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Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945

Author(s):Grant, Michael Johnson
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (February 2004)

Michael Johnson Grant, Down and Out on the Family Farm: Rural Rehabilitation in the Great Plains, 1929-1945. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xi + 233 pp. $39.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8032-7105-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Department of History (Emeritus), University of Wisconsin, Madison,

Cornucopia or cruel hoax? Bread basket or buffalo range? Our vast interior plains have challenged Americans since their acquisition. Michael J. Grant adds to our knowledge of this enigmatic region with his study of a controversial aspect of New Deal agricultural policy. Intrigued by the empty farmhouses scattered across the western Nebraska landscape of his boyhood, and remnants of a federal housing and work project that he examined as a National Park Service employee, Grant investigated federal efforts to assist farmers in the Great Plains during the 1930s. Begun as doctoral research, his book examines the farmers of the four twenty-inch-rainfall-line states, stretching from Kansas poleward to North Dakota. More specifically it is a “quantitative investigation of farm life,” focusing on farm operators that he calls “borderline farmers” (p.5), in the 1920s and 1930s. Grant explains that market forces, regional grain yield potentials, climatic variability and middle-class cultural trends forced plains farmers to expand farm units and increase the mechanization and capitalization of their business operations. In these years also drought combined with the country’s most pervasive depression to push legions of operators toward bankruptcy.

“Borderline farmers,” Grant explains, were agriculturalists who “struggled to enlarge their operations to support a middle-income lifestyle,” and who “lived on the borderline between indigence and the limited security of middle-income farmers … grossing between $500 and $1,000 annually during the 1930s” (pp., 2, 3, 30). They were, he further explains, “out of synch and overwhelmed by the expansive scale of farming” that seemed to be required in the plains states (p. 7). They “were not necessarily unfit. Rather, they were out of their league.” They yearned to expand their businesses in line with managerial trends but lacked the necessary means. “Borderline farms were large enough to aspire to such ends but not profitable enough to provide the necessary means” (pp. 34-35).

Grant lays a foundation for this study by first examining farm tenancy in the plains states. Under his definition tenants might or might not be borderline farmers but many apparently were. He then sketches the development of remedial legislation through the Hoover presidency and the first two terms of Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover sought to alleviate agricultural stringency by supporting large marketing and credit facilities designed to restore farm income and provide credit but maintained that grassroots relief was a state or local concern. Under Roosevelt, however, the federal government provided direct assistance to the individual farmer.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of early 1933 inaugurated an era of emergency activity on behalf of agriculture and a general commitment to the restoration of parity of income between the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. Prior to 1935 needy plains farmers received direct relief in the form of money or subsistence supplies, work on public works projects, and emergency relief in the form of feed and seed grants, livestock purchase, and loans through programs administered by various government agencies, both extolled and denigrated, although apparently no sobriquet emerged as cutting as the transformation of the National Recovery Administration into “Nuts Running America.” Simple relief measures, however, did not prepare borderline farmers for coping with post depression challenges. In the spring of 1934 the decision was made to replace work and direct relief in rural areas with programs designed to rehabilitate the businesses of farm clients and prepare them for success in normal times. This work became the responsibility of the Resettlement Administration (RA) and, shortly thereafter, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Alone among the New Deal agricultural agencies, they provided subsistence and operating credit for farmers. The resources of thousands of plains farmers were deemed inadequate to win approval as FSA clients. Nevertheless between 1935 and the early 1940s the agencies granted loans to 95,000 plains families and 73,000 obtained cash grants. Initially the agencies sought as many clients as possible and tried “to keep commercial agricultural production down while helping their clients furnish as much of their own subsistence as possible.” This, Grant believes, “ran counter to both reason and agricultural trends in the plains,” where enhanced returns followed increases in crop acreage (p. 107). Under the Bankhead-Jones Tenant Purchase Act of 1937 the FSA assumed responsibility for assisting tenants in purchasing farms and here selection was restricted to tenant farmers who possessed substantial resources.

The rehab programs suffered from administrative problems. Conceived by humanitarian Democratic planners, program employees at the state and local levels often had Republican ties which made them unsympathetic to agency objectives and were also resentful because they did not receive full civil service status. In general, FSA personnel helped clients to develop farm plans that moved them away from cash crop agriculture toward a mixed livestock and subsistence economy. When prospects improved in the late 1930s many clients viewed that strategy as unduly restrictive.

Grant follows his general account of the development of RA and FSA activities in the Plains States with a chapter presenting a “grass roots” study of the rural rehabilitation program, selecting a county in Kansas and another in North Dakota as subjects for a closer examination of these federal programs. From the FSA clients in each county, Grant selected one case to provide detailed descriptions of the way in which the rehabilitation loan system worked, drawing upon some two dozen other case files (archived as Farm Home Administration files) to illustrate other aspects of the lending process. Administrators carefully screened applicants to insure that an infusion of capital, development of a farm productivity plan, and tutelage of the farm wife would allow families to succeed. Was rural rehabilitation in each county a success? Grant concludes that it succeeded in helping farm families survive and maintain a farm business. But emphasis on the subsistence side of the farm business meant that the clients farmed “in place” whereas, he argues, the inescapable trend in plains farming was to increase the commercial scale of farming (p. 160).

In a final substantive chapter, Grant discusses the various detractors and defenders of the rehabilitation programs within the American public and the growing consensus in Congress that the increasing prosperity of agriculture during the war years rendered them unnecessary despite the pleas of the Farmers’ Union. With the approbation of the Farm Bureau, Senator Harry Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, succeeded in slashing the FSA budget by half in 1943. Despite a flurry of interest in providing loans to veterans, by war’s end new funding had ceased. In a brief conclusion Grant argues that “the greatest triumph of the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration was in showing borderline farmers around the country that they mattered” (p. 201).

Grant’s description of the New Deal programs and their work in the Plains States is wide ranging, providing thumbnail sketches of key policy figures, the reactions of agricultural organizations and members of Congress to the programs as well as opinion in the general public. He is evenhanded in discussion of the programs, noting their limitations, shifting goals and ideological inconsistencies but crediting them with successfully assisting many deserving farmers. He enlivens the narrative with numerous references to specific farmers and their wives and quotations from farmer letters or recollections. Grant’s book is an excellent overview of an important aspect of New Deal agricultural policy.

One caveat, however. Grant presents much quantitative data and his county studies reveal the various economic factors in play at that level. Confronted, however, with detailed data sources like those provided by the agency files of the FSA (now archived as Farm Home Administration records) some researchers would have chosen clients for study by systematic sampling and prepared a data base that included common variables drawn from a considerably larger number of farm operations than those cited by Grant. Such a data base would have allowed the researcher to apply statistical techniques of analysis that could more definitively evaluate the relative importance of relevant factors than do Grant’s somewhat impressionistic methods.

Allan G. Bogue’s most recent publication (with Brian Q. Cannon and Kenneth J. Winkle) is “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” Agricultural History 77 (Summer 2003), 420-452.

Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII