Storing The Bounty

crops_0601As farmers continued to increase their productivity in the postwar years, they began to find that they were producing more than domestic markets and even war-ravaged Europe and Asia could consume. Farmers were growing more than they could sell. Yet, the government continued to keep prices for basic ag commodities high.

In 1948, farmers were still a powerful block of voters, and Pres. Harry Truman reminded farmers that the last Republican administration – Hoover’s in 1932 – had given them “15-cent corn and 3-cent hogs.” In his best give-’em-hell campaign style, Truman said the Republicans had “stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” Truman, and many key members of Congress, won on the farm vote.

So, when Congress began rewriting the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, the 1949 law continued the policy of fixed price supports at 90 percent of “parity” for staple crops, dairy products, hogs, chickens and eggs. In other words, the government guaranteed a certain price through loans to farmers. If the market price fell below the loan rate, farmers turned their commodities over to the federal government rather than pay their loan debts. Government elevators and warehouses filled up with wheat, corn, cotton, dairy products and other commodities through the Commodity Credit Corporation.

In the meantime, individual farmers began to their own on-farm storage systems. Many farmers in the Midwest would feed their cattle fodder or silage – coarsely chopped corn stalks, leaves and ears that was often stored in silos. The basic silo design goes back to Native Americans who dug corn cellars, lined them with stone and ash, filled them with green crops and covered the structures with slopped beams and thatch. Immigrant Midwestern farmers built their first aboveground tower silos in the 1870s out of wood, and later brick, tile, or cinderblocks.

Then, after World War II, the A. O. Smith Company from Wisconsin designed silos made of rounded metal panels lined with fiberglass. These were one of the first silo designs to be unloaded from an auger at the bottom rather than a fork from the top. The familiar “Harvestore” blue towers dotted the landscape.

After the war, many farmers on the plains began using a horizontal silage system. Trenches were dug out and lined with concrete. Green grass or corn fodder was loaded in and the top was covered with huge sheets of plastic – another technology from the war – and weighed down with used tires.

crops_06For decades, the corncrib had been a fixture on corn belt farmsteads. Loosely framed with spaces between slates on the walls, the crib allowed air to pass through and dry the corn still on the cob. Cribs had to be narrow to allow the air to pass through the cobs. As the farmer needed corn to feed his or her cattle or pigs, the corn would be shelled, the kernels ground and fed to the livestock. Then in the spring, the cobs would be shelled and the kernels sold for cash. The cobs went into a cob bin for use in cooking and heating stoves.

Yet, even when the harvest went into commercial elevators in town, storage was a problem. Elevators would routinely have to keep one silo in the cluster empty so that, one or more times a year, grain could be rotated from one silo to another. This “turning” process would introduce air back into the grain and prevent heat buildup that could spoil the crop.

But in the 1940s, scientists at land grant colleges came up with ways to run aeration tubes into elevators and other storage facilities and hook those to ventilating fans. In the 50s, commercial storage elevators began installing fans and aeration units.

When corn combines came in during the 1950s, the aeration technology was ready to allow farmers to build their own corn storage bins with aeration units that kept the grain good until the most profitable market conditions arrived.

schmidtSo storage technology maintained in good condition all the surpluses that farmers in the 40s were producing.

For a time after the war, Gordon Schmidt and John Steingard augmented their irrigation well business when a few wet years hit by building grain bins for the government. “One of the principles of the government,” Gordon says, “is cheap food in this country. And we have it.”

It was not until the Korean War began in June 1950, that the surplus problem was temporarily solved. Demand for agricultural commodities increased and farm prices rose again. The Commodity Credit Corporation was able to dispose of most of the surpluses in their elevators.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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