Agriculture had faced some really tough years with the poor yields in 1934, which was repeated again two years later in 1936. Prices for crops rose, and for those who were blessed with abundant crops, things were good – really good. But for the farmer who saw his crops shrivel up from drought or wind, it was time to say, “Maybe next year will be better.”
Agriculture had been on a roller coaster ride. From 1900 to 1914, the value of farm production doubled, and farm population increased by a tenth. Farmers expanded, and took on debt; prices fell when WWI ended and the nations went back to producing food instead of fighting.
Then came the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years.
About that time, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace put forth a plan of the ‘ever-normal granary’. The purpose of this plan was to bring about a situation under which the supply of farm produce from year to year would be about the same. When a surplus is produced, it would be stored and off the market. (In my opinion, the market still knew it was there and available, thus in effect keeping a cap on prices.) But when crop yields were low, the surplus would be released. (And in my opinion, it kept prices lower, so that farmers never received a bonus.)
At that time the Soil Conservation paid farmers to reduce their acreage of crops, such as wheat and corn for the purpose of planting soil-enriching crops like grasses, alfalfa, clover and so on. The reduction of row crop acres would also reduce surpluses; the interesting thing is that Wallace came from a pioneering family instrumental in developing hybrids, thus changing corn yields immensely.
With one hand he was working to decrease surpluses while the other hand was working on increasing corn yields. No doubt that made for some interesting conversations around their kitchen table. His farm plan ideas did make for some powerful discussions between farming neighbors conversing over coffee and homemade doughnuts. Some said, “No government official will ever be wise enough to be able to tell how much cotton, corn or wheat a country will require!”
Many felt that it would be better to let things continue as they were, rather than let the government dictate just how much of it [crop] should be sold, how much should be stored, and how much of every kind of crop should be raised. Those in the export business thought it would keep prices too high, and that the United States would not be able to compete with foreign countries. Others wondered how much money should be spent on farmers. At that time the government was spending half a billion dollars a year to help farmers. Implementing this farm bill would increase the government’s expenditure greatly.
There were supporters of the Wallace’s farm bill, too. They argued that unstable prices and production in agriculture hurt both the farmer and the country. They also reasoned that if the farm population could be placed in a prosperous position, the amount of money the government put forth would be money well spent, benefiting all Americans.
At that pivotal point in agriculture history, the idea of having any type of farm bill was controversial. If Congress approved it, the Supreme Court could declare it unconstitutional, as it did a milder version of the law the previous year. That version was called the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).
George Peek was appointed by President FDR to help write the AAA. When their objectives disagreed, Peek resigned.
“The AAA became a means of buying the farmer’s birthright as a preliminary to breaking down the whole individualistic system of the country,” he said.
Well, seventy-some years later, what has the farm bill solved? It seems these same questions are still being asked.
Essays from My Farm House Kitchen | Renae B. Vander Schaaf
Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa.
To Contact Renae B. Vander Schaaf, please email her at [email protected].