How the Farmer Thinks

An Ohioan, a novelist, and aleader of the NewAgriculture, Louis BROMFIELD analyesalyzes the reasons which prompted the Farm vote in 1948 and may prompt it again in November. Mr. Bromfield recently took thirty-five American farmers with him on a tour of five South American countries at the request of their governments, the Farm Journal, and the Braniff Airlines. Those who are curious to see what can he done with once deserted fields are strongly advised to visit Mr. Bromfield’s Malabar Farm on the outskirts of Mansfield, Ohio.



FOR the first time in our history we are beginning to feel the economic rigors of a situation in which the increase in population is outrunning the capacity of the farmer and the livestock man to produce food. The average American is accustomed to a high-protein diet, and the fact is that there is actually not enough top-quality beef for all those who want it and can afford to buy it. The result is high prices.

Most of the rise in prices has come from the operation of the law of supply and demand. As millions of people are coming into maturity with high wages or salaries and high purchasing power during the artificial prosperity engendered by perpetual war or “war in peace” conditions, the available meat and many other foods are going to those who are best able and also willing to bid for them.

Since 1000 our population has more than doubled (from 75 millions to 153 millions), but we have less than half the number of dairy cows per capita we had in 1900, fewer beef animals per capita, and several million less sheep. The increase in per acre production of our land has by no means kept pace with the increase in population, and actually we have fewer acres under cultivation in row crops than we had a generation ago.

Our agriculture in the past has been an abominable and wasteful agriculture in terms of single crops, soil erosion, inadequate maintenance of fertility, overgrazing, and a hundred other things. Despite the common belief of the average citizen that we have the best farmers in the world, nearly 60 per cent of our farmers are still among the worst in the world. Approximately 10 per cent of our farmers and livestock raisers feed about 50 per cent of our population. Some 30 per cent are farmers who are fairly good, and these feed most of the other 50 per cent of the population. The remaining 60 per cent of our farmers, including the tobacco, cotton, and fiber growers, contribute little or nothing to the general food supply. Yet agricultural purchasing power is of necessity the very foundation of our economy.

Fifty per cent or more of our population derives its livelihood, salaries, wages, and purchasing power directly or indirectly from a base of agriculture. Such a figure includes, of course, most of our small towns and villages, and such cities as Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Des Moines. It includes the employees of the great stockyards and packing houses and the food-processing industry, the whole of the huge agricultural machinery and fertilizer industries, and large sectors of the steel, gas and oil, and rubber industries. Our capital investment in agriculture is greater than our investment in industry.

All of this, plus the fact that food is fundamental to the economy and well-being of any nation, makes the purchasing power based upon agriculture the keystone of our economy and the most important single factor in maintaining a market for industrial commodities and a high level of well-paid employment. Largely speaking, all of our depressions since before the War Between the States have begun when the farmer could not go to town and buy a lantern, a set of harness, a gallon of gasoline, a cultivator, or a radio. When that happened, men began to lose their jobs in the great industrial centers. With the loss of jobs their purchasing power collapsed and in time they were on public relief.

If tomorrow we should pull out all food subsidies and price guarantees suddenly, the shock would be felt throughout our economy, perhaps with a thoroughly disastrous eflect. The good farmer would not be seriously affected. In fact, the pretty good ones could survive. But the 60 per cent whose economic existence and purchasing power virtually depend upon subsidies or price guaranlees would largely go under and, along with the unemployed, could not buy any of the commodities produced by our industry.

These factors have a profound effect not only upon our economy but upon the character of the political maneuvering, manipulation, and propaganda which have colored the agricultural-political picture for the past generation or two and which have grown steadily more complex during the twenty years since tin beginning of the New Deal.

At the root, of the whole problem lie several political and economic factors. 1) No nation or government — including even Soviet Russia, which has made heroic efforts to do so — can ever really control the farmer or his production of food. 2) There are in the neighborhood of 20 million voters connected directly with agriculture in the U.S. The good farmers and the pretty good farmers are extremely well organized and able to exert decided pressures. 4) The Congressmen from the agricultural and livestock areas have a great power in Congress arising from their numbers and their capacity to trade logrolling votes.

I can think of no segment of American life in which political issues and ideologies are so confused as in agriculture. The situation is confused by the wide range of economic status in agricultural life, from ihe efficient and rich farmer who vacations in Florida in his Cadillac, to the sharecropper of the Deep South who probably does not have a total of five dollars cash spending money a year. It is confused by the wide varieties of soil and climate and the possibilities for crop disasters from weather in so many areas. It is confused by the fact that in many areas farmers are today farming five acres or more to produce what they should be producing on one acre, and by the fact that in many Western grazing areas forty or fifty acres are required to pasture one animal in areas where four or five acres were once sufficient.

These factors in our wasteful agriculture all tend to make the price of food high because they make parity price supports and price guarantees necessary, Food that cannot be produced at a profit will not be produced at all. The farmer, like any other member of our society, will not continue indefinitely to produce commodit ies at a loss.


As a rule, farmers and livestock men, even the unprosperous ones, are extremely conservative. They can be persuaded to espouse a liberal or a, radical cause only, as many politicians discovered during the past twenty years, by the promise of something for nothing; and even then the response comes largely from among those on the lowest economic level.

From time to time we have witnessed what appeared to be spontaneous radical or liberal movements among the farmers. There was the Populist movement under Bryan, the Farmer-Labor development in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, the Farmers’ Union in our times, and there has been the rise of the cooperatives all the way from the huge and wealthy state Farm Bureaus, many of them today in a class with lag business, down to the smallest village coöperative. All of these radical or liberal movements came out of times when, prices were poor and the farmer was having difficulty, or out of the greed and oppression of railroads, processors, manufacturers of farm commodities, and middlemen. The sound developments, both political and economic, arising from these movements have become permanent. The crackpot projects have largely, under ihe stress of economic law, disintegrated and disappeared. It is important to remember that not one of these developments grew out of radical or liberal theory, but out of self-defense and grim necessity, economic more often than not.

It is extremely difficult to separate, and to designate as radical, liberal, or conservative, spontaneous farmers’ movements or even the various types of farm legislation during the past twenty years. Paradoxically, the average farmer may be conservative as a character and in his practices, yet extremely liberal in his ideas. If we are to define what is liberal and what is radical in farm legislation and agricultural thinking and planning, it might he a good idea to determine what is liberal and what is radical in terms of ideologies.

The average farmer hates what he calls “socialist” ideas or legislation, although in hard times he has occasionally accepted the benefits of such legislation; and he has learned that, in accepting the benefits, he is forced to concede all sorts of liberties and personal decisions —a course he detests. He hates the intervention of the federal government and the domination of the dusty, inhuman wafflebottom bureaucrat in Washington. He prefers his state legislature and governor to any Washington administration and he likes selfdetermination and local government. The tragedy is that in bad times he is forced to compromise these beliefs in order to save his economic bacon, and it is then that the “socialist” planners step in and use every trick they can to lake him over.

It is not alone the bureaucrats with radical ideas who have tried to take him over; organized labor has attempted it again and again and is still attempting it. without success. The whole infiltration of the Department of Agriculture by acknowledged Communist Lee Pressman and his friends had the strong connivance of the CIO. Again and again John L. Lewis has tried, through his District 50 catch-all union, to take over the farmer, but be has had no success whatever with the farmer and very little success with the labor the farmer hires. The farmer, and often enough even the sharecropper and tenant, looks upon himself as a proprietor and not as an industrial hired worker. His interests, tied in varying degree to property and material possessions and profits, make him think altogether differently from the man who is working for wages and is subject to being fired on a moment’s notice.

Organized labor has long seen, and rightly, an alliance with the farmers as the means of completely dominating American political life; but up to now the farmer has been too cagey.

There are many reasons for this besides his own interests as a proprietor. To the average farmer, the words “socialist ” and “radical” are abhorrent, and save for an occasional eccentric farmer, he does not like even being called “liberal.” The intelligent farmer reads constantly of industrial wage rises and strikes and is aware that the high prices of many commodities he has to buy are due to high wages for short hours, although he himself works at least six days a week for a minimum of ten hours, and on occasion twelve hours a day. He knows that on many commodities he sells, he receives only a part of the final price paid by the consumer, sometimes as low as 25 per cent or less. The rest goes to the middleman, to the retailer, and to union labor. And he resents, perhaps rightly, the general urban idea that the farmer is getting rich at the expense of the food consumer.

The farmer is virtually the only member of our society who sells everything wholesale and buys everything retail, making an economic lag which very likely will always have to be considered in our legislation if we are to eat. This is the very basis of parity thinking. In most cases the farmer has earned or maintained his stake in life by hard work, thrift, and intelligence, and “socialist ” and “liberal” plans for taking away part of his worldly goods through legislation or taxes infuriate him. Fundamentally, and with some justice, he looks upon organized labor in its practices and proposed programs as a manifestation of “socialism,” and labor leaders such as Walter Keuther are constantly reminding him that it is such a manifestation, and a very strung one.

The average farmer, of course, is basically as confused about the meaning of the word “liberal” as much of the rest of our society. It is a word which he no longer likes, although he once liked it well enough. That was when the Democratic Party stood for states’ rights instead of strong federal domination. It was the time when “a liberal” meant a descendant of the thinking of the eighteenth century and the French Revolution from Voltaire down through Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland. Today he does not know, any more than other members of society, what the word “liberal” means. Certainly it no longer has the meaning he once recognized. Today it includes in its implications much that is descended directly from the philosophy of Karl Marx. It means the fellow traveler even to the point of near treason. It means all the people who would control his prices and give him handouts in return, who would tell him what to plant and how to live.

He is right, of course, in believing that today all of t his goes under the head of liberalism, although much of it is as reactionary as the tribal laws of a primitive people.


MANY other elements, some of them abstract and intangible, influence the political philosophy of the farmer. More than any other member of our modern society save perhaps the sailor, the farmer lives in close and intimate contact with the fundamental laws and manifestations of nature. He must cope directly with weather, with soil, with animals, and with crops. He rarely suffers from the limitations, the delusions, or the illusions of the “intellectual” or the academic professional ideologist. He is not interested in change for change’s sake or in experimentation with new ideas and theories when he is perfectly well off under existing conditions. Out of his daily experience he knows that the human race is far from perfect and that it must always contain followers as well as leaders, dullards as well as men who are brilliant and gifted and vital, the shiftless and lazy as well as the hard-working and thrifty. He knows that you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. He knows there are no short cuts in any field of honest and enduring endeavor. Out of his own experience, completely fundamental, he believes in what works. And he believes that the “leveling” formula of the Marxian or Fabian Socialists docs not work except to create destructive strains and burdens for a nation, leading eventually to its deterioration and possibly to its collapse.

All of this tends to make the farmer conservative, but it also tends to make him liberal in the best sense, with a liberalism based upon the economic and natural laws of man’s existence. He is for progress within the realms of reason and possibility, and he has a natural abhorrence for the philosophy which came out of the embittered and psychopathic mind of a sick, frustrated, and defeated nineteenth-century character named Karl Marx.

Every year in this country upwards of 150,000 bad or ignorant or shiftless farmers are being liquidated by the force of economics, regardless of subsidies and price guarantees. This factor, linked with the fact that as the population increases, land becomes steadily more desirable and costly, is forcing a vast improvement in the whole of our agriculture. As the inefficient and careless farmer of the old frontier-pioneer patlern is being scpicczed out, the land he leaves behind is falling into the hands of better and more prosperous farmers and into the hands of a younger generation which has grown up in a wholly different tradition. These young men have been educated to believe that agriculture is a splendid and dignified profession and that the farmer who survives and prospers economically must be part businessman, part specialist, and part scientist.

Despite the billions expended in education through agricultural colleges, government bureaus, and all the other means of improving our agriculture and making all our farmers prosperous and successful citizens, it is in the last analysis economic forces which are actually accomplishing this steady improvement. When such a level of agriculture is achieved, the need for subsidies, parity guarantees, price supports, payments to the farmer for doing what the good farmer does anyway, will no longer be either needed or desired.

As for those farmers who each year are being liquidated, there is no need to shed a tear. In the vast majority of instances they hate their land, they hate their livestock, they hate their low social status, and in some cases they even hate their families because of hardship and poverty. In most cases they go into towns and cities and take industrial jobs where, instead of the long, grueling hours of agriculture under poor conditions, they work eight hours a day for five days a week. They have not only more leisure but an income and purchasing power many times larger than they had from their poor, mismanaged acres. They are, most of them, not farmers by intent or by preference but by accident, and in leaving the land they have no regrets except perhaps that they were not forced off it earlier. The added purchasing power of their increased incomes is of great value to the whole of our industry and to a high level of industrial employment.

All of these factors are involved in the politicaleconomic aspects of our agriculture, The most reactionary element among our farmers as well as the most radical (and in political science these two elements are not far apart in terms of prejudice, violence, and ignorance) has always been among those farmers with the lowest income and the poorest standard of living. You will not find many Marxian “liberals” or many Fascist reactionaries among those who farm well, but you will find countless Jeffersonian liberals in the tradition of the eighteenth century.

Like any other element of our citizenry, the farmer is unwilling to turn down benefits, sometimes unneeded and unsought, which are showered upon him by political demagogues to influence his vote; but he is, I think, unlikely to go out seeking those unwanted and unneeded benefits regardless of the welfare of the rest of the nation. The prosperous, intelligent farmer wants neither government aids nor government interference and controls. The efficient poultry and egg producers have long fought subsidies and price supports. Even the potato farmer put up little or no protest when the outrageous subsidies thrust upon him by the federal government became a public scandal and were withdrawn. So it goes, all down the line.

These supports and subsidies were declared by those following the Marxian theory of planned government and economy to be implements of progress and enlightened government, but the good farmer always knew that they were no such thing. They were at best an effort to maintain and preserve a bad and inefficient system of agriculture and livestock management at the expense of the taxpayer and of precious natural resources in the form of soil, water, and forests. At their worst they represented a cheap political, demagogic trick. At no point did they manifest liberalism in the sense which the farmer recognizes.


THE modern farmer’s political affiliations are, outside the South, rarely stable. He does not vote the party line, and the more prosperous and intelligent and liberal he is, the less he follows that line. From state to state his political affiliations vary. Frequently he is deeply affected by local candidates and issues; but more and more as the level of agriculture rises, he becomes a widely informed and fiercely independent voter. The rise in the quality and economic prosperity of the farmer, the recognition of his calling as one of the most difficult, complex, and dignified of professions, indeed the whole change in the status, quality, and education of our farming population, is bound to have an increasingly profound effect upon the whole of the nation economically, politically, and sociologically. Anybody, if you will, can hold down the average job in a factory, but not anybody can farm. That is an economic and sociological truth which as a nation we have had to discover the hard way at a cost of billions in taxes, in prices, and in the destruction of the nation’s most important asset in terms of real wealth — its natural resources.

How the vote of the farmers will go in the elections of 1952 remains, of course, to be seen. I would be the last to say that the farmer, even the good, intelligent, and prosperous farmer, is so much nobler than the rest of our citizens that he will resist elaborate and extravagant political promises made to him. Now, long after the event, it becomes clear that in the 1948 election the farmers felt that they were neglected by the Republican candidate. If Mr. Dewey spoke at all it was at them, while Mr. Truman spoke to them, and promised them much more. Mr. Dewey had no one near him who understood rural psychology. Perhaps he and his advisers believed that if they carried the Northeastern States, and particularly New York State, the victory was won. That was the old theory. But with the great increases in population in the vast Mississippi Basin area and in California, the picture has changed, and is changing more and more rapidly each year. The proof of the pudding was that Mr. Dewey carried the concentrated populous vote of the Northeast and still lost the election. The very same thing can happen again.

This struggle of interests between the populous areas and the financial forces of the Northeast on the one side and the rest of the country on the other will be a great factor in the election and perhaps the biggest issue of all at the Republican convention. There are countless voters in the South, West, and Middle West who, out of tradition, conviction, or prejudice, will simply not vote for the candidate of the New York bankers and newspapers. They believe that the Congressmen from the Eastern seaboard — or even a President, unless, of course, he is a renegade New Yorker like F.D.R. who fought the financial elements—do not represent their interests or understand their problems. This factor played a much larger part in the 1948 elections than it has been given credit for doing.

Isolationism in its traditional meaning is an obsolete word, yet there is a strong feeling in the Mississippi Basin and particularly among farmers, who are suffering from labor shortages and taxes and the drafting of their sons, that foreign aid has been carried a bit too far. This reaction will show up not only in the election, where these individuals may actually have no real choice, but in the party conventions as well.

With all Mr. Truman’s faults, I am not at all sure that the farmers were not right when they voted in his favor. If the interests from New York again dominate the Republican convention sufficiently to dictate the nomination of a Presidential candidate, the Republican Party may again have to go along without the support of the farmer, big and small.