Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The AAA Cotton Plow-Up Campaign in Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The AAA Cotton Plow-Up Campaign in Arkansas

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 4, 1933, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT assumed the presidency and, thus responsibility for leading the nation through its darkest economic hour. The country was entering the fourth year of a severe depression that devastated all major sectors of the U.S. economy. Cotton farmers in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South had faced hard times for over ten years, beset by the post-World War One slump in prices and natural disasters. But bad went to worse after 1929. These farmers saw their incomes plummet as cotton prices fell from 18 cents per pound in April 1929 to 6.1 cents by April 1932. Continuing production of large amounts of cotton, a drastic drop in domestic and foreign consumption, and an ever-increasing carryover of unconsumed cotton combined to produce the great price decline.1

The situation looked to get even worse as 1933 wore on. All available evidence pointed to a bumper crop that would drive cotton prices to record lows, leading very possibly to vast farm foreclosures and tenant and sharecropper displacement. Not only cotton growers would be affected by this calamity. All those individuals who were tied into the trade through the financing, ginning, shipping, and marketing of the crop would also be in great financial trouble if the cotton market collapsed. In the early 1930s, this meant a significant portion of the population of Arkansas and other southern agricultural states.

The response that Franklin Roosevelt's administration eventually developed to this crisis would epitomize the improvisational nature and complex legacy of the New Deal. The policies initiated with the 1933 plow-up of the crop would aid many Arkansas cotton growers but slighted and ultimately displaced large numbers of the state's tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In the three years preceding Roosevelt's inauguration, Herbert Hoover's administration had attempted to aid America's sluggish agricultural sector through the creation of so-called "stabilization corporations" directed by the Federal Farm Board. These corporations were set up to purchase surpluses of various farm commodities in order to temporarily remove them from the market in hopes of stabilizing prices. The Farm Board eventually purchased some 3.4 million bales of cotton before its appropriations ran out. The Board's actions, however, succeeded only in temporarily holding prices. In the end, the Farm Board failed because no effort was made to control production beyond pleas for voluntary reductions in acreage. When the Farm Board began to liquidate some of its holdings and put more cotton back on the market prices declined even further.2

During the "First Hundred Days" of his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt's administration pushed through Congress a farm bill that included a provision creating the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA-a new government agency placed within the Department of Agriculture. The AAA was charged with the responsibility of boosting farm prices by subsidizing decreased production.3

The AAA's chief weapon would be the "Voluntary Domestic Allotment Plan" perfected by Montana State College agricultural economics professor Milburn Lincoln "M. L." Wilson. According to Wilson's plan, the government would enter into voluntary contracts with producers of numerous agricultural commodities to reduce production by decreasing acreage in cultivation. As an incentive to join the program, the government would compensate all cooperating producers who agreed to decrease their output.4

The AAA needed to act hurriedly to aid American farmers. Because Roosevelt was not inaugurated until early March, and Congress then took two long months to debate various details of the farm bill, the president did not sign the Agricultural Adjustment Act until May 12. This delay was an added burden on the AAA to quickly fill its bureaucratic positions and to develop a workable cotton reduction program for the South after most of the region's crop had already been planted. …

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