Innovation in Agriculture
How did innovations in agriculture impact the economy America?
Improvements in agriculture have been one of the most dramatic features of economic and social change in America since 1800. At the start of the 19th century, over 90 percent of the population was engaged in producing the food and fiber needed to feed and clothe the nation. Two centuries later, that number has dropped to less than two percent, and American agriculture surpluses account for billions of dollars in exports.
Three Industrial Revolutions
Agricultural historians sometimes categorize these changes as coming in three revolutions. The first was the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, when horse-powered machines began to supplement human energy. John Deere’s invention of a steel plow that scoured the sticky prairie sod from the blade made turning prairie sod much faster and easier. That was rapidly followed by the adoption of horse-drawn reapers, sulky plows, mowers and threshing machines that enabled one farmer to cultivate and harvest much larger holdings.
A second wave began around World War I, when gasoline power began to replace the horse. In the 1890s, Iowan John Froelich developed and improved an internal-combustion "traction motor," the tractor as it came to be known, that ran on gasoline and could move forward and backward. Over the next 20 years, Froelich continued to improve his tractors, forming a company that eventually sold out to John Deere Manufacturing in Waterloo. Henry Wallace combined his skills as corn breeder, agriculture journal editor and businessman (and future secretary of agriculture and U.S. vice president) to Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company. Midwestern farmers saw corn yields skyrocket when they planted the improved hybrid varieties. After World War II, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, often developed from research at land grant universities like Iowa State, further boosted farm production.
In the 1960s, a truly new stage in agriculture began to emerge. Throughout history until then, from indigenous people around the world to the most advanced agriculture operations, the goal had been to improve the growing conditions around the individual plant. Remove the weeds, fertilize the ground and water the plants. With new genetic breakthroughs, however, scientists were developing the capacity to go "inside" the plant to reconfigure its genetic codes that guided its growth. Genetically-modified plants sparked a controversy because their long-term environmental impact had never been tested. The livestock industry engaged in new breeding techniques to adapt animals to their environment and to market demands.
Effects on Rural Population
All three stages of Midwestern agriculture had decisive impacts on the rural population. Labor-saving equipment reduced the need for hired help and led to an incentive to farmers to expand their acres. As farms grew larger with less hired help, the rural population decreased, putting a stress on the small towns and rural institutions like churches, hospitals and schools. Rural representation in the legislature diminished. Conflicts developed between those who wanted the government to support small farmers while others preferred to allow the market economy, usually favoring larger, better funded operations, to determine prices. While the outputs of American farms multiplied exponentially, the social impacts created both positive and negative outcomes for farm families and the rural populations that depended upon them.
What effect did innovations like the plow have on agricultural production?
- "Wakefield’s Hand Corn Planter" Newspaper Article, 1855 (Document)
- Baker's Plowing Machine Advertisement, 1862 (Document)
- "The Farm and Garden," Newspaper Article, February 12, 1872 (Document)
- "Valuable Invention!" Advertisement, 1885 (Document)
What role did agriculture innovation play in the settlement of the West?
- Diploma Awarded by the People's Agricultural Society of West Jersey, between 1857 and 1867 (Image)
- "Lagonda Agricultural Works" Print from Clark County, Ohio, 1859 (Image)
- "McCormick's Reaper-Works" Newspaper Article, October 9, 1874 (Document)
How did innovations in agriculture meet the needs of farmers and their communities?
- "History of Scott County, Iowa. Chapter IV (pt. 4)" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1863 (Document)
- "A Sulky and Gang Plow" Newspaper Article, September 16, 1874 (Document)
- "Machinery Department" Newspaper Article, August 27, 1897 (Document)
"Wakefield’s Hand Corn Planter" Newspaper Article, 1855
Baker's Plowing Machine Advertisement, 1862
"The Farm and Garden," Newspaper Article, February 12, 1872
"Valuable Invention!" Advertisement, 1885
Diploma Awarded by the People's Agricultural Society of West Jersey, between 1857 and 1867
"Lagonda Agricultural Works" Print from Clark County, Ohio, 1859
"McCormick's Reaper-Works" Newspaper Article, October 9, 1874
"History of Scott County, Iowa. Chapter IV (pt. 4)" Essay from The Annals of Iowa, 1863
"A Sulky and Gang Plow" Newspaper Article, September 16, 1874
"Machinery Department" Newspaper Article, August 27, 1897
The Goldfinch: Early Agriculture (Vol. 2, No. 3, February 1981)
This Iowa history magazine for children was published quarterly by the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1975-2000. Each issue focuses on different people, innovations and farming techniques that were all part of Iowa's early agricultural practices.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (8th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are high school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for eighth-grade students.
- SS.8.16. Analyze the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in institutions throughout early American history in a market economy.
- SS.8.17. Use historical evidence to evaluate the state of regional economies throughout early American history.
- SS.8.18. Explain how the physical and human characteristics of places and regions influence culture.