This Time a Century Ago: Looking Back and Moving Forward

For me the end of a year is always a good time for reflection. I often remember my Grandfather Quinn quoting the old timers as saying “how good the crops were in ’16 (meaning 1916) and how good they were going to be next year.” They were, by nature, optimistic. 1916 was the high point of the homestead era here in Big Sandy (1911-1919). The town approached a population of 1500! You chuckle, but it’s around 500 today. The farmers had both good crops and good prices that year. Whereas the three years that followed, persistent drought brought bankruptcy to most of the homesteaders, as crops did not return enough to replace the seed that had been planted. Many farming families, completely broke, just left their land with little more than the clothes on their back and a few items they could pack in a wagon or small vehicle. By 1920, when my grandfather arrived, the population of the town had crashed to around 600—about two-thirds of the farmers had left—and farms could be purchased by paying little more than the back taxes on the land.

It is ironic how 100 years later, this area was blessed with higher-than-average rain fall resulting in the best crop our farm has seen in twenty years. Although there were good crops this year for the most part, the big difference between this year and the “boom” of 1916 was the price of wheat. The prices for wheat this year were lower than they had been for the past several years and even with a big crop, many farmers were not able to pay their chemical bills. A silver lining for us, however, was that organic grain prices were sky-high—sometimes 5 times that of non-organic prices! High prices coupled with high yields made for a very prosperous year, indeed, for organic farmers. And even though some of the highest prices have come down some, there is still an ever-increasing demand for organic which keeps the prices strong. While organic farmers now only consist of 1% of the farming population, the sales of organic groceries now exceed 5% of total food sales in the US. It remains the fastest growing segment of agriculture, which is great news for organic farmers and promising news for farmers looking to transition.

So, the question for the future is: Will we see a repeat of the disaster years of 1917 to 1920—when more farmers went broke than in any other time in American history? I certainly hope not! And while we cannot change or control the weather to guarantee timely rains, farmers do have the opportunity to look to the future. The transition to organic production can start now! Organic agriculture immediately reduces input costs and increases the value of production. Many are already making this change and many more are seriously considering it. It is my hope that we will not repeat the hardships of those fateful years a century ago where farmers lose their lands and we lose our friends and neighbors. I hope, as is my hope every year, that we will see more farmers recognize the benefits of organic agriculture and begin to prosper again.