During the Great Depression/Dust Bowl era the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, running electricity and building sanitary privies in rural America, and establishing a system of farm credit all made sense. However, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933 was controversial. In this Friday Footnote we will explore the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. This Footnote is Part 1 and will be continued next week.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act
After World War I ended (1918), the money received by farmers for their commodities entered a decade-long period of decline. Rasmussen, Baker and Ward (1976, p. 1) clearly describe the plight of the farmer:
The unprecedented economic crisis which paralyzed the nation by 1933 struck first and hardest at the farm sector of the economy. For agriculture and rural America, it was the worst economic-social-political wrenching in history. Farmers were forced to the wall. Foreclosures were the order of the day. Realized net income of farm operators in 1932 was less than one-third of what it had been in 1929. Farm prices fell more than 50 percent…the relative decline in the farmers’ position had begun in the summer of 1920. Thus, for a decade farmers were caught in a serious squeeze between the prices they received and the prices they had to pay before the situation became critical and a major element of the Depression.
The agricultural depression led to the enactment of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (enacted on May 12).
Figure 1. President Roosevelt signing the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace is 3rd from the right.
The Act established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration under the leadership of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace to implement a “domestic allotment” plan that would give money to producers of basic agriculture commodities who were willing to reduce their acreage of certain crops and reduce livestock numbers. This was an attempt to balance supply and demand with the ultimate goal being to restore prices paid to farmers to a level equal to that of 1909–14, which was a period of stability for agricultural commodities.
Figure 2. Idyllic poster promoting the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The reality was not so idyllic.
Which agricultural commodities needed to be “balanced”? Wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products were designated as basic commodities in the original legislation. Subsequent amendments in 1934 and 1935 expanded the list of basic commodities to include rye, flax, barley, grain sorghum, cattle, peanuts, sugar beets, sugar cane, and potatoes.
Balancing Supply and Demand
How does one balance supply and demand? One approach was to reduce the acreage of the crops and reduce the number of animals mentioned above. Farmers were paid to NOT plant crops that were considered surplus. Of course, the incentive to do so was money.
The letter that follows reveals that tobacco farmers would receive two payments for reducing their acreage. The first payment would be $17.50 for each acre taken out of production and a 2nd payment based on the value of the crop that would have been produced on that acreage. Similar arrangements were made for other crops.
Figure 3: Letter with details about crop reductions. Image from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
The second approach to balancing supply and demand, and a very controversial one, was to kill livestock and burn or plow under crops. In 1933, as part of the AAA program, baby pigs and pregnant sows were killed. The goal was to reduce supply which could result in increased prices and incomes for the rural poor. It was a public relations disaster. In 1933 over one-third of US households had family members who were out of work and there was widespread hunger. Killing hogs to raise hog prices at such a time struck many as wrong.
Lotterman (1999, p. 1) writes:
Participation in the program was voluntary, and farmers were paid for pigs that were killed. Most of the hogs killed were sent to packing plants that contracted with the government. Some 5 million light hogs, averaging 53 pounds, were simply “tanked” or processed into inedible meat and bone meal. Sows, which were required to be visibly pregnant for acceptance into the program, were processed into meat that was donated to various local food relief programs [Note; The Red Cross distributed a good bit of the processed meat).
Historical records show that some 6.4 million pigs and sows were killed at an expenditure of $31 million.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society (Fite):
Under the corn-hog program Oklahoma farmers received $4,058,000 in 1934 in return for reducing hog numbers. This program, which involved killing brood sows and little pigs, brought cries of protest from many critics. However, the useable meat was distributed through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. A similar cattle-purchasing program was also important to Oklahoma farmers.
In addition to killing pigs, cattle were also killed. Reinhardt and Ganzel (2003) write:
In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. In the South, one million farmers were paid to plow under 10.4 million acres of cotton.
The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits. Farmers hated to sell their herds, but they had no choice. The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy, and AAA payments became the chief source of income for many that year.
It was a bitter pill for farmers to swallow. They had worked hard to raise those crops and livestock, and they absolutely hated to see them killed and the meat go to waste.
Some farmers chose to kill their own pigs and cattle. The public outcry of the killing of pigs made the news and the pig killing program was curtailed after one year. Thereafter, farmers agreed to voluntarily reduce the number of hogs on their farm.
Figure 4. Cattle killed in Kidder County, North Dakota as part of the AAA program. Photo from North Dakota State University Archives.
When the Agricultural Adjustment Act was enacted, many crops had already been planted. Thus, farmers were paid to plow them under. Fite reports:
Because Oklahoma cotton farmers had already planted their crop before the AAA became law, they had to plow up a portion of the growing cotton to qualify for benefit payments. Some farmers and farm leaders strongly objected to destroying such an important and useful crop as cotton. John A. Simpson, a prominent Oklahoma farm leader and president of the National Farmers’ Union, was among the severest critics of acreage and production controls. However, 87,794 Oklahoma cotton farmers signed contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and plowed under the required acres to qualify for payments that amounted to $15,792,287 in 1933.
In 1933 the goal was to plow under 10 million acres of cotton. Because of the severe drought in the plains, wheat did not have to be plowed under or burned in those states.
The Role of Extension and Agricultural Education in the AAA
Since the Agricultural Adjustment Act was new and contained numerous technical provisions, there was a dire need to educate the farmers about the various provisions of the act. Agriculture teachers and Extension Agents were encouraged to conduct night classes for adult farmers to educate them about the act. Typically, the county agent would go from township to township in his county conducting education meetings. The ag teachers would educate their students about the Act and also hold meetings for the parents.
Figure 5. Farmers in Oklahoma attending a meeting to learn about the AAA.
In Volanto’s 2005 book, Texas, Cotton, and the New Deal, he explains the involvement of the county agent. The AAA used the federal Extension Service and state and county agricultural agents to actually implement the plow-up rather than expand the size of the AAA to the local level. According to Volanto the local agents had to be trained. The agents in turn had to educate local farmers, persuade them to sign up for the plow-up, and then inspect their farms before and after the plow-up.
It was not an easy job for the agents. Johnson writes (2006):
Many agents worked eighteen-hour days and often on Sunday. Numerous difficulties arose throughout the process. For instance, farmers were slow to sign up, requiring local agents to make house calls. Speculation about price increases led some farmers to not sign up for crop reduction. Farmers that agreed to plow up some of their acreage became less willing after tropical storms destroyed some of the crops. Other farmers claimed their mules refused to destroy the crops because that was something they had been trained precisely not to do.
Figure 6. Farmers picking up their AAA checks at the Extension office.
Vocational Agriculture was not left out of the AAA reduction program. The FFA had a national radio program in the 1930s. The guest speaker for the August 14, 1933 program was C. A. Cobb, from the USDA. His presentation was “The Part the F.F.A. May Play in Cotton Adjustment. In Cobb’s presentation he encouraged FFA members to “Use your influence to see to it that not a single stalk of cotton is left standing on land contracted to the government (The Agricultural Education Magazine, October 1933, p. 62).
On the August 21, 1933 national FFA Radio Program, Connard Sullivan, President of the Tennessee FFA Association, issued Executive Order 1 over the air to Tennessee FFA members (with copies of the order being mailed to each chapter president in Tennessee) which compelled the members to carry out the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (Agricultural Education Magazine, November 1933, p. 78). A short note that followed this entry in the Magazine indicated the national FFA advisor wanted each FFA member to become familiar with the AAA provisions. It was stated “Here is a chance for Future Farmers of America to assist in putting over a national agricultural recovery program.”
The Ag Ed supervisor in Mississippi, C. O. Henderson, penned an article in the April, 1934 issue of The Agricultural Education Magazine describing how the Mississippi agriculture teachers taught about the A.A.A. cotton program. His opening sentence was (p. 156) “The problems connected with the Agricultural Adjustment Act have given the agriculture teacher an unusual opportunity to prove his value.”
Mr. Henderson described how the teachers made a list of questions they might be asked about the program and then formulated the answers. The teachers then conducted adult education programs using the case method approach in their communities and surrounding areas. During the 1933 Plow-Up Campaign, 1,528 adult education meetings were held with 687 being outside the teacher’s school district. There were 25,874 field visits with 8,466 of those being outside their school districts.
The programs conducted by the agricultural teachers must have been effective. A survey of cotton growers in the “Smith-Hughes” communities revealed that 98.8% of the farmers plowed up part of their acreage compared to less than 90% in other areas. Agriculture teachers across the nation were conducting similar educational programs about the Agricultural Adjustment Act.
Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, wrote a letter to C. H. Lane, Chief of the Vocational Agriculture Service, lauding the work of agriculture teachers in implementing the AAA. This letter was published in the December 1933 issue of The Agricultural Education Magazine. Following are some excerpts from the letter (p. 82):
“…the service rendered by teachers of vocational agriculture in the conduct of the production control campaigns by this Department, and particularly the cotton acreage rental program is greatly appreciated.”
“A considerable number of vocational teachers rendered especially difficult services in checking disputed cases and bringing about adjustments of production figures in certain communities where there was a tendency on the part of contract signers [the farmers] to overstate their actual production.”
“The cotton campaign was brought to a successful completion through the united efforts of extension forces and the vocational teachers…”
The Supreme Court Ruling
Where did the money come from to pay farmers under the Agricultural Adjustment Act? Food processors such as meatpackers and flour millers were required to pay a tax which was then passed on (in theory) to consumers. On January 6, 1936, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Butler that the act was unconstitutional for levying this tax on the processors only to have it paid back to the farmers.
So, what happened next? Stayed Tuned – The Friday Footnote for next week will continue with the story. The story is far from complete and it impacts agriculture today.
Figure 7. Cartoon about legal action and the AAA.
If you teach your students about the AAA you might show this student-produced 3 ½ minute Infographic video about the Agricultural Adjustment Act. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShCxkDkhtZs.
Have your students search YouTube for videos about the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Apparently, in social studies classes across the country, a number of students have created videos about the AAA. Some are pretty good. Have your students watch some of the videos and then critique them.
I am not advocating you join KidsKonnect (there is a cost) but you might get some teaching ideas for teaching about AAA by visiting this web site – https://kidskonnect.com/social-studies/agricultural-adjustment-act/.
Fite, Gilbert (ND). Agricultural Adjustment Act. Oklahoma Historical Society. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AG002
Johnson, R. (2006). Texas, Cotton, and the New Deal (Book Review). https://eh.net/book_reviews/texas-cotton-and-the-new-deal/
Lotterman, E. (1999). The Porcine Slaughter of the Innocents. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/1999/the-porcine-slaughter-of-the-innocents
Rasmussen, W., Baker, G. & Ward, J. (1976). A short History of Agricultural Adjustment, 1933-75. Economic Research Service, USDA. Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 391.
Reinhardt, Claudia & Ganzel, Bill (2003). Culling the Herds. Wessels Living History Farm. https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/crops_17.html.
Volanto, Keith J. Texas, Cotton, and the New Deal. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. ISBN: 1-58544-402-2.