Farmers go on strike to protest low prices.
Source: Scott Molloy Labor Archives
Farmers go on strike to protest low prices. Source: Scott Molloy Labor Archives

In summer 1932, sections of the Midwest experienced militant and sometimes violent responses to an intensifying agricultural crisis.

Grain farmers denounced futures markets and the ineffectual policies of President Herbert Hoover. Dairy and livestock farmers revolted when unregulated spot markets savaged their returns on investment.

Hog farmers needed to realize 11 cents on the pound to earn back the cost of pork production, but prevailing prices in June 1932 were 3 cents a pound. Feed-corn farms spent 92 cents to plant and harvest a bushel selling for 10 cents, and dairymen spent 62 cents for a pound of butterfat selling for 18 cents. Meanwhile, Iowa dairies delivered milk to bottlers at 2 cents a quart, which milk consumers then purchased at a fourfold markup.

The organization at the center of the farmer uprisings was Milo Reno’s Farmers’ Holiday Association. As John Shover wrote in “The Farmers’ Holiday Association Strike," “If banks could do it, why shouldn’t farmers call a `holiday' where corn and meat and milk would be kept at home” until prices rose?

In Iowa, Reno announced a voluntary strike to start July 4, but the plan fizzled when prices improved in late June.

A greater problem for activists was “the inertia of the farm population,” the New York Times reported. Farmers were geographically scattered, locally focused and often individualistic. Still, when prices tailed off, calls to “hold corn, hold hogs, hold everything” intensified.

Some farmers withheld their products, but others hauled them to market. In Iowa, solidarity was mostly rhetorical. Reno urged quiet perseverance, but furious strikers commenced picketing, blocking roads, issuing threats and manhandling those attempting to penetrate the “selling holiday blockade,” the Times reported.

After more than 2,000 farmers picketed the seven highways into town, Sioux City police deputized “100 unemployed men to guard the highways against any outbreaks of violence,” the New York Times reported. Within two weeks, the strike crumbled as prices continued to fall, but the message of rural resistance percolated into Nebraska, the Dakotas, Illinois and Minnesota.

The movement’s only success story emerged from Iowa’s dairies, whose owners poured thousands of gallons of milk into ditches rather than accept brutally low prices. They prevailed because, unlike corn, milk was highly perishable, and supplies replenished daily (not seasonally) and were costly to ship long distances.

Distributors couldn't replace their regional network of farmers, who acted together through the Sioux City Milk Producers Association. They won a near doubling of the delivered price to 3.6 cents a quart, yielding a 1 cent increase to consumers.

The holiday spawned “a direct action movement of a magnitude seldom equaled in the history of farmer protests,” but its appeals motivated only a tiny fragment of America’s rural population, Shover wrote. Still, one of Reno’s oft-repeated arguments resonated in the coming years: “Restore the farmers’ purchasing power and you have re-established an endless chain of prosperity.”

Fixing agriculture soon became a major priority for presidential contenders as the 1932 campaign opened.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net.