Learn about Life in the 1920s

Good and Bad Effects of the Drought

SOMETHING LIKE A MYSTERY ROLE is being played by the drought in the business drama. It's an ill drought that brings no good, reflect some commentators, thinking of the rise in grain prices, the use of that burdensome wheat surplus for feed instead of corn, the encouragement given to bullish activities in grain and other markets, the lesson given by nature on the subject of crop reduction, and the focusing of nation-wide attention on the farmers' problems thought likely to eventuate in a more intelligent future handling of agricultural relief.

But no such wide-spread catastrophe can be "a blessing in disguise, " insists the Secretary of Agriculture, and many an editor agrees with him as he reckons up the loss to the farmers living in the great central region most seriously affected by drought. They point out that the individual farmer's crop loss is not made up for by higher prices received by other farmers. They point to losses not only in crops like corn and hay, but in pasturage and in cattle rushed to market to be sold at almost any price because of the lack of feed. And naturally there is a large section in which buying power is seriously affected.

This two-faced role of the actor that has been occupying the center of the national stage these recent weeks seems to puzzle equally two sets of experts—the editors of farm papers, and the Wall Street commentators.

Thus, the opinions of farm editors gathered by the Boston Christian Science Monitor show a surprizing diversity. The editor of Wallaces' Farmer (Des Moines), for instance, is inclined to think that the drought has been a blessing; the Little Rock Arkansas Farmer sees "benefit generally in the long pull"; the editor of the Detroit Michigan Farmer thinks there will be probable gains for agriculture, "indirectly"; the St. Paul Farmer thinks "agriculture as a whole may benefit"; "Drought May Be a Blessing" runs a Prairie Farmer (Chicago) head-line.

On the other hand, the editor of The Ohio Farmer (Cleveland) does not see "how any condition which leaves farmers in the poorer sections without an appreciable income, can be regarded as beneficial"; the situation, according to an editor of The Missouri Ruralist (St. Louis), "is not one to make either farmers or city people dance with joy"; the effect will be bad "despite rising prices," insists The Kansas Farmer (Topeka); and The Progressive Farmer (Dallas) has no patience with the "blessing-in-disguise" idea—"it is just as logical to say the boll-weevil or shiftless farming is a blessing."

"Drought News Confusing to Wall Street" runs a characteristic head-line on the New York Herald Tribune's financial page. A New York Evening Post financial writer calls attention to the way the stock market showed first a bullish reaction to the upturn in grain prices, then a selling movement caused by pessimism over the farmers' buying power, and then a change toward more optimistic sentiment with the thought that "smaller crops will be offset by higher prices" and that "an outlet will be afforded for the troublesome wheat surplus."

A little historical sketch appears in the financial columns of the New York Times, pointing out that the greatest corn-crop failures of the past appeared in times of depression, and yet—

"It was never entirely clear exactly how great was the effect of such agricultural misfortunes, as compared with other influences. In older days the primary result was curtailment of the farm community's buying power, and that was undoubtedly a far more important factor in the country's trade prosperity than it is in these days when consumption by industrial workers and a prosperous non-agricultural population is considered the key to industrial expansion. How far the farmer's actual loss from a corn-crop shortage is recouped from higher values for what was saved is a matter of dispute."

DROUGHT hurts wide areas, but checks decline of prices" is The Business Week's head-line summarization of the situation, and it explains:

"Farmers in the drought area will lose heavily

"But better prices other farmers get will be an important offset; no student of agricultural economics is ready to say the total farm income for the nation will be increased, but the consensus of opinion seems to be there will not be much decrease.

"Meanwhile, it is important to remember that business revival needs nothing else so badly as the conviction that the long, down curve of basic commodity prices has turned upward."

While there is a national emergency, the New York Herald Tribune is inclined editorially "to regard the corn shortage as not an entirely unmixed evil; certainly its repercussions on our vexatious wheat-surplus problem promise to be distinctly favorable, assuming that the live-stock raiser can be made to understand and appreciate the benefits of substitution of the finer grain for the coarser under present price conditions."

The heat, indeed, has brought "benefits to offset in part the damages," says The Southern Cultivator (Atlanta). In some sections, it understands, "corn has grown well; weeds have been kept down and the fields cultivated to a point favorable for quick recovery when rain comes." In much of the cotton country, the hot weather has done no harm and, indeed, has been helping farmers to eliminate the boll-weevil. On the whole, this paper thinks the cotton crop has not seriously suffered. It also points out that "early fruits and vegetables were out of the way before the dry weather became dangerous, and winter wheat was harvested under ideal conditions for storage."

THE reports coming in to President Hoover from "the drought-stricken bread-basket area of the nation" are likely to present "less evidence of a general catastrophe than of scattered sectional instances of disaster," writes Oliver Sherwood in a Consolidated Press dispatch from Chicago.

Similarly, David Lawrence of the same organization, writing from Washington, finds "indications that the situation has been somewhat overemphasized":

"From a national point of view the ill effects will be spotty with relatively little influence on agriculture as a whole, or the food supply, because of the great abundance of the various crops.

"Distress is likely to be confined, government reports reveal, to local areas where cattle may have to be sacrificed or where farmers have had all their grass and hay crops ruined.

"Relief measures now being planned are two-fold: Transportation is the most vital, because it will be necessary to transport expeditiously wheat and other grain for feed purposes. And some financial aid will have to be rendered to those engaged in the cattle industry in certain sections of the country, including individual farmers whose feed crops have been destroyed.

"With the interchangeability of crops, many government officials here feel that within a short time most of the feed necessities will have been satisfied."

The idea that the drought has been "a blessing in disguise" is sharply challenged by 0. M. Kile in his agricultural comment from Washington—"it is a disaster and an economic backset, even when viewed in its most favorable light." And we find many editorials in papers like the New York World, Washington Post, Asheville Times, Louisville Herald Post, and Little Bock Arkansas Gazette making the same statement. Secretary of Agriculture Hyde has felt it necessary to make his own position quite clear on this point:

"I do not share the feeling that this terrible drought is a blessing to American agriculture, either in disguise or in any guise. The devastation of whole groups of counties, and of large areas of States; the ruin of thousands of farmers does not appeal to me as a desirable thing, no matter what economic results it may have in clearing away the accumulated surpluses.

"Nor will the consumer escape the evil consequences of the drought.

"Already short pastures have cut the milk supply. Many farmers, unable to feed young dairy cattle have sent them to slaughter. This will be reflected in the supply of dairy products many months later. This is only one of the most glaring instances out of hundreds of the far-reaching effects of such a calamity.

"The farmer will feel the first and the direct effects of the drought, but every man, woman, and child in America will suffer the indirect consequences in some degree."

AN explanation for urban newspaper readers is made in the New York World by Louis J. Taber, Master of the National Grange, one of the first farm leaders to appeal to the Administration for aid:

"In many sections, from December 1 to January 1, the farmers will have to buy all the hay and all the corn they feed their cattle, or else sacrifice them at disastrous prices.

"This would not be serious were it not for the fact that conditions are so wide-spread.

"Several million rural people are affected, and thousands of them will suffer disastrous losses.

"First, they have lost the value of this summer's pasture; second, they will lose the value of their corn crop; third, live stock can not produce milk or growth; fourth, live stock must be sold at a great loss, or if held, high-priced feed must be used; fifth, grass roots and meadows will be killed, destroying the prospects for next year's hay crop and the possibility for early pasture in 1931.

"Thus farmers suffer financial loss, face the dislocation of their farm practises, and next year must have not only food, but must buy seeds and grow crops as a substitute for hay and pasture.

"The losses of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys are to-day much greater than the loss in the Mississippi flood; but owing to the fact that the loss is so widely distributed, involves such a large number of people, and that it will be felt for many coming months, its severity is minimized.

"The notion that the drought will be a blessing, in that it consumes the farm surplus, is not sound, because those that suffer most have neither corn nor surplus to sell."

THOSE who studied the Government crop report of August 11 learned that on August 1 there was an estimated falling off of 690,000,000 bushels in the corn crop, indicating a total crop of 2,212,000,000 bushels as compared with a 1924-28 average of 2,700,000,000 for 1924-28. The smallest corn crop since 1901 is predicted, and a decrease in general crop prospects of 7 per cent. during July is attributed to drought and hot weather.

One result of the drought brought out by the Detroit News, as well as by several other papers, is a probable " clearer understanding on the part of the urban population of the tremendous risks incurred by the people of the farms in their efforts to produce the country's food supply."

The jumping of retail prices of foodstuffs has been reported from several cities, but has been denounced by agricultural authorities at Washington as quite unnecessary "profiteering." President Hoover, who has given up his Western vacation to keep his hand on the direction of relief measures, is said to believe that this work will require his attention for perhaps as much as six weeks. Incidentally, it might be noted that there is a very general expression of editorial opinion to the effect that the President, by virtue of his experience in other emergencies, is admirably fitted to cope with the drought situation.

Source: The Literary Digest for August 23, 1930