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THE FARM AND THE VILLAGE

We have seen that an active community must focus its life at some center, and that this center is usually a village which has been established primarily for business purposes. The relation of the American village to the surrounding farms is historically unique and is largely due to the rapidity and ease with which large areas of the United States were settled after the advent of railroads. In the colonial period and the early days of the New West, every settlement was so isolated that it was obliged to be largely self-sufficient. Transportation was slow and uncertain and prohibitive for other than the necessities which could not be locally produced. Under these conditions the farmer and village business man were so inter-dependent that they were forced to consider each other’s interests. But when settlement became safer and transportation easier the homesteaders took up their claims without relation to village connections; they traded where it was most convenient, and their social life centered largely in the immediate neighborhood and in the district school and country church. On the other hand the village was settled by men who came primarily for business. The spirit of the age was that of competition and they came primarily for profits. Their business came from the farms, but they felt little sense of obligation to them. Every village was a potential city in their eyes and its growth and the rise of real estate values was of more concern to them than the development of the community’s basic industry of agriculture. The village craftsman and business man gets most of his living from the farms and it should be to his interest to give them the best of service, but more and more he has become primarily a business man or craftsman, coming to the village to “make money” and moving on when he sees better opportunities elsewhere. His business and craft affiliations link him to the centers of commercial and industrial life in the cities, and he is strongly inclined to take the city’s point of view. Particularly has this been the case with the country banker who has so largely controlled the economic life of the village and countryside. Too often he has inevitably been more largely influenced by the interests of eastern capital and the mortgage owners than by the real needs of his local constituency.

The result has been an increasing friction between the villages and the farms, and we have come to think of them as two separate groups or interests rather than as essential and inter-dependent parts of a social area the community. The literature of country life and of rural sociology has very rightly recognized the existing situation, but many writers seem to accept the division between village and farm as inevitable, and even question whether there can be a rural community of the type herein described, rather than to recognize that this is but a necessary stage in the beginning of community life, due to the mode of settlement and temporary conditions.

This friction between farmer and villager has been most acute in the Middle West and has found its extreme expression in the Non-partisan League Movement, which has engendered a degree of bitterness between the two factions which cannot be permanently maintained without serious injury to their common interests. This, however, is only an attempt of the farmers to secure redress through political control, and is but the political form of expression of a protest which is being more effectively made as an economic movement through cooperative buying and selling agencies, particularly strong in Kansas and Nebraska, but rapidly spreading throughout the country.

Some rural leaders would have us believe that the interests of the village and the farm are fundamentally antagonistic and irreconcilable. They advocate that the consolidated school or high school be placed in the open country where it will be uncontaminated by the urban-mindedness of the village; that the grange is the farmers’ organization and is sufficient for him and has no need of affiliating itself with the affairs of the village; that the farmers should develop their own cooperative stores and selling agencies so that they can be economically independent of the “parasitic” trader of the village. Such a naïve point of view has a certain logical simplicity which is based on the presupposition that conflict is inevitable and that justice and equity can be secured only through dominance. The same line of reasoning finds no solution of the problem of capital and labor, or of the interests of producer as over against consumer, except in strong organization and eternal economic conflict. It is apparent that there is much justification for this view and that it seems in many cases to be a necessary stage in the adjustment of interests, but that it is either inevitable or a permanent necessity is controverted both by experience and by a more thorough analysis of the relationships involved.

There is no gainsaying the fact that conflict has been one of the chief agencies of human progress in the past; but neither can it be disputed that cooperation, or mutual aid, has been of equal importance. Neither attitude can be conceived as primary or dominant; they have interacted throughout the history of mankind. Fundamentally, the problem of the relationship of these two phases of life is much the same as that of the nature and function of good and evil. The one cannot exist without the other, and both are relative terms. Our present thought on these problems has been too largely dominated by a wrong interpretation of the theory of the survival of the fittest as the primary force in human evolution. We have assumed, and the German militarists carried the doctrine to a logical conclusion, that this hypothesis gave the sanction of a biological law to a competitive struggle between men. But such an inference was explicitly denied by Charles Darwin, and has no biological foundation. The struggle he described is between species and not between members of the same species. On the other hand, we find throughout nature that those species have been most successful which have developed the most effective means of mutual aid. Thus our economic and political thought has been dominated for the past two or three generations with a blind worship of the dogma of unrestrained competition, which has no basis of proof either in biological or social science.

When we examine what has gone on in the older sections of our country and project the present tendencies into the future, we get a different point of view, and come to see that only by an adjustment of the relations of the village and the farm to each other can the best life of both be secured. We shall have occasion in subsequent chapters to consider the social and political problems involved, but let us here discuss merely the economic relations, which have been the chief source of discord.

In the first place if we examine the situation in the older parts of the country we find a much more cordial relation between village and country than farther west, and a greater sense of belonging to a community. The reasons for this cannot be discussed in detail, but a large factor is the increasing tendency to centralize institutions; school, church, grange, lodge, stores, etc.; in the village as the country becomes older, roads are better, and higher standards develop. Furthermore, the relative status of the farmer changes the situation. In the older parts of the country most of the capital needed to supply credit to farmers and their business organizations comes from within the locality, whereas in the newer sections they are dependent upon outside capital. In the older sections where land has become more valuable and wealth has accumulated, the farmer as well as the villager is a bank director, and the amount of capital which the farmer has invested in his business is often much greater than that of the village business man. When the farmer comes into town in his first-class automobile as frequently as he desires, he has a very different status from former days. The “banker-farmer” movement, which started as an effort of the banker to assist the farmer in better methods of production and marketing, has now become a “farmer-banker” movement in which the country banker has been forced to give new thought to the credit facilities of his patrons, and is already challenging the justice of the country’s credit facilities being dominated by the large city banks which are chiefly interested in financing industry and commerce.

There is no question that in many a rural town there are too many stores, as there are in the cities, that in many cases their service is very inefficient, and occasionally their prices are exorbitant, but several forces are already tending to remedy these evils where they occur, and improvement may be hastened by intelligent and constructive discussion. Thus exorbitant prices or poor service has made possible the large sales of the mail-order houses, but the total volume of their business in most localities is relatively small and their competition has probably been beneficial to the wide-awake merchant. For first-class merchants have been able to show that they can meet the mail-order prices if the customer is willing to pay cash, and the advertising of the mail-order houses has undoubtedly increased the wants of the average farm household. In a recent address Dr. C. J. Galpin has pointed out that one of the shortcomings of the average country merchant is that he has not studied the needs of his patrons and brought to their attention new inventions and the better grades of goods. He holds that the higher standard of living of city people is largely due to the fact that attractive goods and better equipment are constantly brought to their attention in the shop windows and by salesmen.

The cooperative buying of farm supplies and machinery, which is now assuming such large proportions, is due not merely to an effort to secure lower prices, but to secure better goods. It is a notorious fact that for many years the farmer has had to buy inferior fertilizers and feeds from local dealers because they were all he could get. Both mixed feeds and fertilizers have been sold under certain brands on much the same principle as patent medicines, until the farmer has organized his own agencies to secure their manufacture in accordance with the best scientific formulas. This has been primarily due to a short-sighted policy on the part of manufacturers, but it has done greater injury to the retailer who, in general, has made little effort to learn the real needs of his trade and supply it with the best goods. The same has been true of seeds and agricultural machinery. As a result of this one of the chief claims of such a cooperative agency as the New York Grange-League-Federation Exchange is that it is able not only to sell at a lower price but to furnish the best quality. The wide-awake country merchant has been keen to appreciate these facts and wherever he has studied his trade and devoted himself to its interests he has built up a successful business. The “Country Gentleman” has done a real service in recently publishing a series of articles by A. B. MacDonald which have described the successes of a few of the outstanding “Big Country Merchants.”

The “chain store” has not as yet invaded the village, but it is rapidly gaining a foothold in the smaller cities and village merchants may as well prepare for its competition, for there seems no good reason why its greater buying power and superior organization should not enable it to undersell the local merchant if the customer is willing to pay cash. As yet all chain stores are on a cash basis and this would seem to prevent their gaining much of the business of the farmer who has depended on long time credit. But the cooperative stores, which do business only for cash, have solved the credit problem by establishing credit facilities whereby short-time loans may be made and a credit established against which purchases are charged. There is no question that both farmer and merchant would be better off if credit were carried by a financial institution. The farmer is being rapidly educated in business practices, and it will be surprising if some enterprising corporation does not establish a chain of village stores which will do a cash business, but which will arrange for separate credit on a strictly business basis. If one looks at the trend of business in the cities and towns during recent years, he cannot but come to the conviction that either country merchants will have to get together so as to pool their purchasing power and get the advantages of expert assistance in advertising, accounting, store arrangement, and other technical services which the chain store enjoys, or they will be forced to content themselves with the poorer and less profitable class of trade. I have seen no studies of the matter, but it would be interesting to know how large an amount of farmer trade is now enjoyed by the chain groceries in our larger towns. My own impression is that they are a much more serious competitor of the small country merchant than is the mail-order house. These are but a few of the forces which will bring better service from the village merchant.

There are also ways in which farmers may secure better service without attempting to operate a cooperative store of their own or deserting the local merchants. Farm Bureau associations have in numerous cases made arrangements with a local dealer whereby he would handle their seeds, fertilizers, or spraying materials at a specified rate of profit, upon condition that they give him all their trade in these articles and place their orders in advance. This principle of collective buying through an established merchant at an agreed rate of profit has much to commend it, and is being utilized by the Grange-League-Federation Exchange in New York state to take care of its local business as far as possible. The fact is that the profits of a strictly cooperative store, after paying the salary of a competent manager and other costs of operation, which would make a very attractive income for a single merchant, do not make a dividend to each of its many patrons much more than a good rate of interest on the total cost of purchases. It may as well be recognized that unless there be a strong loyalty to the cooperative principle by a considerable group of patrons and unless there be peculiar need of a cooperative store that it is not a mechanism which will automatically secure much lower prices or superior service, for the success of the enterprise depends primarily on the manager and if he be competent, he must be paid sufficient to command not only his services but his loyalty and initiative. The cooperative store will find it good business to have a profit-sharing arrangement with its manager and employees, if it expects to secure the same service from them that may be secured from the better merchants. On the other hand, if by pooling their buying power a group of farmers can throw their business to one merchant in consideration of his selling at a specified profit, even if only for a particular line of goods, they get the advantage of their collective purchasing power and have none of the responsibility for maintaining the business. Although it is my belief that the cooperative principle is essentially sound and must ultimately dominate our business life, yet it will need to find means of giving larger incentive to its managers if it is to compete with the best individual business men. After all, what is wanted is to get business on a functional basis, and if this can be accomplished by means of collective buying through an established business which furnishes its own capital and management, the farmer is the gainer. The essential thing is that business be put on the basis of public service rather than private profit. When that principle is recognized as being the only sound basis of our economic system, then the methods of business organization will be determined by what experience shows to be most advantageous to the community, and it may well be that true “cooperative competition” between individual merchants and cooperative stores may exist side by side with advantage to all concerned.

Another factor in rural community life is the increase of industrial establishments in villages and small towns. There can be no question that the centralization of industry in our large cities, which has proceeded so rapidly since the development of steam power, has now passed its maximum and that there will be a considerable decentralization of certain industries which can be operated profitably in small units. The metropolitan city has passed its maximum of economic efficiency for many phases of manufacturing, if economic efficiency is judged by its power to produce “well-being,” rather than mere wealth. We have been obsessed with the glamour of the bigness of the modern city and we are but beginning to seriously question its real efficiency. The possibility of superior living conditions in a small town are now being recognized both by employer and laborer, and better transportation and the development of electric power lines make possible the organization of certain of our large industries in small units. As this process proceeds the business of the village and small town will no longer be chiefly dependent on agriculture and there will be a further need for accommodation of the different interests of the community. Here again, some see only loss to rural life; but if one examines the situation more thoroughly, mutual advantages are equally apparent. If the farmers are organized for cooperative selling, they will be benefited by the better local markets, which are the backbone of the agricultural economy of so prosperous a country as France. Certain local industries, whose production is of a seasonal nature, might so arrange their operation that some of their labor might be available to work on the neighboring farms during the rush season. Even more important would be the increased purchasing power of the community, making possible better stores and business and professional services of all sorts, and the increase of wealth which would make possible the support of better schools, churches, and social advantages of all sorts. It is, of course, true that the introduction of industry in not a few cases seems to have lowered the standards of community life, but this is by no means universal or inevitable.

One of the unfortunate phases of the efforts of small communities to secure industrial plants is that they often secure establishments which are not adapted to local conditions or whose financial status is insecure, and the enterprise inevitably results in failure, with discouragement to all concerned. There is great need for county chambers of commerce or commercial clubs with skilled commercial executives as secretaries who can give the same expert service to the business life of the small rural communities that the cities now have. The business life of the community might profit as much from such a service as the farms have from the expert assistance afforded through the Farm Bureaus.

We have been considering the economic relations of the farm and the village as affecting community life, for they are at present the chief factor in creating community interest, as well as the leading cause of group friction. The rural community of to-day is primarily an economic unit, but in the future it seems probable that business will occupy a relatively less important place than the social activities of the community center. Not that there will necessarily be less business, although the widening of markets constantly tends to take business from the local centers, but that business will be more efficient and less competitive; business will not occupy so large a share of attention, but will take its rightful place as a means to an end, while the community will take more interest in those institutions which actively promote all phases of its higher life, of health, education, art, sociability, and religion.

These social institutions will increase in relative importance and they must be located at the community center if they are to have a sufficient constituency to be efficient in their work and command the loyalty of rural people. Inasmuch as both farmer and villager are necessary for the adequate support of church, lodge, school, and other community organizations, they cannot be expected to work together in these activities if one is antagonistic to the other, or if the one is helping to put the other out of business. The farmer has had many grievances against the townsman, but the fault has not been entirely on one side, and only by mutual support and the recognition of their dependent interests can a satisfactory community life be maintained. The root of the whole trouble lies in the imaginary division of the community into town and country. With the realization that their common interests are essential and that their differences are due to lack of proper adjustment, many of these difficulties will be alleviated. It is my experience that in the most successful communities, the farmers speak of “our” town, they are proud of “our” bank, and “our” stores, school, and churches are the best in the region. Such loyalty is the best of evidence that the business men of the town have devoted themselves to supplying the farmers’ needs, and that there is mutual understanding between them. Only by a common loyalty to mutual service can the true community exist.

Farmers need the village and it should be to them “our town,” of whose successes and improvements they are proud. As the villagers cannot exist without the farmers they should be interested in supporting every movement for the farmers’ weal. As they have more frequent contacts with other centers and with cities, they will be the first to bring many new ideas and suggestions to the community, but they must realize that only as all elements of the community are agreed will any new movement be permanently successful. There must be loyalty to farm leaders as well as to those of the village. Indeed, the most successful rural communities are those in which all are one big community family whose institutional interests center in the village.