Agricultural Problems in Grainger County (1936)

The following text was transcribed by Lesa Cameron Boatin from the original report.

Written by Robert M. Glendinning and E. N. Torbret

GRAINGER COUNTY presents conditions found in a large part of the Upper Tennessee Basin.  It embraces physical features and types of rural land use characteristic of the area extending northeast-southwest, between the Cumberland Front and the Appalachian Mountains, from approximately the Virginia line to the vicinity of Chattanooga (Figure 1).  Rural maladjustments are shared in common but to varying extent by counties within this area.  In Grainger County, which is dependent upon a rural economy, the extent and severity of these maladjustments help make it one of the poorer counties of the area.

Setting and Conditions

In bird’s-eye view, Grainger County is seen to possess an east-west extent of some thirty miles and to be caught between the muddy waters of the Holston River on the south and the Clinch River on the north (Figure 4).  The backbone of the county is Clinch Mountain.  This pronounced ridge has the characteristic Appalachian trend and its steep, largely wooded slopes reach to elevations of more than 2,500 feet above sea-level and to more than 1,500 feet above some of the adjacent lower lands to the south and the north.  From points on its summit, a clear day permits a survey of many square miles of territory, even to the easterly mountains and the westerly plateau edge.

From the southern base of Clinch Mountain north to the waters of the Clinch River the land has the aspect of an irregularly corrugated surface.  The sub-parallel ridges are abrupt, sharp, and chiefly wooded, while the valleys between are narrow, flattish to undulating strips of cleared land (Figure 2).  An aerial view shows this section as parallel bands of dark (forested ridges) and light (cleared valleys).

South of Clinch Mountain the lay of the land is appreciably different.  Here the surface is strongly rolling and possesses no definite trends, rather, it is a slightly knobby surface with broad, irregularly shaped basins among the higher, rounded areas.  There is much wooded land, marking, in patches of many shapes, the steeper slopes of the rolling terrain and breaking the pattern of the cleared land (Figure 3).

The county is laced with many roads, but the vast majority are poor and at times impassable.  Only two of them can be classed as major highways.  These cross each other in the eastern portion of the county, one forming a link in the route that leads north toward Cumberland Gap, the other a segment of the highway leading from Knoxville to the Virginia border and beyond.  One single-track rail line cuts across the northwestern corner of the county but otherwise rail facilities are lacking (Figure 4).

Distribution of population, as indicated by the farmsteads, is in close accord with the surface conditions.  In the section of closely packed ridges and valleys the population, relatively sparse, strings out along the valleys, while in the rolling country the population, more abundant in keeping with the greater extent of flatter land, is sprinkled over the area without conspicuous lines or nodes.

Grainger County, as viewed from Clinch Mountain during the long summer season, appears as a land bountiful, a land of richly verdured ridges and hills, and, productive valleys and basins.  Closer inspection reveals the essential falsity of the first sweeping impression, for indices of agricultural difficulties appear on all sides.  Erosion-scarred fields mark most of farm holdings, cornfields on slopes as steep as the pitch of a gable portray maladjustments between surface configuration and land use, ramshackle dwellings on too-meager land parcels indicate a land seriously impoverished.  To be sure, there are exceptions to such conditions, but they serve only to accentuate the widespread occurrence of the sore spots.

Something is wrong in Grainger County and, judging from field examinations, in much of the larger area of which it is a sample.  An unpublished financial evaluation of Grainger County by Arthur Pollard, one including certain natural resource items as well as the conventional monetary factors, shows that the county has an annual deficit of $212,000 (1932) – one-third of its total income (cited by J. P. Ferris, Tennessee Valley Authority, at a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 20, 1935).

There is, however, a brighter side.  The problems and the problem areas are being located and analyzed, and general procedures for their regeneration are being pointed to, even though definite plans for the utilization of basic resources are not widespread in the territory of which Grainger County is a part.  Such things take time and careful weighing to prevent “rush ideas” from merely supplanting old problems with new ones.

Grainger County is predominantly agricultural, an area of croplands, pasturelands, and woodlands.  There are no cities, factory centers, large commercial foci, nor mines.  The great majority of the population is tied directly to the land, the remainder indirectly but none-the-less certainly.  Under such conditions it is largely true that “as the land…so the people.”  The ability of the land to support becomes a very pertinent matter.

Preliminary investigations seemed to indicate that the reasons for the unsatisfactory condition of the county’s agricultural economy are based primarily on extensive abnormal erosion, with accompanying wide-spread soil and water loss, and on a lack of adjustment between land use and the slope of the land.  Therefore, these items were investigated by means of detailed and general mapping surveys.  Maps of detailed Cross-Section Survey of Upper Tennessee, and Rural Land Classification Survey of the Tennessee Basin; and other data are in the files of the Land Classification Section, Land Planning and Housing Division, Tennessee Valley Authority.

The matter of abnormal erosion proved to be relatively serious.  Approximately 60 per cent of the land units of the county are seriously eroding, and in the area south of Clinch Mountain, which area is proportionately more widely used for direct agricultural purposes, nearly seventy per cent of the agricultural land units are undergoing abnormal soil loss.  As was expected, the degree of abnormal erosion corresponds to the slope conditions.  Agricultural areas of 0 to 5 per cent grade are not suffering appreciable soil loss, but other such land units on steeper slopes are being severely damaged.  Units with grades of 20 to 40 per cent, to take but one example, are marked by abnormal erosion to the extent of about three-quarters of their area.

Fortunately, most of the serious erosion is sheet wash and finger gullying – types that, given time and money, can be fully controlled.  As in the case of erosion, the lack of complete adjustment between agricultural land uses and steepness of slope proved to be significant.  There are many areas where corn, for instance, is grown on slopes in excess of 40 per cent grade.  However, the field investigations in map survey form showed that, with the exception of the little utilized slopes of Clinch Mountain, the cropped lands now on too-steep slopes could be accommodated on slopes of more suitable gradient.

In general then, time and money and careful planning and utilization can rectify the erosion and slope maladjustment conditions that are now contributing to the decay of the agricultural economy and decreasing the capacity of the land to support its farming population.  But, granting that these problems are solved through the application of the known land management techniques, it is still reasonably doubtful that the rural economy of the county would be placed squarely and soundly on its feet.  This is brought out by an investigation of the county’s capacity to support a certain number of farms and farm families.

Farm Supporting Capacity

As here used, the term “farm supporting capacity” refers to the ability of the agricultural resources to provide an average livelihood for a certain number of families dependent entirely on the land.

There is, in this regard, a great need for the development of exact standards and criteria.  There exists no complete agreement as to how many acres of land of given categories are needed adequately to support a farm family under the type of economy that is practiced in Grainger County and adjacent areas.  In view of this situation, it has been necessary to adopt a pragmatic yardstick, meanwhile granting that future methods of measurement may alter the conclusions – alter them in degree rather than in kind.

As measurements of the resources needed to provide a farm family in Grainger County with at least an average opportunity, two standards have been adopted.  First, the farm unit should include 38.6 acres of cultivable land, and second, the total area of the farm should be at least 64 acres; thus allowing some 25 acres (about 40 per cent of the farm) chiefly for pasture and woodlot.  The cultivable land criterion is the more important and, hence, is used as the primary measurement.  East Tennessee representatives of the Rural Resettlement Administration estimate that about 40 acres of cultivable land are necessary per farm.

Census data for Grainger County and seven other representative counties, Claiborne, Cocke, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Sevier, and Union, were used to obtain the standards.  In these eight closely grouped and essentially similar counties the average amount of cultivable land per farm is 38.6 acres and the average farm size is 64 acres.  It is fully recognized that the average incomes which could be obtained from farms of the above size and character would not be particularly high.  In the eight counties noted, the average gross income per farm is only about one-half that of the average gross income per farm in the United States.  Even so, in many parts of Grainger County the present status of farm families is below the average for the eight counties used as a yardstick.

Certain unavoidable assumptions have been made in the adoption of the standards.  First, there appear to be no impending changes in the farm economy so radical that, on the whole, a family will be able to make an average living from farms appreciably smaller than the present average.  In the eight counties noted the size of the average family ranges between four and five persons.  Second, it is assumed that a farm family with land that is average in amount and character possesses an average chance to maintain itself.  And lastly, the average amount of cultivable land, the productive heart of the farm, is taken as the best obtainable index to the amount and the nature of the basic agricultural resources.

Before applying the above standards, it was necessary to ascertain the acreage of cultivable land as well as the total farmland acreage available.  The former required the determination of all land now in crops, plus all land not now in crops but suited to crop production.  Lands on slopes in excess of 30 per cent grade were ruled out as not being suited to crops—not cultivable in a reasonable sense.  J. W. Moon, of the U. S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, in his report of January 1935, “Descriptive Soil Legend of Jefferson County, Tennessee,” recognizes no soils as “crop soils” if they lie on slopes in excess of 30 per cent grade.  The essential similarity of conditions in Grainger and Jefferson Counties allows the use of the same slope criterion.

The results indicate that Grainger County has approximately 69,000 acres of cultivable land, which means 69,000 acres of land located on slopes of less than 30 per cent grade which are now in crops or are suited to crop production.  The data and the methods used in this estimation are to be found in detail in the report cited in the note at the close of this article.  They require too much space to be discussed here.

By dividing the cultivable land acreage by 38.6 and the total farmland acreage by 64 (omitting hamlets, villages, roads, etc.), the farm family supporting capacity of the county appears to be 1,661—each family to possess 38.6 acres of cultivable land and at least 25 acres of land suited to permanent pasture and woodlot.  The results, expressed cartographically by rural land classification survey units, appear in Figure 4 (numerator item).

To give the figure for farm supporting capacity any real significance it is necessary to compare it with the present farm family “load” in the county.  In that manner an estimate can be made which will indicate the extent of the agricultural resource problem.

Agricultural Over-Population

The term “agricultural over-population” signifies that there are more farm families on the land than the land can adequately support under the existing types of farm economy.  An approximation to the extent of agricultural over-population can be arrived at by comparing: (1) the number of farm families that the resources can be expected to support, as discussed above, and (2) the number of farm families now on the land—the present load.  When the second number exceeds the first, agricultural over-population may be said to exist, and the amount of excess shows the degree of seriousness of the problem.

The present number on the land has been ascertained as 2,934.  This figure was arrived at through study of recent planimetric maps and partly from an also recent land use survey.  A comparison of the two figures (1,661, apparent supporting capacity, and 2,934, present load) points to an excess of farm families to the amount of 1,273.  Figure 5 shows the distribution of these farm families according to land use survey units.

The number of excess farms, as representing the degree of over-population, is probably too high.  It does not take into account the income items received from pensions, insurance, money from relatives living elsewhere, etc.  However, the mathematically exact number is not of utmost significance; rather, it is the approximate number, taken as indicative of the general degree of agricultural over-population, that is important.  Granting that the number should be somewhat reduced, the situation still appears to be serious.  Even if the number were reduced to 1,000, a reduction probably more than sufficient to cover the relatively intangible items, the results show that the county is agriculturally over-populated to the extent of more than one-third.

Unless there is a great change in the present economy, an occurrence in no way indicated at present, the county must face a situation wherein at least a third of its farm families do not possess even an average chance to support themselves, let alone have the capital and the incentive to preserve and regenerate their land resources.

There appears to be a cycle, certainly a vicious one, operating in the area.  Improper land management resulting especially in losses of basic soil and water resources decreases the farm supporting capacity.  The decrease in supporting capacity means less opportunity for resource conservation and encourages (forces) improper land management.


The present study indicates that, whatever, and however numerous, other problems may be, the really fundamental problem in Grainger County is that of too many farm families in relation to the ability of the land to support them.  If this be true, then the basic “problem area” map of this predominantly agricultural area is one showing the distribution, by relatively small land units, of the amount and degree of agricultural over-population (Figure 5).

This belief, based on this study as well as intensive field examinations, is strengthened by other data. During April and May 1935, for example, there were approximately 600 families on relief in Grainger County.  Judging from a very detailed study of relief families in the adjacent and patently similar area of Jefferson County, it is probable that of the 600 families on relief in Grainger County at least 500 were farm families.  Attention needs to be called to the fact that the relief figures represent extreme want, destitution, whereas the figure for agricultural over-population, given above, represents poverty and sub-standard conditions, including extreme want.

In Jefferson County, the average size of a farm operated by a relief family was 22 acres, of which only 11 acres were in crops.  In marked contrast, the average size of all farms was more than three times as great and the average cropland acreage was more than double.  Evidently, in areas of this character, there is a pronounced correspondence between small farms, small crop acreages, and inability to operate successfully.  Larger farms, with more cultivated and cultivable land per family are needed—but only a certain number of such farms can be provided by the basic land resources.  An increase beyond that number, apparently what has happened in Grainger County, results in agricultural machinery that wears and breaks under its load.  The multifold consequences appear conspicuously in rural landscape.

NOTE:  This article is drawn from a report by the present authors, A Land Classification Approach to Land Use Problems:   Illustrated in Portions of the Upper Tennessee Basin.  On file in the Land Planning and Housing Division, Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, Tenn. (1936).

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