Agriculture has always been the primary economic engine in the Delta, and it is the reason people moved here in the first place. Early settlers sold timber for immediate profit, but cotton was their ultimate objective. Cotton was “King.” For almost 200 years, it was the most valued commodity in the Western world, and cotton required many field hands, who flooded into the Delta in search of work. The vast majority of these hands were African Americans, but Italians, Chinese, Mexican migrant workers, and some Hill country white Mississippians also moved into the Delta to farm cotton. Some farmed on land of their own but most farmed as tenants working on shares and living on large plantations like Dockery Farms, Hopson Plantation, or Delta and Pine Land, which at one point was the largest cotton plantation in the world. By the 1940’s, tractors had replaced some of the need for men and mules, and in 1942, the mechanical cotton picker was publicly demonstrated. Within two decades, cotton was completely mechanized and the tens of thousands of field hands who had worked the cotton had largely moved off the land, and many had left the Delta altogether. Today, cotton is still farmed in the Delta, but the old equation of one man and one mule per ten acres has given way to the new one of one man and one tractor per thousand acres.
Soybeans were popularized following the flood of 1927 in an attempt to reap some harvest in a year that would not see much of a cotton crop. Rice was first commercially grown in the Delta in 1948. Corn was grown by Native Americans long before the arrival of black and white settlers, and was important as mule feed from the beginning of cotton culture but has taken on new importance as ethanol production has expanded. Catfish were first commercially farmed in the Mississippi Delta in 1965.
In 2006, almost 900,000 acres of cotton were grown in the Delta, but this dropped by almost 60 percent in 2007 as farmers turned to corn and planned for the demands of biofuels. Acreage planted in corn was almost 300% greater in 2007 than in 2006. In 2007, the Delta also supported some 1.2 million acres of soybeans and 81,000 acres of catfish ponds. As corn and bean prices have continued to rise, cotton acreage continues to shrink.
Today it is difficult to find share cropper shacks, although they once lined the Delta’s roads. The company towns that supported hundreds or even thousands of people on plantations are now gone, along with the field hands themselves. Satellites and computers coordinate today’s precision agriculture and the land itself is often artificially leveled to provide optimum growing conditions.
Delta Council was founded in 1935 “to promote the economy of the area” largely by focusing on issues faced by agriculture in the Delta. The Council continues to be a major force at local, state and federal levels and holds its annual public meetings at Delta State each May. Council headquarters are in Stoneville, Mississippi, home to one of the largest agricultural research centers in the world. Stoneville supports major research efforts focused on hardwood forests, cotton, soybeans and catfish, among other things agricultural, and scientists and agronomists come from all over the world to visit Stoneville. Similarly, Delta and Pine Land Company in Scott, Mississippi, continues its own tradition of research into bean and cotton production that it started around 1915, even though it is now owned by Monsanto. And Staplcotn, based in Greenwood, is the largest producer owned cotton cooperative in the US, with an inventory of over 4,000,000 bales annually. It traces its history back to 1919. Agriculture is truly the heritage of the Mississippi Delta, and it continues to be the primary economic engine of the region.
(c) Luther Brown 2012