Tenant Farmers “Tractored Out”
Before tractors, there were limits to farming. Farming with horses meant that you could only work until the horses got tired. Days in the field were limited to eight to 10 hours. Somewhere around five acres per horse had to be set aside simply to grow the food for that horse. So there was a practical limit to the size that a farm could be.
With a tractor, a farmer could do two, three, even five times as much work in the same time. To put it another way, tractors allowed a farmer to farm up to five times as much ground as he or she could with horses. One ad claimed that “One Case Tractor Replaces 12 Horses.”
Yet, tractors were expensive. To afford a tractor, a farmer had to produce much more – which meant farming more ground. These technological and economic realities produced a new social reality, farmers who were forced to get bigger or to get out.
Farmers who didn’t own the land they farmed – known as tenants – were often “tractored out.” Before tractors, landowners often had several farmers renting a given parcel of land, farming with horses. When the New Deal agricultural programs began sending checks to land owners, some used the money to buy tractors, then rented them to one of their tenants and told the others they were no longer needed.
The problem was recognized and another New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, was set up to help tenant farmers.
In other cases, the process was subtler. Farmers who had high debts when the Depression hit were forced to sell out. Their neighbors who might be slightly better off, bought the land and became bigger.
The result was the same. By the end of the 1930s, there were fewer farmers and those who were left were farming more land.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.