American Agriculture: Boom and Bust (1910s-20s)


Figure 1.--Here we see American farm boys in 1917. Notice the overalls. About a third of the population still lived on faems. Farmers had begun to mechanize in the late-19t century, but tractors with internal combustion engines were just beginning to appear. This meant that farmers with relatively small farms for vthecfirst time could afford to buy tractors. World War I created a boom for American farmers. When the United States entered the War, the U.S. Government incouraged farmers to further expand production. And this is precisely what farmers did. This was not only to feed the rapidly expanding U.S. Army, but as it turned out the srarving people of Europe--some 15-20 million people, any of whom were children. The boys were probanly unaware of the nobel effort that their farm and the american nation was playing in saving the people of Europe. At the time this photograph was taken, the food sitution in Europe ha reached crisis levels.

The Depression began early in rural America. World War I created an enormous demand for agricultural products. Farmers and farm workers were conscriopted for military service. Fertilizer factories were converted for munitions production. This and the the destruction of War substantially reduced agricultural production. The Central Powers could not import from Russia, the European breadbasket or from overseas because of the Allied naval embargo. The Allies, especially Britain did import and in large quantity. American farmers thus played an important role even bedore America declared war on Germany (1917). After the War, the United States fed a prostrate Europe, averting widespread starvartion. Herbert Hoover and U.S. Food Administration played a major role in that effort. American food not only saved defeated Germans but also millions in the new soviet Union. As European agricultural production revovered, the market for American farm products declined. Thus as urban Americans reveled in the Roaring Twenties, American farmers experienced an economic decline which reached depression levels. The reluctance of power companies to run lines into rural areas impeded needed efforts to midernize farm life and operations. And the situtation was made even worse by the terrible dust storms which began at theend of the decade--turning the Midwest into the Dust Bowl.

The 1910s

For most countries developments on farms had little impact on other countries. Not so America. America is an exceptional country which the Europeans already knew. Thus is why millions of Europeans came to America. What the Europeans did not know at the beginning of the decade waa that American farmers would save millions of lives throughout the continent. American farmers saved millions of people in Europe during the decade, both during and after World war I. No other people in world history had ever attempted such a humanitarian effort on basically altruistic motives and on such a massibe scle. And it was all possible because of the American farmer. Major developments occured in rural America during the 1910s. Farm credit was a major issue. About a third of the more than 90 million Americans lived in rural areas (1910). Russia in the early-20th century was the European breadbasket, exporting large quantities of grain. The industrialized countries of Western Europe (espcially Britain, Germany and the Lowlands) had to important food to feed their workers. France with its especially abundant land was in a little better shape. World War I created an enormous demand for agricultural products. Farmers and farm workers were conscripted throughout Europe for military service. Fertilizer factories were converted for munitions production. This and the the destruction of War substantially reduced agricultural production. The Central Powers could not import from Russia, the European breadbasket or from overseas because of the Allied naval embargo. Farm production in Europe fell along with the devestation and shifting of priorities to war production. Shortages in Russia, Germny, and Austria-Hungary undermined the imperial regimes. The Allies, especially Britain did import and in large quantity. American farmers thus played an important role even before America declared war on Germany. And the increased demand affects American farming. The markets created and the resulting price increases meant boom years for American farmers and a rush to expand plantings. Great Planes farmers expand dryland farming. Farm workers appear from Mexico, both as a result ofthe Mexican Revolution andthe need for workers as production increased. New Government prigrams are untriduced such as the Stock Raising Homestead Act (1916). Imprioved mechanized equipment appears such as large opengeared gas tractors (1910), closed gear tractors (1915), and small prarie combines (1918). The Northern Plains states (North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota) become the principal wheat producing states. As a result of experiments with different wheat strains, durum wheats becomes an important commercial crop. The effort to increase production meant that grain farmers were moving into the most arid area of the Great Plains. Marquis wheat was introduced (1912) Kansas red wheat was introduced (1917). Henry Fors's Model-T and country road building significantly increased the mobility of farmers and the access to small farm equipment like tractors. The Rural Post Roads Act begins regular Federal subsidies to road building (1916). The American railroad network peaked at 254,000 miles (1916) providing the farmer unparalleded market access. The Government once America entered the War (1917), encouraged American farmers to increase production and they responded with major increases in planting and land utilization. Thus during the War, the Allies did not face the same problems with food that Austria-Hungary and Germany faced. After the War, the United States fed a prostrate Europe, averting widespread starvartion. Herbert Hoover and U.S. Food Administration played a major role in that effort.

The 1920s

American farmers continued to feed Europe in the early 1920s. American food not only saved defeated Germans but also millions in the new soviet Union. As Europe recovered from the Great War, agricultural production throughout the Continent gradually recovered and returned to more normal levels. In fact because of the World war I food crisis, many Governments want to promote added agricuktural output in caseof ny future emergency. This left American farmers who had so significantly expanded production without the markets needed for their significantly expanded output. Farm prices thus declined percipitously. The U.S. Government which incouraged farmers to expand production did not plan how to help farmers adjust to a more normal demand structure. Thee was siply no need for the guge harvests that American farmers were now priducing. Thus Rural America came on hard times years almost a decade before before the Wall street crash. As urban Americans reveled in the Roaring Twenties, an unprecedented ecojmnomic expansion and prosperity, American farmers experienced an economic decline which reached depression levels. The reluctance of power companies to run lines into rural areas impeded needed efforts to midernize farm life and operations. And the situtation was made even worse by the terrible dust storms which began at the end of the decade--turning the Midwest into the Dust Bowl. The abundance of land gave many American farners that they could practice destructive farm practices and just move on. The impacted of plowing up the Great Planes was given little thought. At the end of the decade, drought on the Great OPlaines and the environmental impact of poor farming practices resulted in an envoromental nightmare.










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Created: June 28, 2003
Last updated: 3:42 AM 2/3/2016