Since the colonial period, there have always been some Texas farmers who rented the land they farmed rather than owning it. Although no statistical information was collected until 1880, when United States census officials began to include that information in their returns, it is clear from letters, court cases, and newspaper advertisements that tenants rented land for a variety of reasons and paid in a variety of ways. Some farmers who possessed the resources to buy land rented until they were more familiar with Texas before making a permanent commitment to a specific location, while others rented because they lacked the resources necessary to obtain land of their own. Some tenants, sharecroppers, paid for rented land by promising a share of the crop or labor, while others paid in cash. In antebellum Texas most farm tenants probably lived outside the plantation areas of the state, since most plantations involved in the production of commercial crops utilized slaves. Precise figures are impossible to obtain, but it seems clear that only a relatively small percentage of farmers were tenants. Thus they are rarely if ever mentioned in newspapers or descriptions of the state.
The end of the Civil War and the demise of slavery brought a need for new labor arrangements in the production of commercial crops. Texas plantation owners, like others in the South, had little or no cash, and they wanted to assure themselves of a stable labor supply throughout the growing and harvesting season. A system of tenant farming evolved that met these needs. The most common arrangement after the Civil War was a share tenant or sharecropping arrangement. Since the crop would not be split until after the harvest, tenants could only receive payment for their labor after the crops were in. Most tenants in the period just after the Civil War were Black, and the Freedmen's Bureau supervised the signing and implementation of tenant-farming agreements in areas where it had local agents until it closed its local offices in December 1868. Although the agents sometimes complained that Black women did not want to work as long in the fields as they had before the war and that many Blacks did not want to work as many hours as they had as slaves, they generally reported that African Americans worked well as tenants when treated fairly. Blacks and, later, Whites seem to have preferred tenancy arrangements over other forms of agricultural labor because tenancy gave them greater independence and flexibility than wage labor. It also directly rewarded them for their hard work with better crops. They seem to have viewed tenancy as an agricultural ladder that could lead to farm ownership under the right conditions.
As tenant farming became more common, it also became more systematic. In Texas, as in other Southern states, a hierarchy of tenant farmers developed, according to what tenants provided for themselves. At the top were share and cash tenants who supplied the mules, plows, seed, feed, and other supplies needed. Share tenants typically paid the landlord a third of the cotton crop and a fourth of the grain. At the bottom were sharecroppers who supplied only their labor. They typically received half the crops. The differences were critical, not only because share tenants received a larger portion of the crops, but also because they were considered the owners of the crops. Sharecroppers were generally considered laborers whose wages were paid with a share of the crops, which were owned by the landlord. A sharecropping arrangement gave owners greater control over how their land was worked. By 1880, when the first systematic data were collected, approximately 38 percent of all farmers were tenants. More than 80 percent of these rented for a share of the crops. Although statistics on farm tenure by race were not collected until 1900, Blacks comprised a much higher proportion of the total number of tenant farmers than their proportion of the population. The highest percentages of tenant farmers were in counties with Black majorities. In Fort Bend, Harrison, and Marion counties, for example, tenant farmers comprised 74, 60, and 51 percent of all farmers, respectively. Census returns did not differentiate between sharecroppers and share tenants until 1920, so it is impossible to determine what percentage of the group listed as share tenants were actually sharecroppers.
In addition to paying out a portion of the crop as rent, many tenants also mortgaged their share of the cotton crop to a furnishing merchant or their landlord for food and other supplies. Because the crops were of an uncertain size, and the price of cotton at harvest was unknown, cotton crops were risky collateral for the lender. Consequently, the interest on the loans was quite high, sometimes as high as 150 percent. Once forced to make a crop lien, many tenants could never get away from the system, as they found themselves just breaking even or owing more than the total received for their crops. One economist estimated that by 1914 half the tenants borrowed 100 percent of their income. As the population of the state grew and the state's vast lands were claimed, acquiring ownership of a farm became more difficult. This led to a corresponding increase in the proportion of tenants. By 1900, half of all Texas farmers were tenants. Again as in 1880, more than 80 percent of these were either share tenants or sharecroppers. The biggest proportional increase was probably the increase in White tenants. In 1900, 47 percent of all White farmers and 69 percent of all Black farmers were tenants.
The conditions under which tenant farmers lived and worked became political issues with the rise of the People's party in the 1890s and became even more prominent when James E. Ferguson used them as part of his successful campaign for governor in 1914. Despite the rhetoric, except for the temporary prosperity the high cotton prices of World War I brought, conditions for tenant farmers did not materially change, and the number of tenants continued to rise. Each census recorded a larger proportion of tenants among Texas farmers. The census of 1930 recorded the highest percentage of tenants ever reported in the state. That year, almost 61 percent of all Texas farmers were tenant farmers, and one third of these were sharecroppers. In terms of the population as a whole, in 1930, nearly one quarter of all Texans lived on tenant farms. With the coming of the New Deal, however, the number of tenant farmers began to fall. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt saw tenant farming as evidence of economic problems and supported programs designed to make tenants into owners, the programs that had the highest impact on tenants were those that paid farmers to restrict crop acreage. These programs reduced the need for labor and caused many owners to push sharecroppers off the land. By 1935, the proportion of tenant farmers in Texas had dropped to 57 percent. This drop was due to a much larger decrease in the number of sharecroppers, as the number of other types of tenants rose slightly. The changes brought on by the New Deal signaled the beginning of a rapid drop in the proportion of Texas farmers who rented their land rather than owned it and a dramatic change in the types of farmers who were tenants. By the time of the 1945 census, the pull of the job market and the armed services in World War II had accelerated the changes already begun by the Great Depression and New Deal programs. The proportion of farmers who were tenants fell from almost 61 percent in 1930 to a little over 37½ percent by 1945. The number of sharecroppers fell from more than a third to 16 percent of all tenant farmers. By 1987 tenants comprised just under 12 percent of all farmers.
As the numbers fell, the very nature of tenant farming also changed. The most striking changes came in the number of part owners listed in the census. Part owners-that is, farmers who owned some of the land they farmed and rented the rest-comprised less than 10 percent of all Texas farmers until 1940, when they accounted for 11 percent of all farmers. By 1978 part owners made up almost 30 percent of all farm operators. During this same period, Texas farming became more highly mechanized. In 1929, for example, fewer than 10 percent of all Texas farms had tractors. By 1960, Texas had more tractors than farms. As farming became more mechanized and thus more capital-intensive, viable economic units became too large for one family to own enough farmland and provide machinery and working capital at the same time. Therefore, many of the larger operations were run by part owners or by tenants who owned no land at all. In 1987 full owners comprised 56 percent of all farmers but farmed only a quarter of all harvested cropland. Tenants, who comprised just 12 percent of all farmers, also farmed approximately a fourth of all harvested cropland. Part owners made up about 32 percent of all farmers and harvested a little over half of all harvested cropland. See also AGRICULTURE.