Special Message

February 09, 1909

To the Senate and House of Representatives:

I transmit herewith the report of the Commission on Country Life. At the outset I desire to point out that not a dollar of the public money has been paid to any commissioner for his work on the commission.

The report shows the general condition of farming life in the open country, and points out its larger problems; it indicates ways in which the Government, National and State, may show the people how to solve some of these problems; and it suggests a continuance of the work which the commission began.

Judging by thirty public hearings, to which farmers and farmers' wives from forty States and Territories came, and from 120,000 answers to printed questions sent out by the Department of Agriculture, the commission finds that the general level of country life is high compared with any preceding time or with any other land. If it has in recent years slipped down in some places, it has risen in more places. Its progress has been general, if not uniform.

Yet farming does not yield either the profit or the satisfaction that it ought to yield and may be made to yield. There is discontent in the country, and in places discouragement. Farmers as a class do not magnify their calling, and the movement to the towns, though, I am happy to say, less than formerly, is still strong.

Under our system, it is helpful to promote discussion of ways in which the people can help themselves. There are three main directions in which the farmers can help themselves; namely, better farming, better business, and better living on the farm. The National Department of Agriculture, which has rendered services equaled by no other similar department in any other time or place; the state departments of agriculture; the state colleges of agriculture and the mechanic arts, especially through their extension work; the state agricultural experiment stations; the Farmers' Union; the Grange; the agricultural press; and other similar agencies; have all combined to place within the reach of the American farmer an amount and quality of agricultural information which, if applied, would enable him, over large areas, to double the production of the farm.

The object of the Commission on Country Life therefore is not to help the farmer raise better crops, but to call his attention to the opportunities for better business and better living on the farm. If country life is to become what it should be, and what I believe it ultimately will be--one of the most dignified, desirable, and sought-after ways of earning a living--the farmer must take advantage not only of the agricultural knowledge which is at his disposal, but of the methods which have raised and continue to raise the standards of living and of intelligence in other callings.

Those engaged in all other industrial and commercial callings have found it necessary, under modern economic conditions, to organize themselves for mutual advantage and for the protection of their own particular interests in relation to other interests. The farmers of every progressive European country have realized this essential fact and have found in the co-operative system exactly the form of business combination they need.

Now whatever the State may do toward improving the practice of agriculture, it is not within the sphere of any government to reorganize the farmers' business or reconstruct the social life of farming communities. It is, however, quite within its power to use its influence and the machinery of publicity which it can control for calling public attention to the needs and the facts. For example, it is the obvious duty of the Government to call the attention of farmers to the growing monopolization of water power. The farmers above all should have that power, on reasonable terms, for cheap transportation, for lighting their homes, and for innumerable uses in the daily tasks on the farm.

It would be idle to assert that life on the farm occupies as good a position in dignity, desirability, and business results as the farmers might easily give it if they chose. One of the chief difficulties is the failure of country life, as it exists at present, to satisfy the higher social and intellectual aspirations of country people. Whether the constant draining away of so much of the best elements in the rural population into the towns is due chiefly to this cause or to the superior business opportunities of city life may be open to question. But no one at all familiar with farm life throughout the United States can fail to recognize the necessity for building up the life of the farm upon its social as well as upon its productive side.

It is true that country life has improved greatly in attractiveness, health and comfort, and that the farmer's earnings are higher than they were. But city life is advancing even more rapidly, because of the greater attention which is being given by the citizens of the towns to their own betterment. For just this reason the introduction of effective agricultural co-operation throughout the United States is of the first importance. Where farmers are organized co-operatively they not only avail themselves much more readily of business opportunities and improved methods, but it is found that the organizations which bring them together in the work of their lives are used also for social and intellectual advancement.

The co-operative plan is the best plan of organization wherever men have the right spirit to carry it out. Under this plan any business undertaking is managed by a committee; every man has one vote and only one vote; and everyone gets profits according to what he sells or buys or supplies. It develops individual responsibility and has a moral as well as a financial value over any other plan.

I desire only to take counsel with the farmers as fellow-citizens. It is not the problem of the farmers alone that I am discussing with them, but a problem which affects every city as well as every farm in the country. It is a problem which the working farmers will have to solve for themselves; but it is a problem which also affects in only less degree all the rest of us, and therefore if we can render any help toward its solution it is not only our duty but our interest to do so.

The foregoing will, I hope, make it clear why I appointed a commission to consider problems of farm life which have hitherto had far too little attention, and the neglect of which has not only held back life in the country, but also lowered the efficiency of the whole nation. The welfare of the farmer is of vital consequence to the welfare of the whole community. The strengthening of country life, therefore, is the strengthening of the whole nation.

The commission has tried to help the farmers to see clearly their own problem and to see it as a whole; to distinguish clearly between what the Government can do and what the farmers must do for themselves; and it wishes to bring not only the farmers but the Nation as a whole to realize that the growing of crops, though an essential part, is only a part of country life. Crop growing is the essential foundation; but it is no less essential that the farmer shall get an adequate return for what he grows; and it is no less essential--indeed it is literally vital--that he and his wife and his children shall lead the right kind of life.

For this reason, it is of the first importance that the United States Department of Agriculture, through which as prime agent the ideas the commission stands for must reach the people, should become without delay in fact a Department of Country Life, fitted to deal not only with crops, but also with all the larger aspects of life in the open country.

From all that has been done and learned three great general and immediate needs of country life stand out:

First, effective co-operation among farmers, to put them on a level with the organized interests with which they do business.

Second, a new kind of schools in the country, which shall teach the children as much outdoors as indoors and perhaps more, so that they will prepare for country life, and not, as at present, mainly for life in town.

Third, better means of communication, including good roads and a parcels post, which the country people are everywhere, and rightly, unanimous in demanding.

To these may well be added better sanitation; for easily preventable diseases hold several million country people in the slavery of continuous ill health.

The commission points out, and I concur in the conclusion, that the most important help that the Government, whether National or State, can give is to show the people how to go about these tasks of organization, education and communication with the best and quickest results. This can be done by the collection and spread of information. One community can thus be informed of what other communities have done, and one country of what other countries have done. Such help by the people's government would lead to a comprehensive plan of organization, education and communication, and make the farming country better to live in, for intellectual and social reasons as well as for purely agricultural reasons.

The Government through the Department of Agriculture does not cultivate any man's farm for him. But it does put at his service useful knowledge that he would not otherwise get. In the same way the National and State Governments might put into the people's hands the new and right knowledge of school work. The task of maintaining and developing the schools would remain, as now, with the people themselves.

The only recommendation I submit is that an appropriation of $25,000 be provided, to enable the commission to digest the material it has collected, and to collect and to digest much more that is within its reach, and thus complete its work. This would enable the commission to gather in the harvest of suggestion which is resulting from the discussion it has stirred up. The commissioners have served without compensation, and I do not recommend any appropriation for their services, but only for the expenses that will be required to finish the task that they have begun.

To improve our system of agriculture seems to me the most urgent of the tasks which lie before us. But it can not, in my judgment, be effected by measures which touch only the material and technical side of the subject; the whole business and life of the farmer must also be taken into account. Such considerations led me to appoint the Commission on Country Life. Our object should be to help develop in the country community the great ideals of community life as well as of personal character. One of the most important adjuncts to this end must be the country church, and I invite your attention to what the commission says of the country church and of the need of an extension of such work as that of the Young Men's Christian Association in country communities. Let me lay special emphasis upon what the Commission says at the very end of its report on personal ideals and local leadership. Everything resolves itself in the end into the question of personality. Neither society nor government can do much for country life unless there is voluntary response in the personal ideals of the men and women who live in the country. In the development of character, the home should be more important than the school, or than society at large. When once the basic material needs have been met, high ideals may be quite independent of income; but they can not be realized without sufficient income to provide adequate foundation; and where the community at large is not financially prosperous it is impossible to develop a high average personal and community ideal. In short, the fundamental facts of human nature apply to men and women who live in the country just as they apply to men and women who live in the towns. Given a sufficient foundation of material well being, the influence of the farmers and farmers' wives on their children becomes the factor of first importance in determining the attitude of the next generation toward farm life. The farmer should realize that the person who most needs consideration on the farm is his wife. I do not in the least mean that she should purchase ease at the expense of duty. Neither man nor woman is really happy or really useful save on condition of doing his or her duty. If the woman shirks her duty as housewife, as home keeper, as the mother whose prime function it is to bear and rear a sufficient number of healthy children, then she is not entitled to our regard. But if she does her duty she is more entitled to our regard even than the man who does his duty; and the man should show special consideration for her needs.

I warn my countrymen that the great recent progress made in city life is not a full measure of our civilization; for our civilization rests at bottom on the wholesomeness, the attractiveness and the completeness, as well as the prosperity, of life in the country. The men and women on the farms stand for what is fundamentally best and most needed in our American life. Upon the development of country life rests ultimately our ability, by methods of farming requiring the highest intelligence, to continue to feed and clothe the hungry nations; to supply the city with fresh blood, clean bodies and clear brains that can endure the terrific strain of modern life; we need the development of men in the open country, who will be in the future, as in the past, the stay and strength of the nation in time of war, and its guiding and controlling spirit in time of peace.


THE WHITE HOUSE, February 9, 1909.

Theodore Roosevelt, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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