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Excerpts of Remarks by Senator John F. Kennedy, Airport, La Crosse, WI - (Advance Release Text)

October 23, 1960

* * * The farm depression, coupled with the general sag in the economy, is America's No.1 economic problem in 1960.

In the last 7 years, farmers' income has gone down, farm prices have gone down, the number of farms and the number of farmers have gone down, and the only thing that won't go down is the explanations of Benson and Nixon. The only thing that has gone up is the cost of what the farmer buys.

Behind these economic facts of life lie human tragedies, inadequate medical care and opportunities for farm people, young people leaving the farm for higher wages in the city, older men who have earned the right to semiretirement but who are forced to stay in harness - or give up their way of life altogether - because their sons are driven to the city and because they can't afford hired hands. The father who owns a farm and has thousands of dollars invested in farm equipment ends the year with less return than his factory-employed son "who's invested in one pair of working gloves."

There is no need to overstate the case. These are not the 1930's, when farmers in this very county were being set out on the road. But there is also no need to exaggerate because the farm problem today is bad enough. One out of eight of our population lives on farms. One out of every eight Americans is not getting a fair deal from the national economy, not getting a fair share in the good things in American life. Nor is this all. The farm problem is important not only to the farmer, it is important to the entire Nation. A farm depression, if it is neglected, can bring on a nationwide depression. It has done so before. It was a Republican President, Calvin Coolidge, who said, "Farmers made much money. I doubt if there is anything we can do about it." Three Republican administrations in the 1920's ignored a serious farm depression - and dragged the entire Nation down into the great depression of the 1930's.

For 7 years the Republican administration has allowed the farm economy to slide deeper and deeper into the pit of depression. And now its effects are being felt in our cities in steel mills, auto factories, farm equipment plants. When farmers' income is down they can't buy new equipment, and men are thrown out of work in the plants. This fall in your neighboring State of Illinois, International Harvester is shutting down seven out of its eight plants for various periods of time, throwing 12,400 men out of work. Right here in La Crosse, Allis-Chalmers employed 1,100 people in 1942 but only a little more than a third as many today, a direct reflection of the hard times on the farm. And merchants and businessmen are hurt too - factory workers who can't find jobs can't buy new clothing for their children.

I say it's time we stopped the downward spiral where it began - on the farm.

If I am elected I will give the farm problem top priority in the opening weeks of my administration. And I know I will have the help in Congress of Senator William Proxmire and Senator Hubert Humphrey and the backing here in Wisconsin and Minnesota of your great Governors, Gaylord Nelson and Orville Freeman. We have a program and we have the men to put it into action.

First, we will appoint a new Secretary of Agriculture, one sympathetic to the farmers' problems. There is no magic in this but it will be a long step forward. Farmers do business with the Secretary of Agriculture, and they have learned long ago that you can't do business with Benson.

Second, we will bring down artificially high interest rates and reestablish inexpensive farm credit.

Third, in consultation with farmers and farm leaders, we will devise a crop-by-crop program to give the farmer full parity of income. There is nothing mysterious about this phrase. It simply means that we will assure the farmer a fair return, a fair net income, on his labor and his capital investment. We will accomplish this through supply management, by bringing supply into line with demand. Farmers will manage their own production, will limit their own marketing through such devices as marketing quotas, marketing orders and agreements, Government purchases, crop loans, and so on - an individual farmer-managed program tailored to each individual crop.

With the price of milk fat today at only 80 percent of parity, the labor earnings of dairy farmers are less than the national minimum wage. Governor Nelson has taken an active role in formulating a dairy program. It is compatible with the proposals I intend to make to the Congress, and if dairy farmers look with favor on them, I am convinced that an effective, forward-looking program can be developed.

Fourth, we will attack agricultural surpluses not by cramming them down the farmer's own throat, as Mr. Nixon proposes, but by using them to combat hunger at home and to promote peace abroad. The Communist challenge must be met not only with military might but in the Christian spirit of feeding the hungry. To call our food stocks surplus is wicked nonsense when half the world goes to bed hungry every night and millions of Americans are on an inadequate diet.

The idea of using food for peace was first put forward by Senator Humphrey. Today in an election campaign Mr. Nixon says he favors it. But the Republicans in Congress have fought every concrete Democratic bill to translate those words into action, just as they fought our proposals to expand the school lunch program. And Mr. Benson has used his official powers to stop the food for peace programs.

It so happened that in 1954, millions of children in Africa, Asia, and South America were suffering from a common deficiency disease called kwashiorkor. Caused by lack of protein in the diet, it stunts its victims' minds and bodies. The United Nations World Health Organization reported that fully one-half of the hospitalized cases in Africa ended in death. Yet the management and prevention of this disease is simple - a modest daily ration of nonfat dried milk. At that time the United States possessed an enormous stockpile of nonfat dried milk. The United States could have saved children's lives, and won friends, throughout the world by putting its abundance to work. Instead, this administration negotiated to sell our entire stockpile of nonfat dried milk to animal feed manufacturers without competitive bidding at a price of 3 1/2 cent per pound, about one-fifth of the market price. It sold the milk for hog feed, with the stipulation it could not be used for human consumption - at a time when children were starving to death. In this fashion, it sold an unbelievable total of nearly 600 million pounds of milk, an amount almost equal to an entire year's production of the State of Wisconsin, an amount sufficient to provide a glass of milk every day for a full year to 33 million children.

Mr. Benson was asked why the administration has virtually given our dried milk stockpile away to the animal feed manufacturers, and why he had not used our abundance to fight hunger among the world's children. He replied there were too many difficulties involved.

It was at this time that Mr. Nixon said, "I predict that the verdict of history will be that Secretary Benson has been one of the best Secretaries of Agriculture in our history."

I say the verdict of history will be that Mr. Benson has been a disaster. I say an administration that chooses the easy way out, rather than face up to the difficulties of world leadership is not good enough for America in the 1960's. And I say we cannot afford Mr. Nixon's sense of history.

At the beginning of this election year, Mr. Nixon turned his back on the man he had called the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in history. He announced he would propose his own farm program. He dressed it up in fancy slogans - "Operation Safeguard," "Operation Consume." But when farmers looked closely at it they saw beneath the slogans the old familiar face of Benson. The new program is nothing more than the old Benson program expanded, a program of imaginary price supports and oratory about the free market, a program that will force the farmer to eat his own surplus, which is about the same as forcing the farm equipment worker to buy a tractor to clean out the dealer's showroom.

Experts in Mr. Benson's own Department of Agriculture made a careful year-long study of what the farmers of America can expect from this program. They concluded that after 4 more years the Nixon-Benson program would give the farmers 70-cent corn, 85-cent wheat, 20-cent cotton, $12 hogs, $15.75 cattle, and about $2.60 for manufacturing milk, barely 5 cents a quart. And other independent studies by agricultural economists show that the Nixon-Benson program would cut farmers' income by a full 40 percent. Mr. Nixon would revive Mr. Benson's 1956 "soil bank" on a scale that will plow under 1 out of every 3 acres of farm cropland in the United States, at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion a year. Mr. Nixon's entire program will cost the American taxpayer more than Mr. Benson's program. And Mr. Benson spent more money in less than 8 years than the combined expenditures of every previous Secretary of Agriculture since the Department was established 98 years ago.

It ill becomes Mr. Nixon to charge that my farm program would raise food prices to consumers greatly. Furthermore, his charge simply is not true. There will be no significant increase next year in consumer food prices under my farm program. It will not burden the food budget of consumers. In the long run it will help keep food more abundant and more reasonable in cost to consumers. Precise cost and price figures are impossible to calculate at this time because specific crop-by-crop programs have not yet been determined - and won't be - until a sympathetic Secretary of Agriculture, consulting with farmers, works them out. And when Mr. Nixon produces statistics on food prices at this time, he is simply doing his figuring with a political pencil.

He is doing worse than that. It was in the suburbs of New York that he told city people that my farm program would raise food prices to consumers greatly. But out here in the Midwest he proposed a program that would cost more than Benson's program. This is an old Nixon tactic, attempting to divide and conquer, setting farmers against the city consumer, their best customer. I say this is dangerous divisive political trickery. And I say it won't work. Because the people know that if we are to lead the world in its search for peace and freedom, we need a strong America, united and working together.

I preach the interdependence of all Americans, farmer, merchant, factory worker. You here in La Crosse know that hard times on the farm means men out of work at Allis-Chalmers. I have seen it across the Nation. The farmer is the automaker's best customer. The automaker is the steel industry's best customer. When the farmer can't buy cars, the autoworker loses his job, and steel mills go down to 50 percent of capacity, as they are today

New England fishermen have a saying, "The rising tide lifts all the boats." It is time to raise the American tide. This country has stood still long enough. Russia is outproducing us in steel outflying us in the conquest of space, and outmaneuvering us in feeding the world's hungry. I say we need a fresh start. And the place to start the chain reaction of national prosperity and national greatness is on the farm.

We will work, we will legislate, we will move by Executive order, we will consult the people, we will experiment, we will innovate, we will try out bold new ideas, and above all we will act - in the fighting progressive spirit of Bob LaFollette and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

John F. Kennedy, Excerpts of Remarks by Senator John F. Kennedy, Airport, La Crosse, WI - (Advance Release Text) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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