Nye, David E. Consuming Power
United States: 1998
Pages 120 and 191
Efficient harvesting, better food preservation, and more efficient marketing did not improve farmers’ incomes, however. The last 20 years of the nineteenth century was a period of agricultural depression. Commodity prices fell as a result of overproduction. Many farmers were unable to meet mortgage payments and had to leave the land or become renters. Farmers blamed railroads, middlemen, banks, and Wall Street for their plight, and through political organizations (notably the Populist Party) they called for nationalization of railroads, lower freight rates, better terms for their loans, funding for irrigation research, and more democratic control over corporations. But the underlying problem of the 1890s was the success of farm production coupled with the development of the food-preservation industry....
Efficiency did not make farmers rich. Despite dramatic increases in productivity, commodity prices, already low in the 1920s, fell even more during the Depression. If one takes 1920 as a baseline, there was a decline in total farm inventory of 10 percent by 1940, despite investments in tractors, automobiles, and other energy-intensive technologies. Even this grim statistic hides the desperate situation of many midwestern farmers in the Depression, who organized to defy foreclosures, dumped milk and other commodities in an attempt to force up prices, lobbied for government cost-of-production price guarantees, and got mortgage moratorium laws passed in some state legislatures. The high productivity of mechanized agriculture was at the root of the problem. Not only did yields per acre increase, but continual improvements in food processing eliminated waste, while the advent of tractors released one-quarter of the nation’s farmland that had been used to feed horses.