As cold winds start to blow across what once was prairie, this farmer’s daughter thinks of that long, bitter winter so long ago. The winter when farmers sent a message to Washington….by driving their tractors there.
FARMERS IN 1977
had a problem: they were
going broke. Crop prices tanked.
Expenses soared for tractors,
fuel, and land. “When a bushel of wheat
costs me $3.20 cents to
raise and the selling price is
around $2.40, something
is wrong,” said Fred Bartels,
a Colorado farmer.
To survive, farmers got
At Thanksgiving in 1977, 20,000 farmers descended on Plains, Georgia, the home town of then president Jimmy Carter. The current farm policy was a mess that Carter had inherited from previous administrations.
Two weeks later, 100,000 tractors showed up at state capitols with farmers trying to once again to make their point. Crop prices were unfair. Family farms were disappearing.
They’d been incented to overproduce, plant “fence row to fence row.” They’d been told to “get big or get out” by Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture from 1971-1976. So they’d taken out loans to buy equipment, land, and seed. But then bumper crops made prices fall precipitously. Farmers used to be guaranteed parity, a way to ensure they were paid what it took to produce a crop and to earn enough to make a living wage. But no longer.
A year passed, and the situation didn’t improve. No one was listening. In January 1979, Farmers decided to take their tractorcades to Washington DC. This book tells the true story of that event and the roots of the American Agriculture Movement.
Photos from that event brought back so many memories. Tractors on The Mall, at the Lincoln Memorial, and in front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (As far as I’m concerned, the USDA is really anti-agriculture, pro-agriculture conglomerates, and pro-middleman, something reflected in each new version of the Farm Bill that comes up for renewal every handful of years.)
The story would not be complete without photos and a description of Farm Aid, where singers like Willie Nelson helped raise money to support farmers who were going bankrupt and the American Agriculture Movement’s lobbying efforts.
The book culminates in a significant milestone: the passage of the Agriculture Credit Act in 1987, a bill that helped farmers (at least temporarily) stay on their land.
The author, Lindsay Metcalf, does a terrific job of telling the story of how farmers have struggled to have their voices heard. And they’re still struggling. I would argue that true family farmers have grown even more scarce since the American Agriculture Movement was established in 1977. But I’m encouraged by community supported agriculture, farmer’s markets, and organic farming gaining ground in some areas.
However, when it comes to commodities, you should watch the film King Corn, and you’ll find out just how sad and bad the situation is. What to do with all that corn? Turn it into high fructose corn syrup, and watch the health of the average American decline. And if you take a look at the American Agriculture Movement’s current website, you may find disturbing information about what’s really going on in agriculture today. There is hope via the National Family Farm Coalition…But I digress.
This book is a tribute to farmers, how hard they work, how little government has listened, and how they’re willing to help even those who diss them, something that the people of Washington DC discovered when a blizzard brought vehicles in DC to a halt—except for the tractors.
Although the book is upbeat (and the back matter’s timeline shows that the farm crisis officially “ended” in 1990), much remains to be done to help support family farmers AND to promote organic farming.
All farmers want is what’s fair, and is that really too much for them to ask? After all, we’d starve without them.
Make a protest poster showing a “tractorcade”
Watch the movie King Corn
Pair this book with The Farm That Feeds Us by Nancy Castaldo
Title: Farmers Unite!
Author: Lindsey Metcalf
Publisher: Calkins Creek, Boyds Mill Kane, 2020
Themes: farming, protests, U.S. history
Ages: grades 2nd-6th
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.