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Farm Policy of the 20th Century

Farm Policy of the 20th Century

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Despite farm groups' uneven political record during the late 19th century, the first two decades of the 20th century turned out to be the golden age of American agriculture. Farm prices were high as demand for goods increased and land values rose. Technical advances continued to improve productivity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture established demonstration farms that showed how new techniques could improve crop yields; in 1914, Congress created an Agricultural Extension Service, which enlisted an army of agents to advise farmers and their families about everything from crop fertilizers to home sewing projects. The Department of Agriculture undertook new research, developing hogs that fattened faster on less grain, fertilizers that boosted grain production, hybrid seeds that developed into healthier plants, treatments that prevented or cured plant and animal diseases, and various methods for controlling pests.

The good years of the early 20th century ended with falling prices following World War I. Farmers again called for help from the federal government. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, though, as the rest of the nation -- particularly urban areas -- enjoyed the prosperity of the 1920s. The period was even more disastrous for farmers than earlier tough times because farmers were no longer self-sufficient. They had to pay in cash for machinery, seed, and fertilizer as well as for consumer goods, yet their incomes had fallen sharply.

The whole nation soon shared the farmers' pain, however, as the country plunged into depression following the stock market crash of 1929. For farmers, the economic crisis compounded difficulties arising from overproduction. Then, the farm sector was hit by unfavorable weather conditions that highlighted shortsighted farming practices. Persistent winds during an extended drought blew away topsoil from vast tracts of once-productive farmland. The term "dustbowl" was coined to describe the ugly conditions.

Widespread government intervention in the farm economy began in 1929, when President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) created the federal Farm Board. Although the board could not meet the growing challenges posed by the Depression, its establishment represented the first national commitment to provide greater economic stability for farmers and set a precedent for government regulation of farm markets.

Upon his inauguration as president in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved national agricultural policy far beyond the Hoover initiative. Roosevelt proposed, and Congress approved, laws designed to raise farm prices by limiting production. The government also adopted a system of price supports that guaranteed farmers a "parity" price roughly equal to what prices should be during favorable market times. In years of overproduction, when crop prices fell below the parity level, the government agreed to buy the excess.

Other New Deal initiatives aided farmers. Congress created the Rural Electrification Administration to extend electric power lines into the countryside. Government helped build and maintain a network of farm-to-market roads that made towns and cities more accessible. Soil conservation programs stressed the need to manage farmland effectively.

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Next Article: Farming Post World-War II

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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