by Laura Bell
When Margret C. Henderson mentioned that her parents were sharecroppers for, “a white man,” there was an obvious distain in her voice. Margret noticed my puzzled expression. I was surprised that sharecropping would be common in Nelson County in her lifetime. She responded, “That’s just the way it was.” After some research, I learned tenant farming in Virginia was common well into the 1930’s. Framed as a means to offer freed slaves a ‘start’, the tenant system was often more domineering and unfair than one might imagine. Virginia farming changed dramatically after the Civil War. Due to post war poverty and social change, thousands of former slaves and white farmers lacked the farmland, seeds, and livestock needed to begin farming. Many land owners divided their plots of land and entered into labor contracts with tenant farmers. Sharecropping remained common in the South until the Great Depression.
The date was Monday March 12, 2012, and Alex Howle, Katelyn Kresse-Smith and I had piled in Katelyn’s car for the drive to the JABA day care center in Nelson County, Virginia. Constance, who works at JABA, was the first to grant us an interview. After displaying some nervousness and curiosity about the project, she began talking about her life in Nelson. She described the life of a child on a sharecroppers farm. Her family raised chickens, beef, and pork with a medley of vegetables. Because crops are temperamental and money must be paid to the tenant, a large family had great difficulty providing materials beyond what was produced on the farm. To meet needs, it was necessary for the children to work hard. Margret said she hated farm work as a little child tied to a weeding row, but now she appreciated her food and life heritage. If they didn’t have to learn to preserve foods and prepare for the future, she might not have learned how to can from her mother. After a grain crop was ready to harvested, the planter or landowner took the crop to market or to a mill. The resulting money, or food product, (after deducting the tenants required amount), was used by the farmer for things like food and clothing . She explained that after grains were ready to be harvested, her father would take them to the local mill where the grains were kept on ‘reserve’ so that they could be retrieved whenever the family needed them.
She seemed surprised that I should care what she ate and why. She admitted her farm fresh healthy eating was superior to much of the processed foods she has today, although when asked why other people do not choose a farming lifestyle, she had no hesitation in saying, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to.” Margret’s conclusion is a bludgeon of reality that threatens to destroy the new idealized interest in farming. Although she acknowledged that living on a farm and growing your own food was healthier and was all in all a good life, it is also hard work with unstable and sometimes few returns. In reality, how many people are willing to work so hard for only the possibility of a return? Unfortunately, this is the situation in which the U.S. finds itself, and until drastic changes occur, farms similar to the one that Constance grew up on will continue to struggle to persevere.