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New International, August 1939


Jerry Pytlak

Cotton Economy in Depression


Source: The New International, Vol.5 No.8, August 1939, pp.247-250.
Transcription:Daniel Gaido.
Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


From the close of the Civil War until about 1870, there was a marked drop in the number of acres under cultivation. The following period, which lasted until 1910, saw a gradual increase in production. After 1910, and continuing until 1923, there was a wave of destruction caused by the invasion of the boll weevil. Traveling from West to East at the rate of about 40 to 160 miles a year, the boll weevil progressively laid waste to the seven southeastern cotton states. From 1910 to 1930, these states lost 19,000,000 acres of farmland, or more than 14% of their total acreage.

During the same period, from 1910 to 1930, there was a rapid increase in the cotton acreage of Texas and Oklahoma. As each new state in the east was attacked by the weevil, Texas and Oklahoma brought more acreage under cultivation so that by 1930 the total increase in these two states amounted to 100% and comprised 50% of the entire cotton acreage. The figures for 1937 indicate a slight drop in this proportion.


Mechanization has also played an important role in assuring the predominance of the Southwest over the Southeast. The tractor and the two-row equipment can be used in the Southwest because of the hard, flat bottom; in most of the Southeast, however, where the bottom is soft and the terrain rolling, mechanical equipment of this kind can hardly be used. How machinery lowers operating costs can be seen from the following table:

Operating Costs per Acre of Cotton
at the Delta Experiment Station, Stoneville, Miss.



Labor power and machinery
cost per acre

½ row

One mule


1 row walking

Two mules


1 row riding

Two mules


2 row

Four mules


2 row



4 row



A man using two-row equipment drawn by four or six mules can cultivate ten to fifteen times as many acres in the Southwest as a man using a mule and a plow in the Southeast. As a result of mechanization, large operators in many parts of the Southwest can make a profit on cotton at a farm sale price of six cents per pound. [2]

Until 1930 only 12.2% of all farm tractors in the United States were being used in the ten leading cotton states. Seven years later, in 1937, this figure had risen to 18.5% and the number of tractors had nearly doubled. [3]

In the five chief cotton producing counties of Oklahoma, for example, the number of tractors increased approximately 32% from 1929 to 1936. During a period shorter by two years, 1930 to 1935, one of these counties lost 1,602 or 17.5% of its horses and mules. In the following single year between 750 and 1,000 horses and mules were whipped out of this same Oklahoma county.

Human beings were even harder hit. When the landlord purchases a tractor he throws his smaller farms into one operating unit and thereby displaces anywhere from two to fifteen tenants. Thus from 1930 to 1935 this one Oklahoma county lost 24% of its rural population.

... tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farm laborers – whites and Negroes alike – are being swept from the land and onto relief in some of the most important sections of the Cotton Belt. . . A planter in the Mississippi Delta, to cite an outstanding example, purchased 22 tractors and 13 four-row cultivators, let go 130 of his 160 cropper families, and retained only 30 for day labor. [4]

A postmaster of Carey, Texas, explained:

The landlords get the crop production money and buy tractors with it, and it’s putting the renters out. The landlords take all the “reduction”. If the tenants don’t give ‘em all, they put ‘em off. [5]

Some of these tenants, [write two local citizens [6]] have resided on these farms for 18 years and have cooperated with their landlords in every way ... but it appears now that these tenants have about reached the end of their row, for the landlords have advised them to vacate the farms, saying they wanted to farm all their lands with tractors ... in Hall County [Texas] alone there will be moving from the farms here 420 tenant farmers. With an average of five persons to the family it simply means that 2,100 men, women and children will be driven ... from the only occupation which they have ever known. Whither will they go?

Men without funds, wives looking sad and blue, and worst of all, little children who should be in school, half naked and undernourished, the victims of tractor farming and that greedy, selfish spirit of the “land hog” who no doubt feels that he should own and cultivate the earth.

To which a local banker replies:

Tractor farming and fewer people will be bad for the merchants and good for the banks. [7]

Mechanization of cotton production has meant throwing human beings on the scrap heap. Between mechanical farming and the A.A.A. crop-reduction program the staggering total of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Cotton Belt families have been made homeless or dependent on the landlord’s charity. As if this were not enough, it is already certain that the Rust mechanical cotton picker which can do the work of 50 to 100 hand pickers will immediately displace 75% to 80% of the remaining sharecroppers.

The Program of the A.A.A.

When the depression hit the cotton states in 1930, it struck an economy already considerably weakened. The trend from 1927 through 1931 was sharply downward. Temporary, partial recovery followed until 1936. From then on the general trend again turned downward.

As in other spheres of economy, the New Deal endeavored to meet the breakdown of capitalism in agriculture by attempts to price stabilization and the granting of subsidies to replace lost profits. The efforts of the New Deal amounted, however, to an attempt to square a circle. Over a billion and a half dollars were spent and loaned to stabilize the price of cotton. It was a vain endeavor.

The year 1932 saw the price of cotton at 6.52c per pound, less than one cent above the all-time low of the previous year. The industry was in a chaotic condition, the biggest farmers threatened with ruin. Roosevelt began his rescue work.

In the first year of the A.A.A. alone, almost 11 million acres of cotton were plowed under, $178,550,000 dished out to big farmers as a bonus for destruction and an additional $120,000,000 loaned on ginned cotton withheld from the market.

When cotton crossed 10c in 1933, adjustment payments for 1934 were eased off by over 62 million. In 1934, however, when the price reached a peak of 12.3c payments were not further reduced, but raised by almost 50 million to $163,000,000. It is probable that the doctor prescribed an extra dose of dollars as the result of his own election jitters.

On the morning after of 1935 the price of cotton dipped over one cent and payments for 1936 shrunk to 135 million. Yet fortune favored the New Deal brave. By the end of 1935 exports had increased by over a million bales, so that 1936 saw a favorable price of 12.36c.

In agriculture no less than in other fields, 1936 was the last year of Roosevelt prosperity. Then cotton economy took the deep, dizzy plunge almost to the chaotic level of 1932. The years 1937 and 1938 saw cotton at 8.40c and 8.52c. Payments skyrocketed to $202,000,000 and $265,000,000.

Commenting on the situation recently, Secretary Wallace let the cat out of the bag. He announced that the government was trying to work out a cotton stabilization plan which would not leave the U.S. Treasury bankrupt. Six years of capitalist “planning” have “improved” the cotton situation only to the extent of raising the price by 2.86c above the all-time low of 1931. Aside from conserving and rebuilding the soil in haphazard fashion, the New Deal has to its credit the fact that at least $1,539,000,000 were poured into the pockets of big and middle farmers in the form of benefits and loans. It also has to its credit the fact that it has materially assisted in making 500,000 to 1,000,000 families in the Cotton Belt homeless or dependent on the landlord’s charity.

Government Aid to Low income Groups

Largely as the result of conditions which were brought to light during the Arkansas “reign of terror” in March, 1935, a program of federal aid to low income groups was inaugurated. We have already seen that the number of tenant families has been placed at 1,790,783 and that they constitute about 65% of all farmers in the Cotton Belt. We have also seen that $1,539,000,000 went to the other 35% who own the land. How much did the low income majority get?

From the inception of the program on July 1, 1935, some 255,000 families in the nine chief cotton producing states received about $132,600,000 in rehabilitation and emergency crop loans which are repayable in two to five years. The weighted average loan amounted to about $520 per family. Relief grants to 116,000 families in the same area from the inception date of July 14, 1936 to November 30, 1938 totaled about $8,120,000. The yearly grant per family amounted to slightly over $70.

On July 22, 1937, following the recommendation of the report of the President’s committee on farm tenancy, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act went into effect. The most important feature of the Act is its provision for the purchase of farms by tenant families. Under this provision a government loan may be made to a family which owns no land for the full value of the farm it desires to buy, plus the cost of improvements. Preference is given to farmers able to make a down payment or who own livestock and equipment. The loan bears 3% interest and may be repaid over a period of 40 years under a variable- payment plan which is adjusted to crop values and prices. As security the government accepts a lien on the property purchased and an agreement that the owner will follow a sound system of farming under government supervision. Committees of local farm owners passed on both the tenants to receive loans and the farms to be purchased. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1938 $10,000,000 was appropriated, and for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1939, $25,000,000. A maximum of $50,000,000 has been authorized for all subsequent years.

During the year July 1, 1937 to June 30, 1938, 38,000 families filed applications, which no doubt had to receive advance approval, from 333 designated counties throughout the entire United States. A total of 1,887 loans were finally approved.

The Farm Security Administration is also establishing rural homestead projects. They are either scattered, individual farms, farm communities or subsistence homesteads, where farm income supplements industrial income. As of October 1, 1938, 34 rural homestead projects had been substantially completed in the Cotton Belt, providing 220,479 acres of land and homes for 2,884 families. The total outlay for the land was approximately $7,716,800 and for the buildings $8,363,699. Perhaps an additional $1,500,000 was loaned to cooperatives in the South for machinery.

Thus a grand total of about $163,074,000 was disbursed in loans and benefits to tenants and small bankrupt owners.

The Farm Security Administration has also secured some improvements in tenure status: 65,480 producers out of a million (!) or more advanced from croppers to tenants; and an unspecified number of cotton tenants secured written and longer leases.

We have seen that 100,000,000 acres of farmland in the United States have been completely or nearly completely ruined by soil erosion and are unfit for cultivation. On another 100,000,000 acres the top-soil is washed away. Yet the Soil Conservation Service has purchased only 11,200,000 acres for new uses, which is less than half the acreage in the Cotton Belt alone which is unfit for farming.

In seven years of reformist planning, the New Deal has hardly scratched the surface of the problems presented by the cotton regions of the South. The masses of Southern tenants and sharecroppers are still illiterate, still racked by typhoid, pellagra, and malaria, three diseases which are symptomatic of a low standard of living. The New Deal has failed to solve the central problem of all; the serious disproportion between living standards in the South and in the rest of the country. President’s Roosevelt’s fine talk about the South being “the nation’s No.1 economic problem” and therefore first on the order of the day for action by the New Deal, this is simply – fine talk.

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1. Stephens, P.H., Mechanization of Cotton Farm.

2. The Rust mechanical cotton picker is as yet not being used on a commercial scale. It is estimated that it will reduce the cost of picking from $1.00 per hundred pounds to 18 cent (overall cost).

3. National statistics corroborate the increasing importance of tractor farming in the Cotton Belt. Sales of farm tractors in 1996 were 10.6% above 1929 despite the fact that sales of all types of farm equipment were still 10.7% below 1929

4. Statement of Prof. Paul S. Taylor. Extract from Hearing before a Special Committee to Investigate Unemployment and Relief, 75th Congress, Third Session, p.1161.

5. Ibid., Exhibit 6, p.1612.

6. Ibid., Exhibit 4, p.1611.

7. Ibid., Exhibit 5, p.1612.

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