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The New International, April & May 1939


Jerry Pytlak

The Economics of Cotton Farming


Source: The New International, Vol.5 No.4, April 1939, pp.120-123, and Vol.5 No.5, May 1939, pp.144-148.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE CONCEPT “American agriculture” is, unfortunately, little understood in the radical movement. To some, the American farmer is predominantly an individual or corporation owning hundreds, or even thousands of acres of land; to others the “American farmer” means an agricultural laborer roaming up and down the South, Southwest and West; to still others the words “American farmer” mean little concretely. It is the aim of this study to present a structural, economic and sociological analysis of cotton farming in order to clear up widespread misconceptions and to present a basis for political discussion.

Cotton is the most important American commercial crop. In 1937 the United States produced 18,746,000 bales from about 34,000,000 acres, which had a farm value of about $784,106,000.

Geography and Acreage

The Cotton Belt begins in Southern Virginia, runs southward through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, then turns westward through Alabama and Mississippi, branching north and cutting the corners of Tennessee and southernmost Missouri, finally continuing west-ward through Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Even in New Mexico, Arizona and California small amounts of cotton are grown.

The Cotton Belt thus lies between 37° and 25° North latitude, a stretch of some 300 miles, and runs 1,600 miles from the Carolinas to western Texas. In southern Texas sowing begins in March, in the rest of the Cotton Belt it begins in April. Picking begins in Texas in the second week in July, elsewhere in September or October.

The nine chief cotton-producing states, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, and Tennessee contain 2,723,501 farms, of which 1,606,733 are tenant farms. Within the huge area of the Cotton Belt about 125,000 acres are devoted to cotton farming alone, almost as much as to all other crops together. According to Johnson, Embree and Alexander (The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, p.33), 30% of the cotton lands are owned by insurance companies and banks. T.J. Woofter Jr., however, in his study of cotton tenancy (Landlord and Tenant on the Cotton Plantation, p.11) estimates that about 10% of the cotton acreage is owned by insurance companies, banks and large corporations.

Woofter considers tracts of 260 acres or more plantation size, since 260 acres was about the lowest limit of sample plantations found in his study; yet even farms as small as 50 to 100 acres may have tenants. Of all tracts, only 12% in 38 typical plantation counties were 260 acres and over. Eight percent were between 175 and 260 acres. Nineteen percent ranged from 100 to 175 acres. Twenty five percent were between 50 and 100 acres and 36% ran from 3 to 50 acres. Practically all of the last group were one-family farms.

Not infrequently large owners rent additional land; 14 percent of all of the acreage over 260 was thus operated, and each owner involved had a total of four plantations. Nine percent of the landlords, whom Woofter canvassed (op. cit., Appendix, Table 10) were semi-absentee, visiting the plantation once a week; 6% were absentee living more than ten miles away and visiting less than once a week, 31% devoted more than a quarter of their time to other occupations. In most cases they were merchants.

In 1910 there were over 200,000 land-owning Negroes in the South, 124,000 of whom were in the seven southeastern cotton states. In 1934, 74% of the Negro landlords owned less than 100 acres. Twenty-two percent owned 100 to 160 acres, and only 4% owned 260 acres and over. A Georgia sampling showed that the average Negro holding was one-third the size of the average white holding. Almost invariably the tracts were of poorer land and in outlying sections.

Surrounding the plantations are the farms of small individual owners and the tenant farmers not attached to plantations. Their average size, according to the Report of the President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy (US Government Printing Office, Table 2) is only 91 acres, smaller than the average in eight other regions and larger only than the average in the tobacco region. The average size of all of the full owner-operated farms, including plantations, is 119 acres, whereas the average of all tenant operated farms is but 65 acres. On 442 plantations sampled by Woofter, the tenants had an average crop acreage of 25 per family. The average crop acreage in the Upper Delta area was 17, in the Lower Delta 15, and in the Arkansas River area, 14.

From these figures it is already possible to draw one important conclusion. Plantations 260 acres and over are relatively few in number. In some areas, they are physically negligible – although as we shall see later they mould the entire economy of the Cotton Belt; in other areas, they comprise about 10.8% of all tracts.

Soil Erosion

The Department of Agriculture has estimated that 50,000,000 acres of farmland have been completely ruined by soil erosion; another 50,000,000 are in nearly as desperate a condition; on 100,000,000 more the top-soil is washed away; and on still another 100,000,000 acres erosion has definitely started. Thus an area equivalent to one-ninth of the United States has been seriously affected by unscientific farming and the toll of nature. On 100,000,000 acres of such land live 500,000 families.

In the seven southeastern cotton states 10,900,000 acres are completely destroyed, and another 11,000,000 are in a desperate condition, according to a survey of the Soil Erosion Service. There are two reasons for such wide depletion in these states. First, diversified farming in the South has been unknown until recently. The plantation system is based on a single cash crop which has a broad commercial market. Profits must be quickly and easily realizable. A worth-while program of crop diversification in the interest of soil fertility would seriously undermine the system unless accompanied by adequate compensation. Second, the feeding roots of the cotton plant are nearer the surface than the roots of most commercial crops. This causes great destruction of the humus with consequent leaching and washing.

Number and Ratio of Operators

After the Civil War came the shift from slave to hired labor. This was followed almost immediately by half sharecropping, because the impoverishment of the landlord made it impossible for him to pay wages.

Woofter estimates that in 1860 there were about 1,100,000 males engaged in all types of agriculture in the seven southeastern cotton states, excluding those working on home farms. By 1930 this figure had risen to 2,100,000, which represents an increase of 91%. Negroes increased by about 28,000, or 3%, as against a white increase of 940,000, or nearly 300%. The increase in white owners amounted to about 50%. Thus whites outnumbered Negroes, and by 1935 the ratio was about five to three among tenants alone.

For the year 1930 Johnson, Embree and Alexander classify cotton operators as follows:

Full owners



Part owners




Cash Tenants


Other Tenants




By 1935, the number of tenants in the Cotton Belt had increased still further, although the number of farms operated by them in the entire South had decreased by 2%. Vance (Regional Reconstruction: A Way Out for the South) places the number of tenant families at 1,790,783 of whom 1,091,944 were white and 698,839 Negro, a total of over 60% of all farmers. The President’s Report with figures compiled from U. S. Census data of 1935, gives a still higher ratio, 65.1%. These cotton tenants, furthermore, constitute 41.4% of all tenant farmers in the United States.

Types of Tenancy

There are three major and one minor type of tenancy in the Cotton Belt:

  1. Cash Renting: The landlord furnishes the tenant only with real estate and fuel at a fixed rental to be paid either in cash, which is most often the case, or its equivalent in crop value. The landlord usually pays the real estate taxes and the money cost of the upkeep. The tenant furnishes labor, work stock, feed for work stock, tools, seed, fertilizer, and receives all income after his rent is paid. The landlord only exercises supervision to prevent depletion of the land and deterioration of improvements. This type of tenant is slightly better off than most. A definite agreement on the amount of rent to be paid makes him independent. The landlord has no lien on his crop and he can market it wherever he chooses.
  2. Crop-Share Renting or Share Tenancy: The landlord furnishes real estate, fuel, and in addition, one-fourth or one-third of the fertilizer. He usually pays the real estate taxes and the money cost of the upkeep. The tenant furnishes labor, work stock, feed for work stock, tools, seed and three-fourths or two-thirds of the fertilizer. The landlord receives one-fourth or one-third of the crop, very often one-fourth of the corn and one-third of the cotton, the tenant receiving the balance.
  3. Share Cropping: The landlord furnishes real estate, fuel, tools, work stock, seed, feed for work stock and one-half of the cotton and two-thirds of the corn, the balance going to the cropper.
  4. Standing Rent is a rarer form of payment which is most prevalent in Georgia and South Carolina. The peculiarity is that the landlord receives a fixed amount of the crop regardless of how large or small the tenant’s crop may be. Thus the landlord is free from the risk of loss due to bad seasons or bad management. It must also be mentioned here that under the last three arrangements the return to the tenant is always minus “interest” on indebtedness, and minus a so-called “cost of supervision”.

There are, of course, many variations of the three basic types. In some cases renters may sub-rent to share croppers. In other cases, displaced tenants may be found on the plantation who are allowed to use very small patches of land without charge for home production purposes.

The overwhelming majority of the leases run for one year. A few landlords give one year leases containing an automatic renewal clause with optional termination dates three to nine months prior to the end of the lease. The fewest number of leases are in written form. Except in the case of renters, the landlord keeps all records and handles the sale of all crops. Manipulation of records is not uncommon, and in cases of dispute it is easy for the landlord to boot any recalcitrant tenant off the farm.

All improvements affixed to the soil become the property of the landlord at the expiration of the lease. This is not only anchored in the statutes of all the cotton states, but also holds at common law. In a few states, removable fixtures may be taken away by the tenant. The President’s Committee estimated that in the year 1929 the average annual expenditure per farm was $108 for fertilizer and $199 for feed. At the end of the year, one-third of all the tenants in the United States moved, leaving unexhausted fertilizer, lime and manure, and receiving no compensation.

Thus the tenant has no incentive to improve his farm. He who labors to restore the soil, who repairs fences and builds roads, ditches, and terraces, is merely inviting the landlord to raise the rent.


“Credit supports agriculture as the rope supports the hanged,” said Louis XIV. This is true of the 80% of the American farmers who own or operate tracts of 174 acres or less, and particularly true of small southern tenant farmers who borrow at usurious rates. It is, of course, not true of the owners of large plantations and the so-called “outdoor cotton factories”.

Prior to 1916, mortgages and long-term loans were financed through mortgage brokers or commercial banks. Rates of interest were relatively high, amounting to 8% or more. Initial equity requirements and renewal fees were also high. In addition, there were no provisions for gradual amortization, so that the borrower had to make his own arrangements to meet the lump sum payment. Furthermore, there was no advance assurance that the borrower would be able to renew his loan.

In 1916 the government established a Federal Land Bank System, whereby interest rates were substantially reduced and loans granted up to 50% of the value of the land and 20% of the value of the farm buildings. In 1933 loans by the Land Bank Commissioner were extended to 75% of the value of the farm. As a result of this policy some 19,322 farms were purchased during the year ending September 30, 1936.

It can readily be seen that only the very fewest of cotton tenants could purchase a farm under such credit requirements. The pitifully low figure given for purchases of farms for the year ending September 30, 1936 is a clear indication that not even tenants outside the cotton area possessed the equivalent of a 25% equity in a farm. The President’s Committee stated that “not all” of those purchasing farms as a result of these loans in 1936 were tenants; “some” were owners purchasing additional land, and “others” were non-resident operators.

The trend of the mortgage debt among southern landlords is important, as it is a graphic illustration of the decline of capitalism. In the seven southeastern cotton states in 1910, the mortgage debt was less than $166,000,000; in 1928 it rose to $637,597,000; in 1935 it fell to $502,528,000. From 1928 to 1938 the trend seems on the surface to have been reversed. The drop in long term indebtedness in 1935 is due, however, to over three quarters of a million foreclosures and bankruptcy sales which took place from 1931 through 1935, and also to government intervention since 1933 whereby about $150,000,000 additional capital was put into the capital structure of the Federal Land Banks.

Nearly 50% of the 646 landlords interviewed for Woofter’s study had long-term debts averaging more than 40% of the appraised value of the land, buildings, animals and machinery.


We have already seen that long-term credit facilities are available almost exclusively to farmers who are well off. Now let us examine briefly the conditions of short term credit.

Landlords’ Short Term Credit

The bulk of short-term credit in cotton farming is production credit. Loans are most needed when the landlord’s funds are lowest, that is, in the spring and summer. In a one-crop system such as cotton farming most of the income is obtained in the fall and early winter.

Prior to the Farm Credit Act of 1933, production credit to landlords at 25% and 30% interest was not unusual. As a result of the Act of 1933, twelve area Production Credit Corporations and numerous local production credit associations were organized. One hundred and forty-seven of the latter were in operation in the seven southeastern cotton states by the end of 1934 and lending money at 5%. To maintain their credit among investors the associations demand ample security, in most cases a first lien on a fair sized crop. Consequently, only farmers who are relatively well-off can secure loans.

As of December 31, 1937, the Production Credit Associations had $20,142,013 and the Regional, Agricultural Credit Corporations, another government lending agency, had $1,117,016 outstanding in short-term obligations in the nine chief cotton producing states. About 17% of all landlords were in receipt of loans from the former.

In spite of the creation of the Production Credit Associations and the Regional Agricultural Credit Corporations, the insured commercial bank remains the most important source of the landlord’s short-term borrowing. As of December 31, 1937 such banks had $166,761,000 outstanding in the nine cotton states, which is over eight times the amount loaned by the Production Credit Associations.

“Through his own farming operations” the landlord, say Johnson, Embree and Alexander (op. cit., p. 28), “can secure from one-half to two-thirds of a tenant’s productivity, and through his commercial operations he can, and often does, secure the rest.” The method is to sell to the tenant “all that the trade can carry” and charge as much as the borrower can bear.

The following weighted average cost of credit per annum to 588 croppers on 112 farms of North Carolina in 1928 was calculated by H.H. Wooten (Credit Problem of North Carolina Cropper Farmers, p.14):

For cash advances by farm owner


For farm supplies by farm owner and merchant


For household supplies by farm owner


For household supplies by merchant on owner’s guarantee


Johnson, Embree and Alexander state that in three selected cotton counties studied by them in Mississippi and Texas, there is not only the interest rate, but also the “special” credit price which is even greater than the interest charge, so that the tenant pays an average interest rate of 50% on all production and consumption credit. For a tenant to borrow from a bank or a recognized credit agency is impossible, as the landlord already has his only worthwhile security, a first lien on the crop. “It is to the advantage of the owner to encourage the most dependent form of share cropping as a source of the largest profits. And he wishes to hold in greatest dependence just those workers who are most efficient ... The means by which landowners do this are: first, the credit system; and second, the established social customs of the plantation order.” (Op. cit., p. 8.) The most prevalent of the latter in cases of dispute are the broad leather strap, the lyncher’s rope and the shotgun.

Landlord’s Income

According to Woofter (op. cit., pp.76ff), the average gross cash income of big landlords on 645 plantations with an average of 905 acres was $5,095 in 1934. On 111 plantations it was over $8,000. The average net cash income was $2,313, ranging from an average of $1,091 per plantation in the counties of the Black Belt with renter majorities to a high of $6,944 per unit in the Arkansas River area, where the proportion of croppers and laborers is heavy.

Woofter deduces from his survey that in addition to the size of the plantation, income is dependent upon crop acres, total cotton acres and the amount of land in cotton per plantation, as well as on the productivity of the land. From his figures it may also be concluded that the more tenants of the lowest type on the plantation, the higher the landlord’s income will tend to be.

Tenant’s Income

The net income of the tenant is difficult to calculate as it would involve a deduction for arbitrary amounts charged for subsistence or “furnish” advanced by the landlord, and also an addition for AAA benefit payments which were seldom received (Johnson, Embree and Alexander, op. cit., p.53). The latter were almost invariable credited against debts, past or future.

According to Woofter (op. cit., p.87, Table 34A), the average cropper family in 1934 got $91 in cash after settling, and possibly also the following items in money: wages, $21; AAA payments, $8; receipts from unshared sales, $2. In the Lower Delta area, the croppers received only $33 per family in cash after settling. Only 70% of the families had any cash due them at all, whereas 17% “broke even” and 13% suffered a loss.

The average family of wage-hands received $148 in cash after the landlord had made his deductions for advances of various kinds.

The average cash received after settling by share tenants was $152. Theoretically the family also received $17 in wages, $17 in AAA benefits and $16 from unshared sales. In the Lower Delta area, the average amount received per family after settling was $28. Only 53% of all share tenants in this area had any cash due them, all of the others “broke even” or lost. Even where the average amount of cash after settling was highest on the Atlantic Coast Plain, 25% of the share tenants received no cash at all.

The renter family averaged $170 for the sale of its crop, and theoretically received $26 in AAA payments.

According to Johnson, Embree and Alexander (op. cit., pp.11), 43.4% of all tenants in six widely differing counties of North Carolina were in debt before the 1934 crop was planted. Woofter (op. cit., p.61) states that after the 1934 harvest the croppers had an average debt of $55 per family, while the tenant and renter families owed an average of $120.

One of the ways of keeping tenants in debt is the following: A tenant offering five bales of cotton was told, after some owl-eyed figuring, that this cotton exactly balanced his debt. Delighted at the prospect of a profit this year, the tenant reported that he had one more bale which he had not yet brought in. “Shucks,” shouted the boss, “why didn’t you tell me before? Now I’ll have to figure the account all over again to make it come out even.” (Quoted by Johnson, Embree and Alexander, p.9.)

The Tenant’s Standard of Living

It is in direct and immediate interest of the landlord to keep the standard of living of his tenants down as far as possible. He needs the cheapest and most docile labor at his immediate beck and call. Progeny in plenty are particularly desirable. During the three harvest months, September, October and November, the landlord is loath to put on extra hands. The more women and children there are to break their backs from dawn to dusk, the more money the landlord saves.

The result is that the South presents a “miserable panorama of unpainted shacks, rain-gullied fields, straggling fences, rattle-trap Fords, dirt, poverty, disease, drudgery and monotony that stretches for a thousand miles across the Cotton Belt”. (Quoted by Johnson, Embree and Alexander, p.14).

The landlord rules the plantation and its tenants with an iron hand, much as the Russian landlord ruled his estate and his serfs. The cotton serf may change his master, but never his bondage under the plantation system. Woofter states categorically (op. cit., p.91), “The landlord determines what sort of house the tenant shall live in, and what the amount and characteristics of the monthly ‘furnish’ of foodstuffs shall be.” All statistics show that the high disease and death rates are due to the living conditions which are dictated to the tenant by the system.

The overwhelming majority of tenant dwellings are unpainted frame shacks. In Louisiana and Mississippi, over four-fifths of the tenants lived in such dwellings. Ninety-three percent of the Negro tenants of Louisiana were also housed in unpainted frame shacks. In none of the seven southeastern cotton states are there an appreciable amount of houses of stucco, brick, stone or concrete. North Carolina had the highest proportion in 1934: 1.9% for owners and 0.6% for tenants.

White tenants averaged 1.2 occupants per room, Negro tenants 1.4; white tenants had an average of 2.4 bedrooms per house, Negro tenants had an average of 2.1. As many as thirteen people have been found living in a single bedroom and kitchen. (Johnson, Embree and Alexander, op. cit., p.15.) Only 30.2% of all tenants had screens, 43.4% being the average among whites, and 16.6% among Negroes. In every state except Arkansas, screens were reported by less than a quarter of the Negro tenants. Water was drawn from wells by 80% of all tenants; less than 1% made use of stream water. Of all tenants, 67.5% had only unimproved outhouses, 29% had no toilets of any kind. Less than 3% of all tenants had kerosene or gasoline stoves; less than 1% had gas or electric cooking facilities. Over 90% cooked on wood or coal stoves.

The clothing which tenants wear is of the coarsest and crudest kind. The usual garb is denim overalls for men and the cheapest cotton dresses for women. If underwear is worn, it is home-made. Brogan shoes are worn without socks. Often lack of sufficient warm clothing prevents children from going to school and adults from attending public meetings.

The usual diet of the tenant consists of fat salt-pork, meal and molasses, with pork consisting of about 40% of all food. Rarely are sweet-potatoes and cow-peas available. Vegetable gardens are taboo, as the landlord would not share in their produce. Large plantations usually “furnish” the tenant on the ration system, so that he will not eat up more than his income amounts to. The usual allotment is two pecks of meal and four pounds of pork per family every two weeks. Some landlords provide only meal.

“We can’t get any flour, snuff, shoes, sugar, coffee, thread or anything from the landlord but meat and meal. We have a devil of a time. No soap, soda, or salt. Can’t borrow a dime, not a damn cent. If this ain’t hell, I’ll eat you. We work our damn heads off and git nothing. The harder we work, the deeper in debt we gits.” (Quoted by Johnson, Embree and Alexander, p.18.) Thus put by one tenant, it is typical of the situation of the vast majority.

High death rate and disease incidence are due to poor and insufficient food, as well as to miserable shacks without any improvements. Lack of proper diet causes pellagra, lack of screens facilitates the spread of malaria. The primitive water supply and sanitary facilities contribute to typhoid epidemics. The death rate from malaria is about fifteen times that of other sections, about twelve times as high for pellagra, and about two and a half times as high for typhoid and paratyphoid. (United Bureau of Census, 1930, Mortality Statistics.)

... the squalid condition of the cotton raisers of the South is a disgrace to the southern people. They stay in shacks, thousands of which are unfit to house animals, much less human beings. Their children are born under such conditions of medical treatment, food, clothing, as would make an Eskimo rejoice that he did not live in a cotton-growing country. (Johnson, Embree and Alexander, op. cit., from the Dallas, Texas, News, p.15.)


Public school education in the South, although improving slightly, is on a grade approximating that of the Balkans before the last war. The six southeastern cotton states (the seventh, Louisiana, is excluded) are far below average in length of rural school term. Some states close their schools as early as January or February 1. In the same states the term in Negro schools, both rural and urban, is shorter by about a month and a half. In per capita cost for current expenses and interest per pupil in average daily attendance, which in the South is relatively low, all of the seven southeastern cotton states fall into the lowest twelve of the nation.

In 1932, the median salary for rural white teachers in the U. S. was $945. In seventeen southern states it was $788, and for Negroes $388. (W. H. Gaumnitz, Status of Teachers and Principals Employed in the Rural Schools in the United States, p.68.) In 1933-1934, 40,000 Negro teachers received less than $500 per year, many less than $100. The proportion of illiterates over 21 years of age in the rural areas of the seven southeastern cotton states in 1930 (Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Occupations Vol.IV) ranged from 10.1% in Arkansas to 23.7% in Louisiana. In five of the seven states, illiteracy in rural areas amounted to 15% of the population, or more.


Hoffsommer in The AAA and the Cropper” (Journal of Social Forces, XIII, May 1935, pp.494-502) reports that of the 800 landlords interviewed by him in 1934, 90% were opposed to any change which might make the tenant less dependent on the landlord, and 40% were opposed to granting relief because it might spoil him as a tenant if and when he might be used again. The landlord feared that relief would raise the tenants’ standard of living to the extent that a resumption of bargaining on the old basis would be difficult.

For the thirty-three month relief period, January, 1933, through September, 1935, the seven southeastern cotton states expended an average of $17.49 per capita for every person in the state, varying from $7.25 in Alabama to $24.41 in Louisiana. The average per capita expenditure for the United States as a whole in the same period was $31.03.

The relief grant itself in September 1935 was from 22% to 60% less than the national average of $20.23 for all rural areas. The grant ranged from $8 per case per month in South Carolina, to $15.77 in Louisiana. Each class of Negroes received less than each corresponding class of whites, and with the exception of non-agricultural cases. The grant to each class of Negroes was less than the median of $8.98 per month per case for all classes of agricultural whites. For a Negro to receive any relief at all he had to be in much direr straights than a white.


One of the achievements of the government’s crop restriction program was the displacement of tenants. Thirty seven percent of all agricultural relief cases in the eastern cotton area in June 1935, 30,000 families were of this class. Slightly over 4,000 white and slightly over 2,000 Negro families of a total of some 52,000 cases were considered “worthy” of rehabilitation. Each white family received an advance of $205 and each Negro family an advance of $122 for subsistence and capital goods such as seed, fertilizer, work stock, farming and household equipment. This aid made those fortunate enough to get it independent only to the extent that they were not compelled to pay exorbitant prices and interest for “furnish” from the landlord or merchant. They were still, however, compelled to work land not their own.

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