World War II transformed Arkansas agriculture. The combination of increasing demand and rising prices for farm products, alternative job opportunities, and increasing use of technology changed the nature of farming in a generation. In 1940, tenants or sharecroppers cultivated more than sixty percent of the land, and more than ninety percent of farmers used horses or mules as draft animals. By 1964, the statistical importance of tenant-sharecroppers, and the number of horses and mules, had been reduced to the point that federal officials no longer collected data on them. The significance of the changes lay in the speed in which they occurred. Cotton had been the state's bellwether crop, but by the end of the war, rice and soybeans appeared and quickly won a loyal following. After a few years, most farmers were convinced that the relative ease of producing soybeans made it the crop for the future. Rice, too, because of its greater economic return, found increasing favor in the Delta. Most farmers were willing to make long-term commitments to these crops even though it meant acquiring new equipment.
The new equipment came primarily in the form of tractors and improved planting and harvesting machines. Tractors, although making an appearance in the Delta soon after World War I, were at first impractical due to poor design, high cost, and the dominance of small-scale sharecropping and tenant farming in the state. However, World War II brought dramatic changes in the area of farm equipment. Not only did technologies developed in the war greatly improve the machines and reduce their costs, the mass migration of rural Arkansans to defense plants in regional towns reduced the number of farms and increased the size of farming units. Using money saved from wartime prosperity, farmers were poised in the postwar period to buy machinery and land to expand their operations. When many of the small farmers did not return to the land after the war ended, as they had following World War I, landowners were forced to rely on machinery even more. Rice and soybeans incorporated into this new order since the same harvester could be used for both crops with only limited modifications. A new age in Arkansas agriculture had begun and was reflected in changing land and cropping practices.
In 1940, Delta counties cultivated only 153,000 acres of rice and 176,000 acres of soybeans, compared with 1.2 million acres of cotton; those figures changed dramatically in the next twenty years. Reasons are complex, but the Delta's geography is among them. The new agriculture could not have developed without significantly altering the area's two most significant features – trees and wetlands. These natural barriers confounded Americans for more than 100 years after the first farmers arrived in the 1820s. With limited tools and technology, they were at a disadvantage when taking on the swamps and forest. As late as 1940, more than half of the Delta was undeveloped.
Some effort had been made at ditching and draining the Delta's wet spots before World War II, but inadequate equipment limited the efforts. Before the war, cotton's low tolerance for heavy, wet soil presented farmers a challenge in maneuvering their fields amid the forest and finding elevation high enough to avoid overflow. By World War II, most of the acceptable cotton land was in cultivation. Cotton acreage continued to increase until 1955, but the growth was much smaller compared with that of rice and soybeans, and farmers focused on those crops. The new crops were aided in part by new technology, which made it possible to drain and dredge swampland. Wartime technologies produced giant, self-propelled, rubber-tired scrapers that could transport fourteen cubic yards of dirt, and they were highly mobile. This equipment made it possible to bring new land into cultivation, ideal for rice and soybeans but not cotton.
Other technologies aided farmers in altering the Delta landscape. Refinements in the torque converter and power shift transmission, when applied to a tractor equipped with cutting blades and tree pushers, allowed one man to clear more trees in a day than a family could in a lifetime using traditional means. For a time in the 1950s and 1960s, timber removal in the Delta became a full-time business. From 1940 to 1978, about 2.5 million acres of forest were cleared and most of that land was brought into cultivation. In previous years, much of the timber had been cut for lumber, but after World War II, the normal practice was to push the downed trees into rows and burn them.
The rapid and extensive disappearance of the hardwoods in eastern Arkansas created controversy. Game and fish enthusiasts and environmentalists worried that clearing for crops would despoil the region. Critics of the clearing practices noted that the hardwood environment provided a unique habitat for certain animals and feared that those species would be lost. Years of public debate and meetings led to a compromise in the 1970s that balanced agricultural and non-agricultural interests. Public policy was equally important in shaping agriculture in eastern Arkansas. In 1954, Congress passed the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, designed "to improve land already cleared for either crops or pasture" by channeling and damming streams that were prone to flood. In the next fifteen years, twelve watershed districts were formed; eleven were in the Delta.
The eleven flood-control projects resulted in more than 400 miles of stream channelization and brought 4.7 million acres into drainage districts. After 1970, federal officials modified the program and took steps to limit the acreage being developed for agriculture. But by that time the Delta's 4.4 million acres in forestland had been reduced to 1.8 million acres and half of the original 7.7 million acres of swampland were in drainage districts.
There was a correlation between clearing and drainage projects and an increase in soybean and rice production. These crops brought diversification to the Delta's agricultural practices that generations of spokesmen had only dreamed about. Soybeans, the more versatile of the two, gained in popularity over rice. Beans became the crop choice for Delta farmers a decade after the war. In 1945, about 4.5 acres of cotton were planted for each acre of soybeans; by 1955, acreage of the two crops was almost equal, and by 1960, there were more than six acres of soybeans per acre of cotton. Part of this change was a reflection of market conditions, but more significant was that soybeans were better adapted to Delta soil – particularly the newly cleared timberlands along the swamps and bayous.
An unanticipated argument for growing soybeans came in the early 1960s when the environmental movement began calling attention to the impact pesticides and herbicides were having on plant and animal life. Requiring fewer "additives" than rice or cotton, soybeans could be produced more cheaply and were more environmentally safe. Being an important source of protein, the bean was also viewed by some as a suitable alternative to meat products while being more compatible with existing ecosystems.
Public policy also influenced the shift from cotton to soybeans. The federal Farm Bill of 1956 instituted a new plan for cotton producers. The traditional price support was continued, but to qualify for a subsidy, farmers had to take a designated amount of cotton acreage out of production. Policymakers conceived this "soil bank" program as a way to reduce surpluses in cotton and other commodities. To some extent, it worked, but a more significant outgrowth of the policy was the acceleration of soybean production. Farmers, faced with limits on cotton, turned to soybean production with a passion; market prices were high through most the 1960s and 1970s.
Similar forces were at work to spur an increase in rice acreage. Once thought to be unique to the Grand Prairie, success came for rice farmers in the new drainage districts. Also, initially exempt from acreage controls, rice provided a good alternative to cotton farmers in the same way soybeans had. By the 1970s, Arkansas consistently led the nation in rice production.
High prices and the availability of newly developed land led to a boom in Delta agriculture in the 1970s. Opportunities for quick profits attracted a variety of new farmers and non-farm investors; many were unfamiliar and unconcerned with traditional cropping practices. They approached farming strictly as a business enterprise, and their entry quickly drove up land prices. The boom peaked in 1982, when the average price in the state reached $1,095 per acre. Some Delta land, already cleared and drained, brought $2,500 per acre.
A final public policy issue that contributed to the agricultural revolution in east Arkansas had to do with labor relations. The need for workers in wartime industries drained rural Arkansas of farm workers in the 1940s. By 1943, the nation faced a critical labor shortage and turned to Mexico for workers. The Bracero Program brought thousands of immigrants to the fields and orchards of the United States. When most domestic workers did not return to rural America after the war, a treaty between the United States and Mexico formalized the plan. From 1948 to 1964, Mexican day laborers filled a vital need for field hands in the Delta.
Agriculture in western Arkansas experienced a different type of revolution after the war. Unable to meet the competition offered by their east Arkansas neighbors, hill country farmers turned from grain and row crops to poultry, livestock, and timber. Laws favorable to small-business development encouraged partnerships between poultry growers and processors and a redevelopment of land use. Fields that once grew cotton and corn now housed structures for thousands of chickens. Farmers provided land and labor while processors offered chickens, feed, and a contract to buy the products. Many farmers applied chicken manure to reenergize pastureland for livestock.
Beef cattle became an increasing part of the rural scene in the counties west of Little Rock after World War II. Prior to that time, few landowners raised cattle exclusively, although most homesteads had a few head of livestock, including milch cows. The state's climate did not favor the beef industry. Extreme heat and humidity of the summer months and parasites such as ticks, mosquitoes, and screw worms presented serious challenges to cattle. Most ranchers did not engage in scientific breeding to improve herd quality, and a high percentage of their animals lived on open range. However, cattle raising changed dramatically after the mid-1950s when New York transplant Winthrop Rockefeller arrived in Arkansas. One of his first actions was to introduce Santa Gertrudis cattle in the state, a breed specifically developed in south Texas to thrive in the region's hot weather and multiple pests. Not only did Rockefeller import new cattle, he also started a scientific breeding program that included an annual bull sale featuring prize-winning animals. In short order, other cattlemen began their own "experiments" in raising blooded stock and improving their off-spring through genetic breeding. By the twenty-first century, about sixty percent of Arkansas farmers raised cattle. Typically, the cattle operations were on family farms. According to industry records, the average herd size in 2005 was thirty head, and eighty percent of the approximately 30,000 cattle farms in the state had fewer than fifty head of livestock.
Dairying also experienced dramatic changes in the post-World War II period. Throughout the nineteenth century, landowners concentrated on draft animals, horses, mules, and oxen, with only a passing interest in dairy or beef animals. Before sharecropping and tenant farming became the dominant cropping pattern, most farmers owned a milch cow, and most towns of even a few hundred people were served by at least one dairy. Breeds such as Jersey and Guernsey were more valued for the high butterfat in their milk, but as with beef animals, little attention was given to scientific breeding. Growing urbanization in the twentieth century, changes in technology, and knowledge about transmitting disease through raw milk brought many changes to the dairy industry. The extension of electrical power to rural areas, beginning in the 1930s, also affected dairy farmers. Mechanical milking machines, new techniques in pasteurization, homogenization, and refrigeration – coupled with improved transportation – brought modernity to the industry. As with row cropping, however, increased technology brought increased investment costs and greater capitalization. By the twenty-first century, family farm dairying had largely disappeared. By the early part of the twenty-first century, Arkansas had just over 40,000 dairy cattle and 420 dairy farms.
In other areas, particularly the Coastal Plain, farmers converted cropland to timber farms. The building boom that began at the end of World War II and continued with the baby boom into the 1960s accelerated the need for lumber and its by-products. Farmers now found it more profitable to grow trees on land that had been used for cotton and corn.
By the mid-1980s, the state's agricultural revolution was largely complete. Single crop, hand-labor production had been replaced by diversification, mechanization, and chemical and biological practices. As historian Gilbert Fite noted, farmers became a new minority in many regions of the nation, and that was particularly true in eastern Arkansas. But after World War II, most Arkansas farmers were also a new elite. Costs of machines, land, and "inputs" had forced out all but the most skilled and daring farmers. Heavily capitalized, with access to thousands, sometime millions, of dollars, these farmers were products of an agribusiness system. But even modernization did not remove the risks. In relative terms, the new agriculturists were in no better economic position than their traditional forebears. Greater investments meant higher risks, and between 1985 and 1995, more than 11,000 farmers left the Delta, victims of debt, low prices, and bankruptcy. Less pronounced but still significant was the number of upland farmers hit by similar forces. Between 1935 – when farms reached an all-time high of more than 235,000 units – and 1995, the number dropped steadily before leveling off to just under 50,000 farms.
One of the most significant changes in Arkansas agriculture came in social relationships. Altering the landscape – whether clearing forests, draining swamps, channeling streams, or replacing cotton with rice and soybeans or chicken houses and cattle – transformed the rural culture. Ironically, while millions of acres were being brought into cultivation, thousands of people were leaving the land. The way of life that had sustained them for generations was rapidly dying. Not only was their occupation gone, but also was the land that served as a source for food, fuel, and leisure.
As the demographic shifts occurred, rural Arkansas developed pockets of settlement occupied by people without land and dependent on a day wage. They were particularly susceptible to the cyclical fluctuations of prosperity and recession and progressively lost economic control of their lives. Without regular incomes, they became dependent on public housing and food subsidies and spent an extended amount of time unemployed, even as landowners hired migrant workers from Mexico as day laborers. These former sharecroppers and tenant farmers were not the source of the new agriculture but rather were reflective of its change.
Even those farmers who remained on the land faced greater uncertainty than ever before. Criticized by sportsmen and environmentalists for misusing the land, polluting streams, and altering habitat for wildlife, Arkansas farmers have increasingly lost debates on public policy issues involving their industry. Conflict with non-farm groups reached a climax in the 1996 Federal Farm Bill, which defined environmentally sensitive land and restricted farming practices in what was termed "wetlands." In addition to policy regulations, farmers also faced constraints from resource depletion. In many areas of the state, ground water has been depleted at a rapid rate, and rice farmers, in particular, face difficult choices between replenishing the aquifer and impounding surface water – or even leaving farming. Despite repeated efforts since 1948 at both state and federal levels to adopt a water use policy, little progress has been made. How the water issue is decided may well determine Arkansas agriculture for the twenty-first century.
Text courtesy the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.