The Agricultural Adjustment Acts: History and Impact

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  • 0:00 The First Agricultural…
  • 2:12 Outcomes of the First Act
  • 3:48 The Second…
  • 4:36 Impact of the AAA Programs
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Learn why farmers during the Great Depression plowed under crops and killed livestock to receive government benefits under the Agricultural Adjustment Acts. After you've explored the subject, test your knowledge with a quiz.

The First Agricultural Adjustment Act

It's 1933. The Great Depression is ravaging the United States. Millions are unemployed. Families are destitute and hungry, going to bed with empty stomachs. Meanwhile, in the breadbasket of America, the federal government is paying wheat farmers to plow under their crops. Hog raisers receive a government subsidy to kill millions of piglets. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace remarks that 'the situation is shocking commentary on our civilization. I could tolerate it only as a cleaning up of the wreckage from the old days of unbalanced production.' This illogical situation stemmed from the unprecedented crisis of the Great Depression and the federal programs known as the Agricultural Adjustment Acts.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, one of his first New Deal measures aimed to increase crop prices. The New Deal was a broad program of reform, and in May 1933, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (_AAA). This federal agency confronted the most pressing farm problem: an oversupply of farm products that led to low crop prices.

Through the AAA, the federal government paid farmers not to grow crops. With a drop in the supply of farm goods, the theory suggested, prices would rise. With higher income, farmers would spend more money on consumer goods, thus boosting the economy as a whole. This approach was called the domestic allotment plan - farmers agreed not to plant crops on a segment of land (their 'allotment').

In return, the farmers received a government subsidy. This money came from an AAA tax on the 'processors' of certain commodities, such as slaughterhouses, flour mills, and cotton gins. The problem was that at exactly the time when the AAA began operation, the spring growing season was in full swing. This led to the situation in which the AAA, in its 'plow-under' program, urged farmers to kill seedlings and slaughter piglets.

Outcomes of the First Act

The AAA programs wedded American farmers to the New Deal and to federal government subsidies. Crop prices did rise, as did farm income, the latter by 58% between 1932 and 1935. Wheat, corn, and hog farmers of the Midwest enjoyed most of the benefits of the AAA.

But there were also problems with the AAA programs. One was that some farmers purposefully killed livestock and plowed under crops just to receive the government payments, and they did so at the same time millions of Americans went hungry. This unintended consequence of the AAA disturbed many Americans.

Another problem involved the situation of southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers. These agricultural laborers did not own land and worked for large landowners. These landlords in southern cotton regions evicted sharecroppers and tenants in order to plow under their crops and receive the government subsidy. As the president of the Oklahoma Tenant Farmers' Union described, the landowners caused the tenants and sharecrops 'to be starved and dispossessed of their homes in our land of plenty.'

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