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Farming in the 1920s
The 1920s were a boon time for many industries but not for all. During the First World War US farmers had made record profits. they had been able to supply Britain and France with food on a regular basis. Britain relied on imports of foreign food to feed its population and when the Germans began to sink merchant ships in 1917, food supplies became even more important.
But farming did not do well in the 1920s. US agriculture had expanded during the First World War to sell food to Europe, but afterwards countries returned to growing their own a grain. The expansion had led to over-production and now there was too much food on the market. Farmers found it more and more difficult to sell their produce.
Despite agricultural overproduction and successive attempts in Congress to provide relief, the agricultural economy of the 1920s experienced an ongoing depression. Large surpluses were accompanied by falling prices at a time when American farmers were burdened by heavy debt. Between 1920 and 1932, one in four farms was sold to meet financial obligations and many farmers migrated to urban areas. With one-fifth of the American population making their living on the land, rural poverty was widespread. So, not everybody was able to participate fully in the emergent consumer economy in American. Apart from white farmers, African American and immigrants found this decade tough.
The situation was made worse by the policy of the US government. The Fordney-McCumber tariffs meant foreign exports to the USA were very expensive. If Americans did not buy foreign goods, foreigners would earn less and therefore have less money to spend on US foodstuffs. The result was a severe agricultural depression. During the 1920s more than 600,000 farmers went bankrupt.
Restrictive immigration laws, aided by a resurgence of nativism in America in the 1920s, contributed to an atmosphere hostile to immigrants. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 discriminated against immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The National Origins Act of 1924 completely excluded Japanese and other Asian immigrants and further reduced those admitted from southern and eastern Europe.
There was also competition from Canada, which also produced large amounts of weheat. Prohibition hit the production of barley, which was not neeeded for the production of beer and spirits. So American farmers were over-producing food, and the prices they got were very low. European countries would not buy from the USA, because the USA was not buying from Europe.
The worst conditions for farmers were in the South, where farming was the main industry. Few farms had electricity or running water and wages were very low. Most farms in the south were dependent upon one crop, such as cotton. In the 1920s the price of cotton crashed, as man-made fibers became available. The South was also suffering more and more from dust storms, which blew away the topsoil and destroyed agricultural land. In parts of the South, farm labourers were only earning one third of the wage of industrial workers.
Life was not much better for many industrial workers. Although profits rose by 80 percent, wages rose by only 8 percent. Recent immigrants got the worst jobs with casual work and low pay. Wages were low in the old industries facing world competition, like coal and textiles. Costs had to be kept low. Mechanisation often replaced workers, especially unskilled workers. There were always two million unemployed throughout the 1920s. Unemployed people could not buy the new consumer goods.
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