Farm Security Administration

Farm Security Administration

Farm Security Administration logo
Agency overview
Formed 1937
Preceding agencies
Superseding agency
Key documents
Photo by Walker Evans of Allie Mae Burroughs, a symbol of the great depression.
Photo of sharecropper Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans.

Initially created as the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 as part of the New Deal in the United States, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an effort during the Depression to combat American rural poverty.[1]

The FSA stressed "rural rehabilitation" efforts to improve the lifestyle of sharecroppers, tenants, very poor landowning farmers, and a program to purchase submarginal land owned by poor farmers and resettle them in group farms on land more suitable for efficient farming. Critics, including the Farm Bureau, strongly opposed the FSA as an experiment in collectivizing agriculture—that is, in bringing farmers together to work on large government-owned farms using modern techniques under the supervision of experts. After the Conservative coalition took control of Congress it transformed the FSA into a program to help poor farmers buy land, and that program continues to operate in the 21st century as the Farmers Home Administration.

The FSA is famous for its small but highly influential photography program, 1935–44, that portrayed the challenges of rural poverty.


The projects that were combined in 1935 to form the RA started in 1933 as an assortment of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The RA was headed by Rexford Tugwell, an economic advisor to President Roosevelt.[2] However, Tugwell's goal moving 650,000 people into 100,000,000 acres (400,000 km2) of exhausted, worn-out land was unpopular among the majority in Congress.[2] This goal seemed socialistic to some and threatened to deprive influential farm owners of their tenant workforce.[2] The RA was thus left with only enough resources to relocate a few thousand people from 9 million acres (36,000 km2) and build several greenbelt cities,[2] which planners admired as models for a cooperative future that never arrived.[2]

The main focus of the RA was to now build relief camps in California for migratory workers, especially refugees from the drought-struck Dust Bowl of the Southwest.[2] This move was resisted by a large share of Californians, who did not want destitute migrants to settle in their midst.[2] The RA managed to construct ninety-five camps that gave migrants unaccustomed clean quarters with running water and other amenities,[2] but the 75,000 people who had the benefit of these camps were a small share of those in need and could only stay temporarily.[2] After facing enormous criticism for his poor management of the RA, Tugwell resigned in 1936.[2] On January 1, 1937,[3] with hopes of making the RA more effective, the Resettlement Administration was transferred to the Department of Agriculture through executive order 7530.[3]

Arthur Rothstein picture of a farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, 1936.

On July 22, 1937,[4] Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act.[4] This law authorized a modest credit program to assist tenant farmers to purchase land,[4] and it was the culmination of a long effort to secure legislation for their benefit.[4] Following the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, Congress passed the Farm Security Act into law. The Farm Security Act officially transformed the Resettlement Administration into the Farm Security Administration (FSA).[2] The FSA expanded through funds given by the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act.[2]

Relief work

One of the activities performed by the RA and FSA was the buying out of small farms that were not economically viable, and the setting up of 34 subsistence homestead communities, in which groups of farmers would live together under the guidance of government experts and work a common area. They were not allowed to purchase their farms for fear that they would fall back into inefficient practices not guided by RA and FSA experts.[5]

The Dust Bowl in the Great Plains displaced thousands of tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and laborers, many of whom (known as "Okies" or "Arkies") moved on to California. The FSA operated camps for them, such as Weedpatch Camp as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.

The RA and the FSA gave educational aid to 455,000 farm families during the period 1936-1943. In June, 1936, Roosevelt wrote: "You are right about the farmers who suffer through their own fault... I wish you would have a talk with Tugwell about what he is doing to educate this type of farmer to become self-sustaining. During the past year his organization has made 104,000 farm families practically self-sustaining by supervision and education along practical lines. That is a pretty good record!"[6]

The FSA's primary mission was not to aid farm production or prices. Roosevelt's agricultural policy had, in fact, been to try to decrease agricultural production in order to increase prices. However, when production was discouraged, the tenant farmers and small holders suffered most by not being able to ship enough to market to pay rents. Many renters wanted money to buy farms, but the Agriculture Department realized there already were too many farmers, and did not have a program for farm purchases. Instead they used education to help the poor stretch their money further. Congress however demanded that the FSA help tenant farmers purchase farms, and purchase loans of $191 million were made, which were eventually repaid. A much larger program was $778 million in loans (at effective rates of about 1% interest) to 950,000 tenant farmers. The goal was to make the farmer more efficient so the loans were used for new machinery, trucks, or animals, or to repay old debts. At all times the borrower was closely advised by a government agent. Family needs were on the agenda, as the FSA set up a health insurance program and taught farm wives how to cook and raise children. Upward of a third of the amount was never repaid, as the tenants moved to much better opportunities in the cities.[7]


The FSA resettlement communities appear in the literature as efforts to ameliorate the wretched condition of southern sharecroppers and tenants. However, those evicted to make way for the new settlers are virtually invisible in the historic record. The resettlement projects were part of larger efforts to modernize rural America. "Modernization" is a complex process whereby a relatively specific set of assumptions and behaviors make other assumptions and behaviors "wrong," both morally and pragmatically. The removal of former tenants and their replacement by FSA clients in the lower Mississippi alluvial plain—the Delta—reveals core elements of New Deal modernizing policies. The key concepts that guided the FSA's tenant removals were: the definition of rural poverty as rooted in the problem of tenancy; the belief that economic success entailed particular cultural practices and social forms; and the commitment by those with political power to gain local support. These assumptions undergirded acceptance of racial segregation and the criteria used to select new settlers. Alternatives could only become visible through political or legal action—capacities sharecroppers seldom had. However, in succeeding decades, these modernizing assumptions created conditions for Delta African Americans on resettlement projects to challenge white supremacy.[8]

FSA and its contribution to society

The Documentary photography genre describes photographs that would work as a time capsule for evidence in the future or a certain method that a person can use for a frame of reference. Facts presented in a photograph can speak for themselves after the viewer gets time to analyze it. Documentary photography does not just stop there by taking pictures of human beings in poor conditions; it also runs in the veins of several aspects of society. Photographs of revolutions, accidents, or speeches all fall under that same style, as we could tell from the picture what went on because it simply was taken in order to let others be aware of what was happening during that period.[9]

Not only that, but also the concept of manipulating the picture is available in documentary photography and it all falls at the end of the day under the decision of the photographer. For example, lining up the characters in the picture may strengthen the message of the photograph. Camera angle might also play a crucial part in sending the message more clearly, for example if a photographer is trying to take a photograph of a march of protestors during a revolution, the camera angle will play a major role in defining the situation.[10]

The FSA started the tradition by contributing to the society through their pictures during the Great Depression, and their motto was simply as Beaumont Newhall insists, "not to inform us, but to move us." Those photographers wanted the government to move and give a hand to the people as they were completely neglected and overlooked and thus they decided to start taking photographs in a style that we today call "documentary photography." The FSA photography has been influential thanks to its realist point of view, and the fact that it works as frame of reference and an educational tool for later generations to learn from. Society has benefited and will benefit from it for more years to come, as this photography can unveil the ambiguous and question the conditions that are taking place.[11]

Photography program

The RA and FSA are well known for the influence of their photography program, 1935–1944. Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the plight of poor farmers. The Information Division of the FSA was responsible for providing educational materials and press information to the public. Under Roy Stryker, the Information Division of the FSA adopted a goal of "introducing America to Americans." Many of the most famous Depression-era photographers were fostered by the FSA project. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks were three of the most famous FSA alumni. The FSA was also cited in Gordon Parks' autobiographical novel, "A Choice of Weapons."


The FSA photography group consisted of Theodor Jung, Edwin Rosskam, Louise Rosskam, Ben Shahn, John Collier, Sheldon Dick, Ann Rosener and

Eleven photographers would come to work on this project (listed in order in which they were hired): Arthur Rothstein, Theo Jung, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, and John Collier. These eleven photographers all played a significant role, not only in producing images for this project, but also in molding the resulting images in the final project through conversations held between the group members. The photographers produced images that breathed a humanistic social visual catalyst of the sort found in novels, theatrical productions and music of the time. Their images are now regarded as a "national treasure" in the United States; which is why this project is regarded as a work of art.[12]

Photograph of Chicago's rail yards by Jack Delano, ca. 1943

Together with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (not a government project) and documentary prose (for example Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), the FSA photography project is most responsible for creating the image of the Depression in the United States. Many of the images appeared in popular magazines. The photographers were under instruction from Washington as to what overall impression the New Deal wanted to portray. Stryker's agenda focused on his faith in social engineering, the poor conditions among tenant cotton farmers, and the very poor conditions among migrant farm workers; above all he was committed to social reform through New Deal intervention in people's lives. Stryker demanded photographs that "related people to the land and vice versa" because these photographs reinforced the RA's position that poverty could be controlled by "changing land practices." Though Stryker did not dictate to his photographers how they should compose the shots, he did send them lists of desirable themes, for example, "church," "court day," "barns." Stryker sought photographs of migratory workers that would tell a story about how they lived day-to-day. He asked Dorothea Lange to emphasize cooking, sleeping, praying and socializing.[13] RA-FSA made 250,000 images of rural poverty. Fewer than half of those images survive and are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The Library has placed all 164,000 developed negatives online.[14] From these some 77,000 different finished photographic prints were originally made for the press, plus 644 color images from 1600 negatives.

Documentary films

The Resettlement Administration also funded two documentary films by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains about the creation of the Dust Bowl and The River about the importance of the Mississippi River. The films were deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

World War II activities

During World War II the Farm Security Administration was assigned to work under the purview of the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), a sub-agency of the War Relocation Authority (WRA). These agencies were responsible for relocating Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to Internment camps. The FSA controlled the agricultural part of the evacuation. Starting in March, 1942 They were responsible for transferring the farms owned and operated by Japanese Americans to alternate operators. They were given the dual mandate of ensuring fair compensation for Japanese Americans, and for maintaining correct use of the agricultural land. During this period Lawrence Hewes, Jr was the Regional Director and in charge of these activities.[15]

Reformers ousted; Farmers Home Administration

After the war started and there were millions of unfilled factory jobs in the cities, there was no need for FSA. In late 1942 Roosevelt moved the housing programs to the National Housing Agency, and in 1943, Congress greatly reduced FSA's activities. The photographic unit was subsumed by the Office of War Information for one year then disbanded. Finally in 1946 all the social reformers had left and FSA was replaced by a new agency, the Farmers Home Administration, which had the goal of helping finance farm purchases by tenants—and especially by war veterans—with no personal oversight by experts. It became part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in the 1960s, with a greatly expanded budget to facilitate loans to low-income rural families and cooperatives, injecting $4.2 billion into rural America.[16]


  1. Gabbert, Jim. "Resettlement Administration". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 "Farm Security Administration". Novelguide. 2003. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  3. 1 2 "Records of the Farmers Home Administration [FmHA]". Retrieved 2012-10-26.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Archived January 16, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Baldwin 1968
  6. Sternsher 272
  7. Meriam pp. 290–312
  8. Jane Adams and D. Gorton, "This Land Ain't My Land: The Eviction of Sharecroppers by the Farm Security Administration," Agricultural History Summer 2009, Vol. 83 Issue 3, pp. 323–51
  9. Graham Clarke, The Photograph (New York: Oxford University of Art, 1997), 145–66
  10. Julliet Gorman, "critique of documentary realism," New Deal Narratives: Visions of Florida (May 2001): 1–3.
  11. Bill Ganzel, "FSA photography," Farming in the 1930s (2003): 1–3.
  12. Rosenblum, Naomi, April Morganroth. A World History of Photography (4th ed.). ISBN 9780789209375.
  13. Finnegan 43–44
  14. "164,000 RA-FSA photographs". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
  15. Laurence I. Hewes, Final Report of the Participation of the Farm Security Administration in the Evacuation Program of the Wartime Civil Control Administration Civil Affairs Division Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Farm Security Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, (San Francisco: 1942)
  16. Baldwin 403




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