Transcribed by Tom Giessel, NFU Historian, and Sheryl Giessel; Commentary by Tom Giessel, Sherly Giessel and Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy
National Farmers Union’s mission is to advocate for the economic and social well-being and quality of life of family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and consumers and their communities. Very frequently in contemporary times, NFU pursues this mission by advocating for farm income safety nets and policies that allow farmers to save money or diversify income with compensation for ecosystem services provided. However, it is critical for farmers to examine the history that contributed to the present farm economy and policy landscape. The following piece by Lutie Taylor Breeling, Sanish North Dakota, published in St. Paul, Minnesota’s The Farmers Union Herald on August 25, 1930, offers an examination of the hazards of overproduction, an aspect of farming today that is so ubiquitous that the concept is rarely discussed with rigor.
“Whenever the prices fall on a farm produced commodity, our dailies come out in big glowing headlines – “Overproduction”- and I often wonder if they really believe that the farmers think so. It is very soothing to one’s nerves to know where to lay the blame, and the farmer might just as well assume that responsibility as anyone else. (I do not write this sarcastically, because I believe with Alexander Legge that we must help ourselves, and if overproduction is our fault, there are so many industries working against us that we might as well cut the controversy short and take the blame.)
Assuming that the farmer is to blame, there is only one thing to be done, and that is correct it. The farmers as a class for centuries have stayed at home, worked diligently, saved, and economized more than any other industry. Where has it gotten us? We have been known as backwoodsers, hayseeds and rubes. It is only in the last decade, with the use of the automobile and good roads, that the farmer has been considered worthy of any notice.
Considering the situation from a great many angles, I contend that the farmer is at fault. Of course it is easy to pick flaws, but hasn’t the farmer stayed at home digging and grubbing away? And if a few extra kernels go to the market – “overproduction.” Why stick so emphatically to an occupation when overproduction is the trouble, and thereby lose a living wage?
The farmer has always been a solitary, lonely mortal. Circumstances have made him such. The farmers as a class have traveled more in the past twenty-five years then ever before and have improved more, socially and mentally. Take thought of this. One reason farming, as an industry, hasn’t been organized as other industries are, is because the farmers were accustomed to being isolated, and disliked getting out of the rut and mingling with their fellow neighbors.
One reason the laboring class organized so readily is that they were in close proximity to one another, not only in their work, but in their leisure. We are beyond the isolated stage today – that is the past. Today we are organized. Just being organized is not enough. The organization must be made to function.
There are various excuses given for farmers’ organizations dying, but the greatest is non-attendance. Too busy to attend meetings. Too busy at what? If your diligent working has made an “overproduction”, for mercies sakes, quit the plow and skedaddle off for a good time with the family, or better yet, have the farm organization meet and get acquainted with your neighbor and talk over the farm situation. But do not stick at home and work until you are bent and old and have the price cut on you by flooding the market.
The farmer can live if he will not ape the city cousin. Build your own standard of living and have Farmers Union meetings often and attend them. Save wheat enough and take it to the mill and grind it into flour. There are a few grist mills nowadays. Whole wheat bread is better, and Sears and Roebuck or any of the mail order houses (you know them) can furnish you with a hand mill. Put it in the basement and instead of overproducing, grind your wheat and make a dark bread. Far healthier.
With chickens in your coop, cows in the lot to be milked, (raise goats, we do), pigs in the pen to be butchered, and a garden, your wants from town are few; and in your spare moments have a Union meeting and do not overproduce.
Farming is free plunder, open range. In a great many other industries, if you wish to enter, you are obliged to obtain a charter from the state or a permit from somewhere to operate. But anyone can farm. We are now face to face with an “overproduction.”
The farmer likes to give his family advantages, send his children to high school and the university. Why not allow the bona fide farmer to produce and cut out the people who are farming as an avocation?
Now, farmers, these things are not going to come to us overnight. We are not going to be handed things on a silver platter. It is only by working faithfully for our Union that we will gain ground. Individually we have no force. It is only as an organization that we count. Keep up the Union, make it your social center in the community, meet often, and work harmoniously.
“Six days shalt thou labor,” was the commandment given to Moses. The people were to devote one day to spiritual improvement and the other six to labor. Those were the days of hand labor, and crude was their machinery, what little they had. We in our advanced stage of mechanism have the same commandment, but we should change the number of labor days to four and two days for personal improvement. Improve the home place, plant trees, rest and read. You have produced an overproduction by hustling those extra days. Rest your face and hands and see if the price will not be higher for the little produced.
But listen! Hear the wail sent up. “Those lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings are not buying new cars, new radios, and machinery isn’t needed.” Other industries might have an overproduction. That is what they do with us. The large industries have it figured down to how many days they need to run to produce what they can sell and keep the price up, and when they have run so many days, they shut down. Let us farmers do the same. Shut down your farm factory to four days a week, improve your home, call an extra meeting of the Union, and associate with your neighbors. You might like them better than you think you do.
It is amusing to hear the wail of sorrow when the farmers have anything done for them. Harrison F. Jones of Chicago, representing poultry, butter and egg merchants; Henry C. Wettereau of the New York Mercantile Exchange; and W. C. McCabe of the Duluth Grain Trade, all condemned the Agricultural Marketing Act as detrimental to independent business. We are not to be aided or protected unless it can be done without inconveniencing the Powers-That-Be. Other industries, such as the three previously mentioned, always weep crocodile tears when the condition of the farmer is mentioned. Tears only, but not aid. It might inconvenience them.
Daniel Millet, Denver stockman and banker, weeps because the great marketing and distributing business has paid taxes to the government, and now these are put into funds to aid the farmers. Has the farmer not paid taxes? The farming industry has paid the largest per cent of taxes since the United States government collected taxes, and this is the first time in history it’s received direct aid from the United States treasury.
Eliminate from the field of production everyone who is not wholly dependant upon the production for a living, and there will not be a surplus.”
How does the preference for overproduction manifest on your farm? How could you take an initial step to address overproduction on your farm or in your community?
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Over production is a myth. The problem is poor business planning, or in most cases no business planning. It’s not a matter of taking days off because you cannot sell what you produce. Instead figure out the best, most productive use of your resources (land, people, money) and find or create a market for what you produce.