The Farmer and the Cowman–and the Government–Should Be Friends

My grandfather as a high school senior.

My maternal grandfather, Clifford Lorraine Harding, was born on this day in 1909 in Junction City, Kansas. He was a successful farmer in Northeastern Kansas. I fondly remember visiting my grandparents at their home in Lawrence, and I particularly enjoyed going there in the summertime. While my granddad had a large commercial farm outside of town, he also had a farm on my grandparents’ very large personal property. Granddad’s backyard garden stretched at least seventy-five yards out from my grandparents’ storm porch. Whenever our visits included staying for dinner during the summer months, my brother and I got to go with Granddad to his garden to pick vegetables for supper.

My grandfather taught my brother and me how to distinguish when ears of sweet corn were ripe: when the color of their silks had turned brown but their husks were still green and the kernels were still “milky”. We also had to make sure that no worms had made their way inside the husks and eaten from the cob. We also learned how to tell when his large heirloom tomatoes–red, orange, and yellow–were ripe, and we were then allowed to pick what was needed from the vines. We also pulled radishes out of the ground. I have never acquired a taste for them, however.

We also picked pea pods. Although this was perhaps the most labor intensive task of all, I always loved the “plink, plink” sound of the individual peas hitting the bottom of the aluminum pail, after I had pried open their hulls.

Besides tending his own crops, my grandfather also helped other less fortunate farmers. My grandfather was a local agent for the Resettlement Administration as well as the federal program’s successors: the Farm Security Administration and the Farmers Home Administration. The RA, FSA, and FHA were New Deal initiatives, designed to assist those in need of assistance due to the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. These initiatives followed passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938– “An Act to provide for the conservation of national soil resources and to provide an adequate and balanced flow of agricultural commodities in interstate and domestic commerce and for other purposes“–essentially a modification of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.

As an experienced farmer and a person familiar with the needs of the agricultural community, my grandfather was hired by the government to serve as an intermediary between local sharecroppers, tenants, and landowning farmers and the governmental agencies set up to assist them. From what I understand, his work was diverse. He served as an educator, advising farmers on the latest scientific discoveries related to agriculture, innovations in industrial equipment and farming practices, as well as on the governmental assistance available to them. He made suggestions regarding selection and rotation of crops, rotation of crops with livestock, and on matters such as irrigation and soil conservation. My grandfather counseled struggling farmers and made applications on their behalf in order to avoid foreclosure on their farms. In some cases, based upon his expertise and recommendation, the government chose to purchase sub-marginal land and to resettle farmers and their families on government-owned group farms. (See article above.)

Here are a handful of local newspaper clippings, dating from 1940 to 1968, that mention my grandfather’s activities on behalf of the farmers of Jefferson, Allen, and Douglas Counties:

There were conflicting opinions on the advisability of the government taking on this level of responsibility, just as public sentiment today varies on matters of federal assistance. A Supreme Court case and subsequent legislation necessitated changes to the structure and financing of the initial agency: the Resettlement Administration. In 1937, the program was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and became the Farm Security Administration. For various reasons, the FSA’s role was later reduced, and in 1944, the agency’s responsibilities were then transferred to the Office of War Information.

A highly detailed piece on the impact of World War II upon farmers with regard to the government’s needs, crop yields and types of crops or livestock, and price fixing is available here.

Migrant Woman-Dorothea Lange ©1936. Lange’s iconic photo is probably the most well known of the work of the FSA photographers.

The establishment of programs to aid farmers was merely one of President Roosevelt’s many New Deal initiatives, of course.

Hired to document the initial work of the Resettlement Administration was a staff photographer named Roy Stryker. Stryker then stayed on with the subsequent agency, the FSA, leading its Information Division. In that capacity, he and his staff were responsible for a body of work that served as a testament to the plight of those living in poverty as well as evidence of the need for and the success of the New Deal initiatives. Stryker enlisted an entire team of photographers and writers, instructing them to document–in their own views and words–the conditions of poverty they encountered in both rural and inner-city America.

The stated goal of these FSA artists was “introducing America to Americans,” via a focus on photography and written narratives.

One of Stryker’s hand-picked photographers was a man by the name of Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein captured images of poverty from Alabama to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to Nevada, to Oregon. And it was Rothstein who captured these two images of my grandfather meeting with clients in Northeastern Kansas.

County Supervisor for Resettlement Administration with Farm Rehabilitation Client ©Arthur Rothenstein, May 1936
Two Men Discussing Farm Problems with County Supervisor, Jefferson County, Kansas, USA, ©Arthur Rothstein for Farm Security Administration (FSA), May 1936
The same photograph used in an FSA promotional advertisement.

I was thinking recently of my grandfather’s work as well as of President Roosevelt’s interest in and efforts toward fostering a better understanding between those in need, the government, and the rest of America. This was prompted by my having read an Opinion piece in the New York Times.

The co-authors are advocates for re-examining federal aid to farmers, moving away from existing federal subsidies toward a system in which financial rewards would be given to those farmers who take on the additional cost and effort involved in adopting more ecological farming methods. Doing so, the writers argued, would simultaneously assist the agricultural community and enlist them in a tactical strategy for addressing climate change. They write,

Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer’s bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump’s tariffs.

My grandfather passed away in 1976. He never heard the expression “global warming”. I’m not even sure that evidence of the phenomenon existed in the scientific community at that time. However, the first Earth Day had occurred in 1970, and he lived to see a handful more in his lifetime. Concern for the environment was at least in its infancy.

The Ecology Flag, popularized in the 1970s by environmentalists.

I do know how much my grandfather cared for the earth and its inhabitants as well as for those who work the earth. I also know that he believed in the government’s responsibility to address the sustainability of the soil, water sources, and the country’s natural resources in general. And I know that he knew first-hand how challenging the farming life is and how critical it is–for farmers, for our nation, and for our nation’s food supply–that our government is directly involved with the farming community.

Knowing all of the above, I am proud to think that, were he alive today, my grandfather would probably share the concerns of these two Iowa writers and others currently working to address issues pertaining to the farming industry and to the environment. I’m quite confident that he would be at the forefront of efforts to put farmers on the front lines of the war on climate change.

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