While many in America were enjoying the short-lived prosperity in the Roaring Twenties, farmers across the country were already struggling to stay afloat. Before the Great Depression began, crop prices had already been decreasing, an ongoing drought was causing farmers to look elsewhere for water, and farmers’ cost of living was going up. A census revealed that at least 80 percent of Arkansans during the twenties and thirties relied upon agriculture for their income. More than that relied upon their own personal gardens to feed their families throughout the year. Half of the 80 percent who relied upon cash crops to get by were sharecroppers, a practice that was becoming more and more obsolete with each passing year. When you consider how it must have been for many in Arkansas during this time, it’s a little scary and sad to think about.
For many farmers in Arkansas, the cash crop of choice was cotton. Cotton grows well here, especially in the Delta along the Mississippi River. Cotton needs moderate rainfall throughout six months of the year, and hot, dry summers. The cotton plants need (one example of what works best) sandy, well-drained soil with clay underneath. Yes, that sounds like every bit of ground I dug up, playing as a kid. What happened to hurt the selling prices in the twenties before the market crashed and made everything worse? The truth was that in some ways, it almost was as if everything that could go wrong, did.
One of the biggest problems was that farmers grew too much. During this time, tractors were starting to become more and more popular, for they projected to save farmers time and money over a long period of time. While in theory this was true, the use of more and more machinery on large farms led to more and more crops being grown, and the market became flooded to the point where the value for each crop plummeted, going down by 30 percent, 50 percent, even 75 percent or more. The other downside to the country’s increase in mechanization during and after WWI was that the need for sharecroppers and farm laborers decreased and decreased until they were almost completely phased out.
The cotton market itself was damaged in the 1920s, when man-made fibers, such as rayon, first became available. Rayon, which is made from wood pulp, was much cheaper to produce than cotton (or wool) and played a role in the textile economic crisis at this time. With the onset of man-made fibers not only being possible but a cheaper option, the development of other man-made fibers began. All of this only served to further lower the demand for cotton, making matters worse.
And then, Arkansas, along with all of the agricultural states in the South, went through some of the worst drought conditions ever recorded from 1930 to 1931. More on that next time.