The distinct trend away from cotton and to grains in the Mid-South began showing up in earnest a few years ago. The history between the two, though, began much earlier.

“There is an interesting history of corn acreage in Mississippi, beginning shortly after the Civil War,” Erick Larson, Mississippi State University corn specialist.

It turns out the state harvested over one million acres of corn around 1866 and 1867. Corn acreage steadily increased to two million acres in 1894. There were almost three million corn acres in the state in 1917 and that total was exceeded in 1921.

“Basically, Mississippi maintained over one million corn acres until 1960,” says Larson. “That was largely because the animals used to work the ground needed to be fed. When mechanization improved and power equipment became good enough to plow the land, the need to grow corn decreased.”

For more on cotton and corn in the Delta see here.

That’s why, by 1970, Mississippi only had 223,000 acres of corn. By 1980, the state had less than 100,000 acres of corn. As mechanization took hold, corn was hardly grown as a cash crop.

“In 1990, we still had only 140,000 acres. In the following years corn planting began to pick up. Between 1992 and 1995, acreage was between 190,000 and 275,000.”

Then, there was a drastic upswing in 2007 when Mississippi producers planted 930,000 acres of corn. “We still haven’t eclipsed that high mark but have been working towards it with over 700,000 acres since 2007,” says Larson. “That’s been dictated by commodity markets – corn and soybeans have been very favorable compared to cotton during that time period.”

While excited about the expansion of grains, Larson admits the loss of cotton “has been sad in some respects. … The economy has pushed agriculture away from cotton and that has meant a loss of infrastructure, acreage and confidence in it being the primary row crop.”

Dr. Will McCarty, a well known, veteran Mississippi State University cotton specialist and current independent consultant stationed in Brandon, Miss., says the transition has been bittersweet, at best.

“There is a succession in farming just as there is a succession of generations,” says McCarty. “At one time, there were a lot of cattle in the Delta, cotton was the staple a few other crops were grown. As the farms were handed down, the first thing the next generation did was sell the cattle and tear out the fences. They didn’t like working with them.”

Then, as the farms were again passed to the next generation, “they quit growing cotton and switched to grains. It just happens that way. Sad for those of us who worked so hard to make growing cotton easier, eradicate the boll weevil, develop more efficient practices and equipment, etc., and then growers stop planting large acreages of cotton.

“There’s a perception that growing grains is easier than cotton, that they require less investment in capital and perhaps work, and there’s less risk.”

One can’t argue that “really productive, irrigated land won’t produce high grain yields,” says McCarty. “And with today’s grain prices those crops are extremely attractive. Plus, when they plant grains they pretty much know what their production costs will be.”