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.