Country Gentleman, November 1949
Editor’s note: With Agri-View’s recent stories on a new veteran-farmer program, we thought our readers would find it interesting to learn that the “new” idea really isn’t new at all. But the response to the idea was quite different in 1949. This is a portion of this story.
Every war in our history has been followed by a rush to the land, and this one is not likely to prove an exception. In the past much of the apparent cause for such postwar settlement was economic – there were new frontiers to be developed, and grants of raw new land have been traditional rewards for soldiers returning from the wars, serving at the same time to reduce the pressure of their numbers on available city jobs. But we suspect that even more important has been the strong emotional tide – the desire for peace and security – that sweeps over a nation after a war; many see that goal in terms of a living on the land.
The economics of the situation has changed; there is no longer a great open frontier with hundreds of millions of acres of land for the asking. But the emotional appeal, the instinct to seek security through the soil, is still in the hearts and minds of thousands of soldiers and war workers. That’s why we believe there will be great pressure for settlement of all available lands following this war.
And we, as farmers, are concerned with this problem because we know that such settlement is going to affect our future, directly and indirectly. When a soldier or war worker goes on the land he becomes another farmer, competing with us established farmers for a share of the market on which we sell our products and for a share of the income of agriculture. His very numbers may prove economically embarrassing to agriculture, because the number of farmers must be in balance with the whole economy of which we are a part; too few or too many farmers, turning out too much or too little food, has always meant serious trouble for all farmers.
Don’t get the idea that we are opposed to a postwar settlement. We aren’t. In fact we believe that, under the right conditions, settlement of available lands can do much to strengthen agriculture in the United States and to promote the general welfare of the nation. And we believe that agriculture is inevitably slated for a postwar increase in numbers of people on the land. But why not do a good job of it? Why can’t we in the United States do something we have never done before following a war – Consider the well-being of the returning soldiers and the land-hungry war workers in relation to the welfare of agriculture as a part of society?
We went into farming under conditions created by the last war (World War I) and, like many other farmers who went through that period, know firsthand what a poorly adjusted agriculture is like. We became farmers because we wanted to, because of the same instinctive urge for the land that will assert itself again following this war. But we didn’t know and nobody told us whether or not there was room for us on the land.
When we started, farmers all over the country were losing their farms because they could not meet mortgage interest in a period of fast-falling prices. Some who settled in those days are still farming, but other were forced out by conditions over which they had little control. For ourselves, we know that time and again the margin between being able to stay on our land and being forced off it was dangerously thin. And we have come to realize through our experience, and that of other farmers we know or have known, that there is a great need for better methods of land settlement, that haphazard settlement required the individual to take too many changes, and may weaken the whole structure of agriculture.
As we see it, the first postwar goal is a permanent agriculture which cannot be quickly and disastrously upset by wars and depressions. Such an agriculture must take into account the adjustment of people to the land. It naturally follows, then, that settlement of soldiers and war workers should fit into a sensible over-all pattern, that the nation should be concerned with whether or not such newcomers to agriculture and all the rest of us farmers are going to be able to support ourselves in the future through thick and thin.
Perhaps the most immediate question of all, with regard to postwar settlement, is this – Is there room for more people on American farms?
The answer seems to be, “Yes – for limited numbers.” Farm population is now less than 28 million, the fewest in many years, and 4 million less than the record number of 32 million in 1932, when depression-idle factories forced many city people to the refuge of the land, and backed up on farms thousands of farm youth who normally would have sought careers in town. Now in spite of the large numbers of men who have been drawn off the land into the Army, Navy and war industries, those of us left to farm have succeeded in producing quite a lot of food and raw industrial materials – actually more than has ever been produced before in any one year.
On our farms we personally increased our acreage by taking over nearby fallow land and we put on more chickens. Thousands of farmers have done the same thing. However the main point is that the present number of farmers cannot and should not keep up this pace or use of the fertility of their land to the extent that has been necessary in this emergency. Moreover many farmers left on the land are getting along in years and want to retire as soon as they can be spared.
On the limiting side is the fact that the impetus of war has given us new and better farm machinery and many laborsaving methods. In the years just before the war, for example, combines and pickup balers moved into our own community, a countryside of small farms. It used to take 10 men to thresh our wheat. Now two of us can do it. And these things are just a preview of the technological developments which lie ahead. It is likely that there will be a great variety of power tools available to farmers when the fighting is over, and those are going to affect life on the small farms as well as on big ones. All of this means that never again will we need as great a percentage of our population on the land to keep our agricultural plant running at long-range capacity.
Another important question is, where and what kind of lands are available to returning soldiers and war workers who want to get into farming?
There are some new lands available. They are mostly lands that can be developed for agriculture by irrigation, drainage and clearing of cutover forest areas. Lands suitable for irrigation are scattered widely in the Western states, some being available as new reclamation projects, and others through the improvement and extension of existing irrigation reservoirs and canals. The Water Utilization Planning Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it is possible to bring an addition 9.9 million acres under irrigation in the 17 Western states by new development and improvement of existing irrigation facilities. There are some 5 million acres of fertile land in the Mississippi Delta, and approximately 15 million acres located here and there in small areas throughout the country that could be made available through drainage. Cutover lands, which are generally the least desirable for farming, are chiefly in the northern part of the Great Lakes states, but also in the Pacific Northwest and East.
All together there are about 40 million acres of fairly good land available for settlement – and “available” means that it can be developed for farming with varying amounts of time, effort and money; some would require many years of steady work and great investment to make it suitable for farming. If we were undertaking settlement ourselves we would want to know more.