Fiber Wars

Chapter 4

The Economy of Cotton

Meanwhile, on other fronts, cotton was not doing so well. After the Civil War destroyed the foundation of southern agriculture, the plantation, the South was led, inexorably, to a debilitating economic dependence on cotton monoculture. Gilbert C. Fite, in his book Cotton Fields No More, has presented a detailed chronicle of the role of cotton in the agrarian society that replaced the plantation—sharecropping on small, tenant farms:

Southern farmers...became "trapped" in a cotton economy. Without land or equipment the newly freed blacks, and many whites as well, sold their labor in exchange for a share of the crop which they produced on credit. This system increased the cost of nearly everything they consumed and fastened a yoke of permanent and oppressive debt upon hundreds of thousands of farmers, both white and black...
To most southern farmers in the 1880s and 1890s, cotton seemed to provide the best, and perhaps the only, means of acquiring [consumer] goods...
So farmers produced cotton, even though increased production periodically depressed prices and encouraged them to raise even more cotton in hopes of gaining needed cash or credit. The result was low net incomes and low standards of living...
Moreover, the entire credit structure had been built on the production of cotton. Money was advanced to growers on the crop, and it was the only collateral accepted by most merchants and landowners."35
"Cotton, I soon discovered is simply too valuable a crop to inspire only noble behavior, and too easily grown to invite self-restraint. It lends itself to greed, opportunism, hypocrisy, irrational passion, murderous rage, and episodes of brilliant creativity--all the elements I look for in a gripping tale."
Big Cotton: How a humble fiber created fortunes, wrecked civilizations, and put America on the map. By Stephen Yafa. Viking, 2005.

As a result, Fite explains, "the living standard of so many farmers in the South was not a relative matter but one of absolute poverty."36 Attempts to promote the diversification of southern agriculture were unsuccessful due, Fite says, to "the reluctance of planters to let their sharecroppers and tenants grow any commercial crop other than cotton."37 Cotton was "good as cash" and sharecropping created an insatiable need for it. Furthermore, the extreme social stratification that had characterized the South before the war persisted with sharecropping. "If the 40,000 to 50,000 large farmers and planters, making up only between 2 and 3 percent of all farmers in the South, enjoyed a fairly comfortable existence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of the others faced extremely hard times."38

The USDA worked to change southern agriculture with programs emphasizing diversification. Fibers were given considerable attention: "There are several fiber plants, concerning which further authoritative information is most desirable, as their production or utilization will open up new industries, particularly in the South, where there is such a need of diversity in agricultural production."39

Where cotton reigned, these efforts met with little success and much resistance.

Hemp's Progress

Fiber Wars: Table of Contents