As the war approached, it got worse for farmers before it got better. Then it got very good.
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the world – almost every country except the U.S. – was at war. Agricultural exports dropped as German submarines, known as U-boats, were sinking U.S. ships to England and Europe. Farming exports fell 30 to 40 percent below the average of the ten depression years that preceded the war. Grain exports, for example, fell 30 percent in one year between September 1939 and 1940.
But there was real hunger in Europe and Asia. After Germany occupied Norway, the daily caloric intake of the average Norwegian went from 2,500 calories down to only 1,500 a day. Before the war ended, the average Norwegian could only find enough food for 1,237 calories a day. The heartland of America was about the only major agricultural area still in full production.
The United States responded. First, the U.S. decided to send its destroyers to hunt the U-Boats and keep shipping lanes open. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act of 1940. That program was essentially an export program for farmers. The government bought food commodities that had been in surplus before the war and shipped them to the Allies.
By the end of 1941, farm income was higher than at any time since 1929. Between 1940 and 1945, net cash income for farmers increased from $4.4 billion to $12.3 billion. The average farmer went from a net income of just over $700 to over $2,063 – yet farmers still earned only 57 percent of what their urban cousins made.
When the U.S. officially entered the war, the need for food increased even more. Soldiers could fight only as long as they had food to fuel their bodies. So, farmers were exhorted to produce even more.
For example, Hormel had introduced the canned meat product Spam in the 1930s. It proved to be an ideal combat ration because it could be shipped easily and wouldn’t spoil for long periods of time. By mid-war, Hormel was producing 15 million cans of Spam for the troops each week. Net sales doubled. Hormel was buying 1.6 million hogs each year, and 90 percent of the canned goods were going to the military.
Farmers were being asked to produce much more food with fewer workers, and in addition, they had to comply with a whole new set of regulations.
- To buy a tractor, the farmer dealt with the War Production Board that was more interested in steel for tanks than steel for tractors.
- To ship products to market, there were regulations to be met from the Office of Defense Transportation.
- Farm labor problems were handled by the War Manpower Commission.
- And the prices farmers got were set by Congress and Office of Price Administration.
- The War Food Administration handled USDA programs.
What had begun in the Depression as modest price support programs were now institutionalized, and farmers were becoming more and more dependent on the federal government.