Not For Profit? Not Back Then

My Generation

Common sense leaps off the page in a 1941 Ford tractor ad, back when profitability wasn't a dirty word.

Published on: September 13, 2010

In the course of my trip down memory lane last week, I (carefully) flipped through the 1941 Prairie Farmer Centennial Issue. Right there on page 26 was an advertisement from Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson, for their "Ford tractor with Ferguson system."

Want to know how far we've come in 70 years? Henry Ford wrote the following at the top of the ad:

"I have long held the conviction that something should be done about farming. In too many cases, farming has not only ceased to be profitable; it has also ceased to be interesting. The land itself has not collapsed either in expanse or productivity. But means have not been at hand whereby the family unit, on which the well-being of the land must depend, could produce at a profit and at the same time have the leisure to enjoy the fruits of their labor. When Mr. Ferguson approached the problem of mechanization in terms of fundamental principles, and solved it in terms of the average farm family, our purposes became as one. We both believe farming can and must be made profitable. That is why we introduced the new Ford tractor just a few brief months ago."  --Henry Ford.

This is the man who built the automobile industry. He built cars, he invented the assembly line and he was concerned about agriculture. When was the last time you heard a major CEO of anything express concern about farmer's profitability? Or his leisure, for heaven's sake?

Granted, Ford was selling tractors, so he had a stake in the business. But to read about someone's concern regarding the fate of farmers - not family farmers, not organic farmers, not with a sideways crack about factory farming – just farmers. Period. And that he was concerned about their leisure. And about what might happen if their kids didn't want to stick around and farm. In my twelve years of covering agriculture, I haven't heard anyone outside the industry express concern about whether farming was either profitable or fun enough for young people to want to do it.

In the next part of the ad, Harry Ferguson went on to outline their four principles in building tractors. (all bold and italics are his)

  1. To cut the actual cost of crop production on the family farm. Not just to do certain special things in a spectacular way, but to do all kinds of farming on all kinds of farms more cheaply than it had ever been done before with anything.
  2. To make farming attractive to youth, and easier for every member of the family. The drift from the land will stop when our young men have farming equipment which is both capable and interesting, and when they can confidently look forward to a profit.
  3. To assist all other industries through a prosperous agriculture. As the farmer profits, the country prospers; as the country prospers, the farmer profits. It is an endless cycle, but it cannot begin until the individual farmer can produce for less money than he can sell for.
  4. To lay the foundation of a greater National security. From the land comes everything that supports the life of all our 130,000,000 people, and half of these depend directly upont the farm for livelihood. If the farmer himself can produce at a profit without raising the price to the consumer, nothing can destroy the security of this country.

Mull this over for a bit. This was from January 1941, when they still spoke of the World War. Ferguson and Ford recognized the tie between agriculture, food and security. Profitability wasn't a dirty word, and it didn't mean an automatic and incredulous tie to "factory farming" (I'm talking to you, Katie Couric). Today, our governing bodies are actively promoting a backyard garden mentality that has no hope of feeding our bellies or our security. Farmer profitability is the least of their concerns.

In my digging, I also came across a photo of the first Farm Aid concert, a soggy affair held in Champaign in 1985, back in the day when Farm Aid sought to support farmers. Period. Fast forward 15 years and their fundraising has taken on a political agenda that only supports the kind of family farm that wouldn't include this family farm.

How far we've come. Let's be careful not to call it progress.