In the mid 1930s, against the background of the widespread poverty of the Great Depression and an increasingly militant labor movement, Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted the help of progressive intellectuals in creating a new approach to government that would protect Americans from the violent fluctuations of the marketplace. The resulting set of policies became known as the New Deal. Today, the widespread popularity of the Green New Deal has caused progressives, environmental activists, and policy makers to turn to the New Deal with renewed interest. As Agrarian Trust seeks to innovate land tenure with the Agrarian Commons, it is worth returning to a period of history much like our own, in which grassroots organizers and government officials sought to create cooperative models of agriculture that put the needs of farmers and the land first.
One of the most compelling New Deal initiatives was the creation of cooperative farms by the Resettlement Agency to house and employ low-income tenant farmers who had been hit the hardest by the Great Depression. In May 1940, the photographer John Vachon visited Deshee Farm in Knox County, Indiana. Vachon’s photos provide a rare glimpse into the day-to-day life on state-sponsored collective farms and a brief moment in American history when the government charted a path that favored cooperative production over individual gain.
Tenants and Landlords
Like today, the 1930s were characterized by a massive displacement of farmers from their land, and a consolidation of property in the hands of banks and large property owners. The dramatic economic downturn of the Great Depression was compounded by a severe drought, known as the Dust Bowl, that ravaged agricultural production in the central United States. During this period, crop prices plummeted by 60 percent. Waves of migrant farmers moved west to California in search of better farmland but found little support when they arrived. The government scrambled to respond to the crisis.
The “Black Sunday” dust storm approaches Spearman, Texas on April 14, 1935. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons
Mother with child. Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
The damage done to farmers was catastrophic. New Deal administrators worked to increase prices to levels where farmers would once again be able to support themselves, and to prevent future ecological catastrophes like the Dust Bowl. The Soil Conservation Service, founded in 1936, encouraged farmers to increase income “through the adoption of land uses and farm practices that conserved and built up the fertility of the soil” (Saloutos 396) but with limited success. By 1939, only seventy-five thousand out of 3.6 million farms were located on fully protected versus eroded land. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Adjustment Agency (AAA) instituted a series of economic controls to increase the price of crops, the most important of which was to encourage farmers to remove land from production. This was meant to raise price levels by preventing goods from oversaturating the market and driving prices down. Reducing acreage, however, was not an easy thing to ask of farmers struggling to make a living.
The AAA attempted to compensate by providing relief for farmers who reduced acreage. This policy, however, was heavily weighted in favor of middle-class, white landowners who rented land to sharecroppers and tenant farmers. These landowners were meant to pass these payments on to their tenants. This was rarely the case, however; the AAA policy ultimately caused tenants to be driven off the land as landlords reduced acreage while keeping the government money for themselves (Manthorne 21).
The tenant farmers did not accept their fate passively. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), founded in 1934 as a coalition of Black and white tenant farmers, was the most active organization fighting for tenant rights and access to government resources. “At its peak in 1936, it claimed upward of thirty thousand members across the South concentrated in Arkansas and Missouri, but as far afield as Oklahoma and Texas. It would roil the east Arkansas countryside with a series of strikes in 1935 and 1936” (21). The STFU successfully pressured the New Deal administration into providing relief to tenant farmers. One of the institutions to emerge from this effort was the Resettlement Administration (RA), later renamed the Farm Security Association (FSA).
What came next was a brief and widely forgotten experiment in state-sponsored cooperative farming. Under the leadership of Rexford G. Tugwell, the RA opened collective farms around the United States, including Deshee Farm, with the aim of fostering a cooperative ethos and providing livelihoods to displaced and struggling tenant farmers (Tugwell 72).
“Senators see damage done by soil erosion. Washington, D.C., March 9. H.H. Bennett, Chief of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, is shown describing to members of the Senate Unemployment and Relief Committee the great amount of damage done throughout the country by soil erosion.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
“Picketers with signs: ‘Help the Southern Tenant Farmers Union,’ ‘Where is Mrs. Myers Report?’ ‘Sharecroppers are Denied Civil Liberties,’ etc.” Note the sign claiming “A.A.A. has made it worse” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
When photographer John Vachon arrived on Deshee Farm in May 1940, the farm’s inhabitants, also known as members, were busy planting cantaloupe. Some members operated the farm’s tractors while others worked the fields or tended to the cattle in the farm’s cooperative dairy barn. At the end of the day, the workers punched out and returned to one of the farm’s forty-two housing units. Most of the members were tenant farmers who had barely made a living on suboptimal pieces of land, while others had been displaced by AAA policy or plummeting crop prices. Now, they shared profits among themselves according to hours worked, and elected a board of directors who oversaw the farm’s business and managed the farm’s property. Deshee Farm was one of seventeen cooperative farms constructed around the nation (Thompson 383).
This was how the farm operated in theory. In reality, the farm’s democratic model was severely limited by traditional gender roles and the continued interference of government officials. According to the RA’s initial plan, only the male members of Deshee Farm could elect the board of directors. Additionally, while the board would oversee the business of the farm, the day-to-day operations were managed by a farm manager, who was appointed by the RA. As a result, government officials still controlled much of the farm’s activity, to the point where they even determined how notes would be taken at the farm’s board meeting (388). Rexford Tugwell, the mastermind of the cooperative farming project, believed that the necessity for cooperation would create a new kind of agricultural economy that would be based in democratic self-management and communal living. Ultimately, however, his vision saw only mixed success. The farm had extremely high turnover, with many inhabitants staying for less than a year before moving on to higher-paying or more secure jobs (393).
Housing was provided for farmers who moved to Deshee, in order to assure a secure living for even the poorest tenant farmer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
“Planting cantaloupes. Deshee Unit, Wabash Farms, Indiana.” The members of the cooperative were meant to have a say in the day-to-day operations of the farm. However, because the farm manager was appointed by the RA rather than the semi-democratic board, their control remained limited. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
“Cooperative dairy barn at Deshee Unit, Wabash Farms, Indiana.” Unlike the monoculture farms that dominate today’s agricultural landscape, the farmers at Deshee Farm still embraced a diversified farm model, raising livestock and vegetables on the same farm—a practice which allows farmers to produce their own fertilizers. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
“Farmers putting in time slips at end of day. Deshee Unit, Wabash Farms, Indiana. All the land here is farmed cooperatively and profits are distributed according to amount of work done.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
In the end, state-sponsored cooperative farming went the way of many other New Deal experiments. The RA’s activities came under increasing scrutiny as socialist or Soviet experiments. Rexford Tugwell stepped down as the head of the RA in 1936. The RA was absorbed into the Department of Agriculture, where it continued to operate as the FSA until it was shuttered 1946.
What Can We Learn from Deshee Farm?
While farms like Deshee failed to take hold in the United States and had significant limitations, its story serves as a reminder that the privatized corporate farming that dominates U.S. agriculture was anything but inevitable. Grassroots organizing by tenant farmers played a key role in securing innovative, state-funded programming whose scale and vision matched the needs of the moment. Had there been more resources to fund similar efforts and more time and autonomy for the members of RA farms to develop the necessary institutions and cultural practices to effectively govern their shared resources, we might have been living in a different, more cooperatively focused world.
Today, we are faced with a similar crisis. Climate change, increasing land prices, and gross inequities in land accessibility for BIPOC farmers require us to embrace new visions and innovative models of collective land stewardship. The farmers of the 1930s experienced the devastating effects of soil degradation in the form of great clouds of dust that suffocated their land. As industrial farming and fossil fuels continue to devastate the landscape today, the dark cloud is once again on the horizon.
In 2020, Agrarian Trust created the Agrarian Commons model as our best way forward. By decommodifying agricultural land and providing low-cost, long-term leases to new farmers, the Agrarian Commons ensures that farmers are able to invest in the long-term health of their soil. Furthermore, the Agrarian Commons places control of the land in the hands of farmers and their communities rather than third-party entities such as the government or land trusts, allowing these communities to determine for themselves how best to manage their land.
Finally, unlike the farms and communities founded by the RA in the 1930s, the Agrarian Commons model is highly adaptable to the needs and objectives of each community. Agrarian Commons such as the Central Virginia Commons leverage the Agrarian Commons model to support “BIPOC control of land for building resilient regional food systems.” In Maine, the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons supports and collaborates with the local Somali Bantu community to provide access to agricultural land for new Mainers. The Agrarian Commons is growing in popularity and strength. As groups around the country adapt the Agrarian Commons to fit their specific needs and objectives, we move closer to realizing a more diverse, equitable, and resilient food system.
“One of the cooperative farmers getting a drink of water while planting cantaloupes.” Deshee Unit, Wabash Farms, Indiana” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
Listen to John Handcox, a singer and organizer in STFU, perform “Mean Life,” a ballad about the life of tenant farmers during the Depression.
Watch the 1938 documentary film The River, commissioned by the FSA and directed by Pare Lorentz. The film warns against destructive farming and timber practices through telling the story of the Mississippi River Valley.
Sources and Further Reading
Manthorne, Jason. “The View from the Cotton: Reconsidering the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.” Agricultural History 84, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 20–45.
Pennick, Edward. “The Struggle for Control of America’s Production Agriculture System and Its Impact on African American Farmers.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, no. 1 (2011): 113–20.
Saloutos, Theodore. “New Deal Agricultural Policy: An Evaluation.” The Journal of American History 61, no. 2 (1974): 394–416.
Thompson, J. “A New Deal Experiment With Cooperative Farming.” Indiana Magazine of History 91, no. 4 (1995): 380–406.
Kelley, R.D.G., Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.