John F. Kennedy probably knew less about agriculture than any presidential candidate before him when he ran for the presidency in 1960. After all, he was from Boston with a wealthy stockbroker for a father. But, on the other hand, one of his closest advisors was Ted Sorensen whose father had been born in a Nebraska sod house. Perhaps Ted was the influence that caused JFK to declare during the campaign, “The family farm should remain the backbone of American agriculture… [and] the decline in agricultural income is the number one domestic problem in the United States.”
The policy differences between Kennedy and his Republican opponent Richard Nixon couldn’t have been more stark. Kennedy proposed paying farmers an income that would equal their urban colleagues by imposing a system of mandatory production or marketing controls. Nixon thought the surplus would end in a few years that that farmers should “operate in free markets with a minimum of [government] aid.” Kennedy promised “full parity income for farmers by balancing production and consumption.” That meant acreage reduction and the distribution of commodity surpluses to school lunch programs, the needy and as foreign aid. Nixon ignored the issue of parity but pledged to increase farm prices by putting more acreage in the conservation reserves, expanding foreign markets and increasing food distribution at home.
In reality, the two camps differed only over the extent of production controls and the level of price supports. There were some who had predicted that traditionally conservative rural states might rise up for Kennedy in a “Farm Belt revolt.” It didn’t happen. Most Midwestern states voted for Nixon, despite the potentially more lucrative Democratic farm policy. But in a razor-thin election margin of 50.2 percent, any vote that Kennedy received from farmers may have helped. As with urban voters, he won over some rural voters as much with his charm and charisma as with his policies.
Ted Sorensen (left) now admits, “JFK was a Massachusetts boy and didn’t have a lot of interest in farms.” But when the campaigning started, Kennedy took on every challenge. After a long day campaigning in Nebraska for the critical Democratic primary, he told his audience that the local banker had told him “Nobody was eligible for a loan until they have either manure on their boots or mud in their eyes,” as Sorensen recounts JFK’s words. “Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Either way I’m eligible!” Sorensen also quotes a key phrase from Kennedy’s stump speech, that Ted may have actually recalled from an earlier Nebraska progressive politician – “The farmer is the only businessman in our economy who has to buy everything at retail, sell everything at wholesale, and pay the freight both ways.”
Don Freeman (right) admits that he can’t remember details about Kennedy’s farm program – “I don’t know if he had one,” he jokes – but remembers JFK as a “breath of fresh air.” As the CEO of a successful agribusiness company, Don stays as current as he can on changes in federal farm programs. He wonders if Kennedy would have been able to push his programs through a contentious Congress if he had not been assassinated.
Former U.S. Representative Don McGinley remembers how JFK was a quick study about the details of farm policy. In an off-camera interview, McGinley told a story about a JFK campaign trip to western Nebraska. The two politicians were riding out on an airplane together and Kennedy asked McGinley to tell him about a major farm bill that was before Congress and they knew would come up in questions. McGinley was convinced that JFK was not listening. “He was looking around, playing with his tie, and just did not seemed to be interested,” Don said. But when Kennedy got up to give his speech, all of the details that McGinley had briefed him on came out of JFK’s mouth.
When he got into office, Kennedy and his agriculture secretary Orville Freeman advocated even greater governmental regulation of the farm economy than they had in the campaign. But they were thwarted by a short-term crisis, a powerful but divided farm lobby and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
Shortly after the inauguration, corn and wheat prices fell to postwar lows while surpluses had reached record highs. The administration was able to pass emergency legislation known as the Feed Grain Program to enable farmers to divert between 20 and 40 percent of their acreage, depending on farm size, from the production of corn, barley and sorghum – grains fed to livestock. Participating farmers who diverted 20 percent of their acreage were guaranteed an income of 60 percent of the gross value of a “normal” year’s production. The government planned to dump feed grains on the market from their surpluses to keep prices low.
So the Feed Grain Program was actually production control rather than the marketing control program that Kennedy really wanted. It did take 26 million acres out of the corn production during 1961, and it did boost income by $1 billion. But it didn’t cut production as much as the administration had hoped. They had predicted a reduction in the harvest of feed grains of 18 percent; in fact, production decreased only 11 percent. Farmers did what they had done with every other acreage reduction program – the took the least production lands out of production and bought more fertilizer, better hybrids and more equipment and land with the payments.
During his first year office, JFK moved to expand the market for farm products in other areas. He reinstituted the Food Stamp Program by executive order as a “pilot” program one month after his inauguration. He expanded school lunch and milk programs. And he expanded the Food for Peace Program.
In 1962, Kennedy returned to his campaign program proposing a system of mandatory acreage and marketing controls in return for 90 percent of parity if two-thirds of participating farmers agreed. The bill passed, but in 1963 wheat farmers rejected the system and accepted 50 percent parity prices. The Farm Bureau had lobbied hard against the system because they believed that any mandatory control would lead to controls on other commodities.
While most farmers wanted federal aid, they were violently opposed to mandatory controls on what they could produce. In addition, farmers have diverse interests and no single group represents the interests of all farmers. For instance, livestock and dairy producers buy feed grain from the grain producers. So, any program that raises the price of feed grains – to help grain producers – hurts livestock and dairy producers. And they are fiercely independent.
In the end, Kennedy’s assassination cut short his administration’s efforts to solve the farm problem. He had some success with he voluntary program, but never solved the problems of overproduction, low farm income and continued decline of the rural population.