The American colonies were primarily driven by agriculture. The alternatives, such as mining, manufacturing, and fishing, did not support large populations in the early years. Early agriculture can be separated into two main categories -- plantation farming with slaves and small free farmers.
Plantations were a feature of the South and concentrated on two crops, tobacco and cotton. Tobacco was the first big cash crop in the American colonies, but the price was uncertain and tobacco is notorious for wearing out soil. Cotton became the mainstay of southern plantation agriculture after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney.
After the Civil War liberated the slaves, the plantation system was replaced with sharecroppers, who did not own their land and paid "rent" in the form of a share of the harvest.
For cities to grow, farmers must produce a food surplus beyond what the farmer needs to sustain himself and his family. The industrial and transportation revolutions of the early 19th century enabled western farmers, using new machinery like the McCormick reaper, to reach Eastern markets through railroads and canals.
Farmers have often felt themselves victimized by banks, railroads, other large interests. Various organizations have grown up over the years, including the Granger movement after the Civil War, to advocate for the farmers.
Congress wanted to see land in the new west settled and turned into farms, so it passed a series of Homestead Acts beginning in 1860. The first Homestead Act offered to sell land to farmers at 25 cents an acre, but was vetoed by President Buchanan. In 1862, as the Civil War raged, Congress passed another Homestead Act which was signed by Abraham Lincoln. It offered the land for free for those who would cultivate it for a certain period of time. The act was revised several times by later Congresses.
Improvements in the science of agriculture opened the door to farmers who would apply the new techniques to their own farms, but many resisted and preferred to remain with their traditional methods. Writing in Century Magazine in 1916, Carl Vrooman, assistant secretary of agriculture under Wilson, wrote:
During the last three years, for the
first time in its history, the Department
of Agriculture has had at its head an econ-
omist. Under the direction of Secretary
Houston it has achieved a new point of
view and a new conception of its mission.
For half a century the department has
used its utmost endeavors to show the
farmer how to fight the chinch-bug and
the army-worm, the cattle tick and the
Hessian fly and other insect pests, but had
not even so much as attempted to show
him how to protect himself from the
yearly toll levied upon the fruits of his
toil by such human pests as the usurer,
commercial pirates posing as legitimate
middlemen, and the other business para-
sites of the agricultural world.
Farmers did not share in the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. The peak of agriculture prosperity came during World War I, when wartime demands for food raised prices strongly. In the years following the war, American farmers were plagued with overproduction as European countries resumed their normal agriculture output, and prices were depressed throughout the decade.
Bad times turned worse for farmers along with other Americans during the Great Depression. In an effort to reverse the decline, the Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed by Congress on May 10, 1933. Its objective was to control overproduction and raise prices.
At the same time, another trend was causing concern. Desperate Americans were turning back to the land and attempting to convert failed farmland to productive agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, would warn that, "A tragic number of city families are reoccupying abandoned farms, farms on which born farmers, skilled, patient, and accustomed to doing with very little, were unable to make a go of it. In consequence of this backflow, there are now 32 million people on the farms of the United States, the greatest number ever record in our history. Some of those who have returned to farming will find their place there, but most of them, I fear, will not."
Walter Lippmann, writing in 1934, observed that the simplistic view that aid to farmers would soften them and damage their self-reliance was disconnected from reality. "If the virtues and values of individualism and self-reliance are to be preserved, we must not put upon the individual person burdens that are greater than he can by self-reliance carry. This is the surest way to kill individualism: by making it intolerable.