Fiber Wars

Chapter 6

The Twenties and the Rise of Chemurgy

"The pernicious canker is the moneylending system, immutable as the stars of the firmament." Billy Jay Hale would later say. And Wheeler McMillan informs, in the bible of the Chemurgic Movement, New Riches from the Soil,

The seeds of the depression of the nineteen thirties were planted in the war years of 1914-18. They sprouted in August, 1921. That was when country banks were ordered by the Federal Reserve Board not to renew their notes from ranchmen and farmers but to collect them, in full and at once.74

In the industrial centers, it was the Roaring Twenties. But for agriculture, a noose was tightening. It was especially bad in the South because of dependency on cotton monoculture. For cotton, the first decades of the twentieth century were a roller coaster ride of over production and low price. The South was trapped in an economic maze of small, tenant farms, insufficient mechanization, under capitalization and the surplus/low-price spiral of cotton monoculture.

Everywhere a major shift was taking place in agrarian life as a result of the replacement of agricultural by synthetic goods. The import-and-manufacture sides of the economy were exploding. But farmers were having trouble buying the new products. Government run by oligarchy failed to respond. "Well, farmers have never made money," Calvin Coolidge said.75

The South's condition was particularly aggravated since agriculture had not progressed in the South as it had in the North. According to the Census Bureau Report of 1900, average investment in farm implements and machinery were: Alabama, $39; North Carolina, $40; Georgia, $44; in contrast to: Kansas, $170; Nebraska, $205; Iowa, $253.76

Between 1855 and 1930 farmers in the corn belt had reduced the man-hours necessary to produce an acre of corn (about 40 bushels) from 33.6 to 6.9 hours. Even the most efficient cotton growers in Texas, who used more and bigger machinery, had only cut the man-hours for an acre of cotton from 148 to 72 in the same period. Thus, while corn growers had reduced man-hours by nearly four-fifths, cotton farmers had cut the needed labor by only one-half. And most cotton growers in the Southeast had not done nearly that well.77

The problem was that cotton did not easily adapt to mechanization. In 1903, an historian of the American cotton industry wrote:

Cotton harvesting machinery would be of incalculable value, but an efficient machine for picking cotton has yet to be invented. It is a difficult problem for the inventor, because picking cotton is something like gathering raspberries, and even American genius has boggled at it. There have been many fruitless efforts, but I am assured that there is not to-day in the United States a single machine with which any planter would even attempt to pick cotton.78

It was not just a matter of inventing machines to replace muscle power and increase the efficiency of the process:

Before complete mechanization of cotton production could occur, other changes were necessary. It was important, for example, to breed a cotton plant on which the bolls would develop higher on the stalk and open more evenly.... Chemicals were required to control weeds and to defoliate the cotton plant before harvest.... Entomologists and engineers needed to join efforts to develop proper pesticides....Before full mechanization of the cotton crop could be achieved, the combined contributions of engineers, chemists, fertilizer specialists, plant breeders, entomologists, agronomists and other scientists were necessary. Full mechanization also required some changes in farm organization throughout much of the cotton belt.79

In other words, they had, virtually, to start over with cotton. The development of insecticidal chemicals was particularly critical because the boll weevil had found its way from Mexico in the 1890s and had become the scourge of cotton growers.

Today, because of insect pests, cotton remains the most polluting, chemical-intensive crop grown.80

Since cotton was the basis of the economy of the South, regardless of the need to reinvent the crop, it was to cotton that government efforts were directed as a means of moving the South out of its economic doldrums. As such, the USDA became increasingly an agency for southern economic development. Unfortunately, the agriculture programs exacerbated the problem by increasing yields when cotton surpluses were preventing an adequate price to growers. The situation had improved somewhat for a few years around 1910, but good cotton prices always resulted in maximum planting which resulted in surplus and price depression. The programs generally enhanced the fortunes of the large landowners who needed assistance the least.

Encouragement from the agricultural universities and the USDA for diversification away from cotton monoculture met resistance, despite major campaigns waged to persuade farmers to voluntarily reduce their cotton acreage in order to reduce the surplus. These efforts were largely unsuccessful: "The usual cry for reduction of cotton acreage will go up, but experience has proved that this cry will produce no results. Cotton raising is as firmly embedded in the system of the Southern ruralist as sea-faring is to the coast-dweller of New England."81

Against this backdrop came a new specter, a new combatant in Fiber Wars. Synthetic polymers made from natural cellulose (first from cotton lint, later from wood pulp) were discovered in the late nineteenth century. By 1905, the first synthetic fiber, rayon, had appeared in England. DuPont introduced rayon fabric around 1917.

Rayon production in the United States increased from 10 to 380 million pounds between 1920 and 1939 and approximately doubled during the war period. By 1941, United States production of rayon was equivalent to 1,350,000 bales of cotton.82

In the 30 years after its appearance in the US, the number of filaments per 150 denier yarn would go from 12 to 225, "even finer than those spun by a silk worm."83 Figure 2 illustrates the competition which rayon presented to cotton. Cost per pound of rayon filament yarn would go from $2.92 in 1920-21 to $0.55 in 1944. Rayon had another advantage: waste at the mill was one tenth that of cotton.84 Synthetic fibers pushed existing fiber domains against each other, as cotton had a century earlier.

Figure 2: Rayon and cotton prices, 1928-1945. Reproduced from Wilcox, 1947

The agricultural situation grew progressively worse during the twenties as the disparity between the cost of goods increased. Then the bottom fell out.

In 1930, hundreds of thousands of southern farmers began to skid from normal hard times to disastrous depression. If observers believed that life could not get worse than it already was for millions of rural residents in the South, they were badly mistaken. A decade of depression was beginning which forced living standards down well below poverty levels experienced for years by many southern farm families.85

Farm cooperatives and populist agrarian political organizations such as the Grange and the American Farm Bureau Federation had arisen to counter the immense political power of the moguls of finance and industry. These movements began in the North and West, among wheat and corn farmers. Benefiting by their example, southern cotton organizations86 had emerged which succeeded in placing elected officials in key positions:

After the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in 1930, Marvin Jones of Texas became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Born on a cotton farm, Jones had escaped the poverty of the farm by studying law and going into politics.... In 1933 another southerner, Ellison D. "Cotton Ed" Smith, assumed the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee in the Senate....He was a staunch supporter of legislation that would help cotton and tobacco growers. Another powerful southerner vitally interested in farm welfare was Senator John H. Bankhead of Alabama.... Besides serving on the Senate Agriculture Committee, he was also named to the important Banking and Currency Committee. The southern position was further strengthened in 1931 when Edward O'Neal, a northern Alabama planter, was elected president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's most powerful farm organization.87

Together, this political block was successful in structuring New Deal legislation to direct public money toward the South's predicament. Ed O'Neal built a coalition with corn and wheat interests to pressure Congress for legislation addressing the farm crisis. Enacted in 1933, the Agriculture Adjustment Act authorized payments to farmers for not planting seven basic commodity crops: "Three of these basic commodities-cotton, tobacco and rice-were among the South's major commercial crops. While many officials did not consider tobacco a basic commodity, it was included in the bill because of strong political pressure from tobacco-state congressmen."88

The objective of AAA was explained to cotton farmers in a USDA bulletin: surpluses would be controlled by reducing production, "so that cotton will have the same purchasing power with respect to articles that farmers buy which it had in the period from August 1909 to July 1914."89 The taxpayer would pay for the idled land (and still does). Through this and other New Deal legislation, money was redistributed to the South to promote its economic recovery.90 "By February, 1935 FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Administration] had made rehabilitation loans to 87,350 families of whom 93 percent were in the South."91 However, the subsidy programs could not overcome the fundamental problem of low cotton prices and the concomitant poverty that resulted from complete economic dependence on one crop: "...between 1936 and 1939 government payments to farmers in...ten southern states rose from about $70 million to $304 million. Indeed, if it had not been for federal payments, southern farmers would have been worse off financially in 1939 than three years earlier."92

Because landowners were paid to fallow their land, the burden was transferred to the predominantly black agricultural labor force which was put out of work. This population migrated to northern industrial cities, seeking jobs in the factories and creating the black urban underclass which would explode in the 1960s.

The increasing southern dominance of federal agriculture policy ensured that cotton would receive the research allocation it demanded. And so, in 1933, in a USDA restructuring, the Office of Fiber Investigations was made the Division of Cotton and Other Fibers, and Lyster Dewey's hemp breeding program was terminated. Reporting before his retirement in 1935, Dewey makes his point, matter-of-factly:

The hemp breeding work, carried on by the Bureau for more than 20 years, was discontinued in 1933, but practical results are still evident in commercial fields. A hemp grower in Kentucky reported a yield of 1750 pounds per acre of clean, dew-retted fiber from 100 acres of the pedigreed variety Chinamington grown in 1934. This is more than twice the average yield obtained from ordinary unselected hemp seed.93

The program had been outstandingly successful but the crop was insignificant compared to the need to reinvent cotton for mechanical harvesting. Cotton drew the resources of the USDA, which was also having to divide its activities between agriculture and social welfare programs.94 Something had to give. Since hemp had the least acreage nationally, few problems, no diseases,95 no insect threats, most technological hurdles accomplished, there was no large infrastructure dedicated to it. Flax, on the other hand, was still an important oilseed crop—although synthetic materials would soon change that—with serious biological problems, and an influential trade organization, the Flax Institute of America.

The USDA flax program, under the direction of Arthur C. Dillman, was continued. But,

"In spite of all the progress made by the plant scientists in developing improved strains of flax and their success in fighting plant diseases, the tremendous decline in flaxseed production during the depression years, 1931 to 1938, became a major problem for the [linseed oil] industry."96

Many agricultural products had already met their demise in the chemical laboratory, beginning with natural dyes like indigo. Writing of the chemical revolution, William J. Hale was confident that,

The replacement of cotton and woolen garments by cloth of silk-like fibre [cellulose acetate, rayon] is proceeding at assured rates. Eventually both cotton and wool will meet their Waterloo as far as finest cloth is concerned. Thus the land given over to the cultivation of cotton and eventually that to the grazing of sheep is slowly but surely passing out of the picture.97

William (Billy) Hale and Wheeler McMillan were two men who noticed a contradiction between federal programs that on the one hand were improving yields, while on the other encouraging farmers not to plant their full acreage. They found a resolution of the dilemma in the new science of chemurgy, a term Hale coined for the bringing together of agricultural production and the organic chemical industry.

Hale, a biochemist, recognized the possibility of using agriculture carbohydrates, fats and proteins as the raw material for the rapidly expanding chemical industry. He was with Dow Chemical Company and the Dow family had its roots in agriculture. The catch-phrase was "Anything that can be made from a hydrocarbon, could be made from a carbohydrate. " Hale and McMillan joined forces to promote the vision of farm products replacing imported oil, for fuels, lubricants and fiber. They quickly added powerful allies to their cause: Henry Ford and Francis Patrick Garvan.

In 1919, Garvan had the unique position of Alien Property Custodian. It was his job to deal with the patents of the German chemical industry seized after WW1. With backing from DuPont, Garvan formed an organization called the Chemical Foundation, Inc. which he headed and to which he sold the patents. Objections to this transfer went to the Supreme Court which upheld Garvan in 1926. The ideas of Hale and McMillan appealed to Garvan who used royalties from the patents to support the growing movement. Support also came from the Grange and the American Farm Bureau Federation, headed by Edward O'Neal. Hale's book, The Farm Chemurgic, was sent to every Grange office.

Hale is an interesting figure and his several books are worth reading even today. But there was a problem. For discussion see: The Low, Dishonest Decade.

Hale's vision of chemurgy extended beyond the technical into all aspects of social organization. Among his proposals was a call for stronger tariffs, taxes on the wealthy, and a repeal of property taxes, which he saw as burdensome to agriculture. He aggressively attacked the oil industry, precociously pointing to the damaging effect of air pollution on lungs, and referred to the financial moguls of the day as "boobs" and "Antichrist." Hale recognized that the chemical industry was taking markets from agriculture—as in the cotton and wool examples—but cotton lint and wood were the prime sources of cellulose used in the manufacture of rayon. He felt the neglect of farms by a government controlled by bankers was at the root of the nation's problems.

The cause celebre of the Chemurgy Movement was ethanol fuels made from the fermentation of grain. In his analysis of the their initial interaction, David Wright described the reception of the chemurgists by the USDA as enthusiastic.98 But heavy pressure was brought to bear through the agency of the American Petroleum Institute and mandates for ethanol mixes were defeated. As the New Deal took shape, the subsidy solution was favored as quicker and more expedient by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, and the government acquiesced to the lobbying pressure of the petrochemical industry.


Fiber Wars: Table of Contents