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Using the Depression Era Actions as Models for Activism and Organizing Now

  • People Power Pushed the New Deal
    Roosevelt didn’t come up with all those progressive programs on his own.
    By Sarah Anderson
    Yes! Magazine, Summer 2009
    Straight to the Source

During the Great Depression, my grandfather ran a butter creamery in rural Minnesota. Growing up, I heard how a group of farmers stormed in one day and threatened to burn the place down if he didn't stop production. I had no idea who those farmers were or why they had done that-it was just a colorful story.

Now I know that they were with the Farmers' Holiday Association, a protest movement that flourished in the Midwest in 1932 and 1933. They were best known for organizing "penny auctions," where hundreds of farmers would show up at a foreclosure sale, intimidate potential bidders, buy the farm themselves for a pittance, and return it to the original owner.

The action in my grandfather's creamery was part of a withholding strike. By choking off delivery and processing of food, the Farmers' Holiday Association aimed to boost pressure for legislation to ensure that farmers would make a reasonable profit for their goods. Prices were so low that farmers were dumping milk and burning corn for fuel or leaving it in the field.

The Farmers' Holiday Association never got the legislation it wanted, but its direct actions lit a fire under politicians. Several governors and then Congress passed moratoriums on farm foreclosures. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, telling advisors that he feared an "agrarian revolution," rushed through reforms that helped millions of farmers stay on their land. These new policies regulated how much land was planted or kept in reserve. Although it was eventually replaced by the massive subsidies that today favor large agribusiness and encourage overproduction, Roosevelt's original program supported some of the most prosperous and stable decades for U.S. farmers.

This is just one example of how strong grassroots organizing during the last severe U.S. economic crisis was key in pushing some of that era's most important progressive reforms. Social Security is another such case.

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