Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (1937)

President Roosevelt signed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (hereafter, “Farm Tenant Act”) on July 22, 1937. The purpose of the law was to provide long-term loans to farm tenants and sharecroppers, to provide short-term loans to other farmers for “livestock, equipment and supplies,” and to purchase land no longer fit for agricultural use and then utilize that land for other, more suitable purposes [1].

Much of the Farm Tenant Act merely codified programs that were already occurring under emergency relief acts and the Resettlement Administration. It was the promotion of farm ownership that was the truly novel aspect of this legislation [2].

For years, farm tenants and sharecroppers had complained that they were being left out of New Deal relief and recovery efforts. They were particularly angered by New Deal agricultural stabilization programs that seemed to benefit landowners and large farms, but not them. Many tenants and sharecroppers had been forced to leave farming to seek out jobs in cities and towns. Eventually, the plight of tenants and sharecroppers became a bipartisan issue, with both Democrats and Republicans campaigning on the issue for the 1936 elections. It was U.S. Senator John H. Bankhead (D-Ala.), who had been working diligently on the problem since 1935, who crafted a (partial) solution [3].

Working with Congressman Marvin Jones (D-Tex.) and the House and Senate agriculture committees, Bankhead finally saw his vision of farm ownership for tenants and sharecroppers come to fruition with the Farm Tenant Act. For those eligible, the law provided for loans that could be repaid over a 40-year period, at a low 3% interest rate, and with payments that could vary based on the strength of a particular year’s crop [4]. The act created a “Farmers’ Home Corporation” to help carry out the provisions of the law, but in late 1937 the Secretary of Agriculture gave the responsibility to the newly-formed Farm Security Administration (FSA), successor to the Resettlement Administration [5].

The legacy of the Farm Tenant Act is mixed. It was never adequately funded. According to the FSA’s first annual report in 1938, $9,500,000 was available for farm ownership loans, but with 38,000 loan applications received, “there were more than 100 applications for each loan that could be made” [6]. The FSA received more funding in subsequent years [7]. At the end of fiscal year 1941, it reported a total of 20,748 borrowers since the program’s start: “These borrowers are widely scattered throughout the United States in areas where tenancy is most prevalent, farm population is heaviest, and good farm land is available at reasonable prices. The size of the average tenant purchase farm is about 133 acres and the average loan has been approximately $5,600. About 20 applications have been received for every loan that the [FSA] has been able to make…” [8].

The Farm Tenant Act and the FSA would prove to be one of the most beneficial New Deal programs for African Americans, assisting many with low interest loans and farm ownership [9]. Of course, discrimination, particularly in the south, prevented the programs from reaching their full potential. Ultimately, “By 1943 the program had lost most of its funding and three years later was revamped into a weak and short-lived Farmers’ Home Administration” [10].

Sources: (1) James G. Maddox, “The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act,” Law and Contemporary Problems, 1937, p. 446 http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=lcp, accessed August 23, 2015. (2) Ibid., generally. (3) Ibid. (4) See the Farm Tenant Act, Title I section 3(b) and Title IV section 48, at http://www.fs.fed.us/grasslands/resources/documents/primer/App_G_Bankhead-Jones_Act.pdf (accessed August 23, 2015). (5) Ibid., and “Report of the Administrator of the Farm Security Administration, 1938,” p. 1 (available at hathitrust.org). It appears that the Farm Security Administration either supplanted or supplemented the Farmers’ Home Corporation – see page 2 of the annual report. (6) See previous note, 1938 report, p. 12. (7) See, e.g., note 4 above, at Title III section 34. (8) “Report of the Administrator of the Farm Security Administration, 1941,” p. 17, emphasis added (available at hathitrust.org). (9) See, e.g., Debra A. Reid, Reaping a Greater Harvest: African Americans, the Extension Service, and Rural Reform in Jim Crow Texas, Texas A&M University Press, 2007, p. 133., and Paul Finkelman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 190. (10) “Farm Security Administration,” Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401801471.html, accessed August 23, 2015, and “Records of the Farmers Home Administration,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/096.html#96.1, accessed August 23, 2015.