In the period 1865-1900, technology, government policy, and economic conditions all changed American agriculture a large amount. New farming machinery had a large role in the late 19th century, giving farmers the opportunity to produce a lot more crops than they used to. The railroads had an enormous influence on agriculture. They were able to charge the farmers large fees, expenses that farmers barely had enough to cover, in order to transport their goods throughout the expansive country. The booming industry also changed American agriculture, creating monopolies and gaining incrediblewealth with which the farmers simply could not compete. Economically, the amount of money one received along with the steadily dropping prices of agricultural produce led farmers further intodebt, eventually producing outcomes such as the crop-lien system and sharecropping. All of these tie into government policy which favored the large and wealthy industries and monopolies over the farmers.
As the agriculture prices statistics stated, over the course of the 35 years from 1865-1900, agriculture went from good to bad. Wheat went from $2.16 a bushel to $.62. Cotton and corn both followed in a similar suit, dropping from $.83 to $.10 a pound and $.52 to $.35 a bushel. As farmers began getting less and less profit from their produce, they tried to compensate more and more by producing more (Doc A). Over time, this caused overproduction, driving prices down even more. However, as Mary Elizabeth Lease points out in her speech about politics, that even though they were producing more crops they were still cheated (Doc G). The farmers were barely being paid for their crops and yet they were being told they were suffering from overproduction and when ten thousand children were starving every year in the United States. Poverty was affecting every citizen, whether they were white or black. A contract from North Carolina shows how people rented land and used sharecropping because they could no longer make it on their own (Doc E).
A map on the railroads in 1870 and then 20 years later in 1890 is an ideal example of the way the railroads grew (Doc B). As farmers exhausted soil in the eastern and central parts of the country, they had to continue spreading westward. As they expanded farther west, they became more dependent on the monopolized railroads.The farmers complained that the railroads charged too much for their services, and groups of farmers formed together in Granges to address such issues(Doc C). Farmers eventually got prices to lower in Illinois, although not all states were as successful in putting restrictions or limits on the prices. The Supreme Court used the 14th amendment to favor the large industries and monopolies, like the railroad. In most cases it was ruled that profits are a property right and states cannot control these profits because it goes against due process and equal protection under the law. These rulings made it very hard for individual states to interfere and put any limits on the high prices.
One of the most heated debates of the time period was over the gold standard. In North Carolina the crop-lien system or sharecropping is used(Doc E). It shows how the farmers are profiting little or no money at all by the 1880’s, however the government, along with the wealthier citizens, were trying to implement a gold standard, eliminating silver currency altogether and creating some deflation. The farmers, most of whom were already in debt, hated this Gold Standard system. The Farmers were already indebted to the people they leased their land from, and if there was a monetary policy, the amount of money they owed would remain the same, however the value of that money would increase. In a speech made by William Bryan it is clear that there was opposition to the Gold Standard by the farmers (Doc J). Through the fight against the gold standard a new party emerged known as the Greenback party. This was mainly an agrarian-dominated party who sought to increase the amount of money in circulation to include both gold and silver. The greenback party eventually merged into the Populist Party, whose main goal was to challenge the dominant republican and democratic parties, who had no feelings for the starving farmers, and supported the wealthier industries.
All of these factors account for most of the troubles in the agricultural community during this time period, however smaller factors also played into it. As a letter from a starving women explains how the weather in the late 19th century took its toll on smaller farms that only had one or two crops. If a storm wiped out one of those crops completely, the farmers and their families were left with nothing (Doc H). One of the only options was to work for a large industry, most of which were located in the north. Heavy droughts also took out many farms in this time period, only worsening the farmers’ already poor situations. Alongside climate conditions, technology, government policy, and economic conditions all contributed to the drastic change in American agriculture in the late 19th century.