AGRICULTURE’S slow tempo turns economic distress on the farm into a low fever rather than a fierce, malignant one. When a business man loses money, he must find a remedy soon or quit, either voluntarily or as a bankrupt. Not so the farmer; comparatively few farmers reach the courts through insolvency, though many are insolvent. Some are insolvent all their lives without ever going bankrupt. They weather hard times by letting their lands run down in fertility and by living on their buildings and fences, even though these may not be entirely theirs.
A few examples will show why American farms are running down and why American farmers seek relief through political pressure.
Before Montana began to lose population and northern New York farmers began to lose money, the latter invested largely in Montana mortgages. One of these mortgages remained in an estate administered by a friend of mine. He wrote the debtor suggesting a cash deal with discount, no reasonable offer refused. By return mail he received a deed to the property from an embittered soul who said he was moving to town, where a man could fight something else than insects. So the executor wrote off the mortgage and closed the estate. That farm will be sold for taxes. The Montana farmer, of course, let the place run down to almost a raw land value before he quit.
In the same estate was a debt secured by a New York farm of one hundred and thirty acres, sold on contract seventeen years ago for $3500, the buyer to pay $100 a year and interest. This he has faithfully done. The debt now stands at $1800, which is a fair price for the place as it stands to-day. For ten years the buyer has not been clearing enough to meet his payments; nevertheless he paid them by letting his buildings and fences depreciate to the extent of his money needs. To put this farm in as good condition as when it was sold would take every cent of the $1700 paid on the principal since the sale. Consequently the debt cannot be turned into cash except by writing off a large portion of it, because the debtor can walk off that place and get another just as good for a sum equal to his balance due.
Decaying barns and buildings sometimes keep young persons in college. One of the best farm homes I know, from the standpoint of joint cultural and agricultural development, occupies two hundred and thirty acres. It has been in the same family for one hundred and thirty-one years, and free of debt for more than a century. On this farm the human stock has always been rated ahead of the live stock. They tell you first of the Congressman they raised there, later of their prize bulls. Three generations of boys and girls have gone from that farm to Cornell University. ‘We’re a Cornell family,’ they say proudly. That is the key to their farm economy, as the key to another might be ‘We’re Holstein breeders.’
This farm, also, has run down of late years. The boys and girls of this generation have been going to college on the buildings of their ancient heritage. The present head of the family admits a decline: ‘We’ve always been provident, and so are still out of debt and going stronger than some of our neighbors. Nevertheless, we have had to let things slide here and there. Within my lifetime our standard of living has declined. We have many things my forefathers lacked, but they had some things we miss. My mother used to sit at her table, ring a bell, and receive service. When I was a boy we always had one hired girl in the house the year round, and two in the summer. At present we have no hired girl and have n’t had one for years. We used to have four hired men the year round; now we have two. Even so, our farm is still relatively a big, prosperous, going concern for our neighborhood; few of our neighbors keep even one hired hand the year round.
‘We have slipped, but not because of lazy or unintelligent farming. After going to agricultural college, I found my life work on this farm, and my son after me. We’ve never chased rainbows or loafed on the job, and we are open to new methods. Some general condition, off this farm and beyond our control, has kept us from making the headway in the last sixty years that my great-grandfather and grandfather made on this same farm in a like period. . . . We have bound copies of farm journals here from 1840 down, and from a reading of them I place the golden age of American farming in the decade from 1840 to 1850. Things have never been as good for farmers since, except during abnormal war years.’
Bams and fences will keep a farm family alive a long time when a living is all they ask. For ten years I have been watching a thrifty elderly couple eating their structures bit by bit. Gates and barn doors hang askew; cow stanchions and barn floors are worn thin. Even the hospitable doorstep sags underfoot. If the owner outlasts this slump, he will build his property up again; if not, one more farm goes to join the growing rack and ruin of rural America. Though past seventy, he seems tireless, and keeps optimistic in spite of misfortune.
A few years ago, when big business was the idol and inspiration of the country, this optimist held a touching faith that ‘pretty soon’ big business would do something for the farmers. ‘Man alive,’ he would say, ‘just look at the wonderful farm market for manufactures! Why, if we farmers should be prosperous for five years, we’d spend all the profits fixing up our places. I’d buy nails and lumber and roofing and paint and a new silo. Man alive, they must help us in order to keep the mills running!’
The idea that the mills would ever stop running never occurred to him; those big business men he read about in the newspapers and magazines were too smart to let anything like that happen. ‘You see,’ he would say, cocking his lean gray head at me, ‘we farmers aren’t like city folk, here to-day and away to-morrow. This farm suits me. You might call it bleak, being all hillside; to me it’s just nicely airy. All I ask before I die is a chance to fix this place up right; then I knowMother can go on eating fences, if necessary, as long as she has any appetite.’
Be it ever so tumble-down, this is home, with the atmosphere of idealism celebrated in old-school poetry and new-school realty advertising. The farm home, by and large, is the reason for the existence of the average farm and all the work that goes on there. There are perhaps 5,000,000 farm homes in America, if one makes deductions from census figures for suburbanites, kid-glove farmers, corporation farms, and farms of such low economic vitality that their occupants are ground down almost to the brute standard. Whatever damages these homes, by lowering their standards or breaking down the spirit which maintains them, damages America.
Farming, some say, should be a business, run on scientific lines, with adequate accounting. Possibly that is what it will be some day when the eccentricities of man have been smoothed away. For my part, I like him better the way he is, and believe that the agrarian politics of the near future will be largely concerned with keeping the independent farmer from being improved into a farm hand.
There are rhythms in economics as in physics, in man as in nature. Probably we can no more escape business rhythms than we can escape the seasons or live without pulse beats.
Every boom creates a succeeding depression; yet every boom, notwithstanding its pursuing shadow, leaves the country richer than it was. Canals and internal improvements, wastefully built and rashly financed, brought on the collapse of 1837; but the improvements remained and were used. Spectacular railway building contributed to the depressions which began in 1873 and 1893; those railways are still running and were once so prosperous that men actually thought the roads would own the country unless curbed. Our recent boom left a bulky inventory of tangibles which are not likely to wear out for years — radio stations, concrete roads, airports, skyscrapers, housing. Perhaps we paid too much for them, but there they are.
Unfortunately there are also offsets. Although each successive business cycle sees the country richer than before, the end of the down swing finds fewer persons in possession. Social morale sinks, though the national inventory rises. Many have lost everything, gone bankrupt; others have slipped in the economic scale beyond recovery. Whatever standards of measurement are taken, the conclusion is inescapable that the middle class has been losing power and influence in America for a century. Not steadily, of course. Between depressions the middle class recovers part of the ground lost; then in the next depression it loses what it has gained — and more.
In the aftermath of depression appear movements of protest. After 1837, Know-nothingism. After 1873, Knights of Labor. After 1893, Populism and a Democratic Party ‘gone Populist.’ A new silver movement is already gathering strength. Unemployment and privation predispose to radicalism those who have only their labor to sell. Of more vitality, however, will be the effort of the middle class to preserve itself from further shrinking. Mere uprisings of the plebs ravel out quickly. Wat Tylers are more easily squelched than John Hampdens. A vigorous middle-class movement, however, may hold the gates of change ajar until social revolution enters.
Our farmers for ten years have been fighting to retain the middle-class position which their fathers enjoyed without question in the days when a ‘good farmer’ stood as high, socially and financially, as a village merchant. For the most part, theirs has been a random and reckless struggle, waged without cohesion between sections and with either too much organization, as in the case of the Non-Partisan League, or too little, as in the case of the cooperatives. But the object of the fray is manifestly neither the overturn of government nor the ending of private property. The object is to keep the independent American farmer in the middle economic class, to bolster his proprietary position.
By and large, there are three kinds of farms in the United States, according to Dr. C. F. Ansley, whose keen analysis along this line has been accepted by many authorities. There are large-scale farms, including corporation enterprises. They are adequately capitalized and scientifically operated with the latest machinery. Though still comparatively few, they increase in number and acreage; a goodly slice of the future probably belongs to them. If well managed, they are almost invulnerable, because farm wages drop nearly as fast as farm prices. In distressed times they buy ‘distress’ land and hire distressed men.
At the other extreme are the sustenance farmers, holders of small acreages on which they aim first of all to raise food for their families. If the sustenance farmer has a side money crop, it is usually on so modest a scale that he can handle it without hiring extra help. When he must have assistance, he trades time with a neighbor. But the bulk of his cash is likely to come from outside work for wages — carpentering, threshing, ditching, harvesting, road repairing — or from some kind of winter job in a near-by town, to which he motors. I know one such farmer who teaches the violin and piano. Sustenance farmers have a two-point suspension — outside wages and home-grown food; hence they are not easily upset by hard times.
In between are the so-called independent farmers, with from eighty acres to a section of six hundred and forty acres. They must hire help, borrow money, buy fertilizer, and pay taxes in larger amounts than the sustenance farmers. Their cash comes out of the soil, not from the pay roll of someone who plans their work for them. Farms of this medium size are more heavily mortgaged per acre than those both larger and smaller; hence their owners suffer more when interest must be paid with the proceeds of sales of farm products which sell for less at maturity dates than when the mortgage was written.
Like the middle class in society as a whole, the middle-class farm tends to be shredded away under the economic frictions of peace. Many a deserted farm of this type awaits dissolution, either through being merged into a larger enterprise or by being cut into smaller parcels for the accommodation of sustenance farmers. Of course, there are other abandoned farms which should never have been cleared at all. The enforced trek of the disillusioned back to the land, which marks every depression, benefits some independent farmers by bringing them cheap help; but to an even larger extent it increases the number of sustenance farmers who look to the land for food and elsewhere for cash.
This three-way classification of farmers may seem faulty because it includes no category of tenant farmers. But the classification is as much mental as economic, partaking as much of hope as of reality; and whoever rents a farm, small or large, will generally be found wishing that he owned it or one something like it. In fact, no small proportion of tenant farmers are former proprietors trying to ‘come back.'
There are two points of view on American farm tenancy. One school holds that the practice is developing land workers incapable of ownership, who do not want its risks and responsibilities. The other believes tenancy is a first step toward ownership, and this seems truly the case outside of the ‘cropper’ regions of the South. Even there the recent Georgia experiment in selling farms to tenants on easy terms, less than 3 per cent above the annual rent, brought forth a response indicating that the age-old desire of the land worker to own that part of the footstool which he tills has not been destroyed by years of shifting. Centuries of landlordism in Europe and Ireland failed to kill that ancient hunger; the only country where the rural population has remained indifferent to a change from tenancy to proprietorship is England. In the United States, at least, I think we can take for granted that tenant farmers and owning farmers will stand together in the main; both will have the farm view in the tug of war between town and country, field and factory.
One farm point of view, no matter what the rest of the country thinks on the subject, is that the farmer is the salt of the earth and the backbone and sinew of the country. If this is true, the country must be tottering, because the backbone is surely getting shaky. On the basis of income, the average farmer is no longer a member of the middle class. He has slipped into the lower classification. Social descent, however, is seldom accepted quickly by any individual. A man changes front like a chameleon when he goes from $1000 to $100,000 a year, but not when he falls from $4000 to $1000 a year. He may pinch and scrape, make the economic adjustments, eat the bitter bread, but seldom does he fly the white flag of spiritual surrender to adversity. Usually, while strength is in him, he expects to come back, regain lost ground, and stand where he stood before. Especially is this true when the victim has not changed base or occupation during his decline, and when his immediate neighbors have been slipping at almost the same pace.
This trend becomes clearer year by year. The security of the independent farmer has been shaken enough to disturb him, but he still thinks of himself as where he was before, where his ancestors have been since the dawn of the Republic — in the middle economic class in a country where the middle class rules, or is supposed to rule. Long after the farmer has been declassed financially, he will still be firm against proletarian persuasion and Socialist philosophy. But this does not mean that he will accept his decline without a struggle. His fight will be made for the preservation of the farm home, the regaining of his old position, and, incidentally, for the preservation of the middle class. His tactics may smack of Socialism or state capitalism, or, perhaps, be nothing more than an agitated grab in self-defense, but the end sought is clearly that of preserving farm proprietorship on a middle-class plane, with every farmer the boss of his own acres, and more secure there than he was before the fight began.
Rich and powerful persons may be able, in a pinch, to protect their property, hire their own police, lay down laws of some sort if need be, as feudal barons did in days of old. The middle class, urban or rural, cannot do this. The middlers need the State; the modem, democratic State is essentially their handiwork. Nevertheless, the sovereign State tends to slip the leash and wander off toward one extreme or the other, as fickle politicians favor poor folk to-day and the rich folk to-morrow, looking to the proletariat for votes and to the plutocrats for money.
We see the middle class taxed for proletarian benefits which its members have little need of — for free swimming pools and playgrounds, elaborate civic centres, free clinics and hospitals, poor aid and old-age pensions. On the other hand, behold the middle class also taxed in the interest of certain mill owners through a protective tariff. The first brings heavy tax rates to bear upon middle-class homes; the second makes certain that whatever enters that home costs enough to support certain industries which, in the wisdom of legislators, are not able to stand on their own feet against foreign competition. If the argument be advanced that the tariff is really intended to benefit wage earners rather than protected industrialists, then the middle class is still being taxed thereby for the benefit of others differently situated. The injustice still holds; the economic grinding against the middle continues from both extremes of the body politic.
The first line of defense for the middle class, consequently, is resistance to taxation. First, of course, a stern effort to restrain the extravagance of government; then vigilance to shunt a larger share of the legitimate costs of government to other shoulders. In our day the middle class has found two sturdy weapons neatly suited to these purposes — the graduated income tax, with heavy surcharges in the upper brackets, a club against the rich; and the sales tax, a club against the poor. Other defenses will be found as the middle class feels the shoe of taxation pinching harder and harder.
Taxation has been tearing at farm foundations. For a decade, at least, the dice have been loaded against the independent, or middle-class, farmer. The prices of his chief farm staples have been too low in relation to the costs of the things he has had to buy. Tax demands upon him have increased; in New York approximately 14 per cent of his takings goes for taxes. Titles to wealth, such as stocks and bonds, may be concealed; land and buildings, farm stock and equipment, lie open to the assessor’s view, and the farmer cannot shift residence easily to seek lower taxation.
Of all middle-class folk, — I use the term to include all who think they are still in that class, though actually they may have slipped out of it,— farmers recover the fewest advantages from their tax expenditures. They must still police their own properties and fight their own fires. All their tax money buys for them is a good road somewhere near by, an inferior school for their children as compared with city schools, and the vague, tenuous benefits of government in general, which are frequently overrated. Many urban enterprises can add tax payments to costs of operation and collect them from the consuming public, in which case they are not taxpayers, but merely tax collectors. Farming does not fall into that happy category. Taxes come directly out of the farmer’s pocket as a cost which he cannot charge against the consumer. If farmers ever manage to collect their taxes from their customers through price fixing, some legal barrier will be found to keep them from it, as being against sound public policy or the general-welfare clause of the Constitution. In the meantime, if the farmer is to recover middleclassdom, let him resist taxation as staunchly as his brother-farmer, the French peasant, does.
Keeping what he gets is a practical improvement, after all, on the alternative policy of paying revenue into the Federal Treasury with one hand while trying to take out revenue with the other. Lately we have seen a futile effort to peg wheat and cotton prices with Federal funds for the benefit of wheat and cotton farmers only, and to the positive detriment of many farmers outside of the favored categories. The McNary-Haugen Bill had a similar motive for a broader clientele. Farm Board stocks are a menace, not only to wheat growers, but to the whole range of wages and prices, because cheap bread means, in the long run, cheap labor. Instead of grabbing at Treasury funds under the formula of farm relief, farmers would do better to fight tariffs on the goods they must purchase. Indirect as well as direct taxes must be lowered before agriculturists recover the ground they have lost in the last ten years.
Since misfortune hit the towns, farmers are feeling more contented in their adversity. For eight years after the war the farmers had to take prosperity on faith, because they never saw any of it. What is more irritating than to read of irresponsible town laborers getting increased wages while one’s own time and care bring less than before? Now a balance has been struck; the farmer realizes the sorry plight of the out-of-work who has no hold on the land, who loses his job without notice and is left without a grubstake between himself and hunger. In a quiet way the farmers are already doing quite a sizable relief work. Their out-of-work boys and girls have moved home in large numbers to wait for better times in an area where, as long as seeds sprout and buildings hang together, the bell rings for meals three times a day, a roof fends off rain, and a wood lot provides fuel. The extent of the recent migration from town to country must be enormous. Industrial cities have lost heavily in population, some of them as much as 25 per cent. Starvation has not overtaken the departed, since vital statistics show that the death rate is down. Those who have left the towns must be on the farms; there is no other refuge large enough to accommodate such throngs with so little confusion.
A gnarled veteran of the soil told me it seemed like old times to have the children back. ‘Sure, I make them work, but it is n’t the work I’m thinking of. There’s somebody to talk to now. You know a farm can be a dreadful lonely place sometimes with so much machinery and just two old folks on it. I have n’t had a hired man to swear at since 1912.’
Machine agriculture has come so rapidly that it is not unusual to find farms whose machinery is worth as much as land and buildings. By no means all farmers can handle the business complications caused by this increase in capitalization of their properties. Farms have been mechanized far faster than the ability to manage machinery could develop. Here and there will be found a sustenance farmer with a machine equipment who prospers by hiring himself and his machinery out to the independent farmers of the neighborhood. A specialist, he makes money out of operations in which his customers usually lose money. Quite a delicate computation is required to estimate the true costs of machine operations on farms, and to measure the real profits or losses of any crop so produced.
The successful user of factory machinery sees that its productive power is extracted in the shortest possible time. He uses it at least eight hours a day, more if he can, since interest charges do not cease when the wheels stop turning. But farm machinery can hardly be so efficiently used. On an Eastern farm the binder is seldom worked more than ten out of the three hundred and thirteen working days in the year. Over-equipment with under-used machinery ruins city enterprises, no doubt, but it is a greater danger to agriculture than to almost any other industry. In fact, as one studies the farming scene, the wonder grows that farms should show any signs of being improved by progress.
What benefits have better tools, machinery, methods, pest controls, and all the rest, brought to the independent, middle-class American farmer? Are farmers more prosperous now than before the reaper was invented? Will a farmer’s labor, translated into salable crops, buy as much as his grandfather’s like labor? Does the farmer enjoy a higher standing in his community? Does his type have as much influence on affairs as it used to have?
Of course, America is too vast to permit of a cocksure answer applicable to all sections, but, wherever I have put these questions to farmers who had enough background to answer the question intelligently, the answer has been a puzzled ‘No.’
There is less back-breaking labor now, and a somewhat shorter working day, but there is a good deal more worry, as well as responsibility. Of course, social benefits have flowed from the advance of agricultural methods and tools, but the profits of that advance have gone to city landlords more largely than to rural ones. The farmer is seldom well enough off to sit on the porch after buying a laborsaving machine and watch a hired man operate it; instead, he lets some helper go. Labor-saving machinery allows less man power on the land to feed more men in the towns, but not often does it increase the responsible farmer’s leisure. City lots have risen in value; quiet county seats have become noisy industrial cities; yet excellent farms are selling to-day for less than the cost of clearing and draining them, and farmers are hard put to it to finance a living as good as that enjoyed by their fathers on the same land.
I talked recently to a wise man of many investments who declared that the independent farmer is already whipped. He said, ‘Huge mechanized farms are just coming into their own. Either American farms must be merged into large units precisely managed, or Russia will run away with world markets in the staples common to both countries. In either case, the oldstyle, independent farmer is done for. All that remains is to conduct his funeral — that is to say, get him shifted into another job, and his lands into more responsible and efficient control. This will take time and trouble, because the farmer is a stubborn fellow, and we can’t coerce him into larger units, as is being done in Russia. But after he breaks into wage earning he will like it better than proprietorship. He really does n’t enjoy eating fences, and some day soon will realize that he needs a boss who will make that waste unnecessary.’
On the other side stands this statement from a farm champion: ‘Farming in America is more than a business; it is also a way of life for millions of steady-going persons. It is precisely the idealism of the farm home that keeps American farmers from going “peasant” in adversity. The resistance which American farmers will develop to the growth of large-scale corporate agriculture is also at bottom a form of idealism — a faith, long nurtured through American education, that responsible individuals making their own decisions are better citizens and stronger personalities than those who from youth to age accept orders, avoid risks, and leave to others the ordering of their effective working years. We think the decline of independent farming in America will also mean the decline of America in all other fundamentals, so that the impending struggle means far more to us than merely preserving the economic independence of 5,000,000 farmers. We think that America of the Fathers will perish soon after America of the Farmers is destroyed.’
This conflict may easily soon become a burning issue in American politics. The independent farmer holds the ground, though less firmly than he did. More than $5,000,000,000 in mortgage debt weighs him down; his plant has depreciated; his goods are selling below cost; his first dip into the Federal Treasury has had disastrous results. Nevertheless, he will fight against changing from boss to farm hand with every weapon at his command, frequently choosing the wrong one.
Most of all he should battle against public expenditures, try to shift taxation elsewhere, and walk out on all grandiose persons and programmes that cumber the world with debt. It is to be expected that his methods will be constitutionally political, but, these failing, he may try direct action here and there, in spots. In that case, look out. It is in the slow fires and the low fevers of middle-class resentment that historic revolutions generate the heats which later melt down the brazen doors of states.