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20th Century Cotton

In the old Cotton Belt, east of the Mississippi River, cotton became the major crop because the area had an abundance of cheap labor to combine with the land to produce it. Because labor requirements for cotton growing were high, farms were small or cotton was grown by sharecroppers on small tracts as a part of plantation operations. During the 20 years to 1956 however, farm wage rates rose about 300 percent. Thus, as labor-saving machines became available, it became economically feasible to substitute capital in the form of machines for labor on land suitable for mechanized farming. The areas best adapted to mechanization and the other improved techniques therefore gained an advantage in production of cotton.

In general, farms in the South-eastern areas were less well adapted to mechanization than the newer producing sections of the Southwest and West. Many farmers in the Southeast therefore could not grow cotton profitably that is, their land could no longer profitably absorb the amounts of labor previously used to produce it. The result was a relative increase in the importance of capital and a decrease in the significance of land as a factor in the production of cotton.

Cotton has been a major cash crop and an important source of foreign exchange in the United States for almost 200 years. US cotton acreage rose steadily from 7.7 million acres at the end of the Civil War, before reaching a pinnacle of 46.0 million acres in 1925. Planted area then declined from an average of 43.9 million acres during 1925-29 to 10.8 milHon acres during 1985-89. US cotton acreage has since rebounded, averaging 13.3 million acres since 1990.

Planted acreage in the Southeast declined dramatically between the 1930's and 1980's, as production moved out of areas less suited to cotton production. Area in the Southeast shrank from an average of 10.9 million acres during 1925-29 to 657,000 acres during 1980-84. The adoption of new technology, especially since the 1950's, such as labor-saving equipment, pesticides, and improved plant varieties, resulted in rising yields and lower per unit production costs. The stagnation of cotton lint yield growth for this period has been the subject of much debate. However, it is thought that cotton yields dechned in part due to growing losses from pests across the Cotton Belt during this period. Of particular importance were yield losses from bollworm.

The amount of cotton supplied in the United States and the location of its production are influenced by many forces, including the physical growing environment, economic factors, and government programs. The relative strengths and complex interactions between these forces are never static. Cotton is a heat-loving plant that requires a long growing season with abundant sunshine and water resources. Soil type, topography, elevation, temperature, sunshine, and rainfall are all important determinants of where and how well cotton is grown. Acreage and production have gradually shifted to areas having advantages in soil type and topography (regions with more productive and flatter terrain soils where production is more easily managed). For example, the Delta and the western areas contain primarily alluvial soils.

Mechanization of cotton farming was still in its early development stages in 1949. Animals were still the only source of power on a majority of farms producing cotton as less than one-third of the farms growing cotton had tractors. Although tractors were used on many farms for land preparation and cultivation, critical and peak labor requirements required hand hoeing and hand harvesting. The mechanical harvester had been developed but had not been widely adopted, partly because the existing farm size structure could not support it. The use of mechanical harvesting rose significantly during the 1950's, involving nearly half of the US crop by 1960. Virtually all of the US crop was mechanically harvested by 1970. Mechanization of other field operations progressed rapidly in response to increased labor costs, labor shortages, and the need to perform more timely operations on larger acreages. Chemical weed control, which became common in the 1950's, had largely replaced hand hoeing, reducing labor requirements for this operation.

The use of machinery in growing and harvesting cotton reduced the average number of hours of labor needed to produce a bale of cotton from about 260 in the 1930's to about 108 in 1955. About 541 thousand sharecroppers grew cotton lint in 1940 nearly twice the number in 1954. Not all of this reduction, however, was due to mechanization. The reduction in the acreage to comply with Government control programs also was a factor. Lands on which machinery can be used became more important since 1940. They have captured an ever-increasing share of the cotton production.

However, by the early 1970's, the marked improvements in productivity witnessed since the 1940's had come to an end. The adoption of mechanical technology on cotton farms was largely complete.

Although the United States has usually been a competitive exporter of raw cotton, other countries, many of them also cotton producers, are more competitive as exporters of finished products. Since 1960, developing countries in Asia had become major importers of raw cotton for their increasing domestic demand and for their growing textile industries producing cotton fabrics and apparel for export. As a result, the United States has experienced a significant textile and apparel trade deficit.

By the 1990s the United States produced nearly 20 percent of the world's cotton and ranked second to China as the largest producing country. While over 80 countries produced cotton, the United States, China, India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan (former Soviet republic) produced about 74 percent of the total world cotton supply.

US cotton production in the post-Civil War period grew from 2.1 million bales in 1866 to 18.0 million in 1926. Most production was located east of the Mississippi River. However, between 1920 and about 1980, cotton production gradually shifted westward from the Old South to the Southwest and West, especially to the Texas High Plains and California. Of particular significance was the growing share of US production originating from the West, which rose from an average of 1 percent during 1920-24 to an average of 36 percent during 1980-84. The westward movement of cotton production had ceased by the early 1980's. Production began shifting back toward the Delta and the Southeast from the Southwest and the West. In 1992, approximately 40 percent of US production came from the Delta region, up from an average of 26 percent during the late 1970's and early 1980's.

Total harvested acreage in the United States dropped by more than 25 percent since 1960, but growers have maintained and even increased production levels because of sharply higher yields. US cotton producers have experienced excess production capacity, high stocks, and low product prices over the years. Fewer but bigger farms dominated cotton production. In 1949, 1.1 million farms harvested an average of 24 acres of cotton each. In 1992, 34,800 farms harvested an average of 315 acres of cotton each. Despite this more than tenfold growth in average size, individuals or family businesses control about 75 percent of the cotton farms.

When mass migration from Europe was interrupted during World War I and then halted in the 1920s, Southern blacks migrated in large numbers to become industrial laborers in Northern cities. The African American Great Migration from the 1920s through the 1950s was an epochal movement. The spread of the boll weevil and farm mechanization laid waste to even marginal employment in much of the rural South. There was a parallel trek of white workers from the South to northern cities. The destinations and timing of these domestic migrations suggest that Southern born blacks and whites were a partial substitute for European immigrant labor in industrializing cities of the North. Mass migration from Europe probably delayed the migration of black workers from the South.

The continued demand for unskilled labor in industrial cities after the cutoff of immigration in the 1920s certainly played a major role in continuing, if not originating, the African American Great Migration from the 1920s to the 1960s. There was also a parallel wave of Southern white labor to Northern industrial cities that began during World War I and grew during the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. If there had not been the massive wave of European immigration from 1880 to 1920, the demand for labor may have started earlier and drew even larger numbers from the dispossessed Southern peasantry. There is substantial literature on the poverty and hardships of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, both black and white in the rural south.

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Page last modified: 14-10-2017 18:14:14 ZULU