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FSA photo of cropper family chopping the weeds from cotton near White Plains, in Georgia, USA (1941)

Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land (e.g., 50% of the crop). This should not be confused with a crop fixed rent contract, in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a fixed amount of crop per unit of land (e.g., 1 T/ha). Sharecropping has a long history and there are a wide range of different situations and types of agreements that have encompassed the system. Some are governed by tradition, others by law. Legal contract systems such as the Italian mezzadria,[1] the French métayage, and Spanish Mediero[2] occur widely. Islamic law contains a traditional "musaqat" sharecropping agreement[3] for the cultivation of orchards.



Sharecropping has benefits and costs for both the owners and the croppers. It encourages the cropper to remain on the land throughout the harvest season to work the land, solving the harvest rush problem. At the same time, since the cropper pays in shares of his harvest, owners and croppers share the risk of harvests being large or small and prices being high or low. Because tenants benefit from larger harvests, they have an incentive to work harder and invest in better methods than in a slave plantation system. However, by dividing the working force into many individual workers, large farms no longer benefit from economies of scale. On the whole, sharecropping was not as economically efficient as the gang agriculture of slave plantations. The advantages of sharecropping in other situations include enabling access for women[4] to arable land where ownership rights are vested only in men.

Sharecropping occurred extensively in colonial Africa, Scotland, and Ireland, and came into wide use in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction era (1865–1877). The South had been devastated by war; planters had ample land but little money for wages or taxes. At the same time most of the former slaves had labor but no money and no land; they rejected the kind of gang labor that typified slavery. The solution was the sharecropping system focused on cotton, which was the only crop that could generate cash for the croppers, the landowners, the merchants and the tax collector. Poor white farmers, who previously had done little cotton farming, needed cash as well and became sharecroppers.[5]

Use of the sharecropper system has also been identified in England[6](as the practice of "farming to halves"). It is still used in many rural poor areas today, notably in Pakistan and in India.

According to the World Bank, as recently as 1995, "Sharecropping arrangements also appear to be a constraint in parts of Asia." [7]

It can have more than a passing similarity to serfdom or indenture, and it has therefore been seen as an issue of land reform in contexts such as the Mexican Revolution. However, Nyambara states that Eurocentric historiographical devices like 'feudalism' or 'slavery' often qualified by weak prefixes like 'semi-' or 'quasi-' are not helpful in understanding the antecedents and functions of sharecropping in Africa.[8]

Sharecropping agreements can however be made fairly, as a form of tenant farming or sharefarming that has a variable rental payment, paid in arrears. There are three different types of contracts.[9]

  1. Workers can rent plots of land from the owner for a certain sum and keep the whole crop.
  2. Workers work on the land and earn a fixed wage from the land owner but keep some of the crop.
  3. No money changes hands but the worker and land owner each keep a share of the crop.




In settler colonies of colonial Africa, sharecropping was a feature of the agricultural life. White farmers, who owned most of the land, were frequently unable to work the whole of their farm for lack of capital. They therefore allowed black farmers to work the excess on a sharecropping basis. In South Africa the 1913 Natives' Land Act [9]outlawed the ownership of land by blacks in areas designated for white ownership and effectively reduced the status of most sharecroppers to tenant farmers and then to farm laborers. In the 1960s, generous subsidies to white farmers meant that most farmers could afford to work their entire farms, and sharecropping faded out.

The arrangement has reappeared in other African countries in modern times, including Ghana[10] and Zimbabwe.[11]

United States

Sharecroppers at roadside after eviction (1936)

Sharecropping became widespread as a response to economic upheaval caused by the emancipation of slaves and disenfranchisement of poor whites in the agricultural South during Reconstruction. Plantations had first relied on indentured servants to function being used as cheap labor. Prior to emancipation, sharecropping was limited to poor landless whites, usually working marginal lands for absentee landlords. Following emancipation, sharecropping came to be an economic arrangement that largely maintained the status quo between black and white through legal means. The mass influx of immigrants in the 1900s brought an increase in sharecropping during the World War I era. Sharecroppers worked a section of the plantation independently, usually growing cotton, tobacco, rice, and other cash crops and received a small portion of the parcel's output.[12][13]

Although the sharecropping system was primarily a post-Civil War development, it did exist in antebellum Mississippi, especially in the northeastern part of the state, an area with few slaves or plantations,[14] and most probably also existed in Tennessee.[15] Sharecropping, along with tenant farming, was a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites, but it has largely disappeared.

After the American Civil War, plantation owners had to borrow money to produce crops. Interest rates on these loans were around 15%. The indebtedness of cotton planters increased through the early 1940s, and the average plantation fell into bankruptcy about every twenty years. It is against this backdrop that the wealthiest owners maintained their concentrated ownership of the land.[16]

In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping was one of few options for penniless freedmen to conduct subsistence farming and support themselves and their families. (Another solution was a crop-lien system, where the farmer was extended credit for seed and other supplies by the merchant.) 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.

Croppers were assigned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the owner a share of the crop at the end of the season, usually one-half. The owner provided the tools and farm animals. Farmers who owned their own mule and plow were at a higher stage and are called tenant farmers; they paid the landowner less, usually only a third of each crop. In both cases the farmer kept the produce of gardens.

The sharecropper purchased seed, tools and fertilizer, as well as food and clothing, on credit from a local merchant, or sometimes from a plantation store. When the harvest came, the cropper would harvest the whole crop and sell it to the merchant who had extended credit. Purchases and the landowner's share were deducted and the cropper kept the difference—or added to his debt.

Though the arrangement protected sharecroppers from the negative effects of a bad crop, many sharecroppers (both black and white) were economically confined to serf-like conditions of poverty. To work the land, sharecroppers had to buy seed and implements, sometimes from the plantation owner who often charged exorbitant prices against the sharecropper's next season. Arrangements also typically gave half or less of the crop to the sharecropper, and the sale price in some cases was set by the landowner. Lacking the resources to market their crops independently, the sharecropper was sometimes be compensated in scrip redeemable only at the plantation.

Thus the cost of production and price of sale were both largely controlled by the land owner, with the sharecropper having little, if any, margin for profit. These factors made sharecroppers dependent on the plantation owners in a way that perpetuated some of the aspects of slavery, and in the late 19th century maintained a stable, low-cost work force that replaced slave labor; it was the bottom rung in the Southern tenancy ladder.

By the early 1930s there were 5.5 million white tenants, sharecroppers, and mixed cropping/laborers in the United States, and 3 million blacks.[17][18] In Tennessee whites made up two thirds or more of the sharecroppers.[10] In Mississippi, by 1900, 36% of all white farmers were tenants or sharecroppers, while 85 percent of black farmers were. [11] Sharecropping continued to be a significant institution in Tennessee agriculture for more than sixty years after the Civil War, peaking in importance in the early 1930s, when sharecroppers operated approximately one-third of all farm units in the state. [12]

The situation of landless farmers who challenged the system in the rural south as late as 1941 has been described thus: "he is at once a target subject of ridicule and vitriolic denunciation; he may even be waylaid by hooded or unhooded leaders of the community, some of whom may be public officials. If a white man persists in 'causing trouble', the night riders may pay him a visit, or the officials may haul him into court; if he is a Negro, a mob may hunt him down." [19]

Sharecroppers formed unions in the 1930s, beginning in Tallapoosa County, Alabama in 1931, and Arkansas in 1934. Membership in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union included both blacks and poor whites. As leadership strengthened, meetings became more successful, and protest became more vigorous, landlords responded with a wave of terror.[20]

Sharecroppers' strikes in Arkansas and the Bootheel of Missouri, the 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers' Strike, were documented in "Oh Freedom After While".[21]

In the 1930s and 1940s, increasing mechanization virtually brought the institution of sharecropping to an end in the United States. [13][14] The sharecropping system in the U.S. increased during the Great Depression with the creation of tenant farmers following the failure of many small farms throughout the Dustbowl. Traditional sharecropping declined after mechanization of farm work became economical in the mid-20th century As a result, many sharecroppers were forced off the farms, and migrated to the industrialized North to work in factories, or become migrant workers in the Western United States during World War II.

Sharecropping agreements

Typically, a sharecropping agreement would specify which party was expected to cover certain expenses, like seed, fertilizer, weed control, irrigation district assessments, and fuel. Sometimes the sharecropper covered those costs, but they expected a larger share of the crop in return. The agreement would also indicate whether the sharecropper would use his own equipment to raise the crops, or use the landlord's equipment. The agreement would also indicate whether the landlord would pick up his or her share of the crop in the field or whether the sharecropper would deliver it (and where it would be delivered.)

For example, a landowner may have a sharecropper farming an irrigated hayfield. The sharecropper uses his own equipment, and covers all the costs of fuel and fertilizer. The landowner pays the irrigation district assessments and does the irrigating himself. The sharecropper cuts and bales the hay, and delivers one-third of the baled hay to the landlord's feedlot. The sharecropper might also leave the landlord's share of the baled hay in the field, where the landlord would fetch it when he wanted hay.

Another arrangement could have the sharecropper delivering the landlord's share of the product to market, in which case the landlord would get his share in the form of the sale proceeds. In that case, the agreement should indicate the timing of the delivery to market, which can have a significant effect on the ultimate price of some crops. The market timing decision should probably be decided shortly before harvest, so that the landlord has more complete information about the area's harvest, to determine whether the crop will earn more money immediately after harvest, or whether it should be stored until the price rises. Market timing can entail storage costs and losses to spoilage as well, for some crops.

Farmer's cooperatives

Cooperative farming exists in many forms throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the world. Various arrangements can be made through collective bargaining or purchasing to get the best deals on seeds, supplies, and equipment. For example, members of a farmer's cooperative who cannot afford heavy equipment of their own can lease them for nominal fees from the cooperative. Farmers cooperatives can also allow groups of small farmers and dairymen to manage pricing and prevent undercutting by competitors.

Economic theories of share tenancy

The theory of share tenancy was long dominated by Alfred Marshall's famous footnote 5, wherein he illustrated the inefficiency of agricultural share-contracting. Steven N.S. Cheung (1969),[22] challenged this view, showing that with sufficient competition and in the absence of transaction costs, share tenancy will be equivalent to competitive labor markets and therefore efficient.[23] He also showed that in the presence of transaction costs, share-contracting may be preferred to either wage contracts or rent contracts—due to the mitigation of labor shirking and the provision of risk sharing. Stigitz (1974,[24] 1988),[25] suggested that if share tenancy is only a labor contract, then it is only pairwise-efficient and that land-to-the-tiller reform would improve social efficiency by removing the necessity for labor contracts in the first place. Reid (1973),[26] Murrel (1983),[27] Roumasset (1995)[28] and Allen and Lueck (2004)[29] provided transaction cost theories of share-contracting, wherein tenancy is more of a partnership than a labor contract and both landlord and tenant provide multiple inputs.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Sources include [3] accessed June 19, 2006
  4. ^ Bruce, John W.- Country Profiles of Land Tenure: Africa, 1996 (Lesotho, page 221) Research Paper No. 130, December 1998, Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison accessed at [4] June 19, 2006
  5. ^ Eva O'Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (2007); Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (1986); Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (2nd ed. 2008)
  6. ^ Griffiths, L. Farming to Halves: A New Perspective on a Miserable System in Rural History Today, Issue 6:2004 p.5, accessed at British Agricultural History Society [5] June 14, 2006
  7. ^ Ernst Lutz, ed (October 1998) (PDF). Agriculture and the Environment: Perspectives on Sustainable Rural Development. Washington, DC: The World Bank. pp. 32. ISBN 0-8213-4249-5. 
  8. ^ [6]
  9. ^ Arthur F. Raper and Ira De A. Reid, Sharecroppers All (1941); Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (1986).
  10. ^ Leonard, R. and Longbottom, J., Land Tenure Lexicon: A glossary of terms from English and French speaking West Africa International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London, 2000
  11. ^ Pius S Nyambara (2003). "Rural Landlords, Rural Tenants, and the Sharecropping Complex in Gokwe, Northwestern Zimbabwe, 1980s-2002" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-05-18. , Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe and Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison, March 2003 (200Kb PDF)
  12. ^ Woodman, Harold D. (1995). New South - New Law: The legal foundations of credit and labor relations in the Postbellum agricultural South. Louisiana State University Press.  ISBN 0-8071-1941-5
  13. ^ F. N. Boney (2004-02-06). "Poor Whites". The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2006-05-18. 
  14. ^ [7]
  15. ^ [8]
  16. ^ Sharecroppers All. Arthur F Raper and Ira De A. Reid. Chapell Hill 1941. The University of North Carolina Press. Pages 35-36
  17. ^ The Rockabilly Legends; They Called It Rockabilly Long Before they Called It Rock and Roll by Jerry Naylor and Steve Halliday DVD
  18. ^ The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues By Giles Oakley Edition: 2. Da Capo Press, 1997, page 184. ISBN 0306807432, 9780306807435
  19. ^ Sharecroppers All. Arthur F Raper and Ira De A. Reid. Chapell Hill 1941. The University of North Carolina Press.
  20. ^ The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues By Giles Oakley Edition: 2. Da Capo Press, 1997, page 185. ISBN 0306807432, 9780306807435
  21. ^ California Newsreel - OH FREEDOM AFTER WHILE
  22. ^ Cheung, Steven N S (1969). "Transaction Costs, Risk Aversion, and the Choice of Contractual Arrangements". Journal of Law & Economics. 12 (1): 23–42. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  23. ^ Formalized in Roumasset, James (1979). "Sharecropping, Production Externalities and the Theory of Contracts". American Journal of Agricultural Economics 61 (4): 640–647. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  24. ^ Stiglitz, Joseph (1974). "Incentives and Risk Sharing in Sharecropping". The Review of Economic Studies 41 (2): 219–255. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  25. ^ Stiglitz, Joseph (1988). "Principal And Agent". Princeton, Woodrow Wilson School - Discussion Paper (12). Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  26. ^ Reid, Jr., Joseph D. (March, 1973). "Sharecropping As An Understandable Market Response: The Post-Bellum South". The Journal of Economic History 33 (1): 106–130. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  27. ^ Murrell, Peter (Spring, 1983). "The Economics of Sharing: A Transactions Cost Analysis of Contractual Choice in Farming". The Bell Journal of Economics, 14 (1): 283–293. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  28. ^ Roumasset, James (March, 1995). "The nature of the agricultural firm". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 26 (2): 161–177. doi:doi:10.1016/0167-2681(94)00007-2. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  29. ^ Allen, Douglas W.; Dean Lueck (2004). The Nature of the Farm: Contracts, Risk, and Organization in Agriculture. MIT Press. pp. 258. ISBN 0262511851, 9780262511858.,M1. 

Further reading

  • Allen, D. W and D. Lueck. "Contract Choice in Modern Agriculture: Cash Rent versus Cropshare," Journal of Law and Economics, (1992) v. 35, pp. 397–426.
  • Garrett, Martin A., and Zhenhui Xu. "The Efficiency of Sharecropping: Evidence from the Postbellum South," Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 69, 2003
  • Grubbs, Donald H. Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmer's Union and the New Deal (1971)
  • Hurt, R. Douglas Hurt. African American Life in the Rural South, 1900-1950 (2003)
  • Liebowitz, Jonathan J. "Tenants, Sharecroppers, and the French Agricultural Depression of the Late Nineteenth Century," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter, 1989), pp. 429–445 in JSTOR
  • Roll, Jarod. ""Out Yonder on the Road": Working Class Self-Representation and the 1939 Roadside Demonstration in Southeast Missouri", Southern Spaces, 16 March 2010.
  • Shaban, R. A. "Testing Between Competing Models of Sharecropping," Journal of Political Economy, (1987) 95(5), pp. 893–920.
  • Singh, N. "Theories of Sharecropping," in P. Bardhan. ed., The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions, (1989) pp. 33–72.
  • Southworth, Caleb. "Aid to Sharecroppers: How Agrarian Class Structure and Tenant-Farmer Politics Influenced Federal Relief in the South, 1933-1935," Social Science History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 33–70
  • Stiglitz, J. "Incentives and Risk Sharing in Share Cropping," Review of Economic Studies, (1974) v.41 219-255.
  • Turner, Howard A. "Farm Tenancy Distribution and Trends in the United States," Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 4, No. 4, Farm Tenancy (Oct., 1937), pp. 424-433 in JSTOR
  • Virts, Nancy. "The Efficiency of Southern Tenant Plantations, 1900-1945," Journal of Economic History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1991), pp.  385–395 in JSTOR

See also


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