The New Deal and Agriculture in the PNW

Horse-power farming machine in the Palouse in the 1920's

Farming was extremely labor-intensive and still relied heavily on human and horse-power. An organized harvesting/threshing team in the 1920's required 120 men and 320 mules and horses.Teams moved from farm to farm as the crops ripened. Few farmers had enough horses to pull such a machine, which required a crew of 40 horses and six men to operate on level ground. Because of this, use of combines on the Palouse lagged behind use in other farming communities in the United States. 

FSA Farm Labor Camp in the Northwest

Farm labor camps such as this one were intiated by the Farm Security administration (FSA), and spread all over the Northwest. Such camps could accomdate around 200 families. 

The Pacific Northwest region had witnessed agricultural production for one hundred years prior to the Great Depression with the introduction of wheat to the region in 1837 by missionary Marcus Whitman.[1] The fertility of the soil in the region was uncommon and highly suitable for agriculture. Yet, over the year’s famers fell victims to agricultural overproduction and careless soil plowing methods. Agricultural production ineffectiveness and mass farming failures became very evident during the time of the Great Depression. The dust bowl effects on the U.S prairies uncovered the consequences of the farming techniques of the time and the long term effect on the soil. “Agriculture in the Northwest, like agriculture elsewhere, was both depressed and ineffective. Farm and rangeland, owing to misuse and erosion, were no longer fully productive.”[2] The same problems became visible in the Pacific Northwest. As the nation faced mass agricultural failures during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt hoped to ease the impact and help revitalize the agricultural sector with his New Deal. In order to solve the economic slowdown in farming, a great portion of the New Deal was directed to help and provide assistance to the farmers. In President Roosevelt’s alphabet soup of federal agencies, several were created to deliver the aid, boost agriculture in the region and the country and most importantly help farmers get up and out of the Depression. These federal agencies were:

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA),
The Civilian Conservation Corps of 1933 (CCC),
The Farm Security Administration of 1935 and 1937 (FSA),
The Soil Conservation Service of 1935 (SCS),
The Rural Electrification Administration.

This exhibit will focus on the New Deal’s impact on agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. Geographically, the city of Pullman Washington is located around hundreds of acres of wheat fields in every direction. The texture of the soil and chemical composition make the Palouse hills an ideal place for wheat and other grains. This attracted many settlers in the 1870’s and 1880’s to come to the region and make some profit. Yet, ecological damage caused by these settlers would eventually threatened agricultural prosperity. “Soil erosion, the inevitable result of continuous plowing on steep loess hill- sides, became a growing concern for farmers in the 1910s and 1920s. Scientists warned that, if left unchecked, erosion could bring an end to this wheat "empire" within a generation and result in the kind of rural depopulation that plagued parts of the Midwest and Plains”[3]. This same methodology applied to farmers in the Northwest and all over the United State. Farmers since the late 1800’s had failed t apply dry land farming methods that would have prevented wind erosion. As a result, the Soil Erosion Service later renamed Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was designed to aid farmers in proper techniques and help avoid soil erosion. The SCS provided farmers with soil conservation methods that would help conserve soil fertility. Additionally, as part of the assistance to help farmers get op on their feet, the SCS paid farmers to plant only certain crops and or to leave some land idle and not produce any crops as a way to control the level of production and help farmers minimize profit loss. Also, the SCS began to encourage farmers to rotate crops, renew soil nutrients and and plant rows of trees to slow down wind erosion[4].

The surplus of wheat in the Northwest region was the largest of the problems the Department of Agriculture had to deal with and unique to the region. On top of that, the Northwest agriculture was plagued with the problem of profitability. Much of regions agricultural product was shipped to markets outside of the region “for which it received a relatively low return and imported items of relatively high cost.”[5] As a result many farmers were seeking governmental help to make up for the loss of profit. The Secretary of agriculture Henry Wallace “devised an export arrangement to assist grain growers in the Pacific Northwest. It involved an export subsidy, a device utilized for the first time since the colonial period of American history.”[6] Due to this arrangement  the wheat situation in the Northwest improved and the SCS farmland and crop control methods stimulated agricultural profitability and put money back into farmers pockets.

The introduction of machinery also contributed to the over-production problem and complemented the ecological harmful practices of agriculture. “The hillside combine, developed in Stockton, California, in 1891… was heavy and cumbersome on the hills, and at first was ground-powered, which meant that it took a larger number of animals to pull it”[7]. This kept production rather average and controlled. Yet, by the 1930’s and 40’s “it became possible for two men to run the combine, in addition to the tractor driver.”[8] Such technological advances allowed for the replacement of 35-40 mules/horses and also allowed landowners to displace of small farmers who had been renting a small parcel of land and farming it with horses. This is where the FSA played a roll in regulating and helping these small farmers. The FSA was established as an effort to help combat American rural poverty and increase the lifestyle of very poor landowning farmers that became heavily affected with the mechanization of agriculture in the Northwest.

One of the effects agriculture had on the economy was the farmer’s high productivity to a small market. As a result, prices for agriculture produce plummeted beyond the point of profitability. The supply of crops and livestock was higher than the demand for such products causing farmers to lose out on profit and later resulting in hundreds of small farmers declaring bankruptcy. The AAA of 1933 was created as a solution. In the words of President Roosevelt the AAA was “ a plan or the adjustment of totals in our major crops, so that from year to year production and consumption would be kept in reasonable balance with each other, to the end that reasonable prices would be paid to farmers for their crops and unwieldy surpluses would not depress our markets and upset the balance”[9]. This plan allowed the controlling of seven “basic crops”- corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco and milk, and help ease the agriculture strain on the economy.

Another problem the FSA addressed was the heavy influx of newcomers into the region, looking for new opportunities, jobs and cheap land. The Pacific Northwest was envisioned as a “promised land” by new incomers from the “northern tier of states from the Mississippi river westward.”[10] These new migrants where leaving behind drought, dust and eroded lands. Yet, as they arrived not everyone found the promised land. The FSA in a survey showed that only 24% of the new settlers had obtained farms with previous owners, 48% trying to settle unimproved land.[11] For this reason the FSA in 1939 initiated the farm labor camps program. The Northwest FSA administration was the first in the nation to “develop and utilize portable tent camps…in valleys where the harvest were short.”[12] These  camps were vital in accommodating hundreds of families and help them find jobs and get them on their feet up and running.

As part of the New Deal and the creation of new jobs to stimulate the economy was the planning harnessing hydro electric power from the Columbia river through dam projects. Additionally, damming the Columbia would allow for irrigation channels to be put in place as a way to divert water from dams. Yet, another solution to the soil erosion problem. The Rural electrification administration spearheaded the project. Additionally, with creating irrigation channels, the dams would allow for electricity to reach the rural farms at a cheap price. The REA helped farmers have access to electricity and therefore “improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of the family farm.”[13] REA efforts assisted farmers in providing them with sufficient energy, and appliances (refrigerators and water heaters) to be able to carry out a sustainable lifestyle at reasonable prices and allow farmers to focus on their agricultural crops and help lower the decline in total number of family farms.

It is important to know that the Pacific Northwest was the region that was mostly helped by President Roosevelt’s New Deal. “A preliminary study of the loans and expenditures of federal economic agencies from 1933 to 1939 demonstrates that, in terms of per capita benefits, the New Deal benefited the western states more than other sections of the nation”[14] This was due to Roosevelt’s promises  he had made on issues affecting the West during his beginning presidential campaign of 1932. President Roosevelt saw the Northwest as “a great area…of incalculable importance to the prosperity of the United States.”[15] The Pacific Northwest benefitted greatly from President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. During the Great Depression, agriculture and farmers received the assistance and aid needed in order to lower the effects of deteriorating sector that contributed greatly to the U.S economy. The restoration programs put in place really helped farmers stay on their farms, get back to a farm and become more efficient in soil and crop growing techniques. The federal agencies that were created out of the New Deal allowed the Pacific Northwest to bear through the Great Depression and set the foundation for the region to become very productive, efficient and one of the most rich farming areas in the United States.

[1] Shepherd, James F. “The Development of Wheat Production in the Pacific Northwest. Agricultural History 49, no.1 (1975):259.

[2] Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal and the West. West in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. 138-139.

[3] Duffin, Andrew P. "Vanishing Earth: Soil Erosion in the Palouse, 1930-1945."Agricultural History 79, no. 2 (2005): 175. 

[5] Lowitt. The New Deal and the West. 140.

[6] Eugene, A. Cox, “Let’s look at the Landscape,” Proceedings of the first Pacific Northwest regional planning Conference (Portland, Oregon, March 5-7, 1934), 109-12.

[7] Shepherd, James F. "The Development of Wheat Production in the Pacific Northwest." Agricultural History 49, no. 1 (1975): 266.

[8] Ibid.

[9] President Roosevelt Address on the Agricultural Adjustment Act, May 14, 1935

[10] Lewitt. 141.

[11] Ibid. 143.

[12] Ibid.

[13], accessed October 12, 2016.

[14] Arrington, Leonard J. "Western Agriculture and the New Deal." Agricultural History 44, no. 4 (1970): 344.

[15] Lewitt. 203.