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Abandoned cotton acres recall the great plow-up of 1933

U.S. harvested cotton acreage for 2011 is now projected at 9.7 million acres, only 70 percent of what was planted this spring. Most of the abandoned acres are in Texas, which has been in the grip of a La Nina-related drought for months.

The 30 percent U.S. abandonment rate is the first time harvested acreage has been below 75 percent since 1933.

In 1933, neither drought, flood nor a plague of pests ravaged the country’s 40 million-acre cotton crop. It was the great plow-up, when cotton producers agreed to sacrifice a certain percentage of their cotton crop in an effort to improve cotton prices.

In 1933, the country was in the throes of four straight years of depression. The agricultural sector was struggling, cotton prices having plummeted to 6 cents a pound. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration knew that another bumper crop of cotton would drive prices even lower.

Roosevelt pushed through the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which included a plan to compensate farmers for voluntarily cutting back on their cotton acreage to lower supply, and hopefully, help raise cotton prices.

According to an article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, the program paid $6 per acre to farmers with a history of 100 pounds per acre and $20 per acre to farmers who could prove a yield of 275 pounds or more. The farmer would also have the option to receive title to a quantity of prime, government-owned Farm Board cotton equivalent to the amount he had plowed under. The Farm Board helped stabilize prices by holding surplus cotton off the market.

Unfortunately, the program was slow starting, and the government was unable to get anybody signed up until after 40 million acres of cotton were up and growing. In an unprecedented action, the government decided that farmers who signed up would be required to plow up a significant portion of their cotton.

The price of cotton did improve after 11 million acres were plowed up, doubling to 12 cents per pound in the years following. But there were problems. According to the AHQ article, a lot of rain fell that year which kept some farmers out of the field. One agent in Mississippi County, Arkansas, reported that many farmers had to pull up cotton by hand. The AHQ article also mused whether there were cases where mules – trained at the whip not to do what their owners were requiring of them – might have refused to trample over plants.

The 1933 plow-up campaign resulted in a loss of 28 percent of the cotton crop and over 3 million bales. While total acreage lost to abandonment in 2011 will not approach that of 1933, the loss in bales could eventually come close.  

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