshadowed the incomes from the farm; tenancy and indebtedness somewhat increased, and in some parts of the country farms were abandoned to the chance corner or reborn as roadside inns and curio shops for the tourist trade.*

* When, as one moralist put it, “many an abandoned farmhouse became an ‘abandoned roadhouse.’”

Of the two great waves of prosperity which swept over the nation, the “war-prosperity” period of 1916-1919 and the “Coolidge-prosperity” period of 1924-1928, only the former brought riches to the farm, and the intermediate trough of depression injured farming more severely than other economic interests.

Yet this same period marked the greatest advances in agricultural efficiency. With fewer acres and a declining farm population, production actually increased. Indeed, overproduction was often blamed as the chief cause for the low prices of farm products after the war. Motor traction and electric power on the farm increasingly made agriculture a form of applied engineering. And the farmer himself, in spite of the handicap of high costs and a poor market, was usually able to indulge in comforts which had previously formed no part of rural life. The automobile, the telephone and the radio ended the traditional rural isolation, and the new machinery in both the barn and kitchen lessened the burden of physical labor. Edwin Markham’s “Man with the Hoe” had become a small capitalist with a power plant.


The new tendencies but further emphasized the characteristic of American agriculture as contrasted with the rural traditions of the Old World. In Europe and still more in Asia, agriculture was a thing apart from the mechanized and sharply competitive life of the factory towns—it connoted tradition, provincialism, attachment, to hereditary acres. It was generally organized after one of two systems, either a landlord’s great estate worked by tenant farmers or a small patch of freehold owned and worked by a peasant proprietor.

The American farmer corresponded to neither the English tenant nor the French peasant. As a rule he owned his land, though it might be subject to mortgage; there was hardly any thing corresponding to a European landlord’s estate since the downfall of the slave-plantation system in the Civil War. But his farm was no peasant’s plot; it was some times as large as a landlord’s domain, though worked by machinery rather than by “hands,” and land was usually so abundant that the crop yield was at once low per acre and high per laborer as compared with European standards.

Nor had the American much sentimental attachment to the land he tilled. The blood of restless frontiersmen was still in his veins. He grew easily impatient at hard times and would sell his holding and move to newer fields, or abandon farming altogether for some more profitable occupation. Farming was to him a business like any other. “Farming,” said a shrewd commentator, “is an unscientific term, becoming obsolete. We speak instead of the wheat industry, of the cattle industry, of the dairy industry, of overhead, fixed charges, net income, quantity production, and turnover.”

Only in the states of the Atlantic Seaboard, and decreasingly even there, did son and grandson succeed as a matter of course to the ancestral farm. The typical Western farmer would sell out in Illinois to move to Iowa, sell in Iowa and move to Saskatchewan over the Canadian line, and retire at sixty to live on a fruit orchard in California. One of his sons would be studying in a Kansas agricultural college, another son would be a bank cashier or dry-goods clerk in Chicago, and his daughter would be typing the letters of a Florida real-estate salesman.


The agricultural conditions of the United States, characterized by large units of land management, freehold ownership, much use of machinery and power, costly and uncertain hired labor, frequent sales and migrations, though different from those of Europe, could to some extent, be paralleled in western Canada and Australia. The chief economic defect of the system was that it put a premium on exploitation rather than conservation.

Very often the farmer, treating his land as a temporary speculation rather than as a permanent home, would crop the land to exhaustion, cut off all the timber, and make a profit on current sales at the expense of permanent values. An example of this was the one-crop system which prevailed in the cotton belt until the combined effect of the boll weevil and the blockade of German ports by the British fleet in the early stages of the World War, temporarily reducing cotton exports, forced farmers to diversify their crops.

The European peasant, with his plodding, painstaking methods, often picked up a living on land which American owners had abandoned as worthless, as in some parts of New England; while in California the American farmer demanded an immigration wall high enough to bar all Oriental labor. Very often the American concentrated on his “cash crop,” all for export, and imported his own fruit and vegetables in tin cans from the nearest big city. The psychology of American agriculture was identical with that of American business, with energy, initiative and willingness to experiment as its outstanding virtues, wastefulness and carelessness as its defects.

The industrialization of agriculture continued unchecked through years of prosperity and years of depression. When devastated Europe and the American armies overseas demanded increased crop production the farmer, whose own boys were often away in training camps, found the machine a necessary ally in expanding his acreage. When hard times followed the war and hired men drifted to the towns the farmer again turned to the machine to offset the labor shortage. The problem of production was easily solved at all times, thanks to the gifts of science; what was not solved was the problem of marketing.

Mechanization, as advised by his advertisement, brought profits to the farm.

In most industries supply is easily adjusted to demand. In a few favored industries (such as the making of automobiles) the demand seemed to expand almost indefinitely with the supply. But the demand for foodstuffs is relatively constant, growing slowly with the population, whereas the supply is at the mercy of wind and sun, rain and snow, bird and insect, and other factors beyond human calculation. The market in the new age was a world market, thanks to cold storage and the steamship, and prices in Nebraska were determined by competitive conditions in New Zealand, Russia and the Argentine. Least of all producers, could the farmer control the price of his product. In this natural disadvantage of agriculture lies the explanation of our paradox, that the unexampled progress in farming did not mean exceptional prosperity for the farmer.

Work animals continued to furnish more power for farm work than oil, steam or electricity, but this superiority decreased year by year. Mechanical horse power, including stationary engines, electric power plants, steam and gasoline tractors and motor trucks, increased five times as rapidly as animal horse power diminished. The horse vanished from the scene faster than the mule. In 1914 there were over 20,000,000 horses on American farms, but from 1920 onward the number decreased to less than 15,000,000 in 1928. But the 4,449,000 mules of 1914 increased to 5,740,000 in 1926 and had fallen only to 5,566,000 two years later. The war seems to have won for the horse, a short reprieve and for the mule a somewhat longer one. The number of tractors in use on farms increased from 80,000 in 1918 to 853,000 in 1929.

The use of power machinery on farms had some tendency to increase their average size and to diminish their number. In the Great Plains region, especially in the Dakotas, the tractor was employed on more farms than elsewhere because of the level ground, the great size of the farms (often more than six hundred acres apiece) and the prevalence of a single crop to each farm rendered wholesale methods peculiarly applicable.

The frontier of corn and wheat production was pushed farther west in the semiarid belt, while at the same time the acreage devoted to grain was reduced in many of the older states which suffered from the competition of the farmer-engineers of the prairie. A new sectional differentiation began. Where the country was adapted to large-scale agriculture, the land tended to concentrate in larger and larger units so as best to take advantage of the tractor and the “combine” (combined harvester-thresher).* Where these wholesale methods could not be so well employed there was an opposite tendency, to abandon the growing of wheat, corn, cotton and other staple crops for more diversified and specialized farming: fruit culture, nut-tree raising, truck farming, bee culture, flower gardening and the like.

* The combine was one of the newest of important farm machines. In 1927 it had been in use for only a decade, and only experimentally till the last two or three years of the period. It was estimated by the department of agriculture to reduce the labor required for harvesting and threshing 400 acres of grain from 120 days of man labor to 30 days.

Many combines were still propelled by animal power.

The electrification of the farm was still something of a novelty. In 1925, only two hundred and twenty-five thousand farms, less than four per cent of the total number, were connected with electrical central stations. “The electric light and power companies,” declared Owen D. Young, chairman of the General Electric Company, “must now have their agricultural departments, just as they have their industrial departments. . . .“ Though he admitted that, for the present, electric power could rarely be supplied in practical form for some of the heavy work about the farm such as tractors and threshing machines, he saw an immediate future for it in such chores as pumping, grinding feed, cutting silage, milking, churning and housework.

The results of this increased farming efficiency, the benefits of which reached the consumer (or perhaps the merchant) even if they did not sufficiently profit the farmer himself, were expressed by the department of agriculture in the striking statement that from 1919 to 1924, the postwar reconstruction period, crop production increased by an average of five per cent while thirteen million acres of crop land went out of cultivation.

Each farm worker produced on the average fifteen per cent more. The reduction in acreage was mainly due to hard times and low prices after the collapse of the artificial prosperity of the war. But there were other causes. The substitution of the automobile and the tractor diminished the land required to provide feed for horses. Improved methods of cultivation and the diversification of crops enabled the farmer to maintain his output while curtailing his cultivation. Less land was used because less land was needed.

Even more striking than the shrinkage in farm land, though evident over a much longer period, was the decline in the farm population. The magnetic attraction of the cities had long been evident, and the census of 1920 marked the point when for the first time the urban population of the United States outnumbered the rural.*

* The census figures somewhat exaggerated the drift to the cities because the normal growth of population in a small village will often pull it across the demarcation line of twenty-five hundred inhabitants, and thus people who were “rural” may become “urban” without the trouble of leaving their homes.

Munitions work attracted many to town.

The temporary demand for munition workers from 1915 to 1918 drew many to town, a term of military service uprooted others. During the years 1910-1920 the center of population remained almost stationary in the midst of Indiana, moving westward by a shorter distance than for any previous decade, and this in spite of the exceptionally rapid growth of California and the Far West generally. For the first time the Eastern states were outgaining the Mississippi-Missouri basin. Three mainly rural states—Vermont of the hill farms, Mississippi of the cotton plantations and Nevada of the ranches—actually decreased in population.

Other agricultural states made slight increases, but mainly through the growth of towns and cities. The purely rural population was almost everywhere stationary or decreasing, except in the Far West where public irrigation works opened new farm lands.

Within the urban group, the tendency was quite as much to build up small towns and cities as the great commercial centers. Manhattan Island, the heart of New York, actually decreased in population from 1910 to 1920, to the profit of outlying boroughs, such as the Bronx, or suburban villages within commuting distance. The same forces which were building the cities at the expense of the countryside were building the suburbs at the expense of “downtown.” The cheap automobile, especially, spread out the residential districts of the cities like an expanding fan, but small towners and suburbanites are not usually active farmers, though they count many retired farmers in their number.

If we take not “rural” but “farm” population, the relative increase of industrial America at the expense of agriculture becomes clearer. The farm population in 1910 was placed at 32,076,960; in 1920 - 31,624,269; in 1925 - 28,981,668; in 1927 - 27,853,000. The relative decrease of farm population for the census period (1910-1920) was greatest in the New England states and measured mainly the drawing power of the neighboring industrial towns, but for the five years following the heaviest farm losses, occurred among the Negro farmers of the South.

Small Towns grew.

A study of rural depopulation in New York State showed very forcibly the attraction of city wages, especially for men and women who had no ties of property to hold them in the country. It was found that the order of frequency with which men left the farms was: (1) hired men, (2) farmers’ sons, (3) share tenants, (4) cash tenants, (5) owners. In three districts studied, three men out of ten and two fifths of the women brought up on farms were engaged in other occupations.

Another survey, covering several states, inquired as to the motives of migration from country to town. The chief reason, affecting considerably more than a third of the ex-farmers who sought the city, was the hope of making a better living outside of agriculture. Next in importance was old age or physical disability to carry on the hard manual labor demanded even by the modern mechanized farm. A large number thought that they owed their children better schooling than the country afforded, and about two in a hundred turned their farms over to sons or sons-in-law to give them a start in life. Only about one in forty went to the city because he had saved up enough to live on without labor and wished to spend his surplus for the comforts of city life.*

* The same survey questioned a group from forty-five states who had left town or city for the farm. Most of them were pleased with the change they had made, but it was significant that the great majority, almost seven out of eight, had either been brought up on farms or had lived in the country before.

In the days of Napoleon, it is said, English farmers used to pray for a long war and good prices. Without accusing the American farmer, who was above all a humanitarian and even a pacifist, of such a prayer, the fact remains that the European conflict both before and after the intervention of the United States brought a temporary prosperity to American agriculture. This is not to say that in the long run the war was beneficial to the farmer.

On the contrary, the land boom, the fever of speculation, the planting of excess acreage to meet the extraordinary demands, the inflation of the currency, the increase of taxation, and all the other results of the abnormal economic conditions of war time turned to liabilities during the years of deflation and depression that followed. Fewer farmers would have been ruined in 1921 if they had never entertained the golden dreams of 1916-1919. Owing to the extraordinary demands of the war period, the acreage of crop land in 1919 was more than nine years ahead of what had been the previous rate of expansion relative to the increase of population. What was normal production of grain and hogs, just as what was normal production of shells and ships, in war time, became overproduction soon after peace was declared.


The grain market was particularly sensitive to war conditions and the grain states were those most affected by the war-time expansion and the postwar depression. During the three crop years of 1917, 1918 and 1919, the relative purchasing power of wheat as compared with the average of all other commodities was higher than it had ever been before, and relatively higher than for other farm products. The artificial support of government regulation was gradually withdrawn, leaving the grain grower at the mercy of the law of supply and demand.

The United States food administration terminated its work in June, 1919, and the federal grain corporation ceased to operate as a purchasing organization in May, 1920. The blow, though delayed, was not averted by the expedients used to uphold prices after the armistice. Working together to feed the hungry in central Europe, the American Relief Association and the grain corporation managed to market several hundred million dollars’ worth of flour, pork and dairy products after the war. Wheat and pork in particular benefited from this reprieve. But philanthropy could not fill so wide a place in the market as a world war.*

* Herbert Hoover’s chief aim in overruling European objectors and opening up the former enemy countries of Germany and Austria to American food before the final conclusion of peace was humanitarian, to diminish the aftereffects of the Allied blockade on the civilian population. But much incidental benefit went to the American farmer.

German food line. Humanitarian efforts to feed Europe benefited our farmers.

An index of this war-time prosperity was the rapid rise in land values prior to 1920 in the grain states. The money value of the average American farm by the census of that year was over twelve thousand dollars, nearly twice what it had been by the previous census. But in some of the Western states farm prices were much higher. In Iowa an average farm was worth almost forty thousand dollars. Iowa was indeed the center of the land boom based on grain speculation, just as in the next decade, Florida became the seat of a land boom based partly on tropical-fruit prospects but mainly on the tourist industry.

In Iowa farm land averaged nearly $200 an acre over the whole state, (If buildings are included, the average value was $227 an acre) as compared with $82 ten years earlier. The neighboring states of Illinois and Indiana in the corn belt were second only to Iowa. The spring-wheat belt, farther from the industrial centers, had a lower level of land values but showed proportionate progress. Minnesota’s lands had increased from $36 to $91 an acre; South Dakota’s from $34 to $64.

Parallel to the progress of the corn and wheat states was the rapid development of the agricultural areas of the mountain states and the Pacific Slope, based in large part on irrigation enterprises. In each of the Western states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming more than a million acres had been reclaimed by irrigation, and Oregon closely approached that figure, California farm lands had a higher value than those of any state outside the corn-belt. Many optimists spoke of settling all the returned soldiers who did not already have good jobs on lands redeemed by irrigation in the arid West or by draining in the swampy South. They did not foresee that within a few months, the census of 1920 would offer statistical proof of an over-expanded agriculture and that a cry would go up from millions of distressed farmers for a curtailment of crops.


Fundamentally the agricultural depression of 1920-1921 was but a part of the general business slump. Credit had been stretched too far; deflation inevitably followed; the European market was disappointing because of the impoverishment people the war had caused; retrenchment all around seemed inevitable. But the farmer had good reasons for believing that he was harder hit than his fellow sufferers in trade and manufacture, Generally speaking, agricultural prices fell sooner, faster and farther than the goods which the farmer had to buy, and recovered value more slowly. In other words the “farmer’s dollar” went below par.

The high land values that had once been such an asset became an added handicap. A corn-belt farmer who had bought his holding at the boom prices of the war and armistice period, perhaps borrowing heavily to do so, found a very costly white elephant on his hands. At the crest of the wave of prosperity American farmers were carrying a mortgage debt of more than four billion dollars, besides a great deal of unsecured or otherwise secured personal indebtedness. These mortgages were often assumed not to meet a pressing need but as a calculated business investment in the hope that the land purchased with the borrowed money would yield more than the six-percent interest demanded by the lender; so they signified prosperity rather than want.

But now the banks, wary of making new loans and themselves hard pressed to find paying investments in a time of falling prices, had to be very exacting in demanding payment from their debtors. In the period 1920-1925 more than two thirds of all bank failures took place in ten agricultural states of the South and West. The number of farm bankruptcies increased, the proportion of failures averaging nine times as much for the three years ending in 1926 as for the prewar decade.


But the greatest number of farm bankruptcies took place two or three years after the big slump because the farmers, not wishing to abandon their homes at the first bad year, took their losses, hung on to their holdings, and stretched their credit until they could neither borrow again nor repay what they owed. Farms still solvent, staggered under a burden of debt. The ratio of indebtedness to farm values increased from twenty-nine per cent in 1920 to nearly forty-two per cent in 1925.

Continued high freight rates and local taxes also handicapped the farmer. From 1913 to 1922 the burden of direct taxes on farm property had grown from $315,000,000 to $861,000,000. The farmer, whose wealth is frozen into land and buildings visible to all, was least able of any taxpayer to escape a property tax.

Yet another handicap of agriculture was the wide gap between the price to the producer and that to the consumer. Many middlemen and carriers handled agricultural products and profit was distributed among many hands. We laugh at the legendary farm boy who sold a load of apples in town and bought a bushel of them in a grocery store with the money he got, but Senator Arthur Capper told of a farmer paying more for a pair of calfskin shoes than he got for the live calf, skin and all; and, again, of the Texan who sold cabbage for six dollars a ton which brought two hundred dollars a ton in the Mid-Western cities.


We can picture the Western farmer of the early 1920’s as bewildered and resentful at the sudden shift in his fortunes. Hard times are doubly hard when they follow close on a period of prosperity. He had counted on another good year or two to see his girl through college, or buy a new tractor, or clear off his mortgage. He had been accustomed to high taxes, high prices and a good market. The high taxes remained, for the farmer could not do without good roads and did not wish to have the schools closed to his children.

The prices of his grain fell by half, touching lower levels than in any year since 1896. The price of what he bought, “store goods” from the town, fell also, but more slowly. He had to cut the wages of his hired man from almost a hundred dollars a month (without board) to about sixty. Very often he was left without help to run the farm as agricultural laborers began their trek town-wards. Many of his neighbors lost their farms or abandoned the unequal struggle and went to town themselves, feeling fortunate to get fifty cents on the dollar when they sold their land.

The radical politicians told him that the hard times were due to the iniquitous policy of the federal reserve banks in calling in loans at the behest of Eastern capitalists. Conservative politicians talked vaguely of “natural economic laws” and advised patient waiting for a return of good times under a Republican administration. Economists spoke of the perils of overproduction, but this was locking the stable door after the horse had been stolen for the crops had been planted in the expectation of good times. The farmer hardly knew what to believe, but he hoped that some solution might be found if his class would stand together and demand “favorable legislation” of some sort.

Politicians like Governor Frazier, visiting North Dakota farmers were sympathetic to their cause.

The American farmer has always had his own brand of radicalism, which bears little relation to the radicalism of the big towns. It is a native growth and has a long American ancestry: the Grangers, the cheap-money “greenback” movement, the Populists, the Bryan Democrats of 1896, the insurgents and Progressives of the Roosevelt era, the Nonpartisan League during the World War, the Farmer-Labor party of 1920, the agricultural bloc in Congress, the La Follette Progressives of 1924, the Lowden Republicans of 1928. The farmer is a capitalist in a small way and has an individualistic tradition. But he is often a distressed capitalist, and anxious to use the powers of state and nation to relieve hard times.

Unlike the Socialist he does not desire government ownership of the land; he prefers to run a farm as freeholder to holding it as tenant of the commonwealth. But government regulation is a different matter. The remedy sought differs with the nature of the emergency; sometimes it has been cheaper money, paper or silver standing in legal parity with gold, sometimes easier credits and guaranteed bank deposits, sometimes reduction of freight rates by legislation, sometimes a lower tariff on farm machinery and a higher tariff against Canadian farm products. The means to his end may differ also,—an economic union like the Grange or the later cooperative societies, or a third party like the Populist, or a group within the dominant political party of the region.

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