Every one of us has heard others bemoan the ‘decline’ of the Delta, whether they be current residents, former residents returning for a visit, or sometimes when we look in the mirror. What has declined in the Delta is the population, and really everything else has stayed about the same or improved. This is not to say that the effect of the decline in our population has not been extremely significant to our businesses or communities, but most of it has resulted from economic processes that have increased many of the Delta’s assets tremendously.
What the Delta has always been about since its settlement accelerated in the 1870’s with the completion of a good levee system, is agriculture. The ‘greater delta,’ which includes not just Mississippi’s Delta but also the delta lands in Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and even a very small part of Tennessee, is one of the great large agricultural areas of the world. There are five large ones in the US: the biggest and arguably most productive is the mid-western corn and bean belt, but besides the delta the list includes the central valley of California, the Ogallala aquifer from the Texas panhandle to Nebraska, and the crescent stretching from southeast Alabama to southeast Virginia between the piedmont and the coastal plain. The world population depends on these five for much of its food and fiber.
The Delta in Mississippi currently has a population of about 300,000. It is composed of about 6.5 million acres. It produces about $2.4 billion in annual agricultural production, pays annually about $172 million in Mississippi and local taxes, and about $305 million in federal taxes. It has created about 20,000 manufacturing jobs with an annual payroll of approximately $821 million. Farming and allied agricultural businesses [the infrastructure that supports production agriculture] create 45,500 jobs, of which 85% are off the farm.
The depopulation trend of the Delta has been ongoing since about 1920. Every whole Delta county had its peak population in the 1920 decennial census. The population now is less than half of what it was in 1920. Being human, as we ride around we tend to look for and see towns and houses that were built fifty and seventy years ago and that are now half empty and deteriorating. We notice and understand little of what is going on between the towns in the fields. But it is changes there, in the fields, that have resulted in improved living standards for most of us who remain. The economist Joseph Schumpeter described these changes as ’creative destruction.’ Alan Greenspan, when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in his standard speech, cited American agriculture as the leading example of the benefits of productivity increases. More was produced and cost the consumer less in real terms. Did you ever wonder why our towns along the highway tended to be 5-8 miles apart? Until mechanization took hold in the 1940’s, there were laborers living in shacks in every cleared field in the Delta. The population of the entire Delta averaged over 90 per square mile. But so many of these people were so poor they did not have cars, and so they had to walk or catch a ride to town, and the towns grew up so that no one had to walk over 2-3 miles.
How many live in shacks or don’t have cars now, or all the conveniences that we take for granted in modern day life? The value of the farm land has increased steadily, increasing the ad valorem taxes to the counties by about 70% in just the last hand full of years. Productivity increases have driven much of this increase. Farm wages and mangers’ salaries have increased. Those of us who remain, whether working on farms, in agricultural infrastructure, or manufacturing, have higher standards of living than those in years past. Creative destruction has been at play.
One last thing that lately gives me additional confidence: building hotels. Indianola got a new hotel a couple of years ago, Greenville is getting a new one now, and a new boutique hotel and a convention hotel now are under construction in Cleveland. These developers have done their homework and see more tourism and economic development ahead. The agricultural engine, ever changing, continues to produce for the Delta.