What is the Plantation System?
In the past, the South’s agricultural economy mainly survived thanks to the plantation system. Plantations were large farms that typically produced one staple crop. These crops could be rice, tobacco, cotton, sugar, or some other crop that was valuable to foreign buyers, as the South had an international economy. These large amounts of crops required a huge amount of labor to cultivate. Instead of paying workers to work the fields and add more expenses for the land owners, they would instead buy slaves and conscript them into working the land. Because of the idea of slavery, plantation owners were able to essentially own the land, tools, and labor force, which eliminated most costs of running a farm. Because these costs were lowered, plantation owners were able to make vast amounts of profit, which is why the plantation system was the primary economic strategy for the South.
Now, plantations were large farms that had 20 or more slaves and produced one staple crop. Some of these crops could be rice, cotton, tobacco, or maybe sugar. Such crops were labor intensive to grow and harvest.
In other words, it took a large workforce, a large labor force, to grow and harvest these crops. Plantation owners made the system profitable by having slaves who were basically free labor.
Now, we say “basically” free labor, because there was an initial cost for the slaves. They had to purchase them and then they had to spend some money to house the slaves and feed them, but for the most part they weren’t having to pay the daily wages that people would generally have to pay their employees.
Whenever you’re buying something, a lot of the cost of that item, most of the cost of that item, is just going to paying employees. With labor being free, this dramatically cut the cost of goods.
Plantation owners thus owned the land, the tools, and the labor force. That’s how they made this whole process profitable. If it wasn’t for the free labor, it may have been hard to turn a profit on these crops.
There are a few things just to remember. A plantation was a large farm, and it had 20 or more slaves, and it had one staple crop that it produced.