Strange Cotton

Weighing cotton2Southern trees bear a strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. – Abel Meeropol (1936)

My momma was raised in the era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself… / I see the blood on the leaves. –Kayne West (2013)

Our political consciousness gestates early enough, perhaps in a rudimentary fashion as far back as the womb, but certainly on the playground and at the dinner table, daddy or mommy haranguing some politico. On the other hand, we also never really make it there. A 90-something I know, nodding out her window, copped to asking herself, Am I ever gonna figure that out?

Along the way there are revelations, some more trap doors than epiphanies. We learn history is both contingent and unexpectedly accumulative—shit happens in a growing pile—even as the pathways along which any set of circumstances converges aren’t always clear.

How, for instance, did agribusiness become so powerful and in quite that way? It is as if one day we wake to find—like Old Man of the Mountain, a granite formation on Cannon Mountain—there agribusiness is, jutting its stone chin out daring any punch or poke.


How far, then, do we need to go back for a beginning?

Craig McCalin takes us 100 million years ago to the Cretaceous. A tropical sea covered much of what is now the southern United States. The sea’s coastline proved rich in plankton, whose carbonate skeletons accumulated as alkaline and porous chalk, enriching soils across what later became the most productive cotton counties of antebellum Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

The counties—the Black Belt by both soil and population—also hosted the greatest concentrations in slaves along that ancient shoreline. Black majorities persist today, marking a swoop of 2012 Barack Obama victories across a swatch of Romney Red.

Walter Johnson suggests a number of other foundational holdovers in River of Dark Dreams, one of the year’s best books.

By purchase and by violence the United States folded in hundreds of millions of acres upriver of New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson imagined his 1803 Louisiana Purchase—rolling over French conquest—two ways. At one and the same time it was a means to a republic of yeomen farmers free of capital’s taint and a sink to which millions of potentially insurrectionist Upper South slaves, capital embodied, could be dispersed and defused,

Between 1820 and 1860 as many as a million people were sold “down the river” through an internal slave trade, which, in addition to the downriver trade, included a coastal trade (Norfolk to New Orleans, for instance) and an overland trade (Fayetteville, North Carolina to Florence, Alabama, for instance). Their relocation and reassignment to the cultivation of cotton—the leading sector of the emergent global economy of the first half of the nineteenth century—gave new life to slavery in the United States.

The American ethos, once afraid of slave insurrection, now standing its ground one dead black teen at a time, incubated within whites’ visceral terror of revolutionary Haiti.

Slavery’s spatial fix along the Mississippi proved more than a projection of imperial might or an economic reorganization, however. It represented ecology’s unprecedented transformation into manifest economy,

Most of the cotton picked by [Mississippi] Valley slaves was Petit Gulf (Gossypium barbadense), a hybrid strain developed in Rodney, Mississippi, patented in 1820, and prized for its “pickability.” The hegemony of this single plant over the landscape of the Cotton Kingdom produced both a radical simplification of nature and a radical simplification of human being: the reduction of landscape to cotton plantation and of human being to “hand.” Cotton mono-cropping stripped the land of vegetation, leached out its fertility, and rendered one of the richest agricultural regions of the earth dependent on upriver trade for food.

This strange cotton—resembling its natural ancestor as a Chihuahua a wolf—emerged out of an idiosyncratic convergence of slavery, ecology, crop cycles, and global markets and trade,

The “cotton market”…was in actual fact a network of material connections that stretched from Mississippi and Louisiana to Manhattan and Lowell to Manchester and Liverpool. The economic space of the cotton market was defined by a set of standard measures—hands, pounds, lashes, bales, grades—that translated aspects of the process of production and sale into one another.

The unsustainable agroecosystem repeatedly produced its own material and conceptual crises, temporarily ‘solved’ only by the expedient crashes off of which other classes of confidence men—in transport or wildcat banking—profited,

[O]verinvestment in slaves [but not in their most basic victuals], overproduction of cotton, and overreliance on credit made Valley planters vulnerable to precisely the sort of crisis they experienced during the Depression of 1837. Cotton planting was extraordinarily capital intensive, and most of planters’ money was tied up in land slaves. For the money they needed to get through the year—for liquidity—they relied on [New Orleans and Northern] credit. And to get credit they had to plant cotton. Their situation—the fact that they were “overaccumulated” in a single sector of the economy—was expressed in the antebellum commonplace [that planters]…”care for nothing but to buy Negroes to plant cotton & raise cotton to buy Negroes.”

As capital gushed into cotton, the Southern economy’s leading sop, its returns diminished. Slaveholders weren’t able to liquidate for an easy exit, however. Even slaves treated like draft animals—with whole families sold off separately—proved too much of a structural drag.

So Jeffersonian expansionism represented the only way out. New land, new soil, and new slave sinks. First west and then south. The abolitionist movement, then, wasn’t merely a metaphysical contretemps, but an existential threat. When Kansas and California (and all points west) were blocked off, Johnson argues, the slaveholder ideologues—think Charles Murray in sideburns—turned to linking the Mississippi River to the Amazon by way of Cuba and Central America.

Johnson portrays William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibustering, Narcisco Lopez’s Cuban (mis)adventures, and the failed efforts at reopening the Atlantic slave trade as slavery’s efforts at its own foreign policy. Globalization or death! The Civil War would finish the job.

It wasn’t that the South’s mode of production wasn’t profitable, but as Ann Markusen explains, its relative growth couldn’t keep pace with Northeast-Midwest dynamism,

Cities like Baltimore and Louisville moved away from the southern fold as their manufacturing and commercial activities molded them increasingly in the image of northern cities. By the 1850s, it had become patently clear that if southern planters had not enjoyed disproportionate political power due to the three-fifths provision for each of their four million slaves, planter class national political power would have been broken.

And yet slavery’s agriculture didn’t die at the Battle of Columbus, the War’s last. A hundred and fifty years before cosmetic arsenic and oestradiol-17, Johnson’s economic ethnography intimates that many of agribusiness’ key innovations, in both technology and organization, originated in slavery.


How did the largest Mississippi Valley slaveholders get their land in the first place? Early U.S. intervention—by treaty and by carbine—suddenly opened millions of acres straddling the Mississippi to even the poorest farmers East, turning, Johnson writes, “Indian land into white farms and conquest into cultivation: empire into equality.”

But the richest gamed even such grotesque ideals.

Surveyors hired by the General Land Office subdivided the rolling landscape into 160-acre rectangles still visible from space (upper right here). The expropriation was couched as an intellectual necessity. The white race must bring order to nature by pseudoscientific principles now long abandoned, but atop which all subsequent rounds of rationalized landgrabbing, domestic and abroad, yesterday and today, were churned.

In an effort to actualize Jefferson’s idealized yeoman, cultivators who ‘improved’ the land in the gap between surveying and selling were permitted their plot at a minimal price (at the risk that if the land wasn’t bought within a year the feds would foreclose on the now improved land).

As in post-Soviet Russia and now China, the danger produced a market in which the poorest farmers unable to make the year payment sold off their claims before the official auction. In this way the richest farmers snatched up (and combined) the best lands along tributaries or outside towns.

The wealthiest were also the only ones with enough cheap labor—poor whites and black slaves—to best improve holdings for price subsidies, making “a mockery of the equivalence of land and labor upon which the law was based.”


So latifundium cotton came a-callin’.

As much as today’s big-breast chickens, Petit Gulf’s attributes were as much economic as biological. While its long fibers were best for textiles, Johnson writes, the size and shape of the plant was selected for their “pickability,” for slave picker productivity, gripping and pulling off 200+ pounds in boll a day.

Indeed, slaveholders, melding land and labor, calculated the cotton production line in terms of bales per hand. The slaves themselves were labeled “hands”—nursing mothers “half hands,” children “quarter hands”—

Measuring crops and slaves “to the hand” was an ecological as well as an economic measure—an attempt to regulate the exchange between slaves and soil by prescribing benchmark measures for the process by which human capacity and earthly fertility were metabolized into capital.

The quality of soil was transubstantiated into a narrow annual metric—yield per acre. The measures together produced a logistics matrix familiar to many an MBA candidate,

Would their cotton bloom early and full enough to keep their hands busy through the picking season? Would there be hands enough to tend all the acres they had planted, or would their cotton end up choked in grass and blown away by the wind before it could be picked?

The answers were found in part in the innovations slaveholders developed in labor management, many since held over to this day.

When overseers atop horseback or Mistress in the Big House spotted transgressions, discipline was scaled by kinds of ‘error.’ We’re talking here the lash, of course, but the workplace panopticon, backed by gradated punishment and humiliation, assured labor was working in the right place and the right time, a critical convergence for exploitative productivity.

“Twenty-five [lashes]…,” former slave Solomon Northup, his life story now a movie, remembered,

when a dry leaf or piece of boll is found in the cotton, or when a branch is broken in the field; fifty is the ordinary penalty following all the delinquencies of the next higher grade; one hundred is called severe: it is the punishment inflicted for the serious offense of standing idle in the field.

As today, the work itself was its own discipline, the danger and damage their own message. When an immigrant meat packer loses her hand, the expectation the line is restarted promptly is more than code for the replaceability of any of the other workers, but that each is as much a side of beef as the meat he or she is prepping. Johnson reports it’s an equivalence slaveholders routinely made explicit.

Slavery’s discipline originated as much off-plantation. Johnson quotes Northup that “a slave never approached the gin house with his basket of cotton but with fear.” If the cotton quotas proved short, he or she would suffer the ‘appropriately’ scaled lashing, what Johnson identifies as a metric of production,

The grading of cotton introduced the standards of exchange [from Lowell and Manchester] into the calculus of labor discipline in Louisiana, for quality depended on how quickly and carefully a crop was picked and processed…

In the other direction, off the agricultural site, anyone caught helping a slave flee his master suffered severe punishment alongside the slave. Today ag-gag laws recently passed or pending in sixteen U.S. states against filming animal abuses on factory farms—but tellingly never workers’ abuse–in effect extend factory rules to the general population.


As Iowa can attest today, despite all the fevered production and with some of the world’s richest soil, the Lower Mississippi Valley couldn’t feed itself. The Valley produced a single crop for export. Johnson reports wheat, corn, beef and corn were imported from the Midwest.

Some ‘enlightened’ slaveholders—Michael Pollan in a string tie—lamented an ecologically integrated slavery that would heal the metabolic rift between soil and economy. Some of these ‘progressives’ grew corn to feed plantation cattle and pigs, but as today, fierce competition for land, especially during economic crises, routinely put a premium on the moneymaker.

Slaves meanwhile bore the severest costs of efforts at controlling food imports. “One bushel of potatoes,” Johnson quotes the Cotton Planter’s Manual,

or ten qts. corn meal, or eight qts. of rice, and four qts. of peas, with occasional fresh meat, and twenty barrels of salt fish and two barrels of molasses during the year. Number of people 170.

The stores provided depended more on cost margins than on slave nutrition. Food, after all, also proved excellent discipline and many slaveholders kept close watch on the calories their slaves consumed, walking the fine lines between malnutrition, labor reproduction and insurrection.

Indeed, Johnson writes, growing inedible cotton proved a part of the carceral infrastructure, although unbeknownst to the cruelest owners, forcing slaves to self-provision off-plantation permitted slaves looking for food in the nearby woods to discover, perhaps, a means of escape.

The more ‘liberal’ slaveholders—think the Daryl and Melinda Gates Foundation—saw imported beef in terms of lost soil manure than food for slaves. Although those that attempted locally sourced cattle lost their shit, so to speak, when slaves stole cattle feed to supplement their own diets, as if stealing from slave masters who starve (and enslave) them were a crime.

Other slaveholders tried to vertically integrate their operations feeding their slaves cotton seed oil, which, Johnson quotes fugitive slave John Brown, caused slaves to break out in running sores.

Progressive myopia proved pervasive. Johnson writes M.W. Phillips—as if Dave Quammen with a bushier beard—argued against the ongoing ecological catastrophe of the cotton plantation, but solely within its perverse economy, tallying energy outflows and stock fertilities, including of his own slaves, as if their children were his own,

Phillips [thinking of the sustainability of the system] was arguing that the slaveholding South needed to slow the rate at which it was converting human beings into cotton plants. He wanted to adjust the metabolism of social anthropophagy.

Left to right, slavery became its own presupposition, turning its hideous compulsions into eschatological necessity. “The African,” wrote the notorious Samuel Cartwright, around dispatches on drapetomania and spirometer readings, “will starve rather than engage in a regular system of agricultural labor, unless compelled by the stronger will of the white man.”

No mere recapitulation of racist phylogenies dating back to Cuvier and Buffon. To Johnson, the metaphysics here, drawing repeatedly from farming and animal husbandry, is ecological in origin,

The agricultural order of the landscape, the standing order of slavery, the natural order of the races, and the divine order of earthly dominion were not separable…they were fractal aspects of one another.

Save for the small issue of the murders of millions of Africans in and after the Middle Passage, this would seem all P.G. Wodehouse if only for the fact that many important advances in cotton production and implementation, including seed selection, cotton grading, and perhaps even Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, were invented by black slaves, whose ideas the slaveholders claimed for their own (an appropriation Paula Deen’s antebellum party reminds us extends to the heart of the South’s cuisine).

Johnson relays Frederick Law Olmsted’s observation that

there is always on hand…some Negro who really manages his owner’s plantation, his agricultural judgment being deferred to as superior to that of any overseer or planter in the country.

As a result, Johnson writes, we’re left with the slaveholder’s contradiction,

between not knowing and claiming knowledge expressed along the juncture of the unfathomable and the incomprehensible, the lived experience of slaves and the efforts of planters to explain what they themselves only half knew. And so the masters of the Cotton Kingdom left behind barely readable “explanations” of the very basis of their prosperity.


Expertise—real or pretend—can’t protect an ecological system built on growing money first.

Johnson describes how genetic homogenization and intensive production exposed antebellum cotton to the kinds of rusts, rots and worms that continue to plague monocrops and GMOs.

The short time horizon imposed by debt payments meanwhile induced slaveholders to plant cotton along the east-west axis to maximize sun exposure, regardless of the pitch of the field, draining underlying water tables only 10-15 years after clearing. As today, the water that was used in so short an order helped slough off topsoil into the river.

In carrying cotton the mighty steamboats, on which Johnson’s writing approaches the miraculous, ate away at their own success. Riparian forests were cleared for fuel, eroding banks, making the river meander more, and dumping larger keel-ripping obstacles in its flow. With so many boats on the water, competing for hauls in just about every tributary of any draft, companies installed high-pressure boilers to propel boats faster, over sandbars, and against the clock. They were also more likely to explode.

Johnson’s super here at connecting such structural failures to exploitation’s grand narrative. The death and destruction were chiseled into the cultural foundation,

Steam power became, in these accounts, a sort of alibi for imperialism and dispossession: a deus ex machina that shifted the terrain of conquest to a scale of action beyond politics and war—a literary conceit that acquired a terrible historical correlative when the steamboat Monmouth, packed with Creek Indians being forced out of their homeland, exploded about twenty miles north of Baton Rouge, killing hundreds of those aboard. The steamboat sublime took expropriation and extermination and renamed them “time” and “technology.”

Perhaps the central clusterfuck, however, is the way global circuits of capital entrained slave agriculture. Johnson cuts through talk whether slavery was capitalist by switching directions: 19th century capitalism could exist only by virtue of American slavery. Labor at so little cost, for one, undercut wages everywhere else, including strenuously abolitionist countries in Europe.

There were other mechanisms.

In leaning on loans from New Orleans and eventually New York, King Cotton abdicated control. To the South’s chagrin, planters shipped to pay off debts first, making New York, and its banks, the leading port out to Liverpool and Manchester: “distance was measured not in miles, but in dollars.”

The debt cycle dictated agriculture for capital turnover rather than food or linens (much less sustainability). Virtual crops—annual debt payments, some packaged into derivatives—trumped actual crops on which they were based, including in advance of a planting,

Capital entered the Mississippi Valley in the winter months, when cotton was sold. As the crop came to market in New Orleans, cotton merchants—who were often agents of merchant banks based in New York or Liverpool…–provided advances against its eventual sale. In return for lending the factors (and thus the planters) money during the time the crops was traveling to market, these cotton merchants and their merchant-banker backers received the right to sell it on a consignment basis, thus earning the commission and perhaps, in the case of some of the larger firms, the right to ship it aboard their own ships.

Capital also flowed in as advances and futures, the investment in which provided planters liquidity to pay for supplies and services during the year. While smoothing out the spatiotemporal bumps in available cash, it also pushed risk toward the production end and separated finances from the source commodity backing it.

That made the entire financial apparatus increasingly rickety, prone to bubbles and panics.


Indeed, Johnson describes, drought, pests, and the other risks natural to the planting cycle we discussed earlier, or rather ‘natural’ to this kind of cycle, suddenly punted many an indebted farmer into bankruptcy. Even a good crop might not be good enough if it wasn’t delivered on time to its creditors’ satisfaction.

In other words, Johnson continues, cotton turned from crop to commodity, with responsibilities—marketability, money valuation, and fungibility—above and beyond its material qualifications as a fabric source. Its fluctuating price across seasons and circumstances turned it into an object of market speculation. Side bets on the killing floor.

The übermarket placed many local factors in direct opposition to the planters they ostensibly serviced. Shippers and creditors trafficked in large volumes across multiple crops that like today’s bankers put them in the position of betting against (or flat out fleecing) their own customers, who were absent at the point at which their cotton was actually sold,

They would record sales at a lower rate in their books than they received in the market; or they would pay an extra quarter-cent on the pound on the first shipment of the season, only to deduct a half-cent on the rest once they had secured its promise. They might launder goods they owned themselves through third-party “sellers,” thus adding a commission to their own price, or might pass on a higher price for suppliers to a planter while receiving a kickback from the grocer. They would add a commission for negotiating loans upon which they were already charging interest…

Local moneybags were meanwhile under the gun themselves, short-selling one planter’s bales to pay the debts of another, for instance. Or by virtue of their own dependence on particular higher-order creditors, they were forced to sell in that direction than at the highest market price. A series of takeaways cotton suffered all the way up to New York and Liverpool.

Beholden to debt schedules and unscrupulous commissions, slaveholders referred to themselves as ‘slaves’ without a hint of irony. The low returns that resulted were meanwhile taken out on actual slaves, beaten for, well, obviously, failing to work hard enough to meet market demands. Or their very families were sold off separately to recoup slaveholders a bit of stopgap financing.

We see similar skeins across agricultural capital today:

Shuanghui International Holdings, China’s largest meat company, is finalizing buying Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the United States (and until recently a Paula Deen sponsor).

The deal has NGOs atwitter. Food & Water Watch issued a letter calling on the U.S. to reject Shuanghui’s purchase on the basis of “significant risks of a Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield to food security, consumer food prices, food safety, farm and rural economies in the United States and national security.”

Vijay Prashad labeled such critiques Sinophobic, embodying both capital retraction and liberal impotence in the face of corporate dominance at home,

Food & Water Watch acknowledges that Smithfield “is already the biggest, baddest bacon producer around, controlling about one third of the US pork supply, most of which is raised on factory farms.” Yet Food & Water Watch believes that it needs to stand up to “protect” the consumer from the big, bad Yellow Peril. No sense that the Committee on Foreign Investment [still to review the deal] is an arm of US foreign policy, having targeted Venezuela, the Gulf Arabs (Dubai Ports) and the Chinese alone. US liberals have a serious problem confusing anti-capitalism with xenophobia.

Helena Bottemiller’s reporting initially suggests that the Smithfield purchase might even make pork safer, “China bans ractopamine, a controversial growth-promoting drug that is widely used by U.S. livestock producers.” Except that production for export won’t fold in domestic meat,

The U.S. pork industry, which sold more than a quarter of its products abroad last year, is now creating separate ractopamine-free supply chains to gain greater access to overseas markets and meet the demands of both Russia and China.

Tom Philpott pushes back too that China is offshoring meat production to alleviate a trifecta of environmental risk. The country is suffering water shortages, a pollution peak, and a land crunch,

Reading these accounts—prime farmland abandoned and paved, aquifers sucked dry, water tables fouled—it makes perfect sense that a government-controlled company like Shuanghui would make a play for Smithfield, the globe’s largest pork producer. Underlining these trends, the Financial Times reported in June that the China’s “shift towards a greater reliance on food imports could have profound implications for global food markets because China’s total demand for grains is vast relative to the size of globally traded markets.”

All true, but production isn’t solely the purview of nation-states or even their chartered companies. ITAP’s Shefali Sharma splits the Gordian knot this way,

The Smithfield acquisition acutely brings home one—albeit overlooked—fact: it’s a globalized industry. Just look at Shuanghui’s shareholders: CDH Investment, Goldman Sachs, New Horizon Capital, Kerry Group, Temasek and its own management and employees. As Peter Fuhrman from China First Capital puts it, “A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in the Cayman Islands is.”

It’s a view shared by Chinese observers,

For columnist Deng Yuwen, the deal is “not an overseas acquisition by a Chinese corporation, but a consolidation of industry control and profits by international finance.”


The stirrings of such a Global Foods can be found in what was slavery’s economic space, which repeatedly strained at its national borders.

As abolitionism of a variety of forms—including poor whites’ racist objections to increasingly skilled slaves—encroached on slavery’s prerogative, slaveholders looked abroad for both new lands to set up shop and markets to supply.

The project puts a premium on a separate foreign policy beyond or, given recent U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, imposed upon official Washington D.C. that agribusiness pursues to this day. Cargill in Indonesia. Smithfield in Mexico. Monsanto in Africa. And in some cases, in this very day and age supporting child labor and slavery out in the open. White supremacy with a Delaware corporate charter.

In some sense, the arrangements reconcile a longstanding disagreement about the nature of profit between the likes of geographer David Harvey, who emphasize accumulation by dispossession, and traditional Marxists who focus on labor exploitation. As Manifest Destiny before it, imperialism signaled primitive accumulation by sea—killing off natives or rival countries’ slaveholders—what slavery’s labor extraction would complete by land.

In the other direction, if liberal abolitionism balked at slavery’s expansion—to Central America and the Caribbean, for instance—it wasn’t necessarily on moral grounds. British objections, Johnson notes, appeared a mask for undercutting American domination of the cotton market in favor of its nascent and British-dominated rivals in Egypt and India.

We see in U.S. slavery (and its descendents in agribusiness) a capacity for production, for gittin’ ‘er done, that emerges less in agricultural technicalities than in turning political power into exclusive access to what were previously other people’s resources.

Despite pious psalms to the free market, agricultural powerhouses succeed only by virtue of massive state intervention, whether making slavery the law of the land or pushing free trade agreements that trash domestic protections. Whatever their technical provenance, genetically modified crops have little to do with food and are but a means by which pesticide companies turn independent farmers into sharecroppers locked into patented production spirals.

From James D.B. DeBow’s K Street-ready ‘African Labor Supply Associates’ to William Walker’s Cornelius Vanderbilt-backed falanges and Bill Gates’s Monsanto-linked Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, adventurers aim at externalizing internal contradictions dragging on their social reproduction. All for the greater good, of course. Agribusiness penetrating markets abroad repeat the slaveholder’s declensionist fallacy that its system will reverse alleged shortfalls in production the system helped impose in the first place.

“Reopening the [Atlantic] slave trade,” Johnson paraphrases the slaveholder position,

would be the first cause in a chain of events that would transform untamed territory into productive land, redeem time with improvement, and thus trace out the natural course over space and time of the history of slavery (or, perhaps more accurately, history as slavery).

He may as well be relaying the USAID’s stance on GMOs in Kenya.


With slavery’s demise and the collapse in land values that followed, the Civil War depressed Southern assets to less than half their pre-war worth. “In reality,” Ann Markusen writes, echoing Vladimir Lenin’s American regionalism, “the major productive assets of the southern economy remained in place—land and a huge black agricultural labor force.”

Reconstruction’s efforts at radically altering the South’s political economy stumbled into delivering blacks (and the poorest whites) to segregated sharecropping and tenancy. White supremacy ruled administratively by day, by terror by night.

Debt devolved to individual smallholders. Slaveholder capital rolled over to local confederations, some of which would regionalize into conglomerates, including, after a series of mergers, some of today’s best known agricultural companies. The overdependence on cotton, and its ecological damage, continued. Advances in cultivation technology increased crop inequality. Smallholders abandoned farms in the thousands. The monocrop South, cultivating debt payments, remained unable to feed itself.

Monica Gisolfi traces the credit system backing King Cotton up through mid-20th century when, with the Great Depression, the crop lien was reappropriated to pay cotton planters to raise chickens,

Soon spring chickens or “fryers” that once ran about yards and were considered a seasonal crop were renamed “broilers” and were grown year-round in enclosed houses under tightly regulated conditions. What had been once the domain of women and children–who patched together makeshift chicken coops, read up on artificially heated incubators or “wooden hens,” and became devotees of the country agent and home demonstration service–became the domain of hatchery-men, feed-dealers, poultry growers, poultry processing plants, poultry integrators, poultry scientists, and national corporations.

John W. Tyson, the scion of what would become Tyson Foods, transported chickens to large Midwest markets from his Springdale, Arkansas base before vertically integrating chicks and feed.

The regime switch was as much based in relieving surplus capital in a strictly regulated period as in the ecology or the culinary,

[Creditors] advanced chicks and feed to farmers. By the time the United States entered World War II, merchants had laid the foundation of contract farming…By the 1950s poultry, once a sideline activity that buffered farmers against the whims of the cotton market, had become Georgia’s most important farm product. Georgians came to depend on chicken in the way that they and their ancestors had depended upon cotton, a dependence that begot poverty and indebtedness.

And the mode of production, despite New Deal intervention, remained largely unchanged,

By the late 1930s the demands of industrialized agriculture began to bear down on Upcountry farmers. They began to realize that they had traded one cash crop for another. In doing so, farmers had not escaped their creditors nor had they solved the problems associated with a one-crop system.

Once poultry replaced cotton as the dominant source of agricultural income, Gisolfi continues, the problems of intensive monocropping began to reappear. Rising integrators, increasingly contracting farmers to raise batches of chickens by a capital-led feed-conversion model, tried to enjoin backyard poultry in an attempt to keep their commercial flocks from being infected by circulating disease. It’s an alleged epizoology smallholders are repeatedly imputed to this day.

Solutions to problems became new problems. The manure poultry farmers thought they would finally be able to reintroduce into cotton-depleted soils, now polluted rivers and lakes, producing fishkills and disease outbreaks.

We see then, as Johnson’s exquisite book suggests, while Northern modernization mechanized agriculture—which by reaper and railroad fed Civil War troops in ways the South couldn’t—slavery’s legacy remains: labor extraction, state subsidies, breakneck ecology, and foreign intrigue.

On the other hand, however confounding even to a nonagenarian’s experience, legacies aren’t by definition cut in stone. Or perhaps they are. Carved by a receding glacier as far back as 8th century BC, the Old Man of the Mountain, which we alluded to along with agribusiness’ near-geological inevitability, collapsed one day in May 2003.

One Response to “Strange Cotton”

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