renae vander schaaf 2022

That was quite an ice storm we experienced a week ago. It was rather noisy with the ice sliding down the metal roof and branches breaking from the weight of the ice in the wind. If all that moisture had been snow, I might have gotten the toboggan out to have some fun sledding down the drifts. Instead, I had to pay close attention to my walking to the barn to make sure I didn’t do some unintentional sliding.

This snowy weather has provided ample time to get out my Agriculture Yearbook 1923 published by the United States Department of Agriculture. To me, it’s interesting to read how agriculture looked 100 years ago. Although I must admit, 1923 doesn’t seem that far past.

In 1921, the newly-elected president, Warren Harding, appointed Henry C. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture. In 1921, the USDA yearbook gave a report on the wheat, corn, beef and cotton industries — along with a summary of agricultural production. The yearbook of 1922 focused on conditions affecting hogs, dairy products, tobacco, small grains (other than wheat) and forestry and cotton.

 Secretary Wallace’s annual report for 1923 contained studies on the sheep industry, forage resources and the utilization of land for crops, pasture and forests, and the economic aspects of land tenure. Many pages are devoted to statistics on livestock production, fertilizer production and consumption, forestry, and domestic and foreign prices of farm products.

In his foreward (as it was spelled) Wallace wrote, “It is evident that the agriculture of the country is undergoing important changes. The lower returns to agricultural workers as compared with workers in other fields of endeavor are compelling important readjustments. It is hoped that these systematic studies of the economic aspects of some of the more important lines of agricultural industry will be helpful in the formulation of an adequate agricultural policy to the end that the farmer may once more get his fair share of the national income and continue to feed our people at reasonable prices.”

In 1923, 341,000,000 acres were planted to 14 principal crops. This was an increase of more than two million acres from the previous year. The report says the top 11 crops were corn, wheat, oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, flaxseed, potatoes, sweet potatoes, hay and cotton. I wonder what the other three top crops were.

Wallace’s report estimated that in 1922, 1,200,000 souls left the farm for town. A good portion of them were forced to when they lost their farms to too much debt. Foreclosure and bankruptcy took 4 percent of the farms; another 4.5 percent turned their farms over to creditors without legal process. The financial hurt didn’t end there, as an additional 14.5 percent were also bankrupt, but were hanging in there because of leniency of their creditors. This causes me to wonder just how many farms were lost in the 1920’s and in the 1930’s.

On March 4, 1923, the Agricultural Credits Act passed which made loans available to farmers.

The standard of living on farms had declined drastically. Children were kept out of school to work on the farm. Sadly, the continual worry and disappointment added to the breakup of the home. Farm families stopped going to social events and even to church. The Yearbook was concerned this lack of spiritual and mental training would prevent farm children from becoming citizens of the right sort.

It was during this time that some of the large fire insurance companies were experimenting with a broader form of insurance coverage for crops. Hail insurance had been available for years. The Senate and Department of Agriculture were working together to develop a plan for crop insurance.

Cooperative associations were still quite popular — despite the many failures blamed on the low prices. The first great cooperative movement in agriculture had reached its apex in 1874. It began to revive in the 1900’s and was quite popular in 1923 when there were approximately 12,000 active farm cooperatives.

The Sherman Antitrust Law was passed to prevent monopolies or price setting by cooperatives. Then, in 1922, the Capper-Volstead Act had to undo this Sherman act for farmers. It specifically gave farmers the right to associate for the purpose of marketing their products and purchasing power.

It seems a bit odd to me that we are fighting more than ever monopolies and lack of marketing options. Especially when the Stockyards Act was passed 1921 to assure fair competition, to safeguard farmers and consumers, and of course to protect members of the livestock, meat and poultry industries from “unfair, deceptive, unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices...."

There was even a Grain Futures Act passed in 1922 to prevent the dissemination of false and misleading information regarding crop or market conditions and prohibits attempts to manipulate or corner the market.

On the bright side, good progress was being made in eradicating bovine tuberculosis. It was also becoming more convenient to deliver farm products to markets as 8,820 miles of federal-aid roads were completed that year.

The section of Wallace’s report entitled, “Importance of Weather Work,” begins with an interesting sentence: “The department is making its weather work pay back to the Nation many hundreds of dollars for each dollar expended.” Forecasting was becoming more exacting in its predictions, so the weather service could warn of floods, frosts and storms which resulted in saving of crops and livestock.

The Yearbook was encouraging farmers to be more self-sustaining by instructing them to produce more of their own milk, butter, eggs, meats and vegetables, thereby reducing out of pocket costs. Also they may be should diversify their farming operations.

The section on timber was concerned about the rapidly-diminished supply of timber; stopping forest fires; and the lack of new timber acres. I’m concerned about that too, a hundred years later.

The Yearbook stated sugar provided about 13 percent of all the energy obtained from food. The amount used in cooking and on the table averaged about one-and-a-half pounds per person per week. It was considered an economical source of fuel/energy.

The primary sources for this energy were cane and the sugar beet. Cane was introduced into the continental United States by Jesuits in Louisiana in 1751. The sugar beet industry didn’t really take off until 1879. It’s interesting that the beet seed stock used in the United States at that time were the French Vilmorin and  German Klein Wanzleban. Prior to World War I, practically all the seed used in America came from the large beet seed companies in Europe. The seed quality deteriorated so much during World War I it was becoming necessary for America to begin producing their own supply at this time in history.

I found the sheep industry section especially interesting as my farmer and I are back in the sheep business with a very small flock. Sheep were promoted as being good weed cleaner-uppers and great at foraging, and naturally increasing soil fertility. The breeds featured were Shropshire, Rambouillet, Hampshire and Lincoln.

In addition to Wallace’s annual report, the Extension Service produced a number of bulletins with subjects such as “Game Laws,” “How To Grow Alfalfa,” “The Whipping Quality of Cream,” and that menace quack grass.

Tractors were beginning to replace horse power on farms. One bulletin was entitled, “The Cost of Using Horses on Corn Belt Farms;” while others were “The Cost of Using Tractors on Corn Belt Farms,” and “Shall I Buy a Tractor?” to “Choosing A Tractor.”

Renae B. Vander Schaaf is an independent writer, author and speaker. Contact her at (605) 530-0017 or

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