A cotton stripping machine harvests cotton by stripping both the cotton and bolls from the stalk.
A cotton stripping machine harvests cotton by stripping both the cotton and bolls from the stalk. - 
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Steve Chiotakis: Agriculture may seem relatively recession-proof -- relatively. After all, people have to eat. But economic trends have been re-shaping the ag industry, and many farm laborers are getting squeezed out. In the Deep South, low-income workers are at risk of sliding farther into poverty. Here's Marketplace's Jeff Tyler.

Jeff Tyler: For generations, African-Americans in the south eeked out a living by picking cotton. It was back-breaking work for very little money. And it became a common theme in blues songs:

Cotton Fields song: Oh, when them cotton bolls get rotten, you couldn't pick very much cotton, In them old cotton fields at home . . .

Work has gotten easier on those old cotton fields, but there's less of it. Farmers are now planting about half as much cotton as they did in 2006, according to the Department of Agriculture.

That's bad news for Chris Moore who lives in the poor, rural town of Tchula, Miss. The 25-year old used to work full-time at a cotton gin.

Chris Moore: Right about now, we'll be out there working. But now, we laid off.

Moore's hours have been cut to two days a week. He can barely pay his bills. In surrounding Holmes County, the unemployment rate is 17 percent. Farmers are hiring fewer workers as they shift to less labor intensive crops, like corn. And machines are doing much of the work that's left.

Calvin Head runs the nonprofit West Holmes Community Development Corporation:

Calvin Head: You got automation that's taken place. All the equipment doesn't require a lot of field time like it used to. And it's just putting a burden on the low-income worker.

The low-income farm workers who still have jobs are essentially trapped.

Danny Randle: It just ain't no jobs around here. So you have to kinda stick with what you got, whether you like it or not.

That's Danny Randle. He's been doing farm work since he was 14. He's 67 now, and still puts in long days driving a tractor. But he doesn't earn extra money -- even if he works extra hours.

Randle: They say you're supposed to work eight hours, you work 10. You gonna get just regular pay. You know. You don't get no overtime.

Locals used to be able to find a job that pays overtime if they were willing to drive more than 50 miles to work at one of the auto-manufacturing plants. But now due to the economy, those firms have been laying off employees. Leaving folks here even more economically isolated.

In Tchula, Miss., I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

Follow Jeff Tyler at @JeffMarketplace