The Farmer and the Factory Hand




SHORTLY after the first paper on the Iron Man had appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for October, 1921, the University of Illinois invited me to address the State Teachers’ Conference at Champaign. After the talk, Mr. Carl Colvin, one of Dean Davenport’s disciples and a member of the staff that is modernizing the rural education of Illinois, said something like this: —

The industrial problem appeals to you as the fundamental problem of American life. It is n’t. Agriculture comes first. Why don’t you give some thought to farming? The farmers are restless and dissatisfied. Deflation has emphasized the fact that they take great risks without compensating rewards. Industrial labor is resisting deflation more successfully because of superior organizations; so it seems to the farmers that they work longer hours than city folk, without getting in return equal purchasing power. In much of Europe, economic distress has revealed a basic struggle between the peasant-producers of foodstuffs and the consumers of those foodstuffs, who are chiefly townspeople industrially employed. That is coming to be our economic and political alignment also. Another agrarian movement is at hand. What you have to say about the social and industrial problems of urban communities will not have much weight with farmers until you give evidence of understanding rural problems; and to dispose city folk sympathetically toward the aspirations of the countryside ought to be considered as much a part of your task as the reverse operation.

That seemed sound advice. It impressed me even more after I had run through the bibliography and dipped into the bale of pamphlets which Mr. Colvin sent later. To say that I understood these documents would be stretching the truth; but at least they proved that the rural point of view demanded consideration.

As a first step in my rural education, I bought a farm, with all its appurtenances — beasts of burden and of sustenance, crops, trees (fruit and shade), implements (mostly rusty and weatherbeaten), and stacks of lumber cut and sawed some ten years before to provide covering for the aforesaid implements or their predecessors. It is not a large farm, but its advantages include electric light, excellent water-supply, and choice views of two mountain ranges. Among the many disadvantages may be listed the absence of a single hogtight, or even ‘hoss’-tight, fence on the entire seventy-five acres. Our farm, in short, is not one to justify its proprietor in putting on any airs. By no mischance, however, can it be damned as a country estate: all summer our front yard has been full of waving corn.

To do some of the more obvious things that the former proprietor had fully intended to do during forty years of occupancy, we found it necessary to hire local labor. We felt constrained, for instance, to erect that long-projected shed, because the lumber cut for that purpose ten years ago showed signs of dry rot along the edges, due to improper stacking. Then we assembled the implements that were parked all over the place. The wood lot disgorged a huge land-roller; also a top buggy, ousted from its former shelter five years ago by a Ford. It is surprising how much punishment the honest works of man will stand; both vehicles will serve after light repairs. From all corners of the steading we brought in harrows, cultivators, seeders, ploughs, and other articles too numerous to mention (as they say in the auction bills).

There seems to be nothing we need that is n’t here, if we have enough time to hunt it out. But these and other activities chargeable to ‘redding up’ and adjusting the dwelling of a childless couple to the domestic needs of my large family, required so much outside help, that up to date we have raised nothing on our farm except the wages of the neighborhood. However, we are all set for a clean start with a running jump next spring. We know, at last, what we have and where to find it.

The men we hire are mostly neighbors. They come from farms of their own, when work is slack and they can be absent without loss. They stay at home when they please, and come when they please. On this free-andeasy basis they averaged more than thirty hours a week through September and October, and forty in November. They are active, responsible fellows, who can be trusted to keep their own time without cheating; the sort of men who appreciate not being watched, and don’t figure in the extra minutes short of a full half-hour. Their common sense and all-round handiness at work are a joy to behold. They make what tools they have serve, if possible; and if the lack is hopeless they walk down the road and borrow. One of them brought along a stump-puller and with it moved the outbuildings. They dig ditches, lay concrete foundations, and carpenter, with equal skill and persistent good-humor. The painter must take an occasional half-day off to thresh, or to cut his winter’s wood. All-round men, they are ready to tackle anything. They plan, improvise, and pull together. I never see them loafing, on the one hand, or speeded up to a fury of production, on the other. But when they plan to finish a job on a certain day, somehow, before they trudge away home in the dusk, the job is done. Observing them, I am not at all afraid of the American farmer ‘going peasant,’ as Dr. Butterfield suggests.

How can such men, with farms of their own to handle, have so many hours of free time to sell each week? I pondered the question silently for some time. Their places were not unduly neglected; each seemed to be doing his duty toward his acres, stock, and buildings. Never did they seem to be dog-tired from driving themselves too hard. The evidence in the case did not fit in with my preconceived notion of the overworked farmer. For some years I had been reading complaints about the farmer’s sixteen-hour day as contrasted with the shopworker’s eighthour or nine-hour day. Russian peasants, so the papers said, forced the Soviet Government to permit free trade because they refused to raise foodstuffs for eight-hour workers while they themselves labored from dawn to dusk. The two Illinois Carls — Colvin and Vrooman — both believed that farmers worked harder and received less, in buying power, than townspeople. All this testimony convinced me that the life of a working farmer was one long labor-pull. But here were working farmers with many hours of free time to sell in the intervals between their independent farming operations.

Driving over the hills to an auction sale one rainy afternoon, with Hank, I put the case to him. Hank is thirtythree years old, and the worthy descendant of one of the oldest and most respected families in these parts. He married early, has two sturdy boys coming along, and a wife who makes the best butter in the neighborhood. Born and raised on a farm on Helderberg Mountain, he worked out for several years for wages, went in debt to get eighty acres of his own, and has since reduced his debt to the point where he could sell out for $4500 clear. Obviously a man worth listening to on the subject of farmers’ hours.

‘Hank,’I asked, ‘how many hours do farmers work in the course of a year? Of course, I know that in busy times you put in long days, taking advantage of practically all the daylight. But, winter and summer, rush season and quiet, how many hours do you work on your own place?’

Hank grew thoughtful. He is slow of speech, methodical in all things.

‘Depends on how much land a man, has, and what kind of a wife, and how much stock, and so forth. You can’t lay down a rule that holds for all alike. But mine’s about an average lay-out, and I put in — just figure it up for yourself—say two weeks at fourteen hours a day, and two more at twelve. Then two months at ten hours a day. That accounts for the three busy seasons — planting, haying, and harvest, and some over. Allow two months at eight hours, and two more at six. That’s more than seven months gone, and winter left. Gosh! a fellow don’t really put in more than four hours a day in winter, chorin’ round, not if he really works at it. Course, with nothing much to do and plenty of time to do it in, we laze around and linger on the job a good deal. Sundays the year round would rate about the same — four hours each. Then, to play safe, better ’low a hundred hours for bucking winter firewood, and a hundred for repairing tools and buildings and odds and ends. What do you make it?’

I made the calculation. ‘Not much over 2500 hours a year. That averages just a little over seven hours a day the year round. The city man, who works eight hours a day the year round, all but Sundays, comes close to matching you; and the fellow who does nine hours a day for five and a half days gets in about one hundred hours more per year. You ’re just about even with the eight-hour man, and a little better off than the nine-hour man.’

‘That, ’s about it,’ agreed Hank. ‘Leastways, that’s what I’ve always said, whenever anyone mentioned going to town to work.’

‘Then tell me, what is there to all this talk of overworked farmers?’

‘There’s this,’ said Hank. ‘Farmers don’t figure the way you do. A farmer reckons he ’s working all the time he’s on the place, except when he ’s eating and sleeping. When he talks about working fourteen hours a day, he means he’s up and around sixteen. Sometimes he actually works that long; but mostly he means that he’s started a long, dull day with chores, and finished it the same. He never allows for the time between jobs, when he just sets around waiting for the time to pass. As a boy, I’ve seen my father and a neighbor spend all day swapping horses, and go home grunting like they was tired — that’s habit. After a man’s been tied to a place for years, just having to stay there seems like work. Of course, plenty of farm work is hard and back-breaking; and just when a man needs help, chances are he can’t get it, because everyone else is bidding for anyone that’s foot-loose. But as far as actual working time goes, you ain’t far off.

‘Us fellows working for you, for instance. Right now, if we was n’t doing that, we’d be round home puttering over this, that, and the other thing, taking plenty time to it. And it would seem like even harder work than we ’re doing now, because we’d be working alone, with no one to talk to. So, instead of loafing over those jobs now, we bull ’em through and hit off toward your place. It’s ready money, and tax-time coming on; that’s one reason we’re so willing. But none of us are so bad off we’d skimp our home work just for ready money; fact is, we’ve got the time to spare. Any farmer in these parts who is n’t loaded up with too much poor land and too much debt, and who takes trouble to plan his work, can have time to sell, certain seasons.’

Hereabouts, the employing farmers are not overworked. I am not so sure about their hired men. Wherever employing farmers gather together, one hears tall tales of what hired men used to do, and of how little the present generation of hired men accomplishes. I take little stock in such contrasts. Most of the hired men I see move faster than their employers. Some farmers, who take plenty of time off for themselves, drive their landless helpers without conscience. So, to get the hired man’s view of town and country work, I spoke to Tyler about it. Tyler has been working for one of the Whitben boys five years. He is a fixture in the village, and the worst thing that can be said about him is said by his wife. ‘Tyler,’ Mrs. T. says frankly, ‘is the kind of man what needs a boss.’

‘Well,’ said Tyler, ‘I’ve worked in both places, city and country. Comes to about the same in the end. Here, maybe, you ’re on the job more hours; but there you waste an hour getting to the job and back home again. I call trolley-riding just as hard work as chorin’ round. I’m sure I worked just as hard in town as here, and I ain’t got no easy boss neither. There’s long days and short days, and there’s more to this job than you think there is; but I tell you, a man that knows his business on a farm ain’t being hustled out of his mind by nobody. I ’d rather do ten or twelve hours here than eight or nine hours in one of them factories, for the same money. It stands to reason.’

These observations apply to but one small section of a vast country; but I suspect that rigid analysis of the habits of work and the labor-time of the American farmer would bring in enough similar evidence to discredit, once for all, the current notion that farmers work longer and harder than city folk. At any rate, there is not enough discrepancy to justify rural resentment against current efforts to ameliorate the social and industrial conditions in the towns — a resentment sedulously fed by those persons and interests who care as little to ameliorate industrial conditions as they care, at bottom, to better the farmer’s lot.


There are sound reasons for rural discontent, no doubt; but in this matter of working time I think the investigator has taken a false lead, and is running to earth, not the fox, but the anise-seed bag. On the whole, the rural grudge against industry will not stand the test by time. Neither will it stand the test by wages.

This is a grave question, not readily solvable by appeal to statistics; but at least we can use common sense. Few farmers keep accounts accurately enough to measure total income in terms of dollars. They rarely credit production with a sum equal to houserent, produce consumed on the place, or that traded for other goods to be consumed. They are in the habit of balancing cash receipts for the year against the industrial employee’s wage for the year, and then of pitying themselves because the figures run against them. But if to the cash were added house-rent, home-grown food, and all additions to inventory, the result would be quite otherwise, in many cases. It is astonishing how much gear accumulates around a farm in a year, by small additions which never get into the records. Then there are the bit-bybit improvements that add to the value of the farm, either for sale or for future production. Our Hank found, on making an inventory of his place for a projected sale, that he had a clear thousand dollars’ worth more of crops and tools than he had casually assumed.

Actually, in real wages, the farmer probably fares better than he fancies he does; and if he does not do as well as top-notch railway employees putting in steady hours, he certainly earns more in real wages in a year than workers in trades subject to frequent lay-offs, such as coal-mining. Of course there is always the possibility of complete crop-failure — a spectre that can never be laid by the specializing, onecrop farmer. Up our way few specialize, thereby reducing the danger.

Nevertheless, even if the farmer’s position is as good as or better than the industrial employee’s, it is not good enough. In all justice, it ought to be a good deal better, for the farmer takes the risk and the directing responsibility of his enterprise, while the townworker does not. When, as is usually the case, the farmer is capitalist and manager as well as worker, he certainly deserves to receive something more than wages in return for his initiative, investment, and risk-taking. In addition to wages, he deserves interest and reasonable profits. But he does not always get them. Even in ordinary times he has difficulty in collecting those rewards; through the past two years they have been clear out of reach.

Western farmers, by all accounts, are hard hit; no wonder, considering the size of their farms, the volume of their operations, and their concentration upon one or two money crops. This sort of farming increases economic vulnerability in hard times and seasons, though it brings in profits during good times and seasons. Be it noted, however, that farming on that grand scale entails antisocial consequences. First, there is a constant temptation to ‘mine’ land. Second, it makes for a larger percentage of hired hands and renters in the community, whereas the ideal farming community, from the social standpoint, consists of active owners and their families. Third, the migratory laborer becomes at once an economic necessity and a social problem — thousands of landless men following the harvest under conditions encouraging to discontent and crime. Fourth, the big farm is necessarily isolated, a fact which works particular hardship on women and children. Neighbors are remote, schools far apart; it is difficult to set up and keep going those cultural and neighborly activities that ought to be a large part of country living.

For these reasons the huge farm ought to pass, and will pass under economic pressure as population becomes more dense. Thus the economic pressure now weighing down owners and operators of large acreages west of the Mississippi is, from one point of view, socially desirable in that it encourages the splitting of large farms into smaller ones, and eases the way for more men to become proprietors of small holdings which they can work themselves. Extending extraordinary financial aid to farmers, over and above their reasonable proportion of free capital and on a basis of personal and business credit less exacting than that required of other entrepreneurs, simply subsidizes a system of agriculture economically and socially weak, in so far as it perpetuates the results of acute landhunger of a bygone day of sparse population and virgin areas. But of course the breaking-up of overgrown agricultural holdings should be a slow process, proceeding in tempo with the growth of population. It will do so, never fear; legislation at most delays, never eliminates, the effects of economic law in the primary relation of men to land. What we now see in the West is an extreme case, naturally creating a demand for a prompt cure-all. There is no cure-all. The utmost that the farmers have the right to ask, with a view to the ultimate welfare of society, is that credit be available to them as freely as credit is offered to other business men of equal responsibility. The farmers are right in declaring that the strongest feature of their assets is that very stability which is considered a weakness by bankers who prefer more liquid assets as security. Farming is not a touch-and-go business; neither is banking nor government; the three ought to be able to get together. But financial aid ought never to be extended to farmers simply because they are farmers; that is not only uneconomic but also antisocial.

In this connection, the farmer’s quarrel is not with the industrial employee, but with the trader, and to some extent with the banker who finances the trader — key representatives of the established economic-juridical system. Discounting the present ‘sound and fury’ about money, banking, and the Federal Reserve system, which will pass in due time, the fundamental reason why middlemen cut so deep into the rewards of farm toil, investment, and management is not that the middlemen possess superior intelligence or resources, but rather that the farmers are sluggish in coöperating for common economic defense. By reason of this sluggishness the greater interest, in point of numbers, wealth, and social importance, yields to its lesser but more mobile and expert adversary. When and where farmers can be brought to work together for their common interests as effectively as the middleman, or the trading organization, works for his or its individual interest, traders will not be overpaid as at present.

It is folly to deny, as so many radical farmers are denying, that competition offers absolutely indispensable facilities; but it is possible that the charges for the services of the middleman can be greatly reduced without breaking down those services. That is the true function of the coöperative enterprise in the near future: not to oust private initiative, but to restrain it by putting it to the test of a new sort of competition — business for common service.

Not only is the farmer’s just quarrel not with the industrial employee, but actually the needs of the two great bodies of producers are practically the same. Both need organization for mutual protection, and both need counsel and aid in utilizing leisure time to find delight in life. The reason why the farmer, as I see him, thinks he is being overworked is largely that he has so little incentive to get through his work briskly. The automobile has helped him as much in that respect as in its more practical aspects; to ‘get out and around’ for social purposes means as much to rural civilization as does the rushing of foodstuffs to market. Radio service is bound to be another boon, sure soon or late to be appreciated by most of the country folk. But these mechanisms, while potent in breaking down isolation, will not suffice in themselves. What the country needs most of all is a revival of the social spirit, a smashing of individualist hard shells, more neighborliness.

In our village, which the learned Dr. Gras would call a perfect type of the nonnucleated village, — its mile-long street contains the homes and most of the barns of our one hundred and sixty souls, — there is a general store. The men hang round the store, evenings, and talk. Back of the store is a dancehall, which used to resound to the fiddle and the bow at least once a week; now it is opened scarcely twice a year. Our people still gossip, you see, but they have lost the knack of making merry. The women of the village, observing the comfort their men find in conversation at the store, — the tinder of their feminism fired perhaps by the flint of loneliness, — talk of renting the dancehall for a clubroom, installing books, magazines, and a phonograph, and turning the now barren room into a social centre for the village and the surrounding country. They have been talking, these splendid, hardworking women, for two years. Sometime they will do the deed. We don’t do things in a hurry, out our way.

When the social centre is born, our social will and our community consciousness will have made one modest step forward. Other rural communities have gone far on the way to the new neighborliness. Let this revival of the social spirit sweep the nation, and more will be done to promote rural satisfaction than Congress can offer with all manner of legal tinkering and financial thimble-rigging. For the first requirement of the countryside is cooperation; and those who come to play may remain to do business with one another.

After all, the worst answer that events could make to these angry queries from the countryside would be some sort of ‘economic justice,’ which would make the American farmer more independent than he is at present. He has ever been too independent for his own good, and the nation’s good. His present weakness lies in that insularity of temper and opinion which makes it so difficult for him to function well in groups. The farmer needs to recognize that interdependence is the hall mark of democracy. It would be equally sad if ‘economic justice for the farmer’ should come to mean, as it easily might, ease in a vacuum of security for the landowner, while hired hands or tenants raised the crops.

Since the keystone of the national arch is agriculture, none can question the propriety of making rural life reasonably secure, interesting, and happy. To make themselves economically secure, the farmers must combine to contest vigorously with the middlemen for the control of the market; or, if that is too much to expect immediately, at least they must work for a veto over the market’s most extravagant and expensive whimsies. To make country life more interesting, they must cultivate their minds as well as their acres, and must use the new aids to pleasure as thought-provokers rather than time-killers.

These are stiff tasks; but the third is easier: to break down rural loneliness, all the farm-folk need do is give neighborliness — once so potent and always a latent force of immense vigor — another and a better chance. At none of these points are the interests of townworker and countryman opposed.