« AnteriorContinuar »
A devastating and exhausting war, in which nearly all of the able-bodied white men of the South were engaged on one side, made an immediate and radical change in the agricultural system of that region. The planters, their sons, the "poor whites," and their comrades of other descriptions, returned from the camp, in poverty, worn out, dispirited, hopeless of the future and dazed with the collapse of their dream. Their old home surroundings were gone and they must create such new ones as were permitted by expediency and the limited means at command. Their first concern was food and the strict necessaries of life, which they must produce or borrow from those who had not lost all of their wealth and credit. Large plantations could not be cultivated as of yore for want of equipment, and a subdivision into tenancies was the only course. The ex-slaves were still there, unprovided, as many of their former masters were, with food sufficient to last until the harvesting of the next year's crops. Freed from their bondage to the soil, many of the freedmen drifted to the towns, which they had not been allowed to frequent before.
So it happened that tenant farming largely replaced the old system. Farmers who owned the farms that they cultivated and landlords alike had to obtain from merchants the supplies of food, clothing and farm equipment that were needed, and these on credit, giving in return pledges of the crop to come, out of which the debts must be paid. The tenants, even less prepared to choose, adopted the same system and lived on their interest in the future crop.
The merchants then took the helm. Such crops as they could most readily market must be produced under their orders, regardless of the fact that they might not be the ones most advantageous to their debtors. The kind of crop that best accorded with this requirement in the cotton regions was cotton, and it was demanded in quantities proportionate to the indebtedness that was allowed to accumulate. The sale of the cotton, too, was taken charge of by the merchants,
and as the system in this respect was much like that which prevailed before the war, its necessity was readily accepted by the farm owners; but now the balance of the account was with the merchant and agent. His cry for cotton and more cotton, to keep pace with the indebtedness, has led to so enormous an increase in the production of this fibre since the war that the North, ignorant of the real situation, has pointed to it as an evidence of the superiority of the free, over the slave, labor of the blacks. But the situation is not misunderstood in the South. The merchants, who advance plantation supplies, have replaced the former masters and have made peons of them and of their former slaves.
Every crop of cotton is mostly consumed before it is harvested, and after the harvest the farm owner or tenant has to place a lien on the next year's crop, often before the seed goes into the ground. These liens bear high rates of interest, regardless of usury laws, because the supplies are advanced at excessive prices. The road to wealth in the South, outside of the cities and apart from manufactures, is "merchandising." It is the general opinion in many counties where inquiries have been made, that the interest and profit on crop liens amount to not less than 25 per cent yearly of the capital advanced, that the common proportion is from 40 to 80 per cent and that even 200 per cent is exacted in some places. Doubtless an unusual degree of risk may warrant a charge therefor in the rate of interest; but the rates much more than cover this and effectually transfer the farmers' profit to the pocket of the merchant. Hence the farmer finds himself in that oft-mentioned situation between the upper and the nether millstone. He has lost his independence, and the cotton raising that is forced upon him by his creditor, supplemented by his own unwillingness to raise anything in addition to cotton, makes it impossible for him to regain his independence.
This being the state of affairs the agricultural land of the) cotton States has little sale. Merchants will not accept it as
security for debt unless they are compelled to do so when crop, mules, cattle and other personal property are insufficient. This is one reason why mortgages on Southern farm land are so few. Only 3.38 per cent of the farms of Georgia, cultivated by owners, were mortgaged in 1890, and only 8 per cent in South Carolina, while in Iowa the proportion was 53.29 per cent; in Maine, 22.09 per cent; in Maryland, 30.01 per cent; in Massachusetts, 30.46 per cent; in Montana, 15.58 per cent; in Wisconsin, 42.85 per cent; and in New Jersey, 48.91 per cent. Georgia's and South Carolina's small percentages tell a story of unfortunate conditions to those who are familiar with the reasons for their smallness.
The farm tenant does not rise to ownership in the South, because, as his affairs are managed, he can not acquire ownership. Generally speaking, it is probable that he owes more than he owns, and what he owns is of little value-hardly worth taxing. In this region, where he can build his own dwelling of logs and where land can be bought for a very few dollars an acre, about half of the farms are hired and the proportion is increasing. Such an effect indicates the badness of the case more than pages of description could do. In Georgia 58.10 per cent of the farms were hired in 1890, an increase of 13.25 in the percentage since 1880; in South Carolina the percentage has increased from 50.31 to 61.49. The system of peonage, at least to a great extent, is immediately responsible for this, but it may be that there is escape from it for tenants who are exceptionally industrious and saving. It is more easy for the cultivating farm owners and for the landlords.
The white farmers of the cotton States are" in a rut," in which they are kept by the persistence of the habits and customs which developed out of the necessities that followed the war. They have no good excuse for buying their bacon and some of their corn year after year, as they are doing. They can produce and make much that they now purchase and can exercise a better supervision over their
tenants. They can restore many of the small economies that were practiced before the war. Indeed, it is to the system that then prevailed that they must and can return in a large degree, as far as consistent with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. Some of them have done so and their oldtime independence has been restored.
One of the best known cotton planters of Georgia returned from the war a young man with no possessions but the clothing on his body. He bought land entirely on credit, received advancements of supplies from a merchant, also entirely on credit, and prepared to raise a crop of cotton. In the meantime, being a man of exceptional force of character, he was faithful as far as possible, to the system that prevailed on his father's plantation before the war, and he at once began to produce on his own plantation the supplies needed thereon. His supervision was excellent and it prevented waste, enforced economy and secured repairs. It may everywhere be observed that the more thriving farmers are those who are constantly guarding against outgoes that are charges against their crops. They live mostly on the direct and indirect products of their farm, they produce fertilizers instead of buying them, they do rough carpenter's work, repair their implements and other articles of equipment, and so maintain a high degree of independence except in relation to the purchasers of their crops. This was the policy pursued by the Georgia planter referred to above, with the result that in two or three years he was able to begin to reduce the mortgage on his farm and eventually to pay it in full.
The prices of cotton in later years have made such an achievement of slower accomplishment, but not impossible. It is only by following such a course that the cotton planter and landlord can emancipate themselves from their peonage to the merchant. Once let them reach a position where they can defy him and resist his demand for cotton, they can check its over-production, diversify their agriculture,
pay more attention to the rearing of domestic animals and to the raising of fruits and vegetables, at the same time aiming to master a specialty. It is most unwise for a farmer to put all his eggs into one basket. With one product he may thrive for a time, but, in the long run, under present competition, he should have many reliances, one of which may be a specialty, if it is wisely selected.
Doubtless the Southern planters can not escape from their enthrallment to cotton without much effort, but there are assurances that, where this effort has been made, it promises success, if it has not already won success. It would seem as if no great effort were required from a cotton farmer to make it unnecessary for him to buy cabbages at fifteen cents apiece, Irish potatoes at $1.50 a bushel, and hay at $20 a ton, which he was not long ago seen to do in Arkansas, although he had land that would produce cabbages and two crops of clover and potatoes in a year. Nor need he pay $10 for a barrel of flour that cost the merchant $3, and $1 a bushel for corn that cost forty cents, as he was doing in a certain Georgia town last summer, although he could raise both wheat and corn.
On the Southern farm there is a neglect and a want of thrift which are a burden in themselves. The farmer is not ready to lift a hand to delay the dilapidation of his buildings. The plow is left at the end of the last furrow until the next year; a few nails or screws would save dollars of loss or of eventual credit with the merchant, in scores of places. What shall be said of farmers who have no gardens? And yet gardens are rarely seen on Southern farms, although the South is peculiarly the clime for them. Such has been the subjection of the cotton planter to his unthrifty habits and to the system, of which the merchant is king, that not until very recent years did the product of corn in the cotton States exceed that of 1850.
But the black tenant has more to overcome. He too is living on the next crop, but he operates on so small a scale