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Farm struggles of the past produced great changes

"What makes America great is that every citizen has within his or her power to work for change. History speaks of the past but remains alive in importance. The struggles farmers faced through the decades produced an energy that changed rural America for the better."

State Mill
The North Dakota State Mill was among the developments spurred by hard times in agriculture.
John Brose photo
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A young man whose name I did not know was upset.

“This country is destroying itself," he said to me. “It’s got to stop."

What had to be stopped was inflation, fuel prices, and assorted other problems. He asked what I thought about the situation. The benefit of old age is that I only worry about those things that I can control.

“We’ve been through most of this stuff before," I responded.

History speaks of difficult times for farmers.

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In 1785 and 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts rebelled against what they thought was a financial system stacked against them. They had little to no money, and bartered livestock and crops in exchange for supplies. Trouble began when merchants decided that they must be paid with money. Farmers had land but not money. Lives were lost in Shay’s Rebellion, which lasted about one year before it was ended by the military.

Fast forward 100 years, and resentment among farmers in much of middle America had reached a fever pitch. Colorful leaders of what was called the populist movement railed against railroads and other big businesses that prospered hand over fist while farmers struggled to survive.

Mary Elizabeth Lease, who with her husband tried and failed a few times to farm, was among the movements most gifted speakers. It was she who urged farmers to “raise more hell and less corn."

The populists formalized their recommended policies in what became known as the Omaha Platform. The platform called for creation of a national income tax, government ownership of railroads and direct voter election of U.S. senators. Legislatures selected senators until the 20th century.

The 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 and voters chose their senators for the first time. Meanwhile the populists' support for a federal income tax paid off with the passage of the 16th Amendment. The Revenue Act of 1913’s rules and regulations were covered in 400 pages. Today, the regulations contain 700,000 pages.

Populists also pushed for removing the gold standard, which would be replaced by silver at a rate of 16 ounces of silver for every ounce of gold. It was hoped that replacing the gold standard would produce inflation, which would result in increased farm commodity prices.

The case was made at the Democratic National Convention by none other than William Jennings Bryan, who delivered the famous sentence “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold."

Another colorful character in the movement was Alfalfa Bill Murray, who as governor of Oklahoma earned the nickname by pushing alfalfa as a crop that farmers in the Sooner state could turn into a money-making crop.

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Farm state activists with the same goal of creating marketplace fairness spawned the cooperative movement in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. In North Dakota, farmers were disgusted because the state’s politics were dominated by flour-milling companies and wheat traders in Minneapolis.

In response, the Nonpartisan League formed with the goal of backing any politician who worked for farming interests without regard to party. The Equity Cooperative Exchange created elevators across North Dakota. State-run terminals and a state-run flour mill also helped farmers pocket more money for their crops.

Criticism stiffened against the NPL as it grew. During World War I its leaders were slandered by attacks that alleged they did not support the war effort. Nonetheless, the NPL persisted, even electing one of its own as U.S. senator.

I hope the young man doesn’t sink into despair. What makes America great is that every citizen has within his or her power to work for change. History speaks of the past but remains alive in importance. The struggles farmers faced through the decades produced an energy that changed rural America for the better.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

Related Topics: MYCHAL WILMESRURAL LIFE
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