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Southern life was centered on cotton planting and harvesting. Whether by slaves, yeoman farmers, or sharecroppers, cotton was planted in April, with the seed scattered at about 100 pounds per acre. Seedlings came up about 10 days later and, after the third leaf appeared, workers hoed the ridges to remove the weeds and loosen the soil closest to the plant. Short, light bull-tongue plows were used to turn up the earth between the rows. Plowing continued to alternate with hoeing to remove the weeds around the young plants. The cotton began to appear on the lowest parts of the plant in July, with the main cotton-harvesting season beginning in September and continuing into December. On larger plantations, black slaves picked most of the cotton. Yields on good soil were about one and a half bales per acre, a bale equaling 250 pounds of cotton.

The main cotton pest, before the advent of the boll weevil in 1893, was the cotton bollworm, a moth larva of the order Lepidoptera. The worm penetrates the outer leaves and destroys the cotton boll before it can develop. The bollworm goes through several stages of larval development, after which it pupates and metamorphoses into a moth. Control of the bollworm was managed by gangs of slaves moving through the fields and removing and killing the larvae, a labor-intensive form of pest control similar to methods used by Indians. Prior to the early twentieth century, there were no insect control poisons available.

The production system in the Cotton South differed from that of the Tobacco South. In the Tobacco South, slave labor was task-oriented and individualized, while in the Cotton South it was gang-driven. Tobacco was planted in hills and squares on fresh lands that were then abandoned after 3 to 4 years owing to worn-out soil, whereas cotton was planted as a row crop, often in rotations alternating with corn. The major pests for tobacco were tobacco hornworms, fungi, and soil toxins, while those for cotton included the cotton bollworm and later the boll weevil. The Tobacco South was fueled by the African slave trade, whereas slavery in the Cotton South was the result of natural reproduction and the illegal slave trade. The Tobacco South was a part of early mercantile capitalism, or long-distance coastal trade with England and the Netherlands, while the Cotton South rose with industrialization, supplying raw materials for factories in England and New England. Tobacco was a luxury item and narcotic, while cotton was a fiber that became an everyday necessity for clothing.

As in the Tobacco South, soil exhaustion was a problem for cotton farmers. Environmental historian Albert Cowdrey attributes the degradation of southern soils to single crop agriculture: "Row crops bared the soil____[A]ny system which covers too many fields with the same plant falls afoul of the ecological principle which states that the simplest systems are apt to be the most unstable."14 Soil toxins, parasites, and erosion worked to deplete the land of its nutrients. Historian Eugene Genovese instead places the blame on slavery, arguing that "slavery and the plantation system led to agricultural methods that depleted the soil."15 Slaves were worked to exhaustion in gangs to produce profits for their owners at the expense of the soil. With declining soil fertility, profits also declined, leaving little labor or funds to invest in agricultural improvement. Despite knowledge of the benefits of marl, gypsum, guano, and lime, the slave system was too inefficient and the slaves too overworked for planters to use fertilizers. With soil degradation, Genovese concludes, planters reaped their just desserts for enslaving and degrading black people. Despite their failure to use more expensive solutions, however, Carville Earle argues that cotton planters used cotton and corn rotations, spread manure on soils, and turned cattle into the fields to restore nitrogen. Soil exhaustion, therefore, was not as widespread as the mythology suggests. Moreover, soil exhaustion did not cease with the end of slavery in the post-Civil War era.

Post-Civil War Sharecropping

After the Civil War (1861-65), black people were freed, the plantation system was reorganized, and many blacks became small farmers or sharecroppers. Because the plantation owner no longer had slaves to work the land, many owners divided their holdings into smaller plots and leased them to poor black or white farmers in exchange for a percentage of the crop. Between 1880 and 1920, the total population engaged in sharecropping expanded dramatically. According to historian Pete Daniel in Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985), "the new labor system was a varied but unpatterned blend of illiteracy, law, contracts, and violence____The sharecropping arrangements varied — from state to state, crop to crop, county to county, and farm to farm — and changed over time with the passage, enforcement, and understanding of laws."16

Sharecropping was a loose term for several farming methods in which southern farmers engaged in some method of borrowing money, tools, or land from an owner. In sharecropping, someone else, such as the planter or absentee landlord, owned the land. Often the owner also supplied the tools, seed, farming equipment, mules, and even the food, in exchange for a percentage of the crop. In tenant farming, which was related to sharecropping, the tenant owned some of the equipment—for example, the mules and the tools — and rented the land in exchange for a portion of the crop. Tenant farming was a step up from pure sharecropping, in the sense that the tenant owned some equipment and tools and could take his capital with him. A third method was the crop lien system, in which the farmer owned the land but borrowed the seed, fertilizers, and perhaps the equipment. In each case, about a third or a quarter of the crop went back to the merchant or landowner who also appropriated clients' assets for failure to repay loans.

During the Civil War, the South had lost much of its market share in the world export system when Great Britain began to import its cotton from countries such as India. But by 1878, the South began to recover its share of the market, and did well for the next two decades. In 1895, however, the almost exponential growth in demand for cotton was beginning to slacken. The total world demand was proportionately less, with the annual increase dropping to about 1 to 3 percent. With the drop in cotton prices, southerners were not as well off as they had been in the prior two decades. On top of this decline, the arrival of the boll weevil created an additional factor of uncertainty, reducing cotton yields by about 50 percent.

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