On the Farm
On the Farm
oscar heline …129
katharine dupre lumpkin and dorothy wolff douglas …139
caroline a. henderson …147
dorothea lange …157
For much of U.S. history, farming had been the most important means of earning a living for Americans. A healthy agricultural economy was essential to the nation's overall economic health. Yet perhaps more than any other group of Americans, farmers experienced wide swings between prosperity and poverty during the early twentieth century. The years between 1909 and 1914 were frequently referred to as the "golden age of U.S. agriculture." Farm production and farm prices both rose steadily. During World War I (1914–18) food production in Europe was severely disrupted, and American agriculture further expanded to supply Europeans with food. However, with the end of the war Europeans resumed food production, and the market for American products declined by the early 1920s. Prices for farm products dropped dramatically. For example, wheat that sold for $2.94 a bushel in 1920 sold for $1.00 in 1929 and $0.30 by 1932. Nevertheless, farmers continued to produce large crops in an attempt to cover their costs. They took out loans on their land, houses, and equipment to meet living expenses and production costs such as the purchase of seed. By 1929 the overall state of American agriculture was very unhealthy. The large surpluses of farm products pushed prices ever downward. Still, 25 to 30 percent of Americans depended on farming for their livelihood.
In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, signaling the start of the worst economic crisis ever experienced by the United States. Although almost all Americans were affected by the economic downturn, those who were already in the midst of economic hardship, such as the farmers, were devastated. By 1932 farmers' income was only one-third of what it had been in 1929, when farm income levels were already low. Farmers fell behind on their loan payments, and many were subjected to foreclosure. Foreclosure is a legal proceeding in which a bank takes over a property and sells it to recover the amount of the unpaid loan. Approximately four hundred thousand farms were lost through foreclosure between 1929 and 1932.
The federal government, under the leadership of President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33), had no answer for the farmers' plight, so many farmers took matters into their own hands. Some destroyed their own products to lower availability and thereby raise prices. However, this action did not prove to be an effective solution. Not until 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) was inaugurated as president, did farmers see a glimmer of hope. Roosevelt (served 1933–45) placed government assistance to farmers at the highest priority level as he instituted his New Deal for Americans. The New Deal was a series of government programs and legislation designed to provide relief and recovery for the nation. For farmers the challenge was to decrease farm production in order to eliminate surpluses, yet maintain enough income to survive while they regrouped. In Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), Studs Terkel records the memories of many individuals who lived through the Depression, including Oscar Heline, an Iowa farmer. Heline recounted for Terkel the desperate situation of farmers and the efforts of Henry Wallace (1888–1965), Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, to offer farmers a share in the New Deal.
Some of the poorest farmers were sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who lived predominantly in the Southern states. Sharecroppers raised crops on property controlled by a landowner who generally provided shelter, fuel, farm tools, and seed. Tenant farmers had basically the same arrangement except they provided their own tools. Both lived in extreme poverty and stayed in constant debt to the landowner. Katharine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas vividly relate the life of a sharecropper's son in Alabama in their 1937 book titled Child Workers in America. The book's purpose was to expose the extent to which child labor still existed in the United States, especially in agriculture. The excerpt reprinted in this chapter recounts twelve-year-old Tom's everyday existence and the hopeless situation of sharecrop-ping families.
Farmers in the Dust Bowl region were another group in desperate need of relief. The region was experiencing a severe drought by late 1931. Between 1932 and 1939, a series of dust storms rolled over the Great Plains, from the Dakotas south to Texas. Plowed fields turned into sand dunes. "Letters from the Dust Bowl," written in 1935 and 1936 by Caroline A. Henderson of Eva, Oklahoma, and published in a condensed form in the July 1936 issue of Reader's Digest, clearly describes a family's struggle to maintain their farm. Henderson's letters allowed Americans who lived in other regions of the United States to better understand what it would be like to have clouds of dust envelop their homes and cover their land. Two of Henderson's letters are included in this chapter.
Unable to carry on with any farming activities, thousands of families living in the Dust Bowl packed their belongings into cars and headed west, primarily to the agricultural fields of California, in search of work. These migrants lived in their cars or makeshift shelters and rarely found any work. "Migrant Mother," a widely published photograph of a mother and her daughters living at a destitute pea pickers' camp in Nipomo Valley, California, is an indelible image of a displaced farming family. The picture is one of the extraordinary photographs from the files of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA photographers were charged with documenting the plight of the rural poor during the 1930s. In the final excerpt in this chapter, Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), the FSA photographer who took the famous picture, recalls the experience in an article titled "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother," originally published in the February 1960 issue of Popular Photography.