A tenant farmer is a farmer who rents or leases the land he works. When arranged fairly, the relationship benefits both the farmer and the landowner. The land owner receives needed income from the rent, and the farmer has access to land he might otherwise not have. Such arrangements date back to the middle ages.
At one time, tenant farming was not beneficial to the farmer. In the middle ages, serfs farmed the land owned by the nobility. While the arrangement was presented as offering the tenant farmer a way to earn a living, the landowner often charged exorbitant rents and also kept the majority of the crops produced by the farm. The farmer was often left with barely enough to survive.
As European explorers discovered and colonized foreign lands, particularly in the United States and Australia, tenant farming became a way for people to pay the cost of immigration to the new countries. Often called indentured servants, these immigrants agreed to provide labor for large farms and plantations when they arrived in the new country if the rich landowners would pay their passage. Indentured servants usually received no wages, and the cost of their room and board while working was added to the price of passage. As a result, it often took many years to work off the debt.
Over time, the arrangement evolved and became more fair. In the 1800s and early 1900s, tenant farming was called "sharecropping" because the tenant farmer and landowner each shared a portion of the product. Sharecropping was common throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. While the majority of the work and the minority of the profits still went to the tenant, the arrangement was more balanced than in the past.
In the mid-1900s, tenant-landlord laws began to be passed in the United States, Europe, and Australia. These laws gave further protection to tenants and provided them legal recourse in the event of landlord harassment or breech of contract. Today, tenant farming is common in many agriculturally strong areas of the world. In developed areas, the arrangement is usually fair to the tenant farmer and allows him access to land he can farm as he sees fit.
In less developed areas and in areas where crime syndicates control farming, tenant farming arrangements continue to be risky for the tenant. Laws, when they exist at all, are less strict and provide little protection for the tenant. In some cases, the tenant's service might even be involuntary.