Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The American Agriculture Movement (AAM) originated among Great Plains farm men and women who, in 1977, protested government farm policy, specifically the 1973 and 1977 farm bills, that encouraged increased, large-scale production without corresponding high supports. An unstructured farmers' organization, AAM boldly dramatized the grievances of family farmers: a depressed farm economy, low prices, high operating costs, a disinterested government, and ineffective farm groups. Central to its goals then and now was the call for 100 percent of parity for all domestic and foreign consumer agriculture products. Achieving higher commodity prices has eluded AAM, as has the ability to sustain momentum, which diminished with the loss of media publicity in the early 1980s. Redirecting its strategy away from the early, naively conceived demonstrations toward more effective political lobbying, however, has enabled AAM to maintain a voice in agricultural policymaking.

At the outset of aam activism, farm men and women were caught in an ever-tightening economic vise of surging fixed costs and rising interest rates. Farming had become increasingly complex, industrialized, efficient, international, and productive throughout the century. The resulting chronic overproduction, low prices, and greater need for capital had altered the nature of farm economics as well, making family farming a vanishing prospect. AAM's demand for parity referred to an economic relationship in which strong agricultural prices boosted farmers' purchasing power to at least equal that of other sectors of the economy. Parity has been the baseline for formulating federal agricultural policy since the 1920s, when agricultural prosperity was measured against the prosperous years of 1909 to 1914, otherwise known as the "golden age of agriculture." After both world wars and until the early 1970s, the agricultural economy was relatively stable, with steady interest rates and prices near 100 percent of parity, aided by government price supports and production controls (incidentally designed to eliminate smaller farms).

Domestic and international developments beginning in the 1960s, however, presaged the agricultural downturn of the 1970s against which AAM would protest. The Agricultural Act of 1965 reduced the strength of American commodity prices on international markets. International crop failures, especially in the Soviet Union, initially enhanced demand for American grain; exports more than doubled between 1968 and 1973, prices jumped, and the government urged farmers to plant and fertilize more. Yet conflicts in the Middle East led to escalating petroleum prices and sharp increases in gasoline, farm machinery, and petroleum-based fertilizers. What looked to be an improving agricultural economy in 1973 was in dissipation in 1976, when international grain production levels recovered and American farm prices tumbled. Additionally, the Agricultural Act of 1977 established a floor on commodity prices that was well under the average for 1973 to 1975. Farmers who signed government contracts would receive a combination of loans and direct payments toward a government-determined "target price" that was notably less than the government's cost of production figures.

Drastically deteriorating agricultural conditions provoked voices of dissent, and strike talk among a small group of Springfield, Colorado, large-scale wheat farmers and farmrelated businessmen in September 1977 resonated widely. Within weeks, 600 farm men and women gathered in Springfield supporting the call for a national farm strike by all food and fiber producers. Organizers set the strike date as December 14, at which time producers would cut production levels by 50 percent if legislators failed to address the deficiencies of the two recent farm bills and guarantee 100 percent of parity. The group, initially calling itself the American Agricultural Strike, overestimated both the importance of the family farm to the national economy and the farmers' commitment to the strike. Nevertheless, the movement effectively used the media, rallies, "tractorcades," and pamphlets to attract attention and expand. In October 5,000 farm men and women demonstrated in Amarillo, Texas, and by year's end, the group, now calling itself the American Agriculture Movement, claimed 1,100 local offices in forty states.

Ultimately, AAM's farm strike and political activism floundered. When asked later, the vast majority of AAM leaders conceded they had not adhered to the strike's call to reduce production. While publicity generated interest in AAM's cause, such as coverage of the January 18, 1978, assemblage of some 3,000 farm men and women in Washington DC, it was also used against them by opponents. A second gathering of farmers in Washington on February 5, 1979, damaged credibility when aam tractors ensnarled traffic and, according to an unsympathetic Senate, caused $3.6 million in damages to federal property. Despite AAM's assistance to the local community during a blizzard, the negative publicity resulted in a significant loss of support.

Politically, AAM's loose structure and alienation from major farm groups confused legislators. Similar to the American Farm Bureau Federation, AAM relied upon local groups of farmers for its organization, instead of on structured leadership. While in Washington, aam developed state delegations whereby representatives from each met nightly as the "delegate body" and by day badgered congressional staff with demands for 100 percent of parity, import tariffs, and minimum prices for exports. AAM proposals were opposed by the Carter administration, the Farm Bureau, and other lobbying groups who predicted runaway inflation and higher consumer food costs. Despite winning a moratorium on foreclosures by the Farmers Home Administration and an 11 percent increase in price supports, AAM believed it had been sold out. Consequently, it pursued a more disruptive strategy when it returned to Washington in February 1979.

By June, between 60 and 90 percent of AAM offices had closed, but, unwilling to give up, the group incorporated in August as AAM Inc. with Texas cotton farmer Marvin Meek as chair. Under Meek, AAM Inc. lobbied for higher commodity prices and the manufacture of gasohol, but the government remained unresponsive to the fact that farm prices fell each month during 1981. In 1982 AAM Inc. supporters began pressuring state legislatures for assistance. At this point several factions splintered off and became Grassroots aam, but AAM Inc. remained the larger and more visible group. AAM Inc. formed a political action committee and pooled the largest resources of any farm group in the 1982 elections. It is currently part of the National Farm Coalition, an organization dedicated to promoting a unified farm program. Today, AAM Inc. also lobbies for rural issues.

See also AGRICULTURE: Agricultural Price Supports.

Ginette Aley Iowa State University

Browne, William P., and John Dinse. "The Emergence of the American Agriculture Movement, 1977–1979." Great Plains Quarterly 5 (1985): 221–35.

Dyson, Lowell K. "American Agricultural Movement." In Farmers' Organizations. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986: 8–14.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

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