In Arkansas the fields are rarely white with snow, but they have been white with cotton now for the past two hundred years. That’s good. Snow melts. Cotton, on the other hand, has always had a way of turning into gold. Arkansas ranks third among cotton-growers in the United States, and in a multi-billion–dollar industry, that means a big boost for an Arkansas economy.
After the Civil War, Arkansas cotton farming faced new struggles as cotton prices plummeted. Much had changed. The land had been devastated and recovery was slow. Slavery had been eradicated, and former slaves were now free to scratch out their own living from the soil. But in reality that meant a new relationship with the plantation owner as either tenant or sharecropper. A tenant used a planter’s land for his own plantings in exchange for a percentage—as much as twenty-five percent—of his crop. A sharecropper not only used the landowner’s land but also his tools and seed and capital, for which he became indebted to the landowner until the crop made—if it made. In either case, the landowner who provided the opportunity also dominated the situation to his own advantage, and tenants and sharecroppers, white or black, often merely scraped out an existence rather than experiencing any personal Midas-touch effect from the cotton they picked.
Cotton did slowly recover, however, and Arkansas farmers grew to depend on it again. So when the devastating boll weevil decimated crops in the 1910’s and then the Great Depression hit in the late ’20s, cotton-gold turned to dust for everyone concerned. Prices dropped to a nickel a pound and hardly covered production costs. Tensions between tenant and landowner had always run high, but now desperation drove things to a new pass. Over the ten years or more of the Depression, thousands of Southern cotton-pickers left Delta fields to become Northern factory workers as industry prepared for a coming world war. That meant higher wages and better living conditions for many former Arkansans and a rapidly declining labor force for the cotton-growers who remained behind.
Who should come in to save the day but another product of industrialization: the mechanical cotton-picker. By the early 1950’s one man and one machine could do in a field of cotton what had formerly required scores of human hands. But by this time many farmers had replaced the former king with the increasingly lucrative crops of rice and soybeans, and those who continued to grow cotton diversified their crop-holdings to hedge against market drops in the fluffy white stuff of their grandfathers’ dreams.
All told, however, if cotton is no longer king in Arkansas, it is still in the royal family. Arkansas cotton production is still valued in the hundreds of millions, confirming cotton’s position as one of the chief moneymakers in the state. Cotton farming, of course, has become modernized and industrialized like most everything else in the state, with computerized cotton-pickers today taking in six rows at a time and ginning operations processing daily amounts that would have been incomprehensible to nineteenth-century growers. But regardless how it gets from seed to boll to gin to market, Arkansas cotton remains what it always has been for the Arkansas people: bounty in the fields, money in the pocket, and clothes on the back—for them and for a whole lot of other folks throughout the world besides.