Sharecropping was a system of agriculture instituted in the American South in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It essentially replaced the plantation system which had existed, with slave labor, in the years before the war.
In sharecropping, a poor farmer who did not own land would work a plot belonging to a landowner. The farmer would receive a share of the harvest as payment.
Generally speaking, sharecropping doomed freed slaves to a life of poverty.
Beginning of the Sharecropping System
Following the elimination of slavery, the plantation system in the South could no longer exist. Landowners, such as cotton planters who had owned vast plantations, had to face a new economic reality. They may have owned vast amounts of land, but they did not have the labor to work it, and they did not have the money to hire farm workers.
The millions of freed slaves also had to face a new way of life. Though freed from bondage, they had to cope with numerous problems in the post-slavery economy.
Many freed slaves were illiterate, and all they knew was farm work. And they were unfamiliar with the concept of working for wages.
Indeed, with freedom, many former slaves aspired to become independent farmers owning land. And such aspirations were fueled by rumors that the U.S. government would help them get a start as farmers with a promise of "forty acres and a mule."
In reality, former slaves were seldom able to establish themselves as independent farmers. And as plantation owners broke up their estates into smaller farms, many former slaves became sharecroppers on the land of their former masters.
How Sharecropping Worked
In a typical situation, a landowner would supply a farmer and his family with a house, which may have been a shack previously used as a slave cabin.
The landowner would also supply seeds, farming tools, and other necessary materials. The cost of such items would later be deducted from anything the farmer earned.
Much of the farming done as sharecropping was essentially the same type of labor-intensive cotton farming which had been done under slavery.
At harvest time, the crop was taken by the landowner to market and sold. From the money received, the landowner would first deduct the cost of seeds and any other supplies.
The proceeds of what was left would be split between the landowner and the farmer. In a typical scenario the farmer would receive half, though sometimes the share given to the farmer would be less.
In such a situation, the farmer, or sharecropper, was essentially powerless. And if the harvest was bad, the sharecropper could actually wind up in debt to the landowner.
Such debts were virtually impossible to overcome, so sharecropping often created situations where farmers were locked into a life of poverty.
Some sharecroppers, if they had successful harvests and managed to accumulate enough cash, could become tenant farmers, which was considered a higher status. A tenant farmer rented land from a landowner, and had more control over how the management of his farming. However, tenant farmers also tended to be mired in poverty.
Economic Effects of Sharecropping
While the sharecropping system arose from the devastation following the Civil War, and was a response to an urgent situation, it became a permanent situation in the South. And over the span of decades it was not beneficial for southern agriculture.
One negative effect of sharecropping was that it tended to create a one-crop economy. Landowners tended to want sharecroppers to plant and harvest cotton, as that was the crop with the most value, and the lack of crop rotation tended to exhaust the soil.
There were also severe economic problems as the price of cotton fluctuated. Very good profits could be made in cotton if the conditions and weather were favorable. But it tended to be speculative.
By the end of the 19th century, the price of cotton had dropped considerably. In 1866 cotton prices were in the range of 43 cents a pound, and by the 1880s and 1890s it never went above 10 cents a pound.
At the same time that the price of cotton was dropping, farms in the South were being carved up into smaller and smaller plots. All these conditions contributed to an widespread poverty.
And for most freed slaves, the system of sharecropping and the resulting poverty meant their dream of operating their own farm could never be achieved.