Agricultural tenancy is a broad, often loosely defined term used to describe a variety of land and labor arrangements in which individuals farm a plot of land that they do not own but have instead rented for a definite period of time. In Tennessee, as elsewhere across the United States, the institution has historically taken a variety of forms, with the major differences among them centering on the method of payment, allocation of risk, and degree of managerial autonomy. The most common forms of tenancy historically included fixed-rent tenancy, whereby the tenant pays the landlord a fixed amount of cash or a stipulated quantity of agricultural products (the latter agreement is often called "standing rent"). In this arrangement the tenant assumes all the burden of risk and makes most managerial decisions independently of the landlord. Another prevalent type has been share tenancy, a system in which the tenant pays rent in the form of a specified proportion (or share) of all agricultural output produced on the rented acreage. Under this system part of the burden of risk shifts to the landlord, who in turn frequently demands greater control of farm operations. Technically, agricultural tenancy also includes the system of sharecropping, a labor arrangement in which an individual family receives (rather than pays) a share of the crop produced on a plot of land in return for their labor on the same plot. Landlord and tenant again share risk in this system, but because the landlord commonly provides work stock, tools, and seed, he demands a greater degree of supervision and managerial control than under share tenancy.
Tenancy varied greatly over the last two centuries in its importance to the state's economy. Although government statistics prior to 1880 are not available, systematic study of landholding patterns in sample Tennessee counties indicates that by 1860 tenants constituted between one-sixth and one-fifth of farm operators across the state and were responsible for between five and 10 percent of all farm output. The prevalence of tenancy increased dramatically after the Civil War, due to the dramatic reorganization of the state's agriculture in the aftermath of emancipation. The state's tenancy rate was 34.5 percent as early as 1880 and topped 40 percent two decades later. It remained at this high level (peaking at 46.5 percent in 1930) until it began a precipitous drop after World War II as mechanization increasingly replaced tenant labor in the state's agricultural economy.
The precise economic effect of tenancy on Tennessee agriculture is difficult to establish. Its impact at any given point in time has probably been minimal. A study of agricultural production patterns in the late nineteenth century, for example, has shown that crop and livestock yields on Tennessee farms did not vary significantly according to the tenure of the farm operator, indicating that tenant farms were about as productive as owner-operated units. In the long run, however, the growth of tenancy may have had a detrimental impact on the state's agriculture, primarily due to the chronic restlessness of the tenant population. (A 1937 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that at least one-third of all tenants changed farms annually.) Because of their indefinite tenure on the land, tenants tended to focus on maximizing their short-term income and had less incentive than owner-operators to engage in soil conservation measures and other land improvements that enhance long-term productivity. The efforts of landlords to require long-term improvements from their tenants and to monitor the extent of compliance may have mitigated the adverse effects to some (unknown) degree.
The exact social significance of agricultural tenancy is also somewhat problematic. Defenders of the institution assert that it has historically functioned as a rung on the "agricultural ladder," i.e., it has generally served tenants as a stepping stone to independent land ownership. Critics, on the other hand, view the very existence of tenancy as a sign of distress in the farm sector; according to this view, the institution has more commonly functioned to reify the permanent, dead-end status of a rural proletariat.
The most accurate assessment surely falls between these extremes. Undeniably, tenants always lived far closer to the margins of economic subsistence than owner-operators. On average, they worked much smaller plots than owners and received incomes only one-third to one-fourth as large. Even so, the extent of upward mobility from tenancy into independent land ownership has been impressive. A study of sample counties between 1850 and 1880 indicates that across Tennessee as a whole at least one-half of tenants were likely to acquire farms of their own in any given decade. Similarly, a study by the Department of Commerce in 1920 (when approximately 41 percent of all Tennessee farms were operated by tenants) found that one-half of all farm owners in the east south-central United States (including Tennessee) had previously been tenants. Although the evidence is not as complete as one would desire, it does appear that the extent of movement up the "agricultural ladder" was significant. For the majority of farm tenants in Tennessee's past, hard work and perseverance evidently bore fruit, eventually, in independent farm ownership.
Robert Tracy McKenzie, One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (1994)