Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America

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During the Great Depression, with thousands on bread lines, farmers were instructed by the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Act to produce less food in order to stabilize food prices and restore the market economy. Fruit was left to rot on trees, crops were plowed under, and millions of piglets and sows were slaughtered and discarded. Many Americans saw the government action as a senseless waste of food that left the hungry to starve, initiating public protests against food and farm policy. White approaches these events as performances where competing notions of morality and citizenship were acted out, often along lines marked by class, race, and gender. The actions range from the "Milk War" that pitted National Guardsmen against dairymen, who were dumping milk, to the meat boycott staged by Polish-American women in Michigan, and from the black sharecroppers' protest to restore agricultural jobs in Missouri to the protest theater of the Federal Theater Project. White provides a riveting account of the theatrical strategies used by consumers, farmers, agricultural laborers, and the federal government to negotiate competing rights to food and the moral contradictions of capitalist society in times of economic crisis.

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1 The New Deal Vision for Agriculture

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USDA Exhibits at the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair

 

 

At the end of the first season of the 1933 century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, C. W. Warburton, director of extension work, sent a memorandum to Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace regarding the monetary costs and political benefits of the USDA’s participation in a second fair season.1 Warburton stated that altering a number of exhibits to display the AAA’s positive effects, for an estimated $15,000, was of “transcendent importance” because “the vast potential audience … warrants utilization of the opportunity to put before those millions of visitors a visual explanation of the Administration’s program of agricultural adjustment.”2 Many federal employees agreed with Warburton. Believing in the power of performance, they embedded culturally significant foods in theatrical scenes to cast fairgoers in a story that praised New Deal-style capitalism as the connection between farmers and consumers.

 

2 Milk Dumping across America’s Dairyland

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The May 1933 Wisconsin Dairymen’s Strike

 

 

The May 27, 1933, issue of Newsweek, published on the same day that the Chicago World’s Fair opened, told a very different story about the Agricultural Adjustment Act’s impact on the American way of life. It featured a panoramic image of men, with bayonets fixed, running across an open field; they charge forth in profile, virtually silhouetted. The photo captures motion from right to left, along receding horizontal planes; the figures seem to run into and out of frame, in focus in the foreground and blips in the background. This perspective creates the impression of a continuous stream of men entering the field of battle. The photo’s caption states “National Guardsmen Charge into Milk Strike Pickets at Durham Hill, Wis., before the Armistice.” The drama unfolding before the reader is war.

During six days of protest, from May 13–18, 1933, the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool strike took over the eastern half of Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, from the Illinois border to the far north and west toward the middle of the state. Throughout the roughly thirty counties included in this area (of Wisconsin’s seventy-one counties total), Milk Pool strikers cruised highways and flagged trucks to stop for inspection. If a truck refused to stop, the strikers would throw out harrows, chains, and other obstructions to block the road. The only trucks allowed through picket lines were those bearing a white cross on the windshield: these trucks carried “public welfare” milk. All other trucks were subject to attack, an act that entailed strikers jumping onto trucks, yanking out milk cans, pouring milk onto the road, and smashing the cans. Armed county deputies and national guardsmen rode in the trucks to ensure that the milk would arrive at dairy corporations. They carried gas bombs, rifles, clubs, and bayonets. They stood guard over arrested strikers with machine guns. Due to the occupation of towns by deployed men, hundreds of guard patrols, and protesters, some Wisconsinites encountered strike participants during daily activities. The gas-permeated atmosphere also impacted bystanders caught in the fray. Meanwhile, many Wisconsin citizens sought out milk dumping. They drove down rural roads, gathered and waited near hot spots such as dairy processing and distribution plants in anticipation of milk dumping, and visited sites where milk dumping had occurred.1 It was a display that mattered to them and that they had been anticipating because of months of news headlines. When cultural studies scholar Jon Robert Adams critiques the “United States’s time-honored link between its sense of national self and the performance of American men at war,” he considers wars that pit an American “us” against a foreign “them.”2 In the May 1933 Milk Pool strike, the dairymen (us?) and the state of Wisconsin (them?) staged the very real challenges to an imagined national self in the context of the AAA.

 

3 Playing “Housewife” in Polonia

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The 1935 Hamtramck (Michigan) Women’s Meat Boycott

 

 

In 1935, when women faced an impossible situation as wives and consumers, the costs of the Agricultural Adjustment Act to men, and so to the American moral order, occupied public discourse once again. On June 10, 1935, as a consumers’ movement showed its strength in protests across the nation, Time magazine narrated the march toward women’s activism as inevitable: “Slowly through the winter, while the meat supply was dwindling, the price to the consumer was creeping up. By February, housewives everywhere began to complain.”1 The costs of vegetables, fruits, and other foods advanced during January and February. The price of meat was predicted to “soar.” In March, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace tried to quell consumers’ concerns by offering that the prices of foods other than meats should not continue to climb.2 The Detroit Free Press estimated the price escalation of meat at 24 percent from the previous year and 62 percent over the past three years; Newsweek assessed the rise from June 1933 to June 1935 at 54 percent.3 That year, unemployment levels hovered around 20 percent nationally. Five years of low-income levels due to pervasive unemployment compounded the incredible and incredibly rapid rise of meat prices.

 

4 Hunger on the Highway in the Cotton South

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The 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers’ Demonstration

 

 

On January 19, 1939, the Sikeston Herald offered its readers the silver lining to the recent damage to their reputation: “The wave of patriotism and cooperation aroused by the unjust condemnation of Southeast Missouri last week is one of the most interesting and worthwhile results of the demonstration. The people of this section are ’riled up’ over the untrue stories that have been reported and the unjust criticism that has been made of the people of Southeast Missouri.” The hyperbolic language, invoking an image of the populace standing against a grave injustice, signals the depth of these Missourians’ concern for their public image following the sharecroppers’ demonstration.1

For five days through January snow and rain, in thirteen camps along thirty-eight miles of Missouri highway U.S. 60 and seventy miles of Missouri’s U.S. 61, thirteen hundred women, men, and children squatted in protest of their unlawful evictions from the cotton plantations on which they farmed. These sharecropper families, the majority of whom were African Americans, were surrounded by what appeared to be all their worldly possessions. The few makeshift shelters that they had assembled protected some belongings and individuals. However, most sharecroppers, along with their domestic objects—dolls, furniture, pans—incongruously occupied the same open space as trucks, chickens, and campfires. The scene constituted both their meager households and their dire poverty. From January 10–15, 1939, the sharecroppers simply lived on the roadsides, engaging in the activities of daily life. They cooked the little food they had and shared it; they prayed together; the adults tended to the children; they entertained themselves by singing and talking. While this protest bore little resemblance to other radical activity of the era, its very public display of what everyday life was like for sharecroppers was an audacious performance in the midst of a Missouri society that believed propertied white men had the cultural right to control the lives of their white and African American workers and, even more, knew “what was necessary in ‘handling niggers.’”2

 

5 Staging the Agricultural Adjustment Act

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The Federal Theatre Project’s Triple-A Plowed Under (1936)

 

 

Triple-A plowed under premiered at manhattan’s biltmore Theatre on March 14, 1936 and was produced four more times between April and August 1936 by regional Federal Theatre Project (FTP) units in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee. At the time of the writing, rehearsals, and productions of Triple-A Plowed Under, public debate about the political, moral, and economic wisdom the Agricultural Adjustment Act had reached a fever pitch. Debate was also heating up about the practicality and morality of the Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Theatre Project in particular. The play debuted within two months of the Supreme Court’s ruling against the federal government on January 6, 1936, and within two weeks of President Roosevelt’s signing on March 1, 1936, of the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (SCDAA) to replace the AAA.

Triple-A Plowed Under was also the first “living newspaper” play performed before the public, premiering just five weeks after the State Department shut down the first FTP living newspaper, Ethiopia, on January 24, 1936. Concerned that this play’s depiction of Italy’s occupation of the east African nation would offend Mussolini, the State Department issued an order: “no issue of the living newspaper shall contain any representation of the head or one of the ministers or the cabinet of a foreign state unless such representation shall have been approved in advance by the Department of State.”1 Ethiopia not only compounded the varied concerns about government-sponsored theater voiced by unions, cultural critics, commercial theater producers, and New Deal opponents, it established the living newspaper genre as an inherently antagonistic political form. As a sociocultural event, Triple-A Plowed Under captured tensions present in each of the protests examined in this book. It was a perfect storm of circumstance and aesthetics for using antitheatrical prejudice as a tactic to circumscribe citizenship. While the opening of Triple-A Plowed Under on heels of all this political jockeying may have overdetermined much of its reception, the play—its narrative arc, its representations of American politicians and controversial public figures, and its revelations of the intimate effects of political decisions on Americans’ lives—called attention to itself as (a product of) the contemporary situation.

 

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