Monday, October 29, 2007

"Self-Working Farmers"

In her wonderful Masters of Small Worlds, Stephanie McCurry makes some illuminating observations about yeomen, slaveholders and planters in the pre-war south.

To begin with, farmers did not, apparently, regard the ownership or lack of ownership of slaves as their defining characteristic. Even after the Civil War, small farmers – slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike – identified themselves as “self-working farmers.” Although they might or might not own some slaves, they could not restrict themselves to supervisory or managerial tasks; they and their families “composed the primary labor supply of their households.”

Where did the boundary between “self-working farmer” and small planter lie? McCurry concludes that, “Surprising as it might seem, farmers could well have owned as many as nine slaves and still have found themselves dependent on family members even for field labor.”

The reason the number is so high “lies in the striking pattern in the age and sex of the slaves small slaveholders typically owned.” Small slaveholders typically owned a disproportionately high number of women, children and adolescents. Even a farmer who owned nine slaves “owned, on average, four or five children, three or four adult women, and at most one or two adult men.”

Presumably, economics shaped this profile: women slaves cost less than men. At the same time, the small farmer, although sacrificing short-term profit, was purchasing an asset that, in the long run, would likely produce a higher return in the long run in the form of children (including male children). As the farmer and his wife grew older and their own children married and left the farm, slave children would be reaching adulthood and taking their places in the field.

Based on these and other considerations, McCurry concludes that “’self-working farmers’ were those who owned fewer than 150 acres of improved land and fewer than ten slaves.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Many months ago, I noted that Gavin Wright pointed out that cotton was not particularly destructive of the soil. Lacy Ford squares the circle:
The cotton plant itself was not naturally destructive of the soil, but the type of cultivation practiced by most growers, especially the habit of shallow soil preparation and their indifference to proper drainage, led to rapid erosion and soil exhaustion.

Having grown up in New York City, I'm not exactly a farmer. Does this make sense? I would have assumed that insufficient fertilizer or failure to rotate and rest fields was the primary culprit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

What's "Ridiculous" in Swedish?

Poor Alfred Nobel must be turning over in his grave:
One of the world's foremost meteorologists has called the theory that helped Al Gore share the Nobel Peace Prize "ridiculous" and the product of "people who don't understand how the atmosphere works".

Dr William Gray, a pioneer in the science of seasonal hurricane forecasts, told a packed lecture hall at the University of North Carolina that humans were not responsible for the warming of the earth.

His comments came on the same day that the Nobel committee honoured Mr Gore for his work in support of the link between humans and global warming.

"We're brainwashing our children," said Dr Gray, 78, a long-time professor at Colorado State University. "They're going to the Gore movie [An Inconvenient Truth] and being fed all this. It's ridiculous."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Ocean Course

I'm on the home stretch of a two-week vacation. The day before yesterday, my wife and I played the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. All I can say is that the Ocean Course is one of the two or three most beautiful golf courses I have ever seen. Don't be intimidated. I'm pretty bad -- hell, I'm very bad -- and we had a great time.
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