Excerpts from the Press Conference
Q. Mr. President, do you still stand on your statement of last October 25th, relative to agriculture?
THE PRESIDENT: What was that?
Q. A permanent program.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. If you want a lead about agriculture, I think probably it would be worth while to bring out certain responsibilities that necessarily devolve on me.
I have to think of agriculture from the point of view of forty-eight States, not separately, but as a part of the Nation. In other words, there is no question as to what my duty as President is, and that is to view agriculture as a national problem.
The reason I am saying this is that, at the present time, as a result of the decision (United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1), many of the old suggestions that were made back as far as the earlier days of President Coolidge's Administration are being revived. There are, for instance, much discussion and a good deal of suggestion that we should subsidize the export of certain crops. Of course, if you once begin to subsidize the export of certain crops, you will subsidize the export of a great many crops and eventually of all crops. And because I have to think of agriculture nationally, rather than think of it as a local problem, I have to think of the implications of what would happen if, by an export subsidy of some kind, we encouraged the growing of a very vastly increased total of agricultural production.
You can take any number of examples. For instance, wheat. We never had very much of a problem in wheat until, well, the past generation, when dry farming came in, and with the advent of dry farming, the old buffalo grass was plowed up. It was not plowed up in one county or township, it was plowed up in a great many States; and we all know the result of that.
With the advent of modern machinery and a certain amount of capital, you could go in and drive a furrow in buffalo-grass country ten miles long before you turned around. The result was what we all know, that a very light soil was turned up, the grass was plowed under and disappeared, and farmers started in to raise wheat. Because of the great area in which each farm could be cultivated, the yield per acre was not the main consideration. A man could make money on wheat at a reasonable price if he got a yield of only ten or twelve bushels to the acre. Of course ten or twelve bushels an acre is nothing, but nevertheless it paid to do it if wheat was paying a big price.
What was the result of this plowing up of land that had never been plowed up before in all history? Dust storms began, and they have been getting steadily worse year by year. The result is that we have in this country an area which is subject to dust storms. This was caused solely by the fact that we have been using land for the wrong purpose. Instead of using it for pasture, we are using it for wheat.
Now, what is the area? It isn't just one State, it is the Panhandle of Texas, Western Oklahoma, Western Kansas, Western Nebraska, Western South Dakota—just speaking from memory—Western North Dakota, a large portion of Montana, Eastern Wyoming and Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
Now, the area in square miles I don't know; I never figured it out. But, thinking of it in terms of the map, that area is probably as large as all of New England and all of New York and all of New Jersey and all of Pennsylvania put together. That is a tremendous national area.
If we go in for a national agricultural policy that encourages the plowing up of that land again—and we are trying to take it out from being plowed—it means that people will go in with modern machinery and, because of some kind of an export subsidy, it will pay them to plow it up again. And the dust storms will continue and we shall approach much more quickly what we have all been worrying about—making that area a desert on which nobody can live.
Now, the same thing is true of cotton. If we were to give an export subsidy, it would mean that people would say, "Domestic prices are all right, the export prices are all right, too; the more I grow the more money I make," and the average cotton farmer in the Southeast, let us say, will increase his land, and start going up on the hilltops, and will begin planting again land that ought to be in pasture or in woods. The result will be that all through the cotton area you will have an increase in the amount of soil that runs off in waste to the ocean..
In other words, to put it the most simple way, we must avoid any national agricultural policy which will result in shipping our soil fertility to foreign Nations. I think probably that is the best way of putting it.
Q. Can we put that in quotes?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, you can put that in quotes. We must avoid any national agricultural policy that will result in shipping our soil fertility to foreign Nations. We have had so many lessons in that in the past that it seems perfectly clear.
Of course, it is very easy and attractive to say, "We can go ahead and raise any quantity at all of any crop with a certain definite export market caused by a Congressional subsidy." A lot of people will be for it, but not the thinking farmer; and more and more of them are thinking all the time.
The people who probably are most actively for it are, first, the transportation companies, the railroads, because, of course, it means more business for them. It is very human that they should think about the railroads ahead of soil fertility or the future of the Nation. That is perfectly human. To the steamship companies also it means carrying more. It is perfectly reasonable and natural that they should think in terms of more bulk agricultural freight than about the future of this country. And it is very reasonable that the warehouse people, too, should seek greater crops. It means that they will have more crops to put into their warehouses. It is very natural that commission merchants should also think of greater crops, because the bigger the crop the bigger the commission. And it is reasonable also that the commodity exchanges should be in favor of bigger crops.
In other words, the pocketbook, naturally, has a very definite influence on people who are engaged in some particular line of handling farm products, so that is one of the things we have to think of.
I think that covers the thing pretty well. I have tried to say it in as simple terms as possible.
My position is that I have to think of the future of the country. It seems pretty clear from the teachings of history that absolutely unlimited production—not merely in two or three crops, because if you start with two or three you will eventually get a subsidy on all crops—will result in the loss of American soil fertility in a generation or two; and I believe that we have to think ahead.
Q. That seems to point to something in the nature of the allotment plan or . . .
THE PRESIDENT: No, I was just thinking out loud. We haven't come to any plan yet. We are still talking it over, as you know. Undoubtedly we shall try to get some legislation at this session which will carry out in some way the general thought of seeking to maintain or perhaps to retain and regain soil fertility because we have lost an awful lot of it and, at the same time, keep the price for American agricultural crops up to a high level.
Q. You do not agree that the equalization feature would eliminate the objection to the subsidy idea? Some of the advocates seem to think so.
THE PRESIDENT: That is a question of opinion. They are all talking about it.
Q. Do you think you can do this by an Act in Congress?
THE PRESIDENT: That is what we are trying to do.
Q. Have you found a loophole in the Supreme Court decision which would permit you to make payments to farmers?
THE PRESIDENT: We are really discussing the whole thing. It really, honestly, is in the discussion stage. . . .
Q. This is in line with what you gave us on the national farm problem. Doesn't it come down to this, that no national or Federal plan of getting the price up to the farmers is possible without crop control? Isn't that stating the same thing in another way?
THE PRESIDENT; Practically, yes; in some form.
Q. In other words, you have got to compel a farmer to cooperate?
THE PRESIDENT: Unless you go to the theory of subsidizing exports and having unlimited production.
Q. Would farm machinery manufacturers be among those that would like to see as large production as possible?
THE PRESIDENT; I doubt it; I don't know. I have never asked. Farm machinery manufacturers have come to the conclusion, I think, that the more permanent agricultural prosperity is, the better it is for them. It keeps their business running at a more stable rate, year in and year out. They are opposed to tremendous fluctuations in farm purchasing power. They would like to see a farmer buy a gang plow with a certain knowledge that three years or five years from now, if it is worn out, he could buy another one.
Q. If we subsidize exports, wouldn't foreign Nations be apt to regard that as dumping and restrict imports?
THE PRESIDENT: Most of them do restrict at the present time, nearly all.
Q. That would make the plan impracticable, if they put restrictions of that sort on?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it would be well worth your while to find out the number of European Nations that import our farm products today that have definite quotas. I think you will find out that a very large number of European Nations have them. . . .
Q. Can the program of soil fertility you describe be made applicable to the 1936 crop?
THE PRESIDENT: I hope so.
Q. Are there any more of these agricultural matters that are going to be announced in here today?
THE PRESIDENT: No, just Cabinet meeting today, that is all.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Excerpts from the Press Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/208685