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IH Picker Bob Ratliff
This photo by the late Bob Ratliff at Mississippi State University shows an aged M12H International Harvester cotton picker at the Hopson Plantation near Clarksdale, Miss. It was produced in the late 1940s, and was among the second generation of commercially successful cotton pickers to hit the market. Hopson Plantation was the site of field tests for mechanical pickers from the 1920s through the 1940s.

The changing face of farming: 75 years of progress for Mid-South farmers

Much has changed in agriculture over the last 75 years, and as Delta Farm Press commemorates its three-quarters of a century of service to the region, we extend our gratitude to all our faithful readers, some of whom may have been with us from the start.

There’s something about our past: The wise will learn from it and laud its lessons, while others choose to forget or opt for only selected memories. But none of us can escape the past, and collectively, we created it.

It was 75 years ago, in 1943, that Delta Farm Press was launched, with the commitment to give farmers, a weekly journal chronicling the news and issues of the day.

While World War II was foremost in the hearts and minds of every American, 1943 was also significant for other milestones. It was the year that food rationing in the United States — for the first time ever — was put into effect, another result of the war. A young Lt. John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer; pennies were made of steel instead so copper could go to the war effort; the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was created; and Los Alamos, the nation’s secret city and home of the Manhattan Project that ushered in the Atomic Age, was officially opened. 

It was also a pivotal year for agriculture, particularly in the heart of the highly productive Mississippi Delta region. For most farmers, the Great Depression represented some tough years that many did not survive. Many farmers enlisted in the war effort, trading a hoe for a rifle. An estimated 50 percent of farmers and farm workers were taken for military service. 

Yet, despite a workforce reduced by half, food production persisted, as the family members who were left behind increased production to levels required to support troops overseas and those left at home.

In 1943, the very first mechanized cotton picker underwent trials at a Delta research center. That same center, under the direction of a capable and innovative agronomist, pioneered a tractor-mounted torch designed to efficiently remove weeds from crop rows. The concept worked reasonably well until herbicides were developed.

DELTA: THEN AND NOW

The Delta in 1943 included some of the best and some of the poorest cotton farmers. On the plus side, its soils were among some of the richest, most productive in the nation. Family unit farms ranged between 40 acres to 150 acres, but even smaller farms were scattered across the region, including those occupied by sharecroppers. 

Times were tough, change was nearing. Research was developing machines and products that had agriculture on the verge of the mechanized age. Variety breeding studies and trials were active at every experiment station, despite most of the research facilities operating at 50 percent of staff, or less.

Dr. J.E. Adams, superintendent of the Delta Experimental Research Station at Stoneville, Miss., was a pioneer in agronomy and farming methods. As head of the station beginning in 1942, he was instrumental in field testing the first-ever mechanical cotton picker developed by International Harvester Company, an invention that would forever change the way cotton would be farmed. A 1945 report indicated that the picker, in its first year of trials, reduced labor required for harvesting cotton from 85 hours per acre for hand picking to just 5 hours for the new machine. 

Adams was also one of the leading researchers responsible for developing the flame cultivator, a tractor-mounted device used to burn weeds in row crops. His system was widely used at the station, and became the standard for several years, until effective herbicides were developed.

In addition, Adams and his research team are credited with developing a significant number of new plant varieties, and they worked extensively in developing standards for the use of nitrogen on Delta soils. 

In 1944, Adams became head of the Department of Agronomy at Texas A&M University at College Station. The Delta’s loss was Texas’ gain, but Delta research stations have continued to provide valuable work that benefits not only that region’s farmers, but those elsewhere.

SNAPSHOT OF EARLY YEARS

In the hill country in the 1940s, livestock was important, offering diversity and extra income. Cotton and cash crops required longs days of work, especially during the growing and harvest seasons. The most successful farmers were quick to adopt new varieties and tools to make their operations more successful.

The Mississippi Delta, one of the largest contiguous agricultural areas in the U.S., with over 4.9 million acres, was hard hit by the war. Our research to determine the population of the larger Delta region was unsuccessful, but we found that about 20 percent of those who left the Delta for military service or war jobs in the cities never returned.

The war took a heavy toll in many ways. In an April 1943 National Geographic magazine article, “Farmers Keep Them Eating,” Frederick Simpich wrote: “In the fields. That’s where American farmers, including women, girls, and school children are fighting now — fighting frost, heat, dust, drought, mud, flood, and insect pests, growing our biggest crops in history.”

It wasn’t an easy job. But pride in regional farm traditions ran deep. By the time the first Delta Farm Press publication came off the old sheet-fed press, farming in the Delta was caught between the challenges of the war and opportunities for growth. Despite the enormous losses occasioned by the war, farmers and their sons who survived were anxious to return to farms and families.

AGING FARMERS

While the U.S. agriculture census shows that the average age of farmers didn’t change significantly from 1900 through 1950, the war caused many farmers who too old to serve in the military to remain active on the farm for longer than normal, especially in families where younger members had been lost. In the Delta region, the group of active farmers 55 years and older increased from 24 percent in 1900 to 35 percent by 1950.

Tractors and mechanized cotton pickers were rapidly replacing manual labor. A one-row cotton picker had the capacity to replace up to 40 laborers, according to the USDA, and one tractor replaced the work of five to six tenant families — efficiencies that opened the door to planting more acres. 

Many younger men in farm country who returned from the war were lured away by city jobs. In the early 1950s, opportunities for educated and skilled workers were abundant, widening the gap in the age profile of farmers of the region again. By 1974, that gap had grown even larger, and in 2012 nearly 90 percent of all farmers were 45 and older (Source: The Agricultural Economic Insight Report of ageconomists.com).

Nationwide, the average age of farmers has been increasing over the last 30 years, according to the USDA’s five-year census. The most recent survey (2012) shows that in the late 1980s, the average age of U.S. farmers had grown by nearly eight years, from 50.5 to 58.3. The rate of older farmers in the Delta was even higher, 60.4 years average. In the Mid-South and neighboring states, the average age of farmers was growing as well: 58.5 for Louisiana, 58.1 in Arkansas, 57.6 in Kentucky, 59.3 in Alabama, and 58.3 in Missouri. The national average age in the last agricultural census was also 58.3 (Source: USDA Agriculture Census, 2012).

INCREASINGLY HIGHER PRODUCTION

Here’s a look at average acres planted, and yields for cotton and corn, two of the primary crops grown in the region in 1943, compared to the latest numbers from 2017. (Figures represent numbers in Mississippi’s 18 counties located within the Delta region):

Cotton — In 1943-44 cotton yields in the Delta ranged between 380 and 390 pounds per acre, with just under 300,000 acres planted. In 2017, Delta cotton was harvested on 630,000 planted acres and produced just under 1,100 pounds per acre (Source: NASS-USDA).

Corn — In 1943, corn was grown on an estimated 290,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta and produced 18 bushels to 20 bushels per acre. In 2017, there was 520,000 acres of corn and yields averaged 189 bushels per acre.

In 1943 the Delta Region included some of the best and some of the poorest cotton farmers. Average size ranged between 40 acres and 150 acres. New varieties and advanced technology have resulted in significant gains.

In 1943, the average net farm income of the Delta region was estimated at $9,000 to $10,000 annually. In 2017, the range was $62,000 to $64,000 on average (Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Feb. 2018).

Much has changed in agriculture over the last 75 years, and as Delta Farm Press commemorates its three-quarters of a century of service to the region, we extend our gratitude to all our faithful readers, some of whom may have been with us from the start.

We look forward to serving you and the industry as we look to our 100th anniversary.

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