How did planters earn a living?
To earn a living, planters grew some type of cash crop that could be sold for money or credit in order to buy needed tools, livestock, and household goods which could not be produced on the farm. Before the American Revolution, tobacco was the crop most Virginians grew and sold to English and Scottish merchants. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, many farmers began growing grains like wheat, oats, and corn. These crops took fewer workers to grow, did not deplete the nutrients in the soil the way tobacco did and were in great demand in Europe and the West Indies. Although many Virginians began growing these grains, tobacco continued to be the colony’s largest export crop.
Tobacco planters usually relied on enslaved people to help work the fields. Each additional worker could cultivate about two to three acres of tobacco, but workers were expensive. Planters had to balance the cost of buying a slave or hiring one against the profit they expected to gain from selling their crops at the end of the year. Small planters seldom had more than five enslaved people and many had only one or two.