Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: U.S. farmers faced high farm mortgages and big debts even before the Great Depression began
The Great Depression that caused so much trouble in the world during the 1930s ended only with the boom caused by World War II. For American farmers however, the downturn began shortly after World War I ended, continuing mostly unabated for two decades.
During the Great War, agricultural production was way down in the European countries where the fighting was taking place, demand for food was high and prices paid for grain rose dramatically. In 1913, U.S. farmers harvested more than 50 million acres of wheat (with an average yield of 15.2 bushels per acre), and got $0.79.9 per bushel for the crop. At the peak in 1919, 75.7 million acres were harvested with a somewhat diminished yield of 12.8 bushels per acre, but the high price of $2.14.9 per bushel.
All during the war, Food Administrator Herbert Hoover exhorted farmers in this country to increase production. As the prices realized for their products rose, farmers began to borrow money to buy more acres and new machinery, especially farm tractors since labor costs were sky high. Farm mortgages doubled between 1910 and 1920, from $3.3 billion to $6.7 billion ($74.4 billion today). Then after the war, as a recovering Europe and Russia began to feed themselves (and, in the case of Russia, even finding grain to export), the bottom dropped out. In 1921, the price of wheat dropped to $0.92.6 per bushel, and heavily indebted farmers couldn’t make the payments on all those new acres and tractors.
As a result, during the “Roaring Twenties” farmers weren’t doing much roaring, but credit was still easy and they limped along, falling further and further behind the rest of the country. Even though grain prices were low because of world over-production, American farmers had to keep planting large acreages in the hope of getting enough cash to pay off debts. Wheat prices bobbed along at a few cents over a dollar for most of the 1920s. Some farmers survived. Those who didn’t had to sell out and become tenant farmers or find work in town.
Then, in October 1929, the whole financial house of cards that was the U.S. economy collapsed, triggered by the stock market crash. Although then President Hoover dubbed the disaster a “Depression,” as that seemed to him to sound better than the term “Panic” that had been used in the past, that’s what occurred: panic. The banks looked shaky and depositors wanted their money, making them shakier still, and in time many were forced to close. Factories and businesses got rid of large numbers of employees or closed down altogether.
The malaise spread across much of the industrialized world, and soon there was no money to buy the farmer’s products or anything else. Desperate bankers called in their loans, but farmers had no money to pay them and foreclosures and bankruptcy sales became daily events.
These sales sometimes brought out the best in neighbors, as in a 1931 bank foreclosure auction for the property of a family in Madison County, Neb. Some 150 neighboring farmers showed up and when the auctioneer tried to get a bid on the first piece of machinery, someone bid 5 cents. The farmers crowding around the auctioneer prevented anyone else from bidding on that item and the auctioneer had no choice but to hammer it sold. This process continued throughout the sale, resulting in a grand total of $5.35, which the bank was expected to accept as full payment for the debt.
Another auction tells of a proud farmer forced into a humiliating bankruptcy sale. The auctioneer started his pitch on a work mare and no one bid. Finally, the farmer himself made a token bid, the auctioneer kept trying, and soon someone in the crowd said insistently, “Sell ’er!” The rest of the machinery and livestock went the same way – no one bid except the original owner, who got all his stuff back at a very low price. Nevertheless, some 750,000 farms were lost between 1930 and 1935 through bankruptcy and foreclosure.
It got so bad that when the price of corn dropped to 5 or 10 cents a bushel – coal cost more – many corn farmers burned their corn for heat. A man tells of doing repair work for a farmer and being paid with 300 pounds of potatoes. There was virtually no cash money available. Still, the farmer, especially if he could stay on his farm, was immeasurably better off than the unemployed town dweller. The farmer could raise his own vegetables and fruit and grind his corn for cornmeal. A few cows provided milk and butter, as well as beef, while hogs and chickens were available for meat and eggs. He and his family were lucky; about the only things they had to buy or barter for were flour, sugar and salt; pins and needles; and shoes, thread and maybe some cloth (although many a farm kid went to school in a dress, shirt or even underpants made of flour sacks printed with a flowered pattern).
Then, to add to the misery in the Midwest, in 1934 the heat started – and kept on and kept on – with central Nebraska suffering through more than 20 days of temperatures higher than 100 degrees. All those acres that had been plowed up turned to dust and crops burnt up, and that was just the beginning.
In 1935 the dust storms started. All that dusty soil rose high into the air and blew into every nook and cranny, piling up like drifted snow – except it didn’t melt away come spring. Cattle and crops and even people died; folks who had hung on finally gave up. The tragic story of the Dust Bowl is too much to tell here. For an excellent account of those folk’s suffering and fortitude, I recommend The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. For much more on the Great Depression itself, read The Hungry Years by T.H. Watkins or The Great Depression – America, 1929 – 1941 by Robert S. McElvaine.
My memories of those years are sketchy as I was pretty young (born in 1933), but I remember having very little cash. We always had enough to eat because Mom and Dad raised a large garden and Mom canned a lot. We butchered a cow and a couple of hogs every year, and had chickens for meat and eggs. My sister and I wore patched clothes to school, but we were much better off than many of our fellow students. I guess we kids didn’t really feel poor at all. Most everyone else around us was just as bad off, or worse. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.