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The Changes in American Agriculture in the Late 19th Century and


									  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
         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

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

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

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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