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Farm Families and Change in 20th-Century America

Farm Families and Change in 20th-Century America

Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Farm Families and Change in 20th-Century America
    Book Description:

    The farm family is a unique institution, perhaps the last remnant, in an increasingly complex world, of a simpler social order in which economic and domestic activities were inextricably bound together. In the past few years, however, American agriculture has suffered huge losses, and family farmers have seen their way of life threatened by economic forces beyond their control. At a time when agriculture is at a crossroads, this study provides a needed historical perspective on the problems family farmers have faced since the turn of the century.

    For analysis Mark Friedberger has chosen two areas where agriculture retains major importance in the local economy -- Iowa and California's Central Valley. Within these two geographic areas he examines farm families with regard to their farming methods, land tenure, inheritance practices, use of credit, and community relations. These aspects are then compared to assess change in rural society and to discern trends in the future of family farming.

    Despite the shocks endured by family farmers at various times in this century, Friedberger finds that some families have remained remarkably resilient. These families evinced a strong commitment to their way of life. They sought to own their land; they maintained inheritance from one generation to the next; they were generally conservative in using credit; and they preferred to diversify their enterprises. These practices served them well in good times and in bad.

    Innovative in its use of a combination of documentary sources, quantitative methods, and direct observation, this study makes an important contribution to the history of American agriculture and of American society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6288-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In recent years Americans have been bombarded with depictions of hard times for farm families. Movies, network news coverage, background features in magazines, and even extravaganzas like the “Farm Aid” concerts have focused on the human dislocation, emotional suffering, and adverse economic fallout on the farm. Hollywood and media accounts of bankruptcies and foreclosures grimly portrayed the struggle of farm families to remain on the land. Thanks to the intimacy of television and the cinema, the public glimpsed a phenomenon that seemed like news. Actually, however, farmers are facing a situation common in the American past: adjustment, in circumstances beyond...

  5. 1 Corn-Belt Farming
    (pp. 15-28)

    Changes in land tenure, inheritance, and credit mechanisms—subjects to which I will tum shortly—make little impact on the casual observer of agriculture. On the other hand, the abandonment of farmsteads, the introduction of Harvestore silos, the use of huge four-wheel-drive tractors, the wholesale leveling of the land, and vast irrigation projects could not fail to leave some sort of impression that agriculture had indeed changed over the past eighty years. Unquestionably, technological and scientific innovations have altered the way the corn-belt farmer goes about the business of growing crops and raising livestock.

    The middle of the eighties finds...

  6. 2 Central Valley Ranching
    (pp. 29-46)

    It is difficult now to appreciate the fairly primitive conditions under which farmers toiled seventy years ago in the Central Valley. Although the climate was exotic and in many areas close to the rivers both ditch and groundwater was plentiful for irrigation, most farm families approached making a living from the soil with a perspective derived from the more humid East. Until the early forties a large number of family-sized ranches were mixed farming operations with a livestock emphasis. Many relied on the high water table to provide water for the irrigation of alfalfa, which became a staple feed for...

  7. 3 Land Tenure
    (pp. 47-73)

    The United States has never had an effective tenure policy whose principal aim was to ensure equal access to farm operation and ownership. While the Jeffersonian legacy of encouraging farm family ownership was taken as an article of faith by the population at large and politicians and policy makers paid lip service to an open tenure system, inevitably by the twentieth century there were inequalities in the system, especially in the West, where a 160-acre farm could not sustain a family.¹ As early as the 1880s, census figures showed an apparent increase in tenancy and landlordism and a decrease in...

  8. 4 Inheritance
    (pp. 74-98)

    Perhaps because of the legacy of the ethic of individual achievement and the obsessive concern with the agricultural ladder, few studies of inheritance were made before the 1940s.¹ By the war years, policy makers and Agricultural Experiment Station researchers in the Midwest began to realize that the tenure system was changing, and they became interested in the intricacies of intrafamilial transactions. Without academic guidance, corn-belt families had been passing on their farms to their relatives for several generations. Indeed, the classic investigation by Kenneth Parsons and Eliot Waples in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, set out to learn something from farmers who had...

  9. 5 Credit
    (pp. 99-126)

    Without credit farmers cannot function. Cash flow is limited for all but certain specialists such as dairy farmers. Even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the egg money often provided farm families with a steady source of income, only the most frugal farmers avoided borrowing money for land purchases or operating and living expenses. Credit influenced land tenure and inheritance and, like them, was affected by the changes in the structure of agriculture in the twentieth century.

    Much borrowing was local and noninstitutional—fathers and sons, between neighbors, or through seller mortgages. Farm families, are, to use...

  10. 6 Family
    (pp. 127-157)

    In Iowa and the Central Valley, some families and communities have survived and prospered despite the disruptions that have beset agriculture in this century. So far, the many challenges farm families have faced have been discussed in general terms. Now it is time to examine the record in greater detail to try and understand why, in an occupation characterized by massive out-migration, contraction, and concentration, certain families managed to remain on the land.

    Traditionally, corn-belt farming has favored the family-type or tenant-type farm. Here, owners or tenants have done the managing, and they or their families have supplied the labor....

  11. 7 Community
    (pp. 158-189)

    The hundreds of towns founded in the nineteenth century to serve Iowa farmers formed a continuum from crossroads hamlet to county seat; the main function of such centers was to permit local farmers to conduct their business without traveling too far from home. The same principle held true in the Central Valley. The formation of Kings County in 1893 was a classic case in point. An Iowa-born newspaper editor drummed up enough support for the secession of the area that would become Kings from Tulare County, basing his campaign on the issue that Visalia, the county seat of Tulare, was...

  12. 8 Corn-Belt Crisis
    (pp. 190-222)

    Because of the complexities of the farm crisis in Iowa and the many actors involved, it is useful to provide a schematic chronology of events, while introducing the protagonists. The crisis went through five stages. As table 14 shows, the process began in 1981 during an inflationary spiral that gave little hint of what was to come. The next stage, from 1982 to 1983, was a phase of collective denial, when most of the farm community was apathetic to what was beginning to occur and those who did appreciate the trends were ignored. During 1984 and the first two months...

  13. 9 Central Valley Crisis
    (pp. 223-245)

    The farm crisis slowly gathered momentum, and eventually it affected all farm regions, including the Central Valley. Although California agriculturists often preferred to use the term “deep recession” and usually made a point of emphasizing the state’s exceptionalism—the diversity of crops and the more balanced economy in the Central Valley—essentially a similar scenario of doom and gloom had developed there by the end of 1985.¹ In addition, early in 1985 high concentrations of selenium were discovered in irrigation drainage water of the Westlands Water District. This major ecological threat would pose a serious challenge to the long-term health...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 246-251)

    Whither the family farm? Is it possible to discern a major watershed in the structure of American agriculture in the middle eighties using the evidence assembled in two important farm states? The short answer would have to be “not yet.” The historical precedent of the 1920s and 1930s seems to suggest that change is unlikely to be rapid. If the experience of those decades is largely irrelevant from an economic and structural point of view, something can be learned from what might be called the mechanics of recovery in those days. The psychological impact of the Depression on farmers was...

  15. A Note on Sources and Methods
    (pp. 252-253)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 254-277)
  17. Index
    (pp. 278-282)