Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good Ole Boy Farming


The sharecropping system of farm tenancy was once common in Arkansas and other areas of the United States. In the United States the institution arose at the end of the Civil War out of the plantation system. Many planters had ample land but little money for wages. At the same time most of the former slaves were uneducated and impoverished. The solution was the sharecropping system, which continued the workers in the routine of cotton cultivation under rigid supervision. Economic features of the system were gradually extended to poor white farmers. The cropper brought to the farm only his own and his family's labor. Most other requirements—land, animals, equipment, and seed—were provided by the landlord, who generally also advanced credit to meet the living expenses of the cropper family. Most croppers worked under the close direction of the landlord, and he marketed the crop and kept accounts. Normally in return for their work they received a share (usually half) of the money realized. From this share was deducted the debt to the landlord. High interest charges, emphasis on production of a single cash crop, slipshod accounting, and chronic cropper irresponsibility were among the abuses of the system. Farm mechanization and a marked reduction in cotton acreage have virtually put an end to the system

The sharecropper always seemed to be a few dollars short of what he owed the landowner, so he invariably began the new year with a deficit. As that deficit grew, he found it impossible to escape from his situation by legal means.

My husband's parents were sharecroppers but the deal they had with the landowner, who was also their employer for other farm work they did for him, was that they farmed the land and gave the owner a fourth rent. They farmed 40 acres of land that belonged the the farm owner ; their family provided all of the labor. The owner paid for all of the seeds, provided the equipment, and fuel to plant, cultivate, and harvest the crop. After the crops were sold, the owner took out the expenses for all of that, and then took a 4th of the funds that were left.

What was left wasn't enough to support their family so they also worked for the farm owner on a daily basis for wages that only amounted to about $1.00 an hour up until my FIL retired in the mid-90's. They stopped sharecropping earlier than that though because their sons grew up, found other jobs, and they didn't have the labor they needed to farm anymore.

Such was life here in the Mississippi river delta in Arkansas back then (and even now); you worked as hard, and for as long as you could, just to be able to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads.

Both of James's grandfathers were also farmers, and both were quite successful at it during the times that they were alive and farming. His mother's father died back in the 1940's because he tried to throw a wrench into the "good ole boy" system that goes on down here from way back when there were huge plantation and slave owners.

His grandfather saw how badly the big farm owners were treating the small farmers when it came to paying them for their cotton crops. These "big" owners not only owned the general stores where all the farmers bought their seed, and supplies, but they also owned the gins where the cotton was ginned and very often sold. What it amounted to, was these "big" owners were not giving a fair price for the cotton, or for the ginning, nor asking fair prices for the supplies. The small farmer usually owed the big farm owner every penny made from the crop, plus some, after the big farm owners had tallied up everything to their advantage. So his grandfather started buying the cotton from all of the small farmers for a fair price and taking it to other gins, then selling it in Memphis where he'd get a little extra for it so that everyone made a profit.

This didn't sit well with the good ole boys; not one little bit, so one day when his grandfather was leaving one of the little country stores in Lexa, one of the deputies at the time started an argument with him and shot him. His grandfather died on the front porch of that little country store, with a doll in his pocket that he had been planning to take home to one of his daughters.

The deputy claimed it was self defense, that his grandfather was drunk and had struck him. Of course the deputy's livelyhood came from deep within the big farmers pockets so the investigation was short and sweet, and no charges were filed.

The "good ole boy" mentality is still alive and well here in our part of the Mississippi River delta but I wonder how much longer it can continue. The labor pool future is looking mighty slim for the big farmers now, cause the technology that it takes to stay in farming these days is going to take a much higher paid, and better educated, labor force to do the work. And after taking a look around, there just ain't much of that.

17 comments:

Crystal said...

Ummmm. I got side tracked by that BIG BEAUTIFUL tree you have posted on your blog!!! LOVE IT!!!

Okay, now I can read your post for today;o)

mreddie said...

Sad story and that kind of thing probably happened a lot back then. My Dad finally moved from the farm when I was a kid, just couldn't make a living.

Could you tell me what kind of tree is in the photo? ec

PEA said...

That was such an interesting story...I'd heard of sharecropping but never knew what it really meant. Farming back then was backbreaking work for little money and it didn't help that there was so much injustice done on the poor farmers compared to the big shots. How very sad what happened to James' grandfather but I'm sure a lot of that went on in those days. Great post my friend. xoxo

Virginia Gal said...

oh my God, what an amazing story and another interesting aspect of Southern America after the civil war but before de-segregation; that it was not only blacks being targeted by the "good ole boys" but also those who tried to buck the system.

What a tragedy, I wonder is there anyway to at least get the crime case re-opened, so at least your husband's maternal grandfather can get proper justice??

ps - super congrad's to Zach on his grades, I noticed an A in math, rock on!

bermudabluez said...

Farming is always back-breaking work...even today. My neighbor - who is a farmer - is in his 70's. When his sons take over the land....I'm sure they'll sell and we will have condos all around us. People just don't work like they used to!

Donna said...

OhMyWord Brenda! His Grandfather was a Wonderful man! Bless his heart for trying to help! I can't imagine the hardship....
Hope all is well with you sweetie!hughugs

Cindra said...

I was listening to a podcast where they were talking about the sharecropper way of life. Very similar to what you have described here. They made the comment that the workers were so poor and had no exposure to the outside world so didn't even know there might be something better.

Andrea (Off Her Cork) said...

No matter where you go, it's who you know and how you can scratch each other's backs. That's a really tragic thing to have happened to J's granddaddy and I'm sorry to hear that Brenda. People are afraid of change and that's a sad thing.

Maria said...

Dear Brenda, thank you for this lesson in Amercian history. It is even more interesting as you show the fates of your grandparents.

In Austria, there was no sharecropping systen because around 1900 agricultural cooperative societies were founded to support the little farmer's position on the market.
Around 1800 peasants (serfs) had been liberated and privately owned small farms which could support a family including grandparents and unmarried relatieves plus some farmhands, and the farmers grew everything they needed for life. When agriculture was mechanised around the middle of last century, many people left the farms, and farms could not feed families anymore. Today, most of the farmland is let for rent and there are only some few big farmers with highly mechanized and spezialised farms where the farmer is educated in agriculture. All my grandparents were small or a little bigger farmers, and none of their farms is cultivated any more today.
I hope I was not too tedious with my story, but I find it so interesting to exchange!

cassie-b said...

What a tough life. And it sounds like it's set up so that you can never escape.
Cas
It's part of "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" What an awful thing.

rhonda said...

That is a very interesting story. I don't see how famers make it today with the rising cost of things.

joan said...

Hi Brenda,

That was really interesting and sad. But I love your bloh header photo, it's beautiful!

Just Joni said...

Interesting read...my grandparents brought their children from Arkansas to California when they just couldn't make ends meet...from cotton fields to the shipping yards...lots of history...times are changing, but then haven't we always said that?

Love that tree in your header... I think we should appoint it as the official tree of Autumn - it's perfect.

jazzi said...

How sad about James' grandfather. And that there was nothing could be done about it.
There's still problems from the good ole boy system around here, too.

Louise said...

Wow! Although I came from just one state away from you, you live in such a different part, and the backgrounds are not the same at all--except my ancestors were also poor. But they didn't have good ole boy networkds to deal with. Well maybe, but not like that.

Wonderful post, and hopefully that kind of thing has a quick forced ending.

Loretta said...

Sad story. I remember in 1972 my husband was being paid $60.00 a week for farm work, 6/7 days a week. We had a house provided but it was tough!! Times sure have changed. I picked cotton as a teen for $3.00 a hundred pound, and thought I was doing good!!

Brent said...

It's amazing how hard our grandparents/great grandparents worked just to put food on the table. They worked so hard for just the basics! We are so spoiled! And yet we still work for what we have!