Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/March 1914/The Question of Agricultural Population


By Professor ARLAND D. WEEKS


IN current discussions of country life there seems to be the implication if not the direct claim that the urban population of the nation is relatively too large as compared with country population. Regret is general because boys and girls leave the farm. The steady regression of percentage of rural as compared with urban population in the decades of our national life gives rise to apprehension. It is held as a disquieting fact that so many agricultural counties—230 by the last census—should show an absolute decline in population, while the growth of cities is phenomenal.

There are no doubt many reasons for the sentiment in favor of a larger agricultural population. We have not yet come to believe in the city as a normal mode of life. When the older people of the United States were young the country took precedence over the city, and the experiences of childhood passed on the farm perhaps affect the point of view at present. The sentimental claims of agricultural life no doubt color our economics. The sentiment, too, for a return to nature, recrudescing periodically with Horace, Rousseau, Emerson, Thoreau, and John Burroughs, and always deep in the nature of man, fallaciously carries with it the inference that the agricultural population should be relatively large. Of course, the desire for living close to nature has no connection with the economic question of how large the actual agricultural population should be.

But among the most active causes of interest in agricultural population is the high retail price of food. The products of the farm reach the consumer at high expense. It matters little to the consumer where the increase of cost attaches, so long as he must pay prices which by comparison with those formerly prevailing seem to be those of famine. There is perhaps a lurking feeling that farm products should not cost much. The time was when to help oneself to fruit from the farmer's trees or invade his vegetable garden bore not the slightest resemblance to larceny—it simply showed a confidence in the philanthropic nature of farming. Things were "free" in the country, though no one, of course, would feel free to carry off a peck of lead pencils from a stationer's or half a bushel of rubber balls from a toy store.

Let us admit the acceptability of cheaper food. How does this affect the question of agricultural population? Does it follow that because food is expensive there should be more farmers? It is found that lima beans retailing in New York City for $4.80 a bushel paid the Long Island farmer who grew them 30 cents a bushel, after making allowance for commission and freight charges. Surely the additional charges on food due to the middleman is no justification for more men to engage in agriculture. Food is still cheap as it leaves the hands of the farmer.

Let us also admit the prevalence of unscientific and wasteful methods of agriculture. There is certainly great need of reforming the practise of farming. The abuses of agriculture are so patent, such as the keeping of inferior stock, the neglect of farm machinery in the west, the impoverishment of the soil due to lack of proper rotation of crops and fertilizing, and improper methods of tillage, that public interest has been aroused. But this aspect of agriculture surely does not warrant the cry of back to the land, but rather a demand for more intelligence in production. Indeed, with more scientific farming fewer men would be needed on the land. The increased use of machinery on the farm has already decimated the rural population. It by no means follows from the high cost of farm products at retail or from the evident waste from poor agricultural methods that a relative increase in agricultural population is desirable.

The need of clearness in regard to the real basis for the size of agricultural as compared with urban population is evident. There must be some rather definite relationship between country and city populations, lying deeper than passing modes of thought or superficial enthusiasms. Is there not a question as to whether there should be a relatively larger agricultural population? May it not even be disastrous eventually for migration countrywards to be stimulated? That there are acute questions in regard to the farm and life in country must be admitted. But the very common assumption that there should be a movement back to the farm, in the sense of numbers, may be open to doubt.

May we not first of all dismiss the idea that people leave the farm primarily because of preference for city life? As a matter of fact the country makes an immense appeal to millions of people who are forced to live in cities to earn a living. The hardships of the farm, such as are not forms of poverty, would hardly deter people from living on farms. Hardships did not prevent the "forty-niners" from seeking gold, nor do hardships of weather, exposure, or isolation successfully oppose the seeking of wealth in any field.

It may perhaps be safely argued that the number of persons engaged in any occupation bears a very close relation to the economic attractions offered. If the ease of securing gainful employment is greater in city than in country nothing will prevent a transfer of population. If a farmer with a capital of $4,000 can by moving to town get as much for his labor as a drayman as he formerly got for his labor and capital, he is likely to move to town and put his money at interest, thus increasing his annual income. A young man in the country after gaining an amount of schooling is ready to offer his services for sale. Where is the best market? In the majority of cases he finds that it is in the city. He follows the job.

The steady and rapid drift of agricultural population to cities implies the economic dominance of the occupations of cities. If the population of cities tends to outstrip that of the country, it is evident that wealth is relatively increasing rapidly in cities. Where wealth is there will men gather. No amount of exhortation or solicitation will avail to turn the tide countryward if the wealth pull is toward the city.

But is the economic dominance of the city and the suction of life out of the agricultural areas normal and legitimate or unnatural and sinister? Should we make up our minds to the steady continuance of the cityward movement or set our faces against it? What is the rationale of the matter?

In this connection perhaps the truest light comes from noting a somewhat overlooked fact in regard to modern tendencies in consumption. The things we buy are increasingly those of the city rather than of the farm. A smaller and smaller percentage of income is being spent for forms of goods associated with the farm. As standards of living improve there arises an ever-increasing demand for things the farm has little or nothing to do with, such as professional services, classes of manufactured articles, and recreations.

Suppose, for example, that a family with an income of $2,000 suddenly acquired a $4,000 income. Would the farm receive a larger sum, provided the whole income were spent on living? Would this family buy more eggs, potatoes or apples? Possibly a little more. But would not practically all of the increase of income go for the goods of the city? Suppose a man inherited a million dollars and set out to spend it. How much more would he spend in which the farmer would directly share? Even in hypothetical expenditures for rare wines and fifty-cent cigars the grape grower and the tobacco raiser would share but faintly, for manufacturing and distributing processes would absorb the lion's share of the retail price. And as for automobiles, grand pianos, works of art, travel and operations for appendicitis, city occupations would be the almost exclusive beneficiaries.

With increase of purchasing power the prosperous consumer wants but little if any more of direct farm products, while his desires for other values soar. Agricultural products cater to a low range of fixed wants, while non-agricultural goods satisfy wants which are ever in advance of power to purchase and are virtually without limit. The wants satisfied by agricultural products may be thought of as occupying the space between parallel lines, while the wants satisfied by non-agricultural goods, the product of cities, occupy the space between the indefinitely extended sides of an acute angle.

Hence it is that the future belongs to the non-agricultural sphere, for we may assume an indefinitely rising standard of living among all classes. Non-agricultural goods and occupations are bound to increase their lead over straight agriculture commensurately with advancing civilization, which implies the acquirement of more wants of acceptable type. Were man but to feed and sleep the case were different. Inasmuch as population, urban and rural, must be correlated with the production of goods and corresponding income there is reason for believing that the drift toward the occupations at present largely local to cities must be accepted as a final decree of civilization.

It is true, of course, that the farm is the source of many materials which enter into manufactured articles. But where manufacturing processes are superimposed on agricultural production, the selling price of the final product is rarely divided at all equally between the farm and the factory. A farmer sells a hide for about the sum received by the department store for a purse. Whole wheat breakfast foods return the farmer one cent to 111/2 cents for other industries, the wool in a suit of clothes returns the grower $1.84, while the finished suit is sold by the tailor for $50. Wherever finishing processes are applied to raw farm products, whether in the case of Saratoga chips or peanut candy, the division of the final selling price is usually overwhelmingly in favor of the non-agricultural industries.

Unquestionably in many cases the division is unfair. The farmer does not get enough and other participators get too much. Considering the unflagging labor for long hours on the farm and the almost desperate struggle waged on many a farm for income, it is beyond doubt that the exploitation of the farmer has been equaled by nothing except the factory system at its worst or the institution of slavery. When one considers that a real cabbage must be sold by the farmer for cents while an artificial rose will sell for dollars the irony of the farmer's position is manifest. A steer sold by the farmer for $80 is served in fashionable restaurants for $2,500. The current division of values between farm and city industries is one of the monstrosities of civilization, the correction of which would steady the flow of population to cities, perhaps even suddenly check it for a period, but in view of the nature of human wants the ultimate dominance of city occupations can not be gainsaid.

Assuming a tendency toward correlation between agricultural and urban wealth and population, it is interesting to note the relative standing of city and country at the present time. Is the national population divided between country and city in proportion to the division of wealth?

While the last census gives the rural population as 53.7 per cent, of the national population, the actual number of residents on farms is much less. In the rural population as reported by the census of 1910 is included the population of towns and villages having less than 2,500 inhabitants. The actual agricultural population is about one third of the national population. In 1910 35.3 per cent, of all persons reported as having gainful occupations were engaged in agriculture.

With one third of the national population engaged in agriculture, we have only to compare agricultural with other production to reach certain inevitable conclusions. Were a parity of wealth distribution maintained between city and county, evidently the income to agriculture should be about equal to one third of the total' social production. But is this the case, and if not what deductions may be drawn?

The census of 1910 gives the total value of manufactured articles for the United States for the year 1909 as (in round numbers) 21 billion dollars. The total agricultural production for the same year was 81/2 billion dollars. So far the division of social income seems to correspond fairly equitably with division of population. But there is more to be said. When the 21 billion dollars' worth of manufactured articles reaches the consumer the value has been augmented by transportation, advertising and sellers' charges by at least 50 per cent, above factory prices. Probably this estimate is absurdly low. But at the lowest estimate the 21 billion dollars has become 301/2 billion, as against the 81/2 billion of agricultural production. But wait, the 81/2 billion dollars' worth of agricultural products, on its way to the consumer, doubles in value, according to results of investigations of the United States Department of Agriculture. This means that while the farm receives 81/2 billion dollars the city occupations based upon agriculture obtain another 81/2 billion dollars. Adding this sum to the income of city occupations heretofore given and we have a grand total of 39 billion dollars income for the city as against 81/2 billion for the farm. The addition of professional incomes, local to the city, would increase the total by a very large amount. But at the lowest figures the city's share in the division of productional values is 82 per cent, to but 18 per cent, for the farm. Were population apportioned between agriculture and the city on this basis there should be over 75 million people in cities and less than 17 millions on farms. On this basis there are now millions more people in agricultural districts than agricultural, as compared with urban, income warrants.

Why this remarkable relatively large population on farms? Historical reasons might be cited, but perhaps there are two main causes—a phenomenally low standard of living in agricultural areas, and low per capita wealth production. It is evident that present agricultural income can maintain only a standard of living that is on the whole far below the average prevailing in cities. On the other hand, with a third of the national population producing less than 18 per cent, of the social income it must be inferred that productional methods on the farm are much in arrears of those employed in city occupations. There remains, of course, the speculation as to the extent to which urban interests "farm the farmer." Feeble selling methods on the part of the farmer result in low prices for his goods and affect the total and per capita agricultural production as given in census reports. But even with allowance made for the superior profit-taking facilities of city occupations, it would seem beyond question that per capita production in the country is relatively low.

Evidently if more people enter farming, other things equal, the prices received by the farmer will fall due to overproduction and a still lower standard of living result. If more scientific methods of farming are employed, thus increasing agricultural production, prices will tend to fall unless there is an exodus of farmers or selling organizations among farmers to hold prices up. With a higher percentage of population going into farming and with more scientific methods the glut of farm products would be severe, unless relief were found in regulating the quantity of farm products raised for purposes of maintaining prices. The limited physical capacity of society to consume farm products is a fact to be taken into account.

Even if the prices of city commodities were greatly decreased and the prices of agricultural products increased, while the income to agriculture would warrant a higher percentage of population in the country, the absolute amount of agricultural products consumed by society would remain about the same for a given national population, assuming that no scarcity of agricultural products already existed. In the event of larger income to agriculture a larger relative population is conceivable only on the assumption that agricultural production remains about the same, possibly through the shortening of hours of labor by which overproduction would be avoided.

In response to economic laws the drift to cities may be expected to continue indefinitely. "We must accept the fact that agriculture is not by any means the dominant occupation, but is relatively decreasing in importance, its logical precedence in the creation of values of course being conceded. But it would be unreasonable to urge a larger relative agricultural population without simultaneously urging organization among farmers to regulate production or to hold prices to a level which would enable them to approximate the standard of living characteristic of cities, unless cheap farmers are desired as well as cheap food. The arguments for a relatively larger agricultural production should not be ex parte, for such would prove the farmer's undoing if not refuted by protective efforts among farmers themselves.