The Industrialization of Agriculture

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The Industrialization of Agriculture


Agricultural technology changed more dramatically in the 1700s than at any time since the introduction of draft animals millennia before. Mechanized planting and threshing made farms more efficient, threw workers off the farm, and altered the very shape of the countryside. Scientific approaches were applied to agriculture, and books helped spread new ideas and approaches. At the end of the century, cotton became a force for change: Whitney's gin made cotton profitable for the first time in the American South and helped support the continuation of slavery. Off the farm cotton mills led the way in industrialization. Farm mechanization made food supplies more stable and more plentiful, supporting a surge in population and leading to unprecedented growth in cities.


In the eighteenth century, the world witnessed a revolution in agriculture led by three inventions—the seed drill, the threshing machine, and the cotton gin. Complementing these new tools were new ideas, set forth in books. The agricultural revolution paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, both by showing how the new ideas of science could be put to practical use and by freeing the manpower needed for factories.

Dramatic changes in agriculture were already in progress when the eighteenth century began. In 1700, 80% of the population was engaged in agriculture throughout most of western Europe. But this wasn't true for the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium). Pressed by the highest population density in Europe, these countries had made huge strides in farming efficiency by moving from the medieval practice of open-field farming to a field enclosure system. In addition to making agriculture more efficient, enclosure allowed landowners to raise sheep for the burgeoning wool trade.

Open-field farming was a communal activity. The land around a village was divided into rectangular plots called furlongs. Strips of about a morning's plowing were distributed within each furlong. This arrangement encouraged sharing of work and draft animals, and distributed good and poor soil equally among all the farmers. The open-field system also spread the ongoing burden of allowing one-third of the land to regenerate each year by lying fallow. Pasture and woodlands were held in common, so everyone was able to hunt, graze animals, and gather wood. The poor were granted the right of gleaning—they could go through fields after harvest and pick up any grain that had been left.

This type of farming had built-in inefficiencies, such as the need to move laborers and draft animals from field to field. It also discouraged innovation because the potential consequences were terrifying: Under the best of circumstances, poor harvests could be expected every eight or nine years. Two crop failures in a row led to famine, so there was little margin for change without putting the entire community at risk. The tools of farming—the scythe, the wooden plow, and the hoe—remained as they had been for hundreds of years. People were even cautious about introducing new crops, such as potatoes and corn, that had been brought back from the Americas.

By contrast the enclosure system developed in the Low Countries, transformed farming into an efficient, pseudo-industrial endeavor. When plots of land were allocated to specific owners, the profitability of each tract became the responsibility of its farmer. This encouraged mechanization, reduced labor costs, and encouraged innovation. For the large landowners, who had sponsored enclosure laws, the result was an industrialization of farming, more arable land, and exceptionally high agricultural productivity. For smaller landowners, privatization was a disaster; farmers could no longer distribute risk or share resources, and they were even held responsible for the costs of fencing. Still, the overall effect was more food from less labor.

A key leader in the modernization of farming was Jethro Tull (1674-1741), a lawyer who never practiced law. Instead, he experimented with agricultural methods on his father's farm. In 1701, he introduced the seed drill. While devices of this sort had been used since Babylonian times, Tull's design matched the opportunities that enclosure provided. It set seeds into the ground in straight rows at uniform depth and automatically covered them after planting. This meant that far fewer seeds were needed per acre than broadcasting (scattering seeds onto the soil by hand), which spread the seeds unevenly and exposed them to wind, frost, birds, and animals. The neat rows allowed for more efficient cultivation, clearly separating weeds from crops, and allowed farmers to weed the ground between the rows. By the end of the eighteenth century, seed drills had gained broad acceptance.

In 1709, Tull observed the way that French and Italian farmers tilled their vineyards, breaking up the soil to improve yield. Thereafter, he became a strong advocate of the practice, and even introduced the horse-drawn hoe, another labor-saving device. Although Tull mistakenly believed that tilling provided food for the crops, the process's real benefits came from aerating the soil and allowing for more efficient use of water. Tull, a writer as well as an inventor, wrote The Horse-hoeing Husbandry, or an Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation (1733). The book aroused great controversy, but also spread the word on the benefits of tilling, mechanization, selective breeding of livestock, and using horses instead of oxen as draft animals.

While the Dutch rarely wrote about agriculture, the English became major publishers of manuals and books on farming. This began as a trickle with the founding of the Royal Society in 1662, but became a torrent in the 1700s. Richard Bradley wrote the first work on artificial cross-fertilization in 1739. Arthur Young published the first farming survey in 1771. These manuals and books had influence well beyond agriculture. The model for technical writing, reaching back to Greek and Roman times, had been an elegant and poetic style of prose. Tull and many of his contemporaries intended to make it easier for ordinary people to put their findings to work. While a few tried to convey facts and statistics in the old form, the new writers, often with apologetic references to classical works, produced a more direct and efficient form of prose. By doing so, they helped create a new and unadorned literature. At its best, this style lives on as clear, nonfiction prose. At its worst, it led to impenetrable technical writing.

Mechanization took another step forward with the 1788 invention of the threshing machine by a Scottish millwright, Andrew Meikle (1719-1811). His device, which removed the husks from grain, was the result of a 10-year effort. Meikle had built two previous machines, but his third try was successful. He had redesigned the machine's drum so that its operation beat rather than rubbed the grain (an idea he may have gotten from a flax-scutching machine). Meikle's machine wasn't successful commercially (he had to apply for relief in 1809), but by the 1830s mechanical threshing had been widely adopted in Europe.

There were many other important developments in farming in the 1700s: Charles Newbold invented a cast-iron plow that could dig more deeply into the soil in 1797. Joseph Boyce developed an early reaper (1799). New crops were introduced, and Viscount Charles Townsend helped end the practice of letting fields lie fallow by showing that rotating soil-enriching crops, such as turnips and clover, with traditional crops kept the soil fertile. This put 50% more land into use and increased the supply of available cattle feed.

Among all the agricultural inventions and innovations of the eighteenth century, Whitney's cotton gin (1793) stands alone as a direct link between the agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. As a young man, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) supported himself by inventing gadgets. While on a visit to the American South, he was approached by farmers who wanted a better way to separate cotton fibers from cottonseeds. Until this time, separating one pound of cotton lint from seed took ten hours of hand work. His southern hostess told her visitors, "Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney. He can make anything." Within six months Whitney devised a machine that pulled the fibers onto a coil of metal wires and could clean 50 lb (23 kg) of cotton in a day. The results were nearly instantaneous. For the first time, cotton became a profitable crop in the South, and, supported by slave labor, it soon became the region's most important agricultural product. Spinning machines and mechanical looms already existed, so the cotton gin quickly became an essential link in the manufacture of fabric.


One consequence of mechanization and other agricultural advances was that farms grew larger. Agriculture became a business and favored the formation of estates. By 1815, the majority of farms in Britain were owned by a minority of landowners (often absentee) who saw their holdings as financial properties, largely independent of tradition and community values. They invested in more agricultural innovations, changing agriculture even more. Larger farms were more profitable, and led to the dominance of plantation farming, which continues to this day with agribusiness. (The value of U.S. agricultural exports in 1999 exceeded $50 billion.)

From the beginning of the agricultural revolution, the small farmers who were most affected by the changes attacked new equipment and organized to stop mechanization and enclosure, with little political or economic impact. Even Thomas Jefferson, though he was an active innovator in agricultural science, imagined the U.S. as an agrarian democracy with independent and economically self-sufficient small-farm owners forming the backbone of the new nation. This was not to be. Today, about 100,000 people own half of all U.S. farmland, and farmers account for less than 1% of the population. One reaction to the growth of modern agribusiness has been the promotion of organic foods, grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Other activists have organized protests against genetically engineered crops, which ironically, were developed to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.

A positive consequence of mechanization was that while life didn't necessarily get any easier for farmers, they were saved from much of the backbreaking labor that was common before machines came into widespread use. By the nineteenth century Cyrus McCormick's (1809-1884) reaper (which cut grain), invented in 1834, allowed two men to harvest 12 acres in a single day versus the one acre they would have harvested without the machine. John Deere's (1804-1886) self-cleaning steel plow and more advanced threshers both appeared in the 1800s. Charles and William Marsh invented the first true harvester (which cut and bound grain) in 1858. The mechanization of farms in the U.S. accelerated during the Civil War. Because of the labor shortages caused by mobilization, U.S. farmers invested an average of $200 for every hundred acres farmed during this period.

Although the most important farm machine, the tractor, did not exist until the very end of the nineteenth century, there was a prototype that existed in the eighteenth century. Nicolas Cugnot (1725-1804) invented a three-wheeled, steam-driven tractor in 1770. It was designed, however, to carry artillery, not to pull a plow. The tractor we know today had to wait for the invention of the internal combustion engine to become practical. Tractors have been used as a general farming device, not just to pull equipment, but to serve as portable engines to power other machinery.

Seed drills and automated tilling still dominate agriculture. In fact, the rotary mechanism in Tull's invention is the basis for all mechanical sowing devices. But tilling has become somewhat controversial. Loosening the soil might help get water to plant roots and limit weeds, but it also increases erosion, which reduces arable land, pollutes water, and clogs harbors and seaways. Over the last 30 years, no-till farming, which injects nutrients into the soil and controls weeds with herbicides, has been developed as an alternative. The fields are no longer plowed, which conserves soil and saves on labor and fuel costs.

The immediate outcome of new agricultural methods and tools was increased food supply. Between 1700 and 1870, English farmers quadrupled their productivity, and food prices dropped accordingly. The variety of food in the typical person's diet increased as well, partly because of the introduction of foods from other lands and partly because of the greater availability of meat, thanks to the production of feed crops (like turnips). Though there have been many famines since the close of the eighteenth century, most have been related to distribution problems rather than limited supply. For instance, during the Potato Famine of the mid-1800s, when millions of Irish were starving or emigrating, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed its population.

In order for farmers to benefit from excess food production, they had to get their crops to market, so the agricultural revolution became an impetus for the development of roads, bridges, tunnels, and canals. The rapid growth of railroads was also strongly driven by the need to get a valuable, perishable product to consumers. To manage this market, commodities exchanges were created. The Chicago Board of Trade was established in 1848.

In addition to getting food to market faster, farmers could extend the value of surplus crops by making them last longer. Here they benefited from a prize offered by Napoleon in 1794 for a practical means of food preservation. In 1810, Nicolas Appert (1750-1841) invented canning. With a way to preserve their products indefinitely and deliver them to ever more remote destinations, markets once again expanded for farmers.

A natural consequence of more food was better diets for the general public and a rapid growth in population. In 1701, the combined population of England and Wales was 5.4 million people. By 1751, the population had risen to 6.2 million, and at the end of the century it was 9.3 million, nearly double what it was at the start of the century. Many of the members of this larger population were landless wage earners, a trend that was already beginning to emerge in 1700.

These workers were free to move around and become part of the successive waves of emigrants that settled in America, Australia, and New Zealand. They also began to drift into cities, particularly when the need for agricultural labor decreased and the demand for industrial labor was on the rise. As a consequence, urban populations grew quickly, providing concentrated markets for goods and services. (London, for example went from 600,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants during the eighteenth century.) This labor force became an essential resource for industrialization, and the proportion of farmers in the population began to decrease inexorably as the Industrial Revolution progressed, a change that profoundly altered public attitudes and cultural norms. Industrialization also created a new kind of poverty. In the cities, a large population of unemployed or underpaid workers became the urban poor we know today, plagued by crime, disease, and addiction.

Those workers who remained on the farm had to become more technical as machinery and modern methods took hold. Improvement societies, aimed at educating the ordinary farmer, were formed as early as the 1790s. These were the spiritual predecessors of agricultural colleges. The Morril Act of 1862 donated American public land to states so they could "provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and mechanical arts." These land-grant universities have since gone on to become important centers of learning.

Wage-earning farmers provided the labor to physically change the landscape of the countryside by digging drains, clearing land, and erecting fences. The fences in particular helped to permanently end most common rights, including the practice of gleaning. By 1750, fully half of English farmland had become enclosed sheep fields. Extensive fencing led to new concepts of property rights and had natural consequences. Fenced land shut out wild animals and changed ecosystems, reducing biodiversity.

Even on the farm, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to be felt. As small-holding agriculture became less profitable, farmers who owned smaller fields were often forced to supplement their income to make ends meet. At the same time, higher efficiencies gave them the time for other activities. The result was the growth of cottage industries (originating in the 1600s) in which farm families did piecework for those who supplied the raw materials. The products, mostly crafts, were often sold in the cities and sometimes challenged established guilds. The competition, management, supply chain systems, and market shifts resulting from cottage industries provided experiences that were put to use during the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The cotton gin provided the biggest spur to the Industrial Revolution. The gin made mechanization profitable off the farm as well as on. It spurred the shift from muscle power to machine power, creating a wealth of new goods and services. The cotton gin also had its negative side. At this point in history, slavery in the U.S. had become uneconomical by most measures. Without Whitney's invention, slavery might have faded away, and, with it, the primary reason for the American Civil War (not to mention centuries of racial inequality and strife). With the gin, mills could be supplied with cotton and manufacturers could take advantage of the market demand for fabric—provided the cotton was grown and picked cheaply. Slaves provided the free labor needed to make this production system work.

Whitney did not profit from the cotton gin. A disastrous fire opened the door for imitations, and his opportunity for fortune was lost. However, a 1798 government contract gave him a second chance. The U.S. government paid him $134,000 to produce 10,000 muskets. Whitney developed what he called the "uniformity system" of using interchangeable parts. This allowed the guns to be manufactured by less specialized workings and permitted the use of standard replacement parts for repairs. Whitney had invented mass production, the system used to produce most commercial goods today. He had also sealed his reputation as an inventor without peer. He became the prototypical Yankee inventor and may have been the model for the hero in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Because of the agricultural revolution, we now live in an urbanized world, filled with wage earners who are largely divorced from the traditions and rhythms of sowing and reaping. Many communal values have been replaced by appreciation of the individual. Hunger is still common (due, again, to a disruption in distribution), but starvation is not a regular experience for most of the world. The world population has risen continuously and is marching toward an expected 10 billion that will be absolutely dependent on the efficiencies of scientific farming for survival.


Further Reading


Green, Constance McLaughlin. Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1998.

Mathias, Peter and John A. Davis. Agriculture and Industrialization: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America's First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Mingay, Gordon. Parliamentary Enclosure in England: An Introduction to Its Causes, Incidence and Impact, 1750-1850. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1998.

Overton, Mark. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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The Industrialization of Agriculture

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