Definitions

sharecropping

sharecropping

[shair-krop]
sharecropping, system of farm tenancy once common in some parts of the United States. In the United States the institution arose at the end of the Civil War out of the plantation system. Many planters had ample land but little money for wages. At the same time most of the former slaves were uneducated and impoverished. The solution was the sharecropping system, which continued the workers in the routine of cotton cultivation under rigid supervision. Economic features of the system were gradually extended to poor white farmers. The cropper brought to the farm only his own and his family's labor. Most other requirements—land, animals, equipment, and seed—were provided by the landlord, who generally also advanced credit to meet the living expenses of the cropper family. Most croppers worked under the close direction of the landlord, and he marketed the crop and kept accounts. Normally in return for their work they received a share (usually half) of the money realized. From this share was deducted the debt to the landlord. High interest charges, emphasis on production of a single cash crop, slipshod accounting, and chronic cropper irresponsibility were among the abuses of the system. Farm mechanization and a marked reduction in cotton acreage have virtually put an end to the system.

See D. E. Conrad, The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (1965); A. F. Raper and I. D. Reid, Sharecroppers All (1941, rep. 1971); R. Coles, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers (1972).

Sharecropping is a system of agriculture or agricultural production in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land (e.g., 50 percent of the crop). This should not be confused with a crop fixed rent contract, in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a fixed amount of crop per unit of land (e.g., 1 ton per hectare). Sharecropping has a long history and there are a wide range of different situations and types of agreements that have encompassed the system. Some are governed by tradition, others by law. Legal contract systems such as the Italian mezzadria, the French métayage, and Spanish Mediero occur widely. Islamic law contains a traditional “musaqat” sharecropping agreement for the cultivation of orchards.

Overview

Sharecropping typically involves a relatively rich land owner and a less wealthy or poor agricultural worker or farmer; although the reverse relationship, in which a poor landlord leases out to a rich tenant also exists. Sharecropping has benefits and costs for both the owners and the tenants(workers). It encourages the worker to remain on the land throughout the harvest season to work their land, solving the harvest rush problem. At the same time, since the tenant pays in shares of his harvest, owners are not insulated from the effects of bad harvest; this makes it markedly more risky to owners than currency-rent systems. Because tenants benefit from larger harvests, they have an incentive to work harder and invest in better methods than in a slave plantation system. However, by dividing the working force into many individual workers, large farms no longer benefit from economies of scale. On the whole, sharecropping is not as economically efficient as the gang agriculture of slave plantations. The advantages of sharecropping in other situations include enabling access for women to arable land where ownership rights are vested only in men. The system occurred extensively in colonial Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, and came into wide use in the Southeastern United States, including Appalachia during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877). After the American Civil War many planters had ample land but little money for wages. At the same time most of the former slaves were uneducated and impoverished. The solution was the sharecropping system, which continued the workers in the routine of cotton cultivation under rigid supervision. Economic features of the system were gradually extended to poor white farmers. Use of the sharecropper system has also been identified in England(as the practice of "farming to halves"). It is still used in many rural poor areas today, notably in Pakistan, and in India.

Although there is a perception that sharecropping was exploitative, “Evidence from around the world suggests that sharecropping is often a way for differently endowed enterprises to pool resources to mutual benefit, overcoming credit restraints and helping to manage risk.”

It can have more than a passing similarity to serfdom or indenture, and it has therefore been seen as an issue of land reform in contexts such as the Mexican Revolution. However, Nyambara states that Eurocentric historiographical devices like ‘feudalism’ or ‘slavery’ often qualified by weak prefixes like ‘semi-’ or ‘quasi-’ are not helpful in understanding the antecedents and functions of sharecropping in Africa.

Sharecropping agreements can however be made fairly, as a form of tenant farming or sharefarming that has a variable rental payment, paid in arrears. There are three different types of contracts.

  1. Workers can rent plots of land from the owner for a certain sum and keep the whole crop.
  2. Workers work on the land and earn a fixed wage from the land owner but keep none of the crop.
  3. Workers can neither work for nor get paid from the land owner, so the worker and land owner each keep a share of the crop.

Sharecropping by region

Africa

In settler colonies of colonial Africa, sharecropping was a feature of the agricultural life. ocassionaly black sharecroppers would go to the legendary swann to wish luck for the day of picking cotton. White farmers, who owned most of the land, were frequently unable to work the whole of their farm for lack of capital. They therefore allowed black farmers to work the excess on a sharecropping basis. In South Africa the 1913 Natives' Land Act outlawed the ownership of land by blacks in areas designated for white ownership and effectively reduced the status of most sharecroppers to tenant farmers and then to farm laborers. In the 1960s, generous subsidies to white farmers meant that most farmers could afford to work their entire farms, and sharecropping faded out.

The arrangement has reappeared in other African countries in modern times, including Ghana and Zimbabwe.

United States

Although the sharecropping system is thought of as a post Civil War development, it existed in antebellum Mississippi, especially in the northeastern part of the state, an area with few slaves or plantations, and most probably also existed in Tennessee.

After the Civil War planters had to borrow money to produce crops. Interest rates on these loans were around 15%. The indebtedness of cotton planters increased through the early 1940s, and the average plantation fell into bankruptcy about every twenty years. It is against this backdrop that owners maintained their concentrated ownership of the land.

In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping worked in collaboration with convict lease to re-employ former slaves in jobs similar to those performed prior to their emancipation. To avoid the worst situation of becoming convict laborers, farmers were forced to enter into extremely disadvantageous sharecrop agreements that generally left them permanently in debt to the landowner.

Sharecrop farmers were loaned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the owner a share of the crop at the end of the season. Farmers planted land to corn and cotton. Those who had to borrow mule and plow from the landowner paid the landowner half of each crop and were regarded as 'sharecroppers', proper. Those who owned their own mule and plow (a significant economic investment given that the mule had to be fed year-round) were called 'tenant farmers', and paid the landowner 1/3 and 1/4 of each crop, respectively. A significant class distinction was made between the two, with both being fringed by 'white trash' (sharecroppers who often moved frequently and were considered unreliable) on the lower end and yeoman farmers (those who owned their own land) on the upper.

The sharecropper was required to purchase seed, tools and fertilizer, as well as food and clothing, on credit at the plantation store. When the harvest came, the sharecrop farmer would harvest the whole crop and sell his or her portion to the planter at a fixed price. By the time all the debts owed and proceeds made were tallied up the farmer was lucky to break even. The farmer did not typically sell his share of the crop directly to the landowner, but to the nearest cotton gin. Nevertheless most farmers were uneducated and were conscious of low social standing, making it easy for them to be cheated; many were actually illiterate. The poorest farmers subsisted on almost nothing but corn, a food which is deficient in niacin, and this accounted for the high incidence of pellagra in the South.

Historically, whites made up two thirds or more of the sharecroppers in Tennessee. In Mississippi, by 1900, 36% of all white farmers were tenants or sharecroppers, while 85 percent of black farmers were. Sharecropping continued to be a significant institution in Tennessee agriculture for more than sixty years after the Civil War, peaking in importance in the early 1930s, when sharecroppers operated approximately one-third of all farm units in the state. At one point in the early 20th century, there were 5.5 million white tenants, sharecroppers, and laborers in the United States, and 3 million blacks.

The situation of landless farmers who challenged the system in the rural south as late as 1941 has been described thus: "he is at once a target subject of ridicule and vitriolic denunciation; he may even be waylaid by hooded or unhooded leaders of the community, some of whom may be public officials. If a white man persists in “causing trouble” , the night riders may pay him a visit, or the officials may haul him into court; if he is a Negro, a mob may hunt him down.”

Effects of the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act of the New Deal virtually brought the institution of sharecropping to an end in the United States.

During this time there were sharecroppers' strikes in Arkansas and the Bootheel of Missouri in the 1930's. The documentary "Oh Freedom After While" further examines the 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers' Strike.

Sharecropping agreements

Typically, a sharecropping agreement would specify which party was expected to cover certain expenses, like seed, fertilizer, weed control, irrigation district assessments, and fuel. Sometimes the sharecropper covers those costs, but they expect a larger share of the crop in return. The agreement should also indicate whether the sharecropper would use his own equipment to raise the crops, or use the landlord's equipment. The agreement should also indicate whether the landlord will pick up his or her share of the crop in the field, or whether the sharecropper will deliver it (and where it will be delivered.)

For example, a landowner may have a sharecropper farming an irrigated hayfield. The sharecropper uses his own equipment, and covers all the costs of fuel and fertilizer. The landowner pays the irrigation district assessments and does the irrigating himself. The sharecropper cuts and bales the hay, and delivers one-third of the baled hay to the landlord's feedlot, about ten miles round trip. The sharecropper might also leave the landlord's share of the baled hay in the field, where the landlord would fetch it when he wanted hay.

Another arrangement could have the sharecropper delivering the landlord's share of the product to market, in which case the landlord would get his share in the form of the sale proceeds. In that case, the agreement should indicate the timing of the delivery to market, which can have a significant effect on the ultimate price of some crops. The market timing decision should probably be decided shortly before harvest, so that the landlord has more complete information about the area's harvest, to determine whether the crop will earn more money immediately after harvest, or whether it should be stored until the price rises. Market timing can entail storage costs as well, for some crops.

When negotiating a crop sharing arrangement, you should consider:

1. What crop(s) will the sharecropper produce? 2. Who will pay for fuel? 3. Who will pay for seed? 4. Who owns the farming equipment the sharecropper will use? 5. Who will provide weed control, or other cultivation costs related to the crop? 6. How does the landlord want to receive her share, in kind or in cash? 7. If in cash, when will the crop be delivered to market (and to what market?) 7. If in kind, where will the crop be delivered to the landlord? 8. Who will provide the labor to irrigate? 9. Who will pay the irrigation district assessments? (and on a related note, who will vote the landowner's shares at irrigation district meetings?) 10. Are there other costs related to this particular farming operation that should be allocated in the agreement?

Farmer's cooperatives

Cooperative farming exists in many forms throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world. Various arrangements can be made through collective bargaining or purchasing to get the best deals on seeds, supplies, and equipment. For example, members of a farmer's cooperative who cannot afford heavy equipment of their own can lease them for nominal fees from the cooperative. Farmers cooperatives can also allow groups of small farmers and dairymen to manage pricing and prevent undercutting by competitors.

See also

References

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