Conditions for Farmers in the Late 1800s

A black and white photo of a farm tool in the late 1800s.
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The late 1800s were a time of explosive growth for agriculture in the United States. After the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave free land to any family that would promise to settle on it for at least five years, huge areas of the Midwest and western United States were turned into farms. But even though farming grew tremendously in this period, actual conditions for farmers were tough, often extremely so. The increasing urbanization and industrialization of the country meant that even though more people were entering rural life than ever before, even more were exiting it.

1 A Solitary Life

Because of the nature of the land distribution of American farms in the late 1800s, many farming families lived a life of relative isolation. Those who gained land under the Homestead Act, for example, usually received 160 acres to settle, so their closest neighbors were miles away. Social life was often limited to church on Sunday, and even that usually ended early as families had to make the trek back to the farm before evening fell to complete the daily chores. The solitary farm life led to the rise of huge mail order catalog companies, such as Montgomery Ward's and Sears and Roebuck, which offered free rural delivery by the end of the 19th century.

2 Debt and Competition

Because the late 1800s were also a time of intense industrialization in the United States, the nature of the farm drastically changed from self-sufficiency to specialization in order to compete in the national market. Small farmers began to specialize in producing a particular commodity and this also meant buying the mechanized equipment that would make them competitive with other producers of the same product. The rate of debt among farmers sky-rocketed during the late 1800s, which coupled with the loss of subsistence farming, meant that many rural people went from working to fill their own larder to working to pay monthly bills.

3 A Slippery Slope

For many farmers in the late 1800s, debt grew and grew until the farm itself was finally lost. This happened for a number of reasons including a steady drop in prices for agricultural products during this period, which meant that even if farmers managed to become more productive because of their industrial agricultural equipment, the market rate for their products dropped so low that they couldn't recoup their costs. Farmers were also dependent on the large corporations that owned the railroads and grain storage units, which were necessary to store and transport their goods, and these companies often charged high prices because they had no competition. Farmers who lost their farms joined the ranks of recent immigrants who were quickly swelling America's urban areas.

4 Protest and Organization

Because conditions for farmers became harsher and harsher in the late 1800s, this period also saw the growth of a rural political movement that attempted to protect farmers. The Grangers were founded in 1867, and tried to build buying and selling cooperatives to counter the corporate middle-men who set prices for the urban markets of the Northeast. In the 1870s and '80s this collectivist movement grew into the National Farmers Alliance. The cooperative businesses set up by the National Farmers Alliance ultimately could not compete with the large corporate entities that controlled most of the transportation and distribution of agricultural products at the time, but by the end of the century the movement morphed into a political party -- the Populist Party -- which elected four state governors and five U.S. senators in the election of 1892.

Based in San Francisco, Ocean Malandra is a travel writer, author and documentary filmmaker. He runs a major San Francisco travel website, is widely published in both online and print publications and has contributed to several travel guidebooks to South America.