The Salvation of Your Soil

The Missionary in Cottonland

President FDR warns farmers of planting too much and ruining the arable land.

John F. Knott was born in Austria in in 1878 and emigrated in Iowa with his mother at the age of five. Hired as a cartoonist, Knott began working for the Dallas Morning News in 1905. Knott is famous for his character “Old Man Texas,” a proponent for transparency, capitalism, low taxes, and property rights. His cartoons became popular during World War I and historians believe his cartoons boosted the sales of Liberty Bonds. His cartoons have been reprinted in various magazines and newspapers since their original publication.

The cartoon that is displayed above is a depiction of the “Old Man Texas” character as a rural farmer in Texas. The setting is very rural and is clearly on the fencing line of a Texas farm or ranch. The character is hunched over reading a letter being held by a government man in a suit who is standing on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The cartoon is called “The Missionary in Cottonland,” referring to the man in the suit’s persuasive nature. The letter he is holding states, “The salvation of your soil and income depends on moderation in cotton planting – Join the co-operative soil conservation movement.” The letter is referring to the conservation movement started by President Roosevelt. The government man is urging the farmer to slow down his production of cotton (The Conservation Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt).

At the time the cartoon was drawn the Texas cotton industry was booming. Agriculture and cotton farming had expanded from Central Texas to the Gulf Coast, and had steadily moved north. A small drought had begun in North Texas and there was fear of over-planting. Cotton is the most-drought resistant crop, so farmers felt inclined to switch from crops such as corn. Roosevelt feared that an increase in the acreage of cotton would increase supply too far, ultimately causing a significant drop in price. The cotton industry in the United State was already struggling because of the mass production in countries such as Brazil, Egypt, India, Sudan, Argentina, and Russia (Britton, Elliot).

Knott is suggesting that Texas farmers follow Roosevelt’s suggestions and switch to crops such a feed. On the side of the cartoon he writes a short column, and at the end wrote, “These foreigners got the jump on our farmers during the last few years and last season they supplied 14,222,200 bales of the world’s cotton consumption of 25,428,000. The United States supplied only 11,205,000 bales. Farmers should take a hint from these figures” (Roosevelt Warns Farmers). The direct language from Knott makes it clear that he strongly encourages that the spread of cotton acreage come to a stop. He uses two main arguments in his writing to support his claim. The first is that the environment and soil must be conserved or there will be no opportunity for future agriculture. The second is that the United States cotton industry is being trumped by foreign competition, and it would be beneficial for farmers to make the switch to other products and forms of agriculture.

Although both Roosevelt and Knott’s advice for farmers was clear, individuals could not turn away from short-term profit. By the 1920s three quarters of individuals working in agriculture were on cotton farms (Britton, Elliot). The United States cotton industry hit a crisis in the early 1920s. The entire industry saw a collapse due to overproduction and a widespread pest that destroyed certain strains of cotton. The introduction of man-made fibers also hurt the industry. By 1944, the first crop of cotton to be completely planted and harvested by machinery had been produced, marking the end of cotton farming boom (Britton, Elliot).

Knott’s cartoon represents the struggles agriculture has with the markets they belong to, and the constant battle with government institutions. As traditional farming has declined over the past century, this battle has become even more prevalent. Environmental concerns have also become an issue as the climate change narrative becomes more relevant. There is a connection between agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century and current times because of the continuing struggle for the industry. The solution to one problem is followed by an additional hurdle that must be passed. The industry is often glorified, and met with description such as “the backbone of our nation,” however there has recently been a lack of glory and benefit. The contemporary cartoon in my next blog post, entitled The Drought in California, regarding the recent devastating droughts in California and how they have effected modern farmers, will display how the struggles for the American farmer are just as real as they were when cotton used to be “king.”

Citations:

Britton, Karen Gerhardt and Elliott, Fred c. and Miller, e. a. “Cotton Culture.” Britton, Karen Gerhardt and Elliott, Fred c. and Miller, e. a. n.p., 11 June 2010. web. 03 May 2017.

“The Conservation Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.” U.S. Department of the Interior. N.p., 27 Oct. 2016. Web. 3 May 2017.

Knott, John. “The Missionary in Cottonland.” The Dallas Morning News, 21 March 1936.

“Roosevelt Warns Farmers.” The Dallas Morning News, 21 March 1936.