Lyndon Johnson was born on a farm in south Texas and later owned a ranch. Yet, throughout his presidency, Johnson did not spend a lot of time on farm policy. In fact, during his campaign for the presidency in 1964, Johnson did not deliver a single major policy address about agriculture.
His concerns and his major accomplishments were revolutionary civil rights legislation, the Medicare system of health insurance for the elderly, a “War on Poverty” and, of course, Vietnam.
In essence, he got a reprieve on the worst farm problems because several Communist countries had begun buying American wheat and feed grains in large quantities and the overall U.S. economy was on the rebound.
In 1965, Johnson and his Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman – who had stayed on from the Kennedy administration – pushed through Congress a new farm bill. Essentially, the bill continued Kennedy’s programs of voluntary acreage reductions and expansion of markets without the mandatory controls that JFK had advocated. The bill also expanded both the Food Stamp Program and the Food for Peace Program.
In arguing for the bill, Johnson painted a dire picture of what would happen if the American farmer “choose to wipe those programs out altogether.”
“First, net farm income throughout the Nation would be cut in half, or by about $6 billion a year. Net farm income in the corn belt alone would drop by $1.8 billion – a devastating blow to the heart of the American economy. Second, on out of every five farmers would be bankrupted. Third, corn would sell for less than 80-cents a bushel, and wheat for less than a dollar. Soybeans would sell for less than $2 a bushel. It would mean cattle at 17-cents a pound and hogs at 13-cents a pound. We know from bitter experience that depressions are farm-led and farm-fed. And we are not going to repeat that experience.”
In part because of Johnson’s legendary skills in cajoling Senators and Representatives, the Food and Agriculture Act passed in 1965 and extended governed agriculture programs through 1970. Essentially, this policy was an extension of ideas developed during the 1930s by the New Deal to control production, shrink surpluses and increase prices and income.
In signing the act, Johnson extolled the “miracle of American agriculture.”
“One man on the farm today does all the work that was performed by four in 1939. If this were not so, we would need 23 million farm workers to feed and clothe ourselves, instead of the 6.5 million we have. Thirty years ago, the city worker toiled 85 hours each month to feed his wife and children. Today, he works less than half as long, and the food his family eats is both more appetizing and more nourishing.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.