December 3rd, 1813
Traveling from Baltimore to Wilmington, North Carolina was a surprisingly informative ride. The many houses and people of the city fade away into long expanses of land. As we passed by a variety of farms, the gloomy September sky crept up on us. These farms were oddly clear representations of different walks of life, from large flour farms to much smaller new farms with crops barely growing in. I looked over the numbers I had been given. The piece of paper was one large table showing exports of tobacco and rice and the average price per pound. For tobacco, it is .10 dollars and for rice, .06 dollars. Those numbers are staggering, given that the average farm in the south is about 300 acres (40% more than the average northern farm), a full crop of tobacco could theoretically (given perfect conditions and crop yield) sell for about $40,000. Don’t be so shocked by that number you pack up and move, this number is not the average amount a farmer makes, because, the farms in the south are usually either huge plantations or smaller family farms (4). The gigantic plantations could give off a high theoretical yield, due to slave work, but the smaller family farms rely mostly on male members of the family to pick the crop, which, with 1,500 pounds per acre of tobacco, could be a harrowing job.
According to J.D. Cameron, Tobacco “is made to perform also the functions of gold in another form.” Although there are types of tobacco that are native to America, the most profitable types only grow in specific areas, such as North Carolina and Virginia (4). I decided to interview a farmer from North Carolina, Joseph Munn. His farm consisted of a fairly large house, surrounded by tall, yellowing tobacco plants. These plants are ready to be harvested. After harvesting, the leaves will be cut and cured for 8-20 weeks. After curing, they are required to be sent to a warehouse to be inspected to ensure the best possible product. Due to the importance of tobacco as a staple of the south, these warehouses serve to make sure that only the best possible product is being shipped to Britain, therefore keeping the prices high. The closest warehouse to Munn’s farm is the Falls Warehouse in Wilmington. Before even walking into the large barn doors, the sound of bargaining and the heavy smell of tobacco fills the entire area. Inside looks like a bustling market with only one product, varying types of tobacco. Barrels of wilted brown leaves are scattered throughout the single large room with farmers, clearly in their rarely worn slightly-more-formal attire, crowd around government inspectors to bring them to their barrel next. This is the height of agriculture rivalry. The better quality you can grow, the more money you get. If someone grows the same type of tobacco as you, but better, you’re out of luck. Pushing my way through the crowd, I was able to very briefly talk to an inspector as he dug his hands into a barrel of exceptionally dark leaves, “This place is always busy. People need to sell their crop, and this is how you have to do it.” He was done so fast, I didn’t even have a chance to ask his name, and was immediately pushed out of the way by other sellers. I attempted to start a conversation with one of the farmers, but was dismissed in favor of re-mixing his barrel of tobacco leaves. Hopefully, I would get more information about the trade from Munn. His farm is about a 2 hour ride on a mule cart.
“My family’s been working on this farm for generations” Joseph Munn said, “We’ve been growing tobacco for years, but recently, its been harder and harder to get the same crop. And all this talk of, possibly, new railroads and canals up North certainly ain’t helping with the selling of the stuff.” Joseph is one of many tobacco farmers who have begun seeing the results of too much tobacco farming, destroyed soil (4). These tobacco plants leave the soil with very few nutrients, which has led to many farmers being forced to buy more land, or move west for more fertile areas. When asked if he grows any other plant, he replied, “Nope, no reason to. Tobacco brings in good money. If people are buying it, then im gonna be growing it. We ain’t the best, but we’re far from the worst when it comes to money. I have enough money for a few slaves, which is better than most can say, but I’m thinking the real problem here is those huge, gigantic plantations way down south have, what? hundreds of slaves? That’s hundred’s more workers, and hundreds more dollars in his pocket. They’re growing so much they’re shooting the prices down.” I spent the whole day with Joseph and his family. He showed me a books filled with rows of numbers, describing to me how the family keeps track of their income Joseph made sure to note the very slow decline of the amount of money they get per pound. “See that?” he says, trailing his finger down the old pages, “look how much higher it was when my grandpa was in charge, just enough to be a noticeable difference. Up north, 1/2 a cent per pound less may seem like a little, but down here, where we’re shipping out 30-40 pounds a month, that sure adds up. That ain’t our fault, thats England’s fault, America’s fault. If it keeps going like this we might have to pack up and move west.” Two farmers in the area had moved recently. Joseph explained that their farms were no longer fertile enough to maintain enough acres of tobacco plants, and were forced west. “It ain’t our choice” Joseph said, “Our farms are all we got. No matter how long our families have been living here, eventually all farms just stop growing and you gotta find new land. Or move to one of the cities, but, none of us wanna do that.” Joseph and his family will eventually need to move west. It is known that growing the same plant on the same farm will rapidly diminish the soil, and eventually nearly all the tobacco farmers of the Chesapeake Bay will be gone. Tobacco is not a sustainable plant to grow continually, but the mindset of these southern farmers is that of getting as much as you can out of a short amount of time. If farmers remembered to rotate crops, growing a different plant every year, this problem would not be as prevalent.
I left Joseph’s farm with an impending sense of despair. These farms are not going to be profitable forever, and with prices of tobacco going down, the livelihood of these farm families is in jeopardy. I decided to go to a different farm, because something is holding the southern economy together, and if it isn’t tobacco, then what else could it be?
Rice plantations are found almost exclusively in small areas in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida(4). William Cooper is a rice farmer in South Carolina, living relatively not too far from Munn, but his farm seems like a whole different world of agriculture. Rice requires substantial amounts of water, so the usual long rows of tall leafy plants is replaced by waterlogged soil with small clumps of grass barely peeking over the water line. The first thing you would notice about Cooper’s farm was the number of slaves. Munn had 5 slaves, a high amount for his area, but Cooper had at least 10, and the work looked much harder than what Munn was doing. The crop is harvested by a person bending down to the small plants and cutting the tops off with a knife. This work would be nearly impossible without slaves. “It is hard work, that’s why I don’t do it” Cooper says with a chuckle, “It takes a long time to grow, about 9 months, and I’m not letting any of it go to waste. I need them to plant it and harvest it. I can make sure the water is flowing, that’s the thinking part”. Cooper’s farm is in a swamp, which allows for the water necessary for the rice to grow, but can cause issues when there is substantial rain. “Here’s the thing, rice doesn’t sell as much per pound as tobacco, but we make more pounds, because we can make other people do work. Most tobacco farmers I know, they don’t have any slaves, that must be tough, but, I mean, we were blessed with some slaves who know what they’re doing. They’re obedient. None of them want to leave, they love working the rice.” Cooper showed me where his slaves live, in a shack on the wet marshes surrounding the swamp. He has 12 slaves total. They each are given their own small bed, with a small mattress made out of straw. Compared to other plantations I’ve seen, this is a luxury. “The women sow the ground and pound the rice, and the men harvest it. It’s a simple art, once you know how to do it, but there aren’t a lot of rice farmers, which gives us quite a good pay.” England doesn’t have nearly as heavy a rice industry, leaving America to take the reins of the trade. Compared to tobacco, rice is slightly more profitable as a whole, but requires more preliminary work and more investment in slaves. Cooper explained to me that he has never met a rice farmer who didn’t have at least 2 slaves. Slavery is another cornerstone of the southern economy. The art of rice farming is difficult, leading to very few farmers, and therefore, high pay for American grown rice. But the southern economy can’t possibly rely on a crop that is grown in such small areas.
It seems to me that each of these plants have major drawbacks, but together, all these plants form a fairly stable southern economy. Let me note that all of these plants sell very well, the south is known for the amazing status of the goods they trade, but what’s worrying is the decline of these plants. Tobacco, rice, and sugar are all heavily traded both north and in Britain, but what the South needs is a plant to compete with the growing northern factories. A plant that doesn’t destroy the land like tobacco, grows quickly (unlike rice), and it needs to be in a growing rather than shrinking industry. With Britain now exporting many goods at fractions of the cost of their american counterparts, the South needs a product that they can make the best. Hopefully, one of these crops will appear in the coming years, so farming farmers like Munn and Cooper can keep doing what they’ve always done.
Thank you for reading,
- Brinkley, Alan. Unfinished Nation. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print, 267-272.