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Theses Doctoral

Casting Bread Upon the Waters: American Farming and the International Wheat Market, 1880-1920

Popescu, Adina

In the late 19th and early 20th century, as wheat production and marketing were transformed in scale and in practice, American farmers tried to make sense of how they were positioned within a rapidly growing and changing international market. They tried to formulate a response that would gain them some sense of control over a market that was described by some as vast and powerful as nature itself, and by others as a playground for the wealthy speculators who supposedly controlled it. By situating the farmers within the changing international grain market this thesis explains the challenges that they were up against. American farmers understood their plight through narratives of market failure, common enough during the agricultural depression of the 1890s, as well as in the first decade of the twentieth century: declining prices, distant famines, and attempts to corner the wheat market reinforced the notion that supply and demand were not working "properly" to produce prosperity for all. During the Populist period, farmers organized to demand relief, in the form of government intervention, from what they perceived as a predatory market system that guaranteed profits to speculators but usually left producers with little to show for their labor. They mounted a moral critique of the marketing system, arguing that merchants and middlemen had organized the market in such a way as to control it through unethical and damaging means such as pools and price agreements. These efforts having largely failed, farmers turned increasingly to the cooperative movement to try to exert influence in the marketplace. The crisis of World War I created a different kind of market failure, one that prompted different forms of government intervention in both wheat importing and wheat exporting countries. In both cases these interventions were designed to stabilize prices through centralized oversight, something the farmers had repeatedly asked for and failed to achieve, but found, in the end, did little to secure their way of life. In the aftermath of war, in what was for wheat farmers a permanent crisis requiring permanent government intervention, farmers continued to identify the middlemen as their problem, but after 50 years of controversy, the merchants and exchanges had established a relatively well-oiled and highly technical system of marketing and trading to handle commodities in an international market. Farmers were left with little choice but to think of themselves as businessmen dealing with other businessmen, and this position overtook the older moral discourse as farmers sought to marshal their cooperative strength toward forming their own price-controlling marketing organizations.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blackmar, Elizabeth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 6, 2013