Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Federal Land Rancher: Sharecropping in the Modern World
An Emerging Moral Dilemma
The Federal Land Rancher
Sharecropping in the Modern World
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
The Civil War was fought for more than the moral disgust over enslavement of one human being over another, but that theme made it one of the preeminent battles for human rights in history. The matter was so important that every Constitutional Amendment after 1804 and before 1913 was dedicated in part or whole to the proposition that involuntary servitude and matters relating to such human subjugation would not be tolerated. After all, 600,000 Americans punctuated the rejection of that diabolic institution with their blood . . . and their lives.
The Second War
For the children of the ‘50s and ‘60s, one of the few history lessons taught about agriculture was the subject of sharecropping. The image of the practice was elevated into the American psyche during Reconstruction.
In rebuilding the South, freed slaves were faced with a problem. There was little manufacturing and the historical industries that drove the economy were associated with intensive labor requirements. Many historians claim that dilemma was played out in a second civil war in the fields and the woodlots of the South after 1865.
Data is slim, but by 1900 Georgia there were 27 million acres of farms of which eleven million were farmed by impoverished sharecropping families. The image of those black families was taught in history lessons. Sharecropping came to define the method of land lease that would eventually become a new form of slavery. It reflected the power of ownership wielded over the tenants in spite of the laws for their protection.
By 1910, the story we had been taught was not limited to black families. By then, at least half of those families were white.
Sharecropping is a very old relationship between ownership and labor that can be traced throughout history in many places. It came in a wide range of relationships. It was founded in traditions as well as laws and agreements. In America, it became a land lease form that was represented by academics, politicians, and societal observers as the new form of servitude.
Nearly universally, the practice either trapped families for generations or it forced outward migration. Economists insist it promoted low wages and restrictions on families to this day. Social psychologists have built a whole body of knowledge describing how the system was a major obstacle for those trapped families to realize social and political rights.
Inside the relationship
In West’s Legal Thesaurus/Dictionary by William Statsky, the definition is of sharecropping is “A tenant farmer who lives and works on the land of another . . . See also farm, farmer, servitude”.
Since “farm, farmer” definitions had no reference to “sharecropping”, servitude was reviewed and it tied to sharecropping as “the condition of being subjected to another person as a servant or slave.” Hence, by definition, sharecropper is relegated to trying to make a living on lands he does not own and his ownership relegates his plight to that of a conditional slave.
In post War relationships, ownership remained in the hands of mortgage holders or owners with some wealth. Capital was scarce and slave labor was no longer an option. The sharecroppers represented a method to retain the land, but, without strength of position or title, they were defenseless.
They were trapped. The ownership told the tenants what to plant, when to plant, and when to harvest. If there was a buyer who happened to come along, the tenant was of little matter in the transaction. Shorter tenure and uncertainty added to the fate of the families. They had little ability to work out of their circumstance.
The modern version of the system
Ironically, the system that federal lands ranchers find themselves in has more parallels to post Civil War sharecropping than should be imagined.
Like historical sharecropping, ownership dominion sets the stage for authority. If the federal agency owns the majority of the land within the administrative boundary of the ranch, that agency commands authority in decisions regarding stocking rates and management plans. Private land must conform to the plan. The federal government dictates all terms and conditions.
The sharecropper and the ranchers were and are encumbered in every enterprise adjustment. Their ability to create collateral was and is controlled by their landlord. The sharecropper could not increase acreage without consent. The federal lands rancher can’t adjust cattle numbers upward regardless of conditions. The sharecropper was probably the greatest culprit in the spread of the boll worm because he couldn’t afford the cost of timeliness in practices. The rancher can’t legally spray weeds or brush on federal lands without submitting to a process. The sharecropper couldn’t make any improvements unless he had his ownership’s blessing. A rancher can’t drill a well or build a reservoir on any of his land unless he seeks approval from the federal agency. He can’t build a fence without seeking approval.
The sharecropper had to seek approval from the owner to build a pen for his pigs to sell in town. Technically, the federal lands rancher is out of compliance with his contract if he has more horses in his corral than his contract states. He cannot convert cows and calves to a stocker operation unless he goes through a process. He cannot bring a sheep or a goat of any number onto the allotment to deal with a noxious weed. He can’t bring a dozer up to divert water off a road that is impacting the drainage and creating erosion unless an agency hydrologist is consulted.
The federal lands rancher cannot add water to the system unless he gets approval, and, with the current Environmental Quality Improvement Projects cannot benefit from any expanded operation regardless of the capital outlay he makes. The rancher is told outright by the agency and the powerful cooperating agent, the environmental movement, that livestock, cattle, are not an allowed beneficiary to the improvement. Those improvements are reserved only for wildlife!
An obvious question must be asked. Where in the American would a business be expected to participate or fund a project without allowances for the benefits to accrue to the core business?
The dark history of sharecropping was characterized by social ridicule that became synonymous with a once proud yeoman of the land. That characterization was perhaps over exaggerated in the work of the social behaviorists, but the long term negative affects are unarguable.
The implications are not just social. They relate to innovation and intellectual capital improvements. If there is any place in the world that innovation is essential it is on arid lands, but the federal lands rancher is so tightly constrained, the ability to capitalize so limited, and the regulations so expansive that innovation is largely stymied.
How big is the problem? Across the South, sharecropping farms totaled less than 40 million acres. The Federal government ownership in the West is more than ten times that. The trend in livestock productivity among the tenants relying on those lands is not good.
Similar to the post war South, outward migration is occurring among the new age sharecroppers. Cattle are leaving the West and migrating to lands where long term improvements can be mapped, capital can be raised, regulations can be limited, and conditions can be improved to support the growth of the industry. It is going where ownership is progressive enough to improve methodologies to enhance and improve the industry.
The sharecropper was not the subject of the constitutional amendments in the last half of the 19th Century. That was reserved for his predecessor, the slave. The laws that came from the great struggle were intended for the protection of the sovereignty of that subjugated being. American blood had been shed in the assumed victory for all human rights, and Congress elevated itself to serve as champion for those people along with the all other Americans.
Meanwhile, the successor, the American sharecropper, became the ongoing target of ridicule and vitriolic denunciation by a large segment of society. Did a champion really exist?
Like his counterpart, the modern sharecropper knows of no such advocate. He deals with an all powerful land owner, and that land owner controls nearly everything he does. Is the relationship as devitalizing as the post war system? Without answering that, a huge question looms. How can the land owner be the champion for its tenants? Most Westerners believe it is a contradiction . . . a contradiction of gigantic proportions.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Pick the correct answer . . . restriction of enterprise expansion, dearth of capital improvements, massive regulations, and open ridicule and vilification by the press and the left, or . . . production controlled by ownership, inputs converted to debt, crop cycles dictated by overseer, and objects of ridicule by the general public . . . which is the plight of the sharecropper, and . . . which is the federal lands rancher?