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Fourth International, March 1942


Frances Willard

The Farmer After the New Deal


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.3, March 1942, pp.87-88.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


On March 9th there was celebrated with great fanfare the Ninth Anniversary of the Administration’s Farm Program. Secretary of Agriculture Wickard recalled that

“For nine years these programs have stood between the farmers and the bankrupt prices. They have rehabilitated thousands of farm families. They have made it possible for farmers to own their own farms … It took wise and courageous leadership to inaugurate those farm programs in March, 1931”

Vice President Wallace told the farmers about Roosevelt:

“His heart has always been extremely sympathetic to the farmer ...

“Farmers remember how the farm program sustained prices ... as a result of the farm program there were 30,000,000 people in the open country standing firmly for the nation’s welfare, in position to use their time, their machinery and their soil to the best advantage.”

Finally on the basis of this build-up President Roosevelt called for “cooperation and restraint on the part of every group,” the context making clear that the admonition was being particularly directed at the farmer’s predilection for good prices for his product.

The Bureau of the Census is now releasing piecemeal the results of the decennial census taken in 1940; a large part of the statistics for agriculture are now available; they certainly do not bear out the Administration’s rosy portrait of the results of its farm program.

There were 6,096,799 farms in 1939, about 200,000 less than in 1929.

The average farmer’s age is 48, only one in ten being under 35; the younger men manage better, one way or another, in the cities.

This grim truth is expressed in precise statistical terms by the census figures for farm income. Two-thirds of the farms in the United States had gross annual incomes including food raised and consumed, of less than $1,000 each; one out of every five farms had a gross income of less than $250 in 1939. Keep in mind, in pondering these stark figures, the admonition of the census statisticians that “gross income” covers all trading in produce and livestock among farmers so that there is a duplication of income reported, and that the average farm supports more than one family.

What the figures mean may perhaps be indicated by a detailed study of 14,000 farm families made a few years ago by the Department of Agriculture, using the same methods of computing “gross income” as were later employed in the decennial census. The Department reported that the “absolute minimum requirement for health and decency for a farm family is $1,800 per year.” Further, it specified that at least $1,200 of this amount must be received in cash to allow for proper use of income. Thus, by the government’s own criterion, two-thirds of the nation’s farm families, with gross incomes of less than $1,000, were living at an extreme poverty level.

The following table from the census shows the income of the nation’s farm families for 1939 and compares it with 1929, the year recorded by the previous decennial census. The figures are startling enough to merit more than a glance:

Annual Gross

% of Farms In
This Group In

% of Farms In
This Group In

Under $250



$250 to $399



$400 to $599



$600 to $999



$1000 to $1499



$1500 to $2499



$2500 to $3999



$4000 to $5999



$6000 to $9999



$10,000 and over



Thus, after six years of the New Deal farm program, there were three times as many farms with an annual income under $250 as in 1929; almost twice as many with incomes between $250 and $399; the number of farms bringing their operators $600 or less annually increased from 28 per cent in 1929 to 47 per cent in 1939, and this increase despite the fact that 200,000 tenants and sharecroppers, the poorest of all farmers, were pushed completely out of agriculture during the decade.

Many farm families would starve to death on such incomes; hence it is not surprising to find that, like the poverty-stricken peasants of Europe and Asia, “29 per cent of all farm operators supplemented their farm income by work off their farms.”

The average American farmer is revealed by the census to be a United States citizen who lives without the benefit of running water, modern plumbing, electricity, telephone (only one out of four farms have one) or mechanization of farm operations. His wife must join him in the fields to earn their pittance: more than 50 per cent of the white women and 85 per cent of the Negro women were recorded as regularly working in the fields. In addition she has her household burden, far greater than that of her city sister since but onethird of farm dwellings are lighted by electricity and there is a similarly low percentage of dwellings piped for running water. Some measure of adult’s work is also a universal requirement of the farm child. The most modern farm machinery is generally beyond the farmer’s reach. About one out of five reported tractors; one out of five had motor trucks; three out of five had automobiles (30 per cent models of 1930 or earlier). A trend between 1929 and 1939 toward service cooperatives – which provided use of such things as spray rings, trucking and tractors – aided about one out of every eight farms; but even such cooperatives are either unavailable or beyond the pocketbook of most farmers. Thus in the machine age, the census makes clear, the average American farmer is still his own beast of burden.

The poverty of the white tiller of the soil of the South is proverbial, and is borne out by the census figures: 40.5 per cent of them own no land at all but are tenants, about 30 per cent of whom are “sharecroppers, depending on their landlords not only for land, but also for the work stock with which to farm that land and often even for food and feed while making their crop.” But as a group the white tillers are prosperous compared to the Negroes. Compared to the 40.5 per cent of the Southern whites who are tenants, of the Negroes 74.5 per cent are tenants of whom 60 per cent are sharecroppers. Out of all proportion to the population in the Southern states, whites are full-owners more than ten times as often as Negroes.

The Permanent Crisis of Agriculture

Such, in a few figures, is the picture of the permanent plight of American agriculture under capitalism. It must always be remembered that the agricultural crisis did not begin with the collapse of the stock market in 1929, but began after World War I, in 1922. The American farmer had his peak of affluence in 1909 to 1914, the last years of the United States as a “debtor” nation; from 1870 to 1914 the country was veritably the granary of Europe, paying with agricultural exports the capital (and the debt charges on it) borrowed by Wall Street from the European money markets. This role for American agriculture ended in 1918 when the United States became pre-eminently the chief creditor nation; but the needs of post-war Europe, before the war-torn lands were reclaimed, kept the farmer from feeling the full weight of the change until 1922. The farmer’s share of Wall Street’s world supremacy was permanent depression.

The permanent deterioration of the American farmer since then is indicated graphically by the following figures:


National Farm

Value of
Farm Land










So, after these bitter 20 years, the farmer is told by Roosevelt to exercise “restraint” lest he wax too fat, while Vice President Wallace urges the farmer “to avoid undue pressure on the nation in time of trouble,” so that “we shall be just that much more likely to have a soundly functioning farm program when the war is over. That is when the farmer will really need friends.”

In attempting to urge and press the farmer into “restraint,” Wallace probably said more than he intended. Yes, “the farmer will really need friends” when the war is over and his situation, momentarily alleviated by the war boom, reverts to the “normal” permanent crisis of agriculture. But he will not find those friends in either the Republican or Democratic parties. The census figures, after six years of New Deal farm “aid” demonstrate irrefutably that the farmer can have no hope for a future under capitalism.

For the great mass of the farmers, the only hope is the socialist revolution. Socialism will permit the farmer to maintain his individual farm if he wishes, lending him at nominal rates the machinery and other materials he needs and providing him with a market for everything he can produce. Socialism will also demonstrate, through giant state farms, the superiority of large-scale collective farming, which the individual farmer may voluntarily join. In either case, a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government will assure the farmer of security and peace.

The alternative to socialism is indicated by Messrs. Roosevelt, Wallace and Wickard: “restraint” after twenty years of suffering, to be followed by the dire need for “friends” after the war and as long as capitalism exists.

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