Saturday, January 09, 2010

farming cotton on shares

In late June and early July, 1937, her FSA boss sent Dorothea Lange on a photoshoot to Greene County, Georgia. There, she found an agricultural economy in crisis. Cotton, the money crop of the area, could no longer be grown at a profit. Decades of abuse had depleted soil nutrients and on rare years in which prices were high, boll wevills were likely to have decimated crops. Worst of all, perhaps, the system of farming via tenancy and crop sharing was unsuited to cotton growing. The slave-based plantation system worked better a half century before and the mechanized farming then being introduced in states to the west (Texas and Mississippi, for example) was doing likewise for those who took advantage of it.*

These photos come from the Farm Security Administration collections of the Library of Congress. The captions are taken from information supplied by Dorothea Lange. Click image to view full size.

{Cotton sharecroppers. Greene County, Georgia. They produce little, sell little, buy little, 1937 June.}

{The cotton sharecropper's unit is one mule and the land he can cultivate with a one-horse plow. Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

Details of these images:

Further photos from the Greene County trip, in lower resolution:

{Cotton. Georgia [Lange took this photo to show what the plant looks like]}

{Standing chimneys are a common sight in Greene County, Georgia. They often stand in gullied fields and indicate where once was a plantation home}

{Eroding field and fence. Greene County, Georgia}

{Erosion. Greene County, Georgia}


Three years after completing this assignment, FSA sent Lange to the piedmont region of North Carolina. There, she was accompanied by sociologists from the University of North Carolina. In that tobacco-growing region, both she and the researchers were surprised to find a sharcropping culture much different from the one she had found in Greene County, Georgia. There was greater social cohesion and less racial tension and poverty, though a fact of life, was not nearly so onerous. Tobacco farming was much better suited to tenancy and crop sharing than was cotton growing and, though the tobacco worm and low prices were both constant threats, landless farmers could hope to earn small profits or at least break even most years. In any event, many of them told Lange that though they had little money, they needed little; though their possessions were few, they were not less content for that.

Previous posts in this series:


On cotton agriculture in Georgia, see also:

Georgia Odyssey by James C. Cobb (University of Georgia Press, 2008)

Preface to peasantry: a tale of two black belt counties by Arthur Franklin Raper, Louis Mazzari (Univ of South Carolina Press, 2005) [Lange read this work in preparing for the trip to Georgia.]

Arthur Franklin Raper; a brief biography

Greene County entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia

* On this subject, see Rupert B. Vance: Space and the American South by Matt Schroeder, the wikipedia article on cotton, and Regionalism and the South: selected papers of Rupert Vance edited by John Shelton Reed, Daniel Joseph Singal (UNC Press, 1982)

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