REVIEW: Disputed Ground
A Poor Deal
Why many farm groups opposed New Deal agricultural policies

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


Disputed Ground: Farm Groups that Opposed the New Deal Agricultural Program

By Jean Choate
McFarland, 2002
232 pp
ISBN: 0-7864-1184-8 $32.00

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May 12, 2005: History, as the adage goes, is written by the winners. And since decency and uprightness rarely leads to political victory, there is often more creative storytelling in history than in contemporary fiction. But there are some historians who choose not to parrot the respectable myths and instead, as Jean Choate does in Disputed Ground, tell a history from the perspective of the losers. Choate details the struggles of seven farm organizations against the Agricultural Adjustment Act (known as AAA), part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s suite of New Deal programs. Disputed Ground suggests that, at least with respect to farmers, the New Deal was not quite the little man’s messiah, or even his ally.

Choate dedicates a chapter to each farm organization under examination: the Missouri Farmers Association, the Farmers Union, the Farmers Holiday Association, the Farmers Independence Council, the National Farmers Process Tax Recovery Association, The Farmers Guild, and The Corn Belt Liberty League. Most of these groups were formed during the Depression years when farmers faced bankruptcy and foreclosure (in 1932 farm income was half of what it was the previous year). Many of these farm groups initially supported Roosevelt during his 1932 election campaign because he promised to establish ‘cost of production’ prices—prices that represented all costs, including labor, necessary to produce a product.

Some group leaders, such as William Hirth and John Simpson, campaigned vigorously for Roosevelt. But once Roosevelt was elected, it became clear that he was not going to deliver the ‘cost of production’ legislation. Instead, he imposed production limits combined with compensation for the decreased production. Many of the farm groups that had supported his candidacy then turned against Roosevelt's New Deal farm package. The President also filled the Agriculture Department with wealthy farmers and academics more devoted to big business than to small farmers. Milo Reno, the head of the Farmers Holiday Association, called these men “his inefficient economic idiots known as the ‘brain trust’” (p. 63).

Disputed Ground is replete with interesting excerpts, whether from the unedited letters of earnest followers of radio broadcaster D.B. Gurney (“I am for the 16 principles what our radio preast preches to us” [sic]) or from the suave diplomatic rhetoric of the newly elected president (“Your letter…was buried in the flood of congratulatory messages…I know you will understand and excuse the delay”) or from a farm group leader’s blunt response when Roosevelt acknowledged there were imperfections with the Agriculture Adjustment Act (“It stinks”). That said, much of the excerpted correspondence seems excessive. Choate includes some ping-pong exchanges between farm group representatives and politicians that are probably only relevant to certain academics or the most fanatic history buffs. If you want a taste of what it would be like to lobby on agricultural policy, you will get it.

In the preface, Choate says that what follows is the story of people who struggled and lost. They lost because none of them was able to fundamentally change the New Deal agriculture program. There were, of course, successes along the way. For example, the Farmers Holiday Association—contrary to what its name might suggest—was busy informing the public about the plight of American farmers and organizing strikes, often massive ones capable of shutting down whole cities. But they were unable to overthrow or overhaul the Agriculture Adjustment Act.

At the end of the book Choate writes that “these old letters and records of the New Deal remain to remind us of people’s concerns in an earlier day—concerns that are echoed in the rallying cries of farmers’ protests of more recent years” (p. 193). That is as polemical and rousing—in an activist sense—as Disputed Ground gets. Choate is not out to tear down FDR from his populist pedestal or to glorify the various farm groups. She does not hesitate to document the relations between the Farmers Guild and the anti-Semitic, fascist-leaning magazine Social Justice, which proclaimed that Zionist Communists were seeking to dominate the world and destroy Christian civilization. Many of the farm groups, in fact, were in opposition with one another: The Farmers Independence Council opposed the New Deal because it wanted the government out of the farmer’s life, unlike most of the other groups, which sought increased governmental legislation.

Disputed Ground is important precisely because it offers us a piece of history that would otherwise remain unknown or, worse, unremembered. And no better photograph could have been chosen for the book's cover: A dapper Roosevelt is shaking hands from the back of his chauffeured car with a farmer, who is standing in his overalls, his free hand resting on his shovel. Roosevelt is smiling and looking at the farmer. The farmer is not smiling and he is not looking back.

Constantine Markides currently lives on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain. He can be reached at