Modern Americans, disconnected from the nation’s rural heritage, often imagine farm life of the past as simple and uncomplicated by market pressures. Farmers in the years before World War I, however, faced relentless and thoroughly modern economic stresses and labor conflicts as the scale of their enterprises increased. In the wheat-growing regions of the Midwest and the Great Plains, growing more wheat resulted in lower prices per bushel, ironically increasing costs (for equipment, fertilizer, and labor) and decreasing overall income for farm families. In 1917, viewing wheat production as essential to the war effort, the federal government established price controls for wheat. The plan raised wheat prices, but many Americans, especially those in the labor movement, asked why wheat farmers should be subsidized while wartime laws prevented other workers from seeking higher wages. This 1918 Scribner’s Magazine article answered critics who accused wheat farmers of profiteering, portraying farmers sympathetically, as patriotic businessmen simply trying to make a decent living.
Six farmers stood near their wheat wagons at a Middle West cooperative elevator waiting to “weigh in” their loads of grain. The scales were out of order and they gathered in a little group discussing the wheat situation, the subject uppermost in their minds. Each wagon held 50 bushels or more—a clean $100 a load at the price paid at that station.
“It’s not enough, compared with other things,” declared Jim Haywood. Like his neighbors, he was fairly successful, take it one year with another, and a hard worker. “The government took money out of my pocket and hurt nobody else when it fixed the price of wheat, and I can’t see that it was right.”
“But $2 a bushel is a good figure,” interrupted Sandy McRae, noted for his thriftiness. “I hauled wheat here in the summer of 1914 for 64 cents a bushel. Two dollars is good money.”
“Maybe it is,” continued Jim, “but that don’t answer it. You’ve got money in the bank. Suppose you were like me. Suppose you were in debt $3,000 on a 160-acre farm, had only a fair amount of livestock, barely enough implements, and for two years had only broke even because of crop failure. You raised 100 acres of wheat last season, averaging 18 bushels to the acre and of good grade. Figuring up, it had cost you $300 for the seed, $4 a day for harvest hands, 10 cents a bushel for threshing, and was worth at the elevator $2.75 a bushel—it might even go to $3 a little later. Deducting your expense, you could figure for your labor and use of the land a return of $4,000—and it would look mighty good to you. Then one morning came news that the government had fixed the price of wheat at $2 a bushel at your market, wiping out $1,350 of your income. How would you feel about it?”
That was what happened to the wheat farmer in the autumn of 1917, and for nine months he has endeavored to reconcile his financial disappointment with his patriotism. All this time he has been the subject of a flood of news and editorial comment ranging from laudation to abuse. Because he accepted the nation’s dictum without starting organized opposition, he has been heralded as a philanthropist; because he questioned the justice of the regulation he has been railed at as a profiteer.
Were it merely a matter of that one crop, the agitation would already have passed into history, for a new harvest is here. But from that same farmer must come a large part of the foodstuffs for the Allies and upon him depends the number of wheatless days we shall have in the winter of 1919–20. Never before has the American farmer been held responsible for the season’s return. He has sown little or much as conditions favored; whether the world over averaged the yield; transportation equalized the supply, and the nations were fed. Now it is vitally important whether or not he decides to sow an increased acreage.
“Well, what are you going to do about sowing next fall?” put in Miles Minter, whose farm joined Sandy’s on the east. “Going to put in more or less?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” was the reply, “but I suppose I’ll do about the same as usual. I’m not kicking on the government and am willing to help the war—but I don’t think the wheat farmer should be the only one regulated. There’s plenty of others need it.” "Last fall I wanted to be patriotic,“ added Squire Taylor, who had been quietly listening, ”and besides the price looked good—it was $2.80 at one time—and we were guaranteed $2; so I put in an extra 80 acres. Half of it winter killed. Don’t think I will sow quite so much this year—my boy has gone to the army and it’s some job to get a hired man these times. Besides, there’s other crops that pay better. Wheat at $2 a bushel here isn’t any bonanza, but I’ll do all I can, I’ll tell you that.“
”So will I,“ agreed Haywood, ”but you can’t make me believe that it’s fair to pick out the wheat farmer and regulate his crop—without helping him to get his implements on a basis of his wheat price—and not touch the cotton grower. Treat us all alike. Why should the wheat raiser be the goat?" The others nodded approvingly. Jim had summarized the attitude of the average producer of the Middle West. . . .
The truth is that the wheat farmer is neither a profiteer nor entirely self-sacrificing. He is in business to earn for himself and his family a living and to lay aside something for old age. He is not a plutocrat—the farm-mortgage debt of the United States is nearly $4,000,000,000. His prosperity has flourished in proportion to his expenditure of labor and brains. Success and failure mingle in every community. His income during the war period has been unquestionably the greatest in his history because the price level of his products has been high. But so has the income of other businessmen. His returns have been exaggerated because the products of the farm are visible. His neighbors know almost to the dollar what he receives for his year’s toil. He must meet the rising expenses of his farm. If he raise corn and rye and oats instead of wheat it will be because he feels that he can secure a larger income thus, and his duty to his family demands that he undertake those things most promising and not because he is unpatriotic.
Abuse will not change the farmer’s mind. Criticism will not induce greater effort. Fully independent and confident of his position, the man on the plough is thinking things out for himself. Daily papers are left at the mail-box of nearly every rural home, and their readers are as well informed of the progress of world affairs as the dweller on city streets. They draw their conclusions as to the opportunities and accomplishments of other lines of business.
Here and there are communities where indifference to the nation’s needs seems to exist, but on analysis it will generally be found it is merely an expression of firm conviction that wheat alone should not have had a price established by governmental action. The solution will come through such readjustment as will appeal to the business judgment of these producers, who after all understand fully the exigency of the world’s demands and can do much to relieve it. Generally, however, over the agricultural States is a sound Americanism eager to uphold the hands of the country. It is not effusive. No parades pass the farm, no banners or bunting decorate the country highways, no bands are playing. Amid the quiet of the broad fields the worker must visualize the panoply of war. . . .
The six farmers waiting by the elevator were types of the wheat-producing class, each with a somewhat different point of view and each with his own home problems to solve. But not a man in the group was disposed to act in a resentful spirit or with any other inclination than to help his government—though feeling that he must consider at the same time the welfare of his family and himself and that limitations of labor supply and physical endurance surround him.
Back of all the discussion and of the imperative considerations of our strength and safety this fundamental truth stands: the farmer has the nation’s weal at heart and to the extent of his ability will be a good soldier, the soldier of the wheatfield—as important today as the soldier of the field of battle.
Source: Charles M. Harger, “The Farmer and Three-Dollar Wheat,” Scribner’s Magazine 64 (1918): 8–86.