The Disappearance from Georgia of the Farm Union
by Carole E. Scott and Richard D. Guynn
Dr.s Scott and Guynn are Professors of Economics at the State University of West Georgia:
There was great ferment among the South's farmers for many decades after the War Between the States, and numerous attempts that met with varying degrees of success were made to gain relief from their economic problems through self help: the formation of buying and selling cooperatives, and outside help: government programs. The emphasis put at different times and by different organizations of farmers on the former and the latter varied.
Little attention has been devoted to Georgia's farmers cooperatives by either professional or amateur historians. Although the national headquarters of the Farmers' Union was located in Fulton County, Georgia for several years, and a Georgian, Charles S. Barrett (pictured above), was its president for over 20 years, the history of Fulton County does not mention it or him. All the history of the county in which Barrett was born, Pike, does is mention that Thomas J. Barrett's son Charles was president of the National Farmers' Union. [Mitchell,70]
A farmers' cooperative that still exists in Georgia that was founded in ajoining Carroll County, the Cotton Producers Association (CPA), is not mentioned in a history of Carroll County. Like the CPA--today known as Gold Kist--the Farmer's' Union still exists, but it does not operate in the South East of the Mississippi. Although the history of the CPA-- originally written as a dissertation--was published by CPA/Gold Kist itself, its founder, David W. Brooks, has often been written about in general circulation magazines and newspapers.
The Nature of Agricultural Cooperatives
There are a variety of functions agricultural cooperatives may engage in. They may "bargain over the terms of sale of their members' production to proprietary firms, in which case they are known as bargaining associations." [Hetherington, 107] They may "process, handle, and sell their members' production to commercial purchasers...in competition with proprietary processors and handlers....[Those] "that perform these functions are known as producers' cooperatives. [Hetherington, 107] They may also purchase or produce for their farmer-members an input such as fertilizer. Presumably, the managing owners of a firm have more incentive to be efficient than the hired manager of a co-op. Although incentive payments can be used to encourage the management of a cooperative to be more efficient, "members and directors of cooperatives have traditionally not been generous employers because management compensation has been viewed primarily as an expense that comes out of the members' pockets." [Hetherington, 118]
"Cooperatives are considered by some members and many of their leaders as more than a form of economic organization. Cooperation is not only a means of organizing economic activity; it has been and is a social philosophy and a political movement. The theme is self-help and communal effort to benefit all members.....'The zeal of some members may at times approach a religious fervor, and the cooperative program may be referred to as a way of life.' This philosophy has had its strongest appeal to groups that have regarded themselves as victims of other economic interests on which they were dependent..." [Hetherington, 118]
Because a cooperative "pays patronage dividends at a single or uniform rate to all patrons based on the dollar volume of their business, the result is a series of wealth transfers from the members whose purchases produce a higher net margin to those whose purchases were relatively unprofitable or produced a loss." [Hetherington, 120] Members of a cooperative could be, but often are not, forced to do business with it.
The Condition of Southern Agriculture, 1865 - 1920
According to the noted historian C. Vann Woodward, after 1865 "the Southern farmer had lost his independence, his industrial autonomy. In the grip of the lien system--which more universally characterized the post-bellum economy than ever slavery described the ante- bellum system--the farmer, former masters, the majority of them, along with former slaves and yeomen, had been reduced to a state of peonage to the town merchant. The lien system converted the Southern economy into a vast pawn shop. Its evil effects did not end when the farmer signed away his future crop, for that act merely started a vicious circle of compounded evils." [Woodward, 129] The town merchant, Woodward says, charged his vastly more for the credit purchases the farmer was dependent upon than the cash price and demanded he plant a cash crop, cotton. This caused Southern farming to become vastly more dependent upon cotton than before the War and meant farmers had to purchase food from town merchants.
Through monopoly power, the "trusts" kept high the price of many of the Southern farmer's inputs, such as jute bagging for his cotton, and railroad rates. Banks either would not lend to him or charged exorbitant rates. "The number of farms in Georgia rose about 20,000 from 1910 to 1920, although the average size per farm fell slightly during the period. This rise in the number of farms was accompanied by a growth in the number of owners, managers, and tenants....Farmers harvested over 330,000 more acres of cotton in 1919 than they had in 1910..." [Holmes, 313]
The large number of tenant farmers who came into being after the War Between the States in Georgia and other Southern states and the resulting shrinkage of average farm size has caused many to improperly characterize Southern farming after 1865.. If, for example, Robert P. Brooks observed in his 1914 study of Georgia agriculture, when an earlier census was taken there were twenty laborers on a farm, if when the next census was taken these men had become share tenants on the same farm, it would then be reported as twenty farms. Yet, not only would the tenants' work be directed-- perhaps very closely--by the owner of the land, some of the work might be jointly performed as it had in earlier wage labor or slave labor days. Only in the case of cash tenants (renters), he contends, did the tenant normally have a significant degree of independence, and, unfortunately, these tenants tended to exploit the land.
As a whole, American agriculture prospered during World War I, but it contracted after the war as European agriculture recovered. However, cotton farming was "not highly prosperous even during the war years. Although most sectors of the economy recovered relatively quickly, "agriculture did not ever fully recover," and in the "years following 1920, the cotton industry experienced little, if any, prosperity." [Dimsdale, 5]
What the root cause of Georgia's cotton farmers' problem was seems clear. From 1911 to 1913, the United States produced 64 percent of the world's cotton. By 1936, when world output was higher than ever before, the United States produced only 37 percent. [Dimsdale,6] Output increased because of the expansion of cotton growing in the West and abroad and higher productivity. Competitively, farmers in the Southeast were handicapped relative to Western farmers, whose land was not worn out and whose farms were larger and flatter and not so plagued with disease, weeds, and pests--the most disastrous of which was the boll weevil. Also, the typical Southeastern farmer depended upon undependable rainfall, while the typical farmer in the Far West depended upon dependable irrigation. Trusts and speculators could only add to these fundamental problems.
Georgia's dependency on cotton, claims a historian, "was the most important factor leading to the agricultural depression of the 1920s. Continuous cotton planting sapped the soil's strength, and fertilizers were either too expensive, or, for many, simply unknown. Poor farming practices eventually caused irreversible damage by erosion....From a record high thirty-six cents a pound in 1919, the price of cotton dropped to seventeen cents a pound in 1920, causing the value of Georgia's crop to fall by $176,470,000. Georgia's farmers might have ridden out this slump, but a small 'winged demon,' the boll weevil, administered the coup de grace which sent the state tumbling into an agricultural depression." [Holmes, 316] "Georgia's farmers did not reach 1929 income levels again until 1948," and this was below its 1919 level. [Holmes, 317]
After studying data from the latter half of the nineteenth century, historian Stephen E. Ambrose concluded that there were substantial differences between the cost per pound of producing cotton in the various states of the South. Local prices of cotton varied from those in New York, Charleston, and other port cities. Cotton prices also varied seasonally, being the lowest at harvest time, when most farmers had to sell, and the highest in late winter and early spring. These fluctuations often "represented the margin of possible profit." [Ambrose, 79] From 1923 to 1933, the price of cotton generally fell during the season. As a result, cotton farmers who pooled their cotton would have obtained a higher price for their cotton if they sold it as it was harvested rather than having turned it over to a cooperative to market it and, therefore, receive the average pool price. [Dimsdale, 6 -7]
Charles Simon Barrett, long time leader of Farmers Union, was convinced that the "...principal reason for low [cotton] prices in the past has been either the glutting of the market by foolish farmers, or the selling of the 'distress' cotton by men who were compelled thus to discharge their indebtedness." [Barrett, Mission, 51] "Cotton," he believed, "is the one indispensable article of civilization and or heathendom...., and from behind the "great white barrier about Dixie" it created, the Farmers Union would eventually...be able to repel from behind this barrier all of the industrial and financial foes of the South, as well as to keep at home millions upon millions of dollars now needlessly being drained by other sections." [Barrett, Mission, 50-51]
The Farmers' Alliance
According to Ambrose, it is clear that "the yearly averages of cotton prices which most historians cite are of little value." [Ambrose, 79] Therefore, "the careful historian cannot maintain that 'Southern farmers' either lost or made money in any particular period; the problem must be examined on the local level. Further, it is almost impossible to contend that the Farmers' Alliance grew because 'Southern farmers' could not make a profit in cotton. Such generalizations are meaningless." [Ambrose, 79 - 80]
The origin of the Farmers' Alliance was diffuse. The Alliance said the preacher president of the Alliance in one Georgia county, that the "Alliance was born in heaven." [Woodward, 138] The Northern Alliance was smaller than the Southern Alliance, which grew rapidly in Georgia once, in 1887, two organizers from Texas entered this virgin territory. The Southern Alliance "had more vigorous, effective, and prominent leaders; it was more centralized and better organized. And first and last it was more radical." [Woodward, 143] The two Alliances tried, but failed, to unite.
"In less than three years 134 out of 137 counties in the state [Georgia] sent delegates to the state convention; well over 2,000 lodges were established with a membership of more than 100,000." [Woodward, 136] Originally a white organization, a parallel black group was eventually established. "The Georgia exchange, one of the most successful, saved its patrons over $200,000 in fertilizers alone in one year." [Woodward, 136] Labor and the Alliances banded together "to demand the abolition of national banks, the prevention of speculation in the futures of all agricultural and mechanical products, the free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excessive lands ranted or sold to corporations or aliens; decrease of the tax burden on the masses, fractional paper currency, and government ownership and operation of means of transportation and communication." [Woodward, 144]
The Early Years of the Farmers' Union
The immediate successor to the Agricultural Wheel and Farmers Alliance, what is usually referred to as the National Farmers Union was formed in Texas in 1902 as the Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union of America by Issac Newton (Newt) Gresham. It became a national organization in 1905. In an attempt to raise farmers' incomes it formed cooperatives and withheld crops from the market. "Every line of business," declared its first constitution, "from the bootblack to the money king of the New and the Old World, are organized, save the man who raises the raw material for our food and raiment." [Crampton, 10] All the Union's founders were Democrats. Initially it was a secret order. Dues were low so poor farmers could afford to join. Membership was limited to farmers and farm laborers and other rural residents: teachers, ministers, physicians, and newspaper editors. Ultimately, non-farmer members became so influential that some of them were purged. [Tucker, 199]
By 1905, internal dissension had caused membership to decline. Conflict centered around some farmers' objection to "outsiders" being members, "political" activity by ex-Populists., Gresham's poor record keeping, and Texans' domination of the Union. The following year Gresham died and Charles S. Barrett, "who largely personified the Union and its program for the next twenty-two years," was elected president. [Tucker, 200]
Although by the 1960s the Union was a vocal supporter of federal aid to farmers, the stance of Union in its early years was quite different. It opposed the centralization of government and the "...insidious bribery of the citizenry of the various states" [through] "...cunningly contrived" grants in aid funded by the people's own "tax-raised dollars" and the resulting taking away of "...liberty, initiative, and the fundamental rights of self-determination and self government..." As had Southerners traditionally, the Union took the position that "...the law that governs least governs best". [Crampton 46]
At the Union's 1906 convention, a resolution was passed which called for public schools to establish courses in economic and governmental affairs. Other resolutions called for the federal government to appropriate money for rural roads, parcel post, enforcement of the antitrust laws, and more stringent immigration laws. During the following year membership grew rapidly, and by 1908 it had approached its peak of strength in the South. The Union had chapters in Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama--its first chapters--and chapters established subsequently in Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Washington. However, "by the end of the war decade, all the Southern States showed substantial declines in membership, in contrast with favorable growth in Northern and Western States.
Like its rise, its decline in the South was rapid. One observer claimedthat this decline was the result of unsound, mushroom growth; failure of many Union-sponsored cooperative enterprises through improper business management and ill-timed holding of cotton for higher prices; and the fact that a membership characterized by poverty and illiteracy was an unsound foundation on which to build an efficient democratic organization." [Tucker, 201] The Union's cooperative warehousing of cotton was initially successful, but ultimately most Southern cooperatives failed or severed their ties with the Union. [Crampton, 35] It has been said that when the Union was at its floodtide in the South that Barrett realized that its survival depended upon move North in order to survive. [Crampton, 112]
Declining membership in the South was remarked upon in a letter published in Augusta, Georgia's Labor Review. The writer, Graham Lee, he had heard that in some parts of the South that the Union was in a slump. Ups and downs in membership, he said, are normal, and farmers are hard to organize. No matter how many other advantages they are offered, to organize them you must, he contends, convince them they will receive a financial advantage. [Labor Review, June 17, 1916, 3]
In the August 16, 1916 issue of Augusta's Labor Review, O. F. Dornblaser of Cleburne, Texas is quoted as saying that "the curse of farm tenancy [far more common in the South than the rest of the nation] and land mortgages now confronts us, and our farmers are fast becoming agricultural gypsies, wandering from farm to farm. The world is one great corporation of which the farmers are the largest shareholders, but when we call at the counter of industry for dividends, we are handed a package of education, how to increase production and the other fellow gets the gold." [Labor Review, August 26, 1916, 3]
Tips about how to increase production like those provided by county agents account for nearly everything that appears in the 1918 issues of the Labor Review in the column entitled "Of Interest to the Farmer" that appears in every issue. This orientation is, perhaps, not surprising in light of the fact that the National President of the Union, Georgian Charles Barrett was a school teacher; the secretary of the Georgia Chapter, A. J. Fleming was the principal of the Jenkinsburg School; and its president, J. H. Mills, also of the hamlet of Jenkinsburg, the Georgia chapter's headquarters, served in the Georgia legislature as a representative, 1913 - 1914 and as a senator, 1921 - 1922.
The Leadership of Charles S. Barrett
A glowing 1913 article about Charles S. Barrett calls him a genius who created the "mightiest and most influential agricultural body that the world has ever known," [Graves, 512} It credits him and his followers, too, with the building of Union City, Georgia, the national headquarters of the Farmers' Union subsequent to his becoming its head. Though not as extraordinarily flattering of him, other descriptions of Barrett and the reading of his writings makes clear that he was an exceptional man.
Barrett was born to a prominent Pike County, Georgia family. His father was a farmer and state legislator. After attending county schools, he attended normal colleges in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. For several years thereafter, he farmed and taught school. He was one of the first men in Upson County, where he then lived, to join the Farmers' Union, and, by a unanimous vote, became that county's chapter's first president. In 1905 he became the first president of the Union's State organization. In 1906, he was the only man mentioned for the position of national president.
The Union was in debt when he took it over, and he subsequently eliminated the debt. Barrett is reported to have been an excellent speaker good at injecting humor into his speeches. He is described by the author of an article about the Farmers' Union as the friend of presidents and the "dominant agricultural spokesman of his day, a deft lobbyist moving easily on the national stage...." [Crampton, 109]
Barrett transformed a Southern protest movement into "...a viable national interest group which outlasted the tide of farm rage and, according to some, marked the entry of a permanent farm public onto the political scene." [Crampton, 114] He made common cause with the labor movement; advocated marketing cooperatives; and refused "...to take a narrow commodity approach to the farm problem," which he believed was the lack of equitable markets rather than too low productivity. [Crampton, 114] He advocated bringing business principles to the farmer and organizing all of them into "...one vast, compact body" in order to "....make the most advantageous disposition of ...[their] crops." [Crampton, 114] Because, ultimately, everybody else is dependent upon the farmer, Barrett thought farmers were superior to everyone else.
In a book he wrote, Uncle Ruben (a personification of the farmer like Uncle Sam is of the American) in Washington, Barrett spends much time describing the perfidy of the Congressmen he lobbied. They promise farmers much, he claims, but give them little despite their numbers and society's dependence upon them for food and fiber. Farmers must, he believed, "take possession of the means of marketing and distributing their own products." [Barrett, Uncle Ruben, 152] Speculators in agricultural products are evil, he declared, and should be eliminated. "Of what earthly use are they to society? What service of merit do they perform?....The great grain and cotton gambling houses separate the farmers from scores of millions of dollars annually." [Barrett, Uncle Ruben, 155]
Standard Oil, he said, fixes prices; steamship lines fix prices; interest and discount rates are fixed by bankers; the Interstate Commerce Commission allows rates that will provide a fair rate of return on invested capital; communities allow street railway companies fares which will provide a fair rate of return on invested capital; but the farmer, he complained, is denied like treatment. He blamed the "frightful debacle of 1920 - 1921" on the Federal Reserve System. [Barrett, Uncle Ruben, 121]
"There can be no question in the mind of the thinking man that the cruel, remorseless, pitiless and criminal deflation practiced in those days was premeditated." [Barrett, Uncle Ruben, 122] That the plan, he says, "to deflate agriculture and at the same time give the speculative element in Wall Street all the money and credit necessary, was the result of a cruel and premeditated design is proved by all the circumstances of the case." [Barrett, Uncle Ruben, 123]
In another book he wrote, The Mission, History and Times of the Farmers' Union, appear many eloquent complaints about Congressmen, speculators, and assorted others: "Another brand of schemers more daring, more expert, more damnable and wealthier, are those who plot and manipulate either to affect the size of crops, or to beat down the market prices for them. I have known them to send smooth-tongued scoundrels into every State in which we were organized, preaching dissension, and straining heaven and earth to nullify the advice from headquarters....The farmer they view as their natural enemy, and they are after his scalp regardless....This vermin does not dare attack the principles or purposes of the Farmers' Union. They are entirely too sharp for that. But they slip around after night through back alleys and sow poisonous doubts regarding the honesty and integrity of the officials." [Barrett, Mission, 33 - 37]
The Cotton Producers Association
In 1933 a University of Georgia agronomy instructor, D. W. Brooks, who left the University to start a farmers' cooperative, met with five farmers in a warehouse in Carrollton, Georgia to start what subsequently became the Cotton Producers Association. Its objective was to increase farmers' standard of living; provide price stability and reasonably priced inputs; provide improved methods of production and distribution of farm output; and increase farmers' bargaining power. [Dimsdale, 11] To achieve this it sought to increase the efficiency of marketing and production; to influence supply and demand; and obtain favorable government programs. Brooks appears not to have been ideologically motivated as, perhaps, Barrett was.
The CPA was initially financed by acquiring--mainly in $5-$10-sized contributions--from farmers in Carroll and nearby counties for a total of $2,100 and an additional $6,500 by issuing notes to other farmers. The Citizens and Southern National Bank in Atlanta and the Columbia Bank for Cooperatives in South Carolina loaned the CPA additional money on the basis of these notes. In this way a warehouse in Carrollton, Georgia was obtained in 30 days.
Like many officials of the Farmers Union, those of the CPA were relatively well educated men, however. neither they nor, it appears, were many members of the CPA school teachers, preachers, editors, politicians, etc. who might have been motivated by things other than putting dollars in farmers' pockets. When in 1937, during a recession within the worst depression the nation has ever experienced, the CPA began receiving cotton in Carrollton, it had two objectives: to provide farmers with lower storage costs and provide licensed weighing and grading services so farmers could obtain a fair price for their cotton when it was marketed. Prior to this time, Brooks said, farmers had received the local market price regardless of the quality of their cotton. Farmers were not forced to deal with the CPA; so that none of them could say they had lost money by dealing with it. [Dimsdale, 24]
This is an exploratory study from which no firm conclusions can be drawn. A possible at least partial explanation for Farmers' Union membership growing in the West, while shrinking in the South, was different economic and social conditions in the two regions: greater competition and the boll weevil and a less homogenous group: racial (white/black) and class (owner/tenant) to organize commutally. The success of the CPA in Georgia with its apparently strictly business approach and lack of emphasis on recruiting ever more members suggests that Barrett's highly emotional analysis of the farmers' plight: farmers' main problem was that they were the victims of evil people who must be destroyed and special benefits like those the wrong-headed government was lavishing on them be granted farmers, caused him to provide the Union with a type of leadership more appropriate for political campaign or religious crusade than operating an economic enterprise.
Ambrose, Stephen E., "Cotton Prices and Costs: A Suggestion, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII No. 1, March 1964, pp. 78 - 80.
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Barrett, Charles Simon, Uncle Reuben in Washington, Washington, The Farmers National Publishing Company.
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Crampton, John A., The National Farmers Union, Ideology of a Pressure Group, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
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1. Union City lies only a few miles South of Atlanta. A mere crossroads when the Union located there, Union City grew to include a Union fertilizer plant, an implement factory, a wholesale farm supply firm, a Union bank, and three hotels." [Tucker, 200]
2. After the 1960s, cotton ceased to be produced in Carroll County, and in Carroll County today Gold Kist processes chickens.