The agricultural economy of the Missouri Bootheel was deeply depressed in 1938 and had been since the early 1920s. Most workers were sharecroppers who farmed for large landowners. Sharecroppers planted a cash crop, typically cotton, and received a share of the proceeds. They lived in substandard housing with poor sanitation provided by landowners and bought food from the plantation commissary on credit. Few profited financially and the system promoted poor nutrition, health, education, and soil. The system included issuance of annual eviction notices, but plantations re-hired depending on needs. However, acreage reduction under the Agricultural Adjustment Act meant many were left unemployed. The poverty of the system culminated in the sharecropper demonstration of 1939.
The Farm Security Administration, or FSA, proposed an experimental demonstration project to point families toward better farming methods in 1937—LaForge Farms. FSA bought 6700 acres near LaForge in New Madrid County and proposed resettling 100 families who had farmed the area—60 white and 40 African American. Most moved to Missouri from southern states after drainage and clearing opened new land, and most had limited formal education.
FSA developed a house design that could be built cheaply and by prefabrication on site. Individual farms were 47 to 114 acres, size based on land productivity. The homesteads also included a barn, well, modern privy, food storage shed, and fences.
Homesteaders borrowed an average of $1300 at 5% interest for 5 years for livestock, machinery, feed, and seed. They paid rent of $50, plus ¼ of the crop. Rent increased over time, peaking at $220. Families planted kitchen gardens, and small group meetings trained farmers new farming methods and machinery. FSA taught crop diversification and each family purchased 2 mules, a milk cow, 50 chickens, a sow, and 2 shoats.
Families shared large equipment items and bought shares in an existing cotton gin purchased by FSA. A cooperative formed to purchase and operate the gin and buildings, including a blacksmith shop. A new school with auditorium served as a community center for church services and other events.
Carl Puckett, elected President of the LaForge Cooperative Association, observed, “It means a new day for us. None of us expect to get rich, but we will have a chance for a better living and can pay our debts and have some money at the end of the year. That’s more than you could say under the sharecropper system.”
All but 2 or 3 families met their payments the first two years, and average family net worth went from $28 to $1475. By 1941, 11 of the families had paid all their loans.
The LaForge experiment received much criticism. Some observed that it only benefitted 100 families. However, the experiment extended to an additional 500 via five other labor colonies by 1940. Others attributed the success of the project to increased agricultural product demands due to World War II. Some deemed the experiment to be socialism or communism, and many aspects of it indeed involved communal action. Commentators leveled charges of mismanagement, partly because too many decisions were made by FSA superiors in other states.
The detractors contributed to the decision in 1942 to end the experiment and allow farmers to purchase their allotments. The legacy of LaForge Farms is the many farmers who learned better farming and were successful.