The journey to the heartland for early homesteaders set the stage for farming hardships to come, according to “Roots of the Crisis,” a historical account by Jon Magee.

from the article:

North Dakota and Montana welcomed many homesteader families, as well as some of the largest corporate farms in U.S. history. These experimental farms were as large as fifty or one hundred thousand acres, almost entirely wheat. The most famous and out-spoken proprietor of a mega-farm was Thomas Campbell, whose Montana Farming Corporation (founded in 1918) planted roughly fifty thousand acres of wheat each year.[2]

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Even the ‘small’ family farms of this new territory were hundreds of acres on average, several times larger than those of the Midwest and considerably less diversified. The thin soil of the northern prairies were not as rich as those further east, and transportation costs and the connivance of middle-men meant that the returns per acre declined the further a farmer was from the eastern markets. Farmers on the plains were hardly self-sufficient, either, usually growing only cash crops. Later, when extension agents encouraged farmers to ‘diversify,’ this mostly meant raising hogs in addition to the wheat production.

And yet, for a while, it seemed as if all of the hype were true. Prices were bolstered by the first World War, as Europe effectively ceased to produce its own food, and yields were boosted by the virgin prairie’s fertility and by an unusually wet decade. The price of farmland rose 70% nationwide as speculators jumped to take advantage of the boom, and farmers just couldn’t grow enough wheat to satisfy demand.

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Unfortunately, the bubble was destined to burst: the armistice was signed in November of 1918, just as Montana and North Dakota returned to the more typical arid climate. The US government recognized the threat that peace posed to the market of agricultural commodities and promised to maintain war-time prices of wheat into 1920. Nonetheless, by July of 1921 the price of wheat had fallen 85% from its peak. From the end of the war up to 1925, farmers abandoned two million acres of land in Montana, and half of the state’s commercial banks failed.[3]

For the nation’s farmers, the ‘Jazz Age’ was anything but grand. Family farms were already losing out before the bust, prey to the middle-men, lenders, and shippers whom they relied on to market their goods and finance their businesses. Even farms in the more stable areas of the Midwest and South suffered from the depression that followed the boom. In 1922 alone, 1.2 million farmers left the countryside.[4] Groups such as the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, and (on the more progressive end of the spectrum) the Non-Partisan League formed to address the plight of the farmer. Despite meager efforts by the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, most of the nation’s farmers had already endured a full decade of hard times before the rest of the nation joined them in their plight in 1929.

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The conversation among the nation’s elites, as represented in the press, in lecture halls, and in many a government study, questioned the origins of the rural depression. Many said that farmers were to blame—eugenicists were quick to point out that many farmers were recent immigrants, of ‘poor blood,’ from southern Europe.[5] Many commentators drew attention to the poor living conditions on farms and the poor state of rural schools. Some of these commentators tried to be sympathetic, asking ‘What can we do to improve our farmers?’ In the words of Deborah Fitzgerald,

Those who were casting about for a solution to this crisis, especially those who were inclined to read the world through the lenses of economics, were fairly unanimous in their beliefs. The overwhelming consensus was that farmers needed to become more businesslike, more like economists, in conducting their affairs, and less like miners who simply extracted value from the land before moving on to more productive areas.[6]

The debate was framed by those who were in a position to debate—financiers and industrialists whose influence was keenly felt in the government, and the first class of Agricultural Economists and Agricultural Engineers, fresh out of the new land-grant universities. Their opinions would set the stage for the New Deal programs which once and for all enshrined industrial-style farming in national legislation.

Read the entire piece, along with other accounts of agricultural history at http://justroots.yesexactly.com/

American Farm Roots
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