Farmers and Politics
on the World Today
LAST year. Meric Brady, who owns a farm near Chickasha. Oklahoma, valued at $90,000, put his entire 300 acres into the soil bank’s conservation reserve. He agreed to leave the farm in the soil bank for ten years, and Uncle Sam promised to pay him $5000 a year. Brady must maintain the land in grass but neither graze nor cultivate it. He is one of about 200,000 farmers in the United States who have decided that they would be better off to put their entire farm into the soil bank for a period of years than to cultivate it under present circumstances.
The $5000 which Brady receives — the maximum amount the government may pay on one farm — is a little more than 5 per cent on the present market value of his land. Brady would rather take that than put in long hours of labor which would net him little, if any, more, and possibly less.
The factors which forced Brady to put his farm into the soil bank are driving farmers off the land in almost every county in the southern Great Plains, and the factors are similar in nearly all the farm states. Today there are a million fewer farms than there were a decade ago. The cost-price squeeze is more than many farmers can withstand.
“Farmers who are staying in business are, in effect, living off their capital.”Professor Leonard Miller of Oklahoma State University has said. “A study we have made shows that a farm operator typical of farmers in Oklahoma had a net return of $1.12 an hour for his efforts.”The typical farmer had a thousand acres of cropland and an investment of $150,000 in land and buildings exclusive ol his home and machinery.
Professor Miller is feeling the effect of the farm blight in his classrooms. Twenty years ago, the agricultural department at Oklahoma State had an enrollment of more than 2000 students. Now, with all other college departments crowded to capacity, there arc only 1100 agricultural students. They know that opportunities are limited and that a tremendous investment is required to start a farm career — much more than is needed, for example, in medicine or architecture.
In Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, which is in the poorer part of the state near the Missouri border, farmers arc moving away in large numbers because of falling hog and cattle prices. Population in the district has declined an estimated 10 per cent in ten years.
The problem is simply that supply has outrun demand. But the solution of the problem is so complex that no two farm organizations agree on what should be done. Consumers, politicians, and farmers are in violent disagreement about farm policy. With Congress dominated by one party and the White House by the other, and with the congressional farm bloc split into many parts, the deadlock is complete. Add to this the fact that the farm population is declining while the urban population is growing, and it can be seen why the farmer’s voice is not the power it was a generation ago in American politics.
Automation on the farm
In the Midwest, Democrats blame Republicans, many Republicans blame Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, and taxpayers blame the politicians for the farmers’ plight. But however wrong the politicians may be, however remiss city dwellers may be in their appreciation of the major contribution the farmer has made to the high standard of living in this country, however socially unacceptable Benson’s proposals may be, the real blame lies elsewhere.
Technology has created the American farm problem. It has driven millions from the farms. It will overwhelm not only more farmers but many small towns as well. We hear much about the blight of the cities. Many small towns which have been the farmers’ service centers are threatened with extinction unless they find other sources of income.
The trouble with the politicians is that Democrats have been too conservative and Republicans too radical. The Democrats have tried to maintain the status quo on the farm by providing a subsidy for all farmers who want to remain on the farm, however uneconomic the whole arrangement may be. The Eisenhower Administration has wanted to let nature take its course, let the market place decide the course of American agriculture, despite the human costs involved.
In 1940, the average American farmer produced enough food and fiber to feed and clothe nearly eleven persons; today he can produce enough for twenty-five persons. In the lace of these facts, Benson makes more sense than the Democrats — if it were not for the fact that human beings are involved, Obviously, there must be a movement away from the farms, but measures must be taken to protect the income of those who remain and to preserve the family farm. In Russia, incidentally, the average farmer produces enough for himself and three or four others. The 7.4 million American farm workers produce more than Russia’s 33 million farm workers.
Today the American farmer is producing about 50 per cent more than he did before World War II. He is doing so with 30 per cent fewer manhours of work. Total crop production is the largest on record, although planted acreage is the smallest it has been in more than forty years. Farmers are asking whether they are to be penalized for their achievements and denied all protection in the markets, over which they have no control.
The preoccupation with surpluses
Almost anywhere in Kansas, you can see on the horizon the great prairie castles, the grain elevators. They are monuments to the farmer’s genius for production and symbols of his frustration. In Iowa, the horizon is dotted with what look like sawdust piles but are cribs of surplus corn. The farmer’s preoccupation is with surpluses — surpluses which he has not learned to control and which depress prices.
For seven years, Secretary Benson has urged that acreage controls must be abandoned, that tlie shackles must be lifted from agriculture. Let the farmer be free to produce as much or as little as he wishes, Benson argues, and he will adjust supply to demand and the free market will produce a fair price.
At Ames, Iowa, four professors at Iowa State University conducted a study to find out what would happen if the government got out of agriculture altogether and gave the free market system a chance to operate. They concluded that corn acreage would be increased from 74.6 million acres in 1958 to 84.2 million in 1962 and that the price of corn would drop from $1.13 a bushel to 65 cents.
They estimated that the number of acres in wheat would rise from 56.4 million to 65.1 million and that the price of wheat would drop from $1.81 a bushel to 74 cents. They estimated a decline in hog prices of about 30 per cent; a decline in cattle prices of about 50 per cent; a decline in cotton prices of about 35 per cent.
Adjustment by bankruptcy
The trouble with estimates like these is that, long before prices reached such levels, bankruptcies and foreclosures would produce a national crisis. Farmers agree with Benson that the problem is overproduction and that what is needed is less production. They know that there are too many farms and too many farmers and that fundamental readjustments are required. But a number of farmers, and the leading farm politicians of both parties, call Benson’s solution “adjustment by bankruptcy.” They do not want anything so abrupt, even when there are cushions like the seal bank, the foreign disposal program, and flexible price supports.
Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, one of General Eisenhower’s original backers and now a leading Republican critic of the Administration’s farm policies, recently replied to Benson’s arguments by listing three misconceptions about farm policy.
“First,” Carlson said, “the evidence does not support the often-made assertions that control programs have been ineffective and that farm price support programs have stimulated greater production. Second, the economic facts do not support the propaganda to the effect that the producers of the non-price-supported products, especially livestock, have demonstrated the superiority of free market policies in recent years. Third, the evidence does not support the optimism often expressed regarding the widening of markets which will occur with lower prices. ... We should be realistic in our expectations.”
Benson critics cite additional evidence. From the establishment of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 through the 1953 fiscal year, the department spent a total of $27.6 billion. In the first six years of the Eisenhower Administration, it spent S29 billion. The costs are still rising, and the farm depression is growing.
Its effects on the politics of 1960 could be far-reaching. With realized net farm income in 1959 the lowest it lias been since World War II, it can be understood why farmers and farm politicians are restless. ‘Fhe parity ratio, which is a fair index of how well farmers are doing, has declined from a high of 107 in 1951 to 80 in 1959. This year it has dropped even lower.
If the price-cost squeeze continues to tighten, more and more farmers will be laced with three choices, according to H. A. Miles of the Farm Credit Administration. They can increase their efiiciency by reducing production costs per unit. They can get more off-farm employment. They can give up farming for a fulltime job in the city.
In 1950, Miles said, farmers’ net income was 41 per cent of their gross receipts. In 1959 it was only 30 per cent. “If these trends continue,” he said, “only the most efficient farmers can make a reasonable living.”
The most efficient farmers arc making a reasonable living today; some of them are doing well. They are the ones who have recognized that agriculture is both a science and a business. They know that modern farming requires specialists and abundant capital. It involves taking great risks with changing and unpredictable weather and with a market over which the farmer has almost no control.
The reasonably successful farmers arc primarily the big farmers, the commercial farmers who account for about 20 per cent of the nation’s agricultural producers. Like the other 80 per cent, they are feeling the pinch of rising industrial prices and falling agricultural prices. But it is the 80 per cent who face the darkest future.
Today all the aspiring politicians are searching for a new formula. And there is no pat solution. Vice President Nixon has several teams at work trying to devise for him an original farm program. The vice president remembers that, in 1956, President Eisenhower won over Adlai E. Stevenson by a much bigger margin than he did in 1952, except in the farm states. In thirty-one states, the President’s proportion of the total vote was greater in 1956 than in 1952. In only seventeen states did Mr. Stevenson do relatively better in 1956 than in 1952, and most of those states were in traditionally Republican farm areas.
The vice president also is acutely aware of the fact that there are Democratic governors in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This year, die terms of six Republican senators from leading farm states expire, and each one knows that there is revolt on the farms.
The program which Nixon finally proposes must be different from the Benson approach of no controls over production and low price supports. It must be different from the sterile Democratic promise of high price supports and not too strict production controls.
It will need to embrace a revised soil bank program, an expansion of the foreign disposal program, a more vigorous rural development program. and less flexibility in price supports, it also must contain some surprises aimed at reducing the more than $9 billion in surplus products now in storage at government expense. If it does, his plan may stimulate important new thinking on a complex problem.