What’s Old is New: Things Sharecroppers Knew

Written By: Claudia Stack 

Flip through any magazine about sustainable agriculture or self-sufficiency, and you’ll find techniques that often echo the wisdom of prior generations. From composting to co-grazing, these approaches are really about relationships, whether with the land, livestock or neighbors. I have a personal interest in these matters, as my family raises cattle and pigs on a small farm in Pender County. I also directed the documentary film SHARECROP (2017). This film highlights oral history from ten people who sharecropped between 1930 and 1960. Whether they owned their land or were sharecroppers, many farmers prior to 1940 lived on small, diversified farms. In the process of making SHARECROP, I saw my interest in current sustainable agriculture converge with recollections of former sharecroppers, many of whom raised all of their own food. Here are some of the intersections:


Birds follow grazing animals

Like most people, I learned as a grade school student how soil forms (organic matter in the form of decaying plants, animals and manure mixes with weathered rock). However, I was still amazed to witness this phenomenon: Put cattle on your pasture and the birds will come. Birds really do follow grazing animals, playing a critical role in creating fertile soil by scratching manure apart. On our farm, pretty white Cattle Egrets appeared, as if by magic within a few weeks of when we brought cattle here. Just as the former sharecroppers used to do, we let our chickens out to the range during the day, as they also love to scratch behind the cattle.


Every living thing on the farm has to earn its keep

Sharecroppers didn’t have the luxury of keeping pets; every animal on the farm had to do something to earn its keep. It’s hard to believe, but even a barn cat lazing in the sun does an important job. He prowls for rodents that would spoil food if rodent populations were allowed to grow unchecked. Dogs alert us to visitors and scare away foxes. The chickens convert pasture and discarded vegetables into nutritious eggs. As for the humans who reside on the farm? We are fortunate in that, unlike the situations many sharecroppers had to endure, we can make decisions about how to use the land and how long to stay. We benefit from what is produced, but we are also kept humble by the rhythms of caring for livestock in all kinds of weather, day in and day out.


Necessity is the mother of invention

While all of the former sharecroppers I interviewed gardened while growing up, their families saved costly synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for the “cash crops” (cotton or tobacco). They found other ways to add nutrients to their garden soil and keep pest damage down. One man, now age 86, recalled that in the autumn his father would put a deep bed of straw in the stable and have the mules and cows take shelter there all winter. By spring the straw would be rotten and full of manure. Following the time-honored practice of using compost, they shoveled this mix onto their garden patch before planting. Another man who is in his 70s says his family would hand pick all of the bugs and hornworms off of their tomato plants rather than use pesticides. These practices are in accord with the priorities of people who run small sustainable farms today, as they seek to minimize chemical inputs.


Eating local can mean eating from your backyard

Environmentally conscious consumers often consider the concept of “food miles” (the impact of how many miles our food is shipped) when making food choices. Sharecroppers and today’s farmers alike know that eating local can mean gathering food just steps from the house.A half hour spent harvesting on a day in June might yield blueberries, tomatoes and fresh eggs.


Heirloom vegetable varieties offer unique benefits

That certain plant varieties are uniquely suited to certain areas or uses, is an idea as old as agriculture itself, but in recent decades there has been a steep decline in the number of vegetable varieties commonly available. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but a 1983 study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International documented that 93% of the plant varieties commercially available in 1903 are now extinct. Sharecroppers knew the value of saving seeds from their best plants and using vegetable varieties well suited for their area, and today there is a resurgence of interest in heirloom vegetables.


Neighbors help each other

Being a real neighbor means more than just living nearby. Real neighbors help each other in times of trouble or loss; they band together to accomplish things that a single family cannot. Small farmers, whether sharecroppers or landowners, often helped each other at harvest season. It was also common for neighbors to share their surpluses, something I now do because I was inspired by my older friends.


Even though 80% of the U.S. population now resides in urban areas, neighborly traditions are still embraced by many North Carolinians. When we care for each other we are honoring the most important values of those who came before us, regardless of where we live.