Melissa Walker and James C. Cobb’s (ed.) The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry
Longtime readers of this website are aware that economic history is one of my favorite hobby horses. Virtually no one else in this scene has the time or the interest to study Victor Bulmer-Thomas’s 710 page book The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars.
I have all kinds of books like that in my own personal library which I have devoured and written about here over the years. It is the primary reason why when Andrew Yang came along with his message about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the downstream social and economic consequences of technological change it struck such a powerful chord with me. It is why I joined the Yang Gang.
I’m deeply familiar with the past and the process by which we got to the present. Yang got me thinking about the future. He also made me want to take a second look back at the past in light of all my previous research on the subject. That’s why I reread Melissa Walker and James C. Cobb’s book The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 11: Agriculture and Industry.
I’ve noticed something about this map of America’s regional cultures from Colin Woodard’s book American Nations. I have included it in the vast majority of posts in the Southern History Series.
The Deep South regional culture is roughly synonymous with the extent of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry and the Cotton Kingdom. The Tidewater regional culture is roughly synonymous with slavery in the tobacco growing areas. New France is roughly synonymous with the Cajuns of southern Louisiana and the sugar plantations. Greater Appalachia is roughly synonymous with the corn-and-cattle economy of the Scots-Irish who fanned out from the Great Valley of Appalachia to settle the backcountry.
The Midlands is roughly synonymous with the old grain colonies and how that stream of heterogeneous European settlers spread west from Pennsylvania. The Far West is the dry area between the Pacific Coast and the Great Plains which the agriculture of the east couldn’t penetrate. Yankeedom is roughly synonymous with the migration of small family farmers from New England around the Great Lakes. El Norte is the parts of New Spain and Mexico which were absorbed by the United States and which have been recently reinforced by millions of Hispanic immigrants.
Most of the American regional cultures are rooted in a crop (or the lack of one): cotton and rice in the Deep South, tobacco in the Tidewater, sugar in New France, corn and cattle in Greater Appalachia, grain in the Midlands, nothing in the Far West, grain and dairy in Yankeedom. All of the Southern regional cultures are grounded in their agriculture which was shaped by their environment.
From the beginning in 1607 in Jamestown all the way down until the 1960s, Southerners were a predominantly rural and agricultural people. There was a massive disruption in our society between the 1940s and the 1970s that has integrated us into the American mainstream. We are barely a generation removed from the farm and a world without the leveling and homogenizing forces of the television and 24/7 cable news cycle, the automobile, bulldozer and interstates, electricity, the suburbs, strip malls and the air conditioner. My grandparents lived through this transition between the old world and the new one. In the year 2019, less than 2 percent of Southerners work in agriculture and roughly half of the people who are still employed in the agricultural sector of the economy are Third World immigrants.
If you think about it, the regional culture that is the Deep South originated in the rice plantations of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. It exploded to the west in the 1790s after the invention of the cotton gin led to the spread of the plantation complex across the South Carolina Upcountry and Central Georgia. It was seriously disrupted between the 1940s and 1960s after the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, fertilizers and pesticides eliminated the sharecropping system. The regional culture that is Tidewater began when tobacco became a successful cash crop in Jamestown. It was also severely disrupted when the tobacco industry was automated in the 1960s. Few people in Greater Appalachia are still subsistence farmers who grow corn for their own consumption and drive cattle. They aren’t coal miners anymore either because that industry too was mechanized after the Second World War. The textile workers in the Piedmont lost their jobs too after that industry mechanized and moved to the Third World after NAFTA to exploit an even cheaper source of labor.
The rice industry migrated from the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry in the late 19th century to Louisiana, Arkansas and southeast Missouri where it remains today. The sugar industry in southern Louisiana migrated to Hawaii and South Florida in the 20th century. The rice industry and the sugar industry are now fully mechanized and employ few people. Virtually no one is growing their own corn or raising their own chickens and hogs these days. Most people don’t even have gardens anymore. The poultry and hog industries in the South are also now dominated by vertically integrated agribusiness corporations. Everyone now buys their beef, corn, chicken, pork and vegetables in the supermarket. The typical Millennial woman has no idea how to cook.
Southern agriculture has evolved over time. In the 20th century, timber, peanuts, soybeans, citrus and winter vegetables all became big crops and like the traditional crops now employ relatively few people who are native born Southerners. The Alabama Black Belt today looks completely different than it did a century ago at the apex of the Cotton Kingdom. There used to be cotton fields here as far as the eye could see worked by sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but now it is a heavily forested and depopulated wasteland after the boll weevil tore its path through here in the 1910s. Cotton migrated from here to West Texas and the arid Southwest in the mid-20th century where it remains to this day.
The story of Southern agriculture can be roughly divided into three periods: the colonial era to the War Between the States in which slavery and the plantation complex spread across the South and was complemented by yeoman subsistence farmers who also produced commodities for the market economy and during which everyone enjoyed a rising income and standard of living; the post-Civil War era through the Great Depression in which everyone lost their land, the plantations fragmented, the economy stagnated, everyone was impoverished and currency and credit were scarce; and finally the Sunbelt era since the Second World War in which agriculture has reconsolidated and mechanized and employs relatively few people and the whole system has become an incestuous web of agribusiness corporations and their lobbyists, the federal government and its various programs and agricultural research at the land grant colleges and doesn’t resemble anything like a traditional free-market economy.
Since the end of the Second World War, agriculture has been retreating from our lives. The farm and the church used to be at absolute center of our lives for generations. There was a rhythm to life based on the seasons and Sundays, but from the mid-20th century there has been a Great Migration from the family farm, the tobacco farm, the canefields, the coal mines and textile villages, the sugar and cotton plantations in the countryside to the cities and the suburbs which has had a tremendous impact on our culture. It is all being driven by technological change too. Consider the impact on the nuclear family of labor saving devices like the electric stove, washer and dryer, the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher which used to consume so much time of the typical Southern wife and mother. What role did all of that and the invention of the birth control pill play in the rise of feminism and the collapse of the family?
We have kind of blithely accepted this transformation as “progress.” Have we given any serious thought to where this is all going though? Are we really happier than the Southern farmer with 10 kids, 10 negroes, 200 acres, a State of our own and a chaste, religious and obedient wife circa 1855? What is going to happen to all these deracinated and degenerated consumers in the cities and the suburbs when even their make-believe work has been automated and they don’t even have the money to pay their bills anymore or consume all of this junk? We’re going to find out over the next 15 years.
This is a great book and an overview of the subject and a jumping off point into every aspect of the Southern economy. I highly recommend it.