Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 26: AGRICULTURAL AND RURAL POPULATION - Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER 26: AGRICULTURAL AND RURAL POPULATION - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems 
Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems, 2nd edition, revised (New York: The Century Co., 1923).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
AGRICULTURAL AND RURAL POPULATION
§ 1. Sources of food and organic materials. § 2. Agriculture and farms in the United States. § 3. Rural and agricultural. § 4. Lack of a social agricultural policy in America. § 5. Period of decaying agricultural prosperity. § 6. Sociological effects of agricultural decay. § 7. Fewer, relatively, occupied in agriculture; use of machinery. § 8. Transfer of work from farm to factory. § 9. The rural exodus. § 10. The farmer’s income in monetary terms. § 11. Compensations of the farmer’s life. § 12. Ownership and tenancy.
§ 1. Sources of food and organic materials. The land area of the United States is about 1,900,000,000 acres, of which 879,000,000 acres were in farms in 1910, this being 46 per cent of the total area. A very small part of the remainder is used for residential and commercial purposes, the rest being barren mountains, deserts, swamps, and forests. Of the total in farms a little more than one half was improved, 478,000,000 acres altogether, a per capita average of 5.2 acres; and a little less than one half was unimproved, 400,000,000 acres altogether, a per capita average of 4.3 acres. The improved land produced not merely food but many kinds of materials, such as cotton, wool, hides, and lumber, while much of the unimproved land was either in farm wood-lots or in rough range pasture. Of course, the kinds and amounts of produce per acre vary with the climate, particularly with sunshine and rainfall; possibly the proportion of the area of the United States that is true desert and infertile mountain-land is greater than that of any other equal area in the temperate zones. The actual productive capacity per acre of the lands of America cannot be expressed in a very helpful way as a general average per acre, but each area must be carefully studied in respect to its climate, rainfall, and possibility of irrigation and drainage. It is apparent that a very large number of economic problems must arise in connection with the land supply for food: such as problems of land-ownership, taxation, irrigation, drainage, forestry, and encouragement or limitation of population. We are just beginning to awake to the needs in this direction. The farm-lands supply, besides food, a large part of the raw materials for many other goods, all such organic materials as cotton, flax, wool, hides, feathers, lumber, and firewood. The farm wood-lots compose about 200,000,000 acres, and the large forests, public and private, about 350,000,000 acres, a total of about one fourth the area of the country in forests, containing about one half of the lumber that the country once possessed. The economic problem of a sound forestry policy is one of the most important we have to solve.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean waters near our coasts are other great sources of food, but no statistics are available to show adequately their yield. Few of them are in private possession, and they do not appear at all in a total of “capitals,” yet they are more important to the nation than a large part of the land area. They are only beginning to be developed artificially by the propagation of oysters, clams, and fish. The development of a proper fishery policy is an economic problem closely connected with that of agriculture.
§ 2. Agriculture and farms in the United States. There were nearly 12,400,000 persons in the United States gainfully occupied in agriculture in 1910, this being 32.5 per cent of all in occupations. These, together with other family members not reported as engaged in gainful occupations, constitute the agricultural population, and comprise more than one third of the total population of the country. “Agriculture” is here used in a broad sense, including floriculture, animal husbandry (poultry, bee culture, stock-raising), forestry and lumbering, and is even extended to include regular fishing and oystering.
With the exception of areas devoted to forestry on a large scale and to fishing, the industry of agriculture is pursued on the 6,400,000 farms, covering 46 per cent of the total land area of the country. Of the land in farms, a little more than half is classified as improved. The estimated value of farm property, including buildings, implements, machinery, and live stock, was, in 1910, about $41,000,000,000, somewhere near one fourth of the estimated wealth of the country at that date.
§ 3. Rural and agricultural. The adjectives rural and agricultural are often used loosely as synonyms. But agricultural refers primarily to the occupation of cultivating the soil, and is properly contrasted with other occupations, as mechanical and professional; whereas rural refers to place of residence outside of incorporated places of a specified minimum population (of late, 2500), and is properly contrasted with urban, applied to those living in larger population groupings. In 1910 the rural population comprised 53.7 per cent of the total population, but had fallen to 48.1 per cent in 1920. It is true that the two groups of the agricultural and the rural populations are largely composed of the same persons, but partly they are not. Many farmhouses, together with part or all of the farm-lands, lie inside urban boundaries, and, besides, some persons engaged in agriculture reside in urban places. On the other hand, any one acquainted in the least with a rural district (in the statistical sense) can at once think of many persons living there that are not engaged in agriculture; they may be merchants, warehousemen, railway employees, physicians, handicraftsmen, teachers, artists, retired business men, and others. The percentages given in this and in the preceding section indicate that about three fifths of the rural families are engaged in agriculture and two fifths are not.
It is often important to make this distinction, though it is difficult to do; for some of the much-discussed rural questions are of a broad social nature, are matters of rural sociology, relating pretty generally to the rural population; while other questions of “rural economics” are more strictly matters of agricultural economics and relate to the farm as a unit of industry, or to agriculture as an occupation.
§ 4. Lack of a social agricultural policy in America. It is a common remark that the farmer lives an independent life. This develops in him a self-reliant spirit. He readily gives and takes simple neighborly help in informal ways, but he does not readily turn to government for aid. While every influential urban group, organized or unorganized,—manufacturers, merchants, wage-earners,—has sought and obtained special protective social legislation, the farmer, from choice or necessity, has usually had to work out his economic problems unaided. The exceptions are few and of small importance. For example, the prodigal land policy of the state and national governments encouraging the settlement of the frontiers was not a farmers’ policy. It was originally inspired by the larger political purpose of extending the bounds of the nation; later it was advocated and fostered by a land-speculating element, linked with bad politics, in the frontier states, and not by farmers as such. It in time greatly injured the farmers of the eastern states. The “Granger legislation” to regulate railroad rates was so called by the East in a spirit of derision because it began in the distinctively agricultural states of the Northwest; but it had neither the aim nor the result of obtaining especially for farmers any rates that were not open to every one on the same terms. The tariff rates on American agricultural products, placed in the acts as a matter of form, have, with minute exceptions, been ineffective to favor farmers, as the shipments were nearly all outward and few inward, while heavy and effective rates were placed on most things that the farmers had to buy.1
In part, the explanation of the lack of legislation favoring farmers is to be found in their small part and influence, as a class, in political affairs, outside of minor executive offices in township and county governments. In the state legislatures farmers are few relative to their numbers in the community, and still fewer in either House or Senate in Washington. Moreover, the farmers have rarely asked or received, as a class, any favoring legislation. Among the real exceptions to the otherwise fair record of the farming class in this respect is the tax on oleomargarine and the special favor accorded to farmers’ associations in the Clayton Act. It might be cynically said that the farmer has not been “sharp” enough to get his share of the “good things” that the business classes were passing around in protective legislation. But farmers have, as has every economic group, interests that may legitimately be the subject of social legislation; whereas they have limited their attention to their private affairs at home and have been prone to vote patiently and proudly the “straight ticket” to elect business men and lawyers to office. There are evidences, with increasing organization among farmers, of an intention to seek political power and favors, which promises to present a new problem of monopoly and bodes ill for the other elements of the community. The road of true progress is not toward more monopoly for farmers, but toward less monopoly for large business and favored commercial interests.
§ 5. Period of decaying agricultural prosperity. Despite the fact that frequently in economic legislation the farmer has been the victim, every compaign orator admits that there is no other occupational class that is of greater importance to the nation than are the farmers, or more deserving of prosperity. Every other part of the industrial organization of a nation is interrelated with its agriculture. Great changes, in respect to growth of population, immigration, exhaustion of natural resources, mechanical inventions, scientific discovery, and many things more, have been occurring, which have altered, and in some communities destroyed, the very foundations of agricultural enterprise in America since the close of the Civil War in 1865. But the farmers have been left to struggle individually with their individual difficulties, though the outcome was of the gravest portent to the whole social economy. Such was the case in the period of agricultural depression from 1873 to about 1896.2 Multitudes of ancestral homesteads were then left behind by the last farmer-descendant of the old line. No longer able to make a living on the soil, he took up an urban occupation.
§ 6. Sociological effects of agricultural decay. Such changes hastened, no doubt, the decline in the birth-rate of the old American stock. The places of many of these long-settled families remained unfilled, as thousands of abandoned farmhouses testified. The places of others were taken by a tenantry, white or black, lacking the thrift of ownership; the lands of others passed to new owners, of alien races. The populations of many rural neighborhoods thus became heterogeneous, with results calamitous to the social life. Once prosperous schools declined, once thronging country churches were deserted, and much of the old neighborhood democracy disappeared. When, about the year 1900, prosperity began slowly to return to the American countrysides in the form of rising prices of farm produce, it was in large part too late to remedy the evil, except as it may be done by generations of effort under more favoring conditions. There are merely suggested here some of the complex sociological effects of past economic changes in American agriculture. It is certain that in the future, also, the economic changes in this field will be related closely to social and political changes of a fundamental character.
§ 7. Fewer, relatively, occupied in agriculture; use of machinery. Probably ever since the first census in 1790, the relative number of agriculturists in this country has been decreasing. Beginning in 1880, the numbers of those occupied in agriculture for gain have been reported at the census in a form that makes them fairly comparable.3
The explanation of this decrease in the proportion of the population that is engaged in agriculture is twofold. The first is the real increase in the productive output per person in agricultural industry. In larger part this is due to the increasing use of machinery in place of simple hand tools, and the substitution of horse-, hydraulic-, windmill-, steam-, and gasoline-power for human labor. This change has been made readily in the regions of level fields, but of late has been made possible to a greater extent in hilly country by rearranging and combining the old irregular fields into regular, fairly level rectangular fields easily tillable, while turning the rougher lands and hillsides into wood-lots and pastures.4 One man, thus, driving three or four horses or a tractor, can do the work formerly done by two or more men and do it just as well. The farmers’ incomes in different parts of the country vary pretty nearly with the amount of horse-power used per man. Economies equally great are made in the work done in the barnyards and barns. In most parts of the country only a beginning has been made in these ways, and in future the census will continue to reflect the progress in these directions.
§ 8. Transfer of work from farm to factory. The other part of the explanation of the decrease in the proportion of the population that is engaged in agriculture is that many operations are, step by step, being transferred from the farm to the factory. “Agriculture,” we have observed, is a great complex of industries, in which many different products are taken from the first simplest extractive stage, and then put through successive processes to make them more nearly fitted for their final uses. Not so long ago grain cut in the field was threshed, winnowed, shelled, made into flour, and baked on the farm, as it still is in many places. Logs were cut into boards, planed, and made into houses or furniture by the farmer. The old-time farmer made by hand a large number of his farm implements—rakes, ax-handles, pumps, carts, and even wagons. Until a generation ago all butter, cheese, and other dairy products were made on the farm. Now these things are being done in steadily increasing proportion by workers classified as in the manufacturing industries, and agriculture contains fewer separate industries and processes. Of course, there is economy of labor in nearly all of these changes, but the number occupied in agriculture is greatly reduced. Many farmers and more farmers’ sons are moving from agriculture into occupations of manufacturing, trade, transportation, and the professions, and are becoming more narrow specialists.
§ 9. The rural exodus. The percentage of persons in the rural population changes at about the same rate as does that of persons occupied in agriculture. In 1890 it was 64, in 1900 it was 60, in 1910 it was 54, and in 1920 it was 48 per cent. The percentage of the population in cities of 8000 or more has steadily increased. This phenomenon has been marked in all of the countries that have been developing along industrial lines. It has been variously described as the “rural exodus,” the “abandonment-of-the-farm movement,” and the “cityward drift.” It is only in part explained by the change from agriculture to other occupations; perhaps even as much it is due to the decline and disappearance in many rural places of small manufacturing and mercantile businesses before the competition of large business in the cities. In much of the long-settled area of the country every hillside stream once turned a little mill to saw timber, grind corn, forge iron, or weave cloth. Most of these mills are now deserted. In countless villages the old blacksmith shop, once a center of business, is abandoned. Here and there a patriarchal smith still serves a dwindling group of customers, and speaks with mingled pride and pathos of his sons, now in the automobile business in the city. The movement away from the countryside has been but little counteracted as yet, but may be more in future, by the growing enjoyment of rural life, by the back-to-the-land movement, by interurban railways, by improved roads, by telephones, and by automobiles.
The great growth of education (in the sense of schooling) and rise of educational standards has put the country child at a disadvantage as compared with the child in the city. For this reason, great numbers of farmers’ families move to villages and cities, to enable the children to attend high school, even when the move involves a sacrifice. Better roads and the consolidated country school, with free transportation for the pupils, replacing the one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse, have done much to meet this need. Still, as competent observers have pointed out, the normal farming life of the country is an education in the manual arts and in other ways, so that even with briefer school terms the country child may be better educated for life than is the city child.
The public was startled to learn that the army tests showed that country youth, on the average, were not as healthy as city youth. Here, again, the progress of the cities in sanitation, medical inspection in schools, care of teeth and of the eyes of school children, gymnasia, organized and directed physical recreation, etc., has left the country homes and the country children at a relative disadvantage. The natural advantages of country life (sunshine, healthy exercise in the open, freedom from noise and strain) cannot always compensate for the poorer water supply, defective sanitation, and lack of medical and surgical care for the growing child. Here is a field for future reform.
§ 10. The farmer’s income in monetary terms. Census figures and some additional investigations led to the estimate of the average real income of the farmers of the United States in 1909, expressed in monetary terms, as $724. This was after some twelve years of slowly rising agricultural prices and improving conditions. The estimated value of all products, whether sold or used by the farmer, plus the value of his house rent and fuel consumed by family, was $1236, from which expenditures of $512 are deducted for outside labor and for materials used for operating and maintaining the farm. Of the $724 the sum of $402 is estimated to be the labor income of the family and $322 is estimated to be the wealth income (at 5 per cent of the capitalization of the farm). This was in a period of rising values in farmlands, averaging about $323 per farm annually, and this to most farmers was equivalent to so much monetary savings.
Of the total $402 is a labor income, and 645 is a funded income.5
It would be difficult, even if the available statistics were much more exact than they are, to compare exactly the farmer’s income with those of urban classes. Averages of such large numbers and over such a wide area have a limited significance in the specific case; and living conditions and the purchasing power of money are very different in country and city and in different parts of the country.6
§ 11. Compensations of the farmer’s life. In bare monetary terms the average farmer’s family gets a labor income less than that of the ordinary wage-earner in a factory, and it is only when the value of the wealth income is added that it is as great. Even the few largest incomes made in farming are small in comparison with many of those made in commerce, transportation, and manufacturing. The great mass of farmers of the nation are hard-laboring men, poor in the eyes of the city dwellers.7
But this much is certain: the farmer’s income in monetary terms has, on the average, much larger power to purchase the main goods of life (material and psychic goods) than it would have in town. Equally good house usance would cost more in nearly all towns, and much more in larger cities. Retail prices of the same food and fuel even in small towns would be much greater. The necessary outlay for clothes to maintain the class standard is much less for farmers than for city dwellers. Moreover, in the use of horses and carriages, and now of automobiles, and in the free control of his own time—in many elements of psychic income—the farmer is on a parity with men in other occupations of double or quadruple his income expressed in monetary terms.
Though the farmer’s working-day in the busiest season of summer is very long compared with that of factory or office workers, his working day at other seasons is usually much shorter than the average urban worker’s day. The farmer’s life is nearly always free from the excessive pressure, haste, and competition of city life, and the value, to many a man, of the more natural and wholesome conditions of outdoor life and outdoor work are hardly to be measured in terms of even the most untainted dollars. The joy and pride of possession that goes with even a little plot of ground and a house that is one’s own, the satisfaction of “being one’s own boss,” the very real and deep sense of workmanship and of independence that comes from planning and carrying through even simple tasks, rather than in acting under the orders of others—these are motives, not easily measurable in money, which keep many men on farms despite the temptations of higher financial rewards in cities.
Many mistaken ideas are current among city folk in respect to country life, and much mistaken sympathy is wasted. The city man, living on external excitements, speaks with dread of the solitude of the country life, with no “movies” just around the corner and no Coney Island near. But he forgets that the people living in the country as real farmers were, with few exceptions, born and reared in the country. Families in the country average larger than in the cities, and the country has a rate of natural increase greater than the city. Persons raised in the country prefer to stay there, if they can make a living, a preference that tends to depress labor incomes in the country. The interests that fill the lives of country people are not the same as those of city people, but they are often far more real. I know a farmer-boy who when ten years old refused a ticket to the circus because he preferred to help on threshing day; and he and his brother probably have had more pleasure breaking and driving a yoke of calves to a homemade cart than any family of city boys ever got riding the elephant at the zoo. The non-pecuniary compensations in farm life help to outweigh larger pecuniary rewards in manufacturing, transportation, mining, and trade, and prevents the rural exodus from being as great as it would otherwise be. In consequence the price of food is kept at relatively low levels, giving to the farmer and his family lower average monetary labor incomes than those earned in city occupations (organized or unorganized).
§ 12. Ownership and tenancy. Since 1880, when the first figures on farm tenures were collected, the proportion of farms operated by owners has steadily decreased.
These statistics arouse fears that the class of independent farmers operating their own farms is gradually giving way to a tenantry in America. But in some respects the figures are misleading unless carefully interpreted. The increasing proportion of tenants is due not so much to owners falling into the class of tenants as to the hired laborers rising into the class of tenants. The proportion of male operating owners to all male workers on farms has remained almost constant at about 42 per cent; while hired workers have decreased from 43.3 (in 1880) to 41.4 (in 1890) and to 34.6 (in 1900). Most hired men on farms are farmers’ sons; the city boy does not adapt himself readily to farm work. Most hired men of native stock become tenants, and finally owners. Only 11 per cent of the hired workers in agriculture (in 1900) were over thirty-five years of age.
The landlord of a farm let to a tenant, especially to a share tenant, is still to a large extent the general manager, controlling in a large measure, through the renting contract and by his oversight, the operations of the farm. Older men find that letting the farm to a share tenant is easier for them and gives better results than continuing to operate the farm with hired labor. And it evidently gives a man a somewhat higher status to become a tenant than to continue to be a hired laborer. In the South this movement has taken on large proportions in the breaking up of large plantations once operated by the owner with hired labor, and now let in smaller lots to operating tenants. Yet such a change appears, statistically, as a decrease in the proportion of farms operated by owners. Despite these somewhat reassuring facts, the problem of maintaining and increasing operating ownership of farms in America is one deserving of the most earnest thought and effort. The best form of farm tenure is not necessarily that giving the best immediate economic results. Politically in a democratic nation, and sociologically in its effects upon the size of families and the raising of healthy children, the preservation of an independent American yeomanry is of fundamental importance to the nation.
The problem is as difficult as it is important, and becomes more difficult with the rise in the acreage value of lands and with the economical size of farms, both calling for a larger investment to become an owner. Changes in the system of taxation should be made with reference to this object; the system of agricultural credit should be developed and administered to assist; special efforts in agricultural education should be made and active administrative efforts should be directed toward this important end.
[1 ]See ch. 16, § 5.
[2 ]See Vol. I, p. 347.
[3 ]It must be observed, in studying these figures, that farmers’ wives and children, working at home, are not reported as gainfully occupied. But a widow or a spinster owner, if herself acting as the enterpriser, is reported as “occupied” in agriculture. The increasing number of such cases in the past generation in part explains the growing number and percentage of females in agriculture.
[4 ]See further, ch. 27, § 1 and § 2, on the size of farms as an economic factor.
[5 ]See Vol. I, p. 225, and note 11.
[6 ]See Vol. I, p. 206.
[7 ]See Vol. I, p. 227, note, for figures on owners and farm laborers.