Farm Security Administration

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FARM SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (FSA). The FSA was born in 1937 out of frustration with the failure of New Deal agricultural policy to provide help for the nation's poorest farmers. By the time the Democrats came to power in 1932, over a quarter of all farms, involving almost 8 million people, were generating less than $600 apiece in annual income, putting them on the same level as the most deprived city dwellers. Yet, despite the New Deal's announced goal of raising all farmers out of the Depression, its main program, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), concentrated on the interests of the largest farm producers, who had irresistible

influence in Congress because they dominated the major farm organizations and land grant colleges.

Roosevelt responded to the situation with an executive order on 1 May 1935, setting up an independent Resettlement Administration (RA), headed by his close advisor on economic planning, Rexford Tugwell. The aim of the RA was to take 100 million acres of land that had been exhausted by lumbering, oil exploration, overfarming, and drought and move the 650,000 people faring badly there either to better land or into suburban communities planned by the RA. Resettlement was also offered to sharecroppers and tenant farmers who otherwise would have few prospects of escaping poverty. Congress proved reluctant to fund such a reordering of the status quo, which seemed socialistic to some and threatened to deprive influential farm owners of their tenant workforce. The RA was thus left with only enough resources to relocate a few thousand people from 9 million acres and build several greenbelt cities, which planners admired as models for a cooperative future that never arrived.

The RA project to build camps for migratory labor, especially refugees from the drought-struck dust bowl of the Southwest, was also resisted by Californians who did not want destitute migrants to settle in their midst. The RA managed to construct ninety-five camps that gave migrants unaccustomed clean quarters with running water and other amenities, but the 75,000 people who had the benefit of these camps were a small share of those in need and could only stay temporarily.

Concerned that criticism of him as "Rex the Red" had made him a liability, Tugwell resigned in 1936. After the triumph of the Democrats in elections later that year, Congress passed the Farm Security Act in 1937, which transformed the RA into the Farm Security Administration, with broader powers to aid poor farmers. Eventually, the staff of the FSA reached 19,000 and was deployed in nearly 2,300 county offices to aid 800,000 client families. With funds provided by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, some 12,000 tenant families became landowners, loans totaling $100 million reduced farm debt by nearly 25 percent, and a medical care program for borrowers grew to include clinics in thirty-one states. In order to give small farmers greater stability and control over the market, the FSA also encouraged the formation of 16,000 cooperatives with 300,000 members willing to pool their resources.

These measures, accompanied by efforts by the President's Committee on Farm Tenancy to help black farmers overcome discrimination and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace's advocacy of planning to coordinate agricultural production and education, stirred up a backlash. The Farm Bureau, which had acquiesced in the creation of the RA as an emergency relief measure, denounced the FSA as "government bureaucracy gone mad"; in Congress the return of most Midwestern farmers to the Republican party by 1940 once Depression hardship had subsided emboldened critics to mount attacks on the FSA as wasteful and "Un-American." By 1943 the program had lost most of its funding and three years later was revamped into a weak and short-lived Farmers' Home Administration.

Perhaps the most lasting achievement of the FSA was its image making. To convince the general public of the need for the agency's mission, Rexford Tugwell on 10 July 1935 appointed his former student Roy Stryker "Chief of the Historical Section," with the assignment of photographing the devastated land and people that were the RA's and the FSA's task to rescue. Stryker's camera crew took 270,000 pictures, and members of the team, such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn gained reputations as leading creators of documentary photography. Alongside the photographers, Pare Lorenz made films for the FSA, most notably The Plow that Broke the Plains (1935) and The River (1937), that won fame for their artistry and the vividness with which they brought home the drastic damage inflicted by flood, drought, and careless exploitation of natural resources. These images retain an ability to evoke both the hardships of rural America during the 1930s and the New Deal conviction that the common people so beautifully photographed deserved the help that only their government could give.


Baldwin, Sidney. Poverty and Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968. The definitive work on the FSA.

Curtis, James. Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth. FSA Photography Reconsidered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Saloutos, Theodore. The American Farmer and the New Deal. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982.


See alsoSharecroppers .