Farm Security Administration (FSA)

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Through such novels as Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1932) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the American public became aware of the extent of farm poverty in the United States, which was not merely a product of the Depression but of long-term structural forces in the economy. The growth of tenancy, the impoverishment of soils, chronically low income, high levels of debt, and poor social services had produced a rural population that was "ill-housed, ill-clad, and illnourished," in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inaugural address.

Initially, the New Deal's agricultural programs actually contributed to rural misery. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration's (AAA) crop subsidization programs often did not reach the tenants and sharecroppers who were in most need of federal support, and these programs also encouraged landowners to displace tenants and mechanize their holdings. The Farm Security Administration (FSA), however, followed a different trajectory than the AAA, giving priority to welfare and social reform goals and targeting poor, marginal farmers.

The FSA succeeded the Resettlement Administration (RA), which had been created by executive order in May 1935. Various existing federal programs relating to land conservation, resettlement, subsistence homesteads, greenbelt communities, and rural rehabilitation were consolidated under the RA. Rexford G. Tugwell, the RA's first administrator, had ambitions for a technocratic program of land reform, reclamation, and relocation as the administration's primary initiatives against rural poverty.


The FSA was created by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act of July 1937 and was established as a division within the Department of Agriculture. Its first administrator was Will Alexander, who resigned in 1940 and was succeeded by Calvin B. Baldwin. The FSA developed a more focused agenda and a more practical range of measures to help small farmers stay on the land and to improve the farmer's lot within agriculture. Rural rehabilitation grants or loans constituted the most important aspect of the agency's work. The bulk of the FSA's expenditures were used for rehabilitation loans of between $240 and $600, which were intended to finance farm improvements. Some 700,000 families, about one-ninth of the total number of farm families in the United States, received FSA loans. The FSA also inherited from the RA some 195 community resettlement projects, which were designed to provide small farmers with productive land and modern facilities, the economic benefits of group marketing and purchasing arrangements, the social benefits of cooperative community services, and the expertise of the FSA's agricultural and home management supervisors. Although these "instant communities" were criticized by FSA opponents for their flouting of the "American way," the resettlement projects never accounted for more than 10 percent of the FSA's expenditures and they were downgraded in importance after 1937.

Central to the political defense of the FSA's work was its role in helping tenants to become landowners. It is ironic that, while historians have come to regard the AAA as the New Deal's most revolutionary agency because of its influence in driving small farmers off the land, the FSA, conventionally described as one of the New Deal's most progressive agencies, was trying to retain them there. However, the FSA's performance never matched its Jeffersonian rhetoric. The administration helped only 44,300 tenants to purchase land, with applications exceeding awards by a ratio of about twenty to one. Tenant purchase allocations accounted for only 13 percent of the aid dispensed by the Administration. The FSA also established camps for migratory laborers, and group medical services for small farmers, as well as various cooperative projects and debt adjustment programs.

Such an ambitious agenda required a large and decentralized bureaucracy; thus the FSA was divided into twelve administrative regions. Each regional headquarters was supplemented by offices at state, district, and county levels, with project managers directing operations at the grass roots. By 1941 the FSA was organized in every state. Approximately three thousand county offices employed more than four thousand rural rehabilitation supervisors and more than four thousand home management supervisors around the country. However, the southern United States was the FSA's primary focus. More than 50 percent of county offices were located in the South, as were more than 60 percent of the rehabilitation and home management supervisors employed by the administration. Some eight thousand group projects were established in the South, and southern farmers accounted for 60 percent of all rehabilitation loans issued, 47 percent of the rehabilitation credit advanced, and 70 percent of all tenant purchase loans. Furthermore, over 20 percent of the FSA's resettlement projects were located in FSA region 4, which comprised the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Southern blacks accounted for approximately 22 to 25 percent of the FSA's rehabilitation clients, tenant purchase borrowers, and resettled farmers. Although this percentage did not equal the need among black farmers, the administration sought to ensure that its programs would benefit black Americans. Will Alexander, who was also director of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, was supported by administrators within the FSA, including Constance Daniel and Joseph H. B. Evans, who were given specific responsibility for racial matters. To promote the agency to African Americans, the FSA purposefully channelled information about its programs through the black press and sought to expand the number of African-Americans in the FSA's own workforce. However, localism often undermined these efforts, despite the fact that each of the three southern regional directors had a black advisor; by 1941 there were only eighteen African-American employees among the 1,500 total employees of FSA's region 4.

Although the FSA's programs and leaders were not radical, the agency was regarded with suspicion and hostility in some quarters. In the South, especially, the FSA was underappreciated by the region's leadership groups, in part because the administration challenged the central aspects of the plantation system: landlords' control of labor, merchants' monopoly of credit, and white control of race relations. The agency also worked outside those institutions, including the Extension Service, land grant colleges, county agricultural agents, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, that maintained close relationships with the Department of Agriculture and through which federal aid to agriculture was traditionally channelled. In addition, the FSA attracted criticism from representatives of the constituencies that it intended to serve. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the Socialist Party derided the administration's maintenance of the small farmer as "subsidized peasantry" and called for the establishment of agricultural cooperatives to make farming efficient by achieving economies of scale. Furthermore, the FSA often encountered the opposition of local communities, particularly when it attempted to establish camps for migratory laborers nearby.

The FSA's own clients provided no significant political counterweight to these powerful and well-connected adversaries. Invariably poor, disfranchised, and unorganized, the FSA's constituency was politically marginal. It was, therefore, vital to the future of federal aid for small farmers to cultivate a public and congressional mood of sympathy for their plight. This entailed overcoming reservations about the "un-American" nature of assistance programs, reassuring individualist Americans who were apprehensive about the social and economic expansion of the federal government's role, and convincing the economy-minded that the cost was justified.

To this end, the FSA maintained an Information Division, which was responsible for promoting the agency to the media and to politicians, as well as for disseminating policy and good practice in the regions. The Information Division's Historical Section, headed by Roy E. Stryker, compiled a visual documentary record of America in Depression and wartime. Over an eight-year period, FSA photographers took more than 145,000 negatives, of which 77,000 were developed into prints. Although initially intended to provide instructional material to regional offices, the Historical Section organized exhibitions, developed filmstrips, and supplied photographic copy to the media in order to generate support for the FSA's programs and raise awareness of the issues that they addressed. Many of the photographs produced by the project are regarded as exemplary works of cultural significance, and the photographers who produced them, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, are celebrated as leading exponents of documentary photography.


After Roosevelt's announcement of a program of national defense in May 1940, the FSA adjusted its role to support preparedness. It initiated a "Food for Defense" program that sought to increase production of premium foodstuffs, such as hogs, chickens, and dairy products. The agency also became responsible for farm families displaced by the acquisition of land for defense purposes, and the FSA was assigned to provide accommodation for defense workers. Under the Lanham Defense Housing Act of October 1940, the FSA embarked on a number of prefabricated housing programs, such as those at Radford and Pulaski in western Virginia. After Congress appropriated funds for the Temporary Shelter Program for defense workers in March 1941, the FSA established trailer parks in the principal industrial centers. There were strong elements of continuity in the agency's wartime preparedness work, which grew out of the FSA's well-established organizational and policy objectives of stimulation of productivity, diversification of small farms, and provision of aid to displaced persons and homeless workers.

Although the FSA sought to adapt to the nation's wartime needs, its political position eroded as agriculture became crucial to lend-lease and to the war effort. The Farm Bureau, which represented the nation's larger farmers, was determined to terminate the FSA, and the bureau found allies in conservatives of both parties, including Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, Representative Clarence Cannon of Missouri, and Representative Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois. In December 1941 there was a serious move by Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia to abolish the agency; although Byrd's effort was unsuccessful, the FSA's funding was cut by 30 percent for the 1942 to 1943 fiscal year. In April 1943, the House passed an appropriations bill that effectively terminated the FSA, although the agency was not officially disbanded until 1946 and some of its credit functions were subsequently adopted by the Farmers Home Administration. The FSA was unable to survive the prospering of the agricultural community during wartime and the burgeoning power of the Farm Bureau, whose administrators were able to use the wartime emergency to dismantle much of the apparatus by which the federal government managed the agricultural economy, as well as eliminate competition and ensure an adequate labor supply for its members. The Farm Bureau and its political allies were united by an underlying ideological objection to the FSA that related not only to the social class and race of the FSA's constituents, but to the association of welfare and state intervention with alien and radical ideas.



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Stuart Kidd