Farm Security Administration (1937)

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In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt discussed the struggle of the American farmer: “Farming has not had an even break in our economic system.  The things that our farmers buy today cost 9 percent more than they did before the World War in 1914.  The things they sell bring them 43 percent less than then… [this means] that the farm dollar is worth less than half of what it represented before the war” [1].  Long-term falling prices fell off a cliff in the Great Depression, and the Roosevelt Administration’s primary response was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which aimed to limit output to raise prices in the face of weak demand.

American farmers were plagued by a host of chronic problems.  Machinery was displacing labor, both family and hired (popularly known as being “tractored out”); credit was needed to buy machinery and inputs, but loans with reasonable interest rates were hard to find; bad harvests and falling prices could bring bankruptcy; electricity service was almost non-existent; poor planting and harvest methods caused a great loss of soil; many farms were on land that was unsuitable for profitable agriculture; small family farmers kept losing ground to large, modern farm enterprises;  and tenant farmers had little power, few rights and fewer prospects, especially in the South.

Once in office, President Roosevelt, his administrators, and Congress addressed these problems by creating and implementing a group of new farm programs, such as the Soil Conservation Service, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Resettlement Administration.  The latter was replaced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) on September 1, 1937 [2].

Low-interest credit was a major way the FSA assisted farmers.  Unsecured “rural rehabilitation loans” allowed farm families to purchase “operating goods – tools, seed, feed, equipment, livestock” [3].  As of 1941, these loans averaged $500 (about $11,000 in 2022 dollars) and could be repaid up to 5 years at 5% interest [4].  By 1946 (the last year of FSA’s existence), 893,000 families had borrowed $1 billion [5].  Also by 1946, 70% of the total amount lent—loans that had been approved “on the basis of faith” [6]—had been repaid, and half of all loans repaid in full [7].

Another FSA credit program was the “tenant purchase loan” (sometimes called the “farm ownership loan”), made possible by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937.  These loans were made to “capable tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers to enable them to buy family-type farms of their own” [8].  They could be repaid at 3% interest over 40 years [9].  During fiscal year 1941, these loans averaged $5,600 (about $114,000 in 2022 dollars) for farms averaging 133 acres.  From 1937 to 1946, the FSA made 41,000 tenant purchase loans, totaling $260 million [10].

The FSA had other helpful programs, including help for tenant farmers with leases; assistance with renegotiating private sector debt and avoiding foreclosure; grants for extremely impoverished families; farming and safety instruction; financing to create co-ops; water facility loans (for reservoirs, wells, pumps, etc.); homestead projects (i.e., new communities) for farm families living on submarginal land; migratory labor camps; healthcare; and defense housing and food production during World War II.  The FSA’s best-remembered program is its photography project, which sent out Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and others to capture the scenes and struggles of rural America.

The FSA was of great benefit to those who received help.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (a modern descendant of the FSA) highlights a study “[estimating] that families who participated in FSA programs saw their incomes rise by 69 percent between 1937 and 1941!  Annual per capita meat consumption increased from 85 pounds to 447 pounds in the same period.  Milk consumption increased by more than half” [11].

Unfortunately, there were hundreds of thousands of farm families that the FSA could not help, due largely to an “insufficiency of rehabilitation funds” [12].  Programs to aid small farmers and tenants had an uphill battle against the harsh reality of general overproduction and falling prices, the drive for still higher productivity, the need for credit and the debt trap, and more.  Along with those came the advantages of large farms and their disproportionate influence on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture; hence, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, with its benefits largely going towards bigger farms, was more successful than the underfunded FSA [13].

In the latter part of 1946, the FSA was replaced by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA).  In 1994-1995, FmHA was replaced by the Farm Service Agency.


(1) “Campaign Address in Topeka, Kansas on the Farm Problem, September 14, 1932,” American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed April 18, 2023). FDR was citing USDA statistics.  (2) Report of the Administrator of the Farm Security Administration, 1938, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938, p. 1.  (3) Report of the Administrator of the Farm Security Administration, 1941, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941, p. 8.  (4) Ibid.  (5) Postwar Developments in Farm Security: The Annual Report of the Farm Security Administration for 1945-46, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1946, p. 7.  (6) See note 3, emphasis added.  (7) See note 5.  (8) See note 3, p. 17.  (9) Ibid. (10) See note 5, p. 9 and Appendix, Table II.  (11) “History of USDA’s Farm Service Agency,” Farm Service Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture (accessed April 18, 2023).  (12) See note 3, p. 9.  And for a comprehensive and critical evaluation of the FSA, see: Charles Kenneth Roberts, The Farm Security Administration and Rural Rehabilitation in the South, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015; on the losing battle within the USDA to help small farmers and tenant farmers, see Sarah Phillips, This Land, This Nation: Conservation, Rural America, and the New Deal, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.  (13) On the dynamics of US agriculture, see Willard Cochrane, The Development of American Agriculture, University of Minnesota Press, 1979; Glenn Johnson and Leroy Quance, The Overproduction Trap in U.S. Agriculture: A Study of Resource Allocation from World War I to the Late 1960s, New York: Routledge, 2013; Paul Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture Since 1929, Lexington KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2008.

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