History of Agriculture in Mississippi

Agriculturally the State has several regions. The northern part, east of the Yazoo river and delta, west of the Prairie Region, and far enough south to include parts of Madison, Hinds, Scott, Newton, Kemper and Lauderdale, is known as the Yellow Loam Region, the soil being a brownish-yellow loam of varying depth, from a few inches to several feet, underlaid by loose sand on a basis of red hardpan. There are many very rich river and creek bottoms, originally timbered with oak, hickory, walnut, ash, poplar, elm, maple, etc., with ridges timbered with oak, hickory, dogwood and chestnut, and some sandy ridges of pine. The soil is well adapted to the growth of cereals, vegetables and grasses as well as cotton. The bottom lands are good for a bale of cotton per acre. The eastern strip of the State, far enough south to include part of Kemper county, is known as the Prairie Region, which in war times was called the granary of the South. The soil is largely underlaid with rotten limestone, and is rich and very productive. Cotton, clover, cereals and grasses and fruits are remunerative crops. Bordering these vast areas on the south is the Central Region, which produces fine crops of cotton, corn, oats and sugar cane, and seems to be the favorite home of the peach and strawberry. Further South is the Long-Leaf Pine Region, in which the great forests yet engage the labor of many sawmills. Here the soil, though light and sandy, repays industry. (See Geology.) The well denned area known as the Delta has a rich, dark, alluvium soil, made by the overflow of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers and their tributaries. Here is the home of the gigantic cypress, and various trees native to a moist soil. Protected by dikes, the bottom lands in this region produce immense crops of cotton and corn, unequalled by any other region in the world. The Bluff Region, south of the Delta, is historically identical with Natchez District, and has been famous for two centuries for its delightful and healthy contour, its magnificent natural trees, and a brownish loam soil of great fertility.

The Bluff region was the home of some agriculture in the beginning of the eighteenth century. There also were the original plantations of the Territory and State. Parts of the Central and Yellow Loam regions, and the Tombigbee region, were opened up by later treaties with the Indians. It was not until after 1835 that the middle northern part of the State began to be settled, and the Delta region was not generally available until made so by the levees after 1850.

In the French period, before the Natchez massacre, “some large grants of land were made near Natchez and on the Yazoo ostensibly for the cultivation of tobacco and indigo; but although some ‘ large plantations with extensive improvements’ were established near the former place, it does not appear that anything beyond the spoils of the chase, or the peltries procured by traffic with the Indian tribes, was exported from the country.” When the colonists came in fifty years later, under the West Florida government, agriculture was really begun. “Indian corn, wheat, oats, rye, rice and potatoes, cotton flax, tobacco and indigo, were almost universally cultivated, but rarely if at all for exportation.” The scarcity and high price of iron, and the want of such agricultural implements as are now known, were characteristic of this period. Cut nails were not yet invented, and wrought iron nails cost a dollar a pound. Tools and all implements were very high priced, owing to freights. “The voyage from New Orleans to Natchez, made by keel-boats and barges, required several weeks.” A set of plough irons were of great value. Wagon wheels were made of transverse sections of logs, and wagon framework was made of cane. Flax was raised for shoe thread and such uses, and in some families linen was made. The black or naked seed variety of cotton was raised from the earliest occupancy by the English. The seeds were picked out by hand, or separated by a small roller gin. The cotton was spun and woven at home, and dyed with indigo and wild plants, to make the clothing of the colony. Rice was an important article of diet, because of the want of flour, and for the same reason the planters put up with bread made from Indian corn, pounding the grain as the Indians did, in wooden mortars.

In 1797, the staple commodity of the Natchez district was cotton (q. v.), ” which the country produces in great abundance and of a good quality.” The making of indigo (q. v.) and raising tobacco (q. v.) were carried on with spirit some years ago; but they have both given way to the cultivation of cotton. The country produces maize, or Indian corn, equal, if not superior to any part of the United States; the time of planting it is from the beginning of March until the beginning of July. The cotton is generally planted in the latter end of February and the beginning of March. Rye has been attempted in some parts and raised with success; but wheat has not yet succeeded. Apples and cherries are scarce, but peaches, plums and figs are very abundant. The vegetables of the middle states generally succeed there. The sugar cane has been attempted in the southern part of the district, near the boundary; I have not heard with what success; but from Point Coupie, down to the gulf of Mexico, it answers at present better than any other article; and sugar has within a few years past become the staple commodity of that part of the Mississippi. A variety of oranges, both sweet and sour, with lemons, are in great plenty on that part of the river. . . . Many of the planters are industrious and enjoy life not only in plenty but affluence, and generally possess the virtue of hospitality, which never fails to impress the stranger and traveler with a favorable opinion of the country and its inhabitants. . . . The horses are tolerably good . . . many of them have been taken wild on the west side of the Mississippi… I found the cattle in the settlement of Natchez but little inferior in size to those of the middle states. They are extremely numerous, and it is not uncommon for the wealthy planters to possess from one to two hundred head, and sometimes more. The cows yield much less and poorer milk than those of the northern states. . . . The mutton of the country is well tasted. . . . The hogs are but little, if anything inferior to those of any part of the United States.” (Ellicott’s Journal.)

According to the census of 1850, there were about 3,500,000 acres of the State, about one-third its area, improved. The cash value of farms was estimated at $55,000,000. The cotton crop was 485,-000 bales of 400 pounds; Indian corn, 22,500,000 bushels; sweet potatoes, 4,750,000 bushels; wheat, 138,000 bushels; oats, 1,500,000 bushels; rice, 2,720,000 pounds; value of live stock, $19,400,000.

Hilgard discussed the soils of the State exhaustively in his great report of 1860, also described the almost universal custom of robbing the soil. He said that when he suggested to planters to haul to their fields some near-by marl, or apply the manures carelessly wasted, they “would turn up their noses in contempt of such old-fashioned commonplace advice, and perhaps remark that whenever their cultivated land gave out there was plenty more to be had; and as for manuring, it was too troublesome and would never pay;” yet he would not attribute such sentiments to the majority of the planters, or even to a large part of them. Still the sentiment, and the policy of robbing the soil, regardless of the fate of the following generations, was prevalent. He said: “Even the present generation is rife with complaints about the exhaustion of the soils – in a region which, thirty years ago, had but just received the first scratch of the plowshare. In some parts of the State, the deserted homesteads and fields of broom-sedge, lone groves of peach and China trees by the roadside, amid a young growth of forest trees, might well remind the traveller of the descriptions given of the aspect of Europe after the Thirty Years’ war. . . . Even now, the rich prairies, the garden spots of Mississippi, are giving out under the operation of the same pernicious system; lands which, six years ago, could have been bought at $30 per acre, are now offered at $6. The capital of the agriculturist is the fertility of the soil, of which he ought to use the interest, but without seriously diminishing the principal.” Of rotation of crops, he said: “In the South the one great object is, or has been, to raise the one staple, cotton. Of late years, the disadvantage of importing all our provisions from other States having become too manifest, corn has been planted more plentifully. Field peas, oats, sweet potatoes and some wheat, completed the list of crops. There was no rotation attempted except between cotton and corn. Cotton as a crop, when nothing but the lint is actually exported, is one of the least exhausting crops known.” The great remedy for soil exhaustion, said Dr. Hilgard, was to restore the seed and stalks to the soil. “We cannot afford to feed cotton-seed to our cattle, unless we keep them at home, and manure the cotton fields. We cannot afford to sell our cotton-seed to the oil-manufacturer, unless we take back at least the oil cake, and if possible the hull also. Yet it was a common practice with planters in the Mississippi bottom to dump the seed in the bayous.” A later authority, after the establishment of oil mills, says: “A ton of cotton-seed meal is considered as valuable as at least three tons of the seed for fertilizing. If farmers simply have the oil pressed out of their seed, the establishment of oil mills will increase their profits; but if they part with the meal, and do not apply it as a fertilizer, the mills will do a great harm rather than a benefit.”

“While it is a matter of the last importance that we should avail ourselves to the fullest extent, of such stable manure as a sound policy will enable us to obtain as a collateral product, the doctrine of cattle raising for the sake of the manure is based upon a fallacy; and a consistent adherence to it will slowly, but inevitably lead to bankruptcy of any agricultural community,” was another observation of Hilgard’s.

In an address before the Agricultural and Mechanical association of Carroll and Choctaw counties in the fall of 1870, Col. L. Q. C. Lamar said the emancipation of the slaves had revolutionized Southern farming. It had converted what before was capital into a never-failing and clamorous claimant for profits. The planter must therefore capitalize his own manhood and intelligence. This he could do in three principal ways: by diversification and rotation of crops, by the use of labor-saving machinery, and by the higher cultivation of a few acres. By diversifying crops a most appalling waste of values would be prevented.

Governor Alcorn made an investigation of six counties in 1870, and found that comparing 1870 with 1860, there was a decrease in cotton production of 63 per cent, a similar reduction in corn and swine, and 70 per cent in the value of lands. But the basis of wealth remained, and the restoration to be effected was “mainly in the establishment of order and the elevation of labor.” In the same counties the amount of wages paid out for the crop of 1869 was $1,355,203, from which he estimated the annual wages of the State at eleven or twelve millions.

By the census of 1860, Mississippi was shown to be the thirteenth State in the value of lands, and the eighth in per capita wealth. In 1870, she was the eighteenth State in population and forty-sixth in per capita wealth, one of the territories being the only political division reporting a lower per capita wealth. The main factor in the change was the transfer of the negro population, which exceeds the white, from the category of property to that of persons counted in estimating the per capita wealth.

In 1870 the census put the cash value of farms at $81,716,000; of implements and machinery, $4,450,000; number of acres improved, 4,200,000. The cotton crop was 565,000 bales; Indian corn, 15,-637,000 bushels; sweet potatoes, 1,743,432 bushels; oats, 414,000 bushels; rice, 374,627 pounds; value of live stock, $29,940,000; value of all farm products, $73,000,000. From that first “after the war” estimate agriculture has grown to its present dimensions, as shown by the census of 1900.

But these possibilities were for a long time obscured by the attractiveness of cotton as a cash crop. One of the Indiana experimenters in 1875 wrote: “You could not induce a negro to raise grass. The idea of raising grass would be to him simply ridiculous. He has been all his life trained to exterminate it, and nineteen-twentieths of the whites never raised it.” This man, after experimenting two years, declared that there was no reason why clover should not be grown, if it were given a fair trial. But some of the theories of newcomers were modified by experience. ” Truck farming was begun in Copiah county in 1874. Rev. J. W. McNeill and Mr. Stackhouse were pioneers at Crystal Springs. About 1870, Mr. Cassel, of Canton, began advancements in horticulture, and in 1872 the McKay brothers, Dr. H. E., John and W. T., began the present extensive strawberry culture.” (Mem. of Miss., II, 117.)

In 1877 the growing of fruit in the neighborhood of Crystal Springs had assumed such dimensions that a convention of fruit growers and railroad officials was held at that place for mutual benefit.

Major S. A. Jonas wrote of the New Orleans exposition in 1885: ” Mississippi’s splendid exhibit of hay, the largest and most comprehensive at the exposition, was a revelation to visitors at the North and West, as well as to thousands of her own people. . . . the specimens presented consisted of fifty-two commercial bales, including timothy, Japanese clover, water grass, wild millet, white clover, red clover, burr clover, crab grass, boar grass, bermuda grass, chicken corn, red top, pea-vine, milo maize, velvet grass, rice straw and sassafras, all of the best quality. In addition to the bales, the grasses came from all the counties in sheaves and bundles, including a large quantity of red clover from Washington county in the Mississippi bottom, between four and five feet high, and incomparably the finest clover exhibit at the exposition. Among the most prominent exhibitors were Capt. J. W. Howard, of Monroe county, and Mr. Dunbar Hunt, of Jefferson. The former, from his 1,100 acre grass farm in the prairie, which includes 125 acres in red clover, sent eleven varieties of hay in bales, while Mr. Hunt, from his Mississippi river farm, contributed seven bales, and both these gentlemen sent as fine timothy hay as the county can boast.” Robert Brown, of Monroe county, exhibited Japanese clover seed.

In a community built up like that of Mississippi there are two classes, the land owners and the land workers, the latter being known as “labor.” In all parts of the United States there are the farmer proper and the hands, but only in the States formerly permitting slavery is there such a broad distinction. Says A. B. Hurt, in his report on Mississippi to the department of agriculture, 1883: ” Frequent attempts have been made to introduce labor from abroad, especially from the European countries. But little success has attended these efforts. . . . The difficulty was not one of climate as has been erroneously supposed.”

Mr. Hurt continues: “Ever since the emancipation of the slaves, this great question has been anxiously and seriously considered by the planters of Mississippi.” Of the negroes: “Left to themselves, and free from the influences of designing politicians, it is but just to say that they afford perhaps the best class of laborers for the large cotton fields, especially in the Yazoo delta. Many planters, indeed, consider negro labor the only kind suited to the existing methods of cotton culture, with which long experience has made them familiar. . . . Of course, there is no difficulty of this kind in the way of native white labor, as more than one-third of the cotton product of the State is the result of white labor.”

There are three relations between the landowner and worker: the wages system, the share system and the renting system. “As a general thing the colored people are averse to working for wages, preferring a semi-proprietorship or partnership in the products of their labor. . . . The share system, originating soon after the war, is quite extensively adopted throughout the State. It is, however, considered by many objectionable, as under its operation the lands are allowed to deteriorate in value, the laborer caring little for their preservation and for future results. To this system, perhaps more than to anything else, may be attributed the slovenly and unremunerative methods of agriculture sometimes met with in this State. When the share system is adopted the landowner furnishes, besides the land, quarters, wood privileges, farming implements, stock and feed, as an offset to the labor of the tenant. At harvest time the crops are divided on the basis agreed upon at the beginning of the year, which is in most cases one-half. Under the renting system the farms are rented for a specified amount in money or cotton, the tenants making their own terms for supplies and assuming all risk. The rent on the rich bottom lands of the State is sometimes as high as $8 and $10 per acre. The average there is about $6.50 per acre (1883).

According to the census of 1900, Mississippi had 220,803 farms, of which the owners operated 82,021; owners and tenants, 609: managers, 930, and tenants, 137,852. Indiana, for comparison, with about the same number of farms, had 156,000 operated by owners and 63,000 by tenants. In Mississippi, 128,679 farms of all kinds were operated by negroes, and 92,124 by whites. In the South in general, one-half the cotton farms are operated by colored people.

Agriculture under any system was, however, for many years after the war, embarrassed by a wasteful and burdensome credit system. The planter, with cotton selling at high prices, gave himself up wholly to that product, to the neglect of everything else. ” The farmer’s smokehouse, corn-crib, haystack and almost his vegetable garden were in the Northwest. The profits of manufacturing his cotton were realized in the East or in Europe,” and the farmer mortgaged his crop in advance to middlemen, to pay living expenses. With greater cotton crops the price declined; the soil became impoverished; the burden of debts increased, and the planters persevered, hoping each year for a bigger crop next year. They attempted to survive, paying 89 cents to $1 a bushel for corn, also buying bacon and hay, of course paying unnatural prices under such an unnatural system.

Out of the system of farming on credit grew the agricultural lien law, which authorized and regulated the borrowing of money or store credit on a crop that had not yet been planted. The lien law had its origin in an act for the encouragement of agriculture, approved by Governor Humphreys, February 18, 1867. “It made debts incurred for the making of crops a prior lien on the same; advances of the landowner to the laborer or lessee a lien on the share of the laborer; liens to be enforced by a bill in chancery, with sequestration; mortgages permitted on crops fifteen months in advance; crops not to be levied upon until gathered.” Of this law Governor Alcorn said it was a remnant of the credit system, that induced extravagance and extortion alike. “In either aspect, it is an excrescence on the present order of things.” The repeal of such laws would release the planter from an old incubus and put agriculture on a footing of solvency and independence. But with various modifications, “this law was preserved in the codes of 1871 and 1880. By 1890 the remedy had been much simplified, to a summary seizure on affidavit and warrant; litigation being transferred to the law courts from chancery.” (Mayes.)

In 1883 it was estimated that it would require about one-fifth of the entire cotton crop to cancel the agricultural liens on record, which was greater than the profit that could be expected from the investment in cotton planting. About one-half of these liens were thought to be due to money lenders. In the last few years conditions have been greatly changed, by higher prices for cotton, and at the same time a movement has begun for cooperation among cotton growers to hold their cotton for the best prices that the actual conditions of the crop warrant.

According to the census of 1900, the Mississippi acreage improved was 3,844,667,, or 31 per cent, which is less than any other agricultural State. The value of land and improvements was put at nearly $60,000,000; of buildings, $25,500,000; of implements and machinery, $6,000,000; of live stock, $26,000,000. The total, $117,-733,593, is the lowest of any South Central state, Alabama being next. The total value of products was $50,500,000. Paid for labor, $2,500,000.

The great commonwealths of the United States are the hay states, and, although climate interferes with the successful growth of grasses familiar to northern latitudes, Mississippi has possibilities in this respect. Best of the grasses in Mississippi appears to be the Bermuda, introduced early in the history of the territory. Though so much an alien as to be unable to produce its seed, it propagates with all sufficient rapidity by runners, and produces, as Wailes wrote in 1854, “an almost incredible quantity of delicate nutritious hay.” The Japan clover is a strong rival. It was first noticed in Hinds county about 1878, and several years earlier in other parts of the State, and spreads with marvelous rapidity. As a hay for winter feed, many farmers consider it incomparable. The well-known crab-grass also makes an excellent hay. Besides these, there are possibly over a hundred native grasses, some of which might be capable of great development. Dr. D. L. Phares, of the A. & M. college, is an eminent authority and author of “The Farmer’s Book of Grasses.” Prof. John A. Myers, State chemist, wrote in 1883: “Just after the close of the war the price of cotton ran so high that it dazed the farming community so completely that they parted with all their stock and went to raising cotton. We venture the assertion, however, that there is scarcely a State in the Union that has superior natural facilities for this pursuit than Mississippi. The question is often asked, Is there any forage in Mississippi for cattle? We answer, Yes, abundance of it; and if the farmers would only let the grasses grow instead of trying to kill them, Mississippi would in a few years become one of the most important grazing States in the Union.” (See Fairs, State.)

Agricultural College, a post-village on the Columbus branch of the Mobile & Ohio R. R. about a mile southeast of Starkville. This is the seat of the State Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Back to: Mississippi History

Source: Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, by Dunbar Rowland.

1 thought on “History of Agriculture in Mississippi”

  1. Agnes Salisbury-Nilsen

    I am looking for a gentleman by the name of John Roy Davis who worked for the Agriculture Department in Mississippi, somewhere between the 70s and 90s. I believe he was a Scientist, but not positive. He died in Gulfport MS May 23 of 2018/2019. My husband is 84 years of age, very ill health, and he was adopted in 1937. John Roy Davis was his brother. We are seeking to only perhaps find a Photo of him, and perhaps some history on his life. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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