A New South: The Boll-Weevil Era

I

Now that the boll-weevil army, which crossed the Rio Grande some twenty years ago, has reached the walls of the North Carolina mountains, and during its long march has changed the economic life of the entire Cotton Belt, the situation has become one of worldwide interest. So long as a material world insists upon taking thought as to how and wherewith it shall be clothed, the Cotton South and its problems will continue to excite universal attention. And now, with the Silent Army looting a round billion dollars in a season from the potential cotton crop, it begins to take high place in our national list of foes in our own household.

The boll weevil himself, being a mere insect, a wee small bug, and being gifted with instinct alone, has followed but a single line of action, one plan of campaign, in his long march from the Mexican border. His is essentially a singletrack mind. His one mission in these United States has been to reduce and, when possible, to eliminate cotton from the general scheme of things. The only side-line which attracts him at all seems to be ihe okra or gumbo of Southern kitchen-gardens, which, in the form of thick soup, once added considerably to the joy of living. No other crop of bill or plain, be it ever so tempting, moves him for a moment from his life-job.

I notice, however, a tendency among neighboring colored farmers, and some white ones as well, to attribute to the powerful ‘boll ebil,’ as the negros call him, all manner of sins and wickedness. In this respect they remind one much of the mountaineers in the remote coves of western North Carolina. There, if a chicken-house is robbed, a cow stolen, a mysterious fire started, or a roadside spring-house broken into, there is always present some lank son of the hills quick to lay the crime, be it great or small, to the arch foe of his clan. ‘ Them darned revenoos sure must ’a’ done it. They ons is always a-meddlin’ we ons.'

In like manner, I now hear all variety of agricultural ills placed upon the boll weevil. He kills off the little chickens. He destroyed the pea crop. He got in the ‘greens,’ which were boiled with the fat meat, and killed a whole family ‘somewhere down yander.’ He attacks the fruit, eats the seed-corn in the ground and the acorns from the oaks.

But, my many neighbors to the contrary notwithstanding, cotton is really the only victim. The whole trouble is due to his, or more correctly to her, keen desire to deposit eggs in the tender ’forms’ or ‘squares,’ from which in normal course develops the grown cottonboll. These punctured forms fall to the ground, and there, in the shade of the leaves, the larvae grow and feed on the tender inside of the little cradles; then eat their way out and, as lusty young boll weevils, crawl up t he nearest cottonplants, to repeat the process. As soon as the supply of tender young squares and small bolls gives out, the weevils, instead of feeling that, they have done sufficient damage for the season and raised up a satisfactory family, work all the harder, and puncture the large bolls almost ready to open, which were overlooked in the early rush. Race-suicide is one crime with which the species has never been charged. A normal healthy young boll-weevil couple requires six figures in making up a family record at the end of a perfect season.

The weevil’s line of action being thus so simple, there is little about his side of the question to attract our interest, or hold it long. The cotton-grower, on the other hand, being endowed with free will and a certain degree of reasoning power, has acted and reacted in varied manner under the attacks of the insect; and so, man becomes the interesting factor in any discussion of the South and the boll-weevil problem.

An odd twist of human nature one meets with in the very beginning. Although the weevil has moved eastward for nearly a quarter of a century, and although his advance each year has been practically uniform, yet, in spite of this steady, constant, relentless approach, the later victims have seldom learned any lessons of value, seldom reaped any advantages from the experiences of the earlier sufferers.

Surely, it would seem that those on the Atlantic coast, for instance, would have heeded the experiences of those states to the southwest, where men situated exactly as they were situated had met, and in greater or lesser degree overcome, exactly the same conditions which were yearly advancing toward them.

But farmers as a class lead as optimists. Probably they would not otherwise continue to farm. The present is for the farmer too often hard and dreary; but always just ahead he sees brighter skies, better seasons, and higher prices for his products. And an optimist he has been as to the coming of the boll weevil. Surely something would happen to prevent it from ever coming here. Maybe the Mississippi River would stop it, or certainly the swift Savannah would bar its path. Also, conditions just here might prove fata l to its existence. And, above all, the Government, that vague, mysterious, distant power, will probably find a means to exterminate it long before it ever reaches ‘my cotton-fields.’ So ran the cheerful reasoning. But constantly growing reports of damage, and of the toughness and powers of the dreaded insect, kept coming in to us from points always nearer and nearer. The average small farmer, while he refused to take into his inner consciousness that the trouble would ever really affect him, was, at the same time, willing to accept as true any tale as to what the weevil might do in other regions.

One story, which early reached us from Georgia, was implicitly believed and repeated by my Carolina neighbors. It seemed that a man down in Georgia wished to test the weevil as to what degree of heat and cold he could endure without fatal results. Accordingly he had one frozen into the middle of a block of ice at the local ice-factory. After a time the ice melted and the weevil flew blithely out. He was recaptured and placed under a tin vessel on top of a stove. A fire was kindled in the stove. Soon the stove became red-hot, the tin vessel became red-hot, and at length the boll weevil became red-hot. Whereupon the tin vessel was removed, and the boll weevil flew out through an open window and set fire to the barn.

Another phase of mental stubbornness I frequently found in the farmer’s unwillingness, after the first invasion, to attribute any of the damage which he had suffered to the real cause. Forced to admit that the weevils were present on his farm, and that his cottoncrop had been an utter failure, he would fight to the last ditch to absolve the weevil from any blame. ‘Oh, no; the weevil did not bother me. ’T was the very wet season.’ Or, again, it would be the very dry season, or the sun, or the moon, or the stars, or, maybe, just the general cussedness of the times.

To admit the truth was to admit defeat before his inveterate foe; to admit that, so far as his vision and experience went, the end had come.

It was really difficult to obtain a true picture of conditions in the infested sections to the south of us. Along with reports of destruction, disaster, and depopulation, would come equally authentic tales of increased prosperity and of the building of monuments to boll weevils by throngs of grateful and enthusiastic farmers. So it was with a rather hazy idea of actual conditions that I started out in the fail of 1919, into southern Georgia and Alabama, to obtain a first-hand opinion of what was really happening to a civilization founded entirely on the growing of cotton. But as I observed conditions and viewed various localities, the differences were fully as great as had been the previous reports. At one point, one would find a modern replica of the deserted village. Stores would be closed up, homes abandoned, idle gins rotting down, and near-by fields grown up with beggarweed, or green with cotton which stood stripped of any vestige of boll or blossom. Then, within a few hours’ ride, one would find a region of prosperous-looking, freshly painted farm homes, sleek cattle, fat. hogs, well-kept highways, modern rural schools, and towns with crowded stores and busy st reets.

Knowing that all sections had suffered from the same weevil, which follows but a single line of action, it was patent that the secret, of the difference must lie in the varying human side of the equation. Everywhere alike, cotton had once been the sole money-crop. After the weevil came, many counties had continued to cling to cotton-planting without change of any kind. Here it was that the weevil came, saw, and conquered. And it was here that one met the deserted-village effect. Cotton, the only source of money, was wiped out, and the wells of commerce had dried up.

During a wet season no cotton at all could be made; in a medium season there would be a very small crop; and when an unusually dry season occurred, there could be produced, maybe, a halfcrop. But the average of the programme under weevil conditions meant the ruin of the cotton-farmer.

II

A pleasing example of the other side of the picture I found at the town of M— in far southwest Georgia. Here, too, the farmer would probably have continued in the honored cotton-planting customs of his fathers, but for the foresight and example of a group of the business leaders of this town. Just before the weevil arrived several of these men made an observation trip down into Texas. On their return, they called a general meeting of the business men and told them what they had observed and learned. They all realized that the farmers would probably not visualize the real conditions which they had seen as ever coming home to them; so these men planned a new course of action. Quietly they went about the organization and the building of enterprises new and strange in a Cotton South.

A factory for canning syrup and vegetables, a grain elevator, a small packingplant, sweet-potato-curing houses, and kindred new industries came into being. Then, after having thus given concrete evidence of their own faith, they asked their cotton-growers to provide the products for these new establishments, as side-lines on the farms. Soon a portion of the lands was planted with sugarcane and with vegetables, more sweet potatoes were grown, larger areas were put in grain, and the raising of better hogs and cattle became popular. No attempt was made to scare or drive the farmer, but he was led into the new crops by his desire to get his share of the money offered in these new cash markets. Up to now he had seen only a cotton-market at his county seat, and had naturally planted cotton. Now, seeing a market for everything, he planted everything that soil and climate would produce.

Thus, by the sure safe road of preparation and organization, came diversification. Then, with cotton as simply one among a number of cash crops, this particular county was immune to serious damage from any disaster which might befall cotton. A new era for Southern agriculture had begun.

The relative importance of the various new crops and business enterprises established thereon varied with local conditions and with the varied bent or capacities of local leaders. Here one would find the leading new industry a syrup-canning factory, with sugar-cane as the chief money crop. At one place, a packing-plant, with the country turning to the raising of more and better livestock. At still another point, attention would be given to grain elevators, with fields planted with grain; and always more grain meant, too, more livestock as a by-product.

But everywhere that one found successful diversification being practised and backed up by successful and earnest business organization, one saw an uneconomic, aristocratic Old South giving way to a truly democratic New South, intent, upon increased production and modern business organization in matters agricultural. But no matter how the industries might vary, each community agreed upon one point. Boll weevil or no boll weevil, they would never, under any conditions, return to an all-cotton schedule.

And from what I have since learned they have continued to prosper just in so far as they have held fast to this resolution. And to the rapid spread of this state of mind, as much as to actual weevil-damage, do I attribute the diminishing American cotton crop since the year 1919.

Under the new system all the agricultural eggs are not placed in a single cotton-basket. The boll weevil has proved a blessing, but only in so far as his coming has served to destroy the onemoney-crop system, Coffee County in Alabama, where there has really been a monument of gratitude erected to him, is a county which leads in successful diversification. Nothing but the boll weevil, or some similar pest, could have ever broken up the old system, so deeply rooted was it in the very structure of the cotton country. But until it was broken up and changed, the South could never have taken her place in line with the other sections of agricultural America.

Any strictly one-crop system, more especially when that crop is cotton, breeds classes, and any people stamped with class-consciousness cannot become a real factor in this free nation. Cottongrowing suits the great land baron. It can be produced by the cheapest and most ignorant form of labor — labor with the lowest standard of living. And, at the same time, it can be produced on vast scale with a minimum of actual supervision. Cotton likewise suits the lazy and shiftless small farmer, who desires only sufficient credit, based upon his possible crop, to keep soul and body in union for the time being.

But cotton does not prompt the medium, self-supporting, live-at-home type of farmer. The only true gauge of any agricultural community is the prosperity and living-standard of the average farmer who goes to make up that community. The world was for a long while more or less dazzled by the splendor, wealth, and romance of the great one-crop Southern planter, and also by the amazing sum-total of the South’s annual cotton crop. Only recently has the keen and impartial eye of modern scientific research seen the vast difference between the economic condition and living-standards of the average farmer in the Cotton Belt and those of the average farmer of the Border States or of the Middle West. But now , with cotton being rapidly relegated to its proper minor position in a well-balanced farming schedule, the very great opportunities offered by the South to the average farmer open up, and begin to attract nation-wide attention. Responsive soils, a mild climate, a yearround open season for t he stock-raiser, cheap fuel, trunk-line railways to consuming centres — all these advantages and many others show forth, as the dark cloud of the old, unsound farming system passes.

Most Southern soils, while naturally very fertile and easy to build up under proper treatment, are also very easily run down if not properly managed. Continuous grow ing of cotton year after year in the same fields took constantly from these soils and put nothing back into them. Production could be maintained only by the lavish and constant use of expensive commercial fertilizers. This is true of the great bulk of the lands, of all the light types of soils. Certain river-bottoms and the so-called ‘black lands’ are, of course, exceptions. But the general truth of the statement is brought out by the fact that, in one of the smallest states given to exclusive cotton-growing, the annual commercial fertilizer bill runs some years as high as fifty million dollars. This sum falls like an extra tax-burden on the cotton-farmer. He had nothing at the end of the season but bales of cotton with which to pay it.

When diversified farming and stockraising come into play, this situation begins at once to change. Legumes are planted, which add each year more nitrogen to the soil; cover-crops are turned under and humus is restored to hungry fields; while with more livestock-raising, each farm becomes its own ammoniate factory. Some cheap acid fertilizer and an occasional purchase of still cheaper lime amount to but a mere fraction of the former cotton-fertilizer bill.

The great landowning cotton-planter (he scorned the honest title of farmer) in one of the banner cotton counties had but small incentive to place his operations on a safe and sane self-sustaining basis. To him agriculture was a gamble, pure and simple.

If a negro tenant, with one good mule, could tend thirty acres of cotton and produce thirty bales, one half going to the landlord as his share and the other half going to him as part payment on what the tenant owed him for food and clothing, what interest would he take in home-production of food-stuffs, or in land-building by crop-rotation? — that is, if cotton happened to bring a high price; and on this he was always willing to take a chance. And the chance was a safe one, because cotton is one product which can be held in the raw for an indefinite period without loss or deterioration. The negro knew how to make cotton, and the landlord knew how to finance his business operations and to speculate with the cotton. His bales of cotton would buy corn, hay, and meat from the West, potatoes from the North, canned goods from the four corners of the earth, and expensive fertilizers to stimulate further overtaxed lands. So what was the need of ever planting any crop save cotton, and still more cotton?

A banker in a north Florida county once all cotton, then all grain, peanuts, and livestock —— told me that during the season just past not a cotton-gin in the whole county had turned a wheel.

‘Yet,’ he said, ‘even under those conditions, our bank deposits are more than double what they ever were during the best cotton days, before we ever saw a boll weevil.’

‘How can you explain that?’ I asked him.

‘Chiefly a matter of fertilizers and land-building,’was his reply. ‘Before, most of the money which was paid to the farmers for their products went away to pay up their fertilizer bills. Now, the lands around here are so built up and improved by proper crop-rotation and regular use of home-produced fertilizers, that all the money stays at home and is spent at home — it’s all coming in now, and nothing going out. I would not mind their planting a small amount of cotton again,’ he added; ‘ but never again do I want to see it become the only crop.’

III

This summer the weevil has practically covered all of South Carolina and gone well over into North Carolina, which completes his long march. Today the Cotton Belt is covered. Here in the East, we were for a time given comfort by the fact, that in Texas the damage had never extended north of this or that, parallel of latitude. Now they say that, it seems to be not so much a question of latitude as it is a matter of rainfall and of moisture conditions. If rain and moisture are what the weevil has been seeking, then he has reached his happy hunting-ground in these South Atlantic st ates. The highest average rainfall to be found in any portion of Texas is far less than the lowest in any part of South Carolina. So we may soon expect to find him romping all over the Carolinas, as he has done this summer over the greater portion of them. It is now broadly hinted by some very able scientists, the very fellows who once handed us the comforting talk about parallels of latitude, that on a nice damp day a boll weevil may crawl right over one without even being seen.

This Southern Carolina coast-country has certainly suffered ups and downs throughout its agricultural history, by clinging to a series of one-crop systems. The first great, crop was indigo, far back in colonial days. Then indigo passed into the limbo of old, unhappy, far-off things, and was replaced by the culture of rice. Vast areas of tidal river-swamp were cleared and placed in a wonderful state of cultivation by a mighty host of slaves. The waters were dyked out, and one of the most perfect systems of irrigation perfected that the world has ever seen. Then, with the freeing of the slaves and the cheaper methods of rice-culture possible in the firmer lands of the Southwest, rice vanished and cotton became king.

Each one of these systems, being strictly a one-crop system, was ill balanced, and tended to build up the few but not the many. Agriculture as a whole was not placed on a basis where it could meet, and adapt itself to changing conditions. But with all the grave economic wrongs with which such systems can be charged, they did produce for a time a strange exotic civilization of luxury and romance. It was a heaven on earth for the few.

The old-time rice-planters were a typical example. Coming, as they did, from the upper middle classes in England, where unbroken landed estates were a sacred tenet, they planned and laid out vast estates and baronies along the shores of the tidal rivers. These they intended as concrete and lasting symbols of wealth, pride, and power, to be handed down intact through generations. But how soon their hopes and plans went the inevitable way of all things which are founded on a false basis of class and of oppression!

But how beautiful to-day are the sad remains of that half-forgotten time! Quiel avenues of old live-oaks, draped with gray moss, astonish the hunter who, following the deer, chances upon them in the midst of silent pine forests; stately avenues, that now lead only to broken chimneys or to low piles of ivygrown English brick; lonely forgotten avenues, silently decorated each spring, in memory of happier times, with long festoons of yellow jasmine and with wreaths of white Cherokee rose.

And what dream-gardens still bloom along the banks of the Ashley River! ‘The fairest garden planted by the sons of men,’ Richard Le Gallienne calls one of them. Gardens that rejoice with blaze of azalea and japonica; gardens that remember with cypress and black waters.

But the civilization that planned these straight avenues and planted these unbelievable gardens had not the soul of democracy or the spirit of America, and so it soon vanished from a free nation, of which it could never become a real part.

Any one-crop farming was always a one-man game. No coöperation or community work was necessary for the individual’s success, and this fact, tended to prevent the building-up of community life. The cotton-planter of wealth could seek his compensations afar off, while the shiftless, ignorant small farmer did not seek what he had never known.

With diversified farming, the South is rapidly changing as never before in her history. This change is great and deep because it is, at the same time, an inner and an outer change.

The spending of money for the construction of better roads is now popular with the masses of the people, as they realize the need of improved highways for the transportation of new and bulky products to the near-by markets. At the same time these roads tend to weld together a hitherto isolated population. Community dairies, central grain elevators, small packing-plants — all these tend to bring to a common meetingplace the inhabitants of an entire county, who soon begin to feel like neighbors.

And by getting better acquainted, they soon find out that they like and need one another. Through the teaching of new experience, they find that team-work pays, and not only pays better, but is more fun.

Problems of commodity preparation, marketing, and distribution cannot be successfully handled by the farmers alone; but all these problems are being solved on a community scale by the farmers and business men together. Thus vanishes the old distrust which has so long existed between town and country, to the detriment of each.

The present period of depression has been a testing-out, in the eyes of all, of the relative merits of the old and the new systems of agriculture. Wherever old King Cotton has not yet been displaced, and the farmers are still living in the old way of eternal debt to banker and merchant, the keenest distress prevails.

Where, on the other hand, the new plan has been established, and where every time a farmer comes into town he brings something to sell for cash, instead of having to buy on credit perhaps that very thing, much better conditions exist. When normal prices for all farm-products return, the difference will be even more marked.

But if, losing sight of all the manifold advantages of t he new type of farming, and tempted by high prices, the South ever desires to return to an all-cotton basis, the boll-weevil army will always be here, ready and able to prevent. It cannot hinder the planting of some cotton in a general farm-schedule, but it does render it, for all time to come, too precarious a crop for the only basis of credit. Even should a farmer be willing to take the chance, the odds against him are too great for any sane banker to finance the venture.

So, along with a number of other absolute monarchs, King Cotton, as a ruler, is down and out. But still he has a very good job among the other boys on a modern American farm.

The world must always be clothed, and the South will always produce cotton; but I see no possible way in which it can ever again produce very much cotton. But the world, save for the present style of skirts, will soon demand as much cotton as in years past, or even more; and so, by the great law of supply and demand, a diversified South will receive more per pound for what cotton is produced than was ever known in the days of the bumper crops.

With his cotton bringing him a higher price, living at home, feeding himself and his stock, out of debt and with always something to sell for cash, the average Southern farmer will rise up and call Billy Boll Weevil blessed.