The mechanization of agriculture, particularly the introduction of tractors for soil tillage and crop cultivation, was revolutionary for farmers. It was perhaps more abrupt and life changing for those in the rural South than for some who had adopted the use of machines in the field earlier. Everywhere, it reduced the drudgery of manual labor dramatically.
Several forces came together to bring tractors and related equipment to South Georgia farmers. The first thing was money, whether cash or credit. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal featured many programs related to farming and rural people, some of which improved income and access to reasonable credit. However, few farmers in this region bought tractors before World War II, whether due to limited resources or the conservatism of people for whom risk could lead to disaster.
World War II was revolutionary itself, bringing more change to this country than anything since the Civil War. Young people left the farm for military duty or to engage in new work in defense industries. Those who returned knew how to build, operate and repair tanks, bulldozers, trucks, jeeps, automobiles and airplanes. This was a mighty leap in technical skills from the “gee” and “haw” of handling mules. They were prepared to use tractors.
The war brought major economic change. Full employment and high demand for all agricultural products ended any hangover from the Great Depression and put real money in the pockets of farm people. The G.I. Bill allowed returning servicemen to buy farms and equipment. They could buy tractors and learn how to drive them quickly. So could their more cautious “old style” neighbors.
Education was another force. The G.I. Bill also provided training programs that taught veterans to “how to do it” introduced them to agricultural innovations. Federal programs provided assistance and information to all through “county agents”, who were resource people at the local level. Vocational agriculture courses in high schools prepared their students to do new things in better ways, sometimes teaching their parents indirectly.
Fodder pulling illustrates well the “before and after” of the introduction of tractors.
In South Georgia, “fodder” was feed for mules, a broad term that had specific meaning in this context. It referred to bundles of dried blades of corn, harvested in mid-summer and fed to mules as long as it lasted over the rest of the year.
A man’s mules were his lifeline, his necessary beast-of-burden for economic survival. Few horses were used because big ones had too-big feet and appetites to match while small ones lacked the stamina of mules. Because of their importance, mules had to be well-fed and cared for daily.
Corn was central to the diet of well-fed mules. When it was placed in troughs in their stalls, mules ate the shucks and neatly shelled the grains off the cobs, which they discarded. However, some years yielded abundant corn crops but many did not. Since corn was also central to the diet of humans, hogs, chickens and milk cows, the harvest might not last.
Supplemental feed was the answer, but unlike the Plains States, this region had no equivalent to the prairie grasses that produced hay. Here land was wooded and any spot allowed to “lay out” (remain fallow) was soon covered with broom sedge and/or dog fennel, not raw materials for hay. Fodder was gathered late in the growing season for corn, mid-summer–late July or August. Timing had to be right, after the grains on the corn ear were filled out but before foliage began to dry down and lose its nutritional content, which was limited at best. Pulling fodder was simple. Strip off the blades of foliage below the ear and hang them between the ear and stalk to dry. Go to the next plant and repeat. After a few days of drying in the sun, fodder was collected into bundles and hauled to the barn.
However, pulling fodder was onerous labor. It came at the hottest time of year and cooling breezes do not readily penetrate a patch of full-grown corn. The corn plant looks benign, but is not. Its blades are sharp. Because they are plant not metal, they do not slice deeply but repeated contact with exposed skin inflicts many shallow, even invisible, wounds that really smart when bathed in sweat. The remedy is to wear long pants, long sleeves and gloves, uncomfortable gear in mid-summer. Of course, these do not protect the face.
Hybrid Bermuda grasses that will flourish on almost any soil and yield abundant hay were introduced for cow feed. Tractors run on gasoline or diesel fuel. Farms don’t need mules. Pulling fodder is all but forgotten, to no one’s regret.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.