Soil Exhaustion in the Tobacco South

Historian Avery O. Craven, in Soil Exhaustion in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606-1860 (1926), maintained that "soil exhaustion and tobacco cultivation went hand in hand."10 Tobacco rapidly depleted the soil, hence luxuriant crops could be grown for only three or four years. Soon after planting, soil nutrients — especially nitrogen and potassium—began to decline and soil microorganisms created toxins that poisoned tobacco plants. Soil fungi and root rot resulted from continual planting in the same soils. Manure, which could have supplied nitrogen, was in short supply, as cattle were left to roam in the woods; in any case, planters believed that it spoiled the taste of the tobacco. With the loss of potassium, the soil became acidic, the land was abandoned, and pine, sedge, and sor rel — indicators of acid soils — took over. Because of the use of the hoe and the continuous scratching of the surface of the soil, erosion became common, resulting in the vast, deep gullies observed on abandoned tobacco lands by eighteenth-century travelers.

Timothy Silver points out that colonists adapted to the problems of soil depletion by changing their farming methods: "As the landscape around them changed, colonists frequently had to adjust and readjust their goals and methods to correspond to ecological reality. When Virginia and Maryland colonists planted tobacco, the demanding weed exhausted their fields in only a few years. Planters adjusted first by planting corn on the worn tracts and then by allowing them to lie fallow. That worked until the population and labor force grew too large to allow depleted fields adequate time to recover. Colonists then shifted tactics again, growing more wheat and seeking to fill eroded ditches or replenish their fields with manure."11

By the late eighteenth century, an agricultural improvement movement began to take shape. Planters, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, experimented with rotation systems, using wheat, corn, and clover fallows to refurbish worn-out lands. Nitrogen-restoring crops, such as beans, cowpeas, and lucerne, were also planted on exhausted plots. Barnyard manure and green fertilizers were spread on fields, and contour plowing was initiated. To counter acid soils, plaster of Paris, guano, and marl were purchased and applied to fields. Virginia planter Edmund Ruffin (1704-1865) advocated using marl or "calcareous manure," a form of lime made from oyster shells, to add alkalis that would reverse soil acidity. Using products such as marl, however, was both expensive and labor-intensive, and failed to find favor with most planters.

The extent of southern soil exhaustion has been questioned by geographer Carville Earle in "The Myth of the Southern Soil Miner" (1988). Earle argued that some eighteenth-century tobacco farmers did rotate crops, following tobacco with rotations of corn, wheat, peas, and beans. They also used a long fallow system in which fields were left in fallow to recover for some twenty years. Earle maintains that small farmers had first-hand knowledge of local conditions and used the method of trial and error to combat soil exhaustion, rather than relying on agricultural improvers. Those who worked the land, rather than scientists, were better able to devise solutions. "A variety of evidence documenting southern sensitivity to agronomic practice and soil conservation," Earle asserts, "contradicts the image of an historically invariant soil miner."12

By the nineteenth century, southern tobacco production had moved into the Piedmont and Appalachians and included tobacco for cigar and cigarette manufacture. In 1839, a slave named Steven on Alisha Slade's Caswell County plantation put charcoal embers on a dying fire in a tobacco barn in the North Carolina Piedmont, creating a light golden tobacco called bright leaf. The use of Carolina Bright became highly popular, especially when beaten into a powder and rolled into cigarettes. The American Tobacco Company, founded by the Duke family of North Carolina, held a monopoly on cigarettes from the Civil War through the early twentieth century, when it was broken up by the application of antitrust laws.

The Tobacco South thus produced a unique culture and agriculture, rooted in a slave system that degraded both African-Americans and southern soils. It left a legacy of class and racial differences intimately tied to growing tobacco for profit. It resulted in an opulent lifestyle enjoyed by a few planters at the top of a social hierarchy that mimicked the European aristocracy, while producing an underclass of laborers whose bodies bore the scars of servitude, even as they made lasting contributions to southern economy and culture.

Was this article helpful?

+5 0


  • Billy Treadwell
    What is left in soil after growing tobacco?
    8 years ago
  • jesse karhu
    Is soil good after growing tobacco?
    1 year ago
  • Emily
    What did tobacco farmers in virginia do when the soil was depleted?
    1 year ago
  • Andreas
    Which soil easily becomes depleted of nutrients when crops like cotton and tobacco are grown on it?
    8 months ago

Post a comment