U.S. Tung Oil Industry


Between 1928 and 1969, a domestic tung oil industry operated along a narrow strip of coastal land stretching from the Florida Panhandle to southeastern Texas. Primarily used in paints, varnishes, and inks, tung oil first appeared on the domestic commodity market scene in the early twentieth century when federal embassaries encouraged the first domestic plantings to diversify the economic botany of the country. Attempting to use cut-over pinelands, large coastal farmers experimented with a variety of crops, tung trees among them. The trees’ rapid maturation together with the promise they offered of a fast, convenient method of intercropping attracted a growing number of investors—particularly well-heeled farmers and industrialists who labeled the distinctive region of coastal land the “Tung Belt.”

The establishment of domestic tung production took roughly the first three decades of the twentieth century because diversification remained a risk in the eyes of many farmers. The myriad factors undergirding the South’s myopic connection with cotton have long been studied and acknowledged. 

The collapse of the plantation system in the 1930s and 1940s, however, prompted a revitalized commitment to diversify the region’s crop base and created an opportunity to employ more responsible methods of cultivation like multi-cropping. Boosters, ranging from innovative farmers to entrepreneurs, drew upon the moment to clamor for regional modernization, industrialization, and crop diversification in order to expand markets, help pocketbooks, fuel state and regional economies, and escape or at least lessen the stronghold of monocrop culture. Give cotton’s long history in the shaping of federal farm policy, such advocates faced an uphill struggle to persuade government officials to extend legislative protection to other crops—tung among them.

While intended by boosters to be a crop for both rich and poor, tung trees were grown primarily by affluent absentee landowners or businessmen farming for a secondary income. Perhaps one of the strongest contributions of tung oil to the historical record blurs the line between agribusiness and the family farm. Money Hill, a St. Tammany Parish tung plantation owned by the wealthy timber baron Charles Goodyear, for example, was as much a family farm operation as agribusiness given the active participation of husband, wife, children, and relatives. While some assume the family farm never existed or died, historian R. Douglas Hurt claims it persists not only in small operations but even in agribusiness firms. As he explains, about ninety-seven percent of farms of all sizes, including agribusiness, are run by families. Tung not only highlights the gray area between agribusiness and the family farm but also fits into works about the increasing dominance of agribusiness throughout the twentieth century.

Text Reference:  Snow, Whitney,  "Tung tried: agricultural policy and the fate of a Gulf South oilseed industry, 1902-1969"  Diss. Mississippi State University, May 2013.

Photo Credit: Tung trees : Capps, Florida. 19--. Black & white photograph, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida.

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