Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/November 1889/The Decadence of Farming

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SOME years ago the editor of a prominent journal sent me a slip containing a column and a half of advertisements of farms for sale, cut from a Boston daily paper. The farms offered were located in New England, where the supposed benign effect of the national Government's attempt to "diversify industry," so that farming need not be overdone, has had its supreme chance. These farms were not poor or worn out. They were in the midst of our best social culture, as developed by our most intelligent rural communities. Upon them were improvements and, in the main, good buildings. Railroads ran over or near every one of them; large factories and populous towns were near, to buy their products; schools and churches were visible, almost from their door-steps and gateways; beauty was in the landscape, and health in the very air. Whatever the best civilization has to offer, outside of great cities or large towns, was accessible to the homes they represented. If anywhere on the planet human beings could be happy and prosperous, in beautiful homes, it should have been there.

But the farms were for sale, nevertheless; and, though this was fifteen years and more ago, some of them are for sale still. The column and a half of advertisements was only a sample of a hundred other columns of advertisements of a similar sort published in other New England papers; and the offers to sell still go on. The clipping sent to me, as symptomatic of a great movement, came from the office of a famous protectionist daily, and was sent in order that I might make some appropriate comment upon the situation, or give some advice which should be apt or remedial in relation to it.

This was done at a period, however, when there was no question of taxation or political economy uppermost in the public mind. No suspicion, even, was entertained that legislation of any sort was involved in the problem presented, or that any other than a hortative appeal to boys to stick to the farm, or some suggestion as to better modes of farming, was needed.

It is now twenty years, at least, that farming has been going rapidly downward. Farms bought in the war era have been selling almost everywhere in the East for from one half to one third of their cost. Farms in New England, and some in the Middle States, are frequently sold for less than the buildings cost which are upon them. This is really no exaggeration. Sales of this sort, and where the depreciation in value has wiped out the owner's equity in them, have been for years a matter of notorious knowledge in almost every Eastern community. Within a year, in a healthy and fertile county not sixty miles from New York city, a farm having on it two mortgages—a first mortgage of three thousand dollars and a second mortgage of two thousand—was sold, under foreclosure, for the sum represented by the first mortgage only. The holder of the second one did not think it worth while to be present, or to have a representative present, at the sale, to bid the single dollar which would have saved or made a show of saving his investment.

Very recently the New York State assessors have issued a report containing some results of what they have discovered so far as they have gone, in respect to the assessed valuations of farm lands in the various counties. And this is their story: "In fourteen counties visited they found that farming lands had depreciated in value, while city property had increased in value." State Assessor Wood is of the opinion that "in a few decades there will be few or none but tenant farmers in this State. Year by year the value of farm, lands depreciates." There is not the slightest reason to believe that there is a county in this State of which a better report can be made. The fourteen examined may well stand for all.

Following closely on this report for New York comes the report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Illinois, in reference to farm-mortgage indebtedness. This gives a summary of this indebtedness at the following periods, viz., in 1870, 1880, and 1887; and evidence is also given as to the actual value of farming lands in the State. By leaving out town and city lots, and the suburban district of Chicago, the purely agricultural part of this debt is seen. And it is given as follows:

Year. Debt.
1870 $95,721,003
1880 103,525,237
1887 123,733,098

The report tells its own story; for farms are a constant quantity and do not increase. It is only the wave of debt that increases over them. As this report separates, with such accuracy as it can command, "mortgages representing deferred payments of purchase money from loans," the deduction of the commissioners is, that "the mortgage indebtedness of farmers for borrowed money has increased twenty-three per cent since 1880 in Illinois, and that this is more than twice the increase in the value of the farm lands. An increase in land values is reported in twenty-five counties, a decrease in twenty counties, while in sixteen counties the values have remained unchanged."

This is far from a pleasant showing for a State so naturally good as Illinois, and one which was so recently a new and almost a frontier Commonwealth. But you may go farther West and find figures of the same solemn sort. In the Western States the farm mortgages amount to three billion four hundred and twenty-two million dollars. This is equivalent to a debt of two hundred dollars per capita for each person, or one thousand dollars to each head of a family. The interest which these mortgages pay runs from seven to nine per cent, while the profit on the farm capital, to put it large, is only from four to five per cent.

But, take up any newspaper or magazine, and read its advertising columns in respect to loans. What are they which are most popular and extensively advertised? Why, they are "farm investment loans." "Sixteen years' experience without loss of a dollar." And the interest is delivered at your door almost. These siphons are now extending far beyond the Mississippi and Missouri, on the virgin soil of the continent. For a while they can be borne there, where the capitalization in a farm is either slight or nothing, and where the money borrowed is mainly for buildings and improvements. But it can not be long, without a change of proprietors, the original ones dropping their title, and giving up the struggle to other lists of unfortunates.

There is no doubt but that the investments in these vampiric mortgages are good—that is, good for those who loan the money, and good also for those roving or stationary agents who make their commissions out of them, and who scour every Eastern town where money is to be had to put into this form of security. I am not blaming these negotiators. The money must be borrowed, and somebody must furnish it. But is it not pitiful that the one business in this world which seems nearest to man's primitive nature, without which no other could exist, and into which the moralist and the well-wisher of his species is ever ready to advise young men to go, should be the selected prey of the most destructive and cruel legislation that can be invented by the wit of man?

All over the statute-book, if there is a law made having any effect at all upon the farmer, it is with an almost malicious certainty—one might think, if he judged by its effects—made to operate against him. Is it a half-holiday, or several whole ones, that are enacted? The operation of them is not a help to, but is a draught against, the farmer. His cows and his crops, and Nature itself, to whose laws he is more than anybody else tied down, will not and can not accept their supposed advantage. His work must still go on; and these are only new stumbling-blocks in his way, which leave him shorn of his hired help, to pursue his tasks without the customary assistance. If an eight-hour law is enacted, its maleficence, not its advantage, falls on him. The milking-hour and the harvest will not be postponed in obedience to any legislature. So far as it makes the day's labor brief, so certainly it extends his own labor from twelve hours to fourteen.

Notice, too, how every tax system now uppermost puts the heavy end of its incidence on the farmer. In the State, county, and township allotment of fiscal burdens the tax is direct. It falls upon what can be seen and discovered with greatest weight. But it never fails to discover the farmer. His broad acres can not be hidden or sworn away; while his neighbor, rich in personal holdings, can cunningly suspend his own tax by evasion—and sometimes by an artful change or confusion of residence—so as to add his tax, too, to the tax of the beridden farmer.

But worse than all this is his relation to the national tax system, which exploits away his hard-earned profits, small in percentage, almost invisibly, and then adds abuse to injury by successfully persuading him that it exists for his supreme advantage. He pays for a paper, as likely as not, which tells him, and has been telling him for a generation or more, that the beneficent system which prevents him from buying forty-five hundred articles as cheaply as he might, and compels him to sell his own products, minute in number, at the lowest price which ingenious legal artifice can dictate, is a measure for his particular benefit. If he has read a paper which denies this, the doctrine is so new to this generation that he has not yet mastered it; and he is apt to treat it with conservative inattention, or as a delusive suggestion, an investment in which must be set down for the present as one to be treated with as much caution as he would exercise in accepting an unheard-of and revolutionary scheme for working his farm.

The siren charm with which the word "protection" asphyxiates him has only casually, as yet, lost for him its sorcery. He is apt to have confidence in some regular order of things, such as the seasons, the sunrise, and the sunset; and to him "protection" is, and has been, through long experience, as stable a factor in affairs as the precession of the equinoxes or the laws of the solar system.

But, if he is ever to rescue his business and make it decently profitable, he must awaken from this long swoon. He must see and know that taxation of this sort is death to him; and is fast making it impossible for an intelligent American to live and raise a family with the decent comforts of life on the best farm in the New England and Middle States. Very rapidly, in New England, the farms are passing into the hands of the foreigner, or distinctly peasant element, a class which reduces the necessities of life to the simplest scale, and which is able to do farming within the family, and so can eliminate the costly feature of hired labor. The question has been asked for years, "How shall we keep our boys on the farm?" But it has never been answered successfully, and never can be. We ought to be profoundly thankful, considering what the farm now is as a business, that we can not keep them there. It is the best possible evidence attainable of the bright wit and level-headedness of the boys that they wish to work where gain is assured at the end of their toil.

I may be told, very likely, that I have skipped one feature of the tariff, the one on wool, which was devised especially for the farmer's profit. But it was not; and, if it had been, it has hurt him instead of helping him. It was devised by men who are either commercial men, or whose predominant interest is commercial rather than agricultural. These men constitute what is known as the Wool-Growers' Association. I think its important factor is made up of middle-men, or salesmen who traffic in the wool product. But, be that as it may, the duty on wool has simply handicapped the manufacturers of woolen fabrics; and by shutting out kinds of wool which we can not raise here, and which the woolen manufacturers must have to mix with native wools, has actually lessened the demand for native wool, with the effect to lower its price. Apart from this, it is a notorious fact that the price of wool does not ever bear the relation it ought to, on protection theories, to the rate of the duty. I once traveled with a wool-buyer, years ago, when a lower tariff than the present one prevailed, when he bought wool of the farmers, to speculate on, and gave one dollar a pound for it, which was the market price. Does any wool-farmer expect to get over half that now? A very intelligent farmer, on whose hundreds of acres the wool product has been a feature for sixty or seventy years—a man who holds general "protective" opinions—told me frankly that the tariff, touching wool, gave no enhancement of price. He confessed that he had got very high prices for wool under a low tariff, and very low prices under a high one.

As this wool-bribe is a menace to direct and equal laws, and is the price offered the farmers for support of legislation absolutely hostile to them, suppose we look a little further on its effects. Here are some facts for farmers to think over. Twenty-one years ago there were thirty-eight million sheep in this country east of the Mississippi River. We have "protected" them all this time, and there ought fairly to be now, under a decent ratio of growth, at least fifty million. Are there this number? On the contrary, there are now only eighteen million one hundred thousand. And they and the wool itself have greatly declined in price. It is said that, since 1875, there has been an increase in the number of sheep of about thirty per cent. But this is accounted for by the extension of farms in our new Territories. The large flocks there are chiefly owned by aliens or absentees, and even these flocks, with their peculiar local advantages, are declining in value. Not a fraction of this increase in number can be due to the tariff, and no benefit comes from it to the growers of wool in the older States.

To supplement these facts properly, read the following answers to questions propounded by the "Massachusetts United Questions Club," given by ex-Congressman John E. Russell:

Question 4 is as follows: "Does the tax on foreign wool imported put the price of that up so much that, although the price of American wool is lower than it ever was before, yet our domestic woolen manufacturers are put at a great disadvantage with foreign manufacturers, so that we can not make goods at so low a cost or of so good a quality, except such kinds of goods as can he made wholly of domestic wool?" Mr. Russell replies that the specific duties on woolen cloths and flannels put the American manufacturer of fine goods at a sad disadvantage, confining him to the home market, and that the high price he is compelled to charge for goods narrows and restricts his market. Mr. Russell continues: "Makers of the fine flannels that are sold in competition with the best English and French goods import South American wool that has been sent to France and there cleansed of dirt and burs, and scoured. The duty on this wool is thirty cents a pound. There is no wool raised in this country that will answer the same purpose. It is the result of a soil and climate different from ours. It goes to France because, though France is a protected country, they do not think it economy to tax the raw material of manufacturing, and they consider it wise to so draw the line of protection as to preserve commerce with nations producing raw material. They exchange goods for wool, they make the freights, commissions, and profits of shipping, and we pay them for manipulation of the wool."

"Question 5.—If the effect of the tax on foreign wool has been to put down the price of domestic wool and to put up the cost of woolen goods, who gets any benefit from it? Is it the farmer, who gets less for his wool and pays more for his clothing?"

"Answer.—The benefit of this tax accrues to the politicians and to other enormously protected interests. The tariff on wool is the key-stone of the wide arch of protection, because it binds the farmer to the support of the whole system. Without his support the tariff would be reduced to a tax that would raise only what is required by the Government economically administered, with incidental protection. How the farmer is deceived may be further explained by a calculation of what he gets even if he makes all that is promised him. The duty upon unwashed wool that comes in competition with ours is ten cents a pound, the average number of sheep in a flock upon the older Western farms is not over thirty, and the average product of wool on such a farm would be about one hundred and eighty pounds. If the duty increased the price of this wool ten cents a pound, it would be but eighteen dollars to each flock, or less than the enhanced cost of the clothes of his family. It gives him nothing to pay the increased cost of lumber, salt, tin, crockery, implements, fence-wire, etc. The fact is, that his protection fails to protect, and he gets nothing but the privilege of carrying the load. He is a victim of those who cut straps out of the hides of the poor to make stirrup-leathers for the rich."

The next question of importance is number 9. It is as follows: "Is not the farmer misled when, under pretense of protection to wool, the price of his wool is reduced and the export of his wheat and cotton is partly stopped, because by way of a tax on foreign wool we prevent in part an exchange of wheat, cotton, and flour for wool? Answer: 'Misled' is a weak term to use under the circumstances. We might say he is in the same position as the man who votes for high taxes to keep up his wages!"

If there is any farmer in the land who can read these undeniable facts, and, after doing so, is still willing the "wool" shall be "pulled over his eyes," he, at least, deserves little pity for his fate. Sheep ought really to be a profit to the farmer, as they are an important factor in soil enrichment. They ought not to be unprofitable if they grew hair in place of wool. But our law-makers have doomed them. The only "protection" they ever were in need of is protection from dogs and tariff-mongers.

There is really no probability that we can ever have a "farm-protecting" tariff, for obvious reasons. One is, the farmers are too numerous to organize efficiently. They lack the massed capital and commercial skill necessary to maintain a lobby at Washington. They are too vast and minutely divided a body to be thrown into any efficient cohesion. To move Congress and compel politicians, you want just the sort of conspiracy that exists and is upheld by the tariff barons and beneficiaries—a comparatively few very wealthy corporations, each one "log-rolling" with the other for mutual benefits. By their employment of large bodies of workmen, and their power to contribute money and to bulldoze morally through the "pay-envelope," congressional districts, States, and the nation are in their clutch.

Of course, the farmer vote is great enough to have its way, but it can not apply itself with the force and ease of a well-regulated machine, as its almost feudal masters can theirs. Our farmers lack also, as I have already said, the clear perception that they and their interests are exploited. The system which robs them, under cover of law, large numbers of them still believe is for their own benefit.

It is a matter for amazement, though, that some leaders among them do not, at least, plead through their granges and societies, for direct protection, since they are so sure the complex taxation of themselves tends to their prosperity, by some indirect hocus pocus which nobody can explain. If protection is good for agriculture, it would certainly help it more to put it in the line of direct benefit, and let other industries, so long pampered, have for a change the indirect blessings of the tariff for a term of years.

As the farmers are by far the most numerous single part of our population, and represent well toward one third of the people in numbers, why not give to them directly, lavish bounties from the national treasury? Let an act, for instance, be passed to give them from fifty to one hundred and fifty per cent more for all they raise than they now receive. This would somewhere near double their income. "With this great enlargement of their means they could pay more for labor, and they could buy two or three times as large a quantity of manufactured goods. Of course, "could" invariably means "would" in the protectionist's dictionary; and so we should see a tremendous impetus given to all other industries, and to manufactures particularly, by the very greatly increased purchases of the farmers and their doubly paid help. As it has been for two or more generations, "the few" have been protected on purpose to help "the many" by the tremendous overflow which the benevolence of "the few" precipitates. But just think how much more overflow would be sure to run from "the many" to "the few" than is possible in the other direction!

Could there be any finer or fairer scheme than this? Having lived in the moonlight of protection so long, is it not the farmer's turn now to have its sunlight? And, inasmuch as the manufacturers and protected interests say that this moonlight, or indirect incidence of their tax system, is a great good to the farmer, it will, of course, be of great good to the manufacturer. And there will be vastly more of it, since large bodies reflect immensely more to small ones than small ones do to large ones. Or are the protected interests really afraid to take their own prescription? We suspect they would be, and, in fact, could not be hired to take it.

But it is the impending truth—which will some day, and I think very soon, filter into the farmer's mind—that alone can save him. When he sees that he, and he most of all, is bled for others, and for their private gain, he will cease to believe in enforced phlebotomy. When he finds out that the word "protective," so far as he is concerned, is an abominable misnomer, and should be translated "destructive," there will be heard a voice from the farms that will give the system so long delusively described its deathblow. Years ago the farmer's boy, when he went to school, was taught that the business of the United States consisted of "agriculture, manufactures, and commerce." It has long since ceased to be an equal tri-division. Agriculture and commerce, as they once were, are things of the past. The one has been made unprofitable beyond description; the other is now impossible, except in a reduced way, under an alien flag. Ship-building is "protected" to death, and the American money that goes toward having it done abroad simply builds ships that, in case of a war, can be turned against our own shores and our depleted navy. But we have—as trophies of our absurd Chinese system—manufactures (none too flourishing, if the men engaged in them know) and a "protective" tariff.

The long endurance of the superstition on which "protection" is based has had two bulwarks the necessity for revenues extraordinary, and the power of money, contributed by directly interested parties. An economically administered government should break down the first, and the force of facts the second.

As we hold in derision now the discovery of the philosopher's stone and perpetual motion, so future generations will look upon this fetich of our time, and not without unspeakable amazement. They will see a generation here and now that is trying to lift itself over the fence by standing in a corn-basket and pulling upward on the handles. The wonder will not be so much that they tried, as it will be that for so long a time they supposed they were successfully performing this impossible feat.


The history of the genus Platanus, which includes the Oriental plane-tree and our sycamore, has been traced by Lester F. Ward back to the Tertiary period, when there were at least twenty species, mostly American or arctic. The genus and the entire type to which it belongs seem therefore to have been American; and its numerous and strange archaic forms "not only formed the umbrageous forests on the shores of the great inland Laramie Sea where the Rocky Mountains now stand, but also those of the ocean at a time when it still pushed its arms northward across what are now the great plains of Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming."