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The Farm Crisis of the 1920s

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  • 0:01 Return from WWI
  • 0:53 Technology
  • 2:37 Two Different Approaches
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While World War I may have been a victory for the Allies and United States, it ultimately would be a defeat for many American farmers. This lesson explains the farm crisis that began as many veterans returned to the fields.

Return from World War I

Macabre as it sounds, World War I was a great time to be in the business of American agriculture. Farmers in the United States saw their biggest competitors in Europe unable to grow enough food to survive, and for at least part of the war, American shipping was considered neutral. Even after America entered into the conflict, there was still plenty of money to be made by American farmers.

However, as soon as the conflict ended, all of that demand dried up. Suddenly, European farmers who had been in the trenches fighting were now able to return to their fields. This meant that American farmers, many of whom had gone into debt in order to pay for expansions to remain competitive, were unable to pay their debts. As a result, they went out of business and many farmers were unable to survive.

Technology

New technologies did little to help the situation. Before the war, tractors had been a curiosity. Now, with advances made in automotive engineering from building tanks and trucks, a good tractor could make a farm much more competitive than its neighbors. That meant there was a movement towards a few big farms, rather than many small farms. Such movement was exacerbated by the introduction of crop dusters, special planes that flew low over fields to spread chemicals that, in the past, were distributed by hand. As crop dusters were only effective on large fields, more farmers had to sell their land because they couldn't afford to buy out their neighbors.

In fact, it wasn't just new equipment that was damaging the fate of the American farmer. During the years before the war, President Woodrow Wilson had expanded the role of government in promoting farming. County extension agents, experts often affiliated with public universities that applied scientific study to farming techniques, meant that the American farmer was given the most cutting-edge information on how to grow crops that was possible. The problem was that his neighbors were, too, and with the end of the war meaning less demand for crops, soon, too much food was being produced.

Basic economics took over at this point. Due to the massive increase in supply, the price that people were willing to pay plummeted. In fact, the price went so low that farmers lost money by continuing to grow crops. Thousands of farms were abandoned. However, there was still one power that the farmers did have. They had the attention of lawmakers from both parties. As a result, lawmakers began to work on solutions to help the farmers.

Two Different Approaches

The first solution was designed to help the farmers immediately. It would have given massive subsidies to farmers in order to make sure that they could stay in business. Known as the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Act, it would have required the Federal Government to effectively fix the price of certain foodstuffs by buying any excess after the economy had essentially had its turn.

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