The Great Depression, the Credit Crisis and the Future of your Food

Sharon October 5th, 2008

One of the most chilling things I’ve ever read was a description of the dual crisis that farmers and the urban poor faced during the Great Depression.  During the period, the ability of the poor to pay for food dropped like a stone.  At the same time, farmers couldn’t afford to transport food to markets.  While there was more than enough food produced in the US during the whole of the Depression millions went hungry, and a surprisingly large number actually starved.  Consider this testimony given by Oscar Ameringer before Congress in 1932.

“During the last three months I have visited…some 20 states….In the state of Washington I was told that the forest fires raging in that region all summer and fall were caused by unemployed timber workers and bankrupt vfarmers in an endeavor to earn a few honest dollars as firefighters. The last thing I saw on the night I left Seattle was number sof women searching for scraps of food in the refuse piles of the principal markets of that scity.  A number of Montana citizens told me of thousands of bushels of wheat left in the fields uncut on account of its low price that hardly paid for the harvesting.  In Oregon I saw thousands of bushels of apples rotting in the orchards because of the cost of transporting them to market. …At the same time there are millions of children who, on account of the poverty of their parents, will not eat one apple this winter.

While I was in Oregon, the Portland Oregonian bemoaned the fact that thousands of ewes were killed by sheep raisers because they did not bring enough in the market to pay the freight on them.  And while Oregon sheep raisers fed mutton to the buzzards, I saw men picking for meat scraps in the garbage cans of New York and Chicago.  I talked to one man in a restaurant in Chicago. He told me of his experience in raising sheep.  He said he had killed 3,000 sheep this fall and thrown them down the canyon, because ti cost $1.10 to ship a sheep to market and then he would get less than a dollar for it.  He said he could not afford to feed the sheep and he would not let them starve, so he just cut their throats and threw them in the canyon.

The roads of the West and Southwest teem with hungry hitchhikers.  The camp fires of the homeless are seen along every railroad track.  I saw men, women and children walking voer the hard roads.  Most of them were tenant farmers who had lost their land and been foreclosed.  Between Clarksville and Russellville, Ark., I picked up a family.  The woman was hugging a dead chicken under her ragged coat.  When I asked her where she had procured the fowl, first she told me she had found it dead in the road, and then added in grim humor, ‘They promised me a chicken in every pot, and now I got mine.’

In Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas I saw untold bales of cotton rotting in the fields because the cotton pickers could not keep body and soul together on 35 cents for picking 100lbs.  The farmers cooperatives who loaned the money to make the crop require $5 a bale in payment. That means 70 cents a day for a picker who can pick 200lbs, and that doesn’t provide enough pork and beans to keep the picker alive in the field, so that there is fine staple cotton rotting down there by the hundreds and thousands of tons.

AS a result of this appalling overproduction on one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side, 70 percent of the farmesr of Oklahoma were unable to pay the itnerests on their mortgages.  Last week one of the largest and oldest mortgage companies in that state went into the hands of the reciever.  In that and other stateswe have now the interesting spectacle of farmers losing their farms by foreclosure and mortgage companies losing thier recouped holdings by tax sales that could never meet the value of the land.

The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of the industrial population and the industrial population is being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.  Neither has the money to buy the product of the other.” (David Shannon, _The Great Depression_ 26-28)

One of my greatest fears is that the story is about to be repeated.  Right now, farmers are struggling to get credit just like all small business owners.  The wheat crop is being planted right now - and next year’s food depends on this year’s credit.  High energy and fertilizer prices have already eaten up much of farmer’s profit for this year - the point at which it is no longer feasible for farmers to grow our food is not so very far away, nor is it really so alien to imagine that again we might see the failure of the linkage between city and country, the poor digging in the garbage, the farmer unable to plant, unable to keep their land, or throwing food out to rot.

What’s the answer?  Food has to enter the center of our discourse in a meaningful way - we cannot allow wall street to starve main street.  More of us need to grow food, but more importantly, we will need to create direct ties between country and city, so that farmers and urban dwellers can skip middlemen who add costs and lower payments, and get what they really need.


24 Responses to “The Great Depression, the Credit Crisis and the Future of your Food”

  1. Mara says:

    If you haven’t yet read ‘The Worst Hard Time’ (Timothy Egan, 2006), I’d highly reccommend it. It’s about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, really interesting (and sad and scary). I don’t recall you mentioning it here, although I could be mistaken.

  2. WOW Trainee says:

    Saving money is an adventure. I’ve found that I can order Yogourmet yogurt cultures via with free shipping. The code ygrtoct8 allows me to order $49+ with ten dollars off.

    Because store bought yogurt tastes like sour milk, I’ve stayed away. But I’m on heavy duty antibiotics for a nasty dental infection with an upset GI Tract. I need good bacteria. In mixing this, I use skim milk with a little added sugar. Temperature regulation is via my dehydrater. With the cooling nights, the dehydrater temp warms the kitchen! Amazingly all this comes together! Plus I’m getting used to the taste!

    I’ve read that like with sourdough starters, yogurt cultures can be kept for lengths of time. Those of you who make and use Yogurt please share helpful info.

    I’ve also read about Kefir. But I don’t know what that is. Anyone use it? Helen

  3. AppleJackCreek says:

    Awhile back, my mom and I had a conversation with my son (who is 12) about the Depression and how the future (his future, our future) could very well look like that again. I hadn’t expected it to come quite so soon.

    Mom was young enough to have missed it, but is old enough that she has cousins and immediate family members who did live through the Great Depression. My grandfather stole handfuls of grain from the rail cars and ate it raw (and later he needed serious dental work to fix the damage he did to his teeth acting as a human grain mill). Mom had cousins who were sent to live on the uncle’s farm, because at least on the farm there was milk and eggs, and nobody starved. Everyone had to work … but nobody went hungry.

    We are ‘the farm’ that people will come to, much to my surprise. I always lived in the Big City, living the Usual Life of get-up-go-to-work-get-groceries-on-the-way-home, and had no intentions of doing otherwise. Then one day, on a drive in the country, I found a piece of land that just called to me. I struggled with the decision but the calling would not let go - it was, I believe, a Divine Leading, a direction that I needed to follow. I did. It was terrifying … but we did it at just the right time. I didn’t even know about Peak Oil back then, I was preparing without even realizing it. Now we have a garden, some sheep, a whole lot of chickens, and a dairy cow.

    The startup costs for this somewhat sufficient life are staggering, though, and my husband and I have jobs that are reasonably ‘fragile’ - mine, in particular, is tied to the ‘agribusiness’ industry (yes, I know…) and as fuel prices rise, and fertilizer prices go through the roof (the common stuff farmers use *tripled* in price in the course of a single season), the trickle effect is bound to reach me.

    So, in the meantime, we prepare as fast and as hard as we can … getting the expensive infrastructure in place while we have money to pay for the fence posts and wire … making our mistakes while we still have the money to go buy tomatoes from the store if we lose most of them to frost … and trying to learn everything we can, preparing for the day when we don’t have our tech jobs anymore but still have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed.

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of you south of the border: you seem to have the misfortune of being the leading edge of this new wave of change.

  4. Karin says:

    I have made yogurt with yogurmet and it works okay. I like a firm yogurt and now use cultures from “The Dairy connection”. You can also get them from NewEngland Dairy Supply. The cultures from these companies use less packaging. A little bit goes a long way. With the next batch of cultures I plan to try using the sourdough method of using some from the prior batch to make the new batch.

    I love making yogurt because if you figure the price of buying organic yogurt at the grocer you save sooooo much money by making it yourself. A quart of store bought organic yogurt is about 3.50 here. One gallon of local organic milk from the farmer down the road is 4.50. The cultures are pennies a batch. I use my husband’s old lunch box cooler and a couple of pint jars filled with hot water to keep the yogurt at temp for the time it needs to set.

    I use the other half gallon of milk to make soft cheese that I season with herbs from the garden and make sandwiches with. Again, an easy project that save both money and time and helps me stay local with my dairy.

  5. WOW Trainee says:

    My mother used to tell stories of the Depression and Dust Bowl Days. She was born out of wedlock to my young grandmother who had no marketable skills. They were seperated with mother being placed with a distant family and my grandmother being forced into a horrible work situation. She had to stay there with the threat that she would never see her child again. At that time, a single unwed woman could loose her child forever with no legal recourse. Eventually, both were reunited but neither ever really recovered. The family mantra became we women must have marketable job skills and be prepared to take care of ourselves.

  6. Anna says:

    The interesting thing I’ve noticed from living in Oklahoma for 2.5 years is that most modern forms of agriculture do. not. work. Period. The Gov’t has supported the failed attempt at Western Civ in a land that should support only semi-nomadic tribes, like it did once. [Imagine a large red "FAILED" stamp.] Now large swaths of prairie are used for bombing ranges.

  7. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: The Great Depression, the Credit Crisis and the Future of your Food says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » The Great Depression, the Credit Crisis and the Future of your … One of the most chilling things I’ve ever read was a description of the dual crisis that farmers and the urban poor faced during the Great Depression. During the period, the ability of the poor to pay for food dropped like a stone. At the same time, farmers couldn’t afford to transport food to markets. While there was more than enough food produced in the US during the whole of the Depression millions went hungry, and a surprisingly large number actually starved. Consider this testimony given by Oscar Ameringer before Congress in 1932. [...]

  8. Frank Miller says:

    A good read. I’m glad to see people are starting to see the signs. Now, we even have the big banks fighting each other in a break neck race to consolidate which is being done for business survival rather than business gain. Sadly, the bailout will not help them much. They are hurting and when they hurt, we all suffer. Everyone should start looking for ways to protect their money. This basically comes down to either taking your money out of the market and cutting discretionary spending or diversifying and investing some overseas. I personally use offshore bank accounts and they have helped me with diversification and asset protection. If you want to read more on why offshore investing is smarter, feel free to visit my website.

    Frank Miller

  9. risa bear says:

    It’s beginning to feel like scenes from “Mrs. Miniver” as people around us awaken from the suburban dream … I shelled beans today, and dried tomatoes, made tomato puree, drove the last nails in the new roof, and stitched up a failing canvas chair. But the most important thing I did was talk seriously with my eight-year-old granddaughter about the value of simple living, real food, and community.

    A little bit every day, like placing sandbags on the levee.

  10. Ani says:

    Support your local farmers is the best advice I can give- yes- somewhat self-serving I suppose(;-)), but still good advice I believe. If you want local ag to survive, you’ve got to buy local ag products- so in the headlong rush to stock-up, don’t spend all the money at the big box store- buy local as much as possible so your local farmers have the cash to survive, pay the taxes on their land, buy seed, feed and fertilizer etc for next year.

    I’m hoping that as I’m selling basic organically grown food- potatoes, winter squash, eggs, etc- at reasonable prices, my fall/winter season sales will go well- I will be in trouble however if people look for the cheapest deals they can find- the quality will not be up to par and they will waste a lot due to defective spuds, etc but lots of people try to economize this way- but the downside will be that if I can’t sell my produce at a price that I can earn something of a living, however modest at, I will go do something else and only grow my own food- which would be a loss for the community in terms of food security.

  11. leeb says:

    You know, we’re probably totally screwed at this point. Really, the problem is we have accepted and “believe” we need a monetary system. What would happen if the whole world simply went to work anyway and just gave all their goods and services away for free. Just cut the bankers out of the system. I know this is crazy, but somehow I think some form of crazy is what we need right now.

  12. MEA says:

    It would take much longer to list what I don’t know about the history of commerce than what I do, but I have a feeling that fairly early in every culture, people said, look, I can’t lug around 50 baskets of rice or carrots or whatever, to pay for the goat or spear or 2 months of your labor, what if I give you this string of shells or lumps of metal and we agree that will stand for debt, and shortley there after the local muck-ity-much gets in on it was a great way of handling taxes and then realizes that controlling the coinage makes great political sense, and then the whole thing is off and running.

    I expect we’ll see more barter, but not, I think, the end of money.

    Just my two cents,


  13. the great depression, the credit crisis and the future of your food | Dismantle Civilisation says:

    [...] article by Sharon Astyk. One of the most chilling things I’ve ever read was a description of the dual crisis that farmers [...]

  14. Marnie says:

    and now my question is: do i stay in the middle of the largest metropolis in Canada in a mortgaged house where we are invested in the community and try to help people here, or move 125 km away to my family, to the farm, where undoubtedly they will also need help?

    right now i can only hold my daughter’s hand and look at clouds on a beautiful fall day…

    we’re starting a little bit with urban food security here in Toronto, though. some days it seems like a lot, and sometimes it seems like so very little:

  15. Shira says:

    Go home to the farm. That’s my advice. We are actually seeing it happen here, as adult children, often with their own children, trickle back to the area, an area that lost population on every census from 1920 to 1990 and then still continued to lose the vital 25-35 year olds to big city jobs. As they trickle in, they are reinventing themselves, which is an effort. I haven’t heard anyone regret leaving the big city.

    So go home, where they need you, and make a life there.

    Shira in Bellingham

  16. Rosa says:

    I’m in a city - not a very big one, but what we in the American Midwest like to call a city ;) - and we’re getting a lot of parents from small towns/far away suburbs moving in with adult kids because this is where the jobs are.

    It really, really, really depends on the individual situation. If the farm needs labor, you’re wanted there - if everybody has to have an off-the-farm job, then it’s better not to move unless you have a job lined up.

    Went back to my home town this weekend for the first time in a couple years, and it’s looking pretty sorry - as much as I’d like to have a bigger garden and a cistern, I’m really glad not to be in that job market right now.

  17. clew says:

    What is the ‘Craigslist solution’ with no middleman? If we drop back to FidoNetor something, we can probably run a national internet on sustainable power; so inagine that anyone who needsto sell or buy food knows, withindays, where the nearest counterparty is. What do the cities have that the rural areasneed?(Comes to mind:medical specialties; educationalditto*; metalmined from abandoned industries, ow; and the truly long-term trade… sewage.

    Cycle that NPK!)

  18. clew says:

    (Sorry about the missing spaces. The text box is getting very narrow on my screen.)

  19. Homesteadgal says:

    There is a series of books on self-sufficiency that teaches how to make cheese, grow a garden, butcher a chicken, and make soap, among other things. It’s
    a great set for anyone who wants to be more self-sufficient in these uncertain times. It’s called Today’s Homestead. You can find it on or on

  20. Carl C says:

    You have provided some great information in your blog. Everyday I feel like complaining I just go to work in Center City Philadelphia and see the homeless and starving and shut my mouth and give thanks for what I have.

  21. John Petty says:

    Marriner S. Eccles, was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 1948

    In his 1951 memoir Beckoning Frontiers, Eccles detailed what he believed caused the Great Depression.
    Our current situation is eerily similar.

    Eccles wrote:

    “As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth — not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced — to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nations economic machinery.

    Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.

  22. Worrisome Times « Herbert’s Kitchen says:

    [...] blogosphere has been particularly depressing as of late. Sharon over at Casaubon’s Book has a sobering description of depression-era food woes, and fears that it might repeat [...]

  23. Lynn says:

    In reading about the Great Depression, it was interesting for me to read about the Portuguese fishermen in the northeast who were among the few “successful” businesses in the U.S. as there was always lots of seafood if nothing else. I live in Florida, a few blocks from the water. Growing in Florida is also easy as it is warm year round. Makes me want to stay put. Now, if the seas just don’t rise……….

  24. Matt Syring says:

    Great stuff.You may want to actually consider such as something like graphic bomb. What do you think?

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