We all know a century is a long time. In U.S. agriculture the changes make it seem more like a millennium. We are aware of the obvious changes in crops, crop yields, machinery and technology, demographics, and globalization. But where and why did those changes happen and how have these changes changed, or not changed, what a farmer has become?
• War – War is a great driver of innovation and change in many ways besides armaments. Major advances in medicine, aviation, and other sectors are driven during conflict. WWI and WWII had great impacts on agriculture in two ways. Many farm boys and men had never been outside their area, let alone the state. Training and then fighting overseas opened horizons and vistas for many veterans and they saw other possibilities. After WWII, many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to further their education and left the farm. These factors in addition to a labor shortage spurring the need for technology helped increase our reliance on equipment to provide necessary food, fiber, and fuel. Also of importance was the need to increase production, not only to support our war efforts but those of our allies. Together, this spurred technological change and helped push people off the farm.
• The Great Depression – People forget the farm economy crashed well before the Great Depression. After WWI, there was less need for production and the surpluses drove crop prices downward. Then the Great Depression occurred and for good measure, the Dust Bowl hit. All this combined to drive many off the land and for large tracts of farmland to be purchased for pennies on the dollar creating many absentee landlords. But there were positives in all this. The government dedicated many resources to solving erosion problems and funded many rural initiatives such as rural electrification. Out of this terrible time we lost many more farmers but gained important knowledge regarding how to better produce crops and livestock. The Federal government also realized the importance of farming and keeping farmers in business. The downside for many is the start of heavy government involvement in the agriculture industry.
• Economics – The end of WWII saw an economic boom due to the Baby Boom and our modern consumer economy. More left the farm for jobs in factories and offices in cities and suburbs. However, while rural populations declined the demand for food, fiber and fuel increased. This spurred innovation in the agricultural sector in both public and private sectors. And the country had a flood of college educated workers and researchers thanks to the GI Bill spurring much of the advances in agriculture over the last sixty years.
• The Government – Starting clear back in the 1860s, elected officials in Washington understood the potential agricultural capacity of the country. This lead to the establishment of the Land Grant University system and later the Extension service. Governmental input helped spur advances in production and the dissemination of knowledge gained through this system to people in rural areas.
Naturally, there is much more but this framework. Next week – how have these changed farmers and farming.