Serious and complex as are problems of industrial centres in the readjustment to peace conditions, they are no more important to the country as a whole than those facing agricultural sections. For many years the influence on business and politics of the Middle West—meaning the states stretching between the Alleghanies and the Rockies and deriving their main resource from food-production—has been steadily growing. With increasing population, greater wealth, and a rising standard of living, the producer of foodstuffs has asserted more vigorously his position in national affairs. This tendency will not lessen as we return to normal standards, and the reaction of the process on his point of view promise to be of moment in finance and legislation.
During the war period the Middle West farmer has been looked at from varying angles, ranging from denunciation as a pacifist and profiteer to laudation for his loyalty. Two years ago a leading Eastern newspaper declared: ‘We should send missionaries to the interior to teach patriotism. The Western farmer will not sell his wheat at a fair price, he will not buy bonds, and he will not fight.’ Later, the response of the farming states to every war-call brought praise from high places.
The truth was that the farmer was late in awakening to enthusiastic war spirit. Partly it was due to his environment. As he drove up and down the dusty furrows, he heard no bands playing, no parades passed along the country highways, no street orators stirred his emotions. In a sense the rumbles of war were remote. His occupation had, as it has in all lands, predisposed him to ways of peace. But when his boy was called to the training-camp and war came close home, he, figuratively, took off his coat and put all his energy into the task. He gave to war-activities, he bought bonds, — the Western Federal Reserve districts were first to fill their quotas in the Third and Fourth Liberty Loan campaigns, — and he was in favor of seeing it through. Then, when the rural telephone brought the news of the end of hostilities, he cranked up his motor-car and hurried at breakneck speed to town, to join in the celebration.
In Western phrase, the farmer for four years ‘has had his innings.’ That it was the first innings he had enjoyed in this generation did not lessen the popular impression of marvelous riches pouring into the lap of the agriculturist. It was pointed out that wheat, which sold in July, 1914, at 55 to 64 cents a bushel, went to $3.25, and was finally fixed at $2.26 a bushel at central markets—a figure which five years ago would have realized all the farmer’s dreams of affluence. Corn, which in the memory of many a producer had been hauled to market at 15 cents a bushel, and normally was worth 40 to 50 cents, brought $1.50 a bushel. Butter-fat, the farm-wife’s resource as she handled the dairy, was 20 cents a pound in December, 1914; on December 1, 1918, it was 72 cents. Alfalfa hay—three to six tons to the acre—was as high as $29 a ton.
Naturally the effect of the high price-level was reflected in the business of the country towns, dependent for their trade largely on the farmer, and indirectly gaining their prosperity almost entirely from the returns of agriculture. The country banks saw their deposits climb to record figures, and had a period of unexampled success. Instead of being a seeker after business, the banker became an arbiter of investments and loans, and despite the many anxieties connected with war-financing, was able to declare most satisfactory dividends. The country town’s storekeepers marveled at the ease with which they were able to dispose of goods, even at the enhanced prices. Timidity vanished after a few months, and they carried larger stocks and sold goods more nearly for cash than ever before in the history of merchandizing. High wages for all who would work, from the farm-hand who demanded and got three to five dollars a day, to the pretty stenographer at seventy-five dollars a month, made it easy to satisfy the desire for attractive attire. Strikes and unions and labor troubles are no part of the agricultural country’s experience, and the income of the producer raised the scale of living generally.
It is true that the farmer protested that his expenses had risen in almost the same proportion as his crop prices. Farm labor was scarce and high; seed-grain cost heavily; crop failures came with the same frequency as before—over five million acres of wheat were abandoned in the spring of 1918; 11 per cent of the acreage sown in 1916 was a failure and 10 per cent of the 1915 sowing. Implements commanded prices 50 to 100 per cent greater than in the pre-war period. It cost 20 cents a bushel merely to thresh the 1918 wheat-crop. The expense of living was as high proportionately for the farmer as for the townsman.
Nevertheless, the intelligent farmer whose crops ripened found himself at the end of each year with a larger net income than in previous seasons. The Allied world had to be fed, and the Middle West producer was the one source from which the baskets could be filled. The man who owned his farm and was willing to labor long hours prospered.
The economic and social results of the widely diffused prosperity became apparent. An Eastern banker recently sent me this query: ‘What did the farmer do with his money? Did he waste it in riotous living, lay it away in banks, bury it, or has he made sensible use of it?’ The farmer as a type is not different from the member of any other business class. In instances he undoubtedly did enjoy comforts and luxuries which he had longed for, but had been unable to attain. The farm team was not always exchanged wisely for a high-powered motor-car; the temptation to possess talking machines, pianos, and plush-covered furniture he sometimes could not resist, when what he needed was a tractor or a new corn-binder. Generally, however, he did not hoard—his ideas expanded as his income grew.
First and foremost, he desired more land. It was logical that, if 160 acres paid a profit, 320 acres would double the receipts. Farm-land increased in value all through the Middle West, at an average rate of five dollars an acre, from 1910 to 1914. During the next three years the increase was seven dollars an acre, and 1917 and 1918 saw ten dollars an acre a year added. Lands that had been on the market at fifty dollars an acre five years ago sold for seventy-five to a hundred dollars. Out 200 miles west of the Missouri River upland farms sold in the autumn of 1918 for one hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy-five dollars an acre. Eastern Nebraska and Eastern Kansas passed into the class of Iowa and Illinois in land-values. Some were selling out at high figures, to retire, or because their boys had gone to war; others were adding to their acres; town capitalists were buying farms, to reap the profits they believed could be made. Tenantry increased, and the renter paid two fifths of the crop, instead of one third as for years, for the privilege of managing the farms. While the bank-deposits grew, the loan accounts kept pace, and farm mortgages as a whole showed no appreciable decrease. In other words, the West was keeping its money at work, utilizing in fuller measure the power of capital. Farm-building were renewed, larger equipment provided, improved machinery secured; furnaces, electric lights, modern plumbing, and similar comforts made the homes more comfortable. The plane of living on the farm was raised far more in proportion than that in the town. The latter had had its ‘innings’ long before; the present was an era of farm development.
Such was the material side of the producer’s experience. Its reaction on his social growth was not less interesting. Insensibly he gained something of individual independence. ‘For twenty years I have asked favors,’ one hard-working farmer put it. ‘Now I am able to decide what I will do and go ahead and do it.’ He felt free from the sense of dependence which had mentally, although not actually, possessed him. He ceased to envy the merchant or the professional man whose fancied ease of existence heretofore had appealed to him. The county politician found not long list of farmers seeking office in the court-house—there was not a local office the average farmer would take as a gift. Yet politics retained a distinct hold on his mind. He swung his vote one way in 1916 and another way in 1918.
Up in the Northwest the non-Partisan League came into being, made up of well-to-do farmers who, by tens of thousands, paid sixteen dollars each to join the new political movement. It captured North Dakota, filling practically every state office with farmers; and it is endeavoring to extend this operation over other agricultural states, with what success the election of 1920 will tell. To a degree it was simply a capitalization, through shrewd organization, of the farmer’s feeling of independence. That same rising tide of initiative was manifest without specific organization in the state elections of 1918 in other states, when farmer members in unusual numbers were chosen to legislatures, and there was evident a vast deal of serious thinking regarding future management of the commonwealths.
Nor should it be forgotten that the past four years have widened the farmer’s horizon greatly. Where he once thought in terms of the neighborhood, he learned to think in world-terms. All the multiplicity of events connected with the war taught him a new geography. The relations of nations, the tides of trade, the paths of commerce became familiar, and he grew in mental stature as he watched the forward steps of the Allied armies. In a narrower field he gained broadness of vision. One thing which no other device could have accomplished has come with the motor-car. The isolation of the neighborhood has been abolished. Instead of a radius of a dozen miles, the farmer has been given half a state for a day’s acquaintance-making. Instead of trading at the crossroads general store, he can in a half hour drive to some considerable city. He has a choice of merchandise and of professional service. It has all added to his larger view of life.
Little considered, yet of equal importance, has been the education the agricultural sections have had in teamwork and the open door in business affairs. The city-dweller has possessed these for years. For decades scarcely a day passed when there was not some committee working for the good of the community, some charity asking assistance. The farmer knew nothing of all this. Take a typical Western county of 25,000 people. When the first Belgian relief call came, it raised, with great difficulty, five thousand dollars and considered that it had accomplished wonders. The first Red Cross call was for thirty thousand dollars, and few believed it possible to secure that sum—but the quota was over-subscribed. Before the war ended, that county had contributed one hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars to war-charities and had bought two and a half millions of Liberty Bonds. Farmer committees canvassed their neighbors, assessed the amounts due, demanded and received statements of wealth and income, and welded the entire community into one family, with all the secrets of property possession laid on the table. It was a shock at first. There was great indignation that one’s holdings should be brought to light. Then the reasonableness of it appealed to sober judgment, since after all it in no degree lessened respect. The solidarity of the community increased with the ability to join hands in a common cause, a teaching that revealed new possibilities for the future.
Some of these influences, based solely on financial betterment, will vanish with a change in material conditions. Others have entered into the consciousness of the people of the Middle West and will endure. The superficial observer sees most clearly the former and contemplates the period of readjustment with misgiving.
Doubtless the price-level of products cannot remain long at war figures. The wheat producer has been promised two dollars a bushel for the 1919 crop, which bids fair to be a record-braking yield. But after that, competing in a world-market, with Europe somewhat rehabilitated and with Argentine and rehabilitated and with Argentine and Australia both able to obtain shipping at least half the price may be expected to disappear. Other crops will show diminished returns. Thus the farmer diminished returns. Thus the farmer looks forward to a smaller gross income from his acres. That we shall not for several years see the prices that prevailed before the war seems probable, but some modification is certain. To offset this, he will have the labor-problem solved. His boys will be back from the front and from camp; doubtless the itinerant harvester will again take up his summer journey. Implements will be cheaper, and the farm overhead expense will be lessened.
Whether or not the farmer will accept graciously this decreased scale of doing business remains to be seen. If he sees in it an economic discrimination against him as a class, it will call for resentment. He has been somewhat bewildered by the immensity of government operations. The control of the railroads has presented to him chiefly the personal side—the increased cost of travel and freight. He has read of the increased wage to employees with some uncertainty as to its ultimate effect on the tax-payer. It is true that for years he was among the foremost in the demand for state legislation for regulation of the railroads, and in a general way believed that government ownership would bring a millennium, with nominal rates and greater accommodation. The experience of the first year of government control did not realize his dreams, and his views have undergone considerable revision. He may accept it as a permanent good, but he has not yet done so.
Probably no one subject is so near to his heart as the price of land. His business ideals have been based on the soil. With decreased income there may be a falling off in the market for the homestead. IN the opinion of financial experts in the West, this is unlikely, experts in the West, this is unlikely. With the growing population and the virtual limitation of fertile soil, they see a constant figure for the producing farm. They recall that Illinois and Indiana land-values rose steadily long before the war, and the farther plains states are not yet at a point where they are likely to be injured materially by such change in crop-values as is probable in the next few years. Except for the possibility of a continued series of short crops, or a panic, land is to-day the most staple articles in America.
If the government develops a plan for colonization of returned soldiers on semi-arid or yet unploughed lands, as a method of starting hundreds of thousands in home-making, it will add to productivity; but that process is certain to require several years before any material results are accomplished. The Western states, however, welcome the movement, realizing that great results are possible provided the plan is carefully and scientifically systematized.
In a broader sense, the Middle West is facing some matters that must be settled calmly when the war-exaltation has passed. In education the decision as to military training must be made. Already the Western commonwealths are discussing it as a matter of the immediate future. Primarily the farming classes are unimpressed with the arguments for anything that may be twisted toward militarism. They are no less so now than before we entered the war. The experiences of the past two years have b no means convinced them. Admitting the physical advantages, they hold yet a fundamental objection to the idea. Indications are that the support for the idea must come from other than the rural communities and it is not beyond probability that these will make their opinion felt strongly when the matters comes to a test.
The direction of legislation is certain to be affected by the history of the past four years. The acceptance of the big way of doing things, the awakening of ability to finance great charities, bond issues, and community efforts, have given impetus to plans for the future. On the one hand will be a hesitant note coming out of the decreased income probable; and on the other, the recognition of needs before the growing states. Equal suffrage will be universal in the West in a short time, and the women are by no means sitting idly by where they have the new privilege. They are demanding laws that make for social justice, and will obtain them. Prohibition is bringing new taxation programmes, and the inequalities of taxation methods are being recognized. The Non-Partisan League, with North Dakota firmly in hand, is planning to bond the state for state-owned flouring mills, packing-houses, storage-plants, warehouses, and other industrial concerns—a socialistic programme that is a marked feature of tis propaganda. It has adopted the single tax. If the farmer sees his own products bringing less in the market, is it not possible that he will visit the cause on economic inequalities, and seek through some system of communism to correct what he conceives as injustice? This is not a mere hazard—it is to-day a very real factor in the peace programme of legislation. The war taught the lesson of thinking in large figures, and of doing things in a colossal way, and the idea that the same process will apply to peace is likely to bring experiments that would not have been considered a half-decade ago.
In many ways a rural community is exceedingly sensitive to financial changes. The country merchant sees his trade vary from month to month as weather, road-conditions, or public interest in a crisis may dictate. So business in the West will feel sharply the first modification of price-levels, and their start on the down grade to a normal status. It will require some careful guiding to negotiate the road, on the part both of the banks and of the merchants. Undoubtedly, too, many producers have reached the mental attitude that assures them that present values are needed for successful business operations. They are going to be disappointed when changes occur, and may for a time, until the readjustment is complete, find much over which to become anxious. As they pass through this period, those whose task it is to finance them and wait on their needs, will have plenty to do making plans that will fit the altered situation.
That a widespread dissatisfaction with the basic law of many commonwealths exists is evident from the agitation for new constitutions. In a number of states constitutional conventions will be held within the year; others are preparing to secure such. Better financial systems especially are demanded, because of the steadily increased taxes without proportionate advantages. The application of the commission form of government to counties is advocated widely as one needed reform; budget systems, a greater solidarity of management, and fewer boards and commissions are asked. With the return of the men who have been seeing what the world beyond our shores is like, and have gained a cosmopolitan experience in their army life, systematic government will receive a strong backing.
In other words, the Middle West is in a mood to ‘clean house’ at the end of the uprooting of conventions by the exigencies of war, and it need not be surprising if it is done thoroughly. The idea has been slumbering for two decades; it had an evanescent outcropping in the nineties; it showed itself again in the Progressive Party movement. Now the new order may easily come into its own, because so much that was accepted as established has been swept away.
As the Middle West feels its way back to a settled state, it acts with a self-confidence never before felt. Not only has it, during the past four years, accumulated a financial basis for its progress, — a reserve that will carry it over temporary reverses, — but it has learned lessons of organization most valuable to its progress.
As the hilarious celebration of the signing of the armistice was filling the air of a Mid-Western town with shouts and cheers and music, a group of farmers stood watching the parades.
‘Now what will happen to our farm prosperity?’ asked one.
‘Look over there,’ was the answer from an old-timer. A long freight train was puffing its way across the prairie eastward. ‘That is the answer. We are the granary and the meat market of the world. While the sun shines and the rain falls, the West will always prosper.’
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