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Self- Sufficiency Key to Farmers' Survival During Depression
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Elizabeth I. Hernandez
It is commonly known that the Great Depression was rough on every class and life style in the United States. However most of the country, especially those who lived in urbanized areas, entered the 1930s with the hopes of another "jazz age" like of the prosperous 1920s.
This was not so for farmers. "The 1920s…were a time of stark depression and fundamental upheaval for the agrarian west," write professors Michael P. Malone and Richard W. Etulain in their book The American West: A Twentieth Century History. For the farmers of the Southwest, the era of the Great Depression was merely a continuation of what they had suffered through in the 1920s.
Agriculture flourished during World War I, as the U.S. had a war to fight with troops and hungry parts of Europe to feed. Thus, farmers planted larger crops, but when the war was over, the market was flooded with agricultural products, causing incredibly low prices on farm goods. This is the rut in which farmers remained as they entered the 1930s.
New Deal programs were not very helpful to farmers during the Great Depression. But thanks to a "back-to-the-land" attitude and skills in self-sufficiency, farmers on the border and across the nation were able to survive this dire decade.
During the Depression, besides making little or no money, farmers began to lose their land, which was the most important possession they could have. During the Great Depression, farmers in financial trouble held auctions, selling their machinery and tools. Many eventually lost their farms entirely because of "deficiency judgments," which were legal rulings that a farmer was no longer capable of keeping his farm.
These judgments only served to benefit greedy creditors and did nothing for the average American farmer. Finally, legislation was passed to stop the power of the judges to issue deficiency judgments. With that, the situation of the farmer began to improve gradually.
The year 1933 saw a birth of many new government aid programs started by the Roosevelt Administration, and one of the most widely known of those programs was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The AAA tried to reduce the surplus of agricultural products by paying farmers not to plant all their acreage. This, in turn, meant that farmers should have begun to get a decent price for their hard work. Unfortunately, this was not so, and few AAA programs could affect prices before 1934.
Despite the efforts in Washington to mitigate the problems of the farmers, the biggest benefit was allowing farmers to hold onto their land until they could make it profitable once more. Most American farmers felt as if Washington had abandoned them in a time of impoverishment.
In 1933 the back-to-the-land movement took America by storm. City folk were urged to move to the country and form small communities where people could all grow their own food and benefit from each other's skills in craftsmanship.
The back-to-the-land movement, in essence, was more about self-sufficiency than anything else. It was the notion that people could not depend on consumerism to get them by in life. If people wanted to survive, they had to start depending on themselves. It was with the same sort of attitude that Henry David Thoreau had about life, nature and self-reliance that some borderland farmers were able to survive the Great Depression.
Cruz Hernandez remembers his father, Librado Hernandez, who was a farmer on the border during the Depression. "My father would plant corn, squash, cucumbers and whatever else he needed to sustain his family," says Hernandez. "He also raised chickens and turkeys that he fed with the leftovers of the crops that he had planted. This made him self-sufficient during those desperate times." Farmers like Hernandez never had hungry families. Such farmers could clothe their families, too.
Cruz Hernandez recalls, "My father made sandals for his children; they are called 'guaraches' in Spanish. He crafted them from the tread of old tires from the farm equipment. He would just outline the feet of the children and cut the tread to the size of their feet and used leather to craft the upper part of the sandal."
Hernandez's mother helped keep the family clothed. "My mother sewed most of the clothing for her children, using mostly material from flour sacks. She only purchased thread and needles for her old Singer sewing machine, which, by the way, is still in the family," he says. Through skillful craftsmanship and creativity, it was possible for a farmer to keep his family outfitted on very little money.
Self- sufficiency during the Great Depression also meant the farmers had to deny themselves luxuries like automobiles; farmers did not have to worry about spending money on maintenance and fuel, except for farm equipment. Hernandez remembers his father telling him that during most of this time, he did not own an automobile; he walked. When he needed to take the family into town, "he would simply hook up a cotton trailer to the tractor, pile his family into it and go" says the younger Hernandez.
Self-sufficiency did much for the farmers who survived the Great Depression. They learned that they had to feed their families instead of worrying about making money.
Farmers had to start viewing the land as a direct means of survival. Borderland farmers who put the advice of back-to-the-land supporters to use knew that while they were farming the land, their families would not hungry. They also knew that as long as they were able to get a hold of some basic items, their families would not be without fundamental necessities like shoes and clothing.
They were aware that while the government tried to help them and their families by starting programs such us as the AAA, they could only truly depend on themselves and their skills to get them through the meager times of the Depression.