IN Wisconsin we have an area at the head of Rock River known as the Horicon Marsh. A few years ago it was drained in the interest of agriculture — a sort of farm aid. Now it is to be reflooded — also as farm aid. During my first years of farming, right after the war, when urban industries were contracting and accepting deflation, one of the bulletins from the College of Agriculture was captioned ‘Push Back the Brush Line. ’ In it we were advised how to increase acreage at the expense of cut-over and forest land. But for the last few years our officials pledge themselves to reforestation as farm aid.
Farm aid apparently, then, means more cultivated land and increased production; also, less cultivated land and decreased production. Like many another much-used term, it is not defined. To define it would destroy its worth politically. It is an excellent phrase to use in political platforms which promise low prices for everything bought and high prices for everything sold. By its magic the government can put a million into reclaiming an area which is worth less than a million after reclamation. By its aid appropriations are secured for stimulating production. But, not being a partisan term, it lends itself to appropriations for disposing of the results of stimulation. Its assistance gives freshly hatched graduates from the colleges of agriculture jobs showing men how to farm whose efficiency and taxes made possible the colleges.
Have you something to unload? Paint ‘FARM AID’ upon your white elephant and show it to the County Board, State Legislature, or Federal Government. Your painting need not be clever; few legislators or appropriators have the courage to oppose the phrase alone. It can be used for high tariff for the manufacturer, because such ensures high wages and foodpurchasing power of urban centres. But it is not incongruous to use it for low tariff, because such means cheaper goods to the farmer.
Almost everyone, save the farmer, believes in farm aid.
Land reclamation, always a major form of farm aid, implies insufficient acreage. Land resettlement, a lusty farm-aid infant, implies, in addition, insufficient man power. Agricultural welfare workers, adding to the confusion, proclaim a low standard of agrarian efficiency. However, add insufficient acreage to insufficient man power and equipment, to inefficient methods, and you have — a surplus.
This summer I spoke along this line to one of the efficiency raisers at the State College of Agriculture. He is a swine specialist with several degrees, so when he told me I did not see the matter clearly, what could I say? The one function which my kind must perform, inefficiently or otherwise, is to raise the taxes which keep those who insist we have too few acres, too little competition, and no efficiency.
The downfall of prices and consequent condition known as agricultural distress began in 1920. Since their lowest level, prices have risen considerably, although not enough to establish a parity of exchange. When farmers were being hit worst, far less was said about farm aid than is being said now. Banks took over farms and imagined themselves secure. Farmers lost their equities, but publicity about depression increased when the banks learned, in the course of several years, that the farms could not be disposed of.
It is still the fashion to blame farmers for paying inflated prices for farms and equipment. What about the bankers who imagined a value where it was not, and who now are busy presenting resettlement schemes in order to create a market for land? Land resettlement is not being asked for by farmers. The twenty-five million acres of land which have been abandoned during the last five years mean many a Hilda Rose, but any government scheme to bring back these acres would not help the frozen-out, starved-out, and taxed-out farmer occupants. Any money advanced or project furthered by the government would redound to the present owners of the abandoned lands. A lawyer said to me this summer, ‘My firm represents a number of people owning land in northern Wisconsin which they have had to take over as a result of mortgages. This land we cannot sell, it yields no income, taxes are a burden, our clients need their money. What can we do?’ To him the farm problem is comparatively recent. The farmers lost, the investors also must lose, as in any business which loses markets and is overexpanded.
The disappearance of land from cultivation is in itself farm aid, but, being the result of economic law, it has no merit with people whose livelihood depends upon jobs correcting uneconomic results of statute law. The use of government funds and influence to retain or return submarginal lands and farmers is penalization of efficient farmers upon supermarginal lands.
The Milwaukee Journal of June 23, 1927, carries an item about a twentyfive-million-dollar land-financing corporation designed to thaw out frozen assets of the Northwest, ‘Through the employment of Eastern capital, it is purposed to market and reestablish values of more than two hundred million dollars’ worth of foreclosed land in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana.’ The twentyfive million dollars spent for advertising might let out the present, holders of the land. Nevertheless the economic or actual ‘thawing out’ of agricultural land assets can result only from a warming up of the price of wheat, wool, beef, and so forth, to a point at which the land in question yields something above management, labor, and taxes.
Some of the hard-hit regions have a great investment in schools, roads, and courthouses; but such public improvements, costing beyond the capacity of a region to support, act as a depressor of land values. Their bonds, maintenance, and officials have first claim upon the products of the land. An expensive school frequently lowers the value of farms within its district. However, a region which has been boomed into spending more than it can afford falls back upon state and federal aid, by which taxes are transferred from regions of fair economic stability to regions of no economic stability whatever. Wisconsin now has a law which aims to equalize school taxes throughout the state. Based upon the premise that all children are entitled to an equal chance for education, the law tends to keep people in regions which are not economically productive. Our educators use legislation to consolidate schools and assemble pupils at the same time they use legislation to scatter and keep scattered the parents. This is a fair instance of the use of government to create and aggravate a problem.
Late in August, a delegation from the American Society of Agricultural Engineers told President Coolidge their solutions of the farm problem. Among other things it appears that the farmers are inefficient. Possibly we are. Efficiency is another modern deity among words. It frequently means the efficient transference of an inefficient product. Unquestionably, according to modern business, a group which spends all its time producing and none in advertising and selling is inefficient.
While the government spends millions to increase production, simultaneously with its expenditures for figuring how to dispose of the results of overproduction, manufacturers use the phrase ‘ farm aid ’ to decrease consumption. For instance, Henry Ford is quoted as saying that the dairy cow is inefficient, therefore he intends to produce milk synthetically and relieve the farmer of the drudgery of dairying. Assuming Mr. Ford to be serious and not advertising, it follows that farm aid approaches perfection in so far as it does away with farms and farmers.
Then the tractor is listed by its makers and sellers as farm aid. The words ‘tractor,’ ’lowering production costs,’ ‘farm aid,’ linked together in advertising, cause a displacement of animal power. I owned a tractor for several years. To me it cannot compare in efficiency, cheapness, and even average speed with horses. A tractor cannot stand adversity as can a horse or mule. If your power is grain via draft animals and your products drop in price, your operating costs drop in the same ratio. Your overhead drops with your curtailed income. But if your power is a gas engine and the price of farm products drops, your power costs increase, for, after all, it is with an increased amount of farm products that you buy gas, oil, and mechanics’ services. To say that the converse is true, and that when prices of farm products rise your tractor takes less, disregards the fact that any comeback in food prices is followed at once by a vigorous and frequently successful demand for higher urban wages with their increased production costs to the farmer. Among other sales chatter used for tractors is that it is cruel to use horses. So we are led another step toward the goal established by Mr. Ford’s anti-cow proposal. Another step toward perfect farm aid — the elimination of need for farmers.
Yet, in our many-ringed farm-aid circus, one ring is devoted to the clamor that the abandonment of farms and the exodus of boys and girls cityward mean a decaying civilization. In this ring are thousands of people getting millions of dollars to keep the boy and girl on the farm. It might be well to observe that urban labor objects to no cost which will keep it free from competition. This, quoting Mr. Swett of San Francisco, is one reason for Australia’s farm aid, which actually subsidizes the production of food.
There are many of us whose sole means of living is directly from the soil who believe that we ought not to be hampered by government reclamation schemes and resettlement projects. We believe that it is unjust and uneconomic to insist upon overproduction. We believe that those who proclaim that we are inefficient should risk their own capital and labor to drive us out. And we believe that the use of the Department of Agriculture to stimulate production and the Department of Labor to justify underproduction is unfair as well as uneconomic.
‘Farm aid’ and allied phrases are sacred. Their function is odd. Briefly, it is to create, aggravate, and perpetuate the evils they propose to overcome.