Jim Hightower Confronts the 1980s Farm Crisis

"It's the same old story—Reagan helps the rich, and Lord help the rest of us."

Jim Hightower September 25, 2023

The 1980s farm crisis was disaster for America’s family farmers and by extension the communities in which they lived. As land values that had boomed during the 1970s fell,  farmers, saddled with debt, faced high interest rates, surging inflation, declining crop prices and a shift toward global-scale commodity production that saw net farm income drop to its lowest point since 1910.

During the 1980s, more than 1,000 farmers who lost their farms to foreclosure committed suicide. By end of the decade, an estimated 300,000 family farmers had defaulted on loans, and more than 250,000 farms went out of business. This put a huge stress on rural banks, with more banks failing in 1985 than in any year since the 1930s.

In the following speech delivered at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Jim Hightower, then Texas Agriculture Commissioner and chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Agriculture Council, denounced the Reagan administration for its failure to address the farm crisis. “At a convention marked by speeches that ranged from highly emotional to boring, Hightower’s one-liners came as a welcome relief Wednesday,” wrote Tim Sheehy for United Press International.

Seven months later, in March 1985, newly reelected President Reagan vetoed a farm bill that, while criticized by both Democrats and Republicans, would have provided debt relief to American farmers. By the end of the year, Reagan would sign a farm bill that included cuts to farm aid programs that had been protected since the 1930s.

Here is what Hightower told his fellow delegates back in 1984:

American agriculture is not in a lagging recovery as the Reagan administration claims—it is in a raging, full-fledged depression. For three straight years, farmers have been paid less for their products than it cost for them to grow it. You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to figure out that when you have to spend more money to produce something than you can get paid for it, you’ve got a fast ticket to bankruptcy, and that’s where we’re headed. Sure enough, Reagan has made bankruptcy commonplace in the countryside. For every week that he has been in office, we have lost a thousand good family farmers. A total of 200,000 farmers and ranchers have gone out of business under Reaganomics, and more than a million more are on the brink of broke this very day, while Ronny Reagan stands around humming “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” 

We’re in the greatest agricultural crisis that this country has faced in 50 years and we’ve got to wake up to it and respond to it now! All of us are affected. When farms go, businesses go, banks go, people go, whole towns go, and an invaluable way of life goes. When the family farms are gone, the same conglomerates that send you your monthly utility bill are gonna be in charge of your grocery bill. The emergency is now! The change must come now! We cannot wait for another election. Now is the time for Democrats in the White House because farmers cannot survive another year of Ronald Reagan, much less four years. 

Now, I know some people say, “It’s not Ronny’s fault. He means no harm. He probably hasn’t been told what’s going on, that’s all.” They can see that Ronny’s not the brightest light on the porch, they say he’s likable, he’s friendly, he’s an agreeable President. But the point is not whether Ronny Reagan is likable. The point is whether you like what Ronny Reagan is doing to you. Now, if you are a millionaire you like Ronny Reagan a whole lot because he gives you things. He gives you our things—our farms, our jobs, our taxes, our Social Security, our environment, our sons to fight his wars, our country and our future! Ronny Reagan has not gotten government off of our backs, he’s just put government in the pockets of the rich. 

Since 1981 when this guy took office, it’s been hog-feedin’ time at the Reagan White House. The hogs that just got feeding at the trough in Washington DC today, they have climbed up in the trough and they’re wallowing in it up in there. If you’re an international banker who made bad loans, no problem, Ronny Reagan will give you a multibillion-dollar bailout. If you’re Ed Meese and you get caught in an embarrassing personal financial situation, no problem. Ronny Reagan will make you Attorney General. And if you’re any right-wing Latin American dictator with a pair of sunglasses, this administration will give you enough money to burn a wet mule. 

But if you’re just an old dirt farmer out there, needing a little bit of extra loan because your prices don’t even cover expenses, this bunch slams the door of your own government right in your own face. Enough of this, now it’s our turn! Ronny Reagan can run but he cannot hide. Everyone knows that Reagan’s image makers can work magic, but I tell you one thing they can’t do. They can’t make chicken salad out of chicken manure, and that’s all that Ronny Reagan has to work with in agriculture. 

It’s the same old story—Reagan helps the rich and lord help the rest of us. They say that this president has learned to cry on cue, but he’s not going to cry for you or me. He lives in another world, a Hollywood fantasy and he doesn’t feel our pain. In just three and a half years, Ronald Reagan has turned the people’s house, the White House, the house of Jefferson and Jackson, of Roosevelt and Truman, of Kennedy and Johnson, into a private club for a bunch of Gucci-wearing, cabernet sipping, globe-hopping Hollywood plutocrats and it’s our duty to take it back from him!

We must succeed in this effort because there’s thousands of farmers out there today looking to us who have no time left, who have no other way to turn. The Democratic Party itself must now step forward, just as it did 52 years ago under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, to save the independent family structure of American agriculture. The Democratic presidential nominee is going to be one who just doesn’t understand hogs, he speaks hog.

Through our nominee for President, through our Senators and Congressional nominees, through our official party statements, we Democrats will carry our banner proudly throughout the countryside on this critical agricultural issue. We will articulate a sensible, cost-effective “Save your farm” program that includes these elements: an immediate moratorium on farm foreclosures by government agencies, so good farmers have a fair chance to restructure and repay their debts; it’ll include legislation establishing farm price floors at least at the real cost of production, so good farmers have a prayer of making a profit and achieving parity with other sectors of our economy; a program that targets all benefits specifically to the small and medium-sized family farms, rather than letting the conglomerates, the superfarms, and the tax law ventures take all the benefits; a program that effectively adjusts all U.S. production to meet actual world demand; a program that will demand effective locally-controlled soil and water conservation programs; a program that allows the agriculture prowess of American farmers to reach out and help feed a hungry world. 

This is a job for all Democrats. We all must participate, not just farmers. If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture. If you pay taxes, you’re involved in agriculture. If you care about soil and water conservation, you’re involved in agriculture. All of us must help forge a new family farm recovery program that unites farmers with consumers, urban people with rural people, snuff dippers with bean sprout eaters. For the sake of our family farms, for the sake of tomorrow’s dinners, for the sake of our natural resources, let’s put together a program and thump this Hollywood cowboy with it everywhere from Manhattan to Bug Tussle, Oklahoma. Let’s elect a president who will go to work for us for a change. 

I’ll just leave you with this thought: there’s a moving company down in Austin, Texas, has an advertising slogan that fits us in this campaign. This moving company says that if we can get it loose, we can move it. Well friends, that’s our job. In the next three and a half months, we got to get the White House loose so we can move it on behalf of all the people of this country. Thank you very much!

Jim Hightower

Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the Texas Consumer Association, Texas Agriculture Commissioner, national radio commentator, columnist, and bestselling author. He currently publishes Jim Hightower's Lowdown  on Substack. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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