Interviewer: Charles Pearce
Interviewee: B.F. Smith
Date: June 28, 1976
C.P.: This is Charles Pearce interviewing Mr. B.F. Smith. Today is June 28, 1976 and our location is the Delta Experiment Station at Stoneville, MS in the Delta Council Office. The top for discussion today is the impact of James Hand, Jr. on Delta farming. To begin with, Mr. Smith, what has been the significance of Mr. Hand’s leadership role in the area of Delta agriculture?
B.S.: First of all, let me say the Mr. Hand has been and still is one of the most outstanding leader that this area and the state of Mississippi has ever produced. Secondly, Mr. Hand is a person who has never sough honors. He is quiet and unassuming. He has provided the outstanding leadership by the sheer weight of his ability and his personality. He and his father came to the Delta area from South Mississippi back in the period, I believe, before World War I. They had been in the timber business in South Mississippi and they had been quite successful. They came into the Delta in the timber business and purchased large areas of bottom land hardwoods. In the aftermath of the war when the wide swings in prices, the timber business became very rocky. He often said they made all their money in timber and that they came in here and lost it in the Delta and that he’s been trying to get back on his feet ever since. But, he said that he kind of backed into farming, in the acquisition of some lands in Sharkey and Issaquena Counties. Also, he formed a partnership with Jere Nash and Mr. Sibbs in the International Harvester business. They came to be the single largest International Harvester dealer in the United States. Mrs. Hand, because of his very keen intellect and interest in economics and a keen perception for the future, was trying on his own land various agricultural practices, utilizing to the very fullest the technology developed at the Delta Branch Experiment Station. My association with Mr. Hand began in 1947 when I came to Delta Council. He had been a president of Delta Council. The Council was organized in 1935 and Mr. Hand was one of the early presidents and made a very outstanding contribution in this position. He remained as a Delta Council Director and as a Committee Chairman. He served in various capacities. He was chairman of our Advisory Research Committee of Delta Council at one time. This is a committee that works closely with the Experiment Station and with the U.S.D.A. and, in fact, with all phases of agriculture research. It is composed of leaders from all 18 Delta and part – Delta counties and these people meet with the Experiment Stations. They review research and try to assist the research agencies in getting the tools that they have to work with , by tools I mean the funds and the facilities. Mr. Hand rendered outstanding contributions in this capacity and he has always maintained a keen interest in the research program. In his area of the Delta, because of the flood control and backwater situation, they lost their farm labor quite early. They had to make do with a lot less farm labor than other parts of the Delta. At one time, cotton production required a tremendous investment in man hours per acre. In fact under the old man and mule method, about 160 man hours per acre were required for cotton production. Today, under mechanized conditions, we are producing cotton at 14 to 16 man hours per acre. Some people who are utilizing advanced technology are actually producing cotton with less man hour investment than normal. Mr. Hand has always been in the forefront in this. The area of weed control was of particular significance. This was the period before we had any chemical weed control measures at all. What he did was to start hill-dropping cotton, that is, planting the seed in spaces on the row to eliminate the need for thinning by hand. Therefore, the hoe labor that was available could travel much faster. All they would have to do is to knock out the weeds and grass. They wouldn’t have to thin. Later, he was one of the innovators in the practice of cross plowing, where you would plant cotton in a row, then come in with 4-row equipment and plow out the unwanted stalks of cotton. This also served to reduce the man hour requirements. Later, he was one of those who utilized flame cultivation as a corollary to cross plowing. The flame playing over the stalk of the cotton which is round didn’t damage the stalk, but would hit grass which has a flat surface and it would kill it. This was a widely used practice at one time until we got chemicals. Mr. Hand also pioneered the acceptance and the use of mechanical pickers. The company that he represented, International Harvester, actually did most of the pioneer work in the development of the picker and a lot of it was done at Stoneville by the Delta Branch Experiment Station, and proven on the Hopson’s Brothers Plantation at Clarksdale. We have here at Stoneville the first commercial mechanical picker produced was produced by the International Harvester Co. that was used at Clarksdale on the Hopson’s Brothers Plantation. Mr. Hand’s contributions were not confined strictly to agriculture. He was a great flood control leader. In the area that he resided flood control is a particular problem in that backwater area… he was a member, at one time, of the National Agricultural Advisory Commission. I believe this was in the period when Eisenhower was president. He was very active in the organization of the National Cotton Council. The Cotton Council was organized by Delta Council. Delta Council cam into being in 1935 and one of the first projects of Delta Council was an area project to increase cotton consumption. The leadership immediately saw that this should be a national effort instead of just a local effort. So, they expanded their effort on a national basis and brought together a group of belt wide leadership at the Delta Council annual meeting in 1938 in Cleveland and held discussions. From that meeting they went to Memphis and actually organized the National Cotton Council. The first president was Oscar Johnston, who was president of the Delta Pine and Land Co. at Scott and chairman of the Delta Council Comm. studying cotton promotion…Mr. Hand helped in the initiation of this program and the organization of the National Cotton Council and has maintained a very active interest in a position of leadership throughout all these years. He has also been interested in higher education in MS. He served on the Advisory Committee to the Council on University Presidents. He has been a leader in forestry and served as chairman of the Delta Council Commission…He was a prime mover in the expansion of the research in bottomland hardwood in this area…He tried out all of this innovations as they became available and some of his early cottonwood plantings are still visible in Sharkey and Issaquena counties. He also has provided a great deal of leadership in the field of agricultural credit and cotton marketing . He has been a member of the board of directors of the Staple cotton Association for many years. He is now a senior member of this board which means that he is an ex-officio because of his past service. He has received many honors. He was honored by Progressive Farmer with its award for Man of the Year in Agriculture in 1961 and has been honored by the Corp. of Engineers for his outstanding services in flood control in the Lower MS Valley. All in all, he has been one of the most outstanding citizens of this area and he still takes and active interest in all phases of agriculture and, in fact, in everything that pertains to the Delta. Just a few more comments…Mr. Hand is a person that has done a great deal of good in his lifetime in a very quiet and unassuming way. When he found people in need, he would very quietly try to help them individually solve their problem. He like to do this anonymously if he could. He pioneered efforts in improving the housing conditions for farm workers. In fact, we utilized a great deal of tenant labor on the farms. He also pioneered efforts on his farm that the workers received the best salaries that they could get commensurate with the returns that agriculture was giving to the landowner. On his farming operation, he always kept meticulous records and he had records on these places that went back many years before he became the owner. These records are utilized a great deal by economists and others who are seeking information on the history of agriculture in the area, and especially the impact of mechanization. He has always had an outstanding production record. His figures on his cost of per pound production were so low many people actually doubted the accuracy of these figures, and some even said that Mr. Hand was just trying to sell farm equipment. Of course, this was not so, because this was the least of his worries. He was an innovator in agriculture and a man of great vision and a person who has contributed immeasurably to this area.
C.P.: Thank you, Mr. Smith for that comment. I’m certainly impressed. Now for some more specific questions: Why was there so much resistance to mechanization of cotton production and how did Mr. Hand try to convince the Delta farmer that mechanization was a prime necessity?
B.S.: Well, to say that there was a great deal of resistance to mechanization, I don’t believe is quite a fair statement. Farmers have always been slow to make changes. There is a tendency to want to do things the same way that you’ve done it in the past. This is not confined to agriculture, it’s characteristic of a lot of other things. There were many factors to be taken into consideration. One of those being that we had a great deal of labor in the Delta. If you moved to mechanization and displace this labor, then you had to fact the question of what did you do with these people. Many plantation owners and renters did not fully utilize the technology that was available, simply because the people were there to do the work and needed the work to make a living. World War II caused a great exodus of agricultural labor throughout the United States. These people were recruited for the war effort and taken in bus loads back to the North and Northeast for work in factories. This left somewhat of a vacuum. Mechanization moved in steps to fill this vacuum. Actually, mechanization has not displaced farm workers. It moved in to fill the vacuum left by the exodus of farm workers. It was not until the minimum wage laws were extended to agriculture, after World War II, that farm labor actually began to be displaced by these outside factors. When they extended the minimum wage law to agriculture that you could no longer afford at the prices you had to pay. So these jobs were simply eliminated. While we had been moving away from the sharecropper system, we still had a lot of sharecroppers in the area simply because these people had been sharecroppers and they wanted to remain sharecroppers. Most every plantation had a half a dozen families or a few families that continued to operate as sharecroppers, although most of the land would be worked on a full mechanization and hired labor basis. But the ruling of the Dept. of Labor states that these sharecroppers were actually employees of the farmer. This is contrary to Mississippi law which had always ruled that sharecroppers were independent operators. But just because the plantation owner had the right to exercise some controls over the sharecropper, they ruled that he was an employee, and this meant the end of this system also, because sharecroppers historically had utilized a lot of members of their family in making their crop and the plantation owner could not afford to pay all those people for the piddling jobs that they did. So this meant that this was eliminated. In most cases, these people were allowed to occupy the houses that they had been occupying and they were utilized as much as possible on a day by day basis. Actually you didn’t find resistance by the farmers to mechanization, per se. As the conditions changed you found farmers eagerly moving in and adapting to mechanized practices. In fact, in the Delta area of Mississippi, farmers have always been very research minded and have been prone to want to take technology before it was fully proven and apply it. In many ways they have been in from t of farmers of other areas because of their proximity to agricultural research and because of their great interest in it. The station here at Stoneville started in 1904. It was actually started by a group of farmers who recognized the need for technology and who bought the land and donated it to the state of MS to start an experiment station. Every land acquisition since that time has come at no cost to the state. In fact, two big ones came from Delta Council. One was the experimental forestry land, 2,400 acres, that had been taken over by the state for taxes and the Council spearheaded a bill through the legislature which dedicated this land for forestry research by the Experiment Station. Then the acquisition of nearly 500 acres of buckshot land for the Experiment Station and this was set up through a Delta research foundation. When the land was paid off, it was deeded to the state of MS for experimental purposes.
C.P.: Was there really a rivalry for farm labor between the Lower Delta farmers and the Upper Delta farmers before the advent of the cotton picker? Certainly, Lower Delta farmers were faced with different problems than the Upper Delta farmers in the labor situation. Would you go into this a little?
B.S.: I mentioned earlier that because of the flood control situation, the farmers in the Lower Delta had lot less labor. There has always been some rivalry among farmers for farm labor. Usually after settlement time, in the late fall or winter, there was a lot of moving of families form one plantation to the other. This took place throughout the entire area, in fact almost throughout the entire south. The rivalry was not of the type that you would classify as open rivalry. It was just a part of the economic system that prevailed. The farm laborer to a certain extent has been fairly noble, and they moved around a good bit. I don’t think that the rivalry was a matter of serious consequence. However, you saw some examples where people would lose their tempers at times. You see, we had to use a great many workers for two of the operation, one was weed control in cotton. When you had a year with a rainy spring and summer, the weeds and grass grew very fast, and there was a rivalry for the crews of hoe hands that came out of the towns and villages of the Delta. Sometimes farmers would try to divert crews from one are to another, usually by offering them more money. In the fall the picking of the cotton required additional workers form the hill areas of MS. These areas, mostly small farms, would finish their crops before we did and these workers would come into the area and spend several weeks by providing additional labor for cotton harvesting. All of this is a thing of the past. We harvest our crops almost 100% by machine pickers. While we use a little hand labor in cotton chopping especially when we have a wet spring, it is not a significant matter in the economy.
C.P: Why do you think International Harvester was so far in the lead during the mechanization process?
B.S.: For one thing, International Harvester was the largest manufacturer of farm equipment. Another, it did have dealers in the Delta that were very large and their sales and volume were enough to attract the attention of the manufacturer. Therefore, the dealers had an input in terms of need. The development of a mechanical method of harvesting cotton had been something that had intrigued agricultural engineers for many years. International Harvester didn’t initiate this research. In fact, they uses and built on research that had been don by other people. Mr. Hiram Berry here at Greenville and Leland, was on of the pioneers in developing a mechanical harvester. His research was primarily financed by some doctors in Greenville. Mr. Berry’s prototype picker is on display at Stoneville today. It has many of the features that were incorporated in the later pickers that became commercially important. The Rust picker was one of the early pickers. The International Harvester Research team borrowed as much as they could from all of these. But I would say primarily because of the importance to the economy of the United States and that in the Delta area you had the International Harvester dealers saw the need for this type of machine and exerted every effort to focus the attention of the manufacturer on solving these needs. Mr. Hand, being one of the dealers, helped to focus this attention.
C.P.: I’m interested in the impact of mechanization on the farmer, himself. It not only brought prosperity to him, but brought new demands and new requirements on the farmer, particularly educational and managerial. Would you go into this a little?
B.S.: Yes, it certainly has brought about a great many changes. For one thing the capital needs for agriculture have increased tremendously. Ten years ago, we estimated that the average Delta cotton farmer had over $100,000 per worker invested in land and machines. This compared at that time to the investments per worker in industry of about $25,000. So, agriculture under mechanization has become capital intensive. This has increased capital needs and has increased the risk the farmer has to take, because he is just putting more money on the line to make a crop. Also, as you have adapted mechanized practices and chemicals, you have shifted from the investment of hand labor to the investment of manufactured good. These prices of these manufactured goods are determined by the price of steel, the cost of labor which is controlled by labor unions. These prices have a habit of going up and sticking and never coming down. In other words, they have no relation to the price which the farmer receives for his commodity. You might have very low farm commodity prices and very high cost of input items at the same time. This has placed additional demands. The use of mechanized practices has meant that farmers have had to be pretty good engineers. They’ve had to understand the machinery that they use and be able to supervise the correct use of this machinery. When you started using chemicals, additional demands were made on farmers. They had to understand the safety practices that you had in the use of chemicals…It has meant that the farmer has to be more highly trained than he ever had in the past. Most of our farmers have had college training. Many of them are graduates of agricultural universities and other universities throughout the United States. The farmer today is not the one-gall used man with a straw in his mouth that many people thought about many years ago. The farmer today is a businessman. He has a tremendous investment. He is a very sophisticated entrepreneur.
C.P.: Even though the cotton picker had proved itself, hand picking continued throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Approximately, when was the majority of the cotton crops picked mechanically in the Delta?
B.S.: For quite a long time, Delta farmers had the capacity for picking the entire crop by machines before they utilized the machines to the fullest extent possible. The reason for this, again, we had a lot of people here. They wanted to participate in the cotton harvest. In fact, they like to pick cotton, believe it or not. They would quit good steady jobs in town during cotton picking season to go out and pick cotton. They picked in crews and it was more of a social occasion than anything else. This is hard for people today to understand, especially for some sociologists and others, but this is a fact. There acme a time, however, from an economic standpoint and the economics of the use of machines, it became just a lot more expensive to utilize hard labor for cotton picking than machines. If you paid the thousands of dollars that a cotton picker cost, you had to utilize it to the fullest extent possible in order to justify this type of investment. We also witnessed a change in the labor, they didn’t want to pick as they had in the past. The quality of the picking deteriorated. At one time we though that hand picked cotton was of higher quality, but this changed over a period in which machine picked cotton gave a higher quality than the hand picked cotton. The field loss in machine picked cotton was at one time a deterrent. A machine going through a field that is almost completely open does leave some lint in the field, but studies at Stoneville showed that this loss was not nearly as great as a lot of people though it was. The cotton just happened to be strung out, and it appeared to be more. When these facts became know and when the economics of the harvesting process became fully recognized, farmers went entirely to machine picking. You’ll see a little hand picking at the ends now. Occasionally you’ll see a hand picker in the field, but most often you’ll see two-row cotton pickers, not just one in a field but sometimes 12 or 15 in a large field.
C.P.: I understand that Mr. Hand was most influential in creating a Mechanization Research Division here at Stoneville. Do you know anything about this?
B.S.: The Mechanization Research Project at Stoneville has played a very important role in the development of mechanization and the development of machines used in cotton. Mr. Hand has, as I mentioned, in the Advisory Research Committee which has strong inputs into the research program at Stoneville, helped to focus attention on these needs. A lot of this is financed through the U.S.D.A. and some by the state. They work together on this. He did have and influence along with the influence played by a great many other people in the area who saw these needs also.
C.P.: Mr. Smith, thank you so much for all this information.
B.S.: It has been a pleasure.
END OF DOCUMENT