9.12.2015

Winning Supply Management
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 3 (Part 2)

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 3 (Part 2):
Winning Supply Management - A New Deal for Agriculture, 1933-1945

Summary (continued from previous post):

Despite requirements for planters (land owners) to share AAA price support payments with tenants and sharecroppers - the people actually growing food - many planters refused to do so.  Divisions arose within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (the administrative arm of the AAA)  as to whether "rural reform" should be a goal.  In particular, Oscar Johnston and Cully Cobb, respectively the Finance Division and Cotton Section heads, "had significant ties to southern planters.  The primary focus of these conservative agrarians was raising farm prices through production controls; rural reform was largely absent from the agenda."  {In other words, the white landowners and their pals had no interest in creating equity for poor and black farmworkers.}

Maps are really interesting y'all...
A group of "urban liberals" within the Administration, headed by the Undersecretary of Agriculture and the Administration's general counsel, argued for tenants and sharecroppers, pushing for payment sharing and even land redistribution so that the workers could access subsidies and become self-sustaining.  Outside the Administration, the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union (STFU) was formed by socialist organizers.  "[T]heir efforts were met with violence and intimidation.  Administration members' "contacts in the South told them that [STFU] were Communists trying to start uprisings among black tenants and croppers."  Though the urban liberals made a valiant attempt to support sharecroppers and tenants, they quickly lost their jobs in the administration for it.

"Despite the liberal purge, legislation in 1938 required landowners to share AAA payments with tenants and sharecroppers.  Following this legislation, however, planters frequently expelled tenants from their land and hired croppers and tenants as wage laborers, who had no legal claim to federal farm subsidies.  In this way, the planters won the battle over the distribution of AAA payments.  Here again, supply management policy, centered on price supports and production controls, solidified its position as the core of the U.S. agricultural policy.  Ironically, as Chapter 5 explains, this policy ultimately undermined the very system that planters and conservative agrarians fought to protect: the southern plantation system."

In 1941, the AAA was amended to include 14 additional crops, and increased support levels for the basic commodities.  These were raised again in 1942.  Cotton supports were further raised in 1945, by which time supports were being provided by a whopping 166 commodities (up from the original six).  Interestingly, these increases occurred while "wartime demand solved the problems that farmers had faced during the previous two decades."  Concurrently, all efforts toward "rural reform" - the support of poor small farms, sharecroppers, and tenants - dissolved.

Discussion:

Until now, I had no idea of the level of structural racism that has been built into U.S. agricultural policy.  Given the history of U.S. agriculture (read: slavery), this cannot be a surprise.  Structural racism was present in many policies of that time, as is indicated by a bit of an offhand comment Winders makes early in the chapter: "[T]he Social Security Act of 1935 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1937 both explicitly excluded agricultural workers.  As a result, most southern blacks were effectively excluded from these federal policies."

A Louisiana sharecropper, 1939
After Africans and their descendants were emancipated from slavery, many turned to sharecropping and tenant farming - a way to put already obtained skills to use to support themselves.  Sharecropping was nearly always a life of poverty and debt.  While many sharecroppers were white, nearly all black people in the South worked in agriculture as they were not permitted to work in other industries.  Winders notes that "neither tenant farmers nor sharecroppers had much access to voting," and that "planters tended to dominate the local committees administering the AAA, while tenants were largely excluded from representation."  The subtext here is that while nearly all planters were white and wealthy, sharecroppers and tenants were all poor and many were black.

The "urban liberals" within the AAA Administration literally lost their jobs when they tried to take action on behalf of the poor and black.  Black people were first legally and then illegally prevented from voting, meaning that they could have no influence on their representatives in Local, State, or Federal Government.  Blacks were also not allowed into meetings of white men.  The legacy of this outright denial - at the hands of the government and of powerful whites - of the right to work and be paid for work is still clearly visible in the abject poverty of so many communities of color in the South today.

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