Sharecropping and Tenant Farming
After the American Civil War (1861–65), southern plantation owners were challenged to find help working the lands that slaves had farmed. Taking advantage of the former slaves' desire to own their own farms, Page 1401 | Top of Articleplantation owners used arrangements called sharecropping and tenant farming. Both methods required the planters to divide their plantations into smaller parcels of land, which they continued to own. Using smaller parcels of property, the owners forged mutually beneficial arrangements with independent farmers to work the land.
In sharecropping land owners provided sharecroppers with a house and a plot of land, as well as all the seed, fertilizer, and tools necessary to cultivate crops. Owners dictated what crops were to be raised and supervised laborers who worked in the fields. In exchange the sharecroppers worked the fields from seed through harvest.
At harvest the entire crop was given to the owner, who sold it. After deducting the cost of supplies for which the owner had paid, the owner shared the remaining profits with the sharecroppers. Sharecroppers usually received between one-third and one-half of the remaining profits.
When the weather was poor or prices for the crops were low, profits often did not cover much more than the cost of supplies. Sharecroppers frequently wound up in debt. Sharecroppers who managed to make a profit and save money eventually gained more independence as farmers. Some moved to their own farms, while many who could not afford land became tenant farmers.
Tenant farmers were more independent than sharecroppers. Although they also did not own the land they farmed, they were completely in charge of their crops from start to finish. They were responsible for all the necessary supplies and got to select the crops they wanted to raise. The entire harvest was theirs to sell or use as needed. Plantation owners, in exchange for use of their land by tenant farmers, received either a cash payment or a share of the crop as rent. Though tenant farmers faced challenges in their quest for independence, some managed to remain debt-free long enough to save money to buy their own parcels of land.
Sharecropping and tenant farming began to fade in the 1930s when Congress passed laws to help farmers acquire their own land. Congress also worked to improve conditions for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The mechanization of agriculture and the growth of urban employment furthered the decline of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the twentieth century.