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Agriculture in Alabama

Charles Mitchell, Auburn University
Cotton Bale
Alabama agriculture has changed considerably since the mid-1860s, when cotton was king and Alabama was known as "The Cotton State." By 1914, almost four million acres were planted to cotton, and by 2015 only 1.5 million acres were devoted to all agricultural crops. Alabama's landscape today is dominated by woodlands, pine plantations, scattered pastureland and hayfields, and small rural and suburban homesteads that stretch between major metropolitan areas. Few modern Alabamians depend totally on agricultural production for their livelihood, but as of 2015 there were 42,700 farms on 8.8 million acres (averaging 206 acres per farm) that sold over $5.5 billion worth of commodities. Poultry and eggs accounted for 65 percent of these sales, cattle and calves accounted for 11 percent, nursery and greenhouse crops 8 percent, and cotton 4 percent.
Agriculture has been practiced in what is now Alabama for centuries. Prehistoric Native Americans practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, in which they cut and burned forests to make room for their patches of corn, beans, and squash. Early European travelers through Alabama described vast areas of the landscape that were open savannahs, the result of natural and human-made fires.
During Alabama's territorial period, settlers established the first farms, primarily along navigable rivers near where Native American villages once stood. The pattern of agricultural development is closely associated with Alabama's major soil types and geographical regions. Early settlers moving south from Tennessee and Kentucky found the clayey, limestone-derived soils of the Tennessee Valley and other north Alabama valleys well suited to crop production. The soils of the Piedmont area were initially attractive to settlers moving westward from Georgia, but they quickly discovered that soils on the hilly land washed away easily after plowing. The central Alabama Black Belt Prairie region, once known as the "Canebrake," appealed to those emigrating from the Carolinas and Georgia. The region was accessible because of its rivers and its dark, clayey soils were well suited to plantation-style cotton production. Although cotton and other crops were grown on the sandy soils of the Cumberland Plateau and the Coastal Plain, they were not as productive, and farmers had not yet adopted the use of fertilizer and lime to increase soil fertility.
Several events in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries combined to dramatically affect Alabama's early agricultural development. The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain created an insatiable appetite for cotton fiber and in 1794, Eli Whitney patented a new type of cotton gin in the United States, which lowered the cost of processing fiber. In 1814, Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee Volunteers joined with Cherokee warriors to defeat the Red Stick faction of the Creek Indian nation in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River. This event resulted in the cession of millions of acres of former Creek lands and opened up the territory west of the Chattahoochee River for settlement. By the time Alabama became a state in 1819, the interior of the state was easily accessed via the Tombigbee, Warrior, Alabama, and Chattahoochee rivers. Crops could also be transported to European and New England markets via the ports of Mobile and Apalachicola, Florida. Settlers poured into the new state with one objective: grow cotton.
Cotton and Crop Diversification
Cotton acreage expanded rapidly throughout Alabama until the outbreak of the Civil War, particularly in the Black Belt and Tennessee Valley regions where plantations prospered using mostly enslaved labor. Soils in these areas were clayey, more fertile, and not as acidic as the soils of the Coastal Plain and Cumberland Plateau. Mobile grew as well, becoming a major U.S. port because of the cotton industry. The Civil War brought financial and physical devastation and great change to Alabama's political, financial, and social history. Cotton production boomed after the war, as sharecropping replaced the plantation system. Some historians argue this new system empowered landowners and oppressed those who worked the land as much as slavery had. The number of acres planted in cotton grew steadily from around one million in 1866 to almost four million in 1914.
The only other crop grown to any extent during the post-Civil War period was corn to feed livestock and the people who worked the land. Although few records of corn production exist, estimates indicate that as many acres were planted in corn as cotton. Until the 1930s, very few soil amendments were added to replace nutrients used up by the crops, and the common practice of plowing in the fall and planting in the spring resulted in widespread and severe soil erosion.
Alabama led the former Confederate states in agricultural education and was the first to take advantage of the 1862 federal Morrill Act, which aimed to create land-grant "agricultural and mechanical" universities separate from established state universities. In 1872, the East Alabama Male College (now Auburn University) in Auburn, the Lee County, was a recipient of Morrill Act funds and was designated the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College with the purpose of teaching agricultural, mechanical, and military sciences. In 1883, the Alabama legislature appropriated funds to establish the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, the first in the South. Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 in Tuskegee, Macon County, also served as a leader in agricultural education. Thomas Monroe Campbell, a Tuskegee graduate and the first African American extension agent, brought newly developed agricultural methods and technology to rural black farmers with his Movable School. Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver researched and promoted the production of peanuts on the sandy, infertile soils of southeastern Alabama. Both Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a private institution in south Alabama, and the State Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes near Huntsville (now Alabama A&M University) were recipients of federal land-grant funds associated with the Land Grant Act of 1890. With research and teaching devoted to scientific methods and improvements and three land-grant institutions, Alabama's agricultural landscape slowly began to change.
One of the most dramatic changes in cotton production in Alabama and throughout the South was the appearance and subsequent destruction cause by the Mexican boll weevil. This insect reached Alabama in 1910, being first discovered in western Mobile County, and had a devastating effect on the cotton crop, with cotton production declining by one million acres at full infestation. Because of its devastating effect on the state's cotton crop production , attention turned toward controlling the boll weevil. This effort continued until the mid-1990s when an effective boll weevil eradication program was implemented.
Cotton Farm
Although cotton dominated Alabama agriculture until after World War II, a gradual diversification of agriculture occurred partially because of the boll weevil. Peanut acreage expanded in the Wiregrass region of southeastern Alabama. Almost 10,000 acres of commercial citrus was grown in Mobile and Baldwin counties by 1920. In the 1910s, farmers began establishing peach and pecan orchards in central and south Alabama. Legumes such as cowpeas, vetch, Caley peas, and clovers were introduced as green manure crops to add valuable nitrogen to the soil. Fertilizers such as nitrate of soda, superphosphate, and kainit (a potassium-bearing mineral) began to be used to replace the nutrients in worn-out croplands. Ground limestone and basic slag (a byproduct of the growing iron and steel industry) were introduced to neutralize acidic soils.
Cattle and Livestock
Cattle first came to the Southeast with Europeans during the colonial era. Alabama's cattle industry during the nineteenth century was concentrated in the piney woods of South Alabama, where the open range dominated some counties until the mid-twentieth century. Most cattle were raised for local consumption, but some beef was shipped from Mobile along with Alabama's cotton crops. The conversion of some of the Black Belt cotton farms into grasslands and the introduction of European breeds of beef and dairy cattle in the twentieth century quickly transformed the Black Belt into cattle country. Fundamental to the region's rise as a cattle center was the presence of johnsongrass (Sorghum halapense), a tall, perennial, Mediterranean grass named for the Marion Junction plantation owner who introduced it in the 1840s. The grass spread easily in the dark, fertile, clayey soils of the Black Belt region. Although cotton farmers loathed it as a weed, cattlemen loved it because it provided grazing and a hay crop when few other perennial forage grasses were available.
Arab Cattle Auction
By the late 1960s, Alabama farm income from cattle exceeded that from cotton and large-scale poultry broiler and egg production replaced cotton on the small, hillside farms of the Cumberland Plateau. Fertilizers in the form of poultry manure and litter used for bedding transformed the fields of the region into productive pastures. New forages such as tall fescue, hybrid bermudagrass, bahiagrass, lespedeza, white clover, and red clover were introduced through research and extension efforts at land-grant universities. These provided nutritious grazing for livestock throughout the state.
Agriculture to Industry
In the twentieth century Alabama's economy also gradually changed from agriculture to industry. Industrial cities attracted workers from the pool of agricultural labor, forcing remaining farmers to invest in mechanical cotton pickers, larger tractors and harvesting equipment, mechanical milking machines, and automated feeders and waterers for large poultry operations. In the 1960s, machinery largely replaced human labor, displacing many farm workers at a time when other social changes were occurring in the South.
By the 1970s, much of Alabama's former cotton land had been abandoned, planted with pine trees, or converted to pastureland. A global boom in soybean prices encouraged many Alabama growers to plow up old fields for this relatively new oilseed crop. Even growers in the Midwest sold higher-priced farmland and moved South to grow soybeans. By 1980, 2.2 million acres of soybeans had been planted throughout Alabama, but by 2000, falling soybean prices dashed the hopes of farmers looking for an alternative cash crop, and soybean farming dropped to 160,000 acres. The USDA's Conservation Reserve Program encouraged the planting of trees on acres that had once grown soybeans and cotton. Soil erosion was finally under control by the late twentieth century, but the economy of small-town and rural Alabama, particularly in the Black Belt region, had already been devastated by the loss of agricultural income and jobs.
Alabama's Modern Agriculture
Red Angus Cattle
Modern agricultural production is extremely efficient, whether poultry and egg production or cotton and peanut production. Many present-day independent farmers may grow crops on more than 2,000 acres of land with only three or four highly trained and well-paid workers. In addition to cotton, farmers often raise livestock, usually a cow and calf operation in which the yearlings are sold to feedlots in other parts of the United States. Some farmers also rotate cotton with corn, soybeans, or peanuts. Instead of plowing the soil and leaving it bare, farmers plant a cover crop of wheat, rye, clover, or vetch to protect the soil, add organic matter, and reduce erosion. Farmers till as little as possible to leave as much plant residue on the surface to protect the soil. Although dependent upon commercial fertilizers, they may also use poultry litter from a poultry broiler farm to improve pastures. Some may also recycle municipal biosolids from wastewater treatment plants, boiler ashes, and waste lime from paper mills. Ground limestone is used extensively to improve productivity of acidic, infertile soils. At one time, farmers had to spray cotton with pesticides up to 10 times during the season to control boll weevils, boll worms, other insects, weeds, and diseases. Now, genetically modified crops and integrated pest management practices reduce or eliminate the need for pesticide applications.
Many modern Alabama producers are part-time farmers. Most of their income comes from working in industry, education, government jobs, or local businesses. A typical family farm may have four or more broiler-chicken houses under a contract for meat chicken production. Each house can produce 30,000, six-pound chickens every six weeks. Almost all chickens produced in Alabama are raised under contract with a large centralized company that provides the chickens, feed, medications, and technical information and collects and processes the chickens in a local plant. Some cattle farmers raise cows to produce calves, which are then sold to other part-time cattleman who feed the calves, called stockers, on highly nutritious ryegrass, wheat, rye, and clover planted for winter grazing. These farmers then sell the calves, which weigh 700 pounds or more, to feedlots in Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, or Iowa to be finished on grain prior to slaughter.
Regional Agriculture
Wiregrass. The southeastern region of Alabama's Coastal Plain is known as the Wiregrass for the species of grass that once covered the floor of the longleaf pine forests of the area. The region may be the most agriculturally diverse in Alabama, producing cotton, peanuts, poultry, cattle, some vegetables, and forestry products. Following cotton in the nineteenth century, peanuts dominated the Wiregrass during most of the twentieth century. The peanut crop was heavily subsidized by U.S. government programs until the early twenty-first century. As these programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed or were eliminated, peanut production became less profitable for Wiregrass farmers and more profitable for farmers in other regions of the state. In the 1990s, with the eradication of the boll weevil, Wiregrass farmers began planting more cotton.
Southwest. The southwestern area of Alabama's Coastal Plain, encompassing Mobile, Baldwin, Escambia, and Monroe Counties, is the heart of the state's timber industry and is also home to productive fields of cotton, soybeans, and grain crops. Further from the coast, land
in Washington, Clarke, Choctaw, and Conecuh Counties is mostly devoted to timber and cattle. In the 1990s, cotton acreage expanded in Mobile and Baldwin counties as the boll weevil was eliminated and former grain and vegetable farmers looked for more profitable alternative crops. At the same time, farmers began planting peanuts as a rotation crop with cotton. Pecan orchards are found throughout the region, although much of Alabama's acreage has been reduced because of insects, disease, and hurricane damage. Satsuma (Mandarin) oranges, a major crop in the area during the early twentieth century, are again being produced along the Gulf Coast for local markets. Commercial nurseries producing ornamentals and landscaping plants and commercial sod production are important industries in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Pine plantations cover much of the rural land, producing timber for local pulp and paper mills and other wood-products industries. Wildlife management, hunting, and recreation associated with forests have become an important source of revenue for some land owners.
Catfish Farm
Black Belt. The nineteenth-century cotton plantations and sharecropper farms have long vanished from the Black Belt region along with many of the dairies and large cattle operations that replaced them. Pine trees have been planted where suitable, and the pulp and paper industries thrive in this region today. Cattle operations remain an important industry, and there are still a few row-crop farms. Catfish farms and other forms of aquaculture, including shrimp, crawfish, and tilapia, have grown rapidly in this area because of favorable soils and the relatively low cost of pond construction. Hunting and wildlife management have also become important in the Black Belt, providing some income for land owners.
Upper Coastal Plain. This region is one of the most topographically diverse in the state. Because of the hilly terrain, row crops are planted mostly on the bottomlands and other flat areas. Cotton farming is largely restricted to Autauga, Elmore, and Dallas Counties, and cattle
Alabama Peaches
operations can be found scattered throughout the area. Chilton County has always been the heart of Alabama's peach and vegetable growing region, producing commodities for local markets. As in the rest of the state, pine plantations and managed timber production are found throughout the Upper Coastal Plain.
Cumberland Plateau. The rolling plateaus and valleys of the southern Appalachians in northeastern Alabama is the heart of Alabama's poultry industry, which is concentrated in Cullman, Marshall, Blount, and DeKalb Counties. Excess nutrients produced from the poultry houses are in turn used to fertilize pastures and hayfields, and therefore poultry farms may also be cow-calf operations. In recent years,
Poultry Farm in Morgan County
suburban and exurban mini-farms have expanded onto former farmland, and horses are now a growing industry. Some small farms produce fruits and vegetables for local markets. Cullman County ranks number one in total agricultural income for Alabama because of its large poultry and cattle industries.
Tennessee Valley. The Tennessee Valley is Alabama's most concentrated row-crop-producing area, with Limestone, Madison, and Lawrence counties leading in cotton acreage. Soybean, corn, and wheat are also important commodities in this region, as are cattle. Urban sprawl from Huntsville, Decatur, Athens, and Florence has consumed much of the former farmland in the Tennessee Valley region. Small suburban and exurban hobby farms occupy more land for urban commuters.
The Piedmont. Agriculture in the hilly Piedmont of eastern Alabama has probably changed more than any other region since the days when cotton was king. Very few acres of row crops are found in this region today; pastures, hayfields, and tree farms occupy most of the Piedmont. Poultry production is important in Cleburne, Clay, and Randolph Counties, and wildlife management has become a source of income for some landowners.
Alabama's Agricultural Future
Alabama has tried to take advantage of emerging opportunities as the face of agriculture has changed. With an average of more than 50 inches of rainfall a year, water is one of the state's most abundant natural resources. Yet much of this water runs off of the land, and most Alabama soils have little available water. Periodic short-term droughts during the summer growing season are always obstacles to crop and forage production. The growing aquaculture industry demonstrates one way to capture and use this water. As water for irrigation becomes scarce and expensive in arid regions of the country, more attention may be focused on Alabama as a setting for agricultural production.
Global energy needs also may improve the future of agriculture in Alabama. Corn and oilseed crops, such as soybean and peanuts that can be converted into ethanol or bio-diesel, are being studied as a potential source of bio-fuels. Both native and introduced grasses such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) and giant reed (Arundo donax) are being studied as potential sources of fuel, cellulosic ethanol, and fiber for pulp production. Alabama's forests and timberlands will remain a major source for wood products and pulp and will likely become increasingly important in energy production as a source of fuel and cellulosic ethanol.
The future of concentrated animal feeding operations such as large poultry farms, swine operations, and dairies will depend on management decisions and government regulations. Managing and recycling wastes from large operations will be a key to the future growth of these operations. Also, wastes and byproducts from industrial processing plants and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, such as bio-solids, will continue to be issues that Alabama agriculture will have to address in cooperation with environmental agencies.
Sustainability in agricultural production has always been a concern for Alabama's farmers, but history dictates that economics tend to supersede sustainability. Farmers and researchers have learned how to manage Alabama's soil resources after almost 200 years of mistakes. Today's farmers are moving increasingly toward using conservation tillage practices and less fossil fuels, recycling nutrients, improving soil health, and adopting emerging technologies, such as genetically modified crops
Organic Tomatoes
for disease, insect, and weed control. Sustainability issues are being largely addressed by specialty groups such as organic producers, who generally market to urban areas. The USDA's National Organic Program is working closely with the segment of producers who grow fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and eggs for local markets in which the farmers can demand and get a premium price. There will always be a niche market for small scale and part-time producers, though energy and transportation costs will also influence these local markets. Nevertheless, the future of Alabama agriculture, like agriculture in most of the developed world, will depend on large, specialty farms producing for integrated companies which cater to the world market.
Additional Resources
Blevins, Brooks. Cattle in the Cotton Fields: A History of Cattle Raising in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Davis, C. S. The Cotton Kingdom in Alabama. Montgomery: Alabama State Department Archives and history, 1939.
Duggar, J. F. Southern Field Crops. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925.
Oliver, T. W. A Narrative History of Cotton in Alabama. Montgomery: Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery, Inc., 1992.
Published:  December 4, 2007   |   Last updated:  November 15, 2016