Machines are changing farming practices
|The era of mechanized agriculture was born around the turn of the century with devices like the Hart-Parr gasoline engine. The gasoline engine did a lot to change the way of farming. (photo by Smithson)|
Swinging hand scythes in uniform arcs, American colonial farm workers harvested wheat using ancient Egyptian technology.
Today, just two centuries later, a one-man harvester rolls through the fields, doing a job that would require dozens of farmers in the colony.
Not only did this great technological revolution move American agriculture from being self-sufficient to supplying much of the world, it also meant that spillovers would have a huge impact on American society.
Man would become obsolete in many agricultural activities, and the consequent wave of migration to cities would create social problems that still evade collusion. Changes took place so quickly that an orderly transition from rural to urban society could not be achieved. However, without these advances, humanity will face an even greater problem of hunger.
A story about mechanization
The story of the mechanization of American agriculture and its impact on American history may have begun with the same prolific minds that conceived the concepts that led to the American Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were probably as interested in agriculture as they were in founding a new nation.
Washington continually sought better agricultural implements for his Mount Vernon plantation, corresponding with progressive British farmers.
Jefferson, an amateur inventor, tinkered with many devices designed to improve agriculture.
While Jefferson's designs were rarely practical, the concerns he and Washington shared about improving agriculture reflected a concern for the land, as 9 out of 10 workers were involved in agriculture.
Virginia aristocrats may have shared concerns with typical planters in 1776, but they certainly did not share a lifestyle.
The life of the typical farmer was less attractive than that of the Virginia aristocrats. To earn a living, the colonial farmer cleared virgin lands with axes and oxen, cleared the land with ox-drawn wooden plows, sowed and harvested by hand, and processed them with primitive hand tools. Aristocrats had their hired servants and slaves to do this kind of work.
Red cloaks and tomahawks
Although life on the colonial farm was very romantic, simple and free of modern problems like crime, poverty and external threats, it was far from utopian.
A more severe form of "attack" came with the Indian raids; "foreign menaces" roamed the countryside in British uniforms, and poverty, which in those days meant more hunger than low income, was an inevitable consequence of crop failure.
The first great American agricultural invention came in 1793, in the country's infancy: Eli Whitney gin.
The cotton gin, which separated the lint from the seed, not only made possible a great new harvest in the South, it also revived the moribund institution of slavery and helped lead to the Civil War.
watch the plow
The plow piqued the interest of many inventors. The first patented plow was designed by Charles Newbold. The Newbold plow was made of solid cast iron, except for the handles and beam.
However, few farmers wanted to try the new tool, as many were convinced that iron poisoned the soil and caused weeds to grow.
In 1814, Jethro Wood patented another cast-iron plow and perfected it in 1819. The mouldboard, coulter and skid were cast in three replaceable pieces, which made it possible to replace the damaged parts. The wooden plow was popular.
As farmers moved west toward the prairies, another problem faced the plow. The prairie soil stuck to the wood and iron plows instead of slipping and tipping over.
In 1833, Illinois blacksmith John Lane came up with the idea of attaching strips of a steel saw to wooden mouldboards. Another Illinois blacksmith, John Deere, used a steel saw and plain wrought iron for washers and blades. By 1846, Deere and his partner were producing 1,000 plows a year.
Attention was also drawn to the problem of harvesting. Obed Hussey patented a horse-drawn combine in 1833. Around the same time, Cyrus H. McCormick completed the design his father had begun and patented his combine in 1834. By 1851, 1,000 McCormick combines were being produced each year to dominate the business. .
The corn cultivator preceded the harvester. It was in limited use in the 1820s, along with the rotary rakes. In 1837, the Pitts brothers patented a widely used threshing machine.
In the Civil War, a variety of horse-drawn equipment included grain augers, corn huskers, hay balers, various types of cultivators, and many other agricultural implements.
Farmers with reluctance
However, most farmers were reluctant to invest in expensive new equipment as labor was plentiful and cheap and good prices were relatively low. The equipment was available, but there was no desire to try.
Then, in 1861, South Carolina troops opened fire on a federal installation at Fort Sumter. The huge supply of labor suddenly disappeared as thousands of farm workers joined the Union and Confederate armies. With the great demand for food for the great armies, prices skyrocketed.
The roar of the cannons started the horses' work day and marked the end of the manual work day. With these new incentives, farmers quickly accepted horse machines.
With the end of the war, Union soldiers found that their farm work had been replaced by horse-drawn machinery, and Confederate soldiers returned to the ruins of a single-crop farming system.
Something else, perhaps equally significant, emerged from the war; the day when a farm worker could start his own business by acquiring cheap land and a few tools is gone forever.
The dream of having a farm was limited by spending on machines that should be competitive.
The surplus problem
Even those who managed to buy machines found themselves in serious trouble. The virtue of machines - increased production - resulted in surpluses that drove down prices. Farmers became more dependent on bankers and merchants.
In 1850, each farmer had an average of $7 invested in equipment. By 1880, that number had nearly quadrupled. The war forced farmers to engage in commercial production and to rely on the necessary machinery.
As a result of these investments, farmers faced a constant struggle between 1870 and 1900 to produce enough to pay for their machines.
A wave of migration
Along with this trend, the number of available agricultural jobs has declined as machines have replaced workers. A wave of farmers began to move into towns where there was no work. This spawned urban slums and the resulting social problems of crime and poverty.
In the early years of the 20th century, most attention was still focused on the development of machines to increase production. Soil was a neglected resource, as it was common practice to abandon land when it was depleted. In the vast undeveloped land, few people bothered to enrich the soil. Yields per hectare rarely increased from year to year.
Meanwhile, the day of the horse was approaching dusk as people's minds turned to the power of steam and oil. Steam engines were used to thresh wheat on large western farms. In 1913, 10,000 of these devices were produced. After that, its use drastically declined when gasoline powered tractors hit the market.
The first practical self-propelled gasoline tractor was built in 189+2 by John Froelich of Iowa, who mounted a gasoline engine on a chassis equipped with traction devices. Froelich was the forerunner of John Deere tractors.
wars help machines
However, something else was needed to transform these devices from novelty to widespread acceptance. Both the adoption of gas-powered equipment and the horse as a source of work share a common trigger: the outbreak of war. In both cases, wartime labor shortages forced farmers to turn to labor-saving technologies.
During World War I, agricultural prices rose and labor shortages developed similarly to the Civil War. Once again, farmers were quick to adopt the best equipment available to save labor and increase productivity. Tractor sales soared.
However, in July 1920, farm prices plummeted, and by the 1920s, the farm economy looked so poor that farmers were reluctant to switch to expensive tractors.
Just before the war, New Deal programs that encouraged farmers to replace worn-out machines with current models created more reason to change. The rural electrification program opened up a huge new source of energy. The stage was well set for the "Second American Agricultural Revolution."
The shift to mechanization was only part of this revolution. Great advances were made in seed cultivation, soil protection, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. The result was a systemic approach to agriculture and the results were amazing in terms of production.
However, there is also a dark side to this story. What happened to the millions of Americans who were no longer needed on the farm?
Looking just at the years between 1950 and 1975, agricultural employment dropped by 66%, or 5.6 million. It is expected to fall another 10% by 1980.
The impact in many rural areas was catastrophic, with small urban businesses, schools and even churches having devastating effects as economies suffered and people faced unemployment or migration.
Displaced agricultural workers
In the early 1960s, a steady stream of migrants poured into cities, compounding already severe economic and social problems. Other displaced workers remained in rural areas, living in deep poverty.
However, in recent years there has been an optimistic tone as signs increasingly point to a recovery in rural economies and a steady decline in migration to cities.
It is true that the mechanization of agriculture was accompanied by serious social problems. But consider the alternatives.
Without the highly mechanized American agricultural system, world hunger would be much more severe. And without the backbone of agricultural exports, the balance of trade would be tipped dangerously against the United States, with the cost of foreign oil soaring and the value of the dollar falling, driving inflation even higher.
— Wayne D. Rasmussen, US Department of Agriculture
EauClaire Leader Telegram Extract
special publication,Our Story "Chippewa Valley and Beyond", published in 1976
Used with permission.
Page Last Updated - Thursday, Apr 27, 2000 3:29:28 AM CDT
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16th to 18th Century
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Makes More Space For Crops
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302] Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means the way of revealing that holds sway in the essence of modern technology and that is itself nothing technological.
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A hundred years ago, farmers tilled their land with horse-drawn plows. They worked with hand tools like shovels, hoes and rakes. It was time-consuming, inefficient work. When the earliest tractors finally came onto the scene around 1919, they were small and slow, and relatively light by today's standards.How did the three-field system improve farming? ›
In the three-field system the sequence of field use involved an autumn planting of grain (wheat, barley or rye) and a spring planting of peas, beans, oats or barley. This reduced the amount of fallow fields to one third. The legumes planted in spring improved the soil through the fixation of nitrogen.How did machines change in the Industrial Revolution? ›
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