Soil Depletion in the South

Genovese opens his argument about soil depletion by highlighting the role that slavery played. In order to keep the land viable, fertilizer or other inorganic compounds would need to be used. However, “the dearth of liquid capital made the purchase of fertilizer difficult” (Merchant 239). Since many farmers were unable to purchase fertilizer they were also unable to revitalize the soil. Also, many planters would not entrust the slaves the job of fertilizing the crop because the job was too complex. A lack of crop rotation also hindered the ability of the soil to recover. For example, “the one-crop system perpetuated by slavery prevented crop rotation” (Merchant 239). Planters chose to only plant cotton because it made the most sense from a financial perspective. The goal of planters was to accrue as much profit as possible. The size of Southern plantations also played a role in the ability to renew the soil. Many Southern plantations were often five hundred to six hundred acres which made it virtually impossible to apply fertilizer to all the soil. Since applying fertilizer was a complex process, constant supervision was needed in order to make sure the job was done correctly. However, “overseers of even planters themselves hardly had the desire to watch their laborers with the unrelenting vigilance that was needed” (Merchant 240).

Steinberg’s analysis of soil depletion in the South focuses more on the postwar period. Steinberg makes the argument that the reliance on cotton actually increased after the war due to “the rise of sharecropping and the growing commercialization of farming” (Merchant 243). Sharecropping allowed the planters to have a form of labor, while also allowing freed blacks and poor whites the ability to have land and make a living. Usually the planters would take 50% of whatever the sharecropper managed to raise. Since cotton was the most profitable crop, most planters made the sharecroppers grow cotton. The rise of the railroads also played a role in keeping cotton as the main crop of the South. “Merchants loaned farmers money with a future crop as collateral” (Merchant 244). This created a vicious cycle. In order to raise cotton, the planters would take a loan to buy fertilizer. The fertilizer would then be used to raise a productive cotton crop that was used to pay back the merchant’s loan. Under this system, plants that could be eaten and livestock were completely neglected. Finally, came the boll weevil. The weevil’s larvae would feed on the cotton boll which was a huge problem for planters. This led to an increased use of fertilizer in order to speed up the harvesting of the crop which in turn just damaged the soil even more.

Albert Cowdrey’s argument for soil depletion seems to be derived from the profit motive. Since the south was an ideal place to grow cotton, many farmers gravitated towards it. He also attributes the increase in soil erosion to an increased population. “Between 1800 and 1860 Georgia’s white population increased about nine times, Louisiana’s and Tennessee’s about ten times…” (Merchant 237). With rapid population growth all over the South, more and more land was being used to plant cotton. The planters were enthralled by the amount of profits being raked in and therefore had no idea what the long term damage to the land would be. A profit in the short term trumped all.

After reading about various perspectives, I have come to the conclusion that soil depletion in the South can be linked to a number of factors primarily stemming from the high price of cotton. If cotton was not as profitable, then there would not have been an intense drive to plant it. It is more likely than not that planters would have raised a variety of crops and livestock. However, since cotton was so profitable it led to huge plantations which did not allow for proper fertilization and crop rotation.


Works Cited

Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.