Thursday, August 15, 2013

Farmers Experiment with Co-operative Farming

As the New Year opened in 1891, Isaac Werner had struggled on his farm since 1878, and after a few years of good prices for crops, Isaac found himself overwhelmed by drought, debts with impossible interest rates, and prices for his crops inadequate to cover expenses.  He had matured both his timber claim and his homestead, but he had found it necessary to sell his timber claim to his brother and his homestead was encumbered by mortgages that he could do no more than pay the interest to avoid foreclosure.  He began studying the benefits of co-operative farming, and on January 13, 1891, he wrote in his journal:  "Morning idealized over establishing Co-operative manufacturing [and farming] ...for our neighborhood."

1873 promotional poster


Four days later he had organized a meeting at his home for nearby neighbors to discuss co-operative farming.  He described the evening in his journal.  "Eve had our preliminary Co-operative Meeting.  C.G. Gereke and A.A. Shoop the only 2 present instead [of] the whole 6 or 7 selected as starting members."  In fact, Isaac had also invited William Blanch, George Hall, S.J. Frazee, and W. Gouger.  Despite the disappointing attendance, he wrote:  "We spent a long and interesting evening, reading and expressing views with interest becoming the subject, preparatory before spring work may crowd.  Many realizing the necessity of such steps, but difficult to get full attendance."
Early promotional posters by the railroads and land agents had emphasized the abundance of prairie farms and had made exaggerated claims for how quickly a homesteader or purchaser of railroad land could achieve success.  Many immigrants and homesteaders had relied on those posters to leave their homes and establish farms on the prairie, and many had failed, either moving on West or returning to live with relatives in the East when farms failed and assets were exhausted.  Those like Isaac who remained were willing to try whatever seemed reasonable just to survive.
On February 4, 1891, Isaac wrote in his journal:  "Last evening W. Blanch & Frazee called to organize co-operative club.  We had a literary time by ourselves till midnight--politics, reform and Shakespeare.  Co-operative plans my main study now-a-days.  Seeing the needs to establish an influential County Reform paper on a co-operative basis and then organize County Literary and Reform Club to work as auxiliary to said paper and furnish reform Library at County Seat for editors and club members."
Not all of Isaac's plans for co-operative ventures were realized; however, he did provide several acres on his farm for neighbors to plant, tend, and harvest potatoes.  He believed that theirs was the first cooperative potato farming in Stafford County, Kansas.


The Blog Fodder said...

"Isaac found himself overwhelmed by drought, debts with impossible interest rates, and prices for his crops inadequate to cover expenses".
I would be curious to see Isaac's accounts over the time span mentioned to see when and how he ended up in trouble. What were his expenses? What was his mortgage, what were his payments (P&I),his taxes etc. He would not likely have done anything foolish. I don't imagine he left them behind to the library, though?

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Actually, he kept his financial records in his daily journal entries. They are not easy to ferret out, but I do know when he took out his first loan, and entries describing subsequent loans, monthly renewals, ever-increasing interest rates for renewals, etc. The documentation is not easily discoverable, but it is there. Because so many farmers borrowed when crop prices were high and then could not repay as prices plummeted, many were failing and their security for the loans was worth less and less. Consequently, bankers demanded interest at obscenely high rates. One example of monthly interest that I found exceeded in the first year the amount of the principle, since the debtor was unable to apply any of his payments toward the amount borrowed, although he had made monthly payments of interest. The debtor in that case killed himself. By the time Isaac died he had managed to retire his debt and had actually loaned money to some of his neighbors, but that was between 1891 when the journal ended and his death in 1895, so I don't know how he managed to do that.

Kim said...

While it's probably not how Isaac envisioned, sometimes neighbors do get together to do a form of cooperative farming. When my husband was first farming, his family and a neighboring family owned a silage cutter together. Each year, they would plant silage on their respective land. Then, come harvest time, they would work together to cut it and put it in their own trench silos. My mother-in-law and the neighbor wife also took turns feeding the crew. We co-owned an auger with a neighbor for several years, mainly because it's something you don't need all the time. Those are just a few examples. Of course, when a farm family has a tragedy, neighbors usually come together to help them plant or harvest, etc.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Kim, I know what you mean. My father and his brother, Arthur, farmed independently, but at harvest they worked together. It wasn't a cooperative, but my father's cement mixer was loaned to other farmers for their projects so often that when he needed it, it often required going to the farmer to whom he had loaned it, only to be told that farmer had loaned it to someone who had loaned it to someone...until my father would spend several hours chasing down his own mixer. It was a bit like following breadcrumbs! And, of course, there were the community efforts to assist when a fellow farmer was ill--which assistance, as you mentioned, continues to the present time.