Sharecropping involves farming on land belonging to others. The farm arrangement in America dates to colonial times when landowners divided their land into smaller parcels and accepted labor in exchange for farming privileges or payments from the food taken from the land. A percentage of the crops produced typically were returned to the sharecropper, as payment for their services. Sharecropping in the southern U.S. dates to after the Civil War, during the 1860s and '70s, but a modified sharecropping practice continues on a small scale in the United States today.
The requirement of little or no up-front cash for land purchase provided the major advantage for farmers in the sharecropping arrangement. The lack of the initial up-front payment, however, also created disadvantages for the landowner who waited for payment until crops were harvested and then sold. While sharecropping provided a way for farmers to live on the land without any payment, it also meant the farmers failed to develop any equity or appreciation through ownership of the land.
Farm Boons and Busts
Sharecropping advantages for the landowner included payment from the yields during peak growing years, but if rain failed to irrigate the field or pests ate the crops, the amount of the yields meant little compared to the amount earned from actual land sales. During times of forced crop reduction during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, sharecroppers were forced from the land without any alternatives to earn a living. Some families organized into unions, including the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Share Croppers Union, to lobby the federal government to change policies harming sharecroppers.
Increased Land Production
Dividing a parcel of land for others to farm increased the amount of acreage in production, but the larger production also created problems for the landowner who had to oversee a large group of workers, particularly during harvest times. Increased production required additional irrigation, increased use of pesticide and fungicide. Parceling large-scale sharecropping farms created disputes over water in arid geographic regions, problems with sewage disposal and waste runoff problems after use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Prosperous sharecroppers historically incorporated a basic percentage fee into sharecropping contracts for the farm families under contract to live in a house on the property. This living arrangement was also known as tenant farming, a description illustrating the fact the farmer did not own the land the family tended. Tenancy tied the sharecroppers to the land when the farm failed to produce high yields. The family sold their share of the crops for payments for use of the house. This allowed little, if any, for savings or cash to move from the land. Trudier Harris, former professor of folklore and literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, labeled the practice of sharecropping as a de facto form of slavery.