Down on the Farm, 1945-1972: A Background Report
The war lifted North Dakota out of the Great Depression. For the first time since the Golden Age of Agriculture prior to World War I, North Dakota’s farmers enjoyed good crops at good prices, especially in those postwar years, 1945-1950. During the 1950s and 1960s agricultural prices fluctuated below pre-1950 prices. Congress devised a new program, the soil bank, to bolster farm income. Since overproduction and underconsumption, especially of North Dakota’s number one crop, wheat, worked against acceptable prices, the government paid farmers to take land out of production, to bank their land. Farmers placed more land in the soil bank than in any other state. Federal government payments to North Dakotans rose from $6 million in 1950 to $208 million in 1972, averaging about $100 million for the in-between years. Times were not bad; they just were not good enough to equal the immediate postwar boom.
Net farm income, the amount a farmer makes after expenses, in 1950 was $3,027, which was higher than Minnesota and South Dakota, but lower than Iowa. By 1972 it had risen to $13,503, higher than Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa. In the years between 1950 and 1972, North Dakota’s farm income ran significantly higher than the average for the United States. And, farms were worth more with each passing year; land values rose from $19 an acre in 1945 to $98 in 1972.
Between 1945 and 1972 North Dakota farmers and farms went through notable changes: diversification, electrification, mechanization, and organization. James J. Hill, the Great Northern Railway tycoon, had preached diversification early in the twentieth century; scientists at the Agricultural College echoed Hill’s concern. Tied to the one-crop wheat economy, the state fell victim to the drought and depression of the 1930s. Diversification after World War II was a response to that condition. Wheat remained the chief cash crop with production ranging between 154 million (1945) and 216 million (1972) bushels per year. Sugar beets, sunflowers, and soybeans helped diversify many farms. Sugar beet production was minimal in 1945, 169,000 tons; by 1972 the tonnage surpassed 1 million. Sugar-beet farmers, located mostly in the Red River Valley, could depend on a steady and profitable income since they signed contracts with American Crystal Sugar to produce a specific, assigned acreage. The key to the expansion of sugar-beet growing was plant-processing capacity. Until 1948 the only processing plant was in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. In that year American Crystal Sugar opened a refinery in Moorhead, Minnesota, and in 1965, one in Drayton. More refining capacity meant increased acreage contracts which meant more money for farmers.
Although some sugar beets were grown in North Dakota before World War II, such was not the case with the “oil crops,” sunflowers and soybeans. A few farmers began planting soybeans in 1945, producing only 58,000 bushels. By the mid-1950s farmers were harvesting just over one million bushels. Price, of course, influenced how many acres would be planted in soybeans. In 1965 production peaked at 4 million bushels, but generally averaged about 3 million. Sunflowers followed the same pattern. Production steadily rose from just 3.9 million pounds in 1950 to 368 million in 1972. As with sugar beets, processing plants which were built in the 1960s were essential for farmers.
Cattle raising had been part of the state’s agricultural picture since Theodore Roosevelt’s ranching days in the mid-1880s. In the two decades after World War II cattle sales increased five times, while income from sheep and hogs remained steady. In 1945 chicken and egg income was important on many farms. By the late 1960s, however, chicken and egg income was negligible.
Nothing revolutionized life on the farm more than electrification. In 1935, when only 2.3 percent of the state’s farms had electricity, New Deal legislation provided for the organization of rural electric cooperatives which would receive low-interest government loans to bring electricity to the countryside. The first line went into operation out of Cando in 1937, but the war interrupted organization of more cooperatives. After the war 24 cooperatives strung just over 53,000 miles of power lines to 52,000 farms. By the mid-1960s, rare was the farmstead that was without electric power. “It was like getting God there,” one farmer exclaimed. And, indeed, electricity worked marvels. Gone were the days of lighting with kerosene, milking by hand, pressing clothes with a gas-fueled iron, pumping water by hand, listening to a weak signal from a battery-run radio, keeping food chilled in the cellar or down the well. Life on the farm was immeasurably better. And, REA began to make loans for rural telephone cooperatives. By the early 1960s, half of the farms had telephone service, although several farms may have shared the same line. By 1970, 94 percent of North Dakota households had telephones.
Improved and new machinery allowed farmers to be more efficient and to produce more on larger farms. During the war years, farmers kept their machinery working any which way they could. After the war, armed with high wartime incomes, farmers replaced their old machinery as quickly as they could. Soon North Dakota had more trucks, combines, and tractors per farm than any other state.
Innovative machinery made labor intensive agriculture much easier. For example, no crop called for more hands-on work than sugar beets. By 1952, however, harvesting was all done by machine. The mechanical harvester could handle six tons per hour, an improvement of 300 percent. The Melroe Company’s spring-tooth Harroweeder and Self-Propelled Loader made farming more efficient and, therefore, more profitable.
Organization benefited farmers in several ways, and the Farmers’ Union and the Farm Bureau increased their membership dramatically after the war. The Farmers’ Union grew from 26,000 in 1945 to 44,000 in the 1960s. Smaller than the Farmers’ Union, the Farm Bureau increased from 3,000 to 18,000. Both gave farmers a voice through which to express their opinions concerning farm policy and other issues.
The Farmers’ Union was a major force in the development of cooperatives that would provide members with advantages in selling their farm products such as wheat and cattle and buying supplies such as gasoline, lumber, and other products under the name of Cenex. The Farmers’ Union has been strongest in the western and central parts of the state and is viewed as the “liberal” farm group.
The Farm Bureau, on the other hand, is viewed as the “conservative” organization and has been strongest in the eastern part of the state. Its insurance program, Nodak Mutual, has had wide usage in the state.
In 1968 a third farm organization entered North Dakota, the National Farm Organization. Its main objective was a fairer price for products of the farm so that production costs would be guaranteed. The NFO called for holding farm products off the market until prices rose. Its North Dakota membership, though small in numbers, was very vocal.
Farming has always been a precarious business. As producers of raw materials, farmers have no control over the prices that they receive for their crops or livestock. They have become very small pieces in the gigantic and complicated jigsaw puzzle of international trade. What happens in Argentina or in Australia may directly affect North Dakota farmers. Nor can a farmer control the weather that helps determine the size and quality of a crop. Too little or too much rain can cut production and lower farm income. A change in the weather can mean millions of dollars in farm-income loss.
North Dakota farmers avoided catastrophic weather in those years after World War II. Although not all years brought much in the way of farm profits, for the most part, 1950 to 1972 were good years. Not terrific, but good.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.