Between the Corn Rows: Stories of an Iowa Farm Family’s Survival in the Great Depression

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Growing non-GM corn after years of planting genetically modified strains is a challenge, especially the more finicky white corn, the Dammanns say.

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The yield is slightly lower, and they have to use a different cocktail of herbicide than usual, since non-GM corn isn't resistant to Roundup, the chemical used by conventional farmers to eradicate weeds. Justin Dammann said it is not up to him to decide what people should eat, but the other way around. He doesn't care whether demand for non-GM food is founded in science or politics, or is just a fad.

Matt Russell, a chemical-free farmer in Lacona who sells directly to shoppers at the Downtown Farmers' Market in Des Moines, believes consumers will play larger parts in determining what farms grow. Russell is coordinator of Buy Fresh, Buy Local, a project of Drake University's Agricultural Law Center that encourages Iowa consumers to choose farm-fresh foods at farmers markets or at the farms themselves. Consumers' desire to know where their food comes from and a growing distrust of industrial agriculture will affect how large-scale farms will operate going forward, said Russell, who grows produce, free-range chicken and grass-fed beef on acres.

In January, for example, General Mills announced it would not use genetically modified ingredients in its original Cheerios brand. It's making big agriculture think differently, making them more accountable, making them more responsive to the environmental questions. Family farms, even those as large as the 7,acre Dammann operation in southwest Iowa, struggle to compete against the efficiency of even larger farms.

Critics see large-scale farms — with their use of expensive machinery, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered seed, dependence on fossil fuels and shipment of products worldwide — as an unsustainable system that at times enriches distant corporate directors at the expense of families and local communities. Many agricultural experts see the high output per acre of big farms as critical to meeting the world's food needs.

An estimated 9. He believes farmers and scientists in America's heartland will answer this challenge, just as when food prize founder Norman Borlaug developed a strain of wheat that ended starvation for millions of people and won the Nobel Peace Prize in Through the work of agricultural researchers at Iowa State University, developments in biotechnology and machinery, and the increasing efficiency of farmers here, "Iowa," Quinn said, "has become the epicenter of the greatest period of food production and hunger reduction in all human history.

The Dammanns, like many other farmers, view the notion of caring for the land and passing on that legacy as their faith-inspired calling. They have repeatedly increased their farm's size, from acres to today's equivalent of 11 square miles of owned and rented land. It's a matter of increased efficiency — and survival, they believe. Farm size in the U. Smaller farms far outnumber the biggest operations, but produce much less.

In , 75 percent of farms in the U. But combined, they produced only 3 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold. Even as the Dammanns expand their acreage they own 1, acres and lease the balance , they worry that consolidation will continue on a larger scale, with giant corporations taking over smaller operations that can no longer compete. The Dammanns saw it years before with poultry and swine, which became no longer financially viable for them to continue, and they worry the same thing will happen one day with grain.

Arnold Dammann, the eldest living member of the seven-generation Dammann farm, said seeing the farm raise grain for a corporation is his biggest fear. His pride in the farm comes from being self-sufficient and the sole profiteer. Justin Dammann said that fear is what drives him to keep expanding the operation. He and his wife, Jennifer, just purchased another acres, though he says that land isn't necessary to provide for his family.

A frequent criticism of the largest U. Subsidy programs include a guarantee of a minimum price for a crop, which kicks in when market prices fall below a certain threshold, and protection for farmers from weather disasters. Iowa, with its large concentration of corn and soybean operations, received more commodity subsidies from through than any other state, according to the Environmental Working Group, which maintains a database of farm subsidies. In , 9 percent of all commodity payments went to Iowa farms.

Ten percent of subsidized farms, typically the largest and most profitable, received 75 percent of all farm payments between and , the Environmental Working Group has found. With no safety net, they were thrown into economic chaos. With rampant unemployment and declining wages, Americans slashed expenses. The fortunate could survive by simply deferring vacations and regular consumer purchases. Middle- and working-class Americans might rely on disappearing credit at neighborhood stores, default on utility bills, or skip meals.

Poor women and young children entered the labor force, as they always had. The emotional and psychological shocks of unemployment and underemployment only added to the shocking material depravities of the Depression. Social workers and charity officials, for instance, often found the unemployed suffering from feelings of futility, anger, bitterness, confusion, and loss of pride.

Such feelings affected the rural poor no less than the urban. Beginning in , severe droughts hit from Texas to the Dakotas and lasted until at least The droughts compounded years of agricultural mismanagement. To grow their crops, Plains farmers had plowed up natural ground cover that had taken ages to form over the surface of the dry Plains states. Relatively wet decades had protected them, but, during the early s, without rain, the exposed fertile topsoil turned to dust, and without sod or windbreaks such as trees, rolling winds churned the dust into massive storms that blotted out the sky, choked settlers and livestock, and rained dirt not only across the region but as far east as Washington, D.

The Dust Bowl, as the region became known, exposed all-too-late the need for conservation. It was an exodus.


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Oklahoma lost , people, or a full This iconic photograph by Dorothea Lange of a destitute, thirty-two-year-old mother of seven made real the suffering of millions during the Great Depression. Lange, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, captured the image at a migrant farmworker camp in Nipomo, California, in In the photograph a young mother stares out with a worried, weary expression. She was a migrant, having left her home in Oklahoma to follow the crops to the Golden State. She took part in what many in the mids were beginning to recognize as a vast migration of families out of the southwestern Plains states.


In the image she cradles an infant and supports two older children, who cling to her. The subject of the photograph seemed used to hard work but down on her luck, and uncertain about what the future might hold. The Okies, as such westward migrants were disparagingly called by their new neighbors, were the most visible group who were on the move during the Depression, lured by news and rumors of jobs in far-flung regions of the country. By , sociologists were estimating that millions of men were on the roads and rails traveling the country.

Economists sought to quantify the movement of families from the Plains. Popular magazines and newspapers were filled with stories of homeless boys and the veterans-turned-migrants of the Bonus Army commandeering boxcars. These years witnessed the first significant reversal in the flow of people between rural and urban areas.

Thousands of city dwellers fled the jobless cities and moved to the country looking for work.

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As relief efforts floundered, many state and local officials threw up barriers to migration, making it difficult for newcomers to receive relief or find work. Some state legislatures made it a crime to bring poor migrants into the state and allowed local officials to deport migrants to neighboring states. During her assignment as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration WPA , Dorothea Lange documented the movement of migrant families forced from their homes by drought and economic depression.

This family, captured by Lange in , was in the process of traveling miles by foot, across Oklahoma, because the father was ill and therefore unable to receive relief or WPA work. Starting in , the committee held widely publicized hearings. But it was too late. Such relief was nowhere to be found in the s. Americans meanwhile feared foreign workers willing to work for even lower wages. The crisis itself had stifled foreign immigration, but such restrictive and exclusionary actions in the first years of the Depression intensified its effects.

The number of European visas issued fell roughly 60 percent while deportations dramatically increased. Between and , fifty-four thousand people were deported. Exclusionary measures hit Mexican immigrants particularly hard. Officials in the Southwest led a coordinated effort to push out Mexican immigrants. According to the federal census, from to the Mexican-born population living in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas fell from , to , Franklin Roosevelt did not indulge anti-immigrant sentiment as willingly as Hoover had.

Over the course of the Depression, more people left the United States than entered it. Posters like this production showing the extent of the Federal Art Project were used to prove the value of the WPA—and, by extension, the entire New Deal—to the American people. The early years of the Depression were catastrophic. The crisis, far from relenting, deepened each year. Unemployment peaked at 25 percent in With no end in sight, and with private firms crippled and charities overwhelmed by the crisis, Americans looked to their government as the last barrier against starvation, hopelessness, and perpetual poverty.

Few presidential elections in modern American history have been more consequential than that of The United States was struggling through the third year of the Depression, and exasperated voters overthrew Hoover in a landslide to elect the Democratic governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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Franklin Roosevelt embarked on a slow but steady ascent through state and national politics. In , he was appointed assistant secretary of the navy, a position he held during the defense emergency of World War I. In the course of his rise, in the summer of , Roosevelt suffered a sudden bout of lower-body pain and paralysis. He was diagnosed with polio. The disease left him a paraplegic, but, encouraged and assisted by his wife, Eleanor, Roosevelt sought therapeutic treatment and maintained sufficient political connections to reenter politics.

In , Roosevelt won election as governor of New York. He oversaw the rise of the Depression and drew from progressivism to address the economic crisis. During his gubernatorial tenure, Roosevelt introduced the first comprehensive unemployment relief program and helped pioneer efforts to expand public utilities. He also relied on like-minded advisors.

On July 1, , Roosevelt, the newly designated presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, delivered the first and one of the most famous on-site acceptance speeches in American presidential history. He won more counties than any previous candidate in American history. He spent the months between his election and inauguration traveling, planning, and assembling a team of advisors, the famous Brain Trust of academics and experts, to help him formulate a plan of attack.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In his first days in office, Roosevelt and his advisors prepared, submitted, and secured congressional enactment of numerous laws designed to arrest the worst of the Great Depression. His administration threw the federal government headlong into the fight against the Depression.

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Roosevelt immediately looked to stabilize the collapsing banking system. On March 12, the night before select banks reopened under stricter federal guidelines, Roosevelt appeared on the radio in the first of his Fireside Chats.

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The addresses, which the president continued delivering through four terms, were informal, even personal. In the first chat, Roosevelt described the new banking safeguards and asked the public to place their trust and their savings in banks. Americans responded and across the country, deposits outpaced withdrawals.

The act was a major success. In June, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, which instituted federal deposit insurance and barred the mixing of commercial and investment banking. Stabilizing the banks was only a first step. In the remainder of his First Hundred Days, Roosevelt and his congressional allies focused especially on relief for suffering Americans. The programs of the First Hundred Days stabilized the American economy and ushered in a robust though imperfect recovery. GDP climbed once more, but even as output increased, unemployment remained stubbornly high.

Though the unemployment rate dipped from its high in , when Roosevelt was inaugurated, vast numbers remained out of work. If the economy could not put people back to work, the New Deal would try. Together, they provided not only tangible projects of immense public good but employment for millions. The New Deal was reshaping much of the nation. The accusation of rape brought against the so-called Scottsboro Boys, pictured with their attorney in , generated controversy across the country.

The impact of initial New Deal legislation was readily apparent in the South, a region of perpetual poverty especially plagued by the Depression. Despite the ceaseless efforts of civic boosters, what little industry the South had remained low-wage, low-skilled, and primarily extractive. Southern workers made significantly less than their national counterparts: 75 percent of nonsouthern textile workers, 60 percent of iron and steel workers, and a paltry 45 percent of lumber workers.

At the time of the crash, southerners were already underpaid, underfed, and undereducated. Major New Deal programs were designed with the South in mind. FDR hoped that by drastically decreasing the amount of land devoted to cotton, the AAA would arrest its long-plummeting price decline.

Farmers plowed up existing crops and left fields fallow, and the market price did rise. But in an agricultural world of landowners and landless farmworkers such as tenants and sharecroppers , the benefits of the AAA bypassed the southerners who needed them most. The government relied on landowners and local organizations to distribute money fairly to those most affected by production limits, but many owners simply kicked tenants and croppers off their land, kept the subsidy checks for keeping those acres fallow, and reinvested the profits in mechanical farming equipment that further suppressed the demand for labor.

Instead of making farming profitable again, the AAA pushed landless southern farmworkers off the land. Southern industrial practices attracted much attention. The NRA encouraged higher wages and better conditions. It began to suppress the rampant use of child labor in southern mills and, for the first time, provided federal protection for unionized workers all across the country. The minimum wage disproportionately affected low-paid southern workers and brought southern wages within the reach of northern wages. Southern industrialists had proven themselves ardent foes of unionization, particularly in the infamous southern textile mills.

But in the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, guaranteed the rights of most workers to unionize and bargain collectively. Skip to content. Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps workers first began planting shelterbelts in the s and s to provide protection against Dust Bowl storms. The Dust Bowl was a terrible American disaster. As settlers moved west in the 19th century, they plowed under the seemingly endless prairie to produce grain. Then, in the s, the rains failed and the winds tore away the topsoil by the ton, sending it flying across the Great Plains, choking livestock and people and driving them off the land.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an answer. Decades later, many of those trees still stand as a vital green protective strip, but now shelterbelts face a new threat from farmers hoping to maximize their annual harvests. Roosevelt, Vaughan says, came up with the idea for a shelterbelt when he was campaigning for president in Montana and his train encountered a wind-eroded hillside.

Roosevelt imagined a single solid wall of trees several miles wide running from the Canadian border all the way down to the Texas panhandle, but his advisors and the Forest Service director modified the plan to create a series of walls of trees. The shelterbelt still ran from North Dakota down to the Texas panhandle, but instead of one solid wall, it became a series of walls. Planting began in in a small town in Oklahoma and continued for the next decade. In the end, some million trees were put in place. The technique proved to be very effective at stabilizing the land and protecting the topsoil.

So, why would farmers want to cut them down?

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