How soy conquered the South through Confederate racism and nostalgia

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If you were an avid reader of Soy digest in the middle of the last century, you may have witnessed a quiet invasion of the series of American maps printed in the magazine’s annual review of new soybean cultivars, or “crop varieties.”

Unlike the names of consumer products like apples, the names of soybean cultivars were not intended to attract consumers. Instead, they started out as a pragmatic way to keep genetic lines straight: unique proper names or series of numbers and letters chosen for reasons known only to breeders. In the early 1900s, when the USDA began to become actively involved in importing and sorting Asian seeds into cultivars for American farmers, names indicating geographic origin, such as “Beijing,” were common. . In the late 1940s, breeders were choosing names for the soybean, still widely regarded as a “botanical immigrant,” which rooted it on American soil. Northern ranchers preferred the names of presidents – “Adams”, “Lincoln” – and tribal nations: “Chippewa”, “Blackhawk”. Southern names at the time included “Volstate” (for Tennessee, the State of the Volunteers).

These practices were inconsistent, however, next to those that emerged in the South in the mid-1950s. Somehow, a century after losing the Civil War, the Confederate generals had returned. It all started with a handful of ‘Jackson’ and ‘Lee’ cultivars. On the last card of the series, in 1966, the older varieties were ousted by “Hood”, “Hill”, “Hampton”, “Stuart” and “Bragg”.

This shift highlighted a dramatic transformation in southern agriculture – a transformation that has largely excluded African-American farmers – in which new soybean varieties have played a major role once held by cotton.

The Confederate cultivars were largely the work of one man: Edgar E. Hartwig. In 1948, Hartwig was put in charge of overseeing the USDA cooperative soybean breeding program for the 11 former Confederate states plus Oklahoma. Soybeans, like many crops, are sensitive to conditions that vary widely from north to south, such as summer day length.

Hartwig’s inordinate influence on southern soybeans was, in part, due to his consummate skill in mixing and matching plant genes to create hardy, higher-yielding varieties. As Hartwig’s cultivars came into circulation, soybean acreage in the 12 states in his program increased six-fold between 1954 and 1974 to nearly 16 million acres, or a quarter of the national total.

The agricultural economy of the South was changing. The soybean acreage in Louisiana increased from 73,000 acres in 1954 to 1.8 million in 1974. The shift from the poultry industry to fattening caged chickens with soy fortified feeds allowed the acreage of the Georgia to increase by a factor of 31 in 20 years.

Above all, soybeans appealed to farmers because it was not cotton. For decades, the region has struggled with glut of its main cash crop and the resulting low prices. Hartwig’s soybeans provided farmers in the South with a strong cash flow, allowing them to reduce cotton production. In 1960, American farmers planted just over 15 million acres of cotton, up from nearly 45 million acres at the height of cultivation in the 1920s.

This might provide the best clue of Hartwig’s commitment to the Confederate generals. As an agricultural modernizer, he sold landowners in the South a whole new mechanized system. Confederate generals, commemorated throughout the region in monuments and the names of parks, towns and military bases, were a readily available form of nostalgia to drape over disruptive innovation.

The key to the effectiveness of this pitch was the run of the target audience. Almost 90% of the landowners were white. They usually sold their own cotton lint while allowing their tenants to sell the cottonseed to local mills. Now they could do without the work of the sharecroppers and keep the profits from the soybeans to themselves.

Soy has forced farmers to invest more in equipment, fertilizers and pesticides. The predominantly white farmers, who were best placed to receive credit and government support, benefited. Afro-Americans, initially poorer, suffered from discriminatory practices on the part of private and public lenders.

In 1920, there were 920,000 non-white farms in the South, the majority of which were operated by tenants. By 1954, that number had fallen to 430,000, or 26% of the region’s farms. In 1987, the number would drop to only 27,000, or 3% of farms in the South. This decline represented the virtual disappearance of black sharecroppers, but also of tens of thousands of black owner-operators unable to compete on a fair basis.

The influence of Confederate cultivars waned after the 1970s, when commercial seed developers largely took the reins from USDA breeders like Hartwig. Proper names have been superseded by alphanumeric designations such as “AG2702” and “5344STS”.

Meanwhile, Hartwig persisted in his enthusiasm for Confederate names. He used the three names of the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest on separate cultivars.

Confederate soybean cultivars have retreated in the past, but they were part of a larger pattern of systemic racism. In the face of decades of pressure, the federal government has made hesitant progress towards righting the wrongs it has done to farmers of color, most recently by promising them $ 4 billion in debt relief. Critics decried this as reparations. In this context, Hartwig’s soybean should be remembered as an illustration of the USDA’s long-standing service, above all, to the interests of white farmers.

Matthew Roth is Deputy Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote this piece for the public square of Zócalo.


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