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History of Agriculture in the U.S.

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The agricultural history of the U.S. is long and complex. Until 1860 most Americans lived on farms—one-fourth as late as the 1930s. The United States had vast stretches of farmland, varying in quality from very good to poor, plus even larger areas of rangelands.

Core Historical Literature of Agriculture

For researchers investigating the agricultural history of the United States, Cornell University has assembled an impressive collection of texts published before the mid-twentieth century. The collection, called the Core Historical Literature of Agriculture (CHLA) holds over two thousand books and two-dozen journals covering the development and history of agriculute in the U.S. The selection of these texts follows the advice of scholars from The Literature of the Agricultural Sciences (seven vols.) edited by Wallace C. Olsen.

Colonial farming: 1610 - 1775

Plantation agriculture, using black slaves, was initiated in in Virginia and Maryland (where tobacco was grown) during the early seventeenth century, and in South Carolina after the restoration (where indigo and rice were grown). Cotton became a major plantation crop after 1800 in the "Black Belt" (so-called because of the color of the soil), a region from North Carolina in an arc through the Lower South to East Texas where the climate and soil allowed for intensive cotton cultivation. Most of these plantations produced for an export market. This sort of farming was much different from that practiced in the Middle colonies and in New England where most farms were subsistence in orientation, producing food for the family and but little extra for trade or taxes.

Ethnic farming styles

Ethnicity made a difference in agricultural practice. As an example, German farmers generally preferred to use oxen rather than horses to pull their plows. The Scots-Irish built focused more on herding of hogs and cattle than they did on cultivation. But other Scots-Irish focused on mixed-farming. Using this technique, they grew corn for human consumption and as feed for hogs and other livestock. Many improvement-minded farmers of all different backgrounds began using new agricultural practices to raise their output. During the 1750s, new technology replaced the hand sickles and scythes used to harvest hay, wheat, and barley with the cradle scythe, a tool with wooden fingers that arranged the stalks of grain for easy collection. This tool was able to triple the amount of work down by farmers in one day. A few scientific farmers (mostly wealthy planters like George Washington) began fertilizing their fields with dung and lime and rotating their crops to keep the soil fertile.

Before 1720, most colonists in the mid-Atlantic region worked with small-scale farming and paid for imported manufactures by supplying the West Indies with corn and flour. In New York, a fur-pelt export trade to Europe flourished adding additional wealth to the region. After 1720, mid-Atlantic farming stimulated with the international demand for wheat. A massive population explosion in Europe brought wheat prices up. By 1770, a bushel of wheat cost twice as much as it did in 1720. Farmers also expanded their production of flaxseed and corn since flax was a high demand in the Irish linen industry and a demand for corn existed in the West Indies.

Some immigrants who just arrived purchased farms and shared in this export wealth, but many poor German and Scots-Irish immigrants were forced to work as agricultural wage laborers. Merchants and artisans hired teenaged indentured servants as workers for a domestic system for the manufacture of cloth and other goods. Merchants often bought wool and flax from farmers and employed newly-arrived immigrants, who had been textile workers in Ireland and Germany, to work in their homes spinning the materials into yarn and cloth. Large farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence.

Pennsylvania was the center of German migration, adapting Old World techniques to a much more abundant land supply.

Frontier expansion: 1775-1860

Railroad Age: 1860-1910

A dramatic expansion in farming took place. The number of farms tripled from 2.0 million in 1860 to 6.0 million in 1905. The number of people living on farms grew from about 10 million in 1860 to 22 million in 1880 to 31 million in 1905. The value of farms soared from $8.0 billion in 1860 to $30 billion in 1906.[1]

The federal government issued 160 acre (64 ha) tracts virtually free to settlers under the Homestead Act of 1862. Even larger numbers purchased lands at very low interest from the new railroads, which were trying to create markets. The railroads advertised heavily in Europe and brought over, at low fares, hundreds of thousands of farmers from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain.

West

West of the 100th meridian, where there was too little rain for farming, cattle ranching became important. Overland cattle drives took large hers from Texas to the railheads in Kansas. A few thousand Indians resisted, notably the Sioux, who were reluctant to settle on reservations, but most Indians themselves became ranch hands and cowboys.

South, 1860-1940

Sawers (2004) shows how southern farmers made the mule their preferred draft animal in the South during the 1860s-1920s, primarily because it fit better with the region's geography. Mules better withstood the heat of summer, and their smaller size and hooves were well suited for such crops as cotton, tobacco, and sugar. The character of soils and climate in the lower South hindered the creation of pastures, so mule breeding tended to reside in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Transportation costs combined with topography to influence the prices of mules and horses, which in turn affected patterns of mule use. The economic and production advantages associated with mules made their use a progressive step for Southern agriculture that endured until the mechanization brought by tractors.

Mechanization 1910 - 1930

Nordin and Scott (2005) explore the transformation of the Midwestern Corn Belt, the area dedicated to corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs stretching across 12 states from Ohio westward. They argue that the key to reshaping Corn Belt agriculture was the turn to technology in the face of low commodity prices and intense competition, which "drove the least progressive individuals off the land" (p. xv). Even though this competition entailed tremendous suffering, the authors conclude that most Americans, including those who left the farm, ultimately benefited. From 1900 to 1920, the region experienced a golden age of relatively high commodity and land prices; however, only those who sold out at high prices and moved to town actually benefited, while those remained paid higher mortgages, rents and taxes. The Extension service run by the state agriculure schools began teaching farmers new techniques. The Model T and the tractor brought new poer to farmers, and made access easier to town and railheads. But in 1920 commodity prices plunged hurting those farmers who had expanded too aggressively during World War I. The result was a mobilization of farmers who demanded federal aid but were turned down in the 1920s, but gained the help they wanted from the New Deal. See McNary-Haugen Bill

Southern California was endowed with a combination of geography and climate well suited to highly productive agriculture. With hot and dry summers (and underground water supplies) the region was ideal for growing figs, olives, raisins, and nuts, and above all citrus fruits. The Californians had rail links to the east but they needed advertising to link into people's minds that they needed fresh fruit. Confident that scientists like Luther Burbank had developed a near-perfect orange, the California Fruit Growers Exchange (CFGE), a growers' cooperative, set about marketing citrus to America. The "Sunkist" brand campaign used ingenuity, imagination and all the new media from billboards to film and radio, to promote California oranges. They paid attention to presentation by individually wrapping each piece in tissue paper bearing the Sunkist imprimatur; oranges arrived in grocery stores in crates lavishly illustrated with pictures of fetching women or scenic landscapes. Such images of youth and beauty capitalized on increasingly popular notions of California as a tropical paradise, and served to promote orange consumption as essential to a healthy and vigorous lifestyle. The investment in advertising and packaging paid off; by 1939, the sale of California oranges topped $100 million.[2]

Great Depression and War: 1930-1945

Postwar Changes

Decline of Cotton and Rural Exodus

High tech farming

Since 1950 high technology has made massive gains in productivity using new machinery, new hybrids for corn, wheat and rice, and the systematic use of genetic engineering, chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers and drugs. A backlash has created a growing natural foods movement in which the use of chemicals and drugs is strictly limited. The acreage in farms has grown little, but small operators are selling out to their neighbors leading to increased farm size. The farms are largely run by families, who often have contracts with large corporations. In the 21st century a drive to use ethanol as an automotive fuel led to new demands for grains.

See also


  1. Historical Statistics (1975) p. 437 series K1-K16
  2. Sackman (2005)