With the most fertile Delta and prairie lands in relatively few hands and with labor cheap and abundant, Mississippi’s large landowners had few incentives before the late 1940s and 1950s to make major capital investments and purchase expensive equipment. As long as owners of large farming tracts could exploit the relatively cheap labor of both tenants and sharecroppers, they had no need to invest in anything but primitive tools for turning over soil, planting seeds, hoeing weeds, and harvesting cash crops of cotton and corn.
Until the end of World War II, therefore, basic farm tools and sources of power had largely remained as they had been before the Civil War. Soil was tilled by iron-and-wood plows pulled by mules. In readiness for sowing seeds, simple spike-toothed harrows smoothed over plowed land. As staple crops of cotton and corn grew, so did weeds, meaning that adult workers and their older children returned to fields several times during the growing season with simple wooden and metal hoes, hacking away what had not been planted. When corn and cotton ripened in early and late autumn, the crops were harvested by hand: ears of corn were torn from stalks, and cotton was picked from plants and placed in bags draped over pickers’ shoulders. As a rule, entire families engaged in these arduous tasks. In the dairy belts in and around Oktibbeha County and to the southwest in New Orleans’s milk shed, milking was performed by hands grasping and pulling teats, and the daily job of carrying filled milk cans to the nearest road for pickup was a muscle-building routine shared by men and boys.
Mississippi’s degree of technological backwardness is evident from statistics taken from the 1925 Census of Agriculture. While Mississippi had 257,228 farms, Kansas had 165,879. But Mississippians owned 1,871 tractors and 928 radios, whereas farmers in Kansas had 31,171 tractors and 13,189 radios. Mississippi had 540,782 blacks who lived on someone else’s land and toiled under extremely primitive conditions—for example, using 327,646 mules.
The 1945 Census of Agriculture showed that few mechanical improvements had come to Mississippi farms over the preceding two decades. Although tractor ownership had increased to 12,417, Mississippi’s 97,028 sharecroppers seldom had access to the new equipment: they operated only 476 rubber-wheeled tractors. In contrast, Kansas’s farmers had 115,729 tractors, 67,636 of which had rubber wheels.
Over the next half century, however, Mississippi experienced an agricultural revolution as new technologies created a need to diversify. A 1992 agricultural census showed that the state now had a total of 31,998 farms, that sharecropping had been completely eliminated, and that tenancy existed on just 9.3 percent of the state’s 10.2 million harvested acres. Mississippi’s farmers had 58,625 tractors, 5,308 combines with specially designed heads for grain and soybean harvests, 3,674 mechanical cotton pickers, and 10,509 hay balers.
Mississippi’s crops changed as well. Introduced to the state in 1948, rice became an important crop in the Delta, and many farmers began planting soybeans. Large-scale, sophisticated, computer-controlled poultry operations became commonplace in the area around the city of Laurel. Farmers in the Delta region and to a lesser extent in eastern Mississippi made the state the nation’s top catfish producer. The commercial production of farm-raised catfish began in the 1960s and then underwent technological and scientific innovations such as aerating water; feeding for fast, uniform growth; and controlling disease. Pearl River County emerged as a key source for early season blueberries, with growers coming to rely on automated picking equipment.
Many factors contributed to Mississippi’s agricultural revolution. Perhaps most important, farmworkers left the land as other opportunities became available. The state’s drive to encourage industrial development brought factories and nonfarming jobs, while many African Americans in particular headed to Chicago and other northern cities in search of better jobs and living conditions. The resulting depopulation of the plantations necessitated increased investment in labor-saving equipment.
Research at agricultural universities also led to many of the changes in Mississippi’s farming practices. The laboratories and extension stations of Mississippi State University, for example, developed new cotton varieties, and its county agents brought news of latest techniques and innovations directly to farmers. Similarly, Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine made key discoveries that changed the practices of livestock, poultry, and catfish producers. Innovations at Alcorn State University also aided in improving the state’s farm economy.
Agricultural activity in rural Mississippi today bears almost no resemblance to farming prior to the 1960s. Crop-dusting planes deposit herbicides on fields below; mammoth air-conditioned tractors pull wide plows or thirty-two-row planters; self-propelled combines harvest rice, corn, and soybeans; sophisticated mechanical cotton pickers remove more snow-white bolls each day than an entire field of workers could have picked in a week; wide-winged irrigation apparatuses creep along, sprinkling water onto fields; tank attachments to tractors measure and spread anhydrous ammonia and other fertilizers on fields, increasing yields and sustaining the soil; millions of chickens grow under technologically sophisticated conditions; and scientifically managed ponds yield megatons of uniform-sized catfish for processing in Mississippi and distribution throughout the nation.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1986)
- Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1986)
- James C. Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South (2011)
- Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960 (1987)