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Farm Tenancy: A Program
By Lawrence Westbrook
January 9, 1937
Vol. 144, No. 2, P. 39-41
This is the age of the laboratory method, by which experiments are tested and principles are formulated before large-scale operations are launched. One of the most important large-scale operations for the social future of the United States will begin when legislation is passed to cope with the problem of farm tenancy. In this field the experimenting has already been done, and done well. The underlying causes of the farm-tenancy problem are known. The principles of a solution are also known, having been developed in experimental laboratories. But there is grave doubt whether these realistic conceptions will eventually prevail. There is danger that the new legislation will ignore the exploratory work already done and turn over the administration of the act to some agency or government department not equipped to carry on the manifold activities involved in it.
Laboratories for the study of the problem were operated first under the Rural Rehabilitation Division of the FERA and then under the Resettlement Administration. The specific experiments bearing most directly on it are the rural communities at Dyess (Arkansas), Pine Mountain Valley (Georgia), and Cherry Lake (Florida). These were originally established by the writer under the direction of Harry L. Hopkins as part of the general program of rural rehabilitation. When the Resettlement Administration took over the rural rehabilitation activities of the FERA, these three communities were given complete autonomy, and they have since functioned as independent rural foundations devoting their resources to the development of patterns of living for the share-croppers and farm workers without capital, who would otherwise be indefinitely on relief. They have been testing and proving grounds for the principles to be applied to a large-scale program. In all of them the findings are the same: tenancy is not a cause but an effect, and the evils associated with tenancy are not to be eradicated except by dealing with causes.
Men fail in the South not because they do not own land but because they are not competent farmers. They are incompetent because they are not physically wella fact which presents immediate problems of hygiene and medical care. They are incompetent because they are ignorant, because they do not know how to farm or how to dispose of farm productsa fact which presents immediate problems in education, training, and organization. They are incompetent for other reasons, which I shall enumerate presently. To try to solve the problem without providing the necessary physical health, knowledge, and organization would not only accomplish nothing but might make a solution impossible.
The new legislation must not be so framed as to apply only to those relatively few persons who are already fitted for profitable ownership, but must cope with the problem of training and upbuilding the vast majority for whom it is intended. It must do much more than provide facilities for the easy purchase of land by needy individuals on credit at low interest. Its aim, in short, must not be solely the abolition of tenancy. You cannot change an unsuccessful tenant into a successful farmer by a mere change of his title to the land he works. Farm tenancy is not so much undesirable in itself as an effect of undesirable conditions. Under some circumstances it can be regarded as a desirable system. In France, Denmark, Sweden, and in our laboratory communities in America it may benefit the tenant. Some form of tenancy in this country will certainly be needed for the vast number of land workers who cannot qualify for land ownership or who do not want it.
Although the fundamental principles of a solution have become clear, legislation will not be effective unless the administration of the act is vested in a body capable of establishing and maintaining these principles. Legislation should be drafted with the lessons of the laboratory in mind, and since it will deal with the future of a group of citizens, these citizens, in so far as they have any articulate organization, should be consulted. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, given only a small part in the preliminary consultation, cannot in reason or justice be continuously ignored. After all, the legislation is supposed to be in behalf of those whom this organization represents. At a recent meeting of the committee of forty formed to suggest a program, the one and only tenant representative, W. L. Blackstone, who really is a farm tenant and a member of the union, somewhat apologetically expressed disappointment that actual conditions among share-croppers did not receive more consideration. To the amazement of those who have contended that all the share-croppers and farm laborers want is a hand-out from government, he said, "You could give forty acres and a mule and supplies to a lot of farm tenants tomorrow, and they would not have any of it at the end of a year."
No single government agency can cure the evils of tenancy. There is required the concerted effort of the many agencies already in existence, with their well-trained personnels. In farm supervision, farm credit, rural sanitation, hygiene, diet, education, recreation, and work relief, these agencies have developed services which can be made available at no very great additional expense. They need only be coordinated and directed.
The most important reason, I should say, why sharecroppers and farm laborers cannot at once become successful farmers is to be found in their lack of training in farm management. They have always had their work laid out for them, with someone to tell them what to do and when to do it. They have been one-crop specialists, almost as limited in their activities as industrial workers in a modem automobile factory. They know little or nothing of the gardening, poultry-raising, and dairying essential for self-sufficing farming. If they are to become independent farmers, they must receive expert supervision and guidance, which can best be supplied by the Department of Agriculture.
A second reason why share-croppers and destitute farm workers cannot operate successfully at once is their generally bad physical condition. In the South they have lived for generations in mosquito-infested and unsanitary surroundings, on an improper diet, and with totally inadequate medical care. A large proportion of them are afflicted with insidious, energy-sapping diseases. The prevalence of malaria, pellagra, hernia, bad teeth, and diseased tonsils is without question a major cause of the shiftlessness and indolence with which these people are so often reproached. At the clinic established by the government at the Dyess colony in Arkansas it was discovered that practically every family examined for admission to the colony had one or more of these afflictions. After a few months' treatment the Dyess settlers were so improved in appearance and morale that they did not seem to be the same people. Their capacity and desire for work were noticeably increased. Their children, when sent to nearby public schools and placed in classes with children from local non-colony families, led their classes. It would be hard to find more convincing evidence both of the fundamentally worth-while stock of these people and of the deterrent effects of poor health. The malaria mosquito can be eradicated as effectively and perhaps as cheaply as the tick which causes Texas fever among cattle. The government has spent millions in successfully fighting the cattle tick. An attack on the malaria mosquito would now be a good investment. The broad experience and trained personnel of the Public Health Service should be utilized in the application of remedial measures to all of these prevalent diseases.
A third requisite for successful farming, with or without tenancy, is adequate credit. Tenants and sharecroppers, particularly in the South, can obtain credit for production and credit for consumption only at rates so high as to make successful farming impossible. Being forced to trade at commissaries and by similar subterfuges share-croppers are usually made to pay exorbitant interest rates. The Farm Credit Administration is fully equipped to meet this problem and should be utilized.
The small farmer must necessarily produce, purchase, and sell in small quantities. This is a fourth obstacle to his success. He is permanently at a disadvantage which can only be overcome by the introduction of cooperatively owned marketing and storage facilities. The Department of Agriculture and the Farm Credit Administration have both had long experience in the establishment and development of cooperative marketing organizations. This experience should be drawn upon.
Small farmers are not able to benefit from mechanized equipment. They could substantially increase production by the use of modern machinery, which they cannot afford to buy but which might be made available through cooperative ownership or be rented from state corporations. Farm-to-market roads constitute one of the most pressing needs of our rural economy. They can be obtained through the cooperation of the WPA in localities where rural development is undertaken. Schools, hospitals, and recreational facilities are also badly needed in many localities, and can be obtained through the WPA.
Inadequate and unsanitary housing is a major handicap. Living quarters available for farm workers in the South are far worse than in the worst slums of the cities. It is practically impossible to maintain good health, to say nothing of decent living standards and self-respect, in the ramshackle hovels used as homes by the sharecroppers and farm laborers who make our cotton crop. A sound program of rural development must include extensive modernization and new building, using any feasible pre-fabrication techniques which have been developed and engaging the cooperation of the Rural Electrification Administration.
Speculation in land values due to changes in commodity price levels has been a spectacular cause of the loss of farms in the past, and will be again if adequate restrictions against mortgaging and resale are not incorporated in the new legislation. It is certain that a program of rural development must contain provisions for such restrictions.
Since the causes of the evils associated with farm tenancy are many and since there are many existing government agencies fitted to help eradicate these evils, the problem should not be handled by any agency of government acting alone. In the laboratory communities which have already been referred to, it has been found that the various existing agencies can function most effectively when they are under the direction of a separate coordinating and directing organization. Virtually all that is needed to get the entire problem in hand is a federal policy-making and refinancing body, with separate operating bodies in each state. These might well be in the form of self-liquidating, non-profit state corporations.
The federal agency might well be a federal corporation charged with complete and unified responsibility for all land acquisition and disposition and for the formulation of rural-development policies. Purchases of land could be made with long-term bonds of the corporation, bearing guaranteed interest. Disposition of land could be made to the branch of government best fitted to use the land. Areas suitable for reforestation would go to the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. Areas suitable for parks, grazing, game preserves, and the like would go to the Department of the Interior. Land which is really suitable for farming would be sold to the state corporations.
The state corporations would be the real operating units of the program. Suitable state corporations are already in existence and have already been adapted to this type of work. In 1934-35 they were set up in each state by Mr. Hopkins under the name of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations and were, in fact, private, non-profit, self-liquidating bodies. Their stock would be held in continuous trust by the directors of the federal corporation in order to insure effective execution of the policies determined by the latter. Their function would be to direct and coordinate the specialized services of existing government agencies and to supplement these activities with new services only when so directed by the federal corporation. To insure complete and understanding cooperation the Board of Directors of the federal corporation could consist of the Secretary of Agriculture, the Surgeon General, the governor of the Farm Credit Administration, the administrator of the Works Progress Administration, and probably also the Secretary of Commerce. Many of the directors of the state corporations might well be the local administrative officers of these same federal departments.
If we conceive of this program as being designed to cure the evils commonly associated with farm tenancy, the policy to be followed by the directors of the federal corporation becomes clear. It should be to set up a system of tenancy designed to benefit the tenant. Under that system tenants fitted to succeed as owners should be enabled in due time to become owners. Others who might succeed better as tenants should be eligible to receive the same benefits as landowners but under continued supervision. The purpose should be to develop each group under conditions enabling its members to rise as far as they can. The state corporations should, in effect, take the place of existing landowners, but in addition they should provide those necessary facilities and opportunities which have been outlined here and which are, of course, beyond the capacity and the province of private enterprise.