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The Market for Farm People

by Helen Hill

U.S. Department of Agriculture

December 1936

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In 1932 the number of arrivals on farms (via other means of transport than the stork) exceeded the number of departures (via other means of transport than the hearse) by over half a million people. Farm people were unable to sell themselves to the cities at any price; at the same time part of their former city market for foodstuffs came home to roost and ate what they had produced expecting to sell.

The return of the prodigal was mighty hard on the hired man. Dad took the attitude that if friend son was coming home to stay awhile, the least he could do was to tend to the cows and lend a hand on the tractor. The hired man was let out. During the first quarter of 1933 when farm employment was at its lowest ebb, the supply of men looking for jobs as farm laborers was 213.5 percent of the demand for men to work.

The refugees from the city who didn't have a home to go to, went to any place they could find. People who had no vestige of title or kinship to serve as lien on the good farm lands squatted on land whose exhaustion the 1920's had made apparent. They got a little shelter, a little fuel, a little food.

With the industrial pickup that began in 1933, the market for farm people recovered a little. Since then, though at greatly reduced rates, the net movement of population has once more been away from the farms. But what of the years to come?

The disadvantage under which agriculture has labored because of selling its products in both domestic and foreign markets at unprotected world prices, while buying, mostly in domestic markets, at prices protected by one of the world's highest tariffs, is generally conceded. Even with the vigorous efforts of the AAA to balance prices of farm and industrial products, the purchasing power of the farmer's dollar rose only from 61 cents in 1932 to 86 cents in 1935 as compared with the 1909-13 average. But the exchange of agricultural for industrial goods is only part of the story. City and country exchange more than farm commodities and individual goods.

In addition to industrial products the city has provided the country with most of its credit, most of its insurance, most of its higher education. The city has been paid for these services, and the payment has drawn on the resources of the country no less than the payment for industrial goods.

In addition to foods and fibers, during the years of the bull market the country supplied the city with many of its people. There was a net migration from farms of about six and a third million during the 1920's. Most of these people went to the city at the age when they were best able to work. The cost of production of this factory and office manpower was not returned to the farm. Dr. O. E. Baker's estimate of the cost of raising a child in the country does not seem exorbitant at $150 a year. That means $2000-$2500 from the cradle to 15 years of age or some $14 billion for the six and a third millions who left the farms during the 1920's. Fourteen billion dollars is $2 billion more than the gross farm income of the best of the years during which the migration tool: place. It is more than twice the gross farm income of 1934.

True enough, the immigrants to the city probably sent occasional remittances back to the farm in the same way that similar immigrants from the Old World sent remittances back to Europe. The amount of such payments is unknown. But agrainst that amount must be set the payments in cash settlements of estates sent to the city by the son who stayed on the farm and took over the old place when the farmer died. Dr. Baker estimates that such payments to migrant sisters and brothers amounted to between $3 and $5 billion for the decade of the 1920's. In addition, over $7 billion was paid as interest, mostly on mortgages, to city people, and about $10 billion on rent.

So the country didn't get paid for the part it took in supplying the manpower of the boom.

Neither did it get paid for the part it took in supporting the manpower of the bust.



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003