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To the Editors of The Outlook:
"Trades-Union Wages on the Farm "has recently attracted some attention, and a pamphlet will shortly be published showing how much can be made on the vacant lots cultivated by the poor people, and, under equally favorable circumstances, by the regular farmers.
It is claimed that unskilled labor on these vacantlot farms has made in many cases as high as $4 a day; but it must be remembered that the "Potato-Patchers," as they are called, had the advantage of the regular farmer because they worked upon valuable land. Land, whether used for agriculture, for mining, manufacturing, residences, or any other purpose, is valuable only when it enables the occupier to produce a great deal. For this reason, land on Wall Streel has been sold at the rate of $12,000,000 per acre, although if put in crops it probably would not produce $25 a year. For the same reason the vacantlot farmers in New York have been able to make high wages, whilst the farmers, pushed out by the high prices to worthless land at a distance from the cities, find it hard work to make ends meet.
It is to be regretted that more extended figures have not been furnished by the nearly fifty towns and cities which are now pursuing this form of relief; but the conclusions from such figures as we have are most significant.
A careful examination shows that the ordinary plot allotted to the vacant-lot farmers, one-third of an acre, will take less than ten days' full work of an able-bodied man in order to reach the full productiveness. This time would, of course, be decreased had he the use of a horse, and it would be greatly increased, with a corresponding increase of production, if he could have so simple an appliance as hotbeds. Without these appliances, however, and with the poorest and least skilled sort of labor, the cities report the following average rates as having been earned:
In New York $1.16 per day for each worker.
" Brooklyn 1.47 " " "
" Boston 2.06 " " "
" Buffalo 1.37 " " "
" Detroit 1.61 " " "
While Omaha shows only 85 cents, and St. Louis gives the astonishing result of an average rate of wages of $5 a day.
The figures in the last two cities diverge so greatly from the average that there is probably some error, although it is explained that Omaha suffered greatly from the drought. It is not incredible that $5 a day or even more might have been earned, since we learn by the New York report that a man and his wife saved more than $4 a day off their plot on the Long Island farm.
Concerning the economic lesson to be learned, we quote the actual case of a farmer near Ghent, owning 160 acres of the average value of $20 per acre, making a total for the farm of $3,200. Of this 160 acres are cultivated. If this were to produce the same as the gross average of the New York vacant lots, viz., $S3.52 per acre, the farmer would have $9,604.80, at the retail prices received by the vacant-lot cultivator. But. according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the farmer gets only 60 per cent, of the retail price, $5,762.88. Out of this he has to pay interest on mortgage, $78; taxes, $48; seed. $60; leaving $5,576.80 for wages, machinery, tools, food, clothing, insurance, repairs, and general expenses, and the reward of the two young men who do the work. That is what the farmer could get were he allowed to work the land which lies vacant and close to our cities.
Now let us see what he does get, after paying to the railroad " all the traffic will bear," and paying to the middlemen a big slice of what is left. The actual entire product o! this farm, away from the center of population and probably badly tilled, was onlv $529, less $93 for the three items specified. Now these two young men are good, enterprising farmers, as farmers go, and that "profit" is the inducement that under present conditions is held out to the poor to go to the country.
- Bolton Hall, “Vacant-Lot Farming,” The Outlook 54, no. 13 (September 26, 1896): 578.