Farmers Without Farms


THE dispossessed are walking the roads of America today — refugees, not of war, but of a revolution that is turning agriculture into an industry, dealing in subsidized, downtrodden, exploited, unregulated, unprotected labor.

Government estimates have set the present total at about half a million homeless wanderers, with the Department of Agriculture reporting that 40,000 persons, who have not been on the road before, join the tragic total each year.

There have always been migratory agricultural workers following the crops in this country, but the new migrants are different. Those of earlier days were single men, who liked to be on the move, bindle stiffs who chose a mobile way of life, who had no desire to settle down and fit themselves into a community social scheme. The new migrants are evicted American farm families who want to get another piece of land more than anything else in the world, but instead find all the good land grabbed by the big fellows who grudge them thirty cents an hour or less for helping with the harvest.

Investigations and revelations, set off by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which spotlighted the problem as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did that of slavery, have recently revealed this clearly as a national problem. Senator Robert M. La Follette’s subcommittee of the Senate Education and Labor Committee and Representative John H. Tolan’s special House committee are continuing serious and searching probes into the problem.

These investigations reveal the stark and frightening fact that many states are today the scenes of dispossession, others are receiving great influxes of migrants, and still others foresee the early extension of the pattern to and within their boundaries.

The migrants come from poor homes in the Dust Bowl and also from rich lands in that most stable of all agricultural areas, the Corn Belt, where mechanization is estimated to have pushed more than 6 per cent of Iowa’s farm families off their land in the last three years. They come from the Cotton Belt, the Wheat Belt, from all areas.

Many are the causes of this exodus. The waste and exhaustion of our soil through overgrazing and one-crop planting, unchecked for more than a century, made thousands of acres ready victims to drought, dust, grasshoppers, wind, and flood, which destroyed them for any owners. Much of the land settled in the northern part of the lake states was poor to begin with, and this has been the real problem in that region, rather than erosion. In the years 1930 to 1939 more than one and a half million farms were lost by their owners because of inability to meet mortgage or tax payments. This represents more than one quarter of all the farms in the United States.

There have been years of ruinous farm prices, foreign markets have disappeared, and the depression has greatly aggravated many already serious farm conditions. Unsound systems of tenure and an alarming increase in farm tenancy as opposed to farm ownership have played their part. A growing surplus in the farm population, as farming opportunities dropped and restricted employment in the cities failed to take up the slack, added to the distress.

But outstanding among all causes contributing to the present agricultural problem of the dispossessed is the mechanization of American farms.

The typical farm in the traditional American sense has always been the ‘family-size farm,’ ranging from 40 to 160 acres, worked by its owner and his family, with possibly a hired man, treated as part of that family. Today, found in increasing numbers throughout the United States are large industrialized concerns, often corporately-owned, with huge acreages handled by hard-headed business men frequently without previous experience in farming, which use many machines, few work animals, and few humans except in peak harvest time, when great hordes of ‘laborers’ are temporarily employed.

Compare the following great farm businesses with the family-size farm: —

The United States Sugar Corporation, operating 30,000 acres in Florida;

Tom Campbell, the ‘wheat king,’ whose operations in years past have covered tens of thousands of wheat, barley, and other grain land in such widely separated states as Montana, New Mexico, and California;

Stokely Brothers and Company, Inc., with 7545 acres in Tennessee, and 27 plants in Indiana, Wisconsin, Delaware, Tennessee, Washington, Florida, Texas, and California, preparing, packing, and selling food products such as vegetables, fruits, and condiments;

The Applecrest Orchard of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, largest apple producer of New England, with its own packing plant, which produced last year more than 70.000 bushels of apples (nearly one twelfth of the commercial apple crop of New Hampshire), employing 8 men the year round and 125 seasonal workers through picking and packing;

Walker-Gordon Farm near Princeton, New Jersey, operating the big ‘Rotolactor’ milking machine built like a merry-go-round, with a capacity of 50 cows at one time, and at the present time milking 1400 cows three times a day;

Large-scale poultry farms such as Christie, Hubbard, and Colby of New Hampshire, shipping annually thousands of broilers, baby chicks, and eggs;

Seabrook Farms, a corporation truck farm of vast acreage near Vineland, New Jersey;

Starkey Farms Company, owning asparagus acreage in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina, which it divides into small farms of approximately 40 acres each, worked by sharecropper tenants on a 50-50 basis with the cropper planting the crop and doing all labor, and the landowner supplying housing (such as it is), mules, and equipment;

The Godchaux Sugar Corporation, owning 34,140 acres of land, of which 13,700 acres are in sugar cane in Louisiana;

The great British-controlled Delta and Pine Land cotton plantation in Mississippi;

The California Packing Corporation, owning and operating 20,000 acres of land in California valued at nearly $9,000,000; leasing and operating nearly as much land in canning vegetables in Illinois with the largest fleet of rubber-tired tractors in the world, plus leases, operations, and contracts in other states, Hawaii, and the Philippines, bringing it control over crops on a grand total of nearly 100,000 acres;

The Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation, owning through its subsidiary, the Earl Fruit Company, 15,855 acres of farm land in 22 units in California, valued at $5,754,000, with irrigation equipment worth $1,585,000 more, plus land in other states; and through another subsidiary, the International Fruit Corporation, having large holdings in Florida and in Georgia totaling approximately 31,745 acres.

Such concentration of acreage and values into huge corporate farms is probably most prevalent in the cotton, sugar-cane, and tobacco plantations of the South and the fruit and vegetable ranches of California, plus their holdings in other states. Of the 7875 large-scale farms in the United States reporting a normal value of production of $30,000 or more in the 1930 census, 36.7 per cent were in California. The census failed to include cropper-operated plantations in its enumeration of large-scale farms. Representing only 2.1 per cent in number of all farms in California, large-scale farms accounted for more than one fourth of the land in farms, more than one fifth of harvested crop land, two sevenths of the value of all farm products, and more than one third of all expenditures in the state for farm labor. In Louisiana, 2 per cent of the state’s sugar-cane operators, who grow 80 or more acres apiece, hold 60 per cent of the state’s cane acreage.

Large-scale farm managers, unable to regulate other overhead charges such as transportation of produce to markets, rent, interest, power and water, fertilizer and machinery, insist on their right to control wages and to hire and fire arbitrarily to meet fluctuating economic conditions. They beat down hourly rates of pay by recruiting an excess of labor and accepting those who will work for the least. They demand the release of ‘reliefers’ from WPA and relief rolls to work for whatever wages they wish to pay, and they often prefer migrants over resident laborers because migrants will be ‘glad to find a home and job’ and are also less likely to be unionized. The managers themselves are organized in associations which control labor policies, but they brand any attempts of their workers to organize as the activities of ‘reds,’ ‘radicals,’ and ‘communists.’ This attitude makes for an antagonism between employer and employee and provides no possible basis for understanding or negotiation.


How does mechanization work to make possible so drastic a change in the farm picture?

Recent developments in manufacture of small, all-purpose tractors at low cost have been the important means of changing farm sizes, operations, and employment. The Farmall tractor, applicable to all field operations, needing few men to handle it and designed as a complete replacement of horses, was introduced in 1924. In 1933, a smaller and cheaper Farmall was put on the market, and even less expensive ones have appeared since.

Thus, in the last seven years, small farmers — both tenants and owners — able to buy these all-purpose machines have found themselves equipped to expand operations while cutting their human help. One farmer, finding himself able to handle more acreage in a shorter time than ever before, buys or leases an adjoining farm or farms, throws off less fortunate tenants, and handles 200 acres with one year-round helper where he had formerly only 100 acres and five hired men. Such high rents are bid for good lands by farmers with machinery, seeking to expand, that other tenant families with little power equipment are unable to compete, and are either forced off the land entirely or forced into poorer sections where they can raise only meagre and unprofitable crops. Absentee owners, such as insurance companies and banks holding overdue farm mortgages, have been able to operate the land with the new machinery more cheaply than the original owners.

The difference in social and financial status between their former estate as farmers on the land and their present position as seasonal laborers is graphically illustrated by the following report of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Stations: ‘The typical farm tenant in the High Plains or Blackland may be expected to earn a net farm income of from $800 to $1000 annually, even with cotton prices as low as they are today. As either a common or an agricultural laborer, the same tenant cannot expect to earn more than from $250 to $300.’

Throughout the country, mechanization has hit rural schools because of the increasingly transient population and hurt the business of small-town merchants who have fewer farms and fewer people to supply. Even the implement dealer who sells tractors estimates that for every one he sells he drives at least five customers off farm land.

Where is mechanization taking place?

Tractors are moving throughout the Southeast. Word is passed from cabin to cabin, from the Georgia cotton fields to the Carolina sea islands, north to the Alabama and Tennessee hills, and west even to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, that the only work for the obscure, disheartened, and landless people of the area will be in the wake of the machines in harvest time. Then they will work for a pittance from ‘can to can’t.’ In all the agricultural areas of peninsular Florida, development of large-scale industrialized farming is under way with tractors, gang ploughs, dusting by airplanes, thousands of acres under intensive cultivation, and migratory labor forces hired under pitiful conditions.

In wheat areas of the nation, tractors and combines have taken over the fields, stepping up acreage that can be handled by one man, and one unit of power and machinery, from 200 to 800 acres.

Following their earlier attack on wheat, machines are now rolling through the cornfields of the country in increasing numbers. Three years ago an Iowa report stated that mechanical corn pickers were already replacing 15,000 to 20,000 men formerly employed in handpicking.

In fruit and vegetable areas, machines are fast turning truck farms into factories. Mechanization in Aroostook County, Maine’s great potato-producing area, cut the time needed to produce and market 100 bushels of potatoes by 84 per cent from 1909 to 1936.

In the rich cotton lands of Mississippi and Arkansas, displacement of farmers by machines is beginning to be heavy. One planter alone purchased 22 tractors and 13 four-row cultivators, dispossessing 130 of his 160 share-croppers, retaining only 30 for day labor. Such displaced croppers are swept into towns of the Delta and choke the slums of Memphis. During cotton chopping in the spring and picking season in the fall, they are hauled daily in great trucks to work on plantations as far as forty-three miles distant. The rest of the year they remain largely unemployed and a heavy burden on relief. Thus they constitute a mobile labor reserve supported at public expense in the winter.

This condition is true throughout all industrialized agricultural sections, for the employers, who admit frankly that they need seasonal labor, refuse to take any responsibility for its livelihood and support in off seasons, passing the buck to government and private relief agencies which maintain the needed labor force during slack seasons as a public subsidy to the big growers. Yet, as we have shown, they demand that workers be made immediately available when needed, even if that means throwing them off relief for wages far below even the relief pittances they were receiving.


With this black present, the future looks even more ominous. There is the mechanical cotton picker yet to be adopted throughout the Cotton Belt, and the machine industry is working to perfect new, low-cost machines, such as a sugar-beet harvester, a corn combine to pick, husk, and shell corn in one continuous operation, and a sugar-cane harvester. These will make further deep inroads on the human labor of the farms. Even without these new developments, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics states that a conservative estimate points to the displacement of 350,000 to 400.000 more workers in agriculture in the next decade by the adoption of machines which have already been developed. With an average family numbering 4.5 persons, these displaced workers will have between 1,225,000 and 1,400,000 dependents affected by their plight.

Figures recently submitted to the Temporary National Economic Committee, investigating the migrant problem, clearly show the shift of farmers’ money into machines rather than wages. The percentage of cash farm income spent for the machinery to operate farms has risen from .24 in 1910 to 11.71 in 1939, while the percentage spent for agricultural wages dropped from 9.13 in 1910 to 7.13 in 1939 (a period in which the wage levels rose). Farmers’ expenses for farm implements, tractors, and repairs to machinery, have risen from $95,000,000 in 1932 to $422,000,000 in 1939. The 1932 figure represents only 1.7 per cent of the gross farm income, while the 1939 figure equals 4.9 per cent.

Obviously the machine, plus rural electrification and other technical changes, has made farming easier and more productive and farm life more comfortable for the farmers who can afford these improvements, but it tends to freeze the social status of the farm community. Unhampered by business regulatory practices, employers provide whatever living conditions they wish for their workers. Let’s take a look at this part of the picture of American agriculture in 1940. It isn’t an edifying spectacle.

In the East, thousands of children are taken from school to work in the cranberry bogs of New Jersey; in the South, Negroes are transported in trucks from slums to be ‘sold’ by row bosses to farmers for harvesting jobs; in the West, white Americans are herded into barricaded, boss-run, armed work camps on California ranches. Throughout the migratory areas there is seldom decent housing or sanitation, and little medical care, but there is widespread disease, and lack of education for children. In East and West alike, any migrant who protests against wages or conditions, or mentions unions, is thrown into jail. In the cane-sugar area near Lake Okeechobee in Florida, housing for migrants is left entirely up to the profit motive, with growers shirking the responsibility of the landlord by leasing land to anyone who wants to speculate in cheap houses. No standards of sanitation or housing are set up by local authorities. An outstanding exception is the United States Sugar Corporation, which provides free sanitary housing for all year-round and most of its seasonal workers. Here and there other growers build relatively decent houses, but fail to keep pace with the influx of seasonal workers.

Children of migrants in Florida, as of most migrants everywhere, receive little schooling. Their education is ‘in competition with beans, and the beans seem to be winning.’ The Belle Glade nursery school cares for approximately fifty children whose parents are employed in packing operations. These children remain in the school all day long, week in and week out, so that it is more like a temporary orphanage than a day nursery. At night they sleep on the back seat of cars parked outside the packing house. Migrants who do place their children in schools must take them out after a few weeks or months to ‘move on.’

In Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, white share-croppers working in beans, celery, radishes, cabbages, and other vegetables, settle their families in tents or tar-paper shacks for which they pay $3.00 a month. Work in this area at peak season often equals 93½ hours a week, or six consecutive shifts of over hours each. Many women work 32 hours straight. One, after 35 hours without pause, dared to ask to be allowed to go home to her shack. She was fired.

In New England, the cradle of liberty, one of the largest apple orchards hires undercover operatives to spy on the workers, and the vigilante activities carried on by employers and union opponents in California and other West Coast states have been widely publicized. In Colorado, sugar-beet growers prefer migratory laborers because resident workers are more highly unionized, explaining simply, ‘A beet laborer who is a member of a union is perhaps not as good a beet laborer as others.’

In certain Eastern states, toilets in migrant housing were found so insanitary that State Health Departments condemned them. The landlords just nailed them up, and then there weren’t any toilets — not much improvement over the earlier insanitary ones.

Plans of big growers in Florida to shift their point of operations from Sanford to Belle Glade will mean the gradual destruction of the marginal ‘security’ now enjoyed by Negro celery workers of Sanford. Negro migrants in this district occupy ten-by-ten stalls in long sheds or barracks with one window and a door, or no window, paying $1.00 to $1.50, unfurnished.


This, then, is the situation, these are the conditions that the Federal Government and state and local agencies are seriously investigating today. The questions — now that the unhappy, shameful picture is growing clear — are ‘What can be done?’ and ‘Who should do it?’

In placing responsibility, it seems pertinent to ask, ‘Who needs these people?’ Certainly those to whom they are important should share the burden of their subsistence. The answer, of course, is obvious. They are needed, at least a certain number of them, by an agricultural system which freely admits its dependence upon large bodies of labor for very short periods of time. They are also needed, all of them, by government — national, state, and local — as good citizens rather than sore plague spots breeding disease, social unrest, and delinquency. Thus it becomes a problem to be solved by government and large-scale agriculture in partnership. The latter has shown little inclination to help as yet.

It is not possible to solve the problem by barring migrants from one state, or by merely making conditions better at points where large migratory groups gather. Causes as well as effects must be considered, and this problem’s place in the whole general picture of a complicated and depressed agriculture must be evaluated. A general agricultural readjustment is necessary. Disadvantaged rural people today include immobile laboring families and farmers on marginal and submarginal farms as well as the migrants. Broadly speaking, all of these unemployed and underemployed groups are equally in need of help. What are their prospects for the future?

They will be joined in the next decade by 400,000 more displaced farm operators, tenants or laborers, plus thousands more reduced in status from operator or tenant to laborer. In addition, there are all those farmers now living on poor land, which ought not to be farmed and which does not provide them with an adequate living. Add another million and a half men as representing the present excess unemployed workers living on farms (971,000 totally unemployed or emergency workers, male, and 576,000 partially unemployed males living on farms in November 1937, according to Census of Unemployment).

When these somewhat overpowering figures are pulled together, it becomes obvious that only a small proportion of the threatened and distressed groups who have previously looked to farming for a livelihood can look forward in the future to security and a decent living in agriculture.

Even if we were fortunate enough to experience an expanding market for our farm products, and additional land for farming were required, it would be possible to bring more new farm land under the plough only by developing new supplies of irrigation water in the West, or by clearing and draining land in the South. Much of the land which could be developed in this way is of high quality, and should be settled. But it is most likely that new land of this kind will hardly be adequate to take care of farm families now on barren, eroded farms in the South, or on the wind-swept Great Plains or the rocky cut-over forest land in the Great Lakes region, who haven’t a chance where they are. Moreover, the development of new land by irrigation or drainage is slow, and the country faces the immediate problem of what to do with millions of impoverished, idle, or half-idle rural people, whose numbers grow so alarmingly each year.

Vigorous action along several broad lines of attack are needed. First, we must push the development of good new land for the farmers we shall need in the future who are now on poor land, or who are working good land so hard that erosion and depletion of soil fertility are becoming problems. Second, we must strive to make more secure the tenure of farmers who can stay on the land if given an opportunity to take advantage of the technical improvements so quickly adopted by their bigger neighbors. Third, we must bring to an end the present wasteful, vicious system of exploitation of the unprotected, helpless farm laboring population. Fourth, we must face the greatest and most difficult fact that most of our disadvantaged rural people must look outside of agriculture for a decent living. In the face of our present urban and industrial unemployment, this is a difficult problem indeed.

For the migratory group, the principal problems are a place to live and a way of life. There are at present many immediate and temporary programs, such as Farm Security Administration camps and housing units and grants, and some special health provisions, designed to alleviate the more acute distressed conditions. Starved by lack of sufficient appropriations, these programs are pitifully inadequate. They must be continued and expanded, but for any fundamental reform and remedy it seems plausible to make a three-way division of the unknown total of agricultural migrants. One group will continue in seasonal agriculture as wage laborers; one must somehow be resettled to farm for itself; and the third group — by far the largest — must be diverted from agriculture, in which it does not belong and cannot make a living, to some other form of livelihood.

For those who are to remain seasonal laborers the first requirements are more security of work and greater stability of residence. A program of housing should be worked out to permit the laborers to provide homes for their families and schooling for their children while they work from the home base, over a reasonable radius, following the crops in a systematic and routine way through the aid of accurate and complete reporting of harvesting employment possibilities and crop conditions. At present, migrants must rely almost entirely upon the ‘grapevine’ in deciding where to go next to look for work. This, of course, leads to both gluts and famines in the labor market.

For this group, as for all agricultural workers, there should definitely be an extension of social-security laws, wagesand-hours laws, and the labor-relations act. This would undoubtedly ameliorate some of the harsher aspects of prevailing conditions and afford them legal protection in partially working out their own solutions to difficulties. Uniform state settlement laws and uniform standards of relief, perhaps with federal assistance through grants-in-aid, would further improve the situation. The exemption of agriculture from social legislation has greatly aided the large industrialized corporate farm, which is enabled to exploit the abundant supply of cheap farm labor, while hurting the little farmer, who works his own family-size farm and must compete with the lowwages paid by subsidized big fellows.


In planning any resettlement of farm families — migrant, stranded, or submarginal — there is first the question of where land may be found for them.

There are settlement opportunities developing on new irrigable land to be brought in on the approximately fifty Federal Reclamation projects scattered throughout the West and projects such as Fort Peck Dam in Montana, which will make possible irrigation of nearly 80,000 acres of farm land below the dam. The great bulk of land is yet to be brought in on the reclamation projects, but already several hundred families, some of them from the migrant group, have been settled on the Owyhee project in Oregon, and about one hundred families each on the Sun River project in Montana and the Riverton in Wyoming. An applicant for a public land farm unit on such a project must have a cash capital of at least $2000 or an equivalent in farm implements, livestock, or other useful assets, and must have had at least two years’ farming experience. In cooperation with Reclamation, the Farm Security Administration plans to make loans to migrant and stranded farm families to enable them to settle on certain of these irrigation projects in the northern Great Plains. However, the most optimistic forecast is that these projects will make room for only a few hundred thousand farmers.

In Florida, to the south and east of Lake Okeechobee, lies America’s greatest undeveloped reserve of fertile land, the muck prairies, 2,000,000 acres more fertile than any other land in the world. About a quarter of this area has been destroyed by muck fires irresponsibly set, but there is still enough land to settle 100,000 people and to support them if markets can be found for what the land will produce. Beans can be grown in this rich soil in forty-two days.

Elsewhere in the South there are swamp lands which might be reclaimed by pumping water up and out, as in Holland. The Mississippi Valley might be able to bear a greater population in certain of its great reaches.

In any resettlement or agricultural stabilization program, it will be well to consider coöperative farms. The present experimental plans for such farms provide for only a few hundred families and represent little if any smaller outlay in initial investment than required to establish such families on independent farms; but more effective programs of this kind may be worked out. The cooperative ownership of breeding stock and heavy machinery and community facilities for storing, processing, purchasing, and selling by a number of independent farmers is another and smaller form of cooperation that might bring many of the advantages of large-scale operations to family-size farms without loss of individual initiative.

A real solution depends, of course, on a return to full employment which would permit readjustment of the agriculturalindustrial, farm-urban migration pattern. This may not be so far off as we think.

Perhaps most important of all the vital needs in the complicated task of finding a ‘place’ for America’s agricultural refugees is that whatever place is found or made for them shall be one fitted into the normal social and economic system of the country, rather than one established as a ‘special’ place, making of these people a segregated class or isolating them into a caste, stigmatized as ‘Okies,’ ‘Arkies,’ and ‘fruit tramps.’ Any and all remedial legislation should be designed to see that democratic processes are substituted for strong-arm tactics in labor relations in agriculture, and that somehow these hundreds of thousands are rescued from bitterness and despair to a renewed trust in what James Truslow Adams, in The Epic of America, called ‘the belief in the value of the common man and the hope of opening every opportunity to him.’