A 1930s Balance Sheet

One Farmer’s 1930s Balance Sheet

What was it like to live on wages of a dollar-a-day – or less? What did it cost to buy gas for your Model T or Model A car? If you were farming, what did it cost to buy a team of horses or some new-fangled hybrid seed corn? Were these hybrids going to be worth it when your seed before was free, picked from your own fields?

OpitzIf you look through an account book from the time – like Millie Opitz’s father-in-law’s account books – you might be able to tell. “He kept track of everything,” Millie says. In those details, we can now see what daily life was like during the Depression. In 1928, before the Depression, Otto Opitz was fairly well off, earning over $2,500 that year. By 1933, his income dropped to $430 for the year. The next year, the national per capita average income was only $375. So, on the face of it, it looks like Otto was doing all right. But that $430 was income before accounting for the cost of farming. When those expenses are taken into account, he lost money in 1933.

In 1928, Otto spent around $2,000 for farm and living expenses, leaving him with a profit of $500 for the year. Four years later, with little money coming in, he cut back on spending, totalling only $735 in expenses. Still that left him with a net loss of more than $300.

Looking at the monthly figures can give us some idea of the pattern of economic life on the farm. There were three months in 1932 when Otto recorded no income at all. In the years before and after the Depression, he faithfully totaled up each month’s and year’s figures. But he stopped adding up the figures during the mid-30s.

1928 Income

1932 Income

Cream Sales for full year
$ 105.90
Cream Sales for full year
$ 6.45
Egg Sales for full year
Egg Sales for full year
Wheat, in March sold 614 bushels @ $1.21/bu. & Sept. 205 bu @ .84/bu.
Wheat, in May sold 226 bushels @ $.42/bu.
Corn, in August sold 435.5 bushels @ .83/bu.
Corn, in August sold 901 bushels @ .25 and .26/bu.
Livestock, throughout the year he sold a steer, 26 hogs, an “old cow” and bull calf.
Livestock, in July he sold one bull
“Western land rent” on wheat land Otto owned near Hayes Center, Nebraska, in Dec.
“Western land rent” in March
1928 Major Farm Expenses 1932 Major Farm Expenses
Total taxes on “Home Place,” Hayes Co. land, & personal property.


Total taxes on Hayes Co. land, “town property,” and home place.
Equipment, in Feb. a wagon and “evener” probably a grader.
Two teams of horses, in Jan., plus harness and “covers.”
In Aug. “New Whippet car.”
In Aug. “Paid Machinery Note, and on Horse Note.”
In July, Threshing Bill
(No threshing bill indicated.)
Various expenses including posts, woven wire, barrel, coal tar, railroad fares and roofing
In April, “Lister Share” (plow) from Montgomery Ward catalog

In December 1928, Otto also spent $64.64 to order a radio from the Montgomery Ward catalog – possibly as a Christmas gift for the family. In the same year that a car cost him a total of $576, the radio was a significant expense.

HankelLeRoy Hankel remembers what it was like to live on a dollar-a-day. “You could buy a lot of groceries for a dollar,” Leroy says. But he was not willing to buy things on credit. “Whatever money you got, that’s all we’re going to spend.”

LeRoy and other farmers probably didn’t want to buy things on credit because they had seen what happened to debtors when hard times hit. They had seen the foreclosure sales when farmers could no longer make their payments.

In fact, throughout the decade of the 30s, more and more farmers had to sell out and become tenant farmers again – working the land that the bank or someone else owned.

  • In 1930, 52 percent of the farmers in Nebraska owned their own land.
  • By 1940, less than 47 percent of them did.

The rest of rural America saw similar declines in ownership.

SchmittOne of the things that affected a farmer’s bottom line a lot was transportation. From the time that European settlers began moving west on, agricultural produce was most often sold to the hungry people in the nation’s cities to the east and west. Railroads had been the usual way to move grain and cattle to market. But that changed during the 30s. Walter Schmitt remembers how the trucks took over as more and more roads were built.

DueAs transportation systems grew, more and more American agricultural products were sold all around the world. Carla Due knew that world events had a direct impact on her family’s farm.

Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.

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