Sharecroppers; squeezing a living out of a relic of the old South
By Paisley Dodds, Associated Press, 12/28/97 20:07
PICKENS, Ark. (AP) - With a sun-creased face and weathered hands, 55-year-old Buccie Cline is a remnant of the old South - a black sharecropper living in old plantation country.
He rents farmland for a combination of cash and a percentage of his cotton and bean crops.
"I've been doing farming all my life," Cline says. "But if my son or daughter were to tell me they wanted to be sharecroppers, I would tell them to find some other way to make a living. We just don't have the equipment, collateral and other things that are needed to make it."
Sharecropping took root after the Civil War, when freed slaves who had little money and farming expertise would work a farmer's land, receiving seed, animals and equipment in return for half the profits.
The system tended to keep the ex-slaves tied to a life of dependency and small earnings, because the landowners often marketed the crops, kept the books and lent the sharecroppers cash at high interest rates.
"Things are pretty much the same," says Cline. "Everything has just gotten bigger - bigger farmers, bigger companies and bigger debts. Banks have become the new plantation owners."
After surrendering 25 percent of his crop to the landowner and a farmers' cooperative, he barely breaks even, he says. To farm more land, he needs more equipment. To get a loan for the costly machinery, he needs more collateral. In the end, he takes out bank loans just to keep afloat.
Some white farmers have turned to the sharecropping system, but the difference is that many have inherited hundreds of acres of land.
"Even as a sharecropper you have to be born into land because most of it is already owned," says Steve Stevens, 47, who inherited 60 acres, owns 800 and rents more than 3,200. "It hasn't been easy, but if it's a good year and you have enough help, you can still make a decent living farming."
Black farmers now represent fewer than 1 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farmers. Of Arkansas's 43,000 farmers, fewer than 660 are black.
More than half of Arkansas' 14 million acres of farmland are rented. More than 5,000 farms still operate under a system where laborers live and work on land owned by families, companies or cooperatives, state data shows.
"We prefer the sharecropping system," says Andrew Wargo, of the Baxter Land Company which rents tracts of land either for shares of crops or for monthly payments. "There is no better business arrangement in its truest form. If it is a bumper crop, then the sharecropper and the landowner share. If it's a disaster, it puts less of a burden on the sharecropper."
"In any case, things are a lot better for these ... farmers."
That remains to be seen, Cline says.
"I'm in a hole," he says. "We've had droughts, I have no insurance, the prices on stuff keep going up and the land that I was given is unlevel and it's difficult to farm without irrigation."
"In some ways it was almost easier to make it as a sharecropper in the 1940s and 50s," says Fred Gordon, who recalls his three years of sharecropping when blacks were not allowed to drink from the same fountain as whites in the Arkansas Delta.
"Now, it's real difficult for small farmers to make a living because they have to have their own equipment. And yes, racism is still there, although it's not quite as bad."
Gordon has furrowed hands, two teeth left in his mouth, and has worked in the Delta for more than 60 of his 72 years.
Like many blacks in the area who stopped sharecropping in the 1950s to work for minimum wage or better in the North, Gordon earns $5.15 an hour, lives in a house owned by the R.A. Pickens plantation and does odd jobs at the plantation that once paid him 35 cents a day to pick cotton. He has no pension.
The plantation, in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, is no longer the sprawling estate of the 1880s, but it still has many failed sharecroppers tending the cotton gin or the machines.
"They could get a better paying job at McDonald's or some factory, but they won't get free housing," says Andrew Pickens, who manages the plantation now run under a partnership with several individuals.
Years ago, the plantation was almost a city, with rows of farm houses, a general store and schools for the children of black laborers. Today, the general store and houses remain, and the town is named after the plantation, but the jobs have dried up.
"I just feel like since I've worked for the Pickens so long that I could at least get a pension or something," Gordon says.
Jeannie Whayne, author of "A New Plantation South," says that sharecroppers, particularly black ones, underwent a transition between 1940 and 1965. Many jobs were lost to machines. Small farmers were wiped out by the costs of new fertilizers and pesticides.
"There are big casualties of this transformation and most of those are the black sharecroppers," Whayne says. "Some larger farmers are facing a bright future but older farm workers have no such opportunities. They didn't even get to pay into social security because farm workers were exempt.
"They're at the mercy of the federal government and landowners."
The Arkansas Economic Corporation, a private organization, is trying to help black farmers grow alternative crops such as zucchini and catfish.
About 250 farmers belong to the cooperative. Once their crops are ready, they pool their produce and try to market it in places like Chicago, far away from the competition of farmers in the Delta.
"The concept is that it takes less money up front to start an alternative crop than it does to plant fields of sorghum or cotton," says Ester Doolittle, executive director of the corporation.
The goal is to make poor farmers "as independent as possible," Doolittle says. "And yes, the majority are black farmers. They need all the help that we can give them and so far we've had great success."