The Problem with Replacing Us with Machines

Right now, cotton growers get 500-600 pounds of cotton out of an acre (source). At peak production, slave owners claimed to be getting 1,000 pounds of cotton an acre.

Which means we still don’t have a machine that picks cotton as well as a person.

This is at the heart of what Baptist means when he points out that we’re lying to ourselves when we say that slavery would have just gone away in thirty or forty more years. Even assuming that the U.S. wouldn’t have found a million other things to do with an enslaved workforce, some forms of agriculture see John Henry winning against the machine every time. All the time.

Still, if we were willing to do to the cotton pickers what was done to the cotton pickers in the 1000 pound an acre days.

That, to me, is the second most chilling thing about the book (1. being how important liberty was to white men and how, even with that goal and that philosophy in their hearts, it was so very rare for a white man whose goal was liberty to even consider the possibility of anyone not in that category as being a part of the project of this country, as it exists to make men free) is how easily it would have been, how likely it was, for slavery to continue and to spread country-wide.

It is really almost a fluke–just an overstep on the part of the South–that lead us to war and thus to ending slavery.

When you think of how very likely it was that slavery would continue and expand, how, if the scenario played out 100 times, 95 of them probably would have ended with continued enslavement of black people, it feels no wonder that we’re still so fucked up about race and unable to see our way out of it.

12 thoughts on “The Problem with Replacing Us with Machines

  1. I’m finally getting around to studying a bit of California history. I am awe struck by how much the forming of this state – nay, even making this US land – involved serious concerns about enslavement and wild machinations to not upset slave owners more so than to, well, not enslave people. Some Californians seem to pride themselves on being a key factor in the end of legal US slavery.

    Now, whether those same people also feel shame for the legalized state of Indian peonage … that’s tough question.

  2. And this is still a state where questions about human agricultural labor are complex – and racialized, just not in quite the same ways as in the US South.

  3. No disagreement with your main point–mechanization doesn’t always improve efficiency (especially considering how cotton grows), and slavery would never have just ended on its own. Another considerations as far as the difference in yields, though, is the condition of the soil, which was a lot better then than now, and growing cotton takes an awful lot out of the soil.

  4. I think it’s that and that it was unacceptable for slaves to leave cotton on the plant and I’m pretty sure the inefficiencies of the machines are considered a cost of doing business. I think they just leave a lot more on the plant than they used to.

  5. To follow up on Elias’s comment, where were the areas where the 1,000 pounds an acre was being claimed? If they were in newly-planted areas, they not only benefited from not having had the soil exhausted; they had additional fertilization if the previous groundcover, whether grass or trees or whatever, were burned to open the space for cultivation. This is often the case with new arable, where you get one year, or even a couple, of really spectacular yields, and it then returns to the norm of the old arable.

  6. Yes, a portion of the amazing yields can be attributed to constant expansion and the requisite burning and plow-under that characterized field prep. (The entire state of Alabama is described as blue and hazy from the woodsmoke of the new fields.) There was only the very barest beginning of planting cowpeas as a form of nitrogen-return by 1860…and according to John Hebron Moore (who writes about agricultural techniques in the Cotton South), the increased yields were too small to justify the investment in chemical fertilizers until slavery ended. In other words, you could make the yield rise faster by whipping the hell out of people and increasing the efficiency of picking rather than increasing the actual yield of the plants. Moore also suggests that the rise of the “fine” plantation house occurred when planters grew sufficiently confident of their “soil conservation” program — they invested in the big brick houses as a signal that they intended to remain in their current location rather than moving into the new cotton lands. (Ahem. The Comanche may have had something to do with that…not all Texas was easy pickins.) It’s in ch 2 of Moore’s The Emergence of the Cotton South.)

  7. Also, in the 1840s, they changed over to Mexican and Hundred Seed cotton, which was longer staple, had a larger boll, and a heavier weight — so that helps to explain how yields measured in pounds could go up even as the fields may have been diminished in productivity per plant. Keep in mind that everyone — especially the enslaved — had great incentives to lie about daily production and yields per acre. If you’re being measured by how much cotton you can extract from your fields and how desperately you can drive your workers…you might bump up the numbers a touch.

  8. Bridgett, was in just in cotton country that cowpeas were introduced so late? Turnips, the European equivalent of nitgrogenation, started to get popular from the 1790s or so. Were northern USian farmers slow adopters as well?

  9. nm, Northern farmers were enthusiastic adapters of cowpeas and manure as enrichers. Smaller older fields made it both necessary and feasible. The costs were more than offset by returns in yield. Southern plantation owners basically ditched to slow topsoil erosion, but otherwise did little to improve soil conditions. It wasn’t that they didn’t know — southern ag magazines were fairly popular. It was that the size of their tracts made it impractical as long as torture of their workers produced better and cheaper results. They pretty much all eagerly adopted soil enrichment as the mark of the “progressive” farmer after 1865…in contrast to black farmers, who could not afford fertilizer or quality seed unless they went into debt. Thus, share cropping, where all the risk is again incurred by the worker and her family.

  10. I went home to Mississippi last weekend and I drove from here in Nashville down the Natchez Trace to get there. During the drive on the portion where I got through Alabama and into North Mississippi, there was a cotton field off to the right. The harvest happens around November/December. There was still a LOT of cotton still sitting out on the plants. So, yeah, machine harvesting isn’t so efficient.

  11. And this leads me to wonder (as the aha! bulb goes off) if the rising demands for organics (and the higher prices they command) is leading to increased immiseration and the speed-up among immigrant picker communities. If one can’t increase yield by increasing the quality of the soil conditions and we’re planting for flavor over yield (as the better tasting heirloom crops often aren’t heavy-bearing varieties)…then the yield has to be increased some other way.

    While it’s true that getting pesticides out of the fields is a positive for worker health, I’m now wondering if the picking conditions have gotten worse in other ways that can only be revealed by taking a look at what workers are saying on the migrant version of YELP. http://www.npr.org/2015/01/09/376183898/migrant-yelp

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