As read from the bottom up and the top down, the history of agriculture in Mississippi tells some of the most revealing stories about the state’s social, political, cultural, and economic history.
In this narrative, rural and farm people position themselves at the heart of the southern agricultural experience. Agriculture in Mississippi is a story of many tales, especially of the powerful and how they ruled the countryside and of the common folk and how they attempted to resist oppression. This history reveals the experiences of those who held positions, power, and land in abundance and who appropriated farm labor through various forms of intimidation to maintain control. It is also the history of those low-wage workers responsible for making farms and agriculture-related industries profitable for the powerful few. Mississippi’s agriculture has for centuries been competitive, productive, violent, and disruptive, with fierce competition between Native Americans, black Americans, and white farmers. Conflict over and on the land occurred especially between plantation owners, relatively large farmers, and small family farm producers, each working to control farm politics, farm labor, and farm production.
The question of land domination led to Indian Removal, one of the greatest pushes in American history. In the 1820s and 1830s the US government entered into a number of treaties that restricted Native Americans to reservations and made their former lands available for the production of cotton, vegetable crops, and livestock. This movement created opportunities for farming interests in Mississippi, which, like the rest of the South, came to depend increasingly on slave labor to maximize production.
Between 1798 and 1865 agricultural slave labor became entrenched in the Magnolia State. Indeed, after 1820 field labor evolved as the most contested issue in social and political conversations involving agricultural production. Planters shaped and controlled Mississippi’s social, political, and economic life through the ownership of land, rural merchandising, and a style of farm and plantation management that oppressed all farm laborers, slave or free, black or white, often resulting in resentment and various forms of retaliation.
Scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century agriculture have analyzed Old South and New South agricultural production. The two eras share a common plantation organization, agricultural management, and company formation. Old South descriptions emphasize life among blacks in slave communities, organization of the labor force on large slave plantations and small farms, and the advantages and disadvantages of life as a farmworker in these two very different environments. Planters and other investors considered resources in land and in human property investments in farming and a foundation for Mississippi’s agricultural politics. Descriptions of New South postbellum agriculture discuss farm production in similar but often ambiguous ways. The state political apparatus reestablished a system in which former slave owners continued to control farm production as the owners of free labor. Examples include the institution of Black Codes in the immediate postemancipation years, the establishment of the convict lease system, the failure of free wage work in the farm economy, the evolution of tenancy and sharecropping, the appearance of crop liens and peonage, conflicts between former slaves and former masters over land, and the efforts of poor whites to earn a living on the land. In time, farm families across the state had difficulty competing with planters in the Delta, where New South plantation companies such as Delta and Pine Land became some of the largest businesses in the country.
Although New South plantation owners and managers believed they had a business structure in place sufficient to make profits, they also had to admit that southern farms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced low yields, suffered from debt, and were embattled over labor. Government intervention was required to pull southern agriculture and Mississippi farmers out of a credit-debt cycle and marginal farming. An understanding of farming history beginning in the 1930s requires an analysis of farm-related federal policies. The members of the planter class—many of them descendants of slave owners—often exerted great power over federal intervention into state politics and agricultural production, manipulating New Deal politics and using the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Farm Credit Administration to maintain control over labor. By using federal social programs to benefit selected workers, planters found ways to keep government funding for themselves and avoid paying for services their laborers needed. For example, plantations manipulated parity payments to their advantage to begin the transition to capital-intensive farming, while Mississippi’s state- and national-level politicians shaped farm subsidy programs so that they benefited powerful supporters, such as Delta planters. Few if any policies supported small farmers and agricultural laborers, whose living conditions worsened as their earning power diminished.
Cotton monoculture persisted in Mississippi’s farm economy until the late 1940s and early 1950s, with nearly all of the state’s arable land devoted to the cultivation of hand-planted and -picked cotton. Developments in science and technology along with changing production needs and demands enabled the mechanization of agriculture and profoundly affected farm production, although the process was slow in the Magnolia State. Tractors began to replace low-grade plows and planters pulled by mules and other draft animals in the 1930s, while the cotton picker appeared during the following decade. Throughout this period yields remained low, labor remained oppressed, and poor sharecroppers and wage workers remained locked in a cycle of debt and lawlessness. Mississippi’s farm economy diversified beginning around the time of World War II, adding other staples, including corn, soybeans, rice, and ultimately wheat, which enabled crops to be grown year-round.
Among the many representations of rural and farm life in the early twentieth century were images that indicated that farm communities were experiencing alarming stress and humiliating poverty. Rural families and communities were seen as underdeveloped, backward, and ignorant. Mississippi benefited from several farm-related federal educational programs, including land-grant colleges for whites in the 1870s and for blacks in the 1890s. Services provided by agents at agricultural experiment stations beginning in 1898 helped improve farming methods and conditions, beginning the transition to scientifically based agricultural production. The state also improved farm and rural life by using programs of the Cooperative Extension Service, created in 1914 by the Smith-Lever Act. Home visits, farm demonstrations, and community club work taught rural dwellers better practices for farming, home economics, and home management. Demonstration work created opportunities for social and cultural uplift among children, women, limited-resource farmers, and blacks and whites in plantation communities. These educational programs also helped large planters and plantation owners by minimizing the cost of providing for and monitoring the labor of those whose work they controlled.
The rural poor experienced limited benefits from federal housing and resettlement programs during and after the New Deal. For example, because food was available but not affordable, the need for agricultural commodities and, later, food stamps swelled. Despite the obvious need for assistance, agricultural employers opposed any reforms that might weaken their control over low-wage labor, stymieing federally funded rural housing, health, and food programs.
Because federal intervention into land acquisition and farm production pitted blacks against whites and the poor against the wealthy, many movements and individual acts of resistance evolved from people and families who struggled to achieve agency and inclusion in democratic societies. Such efforts resulted in the establishment of such organizations as the Farmers’ Alliance, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, the Farmers’ Union, the Grange, and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union as well as in the creation of agrarian movements such as Populism.
Poor farm families and laborers also used other strategies to minimize their exploitation at the hands of white planters and to challenge the rural elite. Such efforts included the formation of cooperatives as well as migration away from agriculture and/or away from Mississippi. By leaving the state’s fields, laborers and small farm producers freed themselves from the cycles of debt and imprisonment that the rural elite had used to shackle these workers to the land.
Members of the planter class responded with a variety of strategies to maintain control of Mississippi’s land, labor, and wages in the face of these agrarian movements and social and political organizing. These responses included peonage; crop liens; convict labor; encouraging immigration, especially by Italian and Chinese workers; levee camp construction; and establishing Indian reservations. Planters and farmers also organized political and social groups, such as the Deer Creek Association and the Farm Bureau, chambers of commerce, and the Delta Council. These efforts have largely succeeded, and Mississippi’s agriculture remains largely controlled by the privileged, who continue to define the roles played by many others in agriculture.
- Sharon D. Wright Austen, The Transformation of Plantation Politics: Black Politics, Concentrated Poverty, and Social Capital in the Mississippi Delta (2006)
- John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1998)
- James E. Bell, The Evolution of the Mississippi Delta: From Exploited Labor and Mules to Mechanization and Agribusiness (2008)
- Bradley Bond, Mississippi: A Documentary History (2003)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (2013)
- James T. Graves, From the Old South to the New, a Delayed Transition: Mississippi Cotton Growers and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933–1936 (2003)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- Richard A. McLemore, A History of Mississippi, 2 vols. (1973)
- John H. Moore, Agriculture in Antebellum Mississippi (1958)
- George S. Pabis, Daily Life along the Mississippi (2007)
- Ronald E. Seavoy, The American Peasantry: Southern Agricultural Labor and Its Legacy, 1850–1995: A Study in Political Economy (1998)
- Star R. Spurlock, Costs and Returns for Cotton, Rice, and Soybeans in the Delta Area of Mississippi (1996)
- William B. Taylor, Down on Parchman Farm: The Great Prison in the Mississippi Delta (1999)
- Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850–1860 (1968)
- Nan E. Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (2003)
- Clyde A. Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (1998)