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AGRICULTURE

Modified From The Madison Journal Centennial Issue August 14, 1975, Section VI pp. 1-3

(Modified, reformatted and charts added by Richard P. Sevier)


Tenant Farming
Calls for Diversification
The Mound Colony
Changes in Agriculture
Soybean Craze
Social Changes


Madison Parish is an agricultural region. It was made agricultural region by the countless centuries of flooding which produced a soil of unsurpassed fertility. Ignored for many years, the richness of Madison's land began in the early 1800's to pull people to it from all over the Southeast.

Many men became rich and cultured, aristocratic planters steeped in a tradition which combined proud romanticism with a capacity for hard work and a determination to overcome all odds. Another group of people brought to the parish to be its true builders for many decades sacrificed Its identity and freedom for the soil and the cotton boll. The soil - the cotton boll ... the meaning of Madison Parish rests with their story.

Illiterate hunters and fisherman were still the citizens of Madison Parish when the first farmers came to carve their living out of the swampy wilderness between Bayou Macon and the Mississippi. They came to build homes and provide greater opportunities for their children. Using slave labor, these early settlers cleared the highest land along the bayous and ridges and planted it in the favored crop, cotton.

Until the 1830's over half the American cotton crop was produced in the Atlantic Coast states under a system that over-exploited the land. The crop was grown on a given tract until the fertility of the soil was practically exhausted. Then a new area was cleared and cultivated. This ruined many plantations in the Southeast and caused the farmers to look elsewhere for new land. Their search intensified in the panic of 1837. Before that time high prices for cotton had caused more and more new land, no matter how fertile, to be settled and put in cultivation. In 1837, the price of cotton fell to seven cents, and farmers no longer could afford to grow cotton on any but the best land.

At that time, the settlement of the Southwest was being promoted by land speculators and newly established state banks. The road through Richmond, Madison's parish seat-to-be, was a main route for settlers traveling to Texas. Diverted from that Republic by reports of violent upheavals there, and impressed by the cheapness and richness of Madison's land, many of these people remained in the parish. Madison grew as the demand for cotton increased. The ownership of a large plantation in Madison as well as in other parts of the South came to be the accepted criterion of social prestige. Some of the early planters who, before migration, had lacked the opportunity to realize their social ambitions, were driven to acquire more land and slaves than they needed or could use.

In the face of declining cotton prices, planters increased production all the more to maintain their profit levels. They suffered an even further loss in 1843 when England declared a boycott on American exports. Madisonians had anticipated such action when they heard that England was experimenting with cotton production in India. They vilified England equally with the abolitionists.

Several times the editor of the Richmond Compiler contrasted the English opposition to slavery with the shameful treatment of many of its own citizens then being publicized through the popular novels of Charles Dickens. In the July 19, 1842 issue, Downes gave this definition of "English philanthropy": "Harnessing women to coal carts in the colleries, making them drag a horse load, and then cry shame against this country for its slaves."

Even more strongly, editor Kercheval noted that "England suffers her peasantry to starve by the thousands, and not content with her own misery, is anxious to prostrate us to a level with her. We must defeat her." England would be the South's greatest friend during the Civil War, but of course Madison citizens could not look that far ahead.

It was during these years, when cotton prices fell so low as to drive some producers out of business, that Madison planters began their long tradition of stubbornness where cotton was concerned. Very few planters would change from the production of cotton because their plantation system was best adapted to grow cotton. No planter could turn to the production of other crops without greatly increasing his risk.

Besides, the factors that caused the Delta area to grow fertile soil, cheap land, inexpensive transportation to New Orleans enabled it to profitably continue the plantation system under "King Cotton" while the rest of the South was operating at a loss. For more than ten years before the Civil War the delta parishes of Madison, Carroll, Tensas and Concordia not only produced one-fourth of the Louisiana cotton crop, but also were the wealthiest parishes in the state.

The war changed this as it changed so many other things. From over 40,000 bales grown in Madison in 1860, production declined to less than 2,000 bales in 1866. The cotton crops improved only slightly in the next few, years. The frustrating problems of overflowing, insect devastation and expensive labor caused many planters to give up and move away. Reflecting this, Census figures show Madison having half the population in 1870 that it had in 1860.

Probably the most difficult problem facing planters was the use of hired labor. At first blacks did not want to return to the plantations at all. They had learned to despise the overseers and plantation bells and other remnants of slavery. When they did go back to work the blacks demanded higher wages than the planters in their own financially tight situations could afford.

TENANT FARMING

It is said that the credit for introducing the system which saved Madison's cotton economy goes to an officer in the Federal army, Maj. Gen. Francis Preston Blair. A former Congressman and Senator from Missouri, Blair was Horatio Seymour's running mate in the 1868 Presidential election against Gen. Grant, Blair's former commander at Milliken's Bend.

Blair made his way back to Madison Parish after the war and leased Cabin Teele Plantation, hoping to recoup the fortune he lost during the war. A military man, Blair tried to raise cotton using military methods, he lined his Negroes and mules at the end of a row, some 30 or 40 plow hands, and signaled them to begin by shouting "forward"! By the time the "troops" reached the end of the rows their lines were badly broken. Realizing that methods like these would not work; Blair incorporated the sharecropping or tenancy system by which every farmhand was given a cabin and a tract of land to farm. The tenant would raise a cotton crop which was divided between the tenant and the plantation owner.

Sharecropping was done in various ways. Some planters let the tenant keep one-half of the crop after expenses; others, one-fourth of the gross produce; and in some cases one-third went to the "cropper" free of charge. The latter system was very rare, however.

Most tenants tended a small garden for food, and had a few chickens, a mule, perhaps a pig or two. Some planters saw to it that their tenants got the necessities of life, but in most cases they had to provide their own supplies by some other method. The tenants purchased most of their goods on credit from country storekeepers, often at fantastically high rates.

Everyone was struggling during that period to keep ahead of their debts. Cotton was overproduced and underpriced, and newspapers warned farmers to diversify their crops and raise more farm animals. Yet planters confused and under pressure, were not willing to accept the risk of experimenting with other crops. Instead they practiced strict economy and managed to hold on to their lands until the latter part of the 1880's, when prices began to rise somewhat.

During these years the state government stabilized and began to encourage once more the development of commerce and industry. Depression in other areas and the rebuilding of the railroad through Madison drew immigrants into the area until, by 1890, the population was at its pre-war level of over 14,000.

Cotton exchanges had been established and the practice of buying for future delivery helped steady the price of the crop. Once again overproduction resulted in a precipitous drop in cotton prices in 1893. Accompanied by one of the longest and most severe worldwide depressions in business history, the low prices during this whole decade resulted in a crisis from which Madison agriculture would not emerge for another 30 years or so.

Practically all the planters mortgaged their farms; many were forced to forfeit, and either moved away or became tenants on their own former plantations. Their lands were absorbed by big-time speculators, merchants and corporations. One foreign corporation, the Ashley Corporation, with its home office in Dundee, Scotland, obtained control of almost half of Madison Parish.

The hard times between 1890 and 1930 are reflected in the names of some of the parish's plantations. "Pinch Me easy" (Pinchem Easy) was not named by a nurse or waitress, but by its owner, Mr. Groves. Upon his dealings with the Commission Merchant in New Orleans, Groves asked him to "Pinch me easy," and the plantation was named accordingly. "Tight Paper" plantation was named similarly with the owner's complaint over his difficulty in getting credit.

The hard times continued through the 1905 yellow fever epidemic and the arrival of the boll weevil in 1907. The weevil wiped out so many farmers that the population was down to 10,000 by 1910 and stayed around that figure until the late 1920ís. Then a new immigration, relating to agriculture, changed the social picture of the parish and added a whole new breed of Madisonians.

Following the Civil War much of the rich plantation land had been abandoned and returned to forest growth. Large tracts of the abandoned lands, as well as virgin timberlands, fell into the hands of lumber companies shortly after the turn of the century. They removed the timber and kept the land for years, making no attempt at reforestation. Finally the lumber companies decided to make some money off the idle land by selling it to small farmers. At that time drought and depression were making it hard for the inhabitants of the less fertile hill country of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi to eke out a living. When they read of the sale of Madison's rich cutover lands, they rushed into the parish in large numbers. Finding yields two or three times greater than back at the hills, they decided to stay.

Unfortunately, many of these immigrants underestimated the difficulty of acquiring land in Madison Parish. At that time about one-third of the parish was owned by non-resident corporations, and individuals residing outside Madison owned an additional one fourth. Companies owning large tracts of cutover or other lands sold them for $25 to$40 per acre.

New settlers acquiring land under a lease with an option to buy could make three crops before starting payment. Those who contracted to buy made a down payment of about 10 per cent with another payment due at the end of the first year. They frequently contracted to pay more than their economic returns would allow them to pay. Consequently, most of the lands reverted back to the corporations and lumber companies, and the small farmers from the hills were left landless. Most of them became tenant farmers, though a few got jobs as laborers.

Though they failed in their attempt to become wealthy planters, these settlers contributed much more to Madison Parish. For one thing, the whites moving in from the hills were far more educated than most of the native whites and the blacks. The hill people were usually more religious than the natives, including the wealthy planters. The new settlers provided Madison Parish, a land of social extremes, with a middle class. They also caused the parish population to jump to 14,829 by 1930 and to 18,443 by 1940. Since the hill-country emigrants were mostly white, their settlement in Madison Parish increased the percentage of the white population. Still, blacks outnumbered whites more than two to one in 1940; over 90 percent of all the Negroes in the parish were either tenants or day laborers on the large plantations.

CALLS FOR DIVERSIFICATION

The Great Depression put the bind on Madison's cotton economy, as prices plummeted and cotton production was cut in half. Once again newspapers, County Agents and Home Demonstration Agents urged planters to diversify their crops, with some slight success.

In 1909, when it seemed that the boll weevil would destroy the cotton industry, some Madisonians planted a part of their lands in rice. After a few years farmers found that, although the soil was fertile and would yield a good crop of rice, the land was high and porous. The major problem was how to obtain enough water to keep the rice fields properly irrigated. Nearby lakes were pumped dry. Pipelines were run over the levees to the Mississippi River, but the power required to lift the water over the levees when the river was low made this method of obtaining water expensive. And since the river never remained at the same level for any great length of time, it was difficult to maintain pumping equipment in one place. The problems of irrigating the rice fields proved to be too great and practically all the fields were reverted to growing cotton by 1922.

Practically every planter grew corn in the 1930's. It was fed to domestic animals, and, as "hoecakes," "grits," and hominy, entered into the diet of the people, both black and white. Before the Civil War, slow transportation made it necessary for every planter to raise enough corn for himself. Then, it was practically the only grain crop of this area. The corn, which was once used to feed mules, was no longer needed after farm machinery began to be widely used, but some corn is still raised to feed cattle and hogs on the farms.

With the beginning of the depression, the production of oats in Madison Parish shot up until the parish became the greatest oat-producing region in the state. More than one fourth of the entire oat crop of Louisiana in 1934 was grown in Madison Parish. Oat production declined somewhat until the 1950's when the growth of livestock raising resulted in a corresponding growth in the production of feed. But by the 1960's, oats had been pushed out by the increase in soybeans, just as every other crop had.

Samuel H. James, once editor of the Madison Journal, planted the first commercial pecan grove in the nation in 1877. At his 125-acre grove on Cottage Oaks Plantation, James developed the popular "Money-Maker" variety of pecan and grafted the first paper shell pecan. James planted 900 trees in his pecan orchard, which came to be known all over the country.

The largest orchard now producing pecans is the 120-acre Mansford Plantation owned by Max Williams. Another orchard being planted now may prove to be as significant as the old James Plantation. John Olvey has planted most of the 2,000 acres he owns in Madison and Tensas Parishes.

The unique thing about this orchard is that the trees are grown mainly in containers. Shortly after the roots have developed, the pecan trees are transferred from the orchard to containers where they achieve almost 100 percent survival rate and begin producing pecans in six years. It normally takes eight or nine years for pecan trees to bear fruit. These trees are trimmed and placed very close together in the orchard. By this method, Olvey expects to be getting 5,000 pounds of pecans per acre in a few years. County Agent A.M. Raley believes that, except for an experimental station in Texas, Olvey is the only person in the country using this method. Raley said that the Madison Parish Agricultural Extension Office has taught more people how to graft pecan trees than any other parish office in the state. The office also buys quantities of grafting wax and scion wood and sells it to pecan growers at cost.

Another agricultural innovation that began in Madison was the growing of peaches in delta land. For many years it was assumed that peaches could not be grown in the delta, that they were a hill country crop. About ten years ago, Phil Grimes and P.B. Thigpen each planted a 20-acre peach orchard.

These orchards were great successes, and there are now eight commercial peach producers, some of whom have 100-acre orchards. Peaches have proven to be a good cash crop which is well suited to Madison Parish. This year, the best quality peaches sold for $16 or $17 per bushel, according to Raley.

THE MOUND COLONY

As we can see, many other crops besides cotton were grown on a commercial basis. None of them, however, could even make a dent in cotton production, despite the many troubles that plagued the cotton farmer during this period. The most notable-and nearly successful-attempt to break the reign of "King Cotton" was the Delta Farms Company or Mound Colony started by George S. Yerger in the late 1920's.

George Yerger came to Madison Parish following the Spanish-American War in which he served as a captain. His home had been in Jackson, Miss., but he came to Mound, La. to seek his fortune. There his acquaintance with Col. F. L. Maxwell ripened into a business partnership. Yerger acquired more and more land until, at the time of Maxwell's death in 1914, the two men owned about 12,000 acres each.

Yerger had married Maxwell's daughter, Edna, in 1901. So, when F.L. Maxwell died, George Yerger owned the entire estate of 24,000 acres. His land comprised the property of the John Hoggatt family before the Civil War, which had been divided among the heirs after Hoggatt's death. Yerger farmed as much as Hoggatt had, devoting virtually all his acreage to the production of one crop.

As Yerger began to experience the same problems of boll weevils, low prices and scarce labor that afflicted other cotton planters, he came to feel that the old style of farming was obsolete. Surely other things could be raised on his land with greater profit, he thought. For years he had been observing the success of the development work of the Illinois Central's Agricultural Department in other parts of the lower Mississippi Valley. Certain that equally good or even superior results could be obtained on his side of the river, Yerger met with two officials of the railroad - H. J. Swietert, general agricultural agent and B. T. Abbott, agricultural agent at Memphis - to plan his own development program.

It was not going to be easy to escape from cotton. It was the one crop that could be handled by the central management of a great estate without explanation and instruction on infinite details to the tenants and employees. It had been the sole care of these people and their forefathers for so long that its production was almost automatic. Most of the tenants knew nothing of other crops, and looked with apprehension upon any proposed change.

But Yerger believed the change had to be made; he felt the only alternative was bankruptcy. It was proposed that farmers who were familiar with the cultivation of other products be brought down from Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and other states of the upper valley. They would be sold 40-to-160 acre tracts of the Maxwell-Yerger estate.

Through a co-operative association of these farmers, the former management of the estate could be retained without the loss of concerted action dependent upon centralized authority. Such a cooperative association would allow the farmers to agree on which crops would be planted at what times, so that the quantity of a crop would make possible its shipment in carload lots and justify government inspection and standardization, thus guaranteeing top prices.

After two or three false starts, the Delta Farms Co. was organized in 1928, and the colonists began to arrive. To aid in the planning of crops, the I. C. System's Agricultural Department planted about two acres in experimental crops at Mound. A "museum" of the crops was opened in the George S. Yerger store where practical demonstrations of the quickest-yielding and most profitable crops were made for the benefit of the incoming farmers.

The experimental farm tried to keep one year ahead of the Mound colonists in the planning of new crops, and experimented with the various ways of planting and cultivating each crop to determine the best method. It planted lespedeza, peanuts, chickpeas, corn, clovers, potatoes, rice, grohoma, popcorn and soybeans. Several crops a year on the same acreage being the rule in the region because of the brevity of the winter (which was no winter at all in the opinion of the Minnesota colonists). The two-acre farm attempted to work out the best rotation of crops and the most appropriate time of the year for their production,

The Mound Community Club was organized to enable the colonists to work out their associated farm activities and ease them over their homesickness. The monthly meetings usually began with talks on farm topics and exchanges of experiences and plans for community activities, such as the planting of some special crop for a definite purpose. The social part of the program included refreshments, dancing to music furnished by local talent, cards, other games and just visiting.

Despite these programs and organizations, the Delta Farms Co. was plagued by poor planning on the part of everyone involved. C. E. Hester, East Carroll County Agent at the time, described the crop planning problems: "They'd go and get hot about growing Irish Potatoes. They'd grow a big crop and just like it always is--the market was glutted when the crop came off here and they lost money on it. The Florida potatoes would hit the market just before ours would."

Another problem may have been the attitude of Madisonians toward the project. An IC "house organ" ran an article on the Mound Colony in 1931, and quoted one of the colonists: "Our southern friends say that they want to get away from cotton. But I don't know. It seems as if cotton is in their blood. Cotton is one thing they feel sure about."

"The cotton planter is not the only one who feels that way. The merchant, the banker, everyone feels that way. There is a banker not far from here, for example, who is strong for crop diversification. He advocates diversification at the Rotary Club meetings and everywhere. Not long ago, however, one of the colonists ran short of cash and, knowing the banker's attitude, went to him for a loan. The banker greeted him cordially and the farmer revealed his mission. The banker then asked the farmer how many acres he had planted. The farmer replied, 'Twenty acres in corn, ten acres in soybeans, two acres in potatoes,' and then stopped because of the disappointed expression on the banker's face. The banker said, 'That is very interesting, but when I asked you how many acres you had planted I meant how many acres of cotton.' "

Eventually, most of the colonists turned to the production of cotton. For many this was a disaster for they had no familiarity with the cotton system, the Madison soil or the growing season. Many who had invested all they owned in the Yerger tracts were wiped out. Hester remembers some of them coming to him with their troubles:

"I told them, 'Look, before you buy land down here, why don't you come down and stay a year and watch some of these successful farmers operate and try to emulate them. Some of them did that. They didn't come down and invest everything they had until they had gotten the feel of things."

Although the Mound colonization project on the whole was a failure, some of the newcomers - the Neumans for example - were very successful. They stayed and became "crackerjack" citizens of the parish.

CHANGES IN AGRICULTURE

There have been several agricultural production shifts since World War II. Pasturelands have begun to spring out of former cotton fields shortly before then, and the raising of livestock grew until it reached great prominence.

C. E. Hester, former County Agent of East Carroll and later Madison, recalls the beginnings of livestock production: "When I went to East Carroll (in 1921), I didn't know of but one purebred animal in the parish. The people in this area were used to range cattle; they were just getting rid of the cattle tick, you know. They didn't like these fat, fine, purebred Herefords because they said they were too pampered. What they wanted was a bull they could turn loose in the woods with the cattle that were on the range."

Then came World War II, and the farm picture began to change. Tenants were leaving the plantations and moving to Tallulah and on to California, Detroit and other defense plant areas. Farmers tried to get Mexican nationals to hoe and pick their cotton. During peak labor periods, farmers would literally bid for town labor.

Slowly farmers were forced to look for labor saving crops and machinery. So many put their fields into pasture land for cattle that the number of beef cattle doubled between 1940 and 1954. "Ultimately it got to where we had practically half our land in pastures for livestock," Hester said. Production remained steady until about 1963. Then, as soybean prices began to climb, cattlemen large and small began to sell out and put their pastures into soybeans. Now the livestock population is very small.

World War II also produced a great demand for meat and lard. As a result, many farmers began to grow hogs for market. The production of pork was very profitable from 1940 to 1954, and then the supply caught up with the demand. Resulting lower prices convinced many farmers to get out of the hog business. Today there are fewer farmers raising hogs, but the production per farm is greater; this is due to the use of concrete "pig parlors" where the ease of cleaning and feeding cuts labor costs many times.

The drainage program of the 1940's and 1950's was a giant step forward for Madison Parish agriculture. Formerly, only about 25 percent of the land was arable. The East Carroll-Madison Soil Conservation District was organized. With technical help from the Soil Conservation Service, it released thousands of acres of land from spring overflows and slow run-off. Today the district has trained engineers available to assist farmers with their drainage, land leveling and irrigation problems. Over 50 percent of Madison Parish is now either cultivated or in pasture.

The cotton acreage allotment program was another prime mover in the changes in Madison agriculture. It actually began with the Farm Relief Act of 1933, which sought to establish a balance between production and consumption of agricultural commodities by limiting cotton production. (Huey Long had tried to do this a year earlier by forbidding Louisiana planters from growing cotton, but his plan had been a failure because other cotton states had not cooperated in it.)

As a result of the Federal act, the government offered to lease from 25 to 40 percent of each cotton grower's acreage at a rental of $6 to $12 an acre. This lowered the amount of cotton produced and raised the price on that which was produced. It was probably the only thing that made it possible for Madison Parish to continue growing cotton.

The allotment program made many large landowners a lot of money, but something was needed to replace the cotton no longer grown. So began a boom in soybeans that was to transform the face of farming in Madison Parish.

SOYBEAN CRAZE

Scott was the first plantation in Madison to pioneer successfully in a commercial soybean venture. Walter M. Scott, who with James McClellan was owner of Scott Plantation, had been raising soybeans from 1913 on, but using them only as soil builders and as feed. Scott died in 1916 and the management of the plantation passed to his widow and his son, Walter, both of whom bought out McClellan in 1918.

During World War II, the government urged farmers to plant soybeans for oil. Oils and fats were in very short supply at that time. Other planters soon found out what the Scotts already knew: that soybeans required little hand labor, could be cultivated with the same equipment used to farm cotton, had a wider margin in planting time than cotton, and was a much more dependable crop on the mixed "buckshot" land of Madison Parish.

Yet soybean acreage grew very little because beans didn't make the profit that cotton made. In the early 1960's, prices began to climb from $2.50 to $3.50 a bushel, and planters began to produce beans in phenomenal amounts. Bean acreage more than quadrupled between 1962 and 1967. Soybeans surpassed cotton in 1945 as Madison's number one crop, both in total acres planted and in cash receipts.

Now about 185,000 acres are planted in soybeans, up from 24,000 acres in 1962. Soybeans are so ideally suited to this area that some farmers find it difficult to imagine wanting to grow anything else. There seems to be no limit to the uses of the soybean; there is little likelihood that this crop will ever be overproduced.

Meanwhile, cotton has fallen victim to an insect pest even more threatening than the boll weevil. The tobacco budworm ravaged the cotton crops of Mexico in 1968, came to Madison Parish in 1972 or 1973. "Since then," said County Agent A.M. Raley, "the cotton situation has worsened considerably."

The tobacco budworm cannot be adequately controlled with insecticides because it quickly builds up an immunity to any chemical used. It must be controlled with beneficial insects, such as the ladybug, which is a natural enemy of the budworm. However, if insecticides are applied to the crop too early, all the ladybugs will be killed off, leaving the bud worms to destroy much of the crop later.

"Cotton farmers today are fighting a losing battle, " said Raley. "Now you must keep up with the latest research and do nothing wrong in order to make a decent crop of cotton."

SOCIAL CHANGES

Throughout the years, changes in agriculture have tremendously affected the Parish economically, environmentally and socially. The most dramatic change was the widespread use of mechanization by both planters and small farmers. They found that the tractor was much more efficient and economical than the mule. By the 1950ís, tractors, combines, hay bailers and all types of plows, sprayers, etc. had become widely used in Madison. These machines could do the work of many Negroes and mules, thus fewer and fewer blacks were needed to work on the plantations. Only a skeleton crew was kept to operate the machines. The sharecropper system was put to an end as planters gave their tenants a few dollars and told them to leave.

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FIRST TRACTOR IN MADISON PARISH. This Fairbanks-Morse tractor was so heavy that it was bogged down in the mud almost continually. Seated at the tractor is an engineer from New Orleans who had to come up often to fix it. Standing beside him is the unfortunate owner of the monstrous machine - Richard K. Boney. (Grandfather of Madison Parish's coordinator).

Many Madison Negroes moved to large northern and western cities seeking employment. However most of these former rural residents did not leave the parish, but simply moved to Tallulah. While the percentage of blacks has gone down for the parish as a whole, the percentage living in Tallulah has gone up.

Madison Parish today is much different than it was only 10 years ago, and agriculture is largely responsible. The soil and the men who work it will no doubt be the deciding factors in shaping Madison's future.

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© 1999 Richard P. Sevier (dicksevier@gmail.com)