Farmers Face Hardship
In spite of his remarkable progress, the American farmer in the 19th century experienced recurring periods of hardship. Several basic factors were involved - soil exhaustion, the vagaries of nature, overproduction of staple crops, decline in self-sufficiency, and lack of adequate legislative protection and aid. Southern soil had long been exhausted by tobacco and cotton culture, but in the west, and on the plains too, soil erosion, wind storms, and insect pests ravaged the land.
The swift mechanization of agriculture west of the Mississippi proved a mixed blessing. It encouraged many farmers to expand their holdings unwisely; it stimulated concentration on staple crops; it gave large farmers a distinct advantage over small ones and hastened the development of tenancy. These problems were to remain largely unsolved for many years until the widespread acceptance of modern soilconservation techniques.
Even more complex, but more readily susceptible to swift remedial action, was the problem of prices. The farmer sold his product in a competitive world market but purchased his supplies, equipment, and household goods in a market protected against competition. The price he got for his wheat, cotton, or beef was determined abroad; the price he paid for his harvester, fertilizer, and barbed wire was fixed by trusts setting prices behind a protective tariff. From 1870 to 1890 prices of most farm products moved irregularly downward, and the value of American farm products increased only $500 million. In the same period, however, the value of manufactures increased by $6,000 million.
This economic imbalance prompted the formation of farmers' organizations to consider common grievances and propose relief measures. Most of these were patterned after the association known as the Grange, established in 1867. Within a few years there were Granges in almost every state, with a total membership exceeding three-quarters of a million. Beginning chiefly as social groups seeking to lessen farmers' isolation, the organizations turned to the discussion of business and politics, and soon many Granges were setting up their own marketing systems and their own stores, processing plants, and factories. In a number of mid-western states they elected members to the legislature and had a vital influence in the passing of laws directly affecting their economic well-being.
Nevertheless, many of the Grange enterprises failed, and their importance dwindled, in the late 1870s, with the resurgence of prosperity. The movement was revived in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when drought descended on the stricken prairies and the prices of wheat and cotton plunged.
New organizations called Farmers' Alliances appeared and by 1890 had two million members. In addition to mounting an extensive educational program, these groups made vigorous demands for political reform. Alliance members soon formed a crusading political party known as the Populists, in active opposition to the old Democratic and Republican parties.