Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12.1. Speech Files, 1953-1960. Box 908, Folder: "Farm Forum, Alexandria, Indiana, 7 April 1960".
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No domestic problem is of more concern than the steady decline in farm income. Farm close-out sales are reaching new peaks, young farm operators are leaving the land, bank deposits are down and loans are up in rural areas, there is despair and discontent in the midst of claims of prosperity.
This trend has serious meaning for every worker, every businessman, every person in our Nation. For a healthy agricultural economy is vital to our economic well being. The farmer is the biggest buyer, seller and borrower in the United States. He buys 14 billion dollars worth of farm supplies a year. There are twice as many jobs in industry serving farmers as there are farmers. Farm machinery alone is worth more than all the assets of the American steel industry. It is worth five times that of the automobile industry. The farmer uses six and one-half million tons of finished steel a year, more than the entire automobile industry. He uses more petroleum products and more rubber than any other segment of the economy.
Obviously we cannot have prosperity in the city without prosperity on the farm. But - as obvious as it is - that simple fact is being ignored. For during the past decade, at the same time factory wage rates rose 33 percent and the cost of living increased 23 percent and corporate profits rose 20 percent, farm income dropped 16 percent. In Indiana, just in the last year, farm income is off 20 percent - with little prospects for improvement in the near future.
A leading Administration economist - the Special Assistant to the President - recently conceded that "almost nobody defends the farm legislation on the books." This is in strange contrast to the eagerness of the Republicans to take credit for the 1954, 1956 and 1958 farm bills. In 1956 campaign speeches, the Administration identified that year as ‘the first full year in which this Administration's farm programs have operated." In 1958, when the Congress passed Secretary Benson's flexible price support bill on corn, cotton and rice, the Secretary hailed the law as "a major step forward." According to a report last year by the Library of Congress, 41 of the 53 proposals made by Secretary Benson from 1953 through 1958 were "substantial fulfilled," 7 were "partially met ... or delayed," and only 5 were totally rejected.
In short, they got what they wanted - and the farmer has seen the result. Now, in an election year, they are trying to disown it.
But if the Republican nominee and campaign speakers disown the past, how do they justify the latest Administration farm program? The remedy offered by the Administration for farm ills is still lower farm prices - apparently under the theory that if all farmers were forced out of business there would be no farm surplus and no farm problem. Secretary Benson urges a continuation of the present corn program - and ignores the plight of the corn farmer already suffering from this program. With supports continued at 90 percent of the moving 3-year average, the price of corn will descend to 85 cents a bushel by 1963. And livestock is ignored completely.
I do not pretend to say that a new Democratic President in the White House would have all the answers to all the problems. I do not agree with those who think that all we have to do is dismiss Mr. Benson and get a new Secretary of Agriculture. This problem is bigger and deeper than one man, or even one Administration. There are no quick, easy, painless remedies. On the contrary, I think the farmers themselves are getting tired of hearing from politicians in either camp about some new short-term expedient, a wonder drug aimed at treating some current symptom instead of getting at the real problem. I do not intend to repeat such promises today.
But I do believe that any Democratic farm program must both attack the current problem of surplus and depressed prices and meet the long-range objectives of an expanding economy. This presents a dual challenge. In the long run, our farm abundance will become a bulwark of the economy. It can also support a foreign policy dedicated to winning to the cause of democracy the uncommitted nations of the world. And it can be a powerful source of military and economic strength.
The central problem today, however, is low farm income and its counterpart - high surpluses. The Democratic farm program must raise income and eliminate surpluses. It should include at least these five points:
First - It must control production. Farm economists tell us that during the past 10 years farm output has increased by more than 6 percent a year, despite continuous reduction in the number of farms. With the remarkable improvements in farm technology, farmers possess the ability to ruin themselves by growing too much. It is essential, therefore, that we expand our conservation reserve and impose effective marketing limitations.
Second - The farm program must give the farmer price protection. Price supports based on market averages are not really supports. They are, at best, a generous limitation upon the amount of the price decline in any one year. The only firm protection against disaster is a parity price concept - one that recognizes that the farmer has a right to participate in any general prosperity. The yardstick should maintain a balance between farm prices and farm costs.
Third - the farm program must provide for elimination of government-held surpluses. So long as large accumulations of grain and other farm products remain in government warehouses, they are a threat to farm prices - they are expensive to the taxpayer - and they are useless to the consumer.
Fourth - Any national farm program should be based on the promotion and preservation of the family farm. That is the basic unit here in Indiana. That is the way it must continue to be. We have no wish to become a nation of giant commercial corporation farms and absentee landlords. Our whole vitality as a nation depends upon a contrary course. So let us beware of programs that aid most those who need it least - that encourage the big non-compliers by giving them a good support price anyway in election years. Our job is to look out for the family farm - and we can count on the family farm to look out for the future of our soil - and the future of our country. A recent Purdue University study underlined this fact with its conclusion that the family farm is the most efficient production unit.
Fifth and finally - We must take advantage of our farm abundance by expanding our food distribution policies. There are still more than 1 billion, 800 million people in other lands trying to get by on less than a subsistence diet. There are still tremendous possibilities for using food as a means of capital investment in underdeveloped countries, even in those that have no food shortages. Here at home, there are still 17 million Americans going to bed each night suffering from malnutrition. I recall the shocking disclosures a few years ago that District of Columbia school children, within sight of the United States Department of Agriculture, were failing in their studies for lack of proper food.
The farm program should also expand the PL 480 program and use our food to greater advantage in school lunch, school milk and school welfare programs. In our relatively short life as a nation, the development of our agriculture has been one of the wonders of the world. Our farmers make up less than one percent of the world's population but produce 40 percent of the world's corn and 20 percent of the world's meat. Why, then, should serious economic troubles face our farmers? I am convinced that the farmers of this Nation - particularly if they are given a major voice in shaping and administering the policies which govern them - will support and cooperate with the program I have outlined. It is not a matter of partisan politics - it is not even a matter of farm income. Our basic interest is the national interest. And, dedicating ourselves to that objective, we can go forward with renewed faith in the future of our land.