The History of American Agriculture

by: Haley Zynda, OSU Extension – Wayne County

Happy Independence Day, U.S.A! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend celebrating our great nation’s independence with a good, old-fashioned cookout. To me, one of the best summer meals is a cheeseburger with all the fixings, pasta salad loaded with fresh veggies, and sweet, sun-ripened watermelon. In the midst of the thanks for our country, it’s important to also understand and give thanks for the farmers that keep food on our table and our bellies full. As my dad likes to say, “Farming is everybody’s bread and butter.” With that, let’s take a look at the history and statistics of American agriculture. The following is summarized from USDA’s “Growing a Nation.”

In 1790, 14 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the U.S.A was largely an agrarian society, with 90% of the workforce being farmers. The year 1790 is also significant because it is the year that potash was patented for creation by Samuel Hopkins. The formulation hasn’t changed but has certainly changed how farmers can deliver nutrients to their crops.

In 1796, the Public Land Act was created to encourage settlers to move west. Plots of a minimum of 640 acres were sold to the public at a whopping price of $2 per acre.

Fifty years later, by 1840, farmers were only 69% of the working population, and a decade later in 1850, down to 64% of the labor force. The average farm size was about 203 acres, and it took almost 90 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield of corn was 40 bushels per acre, and was produced with a walking plow and harrow. Wheat was even more labor intensive, requiring almost 300 hours to produce 100 bushels over 5 acres of land. By 1850, agricultural exports were also extremely important to the economy, totaling 65% of exports, roughly $90 million.

Perhaps one of the greatest turning points in American agriculture, was the invention of the horse-drawn reaper in 1831 by Cyrus McCormick, the Father of Modern Agriculture. This piece of equipment allowed for more land to be worked by one person, ultimately increasing farm income and increasing the standard of living for farming families.

The 1800’s was also the peak of southern plantations, responsible for growing cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. Cotton growers and Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made the south increasingly reliant upon slave labor. The Civil War ended slavery in 1865.

However, in 1862, progress was being made in the middle of the war-torn United States. The United States Department of Agriculture was born under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln. The Homestead Act was also created, giving 160 acres of free land in the Great Plains to pioneers, in the promise that they would farm the land for at least five years. The Morrill Act was signed in 1862 as well, granting each state large tracts of land to establish and maintain agricultural colleges, known as Land Grant Colleges. In 1890, another Morrill Act was signed to create more Land Grant Colleges for African Americans.

In 1887, the Hatch Act supplied more land for agricultural experiment stations, an idea brought forth by two scientists, Samuel Johnson and Eugene Hilgard. Agricultural production had begun to decline after decades of farming. They modeled their state experiment station based on those found in Germany and encouraged other states to research soil health, nutrient depletion, and other practical solutions to agricultural problems.

By 1890, the labor force had dropped to 43% as farmers. Average farm acreage had also decreased to 136 acres. Labor had become more efficient; 100 bushels of corn and wheat took about 40 and 50 hours, respectively. Equipment used at this time included a 2-bottom gang plow, a disc, a peg-tooth harrow, and a 2-row planter. Agriculture research was actively being done to create new crop varieties and selectively breed livestock. Since farming was a minority of the work force, consumer demand became important. Consumers were calling for a way for the government to regulate food and its safety.

In 1911, Farm Bureau was created by John Barron as a way for farmers to learn how to improve their trade. 1914 was a fantastic year – the Smith-Lever Act signed into creation the Cooperative Extension Service, bringing research from the Land Grant Universities to the farmers. Come 1920, farmers made up 27% of the labor force, there were 6.4 million farms, and they averaged 148 acres apiece. At this time, agricultural exports made up $1.94 billion per year and were 42% of all exports. Future Farmers of America, lovingly referred to as FFA, was started in 1928 in Kansas with a group of 18 high-school-age boys. The organization was formed to create an interest in farming again, during a time when boys were leaving the farm to work elsewhere.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression and droughts plagued the United States. The USDA put what few research dollars they had into drought research. The droughts led to the Dust Bowl, a period when topsoil was blown away from central states due to dry climate and bare soil.

World War II prompted new methods of food processing to preserve food to send to the troops overseas. Dried milk, instant potatoes, powdered eggs, and dehydrated soup vegetables entered the scene. Post WWII, advances in chemistry led to pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer creation. The year 1948 saw the first version of the modern Farm Bill, called the Agricultural Act of 1948.

In 1950, the number of farms shrunk to 5.3 million, averaging 216 acres. Farmers were now only 12% of the labor force. Farming had become even more efficient, and each farmer supplied food and fiber for about 16 people. Fast forward to 1960, farmers were officially less than 10% of the workforce and each farmer supplied food and fiber to 26 people.

The post-war era led to an increased standard of living across the board. The mechanization of farming changed the field of agriculture. People began exodus from the country to the city because of increased farm efficiency; more people could be fed from 1 farm.

1954 marked the first time that more tractors than horses or mules were recorded on American farms, a huge milestone in production. In the 1960s, research was focused on increasing crop yields and treating animal diseases to provide more abundant and less expensive food. Another huge milestone in agriculture education happened in 1969 – girls were allowed to join the FFA.

The 1980’s marked the start for commercial organic producers and specialty crop growers. Then, in the 1990s, farmers made up 2.6% of the labor force and the average farm size was 461 acres. Labor hours to produce 100 bushels of corn was 2.75 hours with a tractor, 5-bottom plow, 20-ft tandem disc, planter, 20-ft herbicide applicator, 12-ft self-propelled combine, and trucks. One farmer supplied food and fiber for 100 people. Genomic research was starting to occur and Dolly the sheep was born, the first cloned animal.

Fast forward to today. Farm management apps for our smartphones, virtual consulting services, and autonomous equipment are the tools of the modern farmer. I won’t belabor the points of today’s agriculture scene since we are living and breathing it, but to see where we came from is truly humbling. From almost 100 man hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2.5 acres, to being able to produce that amount of grain in half an acre is truly astonishing. I’m sure Mr. McCormick would love to go for a combine ride and be a part of the 1% feeding the other 99.

Happy Fourth of July, America!



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