A SHORT HISTORY OF
ALABAMA AGRICULTURE, 1820-1945

by Dr. Dwayne Cox, University Archivist


From statehood (1819) until the end of World War II, nothing influenced Alabama's economic, social, and political life more than agriculture. Before the Civil War, climate, soil, and market demand fostered cotton cultivation, which brought with it slavery and a paternalistic social order. After the war, white and black tenant farmers replaced slave labor, the price of cotton dropped, and grass-roots agrarian unrest followed. Government and business interests combined to gain control of agricultural policy during the early twentieth century, which they retained through the end of World War II. By that time, mechanization, rural to urban migration, and crop diversification had altered Alabama agriculture, but farm and forest products remained central to the state's economy and those who had an economic interest in them still had a political voice as strong as any.

Extensive white settlement of Alabama followed the War of 1812 and the defeat of the Creek Nation. Most of the settlers came from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, pushed by land exhausted through the over-cultivation of cotton and drawn by the rich soil of the Tennessee Valley and the Black Belt. They brought with them slave labor and the plantation system, which were readily transplanted in Alabama. Steady demand for cotton made this product the nation's leading export during the first half of the nineteenth century and solidified the planter elite's sense of self-importance. On the eve of the Civil War, however, Alabama was only one generation removed from the frontier and most of the state's farmers owned few, if any, slaves.

After the war, tenant farming replaced slavery as the state's primary source of agricultural labor. This system suited itself to the state and the region's lack of capital. It provided work for landless laborers who knew farming but had no other skills, no means to acquire them, and no money to invest in land and equipment. It required the landlord to provide the tenant with a share of the crop rather than wages. It allowed the landlord to assume the role of furnishing merchant, which further reduced the tenant's share of the crop and required that even less money change hands. Simultaneously, the opening of the Suez Canal lowered the demand for southern cotton and a deflationary federal money policy worked to the disadvantage of tenants and other debtors.

These problems made Alabama ripe for the grass-roots agrarian reform movements that appeared in the United States during the later nineteenth century. These included the National Grange, primarily a social and educational organization, and the Agricultural Wheel, which advocated political action. The Farmers' Alliance was most significant of all, both in the state and the nation. Its platform called for nationalization of railroads and direct federal intervention in the commodity market. In Alabama both blacks and whites joined the Alliance, though local chapters generally remained racially separate. During the 1890s, the Farmers' Alliance developed into the People's or Populist Party which won some significant but short-lived victories at the national and state levels.

In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act created a network of county farm agents based in the nation's land-grant colleges. The Alabama Polytechnic Institute (later Auburn University) administered the state's extension service, with a separate black branch based at Tuskegee Institute that reported to the white state director in Auburn. Later, county home demonstration agents were added to the extension service corps. Agricultural demands created by World Word I strengthened the extension service. So did the appearance in 1920 of a state branch of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a private organization devoted to cooperative purchasing, cooperative marketing, and promoting the political interests of agriculture. Extension agents assisted in the organization and administration of the Farm Bureau at the county level. In this endeavor, the line between government and private enterprise was blurred as the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service became powerful political allies. Critics consistently charged that the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau showed little interest in tenants, devoted their primary attention to larger landowners, and discouraged other farm organizations, particularly the more militant Farmers' Union.

Diversification, mechanization, and migration became increasingly important factors in Alabama agriculture beginning in the early twentieth century. The Extension Service vigorously promoted crop diversification. The beef, forest, and poultry products they stressed eventually surpassed cotton in market value. Diversification was aided by the boll weevil, which made total reliance upon cotton even more precarious than it had been. Furthermore, large-scale and more mechanically efficient cotton production in western states reduced the South's share of the market. Migration of blacks out of the rural South represented a major demographic shift and eventually helped push the region from labor-intensive to capital-intensive agriculture. By 1920 Alabama had approximately the same number of black and white tenant farmers, with the number of blacks dropping and the number of whites increasing.

Following a World War I high, agricultural prices began to drop during the early 1920s. Farm prices had long been depressed when the stock market crashed in 1929. The New Deal provided landowners with federal support to reduce commodities. Consequently, they lowered the acreage under cultivation by evicting tenants. At the same time, they used federal funds to mechanize, fertilize, and produce more on fewer acres. During World War II, demand for farm products encouraged diversification and provided capital for mechanization. Urban employment opportunities also lured labor from the farm to the city, making mechanization imperative to meet wartime demands for farm products. From 1925 until 1945, Alabama agriculture underwent more change than it had in the previous one hundred years.

Various contemporary publications have documented the history of agriculture in Alabama. During the 1850s, the American Cotton Planter, published in Montgomery, advocated the reform of southern agriculture. The Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, and the Farmer's Alliance all issued Alabama-based publications. During the twentieth century, the Extension Service, the Farm Bureau, and various commodity groups have relied upon pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines to carry their message to Alabama farmers, voters, and politicians. These publications consistently reflect the state's major economic interests, as well as agricultural trends in the region and the nation.

DC 1-15-95

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