In 1977, the boom years of mid-70s came back to earth and produced the first rumblings of the 1980s farm crisis. Grain prices returned to normal after spiking in ’73, ’74 and ’75. The export market for grain returned to pre-boom levels.
But in the meantime, farmers had listened to Earl Butz and others and had gone into debt to plant “fence row to fence row.” By 1977, they were producing record crops, but prices bottomed out in ’77 and dropped even further in the mid to late 80s. The cost of fuel, seed, pesticides and other farm costs continued to rise.
Net farm income dropped to $20 billion from a high of $33 billion. In addition, the value of farmland – the “equity” or value that farmers use to secure loans to operate each year – had dropped. Banks were no longer willing to loan to smaller farmers. Many borrowers were in danger of losing their farms.
Farmers on the plains, particularly, were so desperate that they decided to strike if the government wouldn’t guarantee high enough prices for their commodities to cover the cost of production and a reasonable profit. This was not the first time that a strike had been proposed. During the 1930s, farmers in Nebraska and Iowa actually blocked roads leading to agricultural markets to try and force other farmers to keep their products off the market. That strike was short-lived as well.
The ’77 Strike effort began in Springfield, Colorado, where a group of farmers got together and developed the strike idea. They called on farmers across the country to stop buying or selling anything on December 14, 1977, unless their demands were met. Within a week, the group had a name – the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) – and the strike had gathered enough attention that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland met with farmers in Pueblo, Colorado. He did little to placate the anger of the movement.
Strike plans proceeded. The core demand of the group was for “parity.” Parity is a statistical model that looks at what it costs farmers to buy the materials they need to farm and the prices they get for their crops. The designers of the model decided that in the period between 1910-14, an average farmer’s income and expenses were in rough balance. He or she made enough money in selling farm commodities to support a reasonable standard of living. The economists then factored in inflation rates and current prices for commodities in a given year to come up with parity levels. In 1977, the “parity level” was estimated at roughly 66 percent. In other words, some economists said that the buying power of farm commodities had dropped by a third.
On Dec. 10, farmers across the nation rallied at their state capitols to support the strike. Nebraska farmers joined their counterparts and drove their tractors from the Capitol building to the Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln for a rally. Despite freezing temperatures, even Gov. J. J. Exon rode on an open tractor to the rally. Officials counted just over 5,000 vehicles entering the Sports Center and estimated the crowd at 6,000.
Exon told the crowd of farmers,
“They said it would be a cold day in hell when farmers would get together. I can’t tell you how warm it is to have you here in Lincoln. I only wish we had had such a rally two or three years ago. ‘Strike’ is not a usual word with farm people, these are not usual times. We need to get the message across to everyone that there is a problem. The farmer gets 31 cents of the food dollar while the labor processor gets 33 cents and the transportation and marketing segment get 36 cents. Unless we can get more than 31 cents for the farmer, we won’t have our food plant sustained.”
Burt Evans, a University of Nebraska economist, urged the farmers to hang together or hang separately. “Getting the government out of agriculture is nonsense,” he said. “We need good, sound programs all the time. A good farm program has to be there all the time.”
One farmer said he planned to put a sign on his tractor indicating it had a usable life of about 10 years, but that it would take him about 15 years to pay for it because of low prices for agricultural products.
Signs were everywhere, and many got the attention of reporters and observers. They were known as “Deere John letters,” creating a pun with the name of the tractor manufacturer.
- “Crime Doesn’t Pay… Neither Does Farming.”
- “Corn is in the barn, but it’s not worth a darn.”
- “Parity Not Government Charity.”
- “All we want for Christmas is 100 percent parity.”
- “If you eat, you have a stake in the farmer’s plight.”
The rallies in the plains states were the largest, but a majority of agricultural states did participate. Even President Carter’s sister participated in a tractorcade in Georgia. Gloria Carter Spann rode in a lawn chair on top of a tractor owned by her husband. She said, “Farmers are united for the first time, I’ve never been so proud of farmers.”
Elaine Stuhr (left) says that even though the movement’s immediate goals weren’t accomplished, the effort was justified. “It was a way to bring attention, and sometimes you have to do those things,” Elaine says. “It made people realize that they shouldn’t take their food for granted.”
While the rallies created a lot of attention, the strike did not go as planned. The Omaha World-Herald conducted a poll in Nebraska to see what Nebraskans thought about the proposed national farm strike. A majority of Nebraskans interviewed said they approved of a farm strike. However, a similar majority of farmers interviewed said they did not plan to participate in the strike.
Nationally, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics showed continued increased production from 1977 to 1978. In short, the strike had absolutely no effect on food and fiber production.
Getting any large and diverse group, like all farmers, is extremely difficult. But the movement did dramatize the hard times that farmers were facing – and times would get harder in the 80s.