Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/January 1908/Farm Tenancy a Problem in American Agriculture

Popular Science Monthly Volume 72 January 1908  (1908) 
Farm Tenancy a Problem in American Agriculture by Homer Charles Price


By Professor HOMER C. PRICE


THE per cent. of American farms operated by owners is constantly decreasing. The census for 1900 shows that over one third of the farms are operated by tenants and that in the last twenty years the per cent, has risen from 25.5 in 1880 to 35.3 in 1900.

This tendency toward tenancy has been and is viewed with alarm by the thoughtful American farmer. One of the boasts of American life has been the independence of ownership of its people. American agriculture in particular has been made up of a class owning their own farms. Land has been in greater abundance than labor or capital and has been dealt out with a lavish hand by the government. Since 1863, 233,043,939 acres of land have been given away in homesteads of 160 acres each, under the "Homestead Act" of 1862. For the man who wanted a farm there has been an opportunity to get one for taking it up and establishing a home. And the distribution of this land has not been confined to any one year, but quite uniformly distributed throughout the last forty years, and since 1900 more land has been given away by the homestead entries than ever before, as shown by the following statistics:

Public Lands of the United States taken up in Homestead Grants since 1900

Year Acres
1900 8,478,400
1901 9,479,275
1902 14,033,246
1903 11,193,120
1904 10,171,266

With these large areas of public lands being given away each year, and with a farming population that is constantly decreasing as compared with the population engaged in other occupations, why should the farmers of our country be losing the titles to their farms? Is it a harbinger of an American peasantry, and are we drifting toward landlordism? When compared with European countries, the United States is neither first nor last in the matter of tenancy of her farm lands. In Germany 12.38 of the farm lands are cultivated by tenants, in England 86 per cent., in France 47.2 per cent, and in the United States 23.3 per cent, of the total farm lands.

The distribution of this tenancy in the United States varies greatly, depending upon geographical location.

Tenancy and Land Ownership in the United States in 1900

Owners Tenants
North Atlantic States 79.2 20.8
South Atlantic States 55.7 44.3
North Central States 73.1 26.9
South Central States 51.4 48.6
Western States 83.4 16.6

The southern states have by far the largest amount of tenancy, which is due, no doubt, in a large degree to the negro population. When the slaves were freed, the large plantations were broken up and instead of the system of slavery there sprang up the system of tenancy which, from the standpoint of economic production, has been worse than slavery, and the lands have been depleted of fertility and have produced a scanty living for both the tenant and the landlord, whereas under the old system they would have produced an abundance for owner and slave, and their fertility would have been maintained.

In the northern states the conditions are different—and other causes have entered into the problem of land ownership. In the North Atlantic states, characterized by their granite hills and sterile soils, the problem of tenancy has not been as great as the problem of abandoned farms. Farms were deserted because no one could be found to rent them and owners stayed on them because they could not sell them. The young men have gone west, to the more fertile lands, and allowed the farms to revert back to nature. Within the last few years, the high prices that have prevailed for farm lands in the middle west have created a demand for the abandoned farms of New England, and many of them have been taken up.

Economists claim that tenancy is a step toward ownership, and that the young man who purchases a farm is first a renter and then a farm owner. If such is the case, the state of tenancy is but temporary, and an increase of tenancy would be indications of prosperity, and would simply mark a step in the process of acquiring land ownership. But, if this is the case, the per cent, of farms held by tenants should not continue to increase indefinitely, but should soon begin to decrease—however, this is not the case, and more American farms are constantly going into the hands of tenants.

For a closer investigation of this subject let us take the state of Ohio, which is typical of the North Central states. In 1880 the per cent, of tenancy in Ohio was 19.3, in 1890, 22.9, and in 1900, 27.5. The state is naturally divided into four distinct agricultural divisions. The northeastern part of the state is made up of more or less rolling land, and a soil that is largely clay or clay loam. The soil is adapted to dairying and the growing of wheat, oats, timothy and pasture, but not to corn. The southeastern part of the state is made up of the non-glaciated
PSM V72 D046 Tenant farmers of ohio based on the 12th census of 1900.png
Map of Ohio showing the Per Cent, of Farms operated by Tenants as Reported in the Twelfth Census 1900.

glaciated part of the state and is preeminently hilly and sterile, and is by far the poorest agricultural section of the state and contains the lowest-priced land in the state. The southwestern part of the state embraces the Miami river valleys and is made up of the most fertile and valuable agricultural lands of the state. The northwestern section of the state is made up of the newest lands in the state, principally level lands that have necessitated draining, but after being reclaimed have proved to be exceptionally fertile lands.

On the accompanying map, showing the per cent, of tenancy in each county in the state, as reported in the twelfth census, it will be seen that the largest amount of tenancy is to be found in the southwestern section of the state, in the Miami river valleys, and the most fertile section of the state; and, if the accompanying map showing the decennial valuation of lands in the state as reported for taxation is also compared, it will also be seen that there is a close relationship between
PSM V72 D047 Farm acreage of ohio by county based on the 12th census of 1900.png
Map of Ohio showing the Valuation of Farm Lands per Acre, by Counties, as reported by the decennial board of appraisers in 1900.

the values of land and the per cent, of tenancy. That is, the highest per cent, of tenancy is to be found on the most fertile land. It is not because tenancy tends to increase the fertility of the land or to increase its valuation, because such is not the case, but rather the opposite. But it is due to the fact that the more fertile lands are the best investment for capital and are more eagerly held as investments than any other farm lands. In the fertile counties of the state, where the percentage of tenancy is high, farms that have been inherited by children who have gone to the city to live have been held as investments. They are readily rented, so that they will yield a fair return on the investment, and at the same time the sentiment of keeping the old homestead is observed. In this way they are rented out for cash, or a share of the crops produced, and they thus pass into tenancy. On the less fertile lands of the state, such as are found in the southeastern part, the per cent, of the farms held by tenants is low, and the value of the farm lands is low. The lands are poor investments for capital, and farms inherited by parties no longer living in the section are turned into money as quickly as possible. Loose capital will not go into such territory and buy such farms just as an investment. The same principle holds true in a comparison of the states as of the counties. In the North Central states the average tenancy of farms was in 1900, 27.9 per cent. By states it was as follows:

Per Cent.
Illinois 39.3
Nebraska 36.9
Kansas 35.2
Iowa 34.9
Missouri 30.5
Indiana 28.6
Ohio 27.5
South Dakota 21.8
Minnesota 17.3
Michigan 15.9
Wisconsin 13.5
North Dakota 8.5

Illinois and Iowa are acknowledged the best agricultural states in the union, as well as in the North Central division, and hold first and fourth place, respectively, in this group of states—the great agricultural states of the union. Our most fertile lands are gradually drifting into the hands of tenants, and unless the movement is stayed the agriculture of these farms will decline.

Tenancy, as it now exists on American farms, is detrimental to the agricultural welfare of the country, from both an economic and a social standpoint. Farm leases, as a rule, are of short duration; this is an incentive to the farmer to only have regard for the present productiveness of the land and to disregard any methods of maintaining the fertility of the land. Short leases result in a transient population that is demoralizing to the farmer himself and to the community. The old proverb, "A rolling stone gathers no moss," is no more aptly illustrated than in the case of the tenant farmer who moves from farm to farm, never remaining more than a few years in a place. Such a tenant is not interested in improving the farm unless immediate results can be realized; he is not a permanent citizen of the neighborhood and can not be regarded as a reliable constituent of the school or church. Absent owners of such farms are not interested in the improvement of the buildings and equipment of the farms, the building of better roads, the maintaining of better schools or any public improvement that will add to the expenses of the farm unless it will give a proportionate return at an early date. In England the detrimental effects of farm tenancy that have been mentioned are in a large degree removed by the long periods which tenants occupy the same lands; father, son and grandson occupy the same farm throughout their lifetime, and the land owners are satisfied with a low per cent. of interest on their investment and have no thought of changing their tenants. Under such conditions there is little chance for a farm tenant to become a farm owner, and, in most cases, little desire.

In the north central states of the United States it is becoming more difficult for the farm tenant to become a land owner; prices of farm real estate have advanced so that it is becoming more and more difficult for the farm hand to own a farm. On the other hand, the present farms are passing from father to son by inheritance, and why should the per cent. of farms operated by owners decrease if one son in each family remained on the homestead, or one daughter in each family married a farmer and took up the management of the homestead?

Senator Morrill in his speech before congress in behalf of the land grant colleges, in 1858, said that, "The nation which tills the soil so as to leave it worse than they found it is doomed to decay and degradation." When these words were uttered, there seemed to be an endless expanse of public lands that only awaited the pioneer's plow to yield their virgin fertility; these lands have now been practically all taken up, and it is doubly important that the fertility of our soils should be preserved. The very fact that tenancy of farm lands tends to deplete their fertility is sufficient reason for a general interest in the subject.

Much has been written and said about the movement from country to city, and many causes have been assigned for it, but it has been the natural result of the introduction of labor-saving machinery and improved means of transportation, and fewer persons are required to carry on agriculture than formerly. However, this does not account for the decline in farm owners, and the problem still remains.

Legislation can do something to make it easier to own land than at present. The removal of taxes on mortgaged farms, the establishment of a better credit system, so that money can be borrowed more readily and more cheaply for the purchase of farm lands than is the case at the present time, would greatly add to the ability of young farmers buying their own farms.

Education that will teach a more rational system of agriculture and a greater appreciation of the possibilities of the farm and farm life will do much to counteract the tendency of farm boys to leave the farm lands that they have inherited to seek employment in the city.