Seven Rules for Farmers

Following the end of the Civil War many former slaves became farmers through sharecropping.

In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping was one of few options for penniless freedmen to conduct subsistence farming and support themselves and their families. Other solutions included the crop-lien system (where the farmer was extended credit for seed and other supplies by the merchant), a rent labor system (where the former slave rents their land but keeps their entire crop), and the wage system (worker earns a fixed wage, but keeps none of their crop).

Sharecropping was by far the most economically efficient, as it provided incentives for workers to produce a bigger harvest. It was a stage beyond simple hired labor, because the sharecropper had an annual contract. During Reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau wrote and enforced the contracts.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands helped these newly freed slaves make the transition from slavery to full participation in American society but Congress killed all funding for it by June of 1872.

Lincoln’s premature death and the strong resistance in the south and many border states to open employment opportunities in the skilled trades to former slaves kept many of these people on farms and in poverty.

Most large plantations throughout the south had their own skilled workforce including highly skilled metal-smiths and carpenters.  When, as free men, these workers could not gain a position in their area of expertise they had no choice but to take up sharecropping to feed their family and keep shelter over head.  Share cropping continued well into the middle of the twentieth century.

Farm Security Administration Archive: Chopping Cotton Greene County Georga 1941, photo by Jack Delano

One of the African American newspapers, The Christian Reporter, included this set of rules to help new farmers manage their business.

Rules for Farmers

  1. The farmer ought to rise early, to see that others do so, and that both his example be followed and his orders obeyed.
  2. The whole farm should be regularly inspected, and not only every field examined, but every beast seen at least once a day.
  3. In a considerable farm it is of the utmost consequence to have hands specially appropriated for each of the most important departments of labor, for there is often a great loss of time where persons are frequently changing their employment’ s, and the work is not executed so well.
  4. Every means should be thought of to diminish labor or to increase its power. For instance, by proper management, five horses may do as much labor as six perform, according to the usual mode of employing them.
  5. A farmer ought never to engage in a work, whether of ordinary practice or intended improvement, except after the most careful inquires; but when begun, he ought to proceed in it with much attention and perseverance until he has given it a fair trial.
  6. It is a main object in management not to attempt too much, and never to begin a work without probability of being able to finish it in due season.
  7. Every farmer should have a book for inserting all those useful hints, which are so constantly occurring in conversation, in books, in papers, and gathered in the course of his reading, or in a practical management of his farm.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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