The History of The American Farm

There is little that is viewed as more American than the small family farm.  It isn’t an original idea unique to America as people have been farming since they first started to live in one spot.  But every truck commercial you see on TV, shows the American farmer in flannel and blue jeans and wide brimmed hat.  They might as well show pictures of Mom and apple pie while they are at it.

When Europeans first arrived on the east coast, they were met by forest.  Much of the Eastern 1/3 of what is now the United States was covered by forest.  As soon as Europeans arrived they began to clear the forests.  By 1800 people had pushed the clearing all the way to native prairies of the Midwest and forests were dwindling at an alarming rate.

As the 19th century began there were many changes.  In agriculture there began the process of mechanical farming and the rise of factories, especially in the Northeast.  Still much of the American economy was agriculture as it was in most of the world.  As the pre Civil War years arrived the American economy began to shift.  Large numbers of poor immigrants began to pour in from places like Ireland and Germany.  These people could not as a group afford land to farm (even though they were almost all farmers in the old world).  As a result they went to work in the factories in the cities.  The southern US remained agricultural, but had some morally questionable practices. 

The Civil War changed the American economy from Agricultural to an Industrial base.  The war effort transformed many Northeastern cities as many factories were built to make war supplies.  After the war, these same factories went about making consumer goods.  In the Northeast this was the beginning of the end for farming.  The weather is not ideal for a long growing season and poor soil in a lot of areas limited crop yields.

But while farming was starting die in the Northeast, it was thriving in the Ohio valley, the south and into the Midwest.  As the East coast became more and more crowded many people began to make their way west to farm in the wide open spaces of the prairies.

By 1900 there was only a fraction of the original forest left when Europeans first arrived.  This was as we will see in later sections, devastating to certain species, while very beneficial to others.  At the dawn of the 20th century, Agriculture was still the driving force of the American economy.

The Great Depression would change American farming forever.  Not only was the banking collapse bad enough, so that farmers could not get credit, the Midwest was hit with a massive multi year draught.  These years would also be known as the ‘dust bowl’ as sand storms were common across the Midwest.  Nothing was grown, livestock couldn’t survive.  Many farmers lost their lands and were forced to move.  Those who were able to grow crops found weak markets and could not make the money that they spent, the situation simply spiraled out of control.

Up until this time the Federal Government had largely stayed out of the affairs of farmers.  It was during this time that farm subsidies were created to pay farmers not to grow certain crops, because the market was overwhelmed.  While the plan was simply to help farmers during difficult market situations, these plans have become the life lines for far too many farmers even today.

The years following World War II was much the same as after the Civil War.  The industrial base was humming making every kind of consumer good imaginable, but after the War the cost of living began to creep up.

The 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s had a different problem.  The children of farmers discovered they could make a lot more money, doing a lot less work doing something other than farming.  The result was that there was no one left to run the farms as the farmers got older.  Many simply fell into disrepair and others sold the property, because they had no other choice.

The gas crisis of the 1970’s served yet another blow to the small farmer.  It simply wasn’t possible to afford the gas to run the machinery to earn a small return on a small property.  By the end of the decade inflation had gone through the roof as did the cost of living, while incomes remained stagnant.  It was not longer possible to live on a 100 acre farm making 15,000 a year.  In the Midwest you start to see the rise of the mega farms, farms with acreage at times in the thousands of acres.  Even with all the land, farmers are doing little more than breaking even.

By this time cash crops in places like the Northeast had diminished, while Dairy farming remained strong.  Cows like cool weather and you can fit several hundred cows onto a rather small parcel of land.  Small farms in the Northeast cannot compete in the beef market because of the huge ranches in the west.  It is not worth a farmers time to raise a half dozen cattle for beef when ranchers in the west may take several thousands head of cattle to market.

By the middle of the 20th century, the forests which had been destroyed for the last couple hundred years sprang back with amazing vigor.  In less than fifty years in a lot of places farm land reverted back to mature forest and once again we began to see a change in the plants, birds and animals.

Modern times have shown the perseverance of the American farm.  Farming continues strong in many areas, but in a lot of places farming has had to change.  You cannot farm land smaller than 200 acres these days, at least and not work a second job.  Suburban sprawl continues to spread and developers can dangle large sums of money in front of farmers.  In the Northeast there are a lot of recreational farmers, people who work other jobs but raise crops and animals on the side, but more and more property is subdivided and developed and a lot of land is simply left to let the forest reclaim it.

Tomorrow, the second segment will examine current farming practices and on Thursday we will begin to look at the species affected by farming, both the good and the bad.  In later segments we will look at what can be done to creative productive and environmentally friendly farms.


5 responses to “The History of The American Farm

  1. Another key development in the 1970s was the change in the federal subsidy structure, going from paying for underproduction to paying for overproduction.

  2. You are right. The results of those changes means that too much food stuffs ends up rotting in storage and never making it to market.

    On a socialist note, the US if it let its farms go to full productions could grow enough food to feed the world. That’s right there would be food for everyone. Of course that much food would drive market prices down and that is the main reason why farms don’t go all out.

  3. Pingback: Traditional and Current Farming Practices « The Nightjar

  4. Interesting piece. If you’re looking for an entertaining history of Irish farming, then check out “The Memoirs of Joe Ward” on or When the US started exporting wheat in the 1850s, Ireland changed from wheat production to beef production. This is less labour intenstive, so huge numbers of labourers had to emigrate, many to the US. They were so disillusioned with farming that the saw factory work as a better option.

  5. There seems to be a certain hunt and peck of this history of Am. Agriculture. Lots of things occurred between the civil war and the great depression that appear not to matter much in this history. Take for instance the change from horses to tractors, even the space between corn rows changed not to mention the number of acres previously set asside for oats and horse pasture that became production ground with the horse gone.

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