Agriculture in the aftermath of World War I.
Though World War One ended 100 years ago this month, the ripple affects of that catastrophic struggle linger still today. The unrest in much of the world where nations were created and borders redrawn by the Armistice is an obvious example, but the impact of the war has also echoed through agriculture for the past century. From the Dust Bowl and a resulting litany of conservation programs to nitrogen fertilizer, farm machinery to 4-H, food trends to women in agriculture and the legacy of farms and ranches that flourished or failed after the war, agriculture has long felt the shadowy aftermath of the Great War.
The war sent North American agriculture into an economic boom unprecedented even today as the Entente powers (France, Britain and Russia) looked to the U.S. and Canada to replace the agricultural production lost in the conflict.
The value of U.S. farm exports to Europe that totaled $142 million in 1913 swelled to $505 million by 1918. Even before the war, four of every five slices of bread consumed in Britain were imported. By 1917, the French wheat crop was cut in half due to the German army’s occupation of much of their best agricultural land and German U-boats were sinking one fourth of food ladened merchant ships destined for Europe.
Still, the flow of wheat, beef, pork, sugar, dairy products and other commodities from North America was the Allies’ only hope of staving off the internal collapse sure to come from a starving population–—a fate that befell the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 1917.
The unrelenting demand sent commodity prices soaring as gross income doubled and farm values tripled in the four year span of the war, capping what would be dubbed as the ‘golden age’ for agriculture. Soon after the war the inevitable bust occurred in the form of deflation, depression and drought that would last for decades.
A soldier’s perspective. Thomas Shook couldn’t possibly foresee the impact this economic roller coaster would have on his future when he enlisted into the U.S. Army in September of 1917. As a farm boy from Artesian, South Dakota, he was wide-eyed at the adventure awaiting and thrilled about a chance to see the world beyond the wheat and corn fields of Sanborn County. His thoughts and experiences are detailed in a collection of 595 letters and cards donated by a relative in 2013 to the National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri (www.theworldwar.org).
The letters between Shook and his family—one for nearly every day of the 19 months he was in the service—are filled with typical farm coffee shop banter about the weather and crop conditions. However, they also contain thoughtful observations about agricultural practices he learned while training with 40,000 other soldiers at Camp Funston in Junction City, Kansas.
Like him, his comrades were largely from farms in a seven-state region of the Great Plains. Deployed in France and Belgium, his observations on horses and hay, crop conditions and farming practices took a global view.
“There are a lot of Americans here and they love us,” he wrote in a letter from ‘somewhere in France’ in July of 1918. “The harvest is on here but lots will be wasted because there’s no one to harvest it—there’s only one young man in the village where we’re billeted and it takes the women and old men a week to do what good men could do in a day.”
“You really learn to appreciate things here,” he wrote from ‘somewhere in Belgium’ that fall. “They pay $5 for no more food than we would leave at the breakfast table. Money doesn’t matter—only food.”
Shook’s interest in agriculture culminated in a February 10, 1918 letter (before boarding a ship to France) telling his father he wanted to be a farmer if he returned. “I’ll be anxious to hear how the school house quarter sells,” he wrote. Later, after being under repeated artillery fire, he wondered if ‘he’d still be able to drive a straight row’.
Artesian, South Dakota is named after nearby shallow wells of cool, fresh water and Shook often complained of being unable to find ‘a good drink of water’. He was part of the assault on the Hindenburg Line in the Meuse-Argonne campaign about which he wrote ‘we hugged the ground so tight we could have crawled up on ducks in the corn field’, later adding ‘it’s impossible to explain how terrible this war is.’
A vicious cycle. Thomas Shook got off the train in Mitchell, South Dakota, on April 24th, 1919 as a Disabled American Veteran and stepped into what was about to become a vicious economic cycle. Wheat had reached its peak price of $2.40 per bushel—nearly three times its value before the war.
Whether to reap a windfall or fulfill their patriotic duty, farmers had expanded production by borrowing heavily to buy more land and plow more acres—often with newly introduced tractors that replaced manpower gone off to war.
Shook’s letters stopped, but his adventure did not. Prior to the harvest of 1920 the government withdrew the price guarantee of $2.22 per bushel that had been in place to entice greater production. The wheat price fell to $1.15 per bushel and—because they had debts to pay—farmers responded by expanding production yet again.
In 1921 the price fell to $.87 per bushel and farmers like Shook found themselves on the cusp of the Great Depression seven years before its time. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 attempted to stabilize prices and farm subsidies were to be a recurring reality in the dozens of farm bills to follow.
Shook was married in 1922 and farmed with his father until 1928—unable to obtain financing to purchase his own land. After losing a rented farm, he went to work in a coal mine near Rapid City in 1930. Afraid to miss work though suffering from Scarlet Fever, he died on the job in 1934. His wife and three children rejoined the rest of the family in Indiana, which they had left for South Dakota when Thomas was 14.
Today, the population of Artesian, South Dakota, which reached a peak of 689 in the 1920 census, has declined in every decade since and is now down to 138. The same trend occurred across farm country. U.S. Department of Agriculture records indicate farm population that peaked in 1916 at 32.5 million (32% of the population) has fallen to just 3.2 million (2%) today—–perhaps casualties of the Great War in some way.
From bust to dust. During the profitable war years, farmers embraced credit financing to keep up with the hectic rush to industrialized agriculture. In his thesis Wheat Soldiers: The Wartime Wheat Campaign in Kansas, Randall Beeman reported that bank deposits in Kansas rose 50% from 1915 to 1917 while farm debt nearly doubled. Farm debt nationwide increased from $4.7 billion to $8.5 billion during the war years.
The Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska links pressure from this economic situation to the environmental situation that follows a decade later. “When commodity prices collapsed after the war, farmers had little choice but to plow more grassland to further expand crop production in hopes of repaying loans. This expansion often occurred on marginal land and it laid the groundwork for the Dust Bowl.”
A recent climatological study—also from the University of Nebraska-—adds that the expanded crop production in the Great Plains during and after the war may have actually caused the drought that teamed with expanded tillage to cause massive wind erosion. “Abnormalities in ocean temperatures—like La Niña—are widely thought to drive drought conditions, but our climatological simulations indicate there were no strong and persistent La Niña events in the 1930s,” says agricultural climatologist Qi Hu.
Instead, researchers found that 45% to 75% of grasslands had been plowed prior to the 1930s—enough to alter high and low pressure areas over the region, thus weakening the jet stream that brings moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. It seems rain didn’t really follow the plow, as promoters claimed.
Dust from the over-tilled and over-grazed farmland began blowing in 1931. The 14 dust storms in 1932 grew to 38 in 1933. A massive storm on April 14, 1935—dubbed Black Sunday—darkened the skies in Washington D.C. and lead to creation of the Soil Conservation Service the next week. A long list of conservation programs have followed and the USDA now administers nearly two dozen through NRCS and Farm Service Agency offices.
“We’ve used some of those programs to survive so that we became a century farm in 2015,” says Jared Petersille of Ness City, Kansas, who farms with his brother Travis and sister Kalyn. “There’s an old one-way plow parked in the pasture that our great grandfather would have used, but the biggest reason our farm has survived was because previous generations were diversified and always conservative,” he adds.
Tractors played a huge role in North American agriculture’s ability to answer the call for increased food production. “Introducing wheat onto thousands of acres of virgin prairie was only possible through the wholesale use of tractors,” says Beeman. “A tractor could plow 15 acres per day while a man with a four-horse team could plow only four acres.”
A study done for the Kansas Council of Defense found 3,932 tractors in the state when the U.S. entered the war in 1917. When the war ended 18 months later there were 8,689 tractors and by 1920 the number had increased to 17,177. “Journals and newspapers were choked with advertising promoting the machines and train loads of tractors were being delivered to farmers in the Great Plains,” reports Beeman.
Food fight. Even though the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917, food shipments to Europe were ramped up as early as 1914. “A campaign to send flour and corn meal to the starving population in Belgium was headed by Herbert Hoover, who would later lead the U.S. Food Administration,” says Jonathan Casey, archivist at the National World War One Museum and Memorial.
“Belgians were so grateful that they embroidered messages of thanks on the cloth shipping bags they received and sent them back to the U.S.,” he adds.
‘Food Will Win The War’ became the rallying cry of the U.S. Food Administration and 750,000 volunteers distributed leaflets and hung posters in a nationwide effort to increase production, reduce consumption and shift Americans’ eating habits without turning to strict rationing.
Wheat was a principal target of this effort because it was a preferred staple in Europe and was easy to store and transport. One of the many cook books from the Food Administration opens with a presidential call to the women of the nation: “America and her allies must not run out of wheat, meat or fats. If we let that happen, Germany will win the war.”
“Wheat flour, butter, beef and pork were all considered superior in terms of nutrition so they were being exported to our soldiers and European allies,” says Helen Viet, history professor at Michigan State University. “The U.S. Food Administration pushed fish, potatoes, chicken, peanuts and products from corn, oats and rye.”
Wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays, along with meatless Tuesdays and porkless Thursdays were dictated by the Food Administration. “For the first time people began talking about protein and learned there were other good sources besides meat. This understanding of nutrition—which was a new science at the time—still impacts food trends that are emerging today,” says Viet.
“Cottage cheese, oatmeal and peanut butter are three examples of foods whose popularity was launched by the wartime conservation efforts. Peanut butter was a big winner—peanuts were plentiful because southern farmers had given up on cotton. The technology to make smooth peanut butter had just been developed and peanut butter sandwiches made a great lunch for children in newly-mandated school programs,” she adds.
Viet, who assisted in developing a series of wartime food videos for the World War One Museum and Memorial (see War Fare online exhibition) adds that cottage cheese was a way of extending the shelf life of milk and served as a meat substitute.
Nitrogen in peace and war. On the eve of the war, German chemist Fritz Haber discovered a process to synthesize nitrate from the nitrogen gas that makes up 78% of the earth’s atmosphere. Today, the Haber-Bosch process is used to produce nitrogen for crops that feed half the world’s population, but at the time it was prized by the German government as a way to produce the black powder used in artillery shells and other explosives. After losing a naval engagement with the British early in the war, Germany’s supply of naturally occurring sodium nitrate imports from Chile were cut off. Without Haber’s discovery, the war could not have gone on for four grueling years.
Haber was also instrumental in the weaponization of chlorine and other poison gases used during the war and oversaw their first use at the Second Battle of Ypres in April, 1915. After the war there were calls for his trial as a war criminal, but instead he received the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing a source of nitrogen that has saved much of humanity from starvation.
More war carryover. When America joined the war farm labor quickly emerged as a need. Nearly 15,000 women in twenty states joined the Woman’s Land Army of America, a group fashioned after one in Britain that drew 250,000 women to farms milking cows and picking fruit to offset men serving in the military. Women in the U.S. were often affiliated with universities, such as the Jayhawk Tractor Girls of the University of Kansas.
Beeman reported on a survey of 1,000 farmers taken in November, 1917 where 604 reported being ‘short’ of help while 169 were ‘very short’. The Woman’s Land Army provided limited help, but aided women’s suffrage and the 1920 right to vote.
The war also launched county 4-H into prominence. A part of the Cooperative Extension Service created in 1914, membership in 4-H was at 169,000 in 1916. By the war’s end 500,000 members were aiding the effort by selling Liberty Bonds, gathering peach pits to make filters for gas masks and helping to increase food and fiber production. Today, six million are involved in 4-H programs. ‡
Special assistance for this article was provided by retired John Deere employee Mark Dold. Check back here to find episode 1 of our new podcast, launching this November, as we visit with Mark about The Great War and its impacts on agriculture.