Iowa Public Television


The 1970s See Good Times in Agriculture

posted on October 10, 2013

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This segment is part of the The Farm Crisis documentary, which examines the tragic circumstances faced by farmers for most of the 1980s, when thousands were forced into bankruptcy, land values dropped by one-third nationally, and sky-high interest rates turned successes into failures seemingly overnight. 

In the post-World War II era, farmers witnessed revolutionary advances in agricultural technology -- new machinery, seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, resulting in greater efficiency, greater productivity.  During the 1950s and 60s, American agriculture's biggest problem was what to do with the huge surpluses of grain.  All that changed in the 1970s as the massive stockpiles were drawn down, sometimes to precariously low levels.  As a result, commodity prices rose.  Then in the early 1970s, poor weather conditions results in diminished yields overseas.  Demand for U.S. agricultural products exploded.  The Soviet Union negotiated a multiyear contract for wheat and feed grains in 1972.  And within a span of two years, wheat priced doubled, corn prices tripled.  Suddenly, America's unprecedented ability to produce food looked more like a blessing than  a burden.  And there was serious talk that the U.S. would not be able to keep up.

In 1973, President Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz responded by calling upon American farmers to plant "fencerow to fencerow," and he told them "to get big or get out."  Producers took his words to heart and the race to feed the world was on.  With production in high gear and prices continuing to climb, 1973 and '74 were prosperous years in rural America.  And for the first time since record-keeping began, per capita farm income actually exceeded that of urban Americans.  Life was good.

November 15, 1976 -- "Finished combining corn tonight.  The new bin is full.  We really feel for the first time there is enough money for everything.  The bills are getting paid.  The farm is half paid for. -- Farm wife, southern Iowa.

Tags: agriculture documentaries farm farm crisis farmers international Iowa