Southern History Month 2019: Mechanization

If it helps to think through the consequences of rapid technological change and its downstream social and economic effects, it is worth remembering the time we ended sharecropping:

“While southern farmers gradually made technological adjustments during the 1930s and early 1940s, agricultural engineers and tinkerers worked independently or for farm-implement companies to solve the most perplexing technological problem in southern agriculture: mechanization of the cotton harvest. During the 1920s, Texas and Oklahoma farmers on the southern Plains began using sleds that stripped the cotton bolls from the plants, but mechanical pickers were not efficient until the International Harvester Company built the first practical spindle picker in 1941. Continued labor shortages after the end of World War II and technological improvements during the 1950s made the mechanical picker a commercial success. By the late 1960s, mechanical pickers harvested approximately 96 percent of the cotton crop. Because each two-row picker replaced approximately 80 workers, the machine displaced at least a million men and women in the harvest field after the mid-1940s.

The development of the tractor hastened the mechanization of southern agriculture. Although only 1 percent of the farmers in the 11 cotton states owned tractors in 1920, the later small, general-purpose tractor produced after the mid-1920s was well suited for the southern farm. Great Plains farmers in Texas and Oklahoma adopted the tractor first, and southern farmers gradually turned to it as well. During World War II, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North and South Carolina farmers increased their supply of tractors by 100 percent. Until the end of World War II, however, the adoption of tractors and other mechanized equipment was a response to a declining labor supply rather than a cause of flight from the land. Even so, by 1945 than 20 percent of the nation’s million tractors were located in the cotton states.

By the mid-20th century, the most mechanized southern farms were located on the Yazoo Delta or Basin, the coastal plain of Texas, and the southern Great Plains in Texas and Oklahoma. In those areas, level terrain, large fields, and few obstructions made the farms ideal for the efficient application of mechanization. By the early 1970s, southern farmers began to use airplanes to spray their crops with pesticides, and the mechanical tobacco picker was practical in certain limited economic situations. Mechanical pickers also harvested citrus fruits, and eight-row planters seeded the cotton crop. By the late 1970s, tractors, combines, corn pickers or picker-shellers, pickup balers, and field forage harvesters were common implements on southern farms, and all major aspects of southern agriculture were mechanized.

Technological change has contributed to the decline of the southern farm population and agricultural workforce. Mechanization also has encouraged the consolidation of farms, stimulated a neoplantation movement, and enabled southern farmers to produce more food and fiber than ever before. By doing so, mechanization has helped improve the quality of southern farm life.”

Melissa Walker and James C. Cobb, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), pp-85-88

I want you to try a thought experiment.

I want you to go outside into your yard and then back into your house and look at every device that is related to either 1.) electrification or 2.) telecommunications. This includes your smartphone, your computer, your television, your stove, your dishwasher, etc.

Every single one of these things is an application of these two basic technologies. Now, I want you to imagine how deep learning AI will transform our world in the 21st century, as what we are now about to go through is going to be bigger than what happened in even the 20th century.

Can we afford to be stupid and continue with dysfunctional Boomer politics as usual or should our government like China’s government instead turn its attention to the task of harnessing this technological revolution like previous ones in the 20th century?

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10 Comments

  1. “Can we afford to be stupid and continue with dysfunctional Boomer politics as usual or should our government like China’s government instead turn its attention to the task of harnessing this technological revolution like previous ones in the 20th century?”

    The old 20th Century relic politicians will pass on. However, they’re leaving behind protégés like Beto and AOC, who’ve been trained in the same old 19th and 20th Century Left-Right political ideologies.

    Which is dangerous for the emergence of the new century and new economy.

  2. The latest cotton strippers bail the cotton in round rolls. Strippers with cages, gin wagons, and modules, are a thing of the past. Gins have had to adapt to processing rolls, instead of loose cotton or modules.

    In Fall, I see flatbeds hauling cotton rolls to the gin. They’re the same size as hay rolls.

    Digital Control and software tailored to the task make it easier for the stripper operators.

  3. What made the Cotton kingdom take off in the 1880’s in West Texas and Oklahoma, was irrigation and the building of short line railroads like the Abilene and Southern, and Wichita Falls and Northwestern, which made it easier for farmers to get their cotton to the gins.

    The Abilene and Southern reduced a four day trip by wagon, to four hours by train.

    • Your contributions to this are always first-rate, Mr. Owen. I briefly lived in eastern New Mexico, where lima beans were an important crop prior to the Dust Bowl. The region never fully recovered from that catastrophe. I remember seeing the abandoned right-of-ways where trains on the Santa Fe RR once took those beans to market.

      • Thanks.

        A good source is Journal of Texas Shortline Railroads & Transportation. They’ve got an issue on the Abilene and Southern and Abilene and Northern. It has pics of cotton gins and other scenes from West Texas around 1905-10.

        All of those short lines were folded into Santa Fe, Katy, Frisco, Rock Island and T&P/MoPac.

  4. I remember my Grandfather, Papaw, who ran cotton gins, working in the weigh house when they towed the cotton trailers in. He used a big long bar weigh scale to weigh the trailers, then wrote the weight down in a ledger. The cotton gin was the noisiest place I ever went into. No wonder Papaw sometimes couldn’t hear his grand kids talking to him.
    the gin yard was our play area. We played on and around the long rows of cotton bales, trailers, and the huge cotton seed pile behind the gin. Fields of tomatoes, sugarbeets and melons grew around the gin. I was a paradise for kids playing around.

    • @shadowbass

      Sugar beet cultivation is something I’d like to see adopted on a large scale in Texas. It doesn’t hurt that the byproducts can be converted into livestock feed and fertiliser.

      It could supplement cane sugar, and compete with the Yankee corn belt.

  5. I learned a few years ago that the steam tractors used in the late 1800s to early 1900s were called Buffalo Springfields. Hence the name of one of my favorite bands.

    • @spahnranch1969

      All the ones I’ve ever seen were Case. Although I’ve heard of Parr Hart and Rumley.

  6. My dad is a farmer and has worked as one all his life after my (now deceased) grandfather bought a farm and moved way way north to get away from what he could see would be the central Florida sprawl once Disney World opened for business. Cotton is the biggest of their big three crops, ahead of peanuts and soybeans/corn depending on the year and demand, and though he uses the older (90s tech) pickers that requires the use of a module builder to pack cotton for transport to the gin, the cost of multiple low hours late 90s pickers for dad and his crew offsets the increased theoretical productivity of the newer pickers that bail cotton into rolls.

    At any rate, the older I get and the more I think about the future, the more I want to take over the operation, having done my best after high school and college to get away from the farm in terms of my occupation…just in time for the recession to hit and severly impact my job prospects “in town.” Working on a farm even in the modern era is hard work, and my grandpa basically worked until the week that he died. The man practically fell over in the field and had to be rushed to the hospital, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. My dad has seen so many advancements in the way that crops are planted and harvested even in the last 10-12 years as tractors and other equipment become essentially self driving by way of GPS integration, vastly improving his earnings and overall productivity. Now that he is getting ready to “retire” or at least cut back substantially on the acreage that he works every year, the time could be right for me to jump into more of a hands on role, especially with many exciting times ahead in terms of automation and other unforeseen advances.

    The world may be dark and gloomy for many re automation, but I believe the “yeoman farmer” of today has a bright future ahead!

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