A Farmer Fights for Freedom
June 5, 1955
Spring planting had begun, and 82-year-old Joseph Blattner, a pious poultryman who has farmed 108 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania since 1903, was musing on the Apostle Paul's epistle to the Galatians: "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Farmer Blattner wondered. In half a century, man and boy, he had seen about all that can happen upon the average acreage: drought, flood, frost, fire, blizzard, death, depressions. The scriptural figure of speech had covered a lot of territory, thought the elder agriculturist. But there was more, something St. Paul could not have anticipated: the often amended but seldom questioned Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938. Revised for wartime with price floors and ceilings, the act's farm marketing and crop acreage control provision had at last ensnarled him. Because of that law, the Blattner who sowed 24 acres in wheat for his chickens — instead of the government allotted 16 — had as part of the previous harvest reaped a legal whirlwind which today is moving toward the United States Supreme Court.
There at last, it is hoped by Blattner and his smallholder friends, the case of the farmer who wants no government help and takes none, may obtain justice. And, in the process, may restore a measure of private, competitive enterprise to the American farm. Blattner is appealing against the AAA, alleging that his freedom to farm and earn a living as provided under the Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, is being denied. Along with tens of thousands like him, he is fed up.
For Joe Blattner — God-fearing, unsubsidized, and independent — is an old fashioned, grass-roots American who decided to put up a good fight. He is at odds with the world's bulkiest wheat broker, Uncle Sam. He has dared to oppose the United States government agency that has been buying up and storing wheat for so many years it's now running out of the federal ears, bulging every granary and available storage, including makeshifts and stacks that spoil in the field, until the surplus is reported to be a billion dollars' worth. Such a surplus, in fact, that a White House expert, Mr. Nelson Rockefeller, was asked to devise ways to give some of it away.
At the same time, it must be noted, US farm agents continue to promote bigger wheat crops among top growers, so that five of the very biggest in 1953 collected $500,000 each in federal loans on their crops. And the same agencies, dealing with little farmers, pace off, measure, and restrict by aerial photographs the precise amount they may grow. In the case of Blattner, they didn't even care whether he had signed on for the government aid; and that's where the trouble began.
Grain for Their Own Hens
When the County Production and Marketing Administration office in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, notified Blattner and his son John, who manages the farm, that they could plant 16 acres of wheat and no more, they paid no attention. They sowed 24 acres, with more in corn, enough for the proper feeding of 6,000 laying hens that are the mainstay of their operation on North Wales Road, near the old Welsh community of Center Square in Worcester township, just beyond Philadelphia's suburbs.
When the agency men came to check on the acreage, Blattner told them to go away; he wasn't having strangers tromp down his wheat.
But after the harvest came a notice from the Collegeville office. The Blattners were fined $1.12 a bushel on an estimated 160 bushels produced on the excess eight acres — a total of $179.20. Moreover, their entire wheat crop for that year was subject to government lien, to insure payment. When the man came around, Blattner said,
I won't pay. This is still a free country, ain't it? We need that wheat for the chickens. A man still has a right, if he don't obligate himself to government, to farm the way he likes.
The story broke on August 11, 1954, when Blattner's lawyer-farmer neighbor, J. Kennard Weaver, backed by an indignant farmer group that included Bert Shontz, farmer-publisher of the Montgomery County Farmer, filed suit in US district court to have the federal farm marketing and administration features of the act declared unconstitutional. Specifically, the complaint asked that the government also be enjoined from interference with the plaintiff's sale of his produce or purchase of wheat and raising of grain to feed his chickens.
The basis of the suit was in the fact that none of the Blattner farm produce — grain, chickens, or eggs — was involved in interstate commerce, the regulation of which provides an all-covering canopy under which Washington legislates and controls.
In short, the Blattners, their neighbors, and most of the 1,400 farmers in Montgomery County merely sought to be let alone. Joe Blattner didn't complain about what others were doing or receiving; he simply asked for his inherited privilege of farming his own land in his own way, with the right to sell the product of his own hands in a free market.
People from nearly every state wrote to Blattner and his group. Letters and telegrams poured in, and checks in modest sums for the "war chest" needed to carry the suit through the courts.
It is a rare and wonderful experience, in these times, to know that one man has courage enough to challenge the world's course toward tyranny and slavery by recognizing this trend in our own country,
wrote an Easton, Pennsylvania, citizen.
Joseph Blattner's house became a meeting place, his farmyard an open-air forum. Television and movie cameras were set up in the chicken runs; his story went coast-to-coast by press, radio, TV, and the magazines — it lasted several weeks.
Editor Shontz blazed away with letters, editorials, and reports. Farmers' associations watched closely, and the leaders took counsel. Some came out on Blattner's side, others rode the fence. Privately, many a farmer accepting government aid, and not a few in the agencies themselves, hoped the old man might win his case. But it was expected the government would make a strong defense, and it did. Appeals were anticipated, and the fund raising became serious.
Incidentally, it is a curious fact that though the 1,400 Montgomery County farmers were predominantly against farm supports and controls, only 85 of that number were eligible to vote on this question, under the Farm Administration's rules. Any farmer planting less than 14 acres of wheat had no vote. Only 27 of the 85 eligible voted, and they were 22 to 5 against taking federal aid.
The "Wheat Penalty Minutemen"
The original committee formed to push the suit included, besides the two Blattners and Shontz, the Herr brothers of Trooper, Harold Fink of North Wales, and Charles Jensen and his son of Lansdale. They called themselves the "Montgomery County Wheat Penalty Minutemen," and met the first time in Mr. Jensen's home. The latter is a cattleman, [who] lost a son in World War Two, and holds strong feelings on freedom and individual liberties. These men put up the first money needed and called on their neighbors for donations.
A bank account was opened, and enough contributions — from 25 different states — were received to carry the case through US appeals courts.
"Task Force Blattner" was variously warned to layoff, but the farmers didn't scare. There were hints of reprisals — the long-practiced "runaround" by federal agents, withholding of marketing cards, added penalties, reduced allotments — suggesting Russia.
"In this part of the country we are not radicals," wrote Schontz,
nor are we reactionaries. We'd like the rest of America to know we aren't federal aid moochers, either. We just want to operate under laws of supply and demand, restoring our God-given, democratic fashion of living.
Charles Edwards, up from a sick bed, showed up one day at Blattner's farm and endorsed over a $100 check. "I farmed 200 acres here until five years ago," he reported.
Had three nice farms. But I just got tired being pushed around by government-hacked competition. When the hired hands began telling me what they would and wouldn't do, and I found myself doing the heavy jobs, I gave up. Small farmers don't have a ghost of a show, nowadays
Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania Farmers Association and the Farm Bureau urged Shontz and his colleagues to "duck it." They said it might prove "economic suicide." The farmers responded by collecting $3,500 and filed the complaint.
The original bill of particulars, as written by attorney Weaver, alleged that the US government, through farm price and marketing acts originally passed by Congress to encourage the wartime production of more food, was depriving Blattner of the right to make a living and would ultimately put him out of business. Because the government limited his acreage, forcing him to buy wheat outside at subsidized prices, Blattner could not remain in competition, the brief held. His income from poultry did not permit purchase of the extra wheat required.
Moreover, said the complaint, Blattner's chicken and egg production went into strictly local markets. Since it is the constitutional provision for control of interstate commerce that opens the door for the whole AAA program, and in Weaver's words, "permits the government to take from one group to give to another," this point comprised the heart of the suit. The brief also stated the grievances of thousands of small farmers who are today in this predicament of being "frozen out" because of the farm assistance act — a boon to the big boys, but a heartbreak to the small holder.
Were the decision to favor Blattner, it would of course upset the whole farm price and control structure, a multibillion-dollar operation that has continued now for 17 years. It would likewise cramp the farm-vote seeker in some sections, send many a rural tycoon back to the law of supply and demand, and put an awful dent in welfare statism.
But Joseph Blattner wasn't destined to win quickly. In a brief opinion expressed February 3,1955, [by] US District Judge Allan K. Grim, the complaint was dismissed on the grounds that all its contentions "have been denied in a previous suit (Wickard vs. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111) in 1942."
Attorney Weaver promptly charged [that] the federal court was "passing the buck," an old maneuver in such highly charged political legislation. He said the Wickard-Filburn opinion, written by the late and liberal Justice Robert H. Jackson, took cognizance of three important factors not present in the Blattner suit. These were as follows:
In the suit of Roscoe C. Filburn, an Ohio farmer, against the then secretary of agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, the Plaintiff was found by Justice Jackson to have suffered no loss. In Blattner's case, definite loss is admitted in the Court's ruling.
In the Filburn case, a subsidy was received by the Plaintiff, making him more or less subject to regulations contained under the Act. Farmer Blattner refused all subsidies, and none were given.
In the Filburn bill of particulars, it was shown that some of the wheat had been sold, and while Justice Jackson said its precise disposition was not shown, it must be presumed to have entered into interstate trade. Blattner sold no wheat whatever, and the product of his own wheat—eggs—was sold for local consumption on the domestic market.
For these "controlling reasons," and because the government's authority is claimed under the interstate commerce regulation clause, and because plaintiff Blattner is deprived of the use of 92 of his acres for wheat growing — thus violating his rights under the Fifth Amendment — an appeal was immediately taken.
One of attorney Weaver's strongest arguments is his declaration that the Agricultural Adjustment Act is class legislation, in that "it takes property from one class, the raisers of poultry, and gives it to another class, the big growers of wheat." Under the Fifth Amendment, which, he remarks, is today frequently used to protect traitors and criminals, the taking of property without due process of law is prohibited. But, he adds wryly, "that process" is harder to obtain for the honest citizen.
"If this Court does not stop the defendant, the protection of the good individual and his property by our Constitution has become a mirage," Weaver's appellant brief continues. He descrbes the buck passing between legislative and judicial branches in the following way:
The legislator considers enacting of economic legislation by which to transfer by legal force the property of one class to another class. But the constitutionality of this legislation, this transfer, is quickly raised. Does the legislator pause? He does not.
"Pass the law, and let the courts decide its constitutionality," says the legislator.
Later, the courts refuse to consider its constitutionality, saying: "The decision as to whether taking from one class for the benefit of another promotes the general welfare, is a political decision for the legislator."
In the case of Wickard vs. Filburn, on page 13, the Justice did just this in the following terms:
It is said, however, that this Act, forcing some farmers into the market to buy what they could provide for themselves, is an unfair promotion of the markets and prices of specializing wheat growers. It is of the essence of regulation, that it lays a restraining hand on the self-interest of the regulated" and that advantages from the regulation commonly fall to others. The conflicts of economic interest between the regulated and those who advantage by it, are wisely left under our system to resolution by the Congress, under its more flexible and responsible legislative process. Such conflicts rarely lend themselves to judicial determination. And with the wisdom, workability, or fairness of the plan of regulation, we have nothing to do.
This is 20th-century legalism for Pilate's old hand-washing act. In effect, it is the court saying: "Yes, boys, this is a little rough, but it's regulation, and when it comes to that our Congress wisely takes charge, and you mustn't expect the courts to step in with a little jurisprudence."
Professor Walter Gellhorn, Columbia University's law authority, recently took a dim view of this legislature-to-judiciary shuttle game. "Nothing is so destructive of democracy as a Constitution which we believe protects our freedom, but which in practice is construed away by the courts," he said, although the statement had no connection with the Blattner case.
The Fifth Amendment has come into the news in recent years because Americans called before congressional committees, merely for questioning, have invoked it, and almost unanimously the American press, radio, and intellectuals have made much of it. Yet in cases like Blattner's, where government agents, with no other purpose than to promote paternalist measures, march in with allocation orders, acreage charts, aerial photographs, and per bushel levies if there be overlimit production, these same defenders of the citizen's rights remain strangely apathetic, if not altogether silent, says Weaver.
"Nor shall private property be taken for a public use, without just compensation," reads the Fifth Amendment.
Whereupon, Weaver states, the government seeks to take $179.20 from the plaintiff in fines, and would force him to buy government-priced wheat from already oversubsidized wheat tycoons, so that the small operator grows smaller and the wealthy government ward grows richer.
Under the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, the brief continues, the plaintiff is denied rights reserved to states under the Constitution, and specifically Blattner's right to make a living by feeding his own wheat to his chickens.
"We here reach the Rubicon in our constitutional history," the attorney concludes.
The denial of the complaint by this farmer will affect the crossing.
If this Court gives the Federal Government absolute control over this non-subsidy taking farmer, it is the same as saying: "The Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution are hereby repealed. The Federal Government now has full control over the individual and his property" in every activity in all states of this Union.
To Joseph Blattner, pondering in the twilight of a life spent upon the free soil of a once free America, it was all legalistic and very confusing. St. Paul had stated the problem more succinctly. In the third verse of the sower and reaper parable he urged the Galatians
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Mises.org Editor's Note
On June 20, 1955, Joseph Blattner's appeal was denied. The US Court of Appeals Third District stated that "the order of dismissal of the complaint will be affirmed for the reasons stated by Judge Grim, D.C.1955, 127 F. Supp. 628, and for the additional reason that this is a suit against the United States and the United States has not consented to be sued as is required" (see Justia.com).