The dirty ’30s were not dubbed as such only because of the Dust Bowl. No, the 1930s was also a time when the economic upheavals of Hoovervilles and hobos became a reality across much of America. Agricultural prices fell into the cellar—in 1918, corn sold for $1.44 per bushel. In 1930, it fell to $0.51 per bushel, and by 1932, it hit $0.12 per bushel.
The Farmers’ Union Holiday Association
The Farmer’s Union played a significant role in a nationally recognized movement to help drive prices higher. The Farmer’s Union started in 1902 in Texas, but by the 1930s the Midwest held the largest number of memberships, and thus, much of the power of the organization. As the costs fell, the Farmer’s Union split into two factions, with Iowa Farmer’s Union president Milo Reno of Des Moines, Iowa, leading the more radical faction that desired aggressive legislative measures to keep prices higher. This group emphasized the idea that the laws of supply and demand were the key to financial survival, and in May 1932, the Farmers’ Holiday Association was born.
The idea set forth by the association was that, to drive up prices, the supply must be stopped by any means necessary. Reno wrote in an August 1932 editorial printed by the Washington, D.C., Evening Star that “the farmer, discouraged, broken-hearted, and bankrupt, has come to realize that he is at the parting of ways and if his rights as an American citizen, as an independent owner and operator of a farm, are to be restored it will be by and through his own efforts.”
The Farmers’ Holiday of 1932 started with a Milk War, a blockade by 1,500 farmers in Sioux City, Iowa. The issue that sparked this conflict was the difference in milk prices between the farm and the consumer. Dairy farmers received $0.02 per quart from local processors, while consumers paid $0.08 per quart in Sioux City. Farmers were given $0.90 per 100 pounds of base milk.
Omaha and Council Bluffs became the focus of the Farmer’s Holiday movement that August. Omaha’s Bee-News newspaper reported on a mass meeting at Dunlap, Iowa, on Aug. 21 where farmers planned to use “moral persuasion” to turn back all produce from reaching market. The picketers appeared the next day on all the highways leading into Council Bluffs.
The Farmer’s Holiday movement was the subject of broad national attention with profiles of their efforts in Time magazine. After the sheriff of Pottawattamie County used tear-gas to try and bust the pickets on the south edge of Council Bluffs, Hearst newspapers’ nationally syndicated columnist Arthur “Bugs” Baer sympathetically wondered how they would “keep them on the farm after they’ve seen Council Bluffs.”
The whole shebang really took hold on Aug. 26 with the first Nebraska pickets, as press reports there were re-enforced picket lines on all roads leading to Council Bluffs from the Iowa side. The strikers started blocking Omaha from the west on Aug. 30, with picket lines set up at 84th Street and Military Avenue, 90th and Maple streets, 92nd and Dodge streets, 90th and Pacific streets, and 95th Street and West Center Road.
The response by Omaha Mayor Richard Metcalfe was to enforce the city’s three-mile jurisdiction to push the picketers further from the city. Still, logs were laid in the middle of 104th Street and West Center Road to stop truck traffic. That was when it got worse. The World-Herald reported on Sept. 1 that the “hot spot” in the Omaha farm strike was on Dodge Street just west of Peony Park. It was there a “milling mob” had gathered early that morning to face down “about 40 special deputies” armed with ax handles. First the strikers placed logs across the street to block traffic, and then they started to smash windshields.
That night seemed the worst of the Omaha violence after Douglas County Sheriff Charles B. McDonald rode on the running board of a truck to get through the gauntlet. Apples smashed against the truck, a log was thrown through the windshield and injured the driver, and the sheriff “limped for the rest of the night” after a rock hit him in the ankle.
The Bee-News then reported that the retail price of milk in Omaha and Council Bluffs would soon increase from $0.08 to $0.09 per quart as part of the agreement by dairies to pay farmers $1.80 per 100 pounds of base milk. This was small but seemed some consolation to the farmers worried about losing their land.
Still, some weren’t satisfied and continued the agitation for blockades the next year as farmers across the Midwest, and then the South, took up the Farmers’ Holiday ideas. Nevertheless, the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal efforts towards stabilizing commodity prices took most of the fire out of the movement. In particular, the government passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which set limits on the size of the crops and herds farmers could produce and paid a subsidy to those farmers who agreed to limit production. Most farmers signed up eagerly, and today, few, if any, remember the association and there are no historical memorials where farmers once blocked the roads into Omaha.
This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.