Working the fields at Cumberland Homesteads on the Cumberland Plateau in 1937.


More than any other form of human activity, agriculture has influenced the development of Tennessee and shaped the lives of its people. It was the driving force behind the state’s settlement, a vital factor in its economic growth, a major contributor to its wealthholding, the principal source of household income throughout much of its history, and a key element in the formation and perpetuation of its cultural heritage. It has affected, directly and indirectly, the relationships of Tennesseans with each other and with people outside the state, and in significant ways, it has defined their place in national and international affairs. The influence of agriculture on Tennessee’s past has been diverse and sometimes ambiguous. It has embraced change and sustained tradition, embodied success and occasioned failure, stimulated advancement and resisted progress. Agriculture, in short, has played a central role in the history of Tennessee.

The vast majority of immigrants who participated in the settlement of Tennessee in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shared a set of aspirations. They sought to create new and productive lives for themselves, their immediate families, and their heirs by exploiting the virgin territory’s rich farming potential. This objective, more than any other factor, sustained the state’s dynamic population growth in the early years and accounted for its rapid transition from frontier to mature settlement. Settlers first occupied the broad eastern valleys of the Tennessee and Holston River systems and the fertile central basin encircling the Cumberland River. By the time Tennessee entered the Union in 1796, these regions already supported substantial agricultural production. Settlement soon spread to the Cumberland Plateau and the Eastern Highland Rim situated between the eastern valleys and the central basin. Although sterile soil and barren terrain slowed and restricted the growth of agriculture in this area, farming eventually became the core source of livelihood for its residents. After the removal in 1818 of the last Chickasaw claims in the state, farmers moved across the Western Highland Rim to the western valley of the Tennessee River, the western plateau, and the bottomlands along the Mississippi River, where they established extensive farming activities soon after their arrival. Within little more than a half-century, settlers transformed Tennessee from an undeveloped wilderness into a collection of flourishing agricultural regions.

As settlers spread across the state, their initial tasks were to establish a farmstead and to provide for household subsistence. After securing access to land through purchasing, renting, or squatting on private or public property, they constructed an unadorned, small dwelling, cleared and broke ground for a field or two, and put in food crops. Families survived on goods transported from their previous locations, wild fruits and game, and fast-maturing garden vegetables until the first crop came in. Virtually every household planted corn as its main source of nourishment. An ideal pioneer crop, corn did well on new fields, required relatively little care during the growing season, produced high nutritional yields per acre, and provided the primary ingredient for many edibles. The few frontier households with fields suitable for broadcast crops also planted wheat or other small grains in the first few years. Some settlers brought along animals, and others acquired them from neighbors or livestock traders after arriving at their destinations. In either case, they soon supplemented their grain and vegetable diets with meat and dairy products. Swine cared for themselves, surviving on forest mast during most of the year, and their meat could be readily preserved through curing and smoking. For these reasons, pork was the preferred meat among farm families. Over the first few years, members of the household prepared additional land for cultivation, increased production of farm goods, expanded and improved their original dwelling, constructed auxiliary buildings, and made numerous other improvements to the farmstead. This routine recurred over and over in the late eighteenth century and well into the next, until eventually all of the regions of the state had been settled and brought into agricultural production.

Tennessee’s early rural families valued self-sufficiency and strove to supply from their own production as much of the household consumption as possible. But they also understood that realizing their aspirations of a better life required involvement in commercial agriculture. Almost from the beginning, they looked for opportunities to sell or barter produce from the farm. At first, these exchanges involved trading small amounts of surplus goods on the local market for cash or items they could not provide for themselves. Commercial opportunities broadened as settlement moved beyond the frontier stage, and farmers responded to the demand in more remote markets. Although they continued to meet much of their household needs, they began to emphasize the production of marketable goods for sale in distant urban centers in the United States and Europe. Cotton and tobacco became Tennessee’s principal cash crops. The state also sold sizable quantities of wheat and swine and smaller amounts of corn, beef cattle, and wool. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Tennessee supported a diversified agriculture based on a wide range of subsistence and commercial products.

The antebellum period saw other developments as well. As farmers concentrated on commercial goods and adapted their production schemes to particular soil, climate, and terrain conditions, regions of specialization emerged. The southwestern and south-central sectors of the state became areas of cotton cultivation, and the northwestern and north-central sectors became areas of tobacco cultivation. The central basin and the eastern valleys specialized in wheat, and the central basin and western plateau specialized in swine. Commercialization persuaded some farmers to pursue enhanced profits through expanded land and slave holdings. Because this strategy proved particularly effective in cotton production, plantation agriculture occurred more commonly in southwest Tennessee than elsewhere. Still, large-scale operations appeared throughout the state and produced a variety of commercial products. Small farms remained numerically dominant, but large plantations produced the bulk of Tennessee’s marketable commodities. Involvement in the market also encouraged farmers to improve their efficiency by employing new technology and better managerial techniques. They purchased animal-drawn equipment and blooded livestock, used improved varieties of seeds and fertilizers, and practiced soil conservation. They experimented with ways to extract the greatest amount of labor at the lowest cost from their slaves and hired workers. They became more sensitive to market conditions in their business decisions. Just as the size and focus of agricultural enterprises varied widely, so the commitment to innovation ranged from the sophisticated planter’s adoption of the latest technology and commercial techniques to the uninformed farmer’s use of primitive hand tools in a basically subsistence regimen.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the state’s agricultural economy was well established and exercised wide-reaching influence. Tennessee ranked among the top ten states in the production of cotton, tobacco, corn, wheat, swine, and sheep, and sixth in total livestock value. It produced ample amounts of several small grains other than wheat, several fibers other than cotton, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Food production exceeded the needs of Tennessee residents; the surplus fed people elsewhere in the United States and in Europe. Domestic and foreign manufacturers depended on the state’s cotton, tobacco, and wool for their raw materials. A diverse group of intermediaries emerged to service the financial and commercial needs of farmers, and their business activities depended heavily on agricultural conditions. Rural Tennesseans, of course, benefited from the state’s antebellum farming development, but so too did many people in different places and from different circumstances.

The Civil War devastated Tennessee’s agricultural economy. Military combat and occupation wrought extensive damage and destruction to primary dwellings, outbuildings, wells, fences, crops, and livestock. Wartime neglect also took its toll in the form of overgrown fields, dilapidated buildings, and deteriorating tools and machinery. The commercial infrastructure–financial, marketing, and transportation services–that farmers depended upon to participate in the market collapsed. Emancipation freed over a quarter of a million slaves, the cost of which was borne by the state’s slaveholders. Crude congressional estimates placed the property loss to Tennessee farmers at almost 200 million dollars, 2.5 times the annual value of farm production on the eve of the Civil War.

Once the war was over, Tennesseans began the arduous task of rebuilding their agricultural system, preserving many features of the past. Farmers retained a strong commercial orientation, cotton and tobacco remained the major cash crops, and regional specialization continued. But the postwar years witnessed a significant reorganization of Tennessee agriculture. Many former plantations, their slave labor force eliminated with emancipation, were subdivided into smaller units, with a resulting rise in the number and decline in the average size of farms. An increase in land owners–largely white operators and a smaller portion of the former slaves who also became owners–accompanied these changes. Tenancy rates rose sharply as many whites displaced by the war and many blacks freed by the war found refuge in sharecropping and other forms of farm rental on subdivided plantations. Other members of those same groups, former slaves in particular, became workers on the large-scale operations that survived after the war. Wartime destruction of livestock and postwar shifts in land distribution and tenure markedly dropped foodstuffs production, and correspondingly, the degree of self-sufficiency among farm households declined. At the same time, cotton production more than doubled and tobacco production increased by almost 15 percent between 1860 and 1900. Under the slow and irregular pace of postwar reorganization, farmers continued to specialize in a number of commodities for sale on domestic and foreign markets, but the scale and the nature of their operations had changed profoundly.

By contrast, relatively little change occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century. Improved markets immediately after the turn of the century and strong demand during World War I, to be sure, brought temporary expansion of cotton, tobacco, and wheat production. But worldwide surpluses soon after the war drove down prices to below pre-war levels and caused modest declines in cotton and tobacco acreage in the 1920s. Because they lacked the necessary financial resources, few Tennessee farmers adopted the technology–tractors, trucks, hybrid seeds, and commercial fertilizers–that had become available in the 1920s and was revolutionizing agriculture elsewhere in the country. They continued instead to use the less efficient animal-drawn machinery, hand tools, and cultivation techniques from the nineteenth century. The Great Depression of the 1930s exacerbated conditions. With the precipitous drop in already depressed prices, the federal government fashioned schemes to reduce commodity surpluses through limitations on acreage and quotas on marketing. Farmers participated by cutting back even further on cotton and tobacco cultivation in return for government subsidies. Furthermore, federal programs had the unintended effect of reducing tenancy. Many landlords chose to idle land they had previously rented out, often forcing their tenants to leave agriculture altogether. The depression persuaded farmers to place renewed emphasis on subsistence production, resulting in a modest return to household self-sufficiency. From 1900 to 1940, Tennessee agriculture experienced short-lived and illusory prosperity followed by stagnation and economic hardship.

World War II ushered in a new period of transformation and advancement. War-induced demand ended the depression, reinvigorated commercial activities, and brought a return of agricultural prosperity. It stimulated production of the state’s traditional market commodities as well as soybeans, a crop farmers had grown earlier primarily as forage and green manure. The decline in acreage devoted to cotton and tobacco, a trend begun in the 1920s and temporarily interrupted by the war, resumed in the late 1940s. Driving the postwar trend in both commodities were worldwide oversupplies, a softening of consumer demand (due, in the case of cotton, to preference for alternative fabrics and, in the case of tobacco, to health concerns), rising labor costs, and the continuation of federal programs to limit production. In the 1980s improvements in technology and more favorable market conditions reversed the trend in cotton. Production of the fiber, which had dropped by more than 50 percent from 1949 to 1982, exceeded immediate postwar levels by almost 30 percent in the early 1990s. While remaining an essential part of the farm economy, tobacco continued to decline in relative importance. A lucrative new crop was soybeans. Shortages of industrial and edible oils during the war and the development of a wide array of new soybean-based products after the war fueled an enormous increase in both domestic and foreign demand. Tennessee farmers responded by increasing their output by a factor of almost one thousand between 1949 and 1992, making soybeans the state’s most valuable crop. They also devoted more of their resources to livestock, especially beef and dairy cattle and swine. Because the state was well endowed with grasslands and animals required less labor than field crops, livestock provided an attractive alternative to cotton and tobacco when domestic demand for meat and dairy goods soared in the prosperous postwar years. Farmers continued to cultivate a variety of commercial grains, principally wheat and corn; with improvements in the packaging, transportation, and distribution of perishables, some moved into large-scale production of fruits and vegetables.

The postwar transformation involved more, however, than modification in production choices. Tennessee farmers participated in a nationwide agricultural revolution that generated far-reaching change throughout the country. The driving force behind the revolution was the adoption of highly sophisticated new technology. The internal combustion engine tractor was arguably the most crucial innovation. Tractors had begun to appear on Tennessee farms even before World War II; after the war their adoption accelerated markedly. In time, they completely displaced mules and horses to drive the machinery for most field tasks. Although the initial investment was greater, tractors cost less to maintain, delivered more power, and were more dependable than draft animals. Most importantly, tractors substantially reduced the need for farm hands, a critical factor in the period of rising labor costs following World War II. The internal combustion engine also became the prime mover in self-propelled machinery designed for specialized functions such as cotton and soybean harvesting.

In addition to mechanical innovations, farmers also took full advantage of biological and chemical developments. They adopted new strains of cotton, tobacco, corn, wheat, grain, sorghum, and vegetables which offered higher yields, superior quality, and better adaptability to weather and soil conditions. They used synthesized fertilizers which delivered a greater range and larger amounts of nutrients to the soil. They applied herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants, largely eliminating problems from troublesome weeds and insects and enhancing possibilities for double-cropping. Just as new machines improved the productivity of labor, so these innovations improved the productivity of land. Livestock raising as well as crop cultivation benefited from the sweeping changes taking place. Crossbreeding created new bloodlines of cattle, swine, and poultry superior in quality and productivity and better adapted to natural conditions in Tennessee. Artificial insemination permitted breeders more effectively to select and transmit to succeeding generations desired animal traits. Farmers across the state recognized the benefits of these developments, and many were quick to capitalize on them.

These innovations also generated significant changes in management. To make a profit, heavy investments in labor-saving machinery and livestock, coupled with increased operating costs from herbicides, insecticides, and fuel, necessitated a larger scale of operation. Since the end of World War II, consequently, the number of farms has declined by two thirds and the average size has doubled. Those same conditions proved to be poorly compatible with farm tenancy, and the portion of renters has dropped from a third to less than 7 percent over the same period. The entry of corporate enterprise into farm management was yet another aspect of the postwar transformation. Business firms sometimes provided supplies and services to farmers in return for contracted production of marketable commodities; they sometimes purchased land and equipment and went into production on their own. In Tennessee, agribusiness, as these corporate arrangements have been labeled, became most common in poultry and specialized fruits and vegetables.

Despite an enduring commercial orientation, farming has from the beginning of settlement in the eighteenth century to the present played a broader cultural role in Tennessee. Rural residents have viewed farming as a way of life and as a social organization for perpetuating worthwhile values. Although they never precisely defined the substance of that life or of those values, they emphasized the desirability of household independence, family cohesion, community sharing and cooperation, and working the land. They sought to pass on these cultural objectives and goals to future generations. Since World War II the adoption of scientific agriculture, the expanding size of operations, and increasing commercialization have gradually undermined that cultural function. Farming as a business has largely displaced farming as a way of life.

Tennessee never regained the national agricultural importance it held on the eve of the Civil War. At that time, no other state ranked as high in so many different products. Still, Tennessee farmers have continued to supply the country with a variety of high quality farm goods, to contribute significantly to its foreign exports, and to add substantially to its annual value of agricultural output. They have sustained their own incomes–albeit sometimes at less than satisfactory levels–and enhanced those of many others in Tennessee and elsewhere. And they have managed these accomplishments even though the economic and cultural role of agriculture has steadily eroded.

Suggested Reading

Harriette Simpson Arnow, Flowering of the Cumberland (1963); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeomen, 1840-1860 (1942); Gilbert C. Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980 (1984); Mary Hoffschwelle, Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1900-1930 (1998); Robert Tracy McKenzie, One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (1994); Melissa Walker, All We Knew Was to Farm: Rural Women in the Upcountry South, 1919-1941 (2000); Donald L. Winters, Tennessee Farming, Tennessee Farmers: Antebellum Agriculture in the Upper South (1994)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Agriculture
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018