The importance of agriculture

“Once upon a time,” almost everyone in America lived on or worked on a farm. The importance of agriculture, its ubiquity in our ancestors’ lives, and the effects of changes in farming over time weave through and around our Logan families. Government laws, treaties, and policies; agricultural innovations; free labor versus slave labor; and changing patterns of land use contribute to the story. All these things help explain why our Logans migrated to other states — and when. They help explain changing economics and life styles as well. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • 1700s: Moldboard plow invented. First plow to not only dig up soil but turn it over, allowing for the cultivation of harder ground
  • 1700s: Wooden plows, sowing by hand, cultivating by hoe, cutting by sickle, threshing by flail
  • 1790: Farmers are 90% of the U.S. labor force
  • 1793-1794: Eli Whitney invents cotton gin, patents it in 1794. Unintended consequence: huge growth of slavery in the South, major migration to Deep South states, even more brutal lives for enslaved. Although none of these things was intended by Whitney, the invention of the cotton gin is often cited as one of the indirect causes of the Civil War.
  • 1796: Public Land Act: Federal land sales to public; minimum 640 acres at $2 an acre
  • 1797: Charles Newbold patents first cast iron plow
  • 1820: Federal Land Law: As few as 80 acres of public land can be bought for $1.25 an acre
  • 1830-1837: Rampant, massive land speculation
  • 1834: McCormick reaper invented
  • 1837: Panic of 1837 halts land speculation and most large infrastructure projects that impact agriculture (e.g. building of canals, railroads, and roads)
  • 1837: John Deere, a blacksmith in Grand Detour, Illinois, invents steel moldboard plow to replace cast iron plows. Deere also changes plow’s shape, making it concave. Sticky prairie soil stuck to cast iron plows, making plowing slow because of frequent interruptions to clean. A high tech revolution in its day
  • 1837: Cyrus McCormick patents the McCormick Reaper
  • 1840: Farmers are 69% of labor force
  • 1841: Pre-emption Act gives squatters first rights to buy land
  • 1850: Farmers are 64% of labor force. Average acreage: 203
  • 1854: Self-governing windmill perfected
  • 1860: Farmers 58% of labor force. Average acreage: 199
  • 1862: Federal Homestead Act: Grants 160 acres to settlers who have worked the land for 5 years.
  • 1863: Pasteurization. Heat used to sterilize milk, wine, and beer
  • 1865: As result of Civil War, slavery abolished everywhere in U.S.
  • 1865-1870: Sharecropping in South instituted to replace slave labor
  • 1867: The Grange is founded. Some of our Logans are members.
  • 1870: Farmers 53% of labor force. Average acreage: 153
  • 1870s: Silos come into use
  • 1874: Barbed wire invented. Leads to end of unrestricted, free range grazing
  • 1875: John Deere introduces two-wheel riding sulky plow
  • 1880: Farmers 49% of labor force. Average acreage: 134
  • 1890: Farmers 43% of labor force. Average acreage: 136
  • 1890s: Agriculture becomes increasingly mechanized and commercialized
  • 1900: Farmers 38% of labor force. Average acreage: 140
  • 1900: Each farm specializes in approximately 5 commodities per farm (in 2000, it was 1 commodity per farm)
  • 1900-1910: George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute pioneers new uses for soybeans, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, thereby diversifying Southern agriculture and reducing dependence on one crop: cotton
  • 1900-1914: “Golden Era” for U.S. farmers
  • 1910: Farmers 31% of labor force. Average acreage: 138
  • 1910-1915: Gas-powered tractors come into wide use
  • 1920: Farmers 27% of labor force. Average acreage: 148 acres
  • 1920: Farmers struggle with low prices throughout 1920s
  • 1929: Great Depression begins. Between 1929 and 1933, one-third of all farmers lose their farms
  • 1930: Farmers 21% of labor force. Average acreage: 157 acres
  • 1930: About one-third of farm operators work off the farm at least 100 days annually
  • 1930s: Combine harvester mechanizes the farm
  • 1932-1936: Drought and Dust Bowl. Thousands of farm foreclosures and bankruptcies
  • 1932: Soil Conservation Service created
  • 1933: Agricultural Adjustment Administration created
  • 1933: Tennessee Valley Authority created
  • 1940: Farmers 18% of labor force. Average acreage: 175 acres

Note: Just fifty years ago, half of all farm families were poor. Today, only about 5% of farm families are poor.

Sources: USDA, “Growing a Nation,”; John Deere, “A History of American Agriculture;”; Wikipedia; “The Great Depression Hits Farms and Cities,” Iowa Public Television





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