FSA Cooperative Farmsteads
Cooperative homesteads was one of the more ambitious and controversial programs of the Farm Security Administration. The agency’s head was Rexford Tugwell, a visionary economist and planner. He was also one of Roosevelt’s original “brain trusters” advising the president on economic and policy questions. He believed in the emerging cooperative movement as a way of promoting neighborliness and civic engagement.
As one of its four main programs, the FSA built series of cooperative homesteads. In the east, these projects took city people on relief and resettled them into planned communities, like Greenbelt, Maryland, or into cooperative subsistence farms. This was an early back-to-the-land movement.
In the west, the homesteads became cooperative “farmsteads.” Nebraska’s FSA built about 10 farmsteads in places like Waterloo, Falls City, Loup City, Kearney, Fairbury, and Scottsbluff. Six to 10 families who had been on relief were resettled in each of those areas. They built their own houses, planted gardens and began cooperative businesses.
Harvey Taft was a farmsteader in Falls City. He remembers that 10 families moved onto 517 acres and began growing vegetables. After about four years, the vegetable business wasn’t doing well, so the government reorganized the farmstead into a non-stock cooperative growing more traditional crops.
“But the other men didn’t co-op with me,” Harvey said. “They wouldn’t help me when the hay needed put up, they didn’t help shock the grain. I blew up. I said, ‘I’m done with this co-op.’ But some big shots came here and they wanted to sell me a farm out of this. So I told my wife, I says, ‘We’d better just stay right here.’ And we stayed.”
Harvey was able to live out his life on the farm and sell it to his son Cleo.
The cooperative farmsteads had critics among people who thought that the New Deal was going too far towards socialism. Most of the farmsteads and homesteads were liquidated in the 40s. But Greenbelt, Maryland, still exists as a cooperative community.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.