WWII transforms American agriculture
Faircloth describes the history of agriculture in post-World War II America in this excerpt. The war effort transformed agriculture, luring people from their farms with well-paying industrial work. Farms themselves became more like industries as well, running on machine power and producing much more efficiently.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Lauch Faircloth, July 16, 1999. Interview I-0070. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
LF: Well, to sketch the contours of agriculture, you have to go before the Second World War. Agriculture went through a major, major change during the Second World War. When the war was over, you were dealing with a totally new and different product. [Agriculture was] totally changed. It had to make rapid adjustments. There is a very a new book you would thoroughly enjoy, called No Ordinary Times. It is on Roosevelt and the times between the German invasion of Poland and the end of World War Two. But going into World War Two and going right on back to the end of slavery, go[ing] back into the 1880s, '90s, '70s and this transition, it's taken it a hundred years to transpire, but it is pretty well there now. Agriculture was a way of life. It had nothing to do with a business. The president of Anderson and Clayton -- world's biggest cotton dealers -- was asked one time what it cost to grow a pound of cotton. This was during the thirties. He said, “Whatever they can get for it. They will grow it.” This is what agriculture was. It was the surplus of people -- a surplus of the commodity. The first goal of agriculture was to subsist. If you could pick up any change, a little money on something, [that was] well and good, but the first role of agriculture was for the landowner and the workers to subsist. I grew up in that economy. People were just absolutely everywhere going into 1939. I've forgotten the percentages, but you can check them. It was like thirty percent of the people were unemployed. If you went to underemployment, over fifty [percent] had no job. Massive amounts of them were [working] on subsistence agricultural operations. We called them farms. They were there because they could produce a little corn, a few hogs, keep a cow, and survive. That's what agriculture was. [You’d] can a lot of beans in the summertime and go through the winter. Money was a practically an unknown and a very, very rare item at best.
All of a sudden, there was a massive transition. All of a sudden, starting in '39, Roosevelt convinced Congress that we were facing a worldwide conflict, and we began to gear up for a war effort. We had no army. The great maneuvers in Louisiana with the army, they were using stovepipes for bazookas and wooden two by four rifles. This massive war effort, which William Knudsen -- who had been president of General Motors -- headed up, started expansion. As rapidly as the nation could get buildings built, they put people in them producing armaments of everything. Armaments required socks, shirts, everything. All of a sudden these massive amounts of people who had been on subsistence farming had jobs -- high paying jobs. It sounds ludicrous today, but Fort Bragg expanded from a few Civilian Conservation Corps boys to a hundred thousand trainees and rapidly. All the barracks had to be built. Anybody that could use a hammer in any way was called a carpenter. They went from fifty cents a day wages--. You talk about a spectacular move, fifty cents a day was standard farm wages. [They went from that] to ninety cents an hour, seven dollars and twenty cents a day. Who is going to plow a mule for fifty cents a day when you can drive down to Lejeune or Fort Bragg and you'd make seven dollars and twenty cents a day? Anything that would run, any kind of old bus, was put together, and people piled on it. Farming was forced into the transition in the '40s, late '30s from a mule to a tractor. This did not happen as fast as it would have because the tractors were not available. Even at that time, it's small tractors and two row tractors. One man on the tractor did what six people did with a mule. Now they do what forty would do. But the massive transition [started] from one man and a mule to one man and a tractor doing six times as much work.
When the war was over and industries continued to expand, these people never came back to the farms. This was as true in California. They went into the aircraft factories. [They found] better ways to pick fruit in the Medford, Oregon because of they went to Boeing. [They had] bigger combines in Kansas because they went to Wichita and Vaught. So this transition between the Civil War and World War Two--. Farms had been a storehouse of people. People were warehoused on farms. There was absolutely no need for any attempt for modernization or increased efficiency. What the hell difference did it make? You needed three people, you had nine standing there, and you were producing more than you could give away. What did efficiency mean? But all of a sudden, the people were gone. I mean, they went by the busloads and never came back. They left here for Detroit, for the Army bases and it was really the breaking down of segregation, too.