Farming in the U.S.
1850 Farmers sow by hand, cultivate with hoes, and reap with sickles, but John Deere Company is manufacturing 10,000 iron plows a year. Iron plows cut plowing time in half. Mechanical reapers are beginning to replace sickles, turning two weeks' harvesting into a day's work.
1862 May -- President Lincoln signs legislation establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He called it "the people's department" since 90 percent of Americans at the time were farmers. (Today only 2 percent are farmers.) May 27 -- Lincoln approves the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted full title of up to 160 acres of land to settlers after five years of residence. Although good in principle, the act was badly administered, and as a result large amounts of land passed into the hands of large corporations through "dummy" homesteaders.
1867 James and Agnes Jordan, filmmaker Jeanne Jordan's great-grandparents, migrate to southwest Iowa in a covered wagon and build the family farm on the banks of Troublesome Creek.
1870 The 1870 census shows that farmers, for the first time, are in the minority. Of all employed persons, only 47.7 percent are farmers. As farming becomes more mechanized, farmers rely more on bank loans for land and equipment.
1880 U.S. population reaches 50,155,783, with farm population estimated at 22,981,000. Forty-nine percent of all employed persons are farmers, and of those, one in four is a tenant, despite the Homestead Acts. With the development of barbed-wire fencing and windmills, plow farming reaches the Great Plains.
1893 U.S. experiences an economic crisis: 642 banks fail and 16,000 businesses close. As produce prices plummet, tens of thousands of small farms go under.
1900 There are 5.7 million farms in the U.S., with an average size of 138 acres.
1920 The number of farms has grown to 6.5 million and is home to roughly 32 million Americans, or 30 percent of the population. This would soon change. Migration, mostly by young people who left for the cities, escalated over the next ten years.
1929 October -- Stock market crashes. The Great Depression begins.
1930 Warren Jordan, filmmaker Jeanne Jordan's grandfather, is farming at Troublesome Creek when severe drought hits the Midwestern and Southern states. This area is semi-arid, not fit for cultivating the wheat crops that were in high demand during World War I. When the drought hit, bringing with it severe dust storms created by the over-plowed land, the area became known as the Dust Bowl.
1933 May --With the Agricultural Act of May 1933, President Roosevelt sets up the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act. This provided $200 million for refinancing farm mortgages through federal land banks, reduced interest rates, gave farmers more time to meet their obligations, and offered direct "rescue" loans to farmers in trouble. The Emergency Farm Mortgage Act was followed by the Farm Credit Act of 1933, which established a central bank to assist farming cooperatives and set up local credit associations for farmers. October -- The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation is created to divert agricultural commodities for relief purposes. The Farm Credit Administration asks state governors to establish committees to conciliate excessive and distressed farm debts. The Commodity Credit Corporation is founded to support farmers and maintain supplies of agricultural commodities by providing loans, price support, export, and storage programs.
1934 May -- Great dust storms spread from the Dust Bowl area. The drought is the worst ever in U.S. history, covering more than 75 percent of the country and affecting 27 states severely. June -- The Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act is approved. This act restricted the ability of banks to dispossess farmers in times of distress. Originally effective until 1938, the act was renewed four times until 1947, when it expired.
1935 January -- The federal government forms the Drought Relief Service to coordinate relief activities. The DRS bought cattle in counties that were designated emergency areas for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption -- more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program -- were destroyed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to be used in food distribution to families nationwide.
March -- FDR's Shelterbelt Project begins. The project called for large-scale planting of trees across the Great Plains, stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from erosion. Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash, were planted along fence rows separating properties, and farmers were paid to plant and cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost 75 million dollars over a period of 12 years. When disputes arose over funding sources (the project was considered to be a long-term strategy, and therefore ineligible for emergency relief funds), FDR transferred the program to the WPA, where it had limited success.
April 8 -- FDR approves the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provides $525 million for drought relief, and authorizes creation of the Works Progress Administration, which would employ 8.5 million people.
April 14 -- Black Sunday. The worst "black blizzard" of the Dust Bowl occurs, causing extensive damage.
April 27 -- Congress declares soil erosion "a national menace" in an act establishing the Soil Conservation Service in the Department of Agriculture (formerly the Soil Erosion Service in the U.S. Department of Interior). Under the direction of Hugh H. Bennett, the SCS developed extensive conservation programs to retain topsoil and prevent irreparable damage to the land. Farming techniques such as strip cropping, terracing, crop rotation, contour plowing and cover crops were advocated. Farmers were paid to practice soil-conserving farming techniques.
December -- At a meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, experts estimate that 850,000,000 tons of topsoil has blown off the Southern Plains during the course of the year, and that if the drought continued, the total area affected would increase from 4,350,000 acres to 5,350,000 acres in the spring of 1936. C.H. Wilson of the Resettlement Administration proposed buying up 2,250,000 acres and retiring it from cultivation.
1940 The downward spiral in the number of farms in the U.S. begins. Farmers would decrease from 30 percent of the population to less than 3 percent by 1981. The transformation from an agricultural society to an industrial and urban one was due in part to the technological developments within farming and to the growth of off-farm job opportunities. Many people left for better opportunities, since the average income for people on farms was 67 percent that of non-farm workers in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of farmers weren't able to keep up with the increasing capital required by modern farming methods. Some tenants and sharecroppers were forced out, as owners with modern machinery were able to cultivate large areas without them. Other small farmers went broke or sold out to larger neighbors.
1945 Due to a constant cost-price squeeze, farmers have no control over the cost of necessary goods or the price of their produce. Most small and poor farms are taken over by bigger operations. The income from cultivating 50 to 100 acres of land is not enough to provide the amenities of modern life.
1955 The Rural Development Program is founded to offer assistance to rural communities in poverty. A departmental study at the time found that 2,849,000 farmers out of a total of 5,370,000 earned less than $1,000 per year.
1966 September -- President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the President's National Advisory Committee on Rural Poverty to study rural poverty in-depth and to raise the standard of living in rural communities. The committee's 1967 report, "The People Left Behind," recommended expansion of food stamp programs, improvement of education, and the construction of community health centers and low-cost housing in rural areas.
Control of overproduction became a primary goal in farm policy under the Johnson administration. Farmers were subsidized to take a portion of their land out of production and the Department of Agriculture worked to expand the export market. Farmers' income increased to about 75 percent that of non-farm workers.
1970 Many large commercial farms have incorporated land from smaller farms, and farmhouses and barns are torn down to make room for more crops, changing the face of rural America. However, most farmers retain traditional agrarian values, according to informal surveys. As the cost of modern farming rises, farmers buy more land and equipment on bank loans.
1971 December -- A new Farm Credit Act is approved, establishing a Farm Credit System incorporating federal land banks and banks for cooperatives. Provisions of the act allowed for greater flexibility in consolidating bank securities and coordinating rural credit activities.
1972 August -- A new Rural Development Act is signed by President Richard Nixon, authorizing financial and technical assistance to farm areas and small communities. The amount authorized was much less than amounts authorized by his predecessors. Nixon also phased out subsidies for non-production of agricultural goods. Net farm income grew during this period to $33.3 billion in 1973.
1974 Farm size has almost doubled since 1940. The average farm is 385 acres, compared to 174 acres in 1940. The average cost of running a farm has increased almost 300 percent since 1950. Most farmers cannot pay the high production costs out of their yearly earnings and need to borrow.
1976 The demand for U.S. grain, which had increased during the 1970s due to poor grain harvests abroad, particularly in the U.S.S.R, falls dramatically. As a result, prices dropped, and annual farm income plummeted to $18.7 billion.
1978 May -- The Emergency Assistance Act of 1978 is passed to aid wheat, feed grain and cotton producers. Under President Jimmy Carter, the Farmer-Held Grain Reserve Program is formed to limit grain production and control food price fluctuations. At this time there are 2.5 million farms in the U.S., averaging 415 acres.
1979 February -- A tractor procession of farmers from the American Agriculture Movement arrives in Washington to lobby Congress for higher prices. The protest leads Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland to propose a full-scale national dialogue on the future of American agriculture in order to develop a more workable policy.
1980 January -- When the U.S.S.R invades Afghanistan, President Carter declares a grain embargo. This, combined with an extremely hot summer, make 1980 a difficult year for many farmers. Disaster loans for farmers total $30 million for feed alone. Congress passed a new crop insurance program in the fall to assist farmers.
1981 President Ronald Reagan lifts the grain embargo and signs an agreement with the U.S.S.R. to export 9 million tons of grain per year for the next five years.
1982 The annual income per farm, after expenses, is $9,000, while the average debt per farm, including mortgages, totals more than $30,000. Crop prices drop, and many farms and some small banks become bankrupt.
1983 Jim Jordan and his family are featured in an article about how hard it is for young farmers to start farming, in the Des Moines Register and Tribune. As a result of the article, they were offered a farm to rent, where they lived and worked for seven years.
1985 The average size of U.S. farms has more than doubled since 1945, from 195 acres to 440 acres. In that time, the average cost of running a farm has increased almost 20 times, requiring an investment of $100,000 to $500,000. More than half of all farms are rented, and many farms are owned by business partnerships or corporations rather than individuals.
1990 Russel and Mary Jane Jordan face their last year at Troublesome Creek. In order to preserve the farm and pass it on to their son Jim, they auction off all of their belongings to cover their bank debt of $220,000.
1996 The Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR) is signed by President Bill Clinton. FAIR, the most ambitious federal farm program since the Roosevelt years, allows for domestic and export markets rather than the federal government to determine crop production. FAIR includes provisions for rural economic development and encourages farmers to practice conservation methods through incentives. It will remain in effect until 2003.