Time Machine

Time Machine: The short era of Iowa industrial farming thwarted by Great Depression

Great Depression ended Merle Collins' vision for 25,000 acres of Iowa farmland

This apparatus to dry corn was created in October 1931 by a Collins Farms engineer. The corn was stored in tight cylindr
This apparatus to dry corn was created in October 1931 by a Collins Farms engineer. The corn was stored in tight cylindrical bins with heavy mesh floors, and a blower forced hot air through 5 to 6 feet of the corn with enough force to blow off a person’s hat at the top of the aerator. The dryer, one of two the company built, was located on one of the company’s farms north of Marion. (Gazette archives)
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Merle H. Collins of Kingfisher, Okla., brought industrial farming to Iowa, using advanced methods of crop rotation and fertilization to produce outstanding yields, only to be done in by the Great Depression.

Collins — the father of Arthur, who would found and grow Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids — opened an office in Cedar Rapids in 1916 for the Stitt-Collins Mortgage Co. The company was a business representative for Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York in Iowa, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas.

A year later, Collins moved to Cedar Rapids and changed the company’s name to the Collins Mortgage Co.

In 1928, Collins formed Collins Farms Co., with A.G. Thurman as his general farm manager, and began buying farms around Cedar Rapids and hiring people to farm the land. He researched modern farming methods at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames.

Collins Farms, an offshoot of Collins Mortgage, began laying tile on farms near Springville and Hawkeye. The company’s farm manager in Hawkeye said the entire 360 acres would be planted in corn the next year.

That became the formula for all of the farms the company acquired.

As farms were added through auction or purchase, Collins Farms employees tore out fences, installed drainage tile and altered the flow of streams.

The fields were limed and planted in sweet clover. The clover, which was preferred to manure in adding nitrogen to the soil, was then plowed under in preparation for the planting of crops.

Large-scale farming

An average Iowa farm at the time was about 160 acres.

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Collins’ mechanized plan for production aimed for 1,000 to 2,000 acres per farm unit. Each unit operated as a single field with one crop supervised by a foreman who, in turn, was supervised by a divisional manager.

The company owned 75 tractors, 75 plows, 40 grain drills, 19 combination harvester-threshers and 15 two-row corn harvesters. Equipment was transported between farms on 10 semi-trailer rigs, each able to carry three tractors. All of the field machinery had electric lights to allow 24-hour use.

An engineer was hired to develop specialized equipment. A corps of mechanics working out of truck-transported machine shops kept the machinery in good working order. Farm buildings unnecessary to company operations were torn down. Barns and silos were converted to grain storage, and more bins were added.

After three years of operation, Collins Farms Co. owned 30 groups of farms totaling 25,000 acres, with more expansion planned.

The new industrial farming method garnered a lot of attention. In 1931, the year the operation’s 6,000 acres of wheat produced excellent yields, a delegation from the Chicago Board of Trade arrived to investigate, followed by a pair of German royal visitors and then Illinois farm managers.

The Crash

Despite the Depression, Collins Farms showed a profit in 1930 and 1931, but the company had borrowed heavily and sold a lot of stock.

In October 1931, news leaked that the Iowa secretary of state had canceled registration of Collins Farms’ stock, meaning it was worth nothing and could no longer be traded.

The company’s holdings were turned over to Equitable, and the heavy debt load carried by Collins Farms’ principal bank, Cedar Rapids National, resulted in Merchants National absorbing that bank.

In 1933, Equitable backed out and filed a $4 million foreclosure suit against Collins Farms, its banks and its tenant farmers, involving 165 farms in 40 Iowa counties.

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The case concluded in federal court in Des Moines on Jan. 5, 1935, with a settlement of $1 million to Equitable.

Farm writers at the time hammered Collins, saying his factory farm methods were the reason he failed. But several years later, those writers admitted the economy had a lot to do with banks refusing to carry his debt after the market crash.

Merle Collins found another job, as vice president in his son Arthur’s radio engineering company.

Footnote

Arthur Collins gave his father, Merle, a job, just as Merle had given his own father, the Rev. Josephus Collins, a job with Collins Mortgage Co. in 1920.

Josephus had retired as a minister with the Methodist and Congregational churches before becoming vice president and treasurer of his son’s company.

When Josephus died in 1928 at the age of 84, Merle Collins bought the painting “Negro Boxer” by James Chapin from the Art Institute of Chicago as a memorial to his father. He placed it on permanent loan to the Cedar Rapids Art Association’s Little Gallery at the public library.

l Comments: d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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