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Changes in American Agriculture in the Late 19th Century and the Early 20th Century Peter A. Coclanis The period between the Civil War and World War I is generally--and correctly-- associated with America’s industrialization and urbanization. During this period the U.S. was transformed from a developing agricultural country into the greatest industrial power on Earth. In light of this transformation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the agricultural sector was also very dynamic in this period. Although agriculture’s share of total U.S. output fell during this period because the farm sector wasn’t growing as rapidly as the industrial sector, in absolute terms--the total quantity of agricultural output and the total dollar value of such output, for example--agriculture grew dramatically. Moreover, the agricultural sector grew increasingly efficient in this period. So while it is correct to focus on the themes of industrialization and urbanization when studying this period, one shouldn’t forget agriculture. This is particularly true because the American agricultural sector supported and reinforced the country’s urbanization and industrialization in at least four important ways. First, American farmers provided increasingly cheap food to consumers during this period, which “freed” income formerly spend on foodstuffs to be used for other purposes, including industrial investment and the consumption of manufactured goods. Secondly, because of increasing productive efficiency on American farms, it took fewer workers to produce a given amount of food as time passed. In other words, agriculture’s labor requirements shrank in a relative sense. Many of the workers no longer needed in agriculture left the sector, and eventually helped to provide part of the manufacturing labor force necessary during America’s massive industrialization. Thirdly, many of the efficiency gains in agriculture during the period were due to mechanization and, in acquiring and employing machinery such as reapers, iron plows, tractors, threshers, etc., farmers not only helped to reduce their labor requirements in a relative sense but also served as a key source of demand for manufactured goods produced in American factories. Fourthly, while many urban factories were kept busy producing farm equipment and machinery, many others were involved in the processing of food and fiber produced on American farms. In this regard, it is revealing that the largest industry in the U.S. in 1914 was slaughtering and meatpacking, which was over 50 percent larger than the number two industry at the time, iron and steel, in terms of value of product. As the above suggests, then, American agriculture was both dynamic and important to U.S. economic and social development in the period between the Civil War and World War I. Its growth and increasing productivity notwithstanding, American agriculture in this period was subjected to a number of wrenching changes and plagued by some very serious problems. These changes and problems led to great pressure on, and instability in the American farm sector, particularly from about 1865 until the last few years of the nineteenth century. The profundity of these changes and the severity (real or perceived) of these problems led farmers, really for the first time in American history, to organize themselves collectively to try to better their economic, social, and political positions. Although such efforts failed for the most part, they signaled clearly that American agriculture has entered into a whole new age. What I’d like to do in this lecture is: (a) to outline some of the key changes affecting American agriculture in the fifty years or so between the end of the Civil War and the onset of the First World War; (b) to discuss some of the problems these 2 changes occasioned; and (c) to touch briefly upon some of the ways in which farmers attempted to remedy such problems through political mobilization. First, the principal changes affecting the agricultural sector in this period. Among the most important changes was the great absolute expansion of the farm sector in the fifty years or so following the Civil War. The number of farms in the U.S., for example, grew from slightly over two million in 1860 to almost 6.4 million by 1910. Total farm acreage more than doubled over the same period, while improved acreage--acreage actually in production--quadrupled. A second key change related to the movement westward of American agriculture. For a variety of reasons--liberal governmental land policy, the advent of the railroad and land promotion by railroad companies, a series of mining booms in the West in the second half of the nineteenth century—we see more and more people moving into the West, more and more farmers among them. In 1860 there were about 4.5 million Americans living west of the Mississippi River; by 1910 there were over 27 million. In 1860, only 16 percent of American farms were located west of the Mississippi; by 1910 38 percent of American farms were located in the West, and 58 percent of American farmland. During the period between the Civil War and World War I, we find other changes in the agricultural sector as well. American farmers became much more commercialized in this period, offering more and more of their annual output for sale on local, regional, national, and international markets. Put another way, there were fewer and fewer subsistence farmers and fewer and fewer farmers striving for, let alone achieving self- sufficiency. Related to the shift toward greater commercialization was a move toward greater regional and farm-level specialization in agriculture. Certain areas began to specialize in particular crops or livestock, while individual farmers within such regions did the same. Thus, we find various parts of the United States devoting themselves, for example, to dairy farming, the production of corn and hogs, cattle ranching, or truck farming, and fewer and fewer diversified farmers within any given region. Why the shift toward specialization? Because as the size of agricultural markets increased and the degree of integration of such markets improved as a result of population growth, transportation and communications improvements, increases in wealth levels, and changing values, specialization could proceed at both the regional and individual levels. Areas well suited for dairy farming could specialize in that activity rather than attempt to produce everything they needed, and individual farmers could do the same. Why should farmers in North Carolina try to grow all the wheat the state needed, for example, when they could specialize in crops for which they had a comparative advantage such as tobacco? By specializing in tobacco they could make much more money than they could by growing tobacco and wheat. Why not use some of your proceeds from tobacco to purchase your wheat from areas better suited for wheat production, particularly since transportation improvements had brought down dramatically the costs of doing so? Along with the above changes, we also find several others, all inter-related. As suggested earlier, the American agricultural sector became much more mechanized in the period. This can be seen in any number of ways, whether measured by the total value of implements and tools in the farm sector, average investment in machinery and equipment per farm, or per improved acre. The agricultural sector’s great efficiency gains, also alluded to earlier, owed much to mechanization, of course, but many other factors were also responsible. Any short list of such factors would include the move to better, more fertile lands in the West; improved tillage practices; the greater employment of fertilizers; new and improved varieties and strains of seeds and livestock; transportation improvements; technological innovations such as refrigeration and 3 refrigerated railroad cars; and government promotion of agriculture through cheap land, research, and the dissemination of information about “best practices.” What, one might ask, do we mean by efficiency gains? Basically, an improvement in the relationship between inputs and output in agriculture. That is to say, as a result of efficiency gains in agriculture, a farmer, employing a given amount of land, labor, and capital could produce more output, or, conversely, could produce the same amount as before by using fewer economic resources. Although efficiency gains varied by agricultural product and region, considering the country as a whole, one farmer could care for only about twelve acres of crops in 1860, but by 1925 he or she could handle about thirty-four acres. Under certain conditions-- where large-scale, mechanized production was possible--a farmer could work one hundred acres or more by the latter date. In light of all of the changes discussed above, it is not surprising that farm output surged in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century. Virtually across the board, we see huge jumps in output. Whereas American farmers produced 173 million bushels of wheat in 1859, they produced 945 million bushels by 1919. Cotton production grew dramatically after the Civil War and emancipation as well. In 1859 5.4 million bales of cotton were produced in the U.S.; by 1919 the figure had reached 11.4 million bales. Similar gains were registered virtually across the board in American agriculture. Alas, these changes, taken together, led not only to a tremendous increase in output, but also to a plethora of problems, some of which were quite severe. These problems were most pronounced between the early 1870s and about 1896 or 1897, after which time they gave way. Let us at this point lay out some of these problems, and briefly examine the farmers’ response to the same. The most serious problem by far was low prices. One can approach this problem in a number of ways, but, simply put, low prices resulted from the fact that the supply of farm goods was growing much more rapidly than the demand for farm goods, which meant that farmers had to accept lower prices for their products over time. Now it is true that the general price level in the United States was falling through much of the late nineteenth century, but, even in this period of general deflation, farm prices fell more than prices in other sectors of the economy, which hurt farmers in a relative sense. Low prices hurt farmers particularly hard because many were debtors. In a deflationary economy, it is especially difficult to repay debts because the real cost of a debt rises as money becomes harder to come by. During the late nineteenth century, as more and more farmers commercialized their operations, specialized and mechanized, they often took on significant levels of debt, which became harder and harder to repay. As a result, many lost part or all of their farms, leading to a great rise in the number of tenants and sharecroppers, on the one hand, and the movement of many farmers out of agriculture altogether, on the other. And there were still other problems with which to deal. For example, America’s high tariffs during the period hurt farmers in several ways. Such tariffs limited the degree of competition U.S. manufacturers of farm machinery had to face, which meant that they could charge farmers higher prices, and foreign countries often retaliated against high American tariffs by slapping high tariffs on American exports, which at the time consisted primarily of farm products. Then there was the so-called middleman problem. In their efforts to get their products to market in this period, farmers became increasingly dependent on railroads for transportation purposes and on commercial grain elevators for storage. Farmers believed, rightly or wrongly that “middlemen” such as railroads and grain companies--which were generally organized into 4 large, powerful corporations--were exploiting them by charging excessive prices for their services. Whether or not the farmers were right is debatable, but farmers believed they were, and, acting individually, had little recourse in any case. In an effort to equalize the battle against the railroads and the grain companies, and to try to solve or at least to ameliorate the other problems they faced, American farmers began for the first time to band together into collective organizations. During the late nineteenth century, we witness the establishment of a series of such organizations, beginning with the Grangers in the 1860s, and culminating in the Farmers’ Alliance in the 1880s and the Populist movement in the 1890s. Scholars disagree about farmers’ intentions in forming such organizations, with some arguing that farmers, in so doing, were mounting a challenge to capitalism as an economic system, and others arguing that farmers envisioned such organizations rather more as lobbying groups that hopefully would allow them to get a better shake out of capitalism. We shall never know for sure, but the fact that such organizations--often bundled under the rubric of the “farm protest movement”--pretty much collapsed once farm prices began to rise in 1897 suggests that farmers for the most part were not implacable enemies of capitalism and capitalist agriculture. Ironically, with the rise of agricultural prices farmers entered into what many refer to as the “golden age” of American agriculture, that is to say, the period between about 1897 and the end of World War I. Having had to adjust and accommodate to profound changes, problems, and dislocations, American farmers got a much needed respite, at least until the return of “hard times” for many in the 1920s. But that is a story for another day.
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