The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | United States/20th Century | Introduction


Table of Contents || 1: Rural Southern Women, The Family Economy, and Economic Change

by Connie L. Lester

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most Americans derived their livelihoods either directly or indirectly from the land: they farmed, raised livestock, or processed agricultural products. By the end of the century, less than three percent of American families farmed the land. While the South remained more rural than other regions, few southerners depended on agriculture as their sole source, or even their primary source, of income. Crossroads towns disappeared, and county seats looked to small industries to boost local economies. The transformation of the South from its dependence on single-crop, labor intensive production to agribusiness represents one of the most important events in southern history.

In the turn-of-the-century South, despite the efforts of industrial-minded leaders, agriculture continued to dominate the region economically and culturally. Not only did southerners remain tied to the land, their farming methods and output reflected stagnant land usage and crop production decisions based on tradition and culture rather than logical economic choices. Cotton, tobacco, tenancy, and the crop lien characterized southern agriculture, institutionalizing poverty among both black and white farmers. Low agricultural prices and limited access to capital precluded crop diversification and the transition to capital-intensive mechanized farming. Likewise, cultural expectations largely excluded landowning for African Americans, who provided the labor for southern agriculture as sharecroppers, but whose efforts to climb the agricultural ladder were circumvented by law and racial traditions.

By the end of the 20th century, although many parts of the South remained rural by the definitions of demographers and sociologists, a revolution had occurred in the physical and cultural landscape. Southern planters now farmed thousands of acres with machines augmented by the latest computer technology. Insecticides and herbicides supplanted the physical efforts of farm laborers. Chemical fertilizers and elaborate irrigation systems assured yields unimaginable to farmers in previous eras. Sharecroppers disappeared, and tenancy assumed a new face as planters leased non-producing acreage from absentee landholders in order to supplement their own fields. Access to capital enabled farmers to purchase equipment and chemicals, while access to agricultural research encouraged farmers to diversify into new areas of production: cattle, soybeans, catfish, fruits and vegetables, and nursery farming developed on land previously devoted to cotton, tobacco, corn, and hogs. Non-traditional economic alternatives vied with traditional crop sales to boost the farm income. Farmers managed wild game and opened their lands for paid hunting; rural bed-and-breakfast inns offered urban dwellers a country respite; and cornfield mazes sprang up on farms with access to recreational consumers.

The repercussions of the Depression, New Deal and World War II clearly accounted for most of the changes. But the metamorphosis of the southern landscape also had roots in the late nineteenth century establishment of agricultural colleges and experiment stations, and in the grassroots agrarian demands for farm programs to address the capital, transportation, and market needs of agriculture. The development of research programs and extension services provided farmers with the latest information for improving their land and enhancing farm output. New Deal legislation institutionalized policies to improve access to credit and support farm prices. The programs and research pushed by the federal government aimed to make Southern agriculture match a modern national model. This national model followed idealized midwestern practices.

Southern culture, climate, soils, and demographics produced a different result than intended-a uniquely Southern result. In the South the national efforts tended to reward better-capitalized and larger planters and to marginalize farmers with small landholdings who could not justify or qualify for the debt necessary to implement mechanical or chemical improvements. Likewise, the mid-century replacement of human and animal labor with machines and chemicals combined with crop reduction payments available through USDA programs eliminated sharecroppers. Together these institutional and policy initiatives produced a demographic and cultural transformation in the South. At the same time, the migration from the land and the lavish use of chemicals to enhance yields and eliminate weeds and insects sowed the seeds for future environmental, human health, and legal problems.

The revolution in the land was one experienced by all Southerners. It reshaped the geography of the South, restructured the economy, realigned the politics, and reordered racial and gender relations. The papers offered by our four speakers reflect the complexity of that transformation. In the first presentation, Dr. Melissa Walker of Converse College explores the way in which the transformation of Southern agriculture altered the role of farm women in the family economy and shaped the types of work they performed. Using oral histories from across the South, Walker suggests that the traditional role of petty production and reproduction was replaced with a new emphasis on off-farm wage labor for many farm women. Nevertheless, Walker insists that, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, farm women continued to view themselves as partners in the family farm.

In the keynote address, Dr. Pete Daniel, curator of the National Museum of American History, explores the negative consequences of widespread chemical use. Hailed as the savior of agriculture, pesticides and herbicides increased production at a substantial human cost. Using oral histories, court records, and USDA files, Daniel argues that the official effort to create agricultural uniformity---remake Mississippi into Iowa---could only be accomplished through the widespread use of chemicals.

In the third paper, Jeannie Whayne of the University of Arkansas offers a view of the changing face of tenant farming and sharecropping in the Arkansas delta. Focusing on the period from post-WWI to post-WWII, Whayne outlines the social and institutional barriers to economic advancement by the tenant and sharecropping population. Drawing on oral histories, Whayne enlightens readers on both the subtle and overt pressures of racism as well as the daily resistance by black and white farm workers.

In the final presentation, Jack Temple Kirby of Miami University of Ohio combines literature and environmental history to paint a shocking post-modern southern landscape. From coal extraction in the Appalachians to the transformation of coastal wetlands to tourist meccas and the replacement of the complex ecosystems of southern forests with loblolly monoculture, Kirby depicts a land that has lost its soul. Although pessimistic that the course will be reversed, Kirby holds out a faint hope in the individual love of gardening and the culture of southern foodways.

Taken together the four presentations span a century of agricultural and environmental change. In their analyses of the agricultural revolution, Drs. Walker, Daniel, Whayne, and Kirby provide thoughtful and thought-provoking material for a wide audience of readers.