Agriculture Since The Industrial Revolution
AGRICULTURE SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
AGRICULTURE SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. It is difficult for people living in an advanced industrialized society to fully comprehend the life of a modern farmer, much less the life of farmers living before the Industrial Revolution. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, the vast majority of people were farmers who, as described by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, lived lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." And so it had been since the beginning of time for the vast majority of people, until the advent of an agricultural revolution that started in Great Britain during the early 1700s, reached North America by the mid-1800s, and continues to this day in all but the most benighted of nations. Agriculture had been changing since it had first appeared thousands of years earlier, but the pace quickened during the start of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and changes that had previously taken centuries and generations began to occur within decades. By 1750, the best English agriculture was the best in the world. The most technologically advanced agriculture, it was also fully integrated into a market economy. The dominance of the British Empire in world affairs during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ensured that these agricultural improvements were widely distributed.
The Europe-centered Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries accelerated an ongoing revolution in agriculture. In the industrialized West, animal power and human labor were first augmented and than almost completely replaced with mechanized sources of power. This was only part of the changes that gathered momentum in the 1700s and then transformed the world. Spectacular developments in all areas of science and nearly two centuries of exploration and conquest in the New World caused many Europeans in the early nineteenth century to reevaluate their relationship with nature. They developed an expanded worldview; it appeared to them that humanity in general, and Europeans specifically, had acquired the wisdom, knowledge, and scientific technology to dominate nature. This conviction was reinforced by the publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. While the new attitude initially produced colonialism, rampant environmental pollution, and the exploitation of poorly organized workers, it also permitted the manipulation of the entire farming environment to an extent inconceivable to previous generations, and later produced for common people a standard of living previously available only to the aristocracy.
This new point of view stripped plants, animals, and soil of their mystical "vital" attributes and made of them machines to be molded to fit human needs. Physics, chemistry, and biology became tools to dissect, examine, and then reconstruct agricultural systems to make them better than any that had previously existed on earth. This process started with improved methods of crop production, advances in livestock breeding, and the invention of new farm equipment during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. Soil, for example, ceased to contain a vital essence that must be periodically replenished by removing it from cultivation (fallowing), and became an aggregation of mineral and organic structures and chemicals whose fertility could be maintained by the application of scientific management—crop rotation, fertilizers, irrigation, pesticides, and other new methods. Adoption of new power sources, such as steam, and increased use of chemicals followed. Today, improved plant and livestock breeding through genetic engineering promises to continue the revolution well into the future.
Agricultural advances after the Industrial Revolution greatly increased food production, but increased urbanization required food to be transported long distances from producers to consumers. As with the citizens of ancient Rome, inhabitants of the ever-expanding cities became increasingly dependent on the transport, preservation, and storage of food. People starved in one part of the world, while abundant harvests spilled from granaries in another. The storage and distribution of food, rather than its production, became crucial to millions of people.
There have been periodic learned pronouncements of impending mass starvation since the English economist Thomas Malthus first proposed in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population that food production could only increase arithmetically, while population would increase geometrically. Malthus wrote that population would exceed food production at some point, and an apocalypse would ensue. While population growth has borne out his thesis for the past two hundred years, a number of scientific advances have allowed agricultural production to keep pace with it. A few major and thousands of minor refinements in agricultural practices have steadily improved productivity.
Before the 1700s, the problem of soil fertility had been met by letting half or a third of the land go fallow for a year in two-and three-field rotations. A new four-field rotation was now based on growing specific kinds of crops in a sequence that took from or added to the soil different nutrients. Part of the field did not have to be left fallow, and the continuous use of the land greatly increased the production of forage crops used to support livestock through the winter, thereby vastly increasing the availability of meat and dairy products. The diet of even the poorest improved as they could now afford to augment their daily bread with meat and cheese.
Another major change was a rapid acceleration in the fencing of large tracts of land to produce more efficient units of production. The enclosure movement in England did away with many traditional smallholdings, combining the land into larger tracts that could be more efficiently farmed. Earlier subdividing of land among generations of sons had produced a patchwork-quilt distribution of fields. A farmer may have had access to sufficient crop area (around twenty acres) to support his family, but it would be in small strips scattered among the holdings of other farmers, in a number of fields. This was because it was thought that each field had to remain fallow for a year to recover its fertility. From 1750 to 1831, enclosures consolidated these smallholdings into fields whose size could benefit from the application of modern methods of crop production.
Until the 1700s and 1800s peasants in most European countries could not actually own the land they farmed, but held ancestral rights to work land belonging to the proprietors of large estates. When laws were passed that allowed British landowners to abrogate these traditional agreements and combine many smallholdings, thousands of farm families were displaced. Migrating to urban areas, they furnished the labor that fueled the Industrial Revolution, and the wretched characters who populated many of Charles Dickens's novels.
Throughout Europe, similar changes produced millions of restless people with a deep-seated desire to own land. Many emigrated to North America, Australia, and New Zealand, where a variety of homestead laws granted land to those who settled and worked a farm or ranch for a number of years. Based on these policies, the family farm became an institution in North America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and a social and political force that continues to shape our national character. A combination of economic and demographic changes, however, has led to the steady decline in the number of functioning family farms. Although the U.S. population doubled between 1930 and 2000, the number of farms fell from 7 to 2 million. After 1987, this decline stabilized at about one percent annually. The price farmers got for commodities such as corn and soybeans remained virtually constant between 1970 and 2000, while the price they paid for everything they bought kept pace with inflation. This produced a farming population 60 percent of whom had farm incomes below the poverty line. It also discouraged the young so much that the number of farmers under the age of twenty-five decreased 50 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The large capital inputs needed to start and run a farm have transformed the production of many agricultural crops into large businesses. Ninety percent of U.S. farms, however, continue to be classified as individual operations, accounting for 71 percent of farmland and 74 percent of gross farm sales. Partnerships and corporations comprise a very small share of American farms, and people related by blood or marriage own 90 percent of them. Average acreage is higher for corporate farms (1,165 acres) and for partnerships (856 acres) than for individual operations (373 acres). Whereas the United States in the year 2000 had 2 million farms, just 60,000 of them produced 75 percent of the nation's farm output. Fewer and fewer farms were thus producing more and more of what Americans ate. The 1.3 million farms with incomes below $20,000 comprised 60 percent of the total number of farms, but cultivated only 17 percent of the total U.S. farm acreage. In contrast, the 60,000 farms with sales over $250,000 comprised only 7 percent of the total number, yet cultivated almost 30 percent of the acreage.
The many improvements in crop production up to 1935 produced only modest increases in average yield per acre in America because of deteriorating soil fertility and poor water use. Control of erosion, soil conservation, extensive government-backed irrigation developments, and better water-use efficiency reversed this trend, leading to large increases in production.
Since 1950, the gap in efficiency between the most productive mechanized agricultural systems and the least productive manual farming systems has increased twentyfold. While in small part the result of reduced soil, water, and environmental quality in developing countries, this change really reflects the spectacular advances in agricultural technology in industrialized counties. Transference of this technology to farmers throughout the world should be a major goal, and will be a major challenge to the fortunate few in the coming decades.
Before the eighteenth century, raising animals was slow and costly; thus, meat and dairy products were usually scarce and expensive before the Industrial Revolution. The lack of sufficient forage to keep large numbers of animals over the winter often led to the slaughter of most livestock in the fall. Celebrants at many late fall festivals not only consumed the bountiful harvest of the field, but also the animals whose progeny could have supplied them with fresh meat, milk, and cheese the following year. Each spring, herds had to be rebuilt from the survivors.
Farmers had used their intuition and observations to breed animals for millennia, but the process was slow and haphazard because the inheritance of desirable traits was poorly understood. In the late 1700s Robert Bakewell, an English farmer, showed how intensive breeding for desirable traits could produce improved cattle, horses, and sheep. In Europe, sheep had been raised mainly for wool because they fattened too slowly to provide an economic source of meat. Bakewell's Leicester breed fattened quickly and could therefore be raised for both wool and slaughter. The cost of mutton dropped so low that it became the most popular meat in England, Australia, and New Zealand.
Breeding of livestock is now a science in industrial societies, with genetic analysis an integral aspect. Accurate monitoring to detect estrus, or its induction by hormones, and the use of artificial insemination allow complete control over the reproductive cycle of most livestock. Removal of ova, their in vitro fertilization, and embryo implantation promise to allow a further level of control and manipulation of the reproductive process. For example, separation of the cells resulting from the first divisions of the fertilized ovum (zygote) may be used to produce a number of embryos that, when implanted, give rise to whole herds of genetically identical animals. These techniques are being coupled with the genetic engineering of DNA in specific chromosomes, or the replacement of the entire nucleus in a zygote with a nucleus from another individual of the same, or a related, species (cloning). While possibly replete with ethical conundrums, these procedures will surely transform livestock into units of production whose fecundity, efficiency, and vigor would marvel our ancestors.
Once Mendelian genetics was rediscovered in 1900, science gave plant and animal breeders a clear understanding of how traits were controlled by genes on chromosomes, and how they could be altered by selective breeding. Breeders made full use of this knowledge to steadily improve livestock and crops. Plants such as maize, soybeans, tomatoes, and peanuts became dietary staples in many parts of the world after their introduction from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Identifying the sites of their origin helped locate ancestral forms of many crops, and these plants provided additional genetic resources to improve commercial varieties.
The upper limit of plant productivity is imposed by the quantum efficiency of photosynthesis and the energy content of sunlight. The photosynthate translocated from leaves not only produces the harvestable commodity, but is also used for all other plant functions. Reducing the drain of these other functions can increase yield. For example, symbiotic microorganisms in nodules on soybean roots can fix atmospheric nitrogen. It is often cheaper, however, to supply nitrogen fertilizers fixed by processes involving fossil fuels than to incur the loss of yield that would result from the soybean plant fixing a similar amount of nitrogen. Modification of the basic biochemistry and physiology underlying crop and livestock production will require levels of scientific knowledge and technical sophistication currently unavailable.
Economics of industrial-scale production require that most agriculture is monoculture, involving vast fields and herds of nearly genetically identical crops and livestock. This uniformity simplifies all aspects of production, but it also invites epidemics of plant disease. The devastating outbreak of bacterial southern corn blight in the United States in 1970, and the 2001 epidemic of viral foot-and-mouth disease in England, are examples of the seriousness of this problem. A major goal of plant and animal breeders is to stay ahead of chronic or exotic pathogens that can decimate crops and herds.
Genetic engineering has the potential to quickly create crops and livestock with unique characteristics. Rapid release of genetically modified organisms is slowed, however, because they require the same extensive field testing as new strains derived from traditional breeding. Consumer wariness has slowed the introduction of GMOs in Europe, but American consumers have readily accepted them. Most U.S. consumers have been unaware of the presence of GMOs in their food, and when they become aware, they are willing to accept claims by scientific and government sources that GMOs are safe to eat and environmentally benign. In Europe, a greater level of environmental activism and skepticism in government and scientific pronouncements has contributed to consumers' doubts about the safety and environmental impact of GMO crops. A large percentage of U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton production uses GMOs that possess pest resistance. Tailoring GMOs to the specific needs of farmers in developing countries may be the only way for food production to keep pace with their rapidly increasing populations. Crops designed with increased disease and drought resistance and better use of nutrients in the soil could supplant the strains that have been developed for use in industrialized countries and that require expensive irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers that are unavailable in developing countries.
Development of hybrid corn was a watershed in plant breeding, heralding a change in concept from a straightforward selection of desirable characteristics to the employment of a deeper understanding of the genetics involved. Experiments by G. H. Shull in 1906 showed that crossing could reverse reductions in vigor resulting from inbreeding. Using the strategy of double-cross hybrids suggested by D. F. Jones in 1918, the first commercial corn hybrid was released in 1921. About 95 percent of the corn now grown is hybrid, and use of double-cross hybrids allows 20 percent more corn to be produced on 25 percent fewer acres than when hybrid corn first became widely available in 1930. Hybrids of many other agronomic and horticultural crops have since been developed.
The Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, a sterling example of how the development of strains suited for developing countries, and a multifaceted approach to agriculture, can greatly increase food production, was a planned international effort funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the governments of many developing countries. In the early 1950s, wheat production in Mexico had encountered an insurmountable yield barrier because the varieties being grown became too tall, top-heavy, and lodged (fell over and were difficult to harvest) when heavily fertilized. Using short-stalked lines developed years earlier by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Norman E. Borlaug led an effort to develop broadly adapted, short-stemmed, disease-resistant wheats that excelled at converting fertilizer and water into high yields. Mexico went from importing half its wheat in 1964 to exporting half a million tons annually within two decades.
The Green Revolution is an agricultural success story. It increased food production in Mexico tenfold from 1960 to 1990 through the use of new crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization. At the same time, famine decreased 20 percent, caloric consumption per capita increased 25 percent, and incomes and standards of living increased. The successes in Mexico led to the establishment of a rice-breeding center in the Philippines. Working at about eighteen such centers worldwide, plant breeders have produced high-yielding varieties of virtually every major crop, including potato, sorghum, maize, cassava, and beans. Increased population growth and poor husbandry of natural resources, however, have eroded many of these gains since the 1980s.
Preparing the soil with a plow, planting seeds, cultivation, harvesting, and threshing are some of the most important steps in crop production, and some of the most labor-and energy-intensive. Inventions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transferred much of farm labor to machines. Before Jethro Tull invented the precision seed drill in 1701, seeds were inefficiently planted by scattering them over a prepared field. Stands were thus often erratic and almost impossible to cultivate. The uniform placement of seeds in straight rows allowed horse-drawn cultivators to move easily up and down the rows for the control of weeds.
Little cotton was grown in the United States before the late 1790s because of the difficulty of separating the lint from the seed. Development of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 greatly reduced the cost of producing cotton fiber for the rapidly increasing British textile industry. Slumps in production of tobacco, indigo, and rice during the 1790s had undermined the economic justification for slavery, but increased production of sugarcane and upland cotton still relied on the institution. The production of cotton in America now jumped twentyfold, from 2 million pounds in 1790 to 40 million pounds in 1800, while exports increased over 1000 percent in the same period. In less than a generation, cotton became the major crop grown in the U.S. South, and it revived the moribund slave-worked plantation system.
The first successful harvester or reaper was invented by Cyrus McCormick in 1834, as was the first modern thresher, by Hiram and John Pitts. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and subsequent conscription depleted farm labor, and forced many wheat farmers to buy reaping machines. The harvesting and threshing functions were later integrated into one machine, the combine, which did not become widely used until the early 1900s. Replacement of the cast-iron plow by the self-polishing steel plow, invented by John Deere in 1837, reduced the energy needed to plow a field because soil did not adhere to the smooth surface. To reach their full potential, most of these inventions depended on mechanical sources of power, which did not become readily available until the early twentieth century.
The major functions of a machine were often perfected over years of experimentation and modification. Sometimes mechanical limitations prevented further refinements, or an existing machine could not be easily modified to accommodate a new crop. When that occurred, it might be found easier to modify the crop to fit existing machines than to build entirely new machines. Dwarf sorghum was developed so it could be harvested with only slight modifications to an existing combine, and soybeans were developed that bore pods higher on the stalk so they could more easily be harvested. Tomatoes for processing were developed that had a more uniform set and were tough enough for mechanical harvesting using existing technology.
Integration of computers, sensors, and global positioning satellites into field equipment promises to revolutionize the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of many crops. For example, the location of each corn or tomato plant in a field can be identified using sensors and GPSs, and stored in computer memory. Subsequent operations such as weeding, applications of pesticides and fertilizers, and harvesting can then be positioned to maximize the effectiveness of every operation, thereby increasing yield and quality while at the same time reducing expenditures of time, fuel, and chemicals.
Energy and Information
In essence, farming is the conversion of sunlight and other sources of energy into food. For most of recorded history the energy to plant, cultivate, harvest, and process crops was supplied by the farmer and by domesticated draft animals (such as oxen and horses). Necessarily, the energy captured by the plant and harvested as food calories had to exceed that expended in its production. Preindustrial agriculture generally returned around twenty times more calories in the food consumed than was expended during its production. This efficiency decreases as the consumed food product requires additional processing (as for white bread versus grain potage, or cheese versus milk), conversion to other forms (cornflakes versus corn used to produce beefsteak), and shipment to distant consumers. As agriculture became mechanized, greater and greater amounts of energy were expended for each unit of food produced. Currently, mechanized agriculture in developed countries uses ten times as much energy to produce food as is returned in the food consumed. But agricultural mechanization has increased productivity so much that today's farmer can feed almost 150 people, while at the beginning of the twentieth century a farmer could feed only 2.5 people. The vast input of fossil fuels to synthesize the required fertilizers and pesticides, and to power the machinery that cultivates the fields, harvests the crops, processes them, and transports them to the consumer has so increased production that a small percentage of the population can raise enough food to keep most Americans overweight.
Before the Industrial Revolution, there was localized use of wind and water power for milling grain and pumping water, but these sources were stationary, and of no use in planting or plowing a field, or harvesting a crop. The earliest tractors were basically large stationary engines equipped with a drive system. At first, steam engines were immobile and of little use for field operations because of their enormous weight. Even in the mid-1800s steam-powered tractors were so expensive and difficult to operate that most farmers continued to use horses and mules to power farm machines. The introduction of high-pressure boilers in the 1850s lightened engines, and steam tractors enjoyed significant usage between 1885 and 1914. Tractors with internal-combustion engines eventually supplanted steam tractors because they had several advantages: they were cheaper, easier to operate, and less prone to explosions and fires.
World War I (1914–1918) did for the tractor what the American Civil War had done for the reaping machine. Soon after it began, German U-boats were sinking so many British ships that it was necessary to increase food production by bringing thousands of acres of new farmland into production or face food shortages. There were not enough horses to plow this new land, and only five hundred tractors in all of Britain. The five thousand tractors ordered by the British government from Henry Ford were delivered within five months, and were soon at work on British farms. Almost overnight, British farmers, and later their conscripted American visitors, became accustomed to seeing tractors displacing teams of horses.
The labor shortage and guaranteed market for crops during World War I stimulated U.S. tractor design and manufacture; massive industrialization led to greatly increased production. It was not until after World War II, however, that tractors became widely accepted. Many farmers bought early tractors, particularly the smaller, lighter machines that could do varied field work, but the worldwide depression of the 1930s and the fact that tractors still couldn't compete with the agility of horses in the field led to the demise of many tractor companies. Most farmers would have been thrilled to be rid of draft animals and to use mechanical devices. During the period 1908–1927 Ford built over 15 million automobiles with the Model T engine. Many farmers had a car or truck that was used to supply power for nonfield operations and for trips to town, yet continued to use draft animals for fieldwork; the Sears catalog of the time listed hundreds of accessories that could be used with the drive train of a car or truck to do everything from threshing grain and pumping water to churning butter, sawing wood, and washing clothes. Only when tractors appeared with enough power and maneuverability for fieldwork and the flexibility to furnish power for other nonfield operations were they readily adopted by most farmers. It was not until the 1920s that the all-purpose tractor made its appearance and gradually replaced steam-powered machines and draft animals. By the 1930s, seven tractor companies controlled over 90 percent of the market, and North America led the world in tractor design and production. Today, tractors using gasoline or diesel engines are ubiquitous on farms throughout the world.
Most farms in Europe and Japan had electrical power by the mid-1930s. Only 10 percent of U.S. farms were so supplied, however, at the time the Federal government established the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935. The REA supplied economic incentives that stimulated rural electrification; by 1960, over 97 percent of American farms had electricity.
Electricity brought with it better communication through the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and eventually the Internet, all of which in turn have had tremendous effects on the farmer's life. Farms are no longer isolated from the mainstream of society. Information on weather and on commodity prices is readily available, and can assist in better planning. Farming has become such a capital-, energy-, and information-intensive business that most farmers need assistance in managing it all. Most industrialized countries have government-sponsored agricultural-research and extension services. These not only engage in practical research of immediate and local importance, but also provide significant levels of basic research to address future problems. They assist farmers, marketers, and distributors through publications, interactive websites, classes, and farm visits and demonstrations. Almost more than any other aspect of modern agriculture, the extension services are responsible for today's unmatched levels of food production, nutrition, and safety.
All living things are groups of simple and complex chemicals functioning together in specific and unimaginably complex ways. Since all living things are interrelated through evolution, they are very similar at the molecular level. This means that many require roughly the same resources (thus, all plants need sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, and a few common minerals), and can be food for one another (thus, the starch stored by a potato can be used for its future growth or consumed by humans). Many organisms therefore compete for the same scarce resources and develop elaborate strategies to avoid being eaten. Weeds are simply plants that out-compete crops for the resources that limit plant growth and that we apply in profusion to cultivated crops. During domestication, the elimination of many natural defense mechanisms to produce a more easily grown, harvested, or palatable crop also produces a crop more vulnerable to pests. Reintroduction of specific natural defense mechanisms through selective genetic engineering could drastically reduce the dependence of agriculture on synthetic pesticides.
Modern agriculture is based on the establishment of a monoculture in which one specific crop or animal is grown or raised over large areas to the exclusion of all potentially competing organisms. Methods of planting, cultivation, and harvesting are all geared to the growth of uniform plants and animals. An orchard is usually composed of genetically identical (cloned) trees. Each tree will flower at roughly the same time, and produce fruits that look and taste the same and ripen at the same time. Fields are often modified to provide growing conditions that are as close as possible to being identical for all plants to further limit variability. Pruning, applications of pesticide sprays, cultivations, irrigation, and harvesting can be done over the entire orchard because all trees and fruit are at similar stages of growth and will respond similarly. An orchard composed of dissimilar seedlings would have trees that flowered at different times, and have fruit that were green or red, sweet or tart, or large or small, and that ripened at different times. The susceptibility of trees and fruits to various pests would be different, so different pesticides would have to be used at different times and rates of application. As with the other field operations, harvesting would have to be done a number of times, and would have to be selective since the fruit on each tree would ripen at a different rate. Fruit, or any other agricultural commodity, produced in this way would be expensive and of variable quality—two attributes abhorrent to modern consumers.
Most undisturbed natural ecosystems are stable because they contain many species of plants and animals that are genetically diverse, that can exploit all the available niches, and that interact with one another to hinder the uncontrolled growth of a single pest or disease. In a monoculture the genetic and species diversity that provides stability is lacking, and control must be exerted by the farmer to maintain the health of the crops or animals and ensure an ample, high-quality yield.
Agricultural chemistry had become a recognized discipline by the mid-nineteenth century. Fertilizers and other products of the chemical industry became widely used early in the twentieth century, and have become indispensable in maintaining the yields of modern agriculture. Reliance on chemical answers to agricultural problems, however, has often obscured their deficiencies, as well as the existence of alternative solutions. Crop rotation and cultural practices have long been used to control pests. Since the end of World War II, however, farmers and ranchers have come to rely more heavily on chemical pesticides (such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and nematocides). Shortly after DDT was found to be an effective insecticide in 1939, the United States began producing large quantities of it to control vector-borne diseases such as typhus and malaria. The dramatic success of DDT in controlling over five hundred insect pests diverted attention from traditional nonchemical methods of pest control. The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, however, made the public aware of the environmental drawbacks of using too many pesticides. Since then, there has been a complete shift in research emphasis, so that, whereas in 1925 three-fourths of published studies were on chemical pesticides, almost 80 percent of USDA pesticide research in 2000 was on alternatives to chemicals.
Environmental concerns, regulatory legislation, and increased costs were driving forces in the development of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs throughout the United States in the early 1970s. Bringing together experts from many fields, IPM programs strive to reduce the usage of chemical pesticides by integrating knowledge about the biology of the pest, the response of the crop to infestation, and the costs involved in applying or withholding treatment. Researchers have recognized that the pest population does not have to be completely eliminated, only kept below the point at which the farmer starts to lose money because of it. Implementation of these types of programs has significantly reduced the use of chemical pesticides while maintaining yield, quality, and economic return.
Fertilizers represent the single largest use of chemicals on the farm. Although nitrogen gas comprises 80 percent of the air we breathe, it is the element most commonly limiting plant growth. Atmospheric nitrogen must be fixed into ammonia or nitrates before a plant can use it. Lightning and biological activity (such as that of symbiotic microorganisms in nodules on legume roots) can fix nitrogen. The vast majority of nitrogen used in fertilizer, however, is fixed by the Haber process, an elegant method of combining nitrogen from air with hydrogen from natural gas under high pressure and temperature to produce ammonia. This process was invented by German scientists before World War I in response to a blockade of Chilean nitrate imposed by the British Royal Navy. During the war it was used to fix nitrogen for agriculture and to produce explosives. The inorganic ammonia fixed by this process now supplies about the same amount of nitrogen for crops as is fixed by all natural organic processes. The synthesis of ammonia consumes about 2 percent of the fossil fuel used worldwide. Overuse of cheap nitrogen fertilizer can lead to excessive runoff that pollutes groundwater and to eutrophication of bodies of water. But while inorganic nitrogen fertilizers remain cheap, it will cost less to apply them to crops than to have the plant divert its photosynthate from producing a crop to fixing its own nitrogen.
See also Crop Improvement; Food Supply and the Global Food Market; Food Supply, Food Shortages; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Horticulture.
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Mikal E. Saltveit
The emergence of agriculture was one of the most prominent events in human history, and transformations in agriculture have proved to be among the most significant sources of social change. Even in the postindustrial world, agriculture and agricultural change continue to have major implications for human societies. Fundamentally, humans remain absolutely dependent on agriculture for food and many other products used on a daily basis.
The emergence of and subsequent developments in agriculture have transformed human societies in at least three major ways: First, when compared to hunting and gathering, agriculture greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced and made food production much more consistent and dependable. With an ever-increasing and more dependable food supply, the human population that the earth can support has increased dramatically (Vasey 1992). Second, agriculture made permanent settlement possible because it was no longer necessary for humans to follow herds of animals or go out in search of edible plants. Third, as agriculturally based societies developed, the ownership or control of agricultural lands became perhaps the most important source of wealth and power. Extensive inequality quickly followed.
Agricultural production has always been, and continues to be, totally dependent on two broad sets of input. These include: (1) the force, energy, or labor to accomplish necessary agricultural tasks such as preparing the soil, planting seeds, removing weeds, and harvesting; and (2) environmental resources such as soil, water, and sunshine (Schlebecker 1975). From the beginning, attempts to procure these resources have had substantial societal impacts.
For most of agriculture’s long history, human beings, with assistance from domesticated animals, have provided the bulk of agricultural labor. Agriculture has always faced the unique and somewhat troublesome challenge of securing an adequate labor supply: While an industrial labor force can generally be used consistently and efficiently throughout the year, the same is not true in agriculture, where the production of most commodities is seasonal. Consequently, throughout the year there are periods of extensive labor needs, primarily during planting and the harvest, followed by periods when labor requirements are minimal as biological processes unfold (Mann and Dickinson 1978). Employing an agricultural workforce large enough to meet labor requirements during peak seasons means that during most of the year this labor force will be underutilized, while the cost of feeding and housing workers remains constant. On the other hand, if a year-round workforce is not retained and attempts to secure a sufficient temporary labor force during critical labor-intensive periods fail, the results could be disastrous.
Throughout history, attempts to deal with the unique labor problems of agriculture have taken a variety of courses. Initially, approaches revolved around securing an adequate but relatively cheap human labor supply. More recently, technological solutions were sought in which machines were developed to replace human labor in the production process. Both paths have had major social consequences.
Historically, agricultural lands have often been unequally distributed, largely controlled by wealthy and powerful landowners who sought for ways to maintain a sufficient agricultural labor force at relatively low costs. Some of the solutions have resulted in some of the darkest chapters of human history. In the past couple of centuries more equitable labor solutions have been attempted.
Feudalism During the Middle Ages in Europe, and at times in Japan, China, and other areas, feudalism emerged as a complex and varied cultural system that provided a way for the wealthy and powerful aristocracy to maintain a constant and relatively inexpensive agricultural labor force. In theory, feudalism resembled a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the monarch—a king, emperor, or shogun—who owned all of the land within the kingdom. Since it was impossible for the monarch to supervise or control such a large area, he or she divided the land and granted control of various segments to upper-class nobles. These nobles were the second level on the pyramid. In exchange for the land grant, the noble would swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch, collect taxes from the land to be shared with the monarch, and provide soldiers when requested. Often upper-level nobles would further subdivide the land under their control and provide land grants to lower-level nobles, who in turn, were expected to collect taxes to be shared with those above them and to provide soldiers. Further subdivisions were found in some areas. If production increased, greater levels of wealth would flow to all levels up the pyramid. The higher up the pyramid an individual resided, the greater the power, prestige, and financial benefits.
At the base of the pyramid were the peasantry and serfs, who often comprised up to 95 percent of the population. These individuals provided a constant and cheap source of agricultural labor, became soldiers when requested, and generally lived near abject poverty. They owned virtually nothing, spent their days working as day laborers on the lands of the aristocracy, and had few freedoms. The entire feudal system was based on ascribed status, where a person’s position in life was almost entirely a function of his or her birth.
Slavery Slavery has a long and painful chapter in world history. While slaves have been used in a variety of economic endeavors, slavery has most prominently been a way of maintaining a consistent and cheap agricultural labor force. Although slavery has been a part of numerous cultures throughout the world, perhaps the most vivid example of slave labor in agriculture involved exporting Africans to the Americas to work as agricultural slaves. Studies by David B. Davis estimate that between 1500 and 1870, about 9.4 million Africans were transported to the Americas. About 48 percent of the slaves arrived in the Caribbean Islands, 41 percent were sent to Brazil, about 6 percent arrived in the southern United States, and the remaining 5 percent were sent to mainland Central and South America (Davis 2006).
Slavery was a part of an extremely productive agricultural system that generated great wealth to those who owned land and slaves and allowed most slaveholders to live a life of relative comfort. However, this wealth was generated by the labor of slaves who endured torture, degradation, and were treated as property. Individuals were often separated from friends and family and sold like animals. One of the lasting consequences of slavery is a legacy of racism. To justify the race-based slavery that existed in the Americas, an ideology emerged in which the slave-owning race was defined as superior while the enslaved race was defined as inferior. The ramifications of this ideology continue to have implications for human interactions in modern society.
The Family Farm When the United States became an independent nation, policies were instigated that were intended to create an agricultural system based on numerous medium-sized family farms. The traditional agricultural labor problems would be solved by having the farmer and other family members provide the vast majority of the labor. Family labor was relatively effective because family members could be used extensively when labor needs were high and idled with minimal costs when not needed (Buttel et al. 1990). A nation of family farmers would also largely eliminate the tremendous inequality inherent in a system of landed aristocracy. The Homestead Act of 1862 perhaps best exemplifies the policy of encouraging family farms in the United States. This act made it possible for a settler, after paying a small registration fee and residing on and working 160 acres of land for five years, to gain clear title to that land. The opportunity to own one’s own land was the magnet that drew millions of immigrants from Europe to the United States. In time, millions of medium-sized, full-time family farming operations dominated agriculture in the United States.
Collective Agriculture Karl Marx expressed great concern over the inequality inherent in the feudally based agricultural system that prevailed in Europe. He felt the basic problem was that a few individuals owned the land while the masses provided the agricultural labor. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the existing agricultural system was totally overturned in areas under communist control. In time a system of large state-owned, centrally controlled collective farms was developed. The manifest goal of collective agriculture was equality. All members of the collective farm worked together and shared equally in the output. Despite an egalitarian land-ownership system and production units that were conducive to machinery and other modern technology, the productivity of collective farms was never as extensive or as efficient as communist leaders hoped it would be.
Prior to about 1800, the vast majority of the world’s population lived on farms in rural areas in an economy based on subsistence agriculture. It was necessary for nearly everyone to be involved in agriculture because most farms were barely able to produce what was needed by their own workers, and thus there was little surplus. Then in the mid-eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution emerged in Great Britain. Developments in science, technology, and machinery greatly increased the efficiency of human labor. Initially, the industry most extensively affected was agriculture. By using increasingly advanced machines, farmers were able to produce an ever-greater surplus of food and fiber. With fewer workers needed in agriculture, a labor force was available to work on the new machines coming into use in manufacturing and industry.
For many farmers, the development of machines was a welcome solution to agricultural labor problems. Machines had several advantages over human labor. Once a machine was purchased, it could be stored during periods of disuse for little additional cost and made quickly available when needed. Additionally, machines eliminated much of the back-breaking work once associated with farming.
Despite some nineteenth-century breakthroughs, a large proportion of the world’s population remained directly involved in agricultural production into the early decades of the twentieth century. Between about 1940 and 1970 the mechanization of agriculture proceeded rapidly in economically advanced nations. The impact of this process was dramatic. The mechanization of agriculture changed the very nature of farm work, totally transformed the face of rural areas, and had dramatic implications for urban and nonfarm populations as well. By utilizing new technologies, the labor capacity of farmers was greatly increased, which enabled them to operate progressively larger farms. With a rapid increase in farm size, there was a corresponding decline in the number of farms (Albrecht and Murdock 1990). In the United States, Calvin Beale (1993) described the subsequent transition as the largest peacetime movement of people in history as millions of people left the farm and moved to urban areas seeking industrial employment. The industrialization of agriculture also significantly altered what was once a family-farm-based agricultural structure. Increasingly, agriculture in the United States and other advanced economies became more dualistic: Most production now comes from a number of large and highly mechanized farms, with another large segment of the farm population running small part-time retirement or hobby farms. The number of medium-sized family farms has declined substantially.
The extent to which agriculture has been transformed by industrialization varies greatly from one part of the world to another. In economically advanced nations, a highly mechanized agricultural sector is extremely productive and typically less than 5 percent of the labor force is involved in agriculture. The large nonfarm sector is then able to produce goods and services that add to the quality of life in these countries. By contrast, in less developed countries a majority of the labor force remains involved in agricultural production and the standard of living is much lower.
Agricultural production has always been and continues to be closely tied to the natural environment (Albrecht and Murdock 2002). The quality and quantity of resources available play a major role in determining which commodities can be produced and in what quantity. While innumerable environmental factors influence agricultural production, a few are obviously vital. Successful agricultural production requires the appropriate combination of soil, water, and temperature. If these factors are missing or vary too widely, production will either not occur or will be somewhat limited. Although the production of agricultural commodities requires all of these essential resources, the amounts required vary substantially from one commodity to another. Wheat can be produced in areas that experience harsh winters and have relatively short growing seasons, while citrus fruits cannot, and rice production requires substantially more water than cotton production. Thus basic environmental differences severely limit farm production in some areas, and certain commodities cannot be effectively produced in other areas.
Throughout history, humans have attempted to overcome the shortcomings of their agricultural environment. Unwanted vegetation is removed, complex irrigation systems carry water to land whose natural rainfall is insufficient, and fertilizers, including animal manure, are added to the soil to improve its natural fertility. As a continuation of these efforts, scientists are seeking to overcome environmental limitations through developments in biotechnology. The implications are extensive. On the one hand, agricultural production far exceeds what it would be otherwise. On the other hand, some environmental resources have been severely depleted and other significant environmental pollution problems have emerged.
In many cases agricultural production has severely impaired the environment. Soil erosion is a classic example. Many great civilizations of the past were founded on an extensive base of fertile soil. Ample soil allowed for surplus farm production, which freed part of the population from agriculture and permitted some workers to become artisans, engineers, and artists (Dale and Carter 1955; Lowdermilk 1953). However, with few exceptions, humans have not been able to sustain a progressive civilization in one locality for more than a few hundred years. Over time the natural resource base (particularly the soil base) that permits surplus production becomes depleted. As resources are depleted, surplus production decreases and the civilization declines (Brown 1981). Lowdermilk (1953), for example, found evidence of over a hundred dead villages in Syria. These villages now stand on bare rocks with the soils completely washed or blown away. He concluded that “if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the population dispersed, the area might have been repeopled and the cities rebuilt. But now that the soils are gone, all is gone” (p. 10). In most cases, the more technologically advanced the civilization, the shorter its period of progressive existence and expansion (Diamond 2005; Dale and Carter 1955). Similarly, in Mesopotamia, the rich soils of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys supported some of the world’s greatest civilizations. Through the centuries the soils have been severely eroded and today the land supports less than one-sixth of the population that lived there during its historic peak.
Dale and Carter state:
Let’s not put the blame for the barrenness of these areas on the conquering hordes that repeatedly overran them. True, those conquerors often sacked and razed the cities, burned the villages, and slaughtered or drove off the people who populated them. But while the soil and other resources … remained, the cities were usually rebuilt. It was only after the land was depleted or exhausted that the fields became barren and the cities remained dead. (1955, p. 15)
Even today, many of the world’s most severe environmental problems are a direct result of modern farming practices. These problems include soil depletion; water pollution from eroded soils, fertilizers, and pesticides; and the depletion of critical resources, including groundwater and nonrenewable energy supplies. The extent to which societies deal with these problems effectively will profoundly influence the world in years to come.
Agriculture of the future will no doubt look substantially different from the agriculture of today, and its evolution will continue to have significant societal impact. Three factors are likely to play significant roles. First, technological developments have always figured prominently in agriculture and will continue to do so. Second, the emergence of a true world economy will have massive implications for prices and production in communities throughout the world. Third, the depletion of resources and environmental change will drastically alter agriculture. Of special concern is global warming, which could significantly alter the agricultural environment in a myriad of ways. The role of social scientists in understanding these issues will be of continued significance.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Economics; Boserup, Ester; Change, Technological; Civilization; Food; Green Revolution; Industry; Irrigation; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Overpopulation; Quota System, Farm; Slavery; Subsidies, Farm; Subsistence Agriculture
Albrecht, Don E., and Steve H. Murdock. 1990. The Sociology of U.S. Agriculture: An Ecological Perspective. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Albrecht, Don E., and Steve H. Murdock. 2002. Rural Environments and Agriculture. In Handbook of Environmental Sociology, ed. Riley E. Dunlap and William Michelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Beale, Calvin L. 1993. Salient Features of the Demography of American Agriculture. In The Demography of Rural Life, ed. D. L. Brown, D. Field, and J.J. Zuiches, 108-127. University Park, PA: Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.
Brown, Lester R. 1981. Building a Sustainable Society. New York: Norton.
Buttel, Frederick H., Olaf F. Larson, and Gilbert W. Gillespie Jr. 1990. The Sociology of Agriculture. New York: Greenwood.
Dale, Tom, and Vernon Gill Carter. 1955. Topsoil and Civilization. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Davis, David Brion. 2006. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Diamond, Jared M. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.
Lowdermilk, Walter C. 1953. Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years. Agriculture Information Bulletin 99. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service.
Mann, Susan A., and James M. Dickinson. 1978. Obstacles to the Development of Capitalist Agriculture. Journal of Peasant Studies 5(4): 466-481.
Schlebecker, John T. 1975. Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Vasey, Daniel E. 1992. An Ecological History of Agriculture, 10,000 BC–AD 10,000. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Don E. Albrecht
The body of law governing the cultivation of various crops and the raising and management of livestock to provide a food and fabric supply for human and animal consumption.
The law as it relates to agriculture is concerned with farmers, ranchers, and the consuming public. Agricultural law is designed to ensure the continued, efficient production and distribution of foods and fibers. Through a vast system of regulations that control the various aspects of agricultural practice, federal and state governments are able to provide for the needs of both agriculturalists and consumers.
History of Agricultural Law
Agricultural law is a relatively new phenomenon. Farmers have always been subject to established contract, real property, and estate laws, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that federal and state governments began treating the production of food and fiber as a calling worthy of special legal treatment.
State regulations concerning the inspection, promotion, and improvement of farm production were in place at the United States's infancy, but the federal government's first foray into the promotion of farming was the homestead act of 1862 (ch. 75, 12 Stat. 392 [repealed 1976]). This act encouraged the westward expansion of European Americans by selling federally owned lands for farming. Another method of sale was land debt, a financial arrangement in which farmers agreed to pay the federal government a certain amount from their yearly profits in exchange for the land. Congress passed subsequent legislation concerning land ownership for farming purposes, but federal lands were eventually exhausted, and in 1976, these late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century acts became unnecessary and were repealed.
The colonial and pioneer families that practiced farming generally raised a variety of animals and crops, depending on what the soil would yield. This seminal arrangement came to be known as the family farm. The family farm community was rich in resources derived from land, not money, and from this unique prosperity grew a lifestyle with a status all its own. Expendable income was not a priority for farm families. The values attached to their way of life placed a higher premium on plentiful food, vast land ownership, and a spiritual fulfillment derived from farming. Farmwork was difficult, and the farmer was different from the rest of society; it was against this backdrop that federal and state legislators began to work when addressing the pressing issues that farmers would come to face.
The years following the Civil War were especially fruitful for farming communities. world war i saw an increase in the value of farm products, and in the Roaring Twenties, robust prices were maintained by a general public capable of buying food and clothing. However, in the months before the stock market crash of October 1929, the value of farmland and its products began to decrease. This was due in part to high tariffs on manufacturing equipment essential to farming, which allowed U.S. manufacturers to price farming equipment without foreign competition. It was also due in part to a new emphasis on mass productivity inspired by the industrial revolution. The ability of farmers to increase production on less land led to lower prices and, eventually, fewer family farms.
The Great Depression of the 1930s eliminated many family farms. As the general public became less able to buy such basic farm products as food and clothing, food prices dropped drastically, and farmers found themselves without the profits for their mortgage payments. Foreclosures became routine. Farm families considered foreclosures a breach of the government's promise to allow productive farm families to keep their land, and vast numbers of farmers organized to withhold food from their markets in an effort to force product prices higher. A smaller number of farmers resorted to violence to prevent other farmers from delivering their goods to market. Several foreclosures were also prevented by force.
The unrest of the early 1930s in the Great Plains states eventually led to widespread state legislation that limited the rights of banks to foreclose on farms with undue haste. Action was also taken on the federal level. To avoid a national farmers' strike planned for May 13, 1933, President franklin d. roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (7 U.S.C.A. § 601 et seq.) on May 12. This act was the first in a series of federal laws that provided compensation to farmers who voluntarily reduced their
output. Parts of the act were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936, in part because the Court considered agriculture a matter of local concern. Congress and President Roosevelt continued to press the issue, with the amended Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which contained more federal control of production, benefit payments, loans, insurance, and soil conservation.
The test case for the new Agricultural Adjustment Act was Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111, 63 S. Ct. 82, 87 L. Ed. 122 (1942). In Wickard, Ohio farmer Roscoe C. Filburn sued Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard over the part of the act concerning wheat acreage allotment. Under the act, the u.s. department of agriculture (USDA) had designated 11.1 acres of Filburn's land for wheat sowing and established a normal wheat yield for this acreage. Filburn defied the department's directive by sowing wheat on more than 11.1 acres and exceeding his yield. This constituted farm marketing excess, and Filburn was penalized $117.11 by the department. When Filburn refused to pay the fine, the government issued a lien against his wheat and the Agriculture Committee denied him a marketing card. This card was necessary to protect Filburn's buyers from liability for the fine, and to protect buyers from the government's lien on Filburn's wheat.
Filburn sued to invalidate the wheat acreage allotment provision, arguing in part that it was beyond the power of the federal government to enforce such farming limitations. Even though Filburn did not intend to sell much of the wheat, the Supreme Court reasoned that because all farm product surplus had a substantial effect on interstate commerce, it was within the power of the U.S. Congress to control it. This decision affirmed the power of Congress to regulate all things agrarian, and the U.S. farmer, for better or worse, was left with a meddlesome lifetime friend in the federal government.
As the United States enjoyed economic prosperity through the 1950s and 1960s, the number of family farms remained relatively stable. Farm families learned to work with the federal government and its dizzying stream of agencies, regulations, and paperwork. Nevertheless, the mid-1980s saw another farm crisis. Widespread financial difficulty led to the loss of hundreds more family farms and prompted further federal action.
In response to this crisis, Congress passed an extensive credit-relief package in 1985, over the protest of President ronald reagan's agriculture secretary, John R. Block. The several bills in this package provided for additional federal monies for loan guarantees, reduction of lender interest rates, and loan advancements.
This farm crisis was triggered by a combination of natural disasters, market shifts, lower prices, and production improvements. Furthermore, the onset of corporate farming, which involves mass production of farm products, forced farm families to consistently reckon with the harsh realities of the financial world.
Dissatisfaction with federal farm laws and policy led Congress in 1996 to pass the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act, which came to be known as the Freedom to Farm Act (Pub.L. 104–127, Apr. 4, 1996, 110 Stat. 888). The law, which was trumpeted by conservatives as the means to end 60 years of federal farm subsidies and to reinvigorate the free market, reduced regulatory burdens on farmers and ended requirements that farmers idle land to qualify for crop subsidies. However, the central part of the law consisted of "market transition payments"—the USDA paid farmers to compensate them for the possibility that farm subsidies might end in six years. This departed from the traditional federal practice where support payments were inversely related to crop prices—the higher the crop prices, the lower the support payments.
The Freedom to Farm Act gave farmers more than three times as much in cash subsidies in 1996 and 1997 than they would have received under the previous five-year farm bill. Even with these payouts, farm income began to fall in 1998, leading Congress to reverse course and authorize billions of dollars in farm relief. By 2002, Congress had abandoned the idea that the federal government should not subsidize farmers. It passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Farm Bill 2002), Pub.L. 107–171, May 13, 2002, 116 Stat. 134, which set agricultural policy for the next six years. It is estimated that the total subsidies paid out over this period will reach $200 billion.
While government involvement in farming continues, the face of U.S. farming is evolving. Most farmers are now trained in business and keep abreast of farming trends, technological and manufacturing improvements, and the stock market. Many family farms have adapted by specializing in the mass production of one or two particular foods or fibers, like corporate farms. Other farmers have formed what is called a cooperative, a group of farmers dedicated to the most profitable sale of their products. By pooling their resources and producing a variety of goods, cooperative farmers are able to weather low-price periods and postpone sales until a product price reaches a high level.
Agriculture has become a powerful lobbying group in state capitals across the country, and the political issues are myriad. The industry itself is split into competing special interests, according to product. Family farms and cooperatives are often at odds, although sometimes they join forces against massive corporate farming. Farming interests are frequently opposed by advocates for the environment and food purity. The government does not always seem to act in the best interests of farmers, and farmers and their creditors continually struggle for leverage. Federal and state regulations seek to provide some predictability for the players in these struggles.
According to the Wickard case, the U.S. Congress has the power to regulate agricultural production under Article I, Section 8, of the federal Constitution, and Congress has left virtually nothing to chance. The numerous programs and laws that promote and regulate farming are overseen by the secretary of agriculture, who represents the USDA in the president's cabinet. The USDA is the government agency that carries out federal agricultural policy, and it is the most important legal entity to the farmer.
Usually, some two dozen agencies are housed within the USDA, all charged with carrying out the various services and enforcing the numerous regulations necessary for the efficient, safe production of food and fiber. Other administrative agencies can affect a farmer's legal rights, such as the food and drug administration (FDA), the interior department, and the treasury department, but the USDA is the single department to which every farmer must answer.
The Agricultural Adjustment Acts establish and maintain prices for crops by preventing extreme fluctuations in their availability. These acts empower the secretary of agriculture to allot a certain amount of farmland for the production of a specific crop, and to apportion the land among the states capable of producing the crop. State agricultural committees then assign a certain amount of the land to various counties, and the counties in turn assign the land to local farms. This system guards against crop surpluses and shortages, and preserves economic stability by preventing extreme fluctuations in crop prices.
The commodity credit corporation (CCC) exists within the USDA to further the goal of stabilizing food prices and farmers' incomes. The CCC provides disaster relief to farmers, and it controls prices through an elaborate system of price support. Loans to farmers and governmental buyouts of farm products allow the CCC to maintain reasonable price levels. The secretary of the CCC is also authorized to issue subsidies, or governmental grants, to farmers as another means of controlling prices by maintaining farmers' incomes. By encouraging or discouraging the production of a particular food or fiber through financial reward, subsidies promote price stability in the markets.
Several federal programs help serve the same purpose of price stability. The secretary of agriculture may set national quotas for the production of a certain farm product. Set-aside conditions, also established by the secretary of agriculture, require farmers to withhold production on a certain amount of cropland during a specified year. Diversion payments are made to farmers who agree to divert a percentage of their cropland to conservation uses, and the Payment in Kind Program allows farmers to divert farmland from production of a certain commodity in exchange for a number of bushels of the commodity normally produced on the diverted land. Federal crop insurance, emergency programs, and indemnity payment programs protect farmers against unforeseen production shortfalls. The farm credit administration, established by Congress as an independent agency in the executive branch of government, provides funds for farmers who are unable to purchase feed for livestock or seed for crops.
Also in place are federal programs and regulations that provide for the coordination of farm cooperatives, standardization of marketing practices, quality and health inspections, the promotion of market expansion, the reporting of farm statistics, and the administration of soil conservation efforts. For example, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (16 U.S.C.A. §§ 590 et seq. ) directs the secretary
of agriculture to help farmers and ranchers acquire the knowledge and skill to preserve the quality of their soil. The federal Food Stamp Program helps to support domestic food consumption and economic stability for consumers and farmers alike by subsidizing the food purchases of people with low incomes.
Under Title VII of the United States Code, the secretary of agriculture is charged with coordinating educational outreach services. The Morrill Act (7 U.S.C.A. §§ 301-05, 307, 308), passed by Congress in 1863, granted public land to institutions of higher education for the purpose of teaching agriculture. In 1887, the hatch act (7 U.S.C.A. § 361a et seq.) created agricultural experiment stations for colleges of agriculture, and in 1914, the Smith-Lever Act (7 U.S.C.A. § 341 et seq.) created the Extension Service, which allowed agriculture colleges to educate farmers not enrolled in school.
In the Extension Service, agents are hired by an agriculture college to help farmers address a variety of farming issues, and to promote progress in farming by providing farmers with information on technological advances. Many farm families have been helped by the land-grant programs, but some critics have argued that this college system too often emphasizes increased productivity and frenzied technological advancement at the exclusion of small-scale farm operations. In the mid-1990s, the Extension Service began to branch out. The Minnesota Extension Service, for example, began to address such issues as teen drug abuse and child neglect. This use of agricultural monies for social services has disappointed some and pleased others.
One high-profile controversy involves the Bovine Somatatropin (BST) bovine growth hormone. The BST hormone increases the milk output of dairy cows. The Milk Labeling Act bills passed by Congress in April 1993 regulate the use of the drug by requiring the secretary of agriculture to conduct a study of its economic effect on the dairy industry and on the federal price support program for milk. The act also requires the producers of the milk from cows treated with BST to keep records on its manufacture and sale. Proponents of the drug extol its production benefits, but opponents argue that increasing productivity is less important than ensuring food purity.
Homestead protection is another form of federal relief, which helps keep farms out of foreclosure. To qualify for homestead protection, farmers must show that they have received a gross farm income that is comparable to that of other local farmers, and that at least 60 percent of their income has come from farming. A 1993 case challenged the definition of this type of relief. Schmidt v. Espy, 9 F.3d 1352 (8th Cir.1993), was a suit brought by the Schmidt family to stop the FmHA from calling in the Schmidts' farm loan. The USDA had ruled that because the Schmidt farm had suffered net losses, it could not qualify for homestead protection. The Schmidts took their case to the U.S. district court, which affirmed the USDA's decision.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. According to the appeals court, the statutory definition of income for purposes of homestead protection is gross income, not gross profits. The court reasoned that because homestead protection is normally sought by financially distressed farmers, limiting the protection to profitable farmers would run contrary to the purpose of homestead protection.
The tenth amendment grants states the right to pass laws that promote the general safety and well-being of the public. Because courts have found that agricultural production and consumption directly affect public health and safety, states are free to enact their own agricultural laws, provided those laws do not conflict with federal laws and regulations.
Many state laws provide for financial assistance to farmers. By issuing loans or providing emergency aid, states are able to ensure the survival of family farms and continued agricultural production. The states also have the power to impose agricultural liens, which are claims upon crops for unpaid debts. If a farmer is unable to make timely payments on loans for services or supplies, the state may sue the farmer to gain a security interest in the farmer's crops. States also enact laws to supervise the inspection, grading, sale, and storage of grain, fertilizer, and seed.
Municipalities can also set regulations that ostensibly control agricultural production. The subject of wetlands, for example, is within the jurisdiction of local governing bodies. In Ruotolo v. Madison Inland Wetlands Agency, No. CV 93-0433106, 1993 WL 544699 (Conn.Super., Dec. 23, 1993), Michael Ruotolo, a farmer in Madison, Connecticut, challenged a municipal regulation that prevented him from filling in wetlands located on his property. Ruotolo wanted to plant nursery stock on the area after moving earth to raise the ground level, but the Madison Wetlands Regulation precluded the filling in of any wetlands. According to a state statute, however, farming was permitted on some wetlands of less than three acres.
Ruotolo asserted a right to farm, and argued that since the state law and the local regulation were in conflict, the state law should prevail. However, in previous proceedings between Ruotolo and the Madison Inland Wetlands Agency, the agency had found that the wetland on Ruotolo's property had "continual flow," and was therefore subject to more protection than standing-water wetlands. Because the state statute prevented even farmers with less than three acres from filling in wetlands with continual flow, Ruotolo was prevented from farming the wetlands on his property.
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From the founding of Virginia in 1607 until the late 1890s agriculture played a predominant economic role in the United States. The early settlers adopted the Native American practices of growing corn, squash, and tobacco. Initially corn was the primary food crop, while tobacco was exported to earn foreign exchange. In New England most farmers raised multiple food crops as well as livestock, producing enough for their family needs with some surplus goods for sale.
Agriculture in the South became more specialized and commercialized than in the North. By the late seventeenth century tobacco, rice, and indigo became major commercial crops. Production expanded rapidly in conjunction with the plantation system that utilized the labor of African American slaves. Cotton became an important commercial crop with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney (1765–1825).
At the beginning of the nineteenth century significant changes occurred in the farming sector of the economy. Tens of thousands of settlers migrated west to settle in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys between the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the American Civil War (1861–1865). This produced the vast productive potential of grain and livestock farmers. By 1860 the United States had 2,044,077 farms. The U.S. government actively supported the farming community by promoting liberal public land policies, developing canal and rail transportation and reallocating choice farmland from Native Americans to prospective settlers.
Prior to the American Civil War the introduction of animal power and labor-saving machinery provided one of the greatest advances in agricultural history. Innovations such as iron plows, threshing machines, grain drills, and cultivators became common. The McCormick agricultural equipment company in Chicago led the mechanization of farming. In 1800 it took approximately 56 man-hours to plant and harvest one acre of wheat. By 1840, with mechanization the same acre of wheat took only 35 man-hours to achieve the same result.
Agriculture became the engine behind the U.S. economic development in the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1860 the two million farms in the United States produced 838 million bushels of corn, 172 million bushels of wheat, 5.4 million bales of cotton, and millions of pounds of tobacco. Increasingly farmers began to sell their produce to purchase manufactured goods. In 1860 farm products comprised 82 percent of U.S. exports. This helped support the foreign exchange used for investment in U.S. manufacturing and transportation.
Following the American Civil War agricultural expansion accelerated at an even higher rate with the migration of farmers to the Great Plains. Further, with the end of slavery, African American sharecroppers worked on hundreds of thousands of small farms in the South. Between 1860 and 1916 the number of farms grew from two million to 6.4 million. Farm acreage doubled from 407 million to 879 million acres. With the increased acreage and the introduction of better machinery, the production of commercial crops continued to increase tremendously. The great deflationary crisis of the last third of the nineteenth century stemmed from precisely this "crisis of over-production" in agriculture. Productivity on the farm had outstripped the market demand for farm produce. From about 1873 to the end of the century, this glutted farm commodity market became a drag on the rest of the economy. It also produced a strong protest movement in the Farmers' Alliance movements and the Populist challenge. Farmers did not always know what lay behind their distress. At different points they blamed the railroads, the elevator (crop storage facilities) companies, and the bankers. But they eventually focused on the need for "parity," a government subsidy for a fair return on their outlay of labor and capital.
By World War I (1914–1918) the agricultural landscape of the United States settled into regional patterns. Farmers in the Northeast focused on dairy, poultry, and fruits and vegetables for the urban market. In the Midwest grain crops such as wheat, corn, and barley supported a thriving cattle and hog business. The region of the Great Plains from Texas to the Canadian border became known as the nation's bread-basket, with wheat being the primary commercial crop. Agriculture in the Rocky Mountain States focused on cattle and sheep raising, while most of the crops in the Far West depended on irrigation. In the South cotton continued to be the main cash crop until after World War II (1939–1945).
After World War I the overproduction crisis continued to trouble American agriculture, with farm prices generally in decline. None of the measures taken by the U.S. Government solved the problem of low returns to farmers. However in 1933, during the Great Depression, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which introduced a wide range of federal programs to help the farmer. These programs—which involved paying farmers to leave their land fallow in order to create a shortage in farm commodities and an upturn in prices—continued throughout the rest of the twentieth century. Government payments to farmers in 1934 totaled $134 million; by 1961 payments increased to $1.5 billion and by 1987 to $22 billion.
In the 1930s agriculture underwent significant changes due to the advancements in technology and the introduction of science to farming. The use of the gasoline tractor ended the horse age of farming shortly after World War II. The continued development of better machinery made the farming industry less labor-intensive. The contribution from science included the growing use of chemicals for fertilizers and insecticides, and the breeding of hybrid strains producing better crops and healthier livestock. These and other developments increased the nation's agricultural productivity without a proportionate increase in acreage. The amount of farmland in use remained constant at about 1 billion acres between 1930 and 1980. However crop production increased dramatically. For example, corn production increased from 20 bushels an acre in 1930 to about 110 bushels half a century later. In 1980 one-third of farm production was sold overseas and agricultural exports made up about 20 percent of the nation's foreign sales.
By the end of the twentieth century, new trends emerged in agriculture. These include organic farming and the reduced use of chemicals in response to health and environmental issues. Crop and livestock production has also changed as farmers made increased use of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Farmers continue to have increased capabilities to cultivate more land and handle more livestock with less labor. This resulted in a sharp increase in the average size of farms and a rapid decline in the number of farmers. In 1940 there were 6.1 million farms averaging 215 acres in size. By 1980 only 2.4 million farms remained, averaging 431 acres. In spite of this trend over 90 percent of farms in the United States continue to be operated by families rather than agricultural corporations.
Throughout U.S. history farming was an important economic activity. By the end of the twentieth century it became a business that required skilled labor, capital, and good management. In addition, most people in the United States had little direct contact or involvement with this industry. By the 1980s the number of people living on farms had declined to less than 2.5 percent of the population. Agriculture had shifted from a simple commercial venture to a specialized business.
See also: Agricultural Equipment Industry, Populist Movement, Subsistence Agriculture
Ferleger, Lou, ed. Agriculture and National Development: Views on the Nineteenth Century. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Foner, Eric and John Garraty, eds. "Agriculture." In The Reader's Companion to American History, Boston, MS: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991.
Hurt, Douglas R. American Farms: Exploring their History. Malabar, FL: Krieger Pub. Co., 1996.
Peterson, Trudy Huskamp, ed. Farmers, Bureaucrats, and Middlemen: Historical Perspectives on American Agriculture. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1980.
Taylor, Carl. The Farmer's Movement, 1620–1920. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.
in 1800 it took approximately 56 manhours to plant and harvest one acre of wheat. by 1840, with mechanization the same acre of wheat took only 35 man-hours to achieve the same result.
The body of law governing the cultivation of various crops and the raising and management of livestock to provide a food and fabric supply for human and animal consumption.
Jones v. Gale
The family farm in the United States has an enduring place in American history and culture, both as a means of agricultural production and as a way of life. The rise of corporate farming after World War II worried many people, for the connection between the individual and the land was replaced with a faceless business entity. The state of Nebraska expressed its opposition to corporate and absentee ownership agriculture when its citizens in 1982 passed a state constitutional amendment that prohibited corporations or syndicates (non-family-owned limited partnerships) from acquiring an interest in "real estate used for farming or ranching" in Nebraska or "engage[ing] in farming or ranching." Almost 25 years later a group of Nebraska farmers filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the amendment, known as Initiative 300, violated the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Jones v. Gale, 470 F.3d(8th Cir. 2006), agreed with the plaintiffs and struck down the amendment as unconstitutional.
Initiative 300 clearly addressed the issue of corporate farming. An explanatory statement presented with the initiative stated that a vote for it would "create a constitutional prohibition against further purchase of Nebraska farm and ranch lands by any corporation or syndicate other than a Nebraska family farm corporation." The initiative defined a family farm or ranch corporation as one "engaged in farming or ranching or the ownership of agricultural land, in which the majority of the voting stock is held by members of a family … at least one of whom is a person residing on or actively engaged in the day to day labor and management of the farm or ranch."
Jim Jones and five other people with interests in Nebraska farm and ranch land operations filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the amendment violated their constitutional rights. One plaintiff who lived in Colorado but who had an ownership interest in several parcels of Nebraska farmland wanted to transfer his land to a limited liability entity so he could improve his fiscal planning and management of the farms. The amendment prevented him from creating this entity, which had led to economic losses. Another plaintiff operated a cattle feedlot that provided for the daily care and feeding of cattle owned by customers, some of whom did not live in Nebraska. The feedlot operator could not contract with non-exempt out-of-state corporations for the purpose of raising and feeding livestock for slaughter. This had hurt his business and prevented him from gaining free access to the national cattle market.
The Nebraska federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled the amendment unconstitutional. The state appealed but a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision. Judge Morris Arnold, writing for the court, first ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the law-suit. To demonstrate standing to bring a lawsuit the plaintiffs must show they suffered an actual injury that was traceable to the defendant's challenged actions. They also had to show that if they prevailed their injuries would be redressed. Judge Arnold noted the economic harm visited upon the plaintiffs because of the legal restrictions on nonresidents and corporations owning farmland and concluded that these were actual injuries that could be cured if they were successful in having the constitutional amendment struck down.
The substantive issue before the Eighth Circuit was whether the amendment violated the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause. The plaintiffs alleged a violation of the "dormant" commerce clause, which refers to the negative implications of the constitutional provision. The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to enact laws effecting interstate commerce. The dormant commerce clause is the other side of the issue, prohibiting a state from passing legislation that discriminates or improperly burdens interstate commerce. In this context discrimination refers to differential treatment of in-state and out-of-state economic interests, with the in-state interests treated more favorably than the out-of-state interests. Judge Arnold concluded that the amendment was discriminatory on its face because its "prohibition against farming by corporations and syndicates does not apply to family farm corporations and limited partnerships in which at least one family member resides or engages in the daily labor and management of the farm." The amendment favored Nebraska residents and those nonresidents who live close to Nebraska and who could commute daily to the farm. The 1982 ballot language that accompanied the initiative clearly stated this point. In addition, the Nebraska Supreme Court had read the language of the amendment to mean that it prohibited "absentee ownership and operation of farm and ranch land by a corporate entity." The appeals court also found discriminatory intent in the amendment. The 1982 advertising campaign supporting Initiative 300 demonstrated this fact. In the court's view it was "clear beyond cavil that these ads bristle with an animus against out-of-state corporations." Therefore, the court ruled the entire amendment unconstitutional.
Tainted Spinach Leads to Sickness and Death
An outbreak of Escherichia coli (widely known by its abbreviation, E. coli) contamination in prepackaged spinach led to three deaths and left nearly 200 others sickened during the fall of 2006. Several months after the outbreak occurred, state and federal official determined that the source was a small cattle ranch about 30 miles from the central coastline in California.
Ingesting E. coli generally causes diarrhea and often results in bloody stools. Most healthy adult victims can recover after about a week. However, E. coli can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a condition that can lead to kidney failure, especially in cases involving those who are very young or very old. The bacteria reside in the intestines of cattle and other animals, and an outbreak of E. coli is often associated with contamination by fecal matter. The Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 73,000 cases of infection occur each year and that an average of 61 deaths result from these infections. According to the CDC, major sources for the bacteria include meat (especially undercooked or raw hamburger), uncooked produce, raw milk, unpasteurized juice, and contaminated water.
The packaged lettuce and spinach industry, which has annual revenues of about $4 billion per year, has adopted safety measures to kill bacteria. This process involves washing lettuce and spinach in chlorinated water. However, this process kills only 90 to 99 percent of the bacteria, assuming that the process is conducted properly. Moreover, there are no means of completely killing all of the microbes on leafy greens that would be as effective as pasteurizing milk or juice without seriously damaging the lettuce or spinach product.
The outbreak in 2006 first surfaced on August 23, according to the Food and Drug Administration. However, the agency did not identify spinach as the cause of the outbreak until September 13. By that time, 50 people from eight states had become ill. Twenty of those who had become ill were from Wisconsin, including the first person to die as a result of tainted spinach. Consumers from Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah also became ill after eating spinach. Most of the victims were older women. Federal health officials at that point warned consumers not to each bagged fresh spinach.
California was targeted as the likely source of the outbreak. About 75 percent of the nation's spinach supply comes from Salinas Valley in California, which produces a crop worth an estimated $200 million a year. Two of the largest companies that produce spinach include Natural Selection Foods and River Ranch. These com-panies supply their spinach to brands that package it. As news of the outbreak became widely known, a total of 37 of these brands of bagged spinach were recalled. The recall involved both organic and conventionally grown spinach products. Natural Selection is the larger of the two companies, and federal officials acknowledged that the company's production of spinach was the focal point of the investigation.
Less than a week after the report of the first death, the number of cases increased to 114 in 21 states. The FDA expanded its warning to consumers that they should not consume any fresh spinach. According to Dr. Robert Brackett, the director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, "That's because we learned that some of the companies that produced the consumer bag spinach also produced larger food-service size. We want to make sure consumers are aware that they don't consume any of the fresh spinach. We don't know whether it came from the bag or another state. We just don't have the focus down that much yet."
Spinach remained off the shelves until early October. CDC statistics indicate that a total of 199 cases arose in 26 states. Nearly 47 percent of the individual outbreaks occurred in three states, including Wisconsin (49 victims), Ohio (25 victims), and Utah (19 victims). Somewhat ironically, only two individuals from California were infected with the outbreak strain.
In March 2007, health officials announced that they had determined that the source of the outbreak was a small cattle ranch in San Benito County in California. The ranch is located near a field leached to spinach grower Mission Organics. Officials determined that E. coli found in river water and cattle and pig feces were "indistinguishable from the outbreak strain," though they were unable to determine how the bacteria contaminated the spinach that was sold. The ranch, which breeds cattle and horses, indicated that it was not under investigation at the outbreak. Mission Organics also indicated that although wild animals are present on the property, the company had not found animal tracks near the spinach fields.
Previous outbreaks have resulted from such sources as a Washington dairy that had distributed raw milk, pre-packaged salads, and undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers. Between 1998 and 2004, the FDA inspected 36 domestic and foreign produce farms and determined that one-third of those used insufficient cleaning methods. The outbreak in 2006, along with previous outbreaks, has led to calls for improved measures for cleaning produce.
Agribusiness is related to the production of food and fiber. Agribusiness includes agricultural input industries, commodity processing, food manufacturing and food distribution industries, and third-party firms that facilitate agribusiness operations including bankers, brokers, advertising agencies, and market information firms. Harvard Business School professor Ray A. Goldberg introduced the term agribusiness together with coauthor John H. Davis in 1955 in a book titled A Concept of Agribusiness. Food and fiber products that rely upon agricultural production, which is inherently decentralized and subject to the vagaries of weather and disease, often are perishable and require specialized economic institutions and public policies including sanitary regulations. Decentralized farmers of a particular commodity, such as milk, have organized agricultural marketing cooperatives to aggregate their product and coordinate sale to large food-manufacturing firms in a fashion that enhances product quality, economic efficiency, and fairness of the market pricing system.
Similarly, on the input side there are tightly coordinated (contract farming) arrangements for chicken and pork. In the beef and grain industries, agribusiness coordination uses complex pricing mechanisms, such as futures markets, to hedge risk and price products. Closer to the consumer, large supermarket chains have integrated back into the wholesaling of food products and developed private-label food products (such as bread with the supermarket’s name on it) to countervail the power of branded food-product manufacturers who would charge a premium for their products.
Public policies toward the agribusiness sector have been critical in creating the food and fiber system that is seen throughout the world. Food safety and health regulations are critical. Agricultural commodity and pricing policies in developed countries aid in the pricing of commodities such as milk, wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, and other products. These policies attempt to stabilize commodity price cycles and to ensure the economic health of the agricultural industries.
Public policy also aids in the organization of agricultural marketing and input supply cooperatives and the development of commodity promotion programs wherein farmers fund advertising efforts such as the “Got Milk?” program in the United States. Here the desire is to improve the incomes of farmers by enhancing their bargaining power and expanding the demand for their products.
Antitrust and competition policy also affects agribusiness. Over time the food systems in the United States and other countries have become industrialized. Relatively few large food processing firms and relatively few large retailing organizations sit between decentralized agricultural production and the general consuming public. Antitrust/competition policy examines proposed mergers and acquisitions in these concentrated industries to determine whether they would increase pricing power to the disadvantage of consumers or farmers. Those policies also prohibit price-fixing cartels and attempts to monopolize industries.
In the March-April 2000 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Goldberg revisited the concept of agribusiness with Juan Enriquez. He observed that ethanol, an additive to gasoline, and pharmaceutical products were made from agricultural outputs. Agribusiness in the 2000s also includes forestry and forest products and the plant nursery industry.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Banana Industry; Cattle Industry; Coffee Industry; Cotton Industry; Flower Industry; Peanut Industry; Slave Trade; Slavery Industry; Sugar Industry; Tea Industry; Tobacco Industry; Vanilla Industry
Agribusiness: An International Journal. Research journal published quarterly by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.
Enriquez, Juan, and Ray A. Goldberg. 2000. Transforming Life, Transforming Business: The Life-Science Revolution. Harvard Business Review 78 (2): 94-104.
Goldberg, Ray A., and John H. Davis. 1957. A Concept of Agribusiness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Ronald W. Cotterill
and Susan George , How the Other Half Dies (1976)
. See also RURAL SOCIOLOGY.
ag·ri·busi·ness / ˈagrəˌbiznis/ • n. 1. agriculture conducted on commercial principles, esp. using advanced technology. ∎ an organization engaged in this. 2. the group of industries dealing with agricultural produce and services required in farming. DERIVATIVES: ag·ri·busi·ness·man n. (pl. -men) .