science, and industry of managing the growth of plants and animals for human
use. In a broad sense agriculture includes cultivation of the soil, growing
and harvesting crops, breeding and raising of livestock, dairying, and
and national agriculture are covered in more detail in individual continent
and country articles. See also separate articles on the states of Australia
and the U.S. and the provinces of Canada.
agriculture depends heavily on engineering and technology and on the
biological and physical sciences. Irrigation , drainage , conservation, and
sanitation each of which is
important in successful farming-are some of the fields requiring the
specialized knowledge of agricultural engineers.
chemistry deals with other vital farm problems, such as uses of fertilizer, insecticide, and fungicide, soil
makeup, analysis of agricultural products, and nutritional needs of farm
breeding and genetics contribute immeasurably to farm
productivity. Genetics has also placed livestock breeding on a scientific
basis. Hydroponics, a method of soiless gardening in which plants are
grown in chemical nutrient solutions, may solve additional agricultural
packing, processing, and marketing of agricultural products are closely
related activities also influenced by science. Methods of quick-freezing and
dehydration have increased the markets for farm products.
the outstanding characteristic of late 19th and 20th-century agriculture, has
eased much of the backbreaking toil of the farmer. More significantly,
mechanization has enormously increased farm efficiency and productivity.
and helicopters are employed in agriculture for such purposes as seeding,
transporting perishable products, and fighting forest fires, and in spraying
operations involved in insect and disease control. Radio and television
disseminate vital weather reports and other information that is of concern to
the 10,000 years since agriculture began to be developed, peoples everywhere
have discovered the food value of wild plants and animals and domesticated and
bred them. The most important are cereals such as wheat, rice, barley, corn,
and rye; sugarcane and sugar beets; meat animals such as sheep, cattle, goats,
and pigs or swine; poultry such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys; and such
products as milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, and oils. Fruits, vegetables, and olives
are also major foods for people; feed grains for animals include soybeans,
field corn, and sorghum. Separate articles on individual plants and animals
contain further information.
income is also derived from nonfood crops such as rubber, fiber plants,
tobacco, and oilseeds used in synthetic chemical compounds, as well as raising
animals for pelt.
conditions that determine what will be raised in an area include climate,
water supply, and terrain.
50 percent of the world's labor force is employed in agriculture. The
distribution in the late 1980s ranged from 64 percent of the economically
active population in Africa to less than 4 percent in the U.S. and Canada. In
Asia the figure was 61 percent; in South America, 24 percent; in Eastern
Europe and the Soviet Union, 15 percent, and in Western Europe, 7 percent.
size varies widely from region to region. In the late 1980s, the average for
Canadian farms was about 230 ha (about 570 acres) per farm; for U.S. farms,
about 185 ha (about 460 acres). The average size of a single landholding in
the Philippines, however, may be somewhat less than 3.6 ha (less than 9
acres), and in Indonesia, a little less than 1.2 ha (less than 3 acres).
also depends on the purpose of the farm. Commercial farming, or production for
cash, is usually on large holdings. The latifundia of Latin America are large,
privately owned estates worked by tenant labor. Single-crop plantations
produce tea, rubber, and cocoa. Wheat farms are most efficient when they
comprise some thousands of hectares and can be worked by teams of people and
machines. Australian sheep stations and other livestock farms must be large to
provide grazing for thousands of animals. The agricultural plots of Chinese
communes and the cooperative farms held by Peruvian communities are other
necessarily large agricultural units, as were the collective farms that were
owned and operated by state employees in the former Soviet Union.
subsistence farms or small-family mixed-farm operations are decreasing in
number in developed countries but are still numerous in the developing
countries of Africa and Asia. A "back-to-the-land" movement in the
U.S. reversed the decline of small farms in New England and Alaska in the
decade from 1970 to 1980.
herders range over large areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and
Lapland; and herding is a major part of agriculture in such areas as Mongolia.
of the foreign exchange earned by a country may be derived from a single
commodity; for example, Sri Lanka depends on tea, Denmark specializes in dairy
products, Australia in wool, and New Zealand and Argentina in meat products.
In the U.S., wheat, corn, and soybeans have become major foreign exchange
commodities in recent decades.
importance of an individual country as an exporter of agricultural products
depends on many variables. Among them is the possibility that the country is
too little developed industrially to produce manufactured goods in sufficient
quantity or technical sophistication. Such agricultural exporters include
Ghana, with cocoa, and Burma (Myanmar), with rice. On the other hand, an
exceptionally well-developed country may produce surpluses that are not needed
by its own population; such has been the case of the U.S., Canada, and some of
the Western European countries.
nations depend on agriculture not only for food but for national income and
raw materials for industry as well, trade in agriculture is a constant
international concern. It is regulated by international agreements such as the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and by trading areas such as the
Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN directs much attention to
agricultural trade and policies. According to the FAO, world agricultural
production, stimulated by improving technology, reached a record high in the
late 1980s. Further, agricultural output in developing nations increased 41
percent during the 1977-88 period, as compared to a rise of 9 percent in
developed countries. On a per capita basis, however, food production rose by
only 12 percent in developing nations, and less than 1 percent in developed
countries. See also Food .
history of agriculture may be divided into four broad periods of unequal
length, differing widely in date according to region: prehistoric; historic
through the Roman period; feudal; and scientific.
agriculturists were, it is agreed, largely of Neolithic culture. Sites
occupied by such people are located in southwestern Asia, in what are now
Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey; in southeastern Asia, in what
is now Thailand; in Africa, along the Nile River in Egypt; and in Europe,
along the Danube River and in Macedonia, Thrace, and Thessaly. Early centers
of agriculture have also been identified in the Huang He (Yellow River) area
of China; the Indus River valley of India and Pakistan; and the Tehuacan
Valley of Mexico, northwest of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
dates of domesticated plants and animals vary with the regions, but most
predate the 6th millennium bc, and the earliest may date from 10,000 bc.
Scientists have carried out carbon-14 testing of animal and plant remains and
have dated finds of domesticated sheep at 9000 bc in northern Iraq; cattle in
the 6th millennium bc in northeastern Iran; goats at 8000 bc in central Iran;
pigs at 8000 bc in Thailand and 7000 bc in Thessaly; onagers, or asses, at
7000 bc in Jarmo, Iraq; and horses at 4350 bc in Ukraine. The llama and alpaca
were domesticated in the Andean regions of South America by the middle of the
3d millennium bc .
to carbon dating, wheat and barley were domesticated in the Middle East in the
8th millennium bc; millet and rice in China and southeastern Asia by 5500 bc; and squash in Mexico about 8000 bc. Legumes found in Thessaly and Macedonia
are dated as early as 6000 bc. Flax was grown and apparently woven into
textiles early in the Neolithic period.
farmer began, most probably, by noting which of the wild plants were edible or
otherwise useful and learned to save the seed and to replant it in cleared
land. Long cultivation of the most prolific and hardiest plants yielded a
stable strain. Herds of goats and sheep were assembled from captured young
wild animals, and those with the most useful traits-such as small horns and
high milk yield-were bred. The aurochs seems to have been the ancestor of
European cattle, and an Asian wild ox of the zebu, the humped cattle of Asia.
The cat, dog, and chicken were domesticated very early. The transition from
hunting and food gathering to a dependence on food production was gradual, and
in a few isolated parts of the world has not yet been accomplished. Crops and
domestic meat supplies were augmented by fish and wildfowl as well as by the
meat of wild animals.
Neolithic farmers lived in simple dwellings-in caves and in small houses of
sun-baked mud brick or of reed and wood. These homes were grouped into small
villages or existed as single farmsteads surrounded by fields, sheltering
animals and humans in adjacent or joined buildings. In the Neolithic period,
the growth of cities such as Jericho (founded c. 9000 bc) was stimulated by
the production of surplus crops.
may have been a later development. Evidence indicates that mixed farming,
combining cultivation of crops and stock raising, was the most common
Neolithic pattern. Nomadic herders, however, roamed the steppes of Europe and
Asia, where the horse and camel were domesticated.
earliest tools of the farmer were made of wood and stone. They included the
stone adz; the sickle or reaping knife with sharpened stone blades, used to
gather grain; the digging stick, used to plant seeds, and, with later
adaptations, as a spade or hoe; and a rudimentary plow, a modified tree branch
used to scratch the surface of the soil and prepare it for planting. The plow
was later adapted for pulling by oxen.
hilly areas of southwestern Asia and the forests of Europe had enough rain to
sustain agriculture, but Egypt depended on the annual floods of the Nile to
replenish soil moisture and fertility. The inhabitants of the so-called
Fertile Crescent, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, also depended on
annual floods to supply irrigation water. Drainage was necessary to prevent
the carrying off of land from the hillsides through which the rivers ran. The
farmers who lived in the area near the Huang He developed a system of
irrigation and drainage to control the damage caused to their fields in the
floodplain of the meandering river.
the Neolithic settlements were more permanent than the camps of hunting
populations, villages had to be moved periodically in some areas, as the
fields lost their fertility from continuous cropping. This was most necessary
in northern Europe, where fields were produced by the slash-and-burn method of
clearing. The settlements along the Nile, however, were more permanent,
because the river deposited fertile silt annually.
Agriculture Through the Roman Period
the close of the Neolithic period and the introduction of metals, the age of
innovation in agriculture was largely over. The historical period-known
through written and pictured materials, including the Bible, Near Eastern
records and monuments, and Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings-was devoted to
improvement. A few high points must serve to outline the development of
worldwide agriculture in this era, roughly defined as 2500 bc to ad 500. For a
similar period of development in Central and South America, somewhat later in
date, see American Indians .
plants became newly prominent. Grapes and wine were mentioned in Egyptian
records about 2900 bc, and trade in olive oil and wine was widespread in the
Mediterranean area in the 1st millennium bc. Rye and oats were cultivated in
northern Europe about 1000 bc.
vegetables and fruits, including onions, melons, and cucumbers, were grown by
the 3d millennium bc in Ur. Dates and figs were an important source of sugar
in the Near East, and apples, pomegranates, peaches, and mulberries were grown
in the Mediterranean area. Cotton was grown and spun in India about 2000 bc,
and linen and silk were used extensively in 2d-millennium China. Felt was made
from the wool of sheep in Central Asia and the Russian steppes.
horse, introduced to Egypt about 1600 bc, was already known in Mesopotamia
and Asia Minor. The ox-drawn four-wheeled cart for farm work and two-wheeled
chariots drawn by horses were familiar in northern India in the 2nd millennium
in tools and implements were particularly important. Metal tools were longer
lasting and more efficient, and cultivation was greatly improved by such aids
as the ox-drawn plow fitted with an iron-tipped point, noted in the 10th
century bc in Palestine. In Mesopotamia in the 3d millennium bc a funnel-like
device was attached to the plow to aid in seeding, and other early forms of
drills were used in China. Threshing was done with animal power in Palestine
and Mesopotamia, although reaping, binding, and winnowing were still done by
hand. Egypt retained hand seeding through this period, on individual farm
plots and large estates alike.
methods for oil and grain were improved. Granaries-jars, dry cisterns, silos,
and bins of one sort or another containing stored grain-supported city
populations. Indeed, without adequate food supplies and trade in food and
nonfood items, the high civilizations of Mesopotamia, northern India, Egypt,
and Rome would not have been possible.
systems in China, Egypt, and the Near East were elaborated, putting more land
into cultivation. The forced labor of peasants and the bureaucracy built up to
plan and supervise the work of irrigation were probably basic in the
development of the city-states of Sumer. Windmills and water mills, developed
toward the end of the Roman period, increased control over the many
uncertainties of weather. The introduction of fertilizer, mostly animal
manures, and the rotation of fallow and crop land made agriculture more
farming and stock raising were flourishing in the British Isles and on the
continent of Europe as far north as Scandinavia at the beginning of the
historical period, already displaying a pattern that persisted throughout the
next 3000 years. According to region, fishing and hunting supplemented the
food grown by agriculturists.
after the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus
described the "Germans" as a tribal society of free peasant
warriors, who cultivated their own lands or left them to fight. About 500
years later, a characteristic European village had a cluster of houses in the
middle, surrounded by rudely cultivated fields comprising individually owned
farmlands; and meadows, woods, and wasteland were used by the entire
community. Oxen and plow were passed from one field to another, and harvesting
was a cooperative effort.
appears to have started as a rural agricultural society of independent
farmers. In the 1st millennium bc, after the city was established, however,
agriculture started a capitalistic development that reached a peak in the
Christian era. The large estates that supplied grain to the cities of the
empire were owned by absentee landowners and were cultivated by slave labor
under the supervision of hired overseers. As slaves, usually war captives,
decreased in number, tenants replaced them. The late Roman villa of the
Christian era approached the medieval manor in organization; slaves and
dependent tenants were forced to work on a fixed schedule, and tenants paid a
predetermined share to the estate owner. By the 4th century ad , serfdom
was well established, and the former tenant was attached to the land.
feudal period in Europe began soon after the fall of the Roman Empire,
reaching its height about ad 1100. This period was also that of the
development of the Byzantine Empire and of the power of the Saracens in the
Middle East and southern Europe. Spain, Italy, and southern France, in
particular, were affected by events outside continental Europe.
the Arab period in Egypt and Spain, irrigation was extended to previously
sterile or unproductive land. In Egypt, grain production was sufficient to
allow the country to sell wheat in the international market. In Spain,
vineyards were planted on sloping land, and irrigation water was brought from
the mountains to the plains. In some Islamic areas, oranges, lemons, peaches,
and apricots were cultivated.
sugarcane, cotton, and such vegetables as spinach and artichokes, as well as
the characteristic Spanish flavoring saffron, were produced. The silkworm was
raised, and its food, the mulberry tree, was grown.
the 12th century agriculture in the Middle East was static, and Mesopotamia,
for example, fell back to subsistence level when its irrigation systems were
destroyed by the Mongols. The Crusades increased European contact with Islamic
lands and familiarized western Europe with citrus fruits and silk and cotton
structure of agriculture was not uniform. In Scandinavia and eastern Germany,
the small farms and villages of previous years remained. In mountainous areas
and in the marshlands of Slavic Europe, the manorial system could not
flourish. Stock raising and olive and grape culture were normally outside the
manor required roughly 350 to 800 ha (about 900 to 2000 acres) of arable land
and the same amount of other prescribed lands, such as wetlands, woodlots, and
pasture. Typically, the manor was a self-contained community. On it was the
large home of the holder of the fief-a military or church vassal of rank,
sometimes given the title lord-or of his steward. A parish church was
frequently included, and the manor might make up the entire parish. One or
more villages might be located on the manor, and village peasants were the
actual farmers. Under the direction of an overseer, they produced the crops,
raised the meat and draft animals, and paid taxes in services, either forced
labor on the lord's lands and other properties or forced military service.
large manor had a mill for grinding grain, an oven for baking bread,
fishponds, orchards, perhaps a winepress or oil press, and herb and vegetable
gardens. Bees were kept to produce honey.
garments were produced from sheep raised on the manor. The wool was spun into
yarn, woven into cloth, and then sewn into clothing. Linen textiles could also
be produced from flax, which was grown for its oil and fiber.
food served in a feudal castle or manor house varied-depending on the season
and the lord's hunting prowess. Hunting for meat was, indeed, the major
nonmilitary work of the lord and his military retainers. The castle residents
could also eat domestic ducks, pheasants, pigeons, geese, hens, and
partridges; fish, pork, beef, and mutton; and cabbages, turnips, carrots,
onions, beans, and peas. Bread, cheese and butter, ale and wine, and apples
and pears also appeared on the table. In the south, olives and olive oil might
be used, often instead of butter.
was produced from the manor's cattle. Horses and oxen were the beasts of
burden; as heavier horses were bred and a new kind of harness was developed,
they became more important. A blacksmith, wheelwright, and carpenter made and
maintained crude agricultural tools.
cultivation regime was rigidly prescribed. The arable land was divided into
three fields: one sown in the autumn in wheat or rye; a second sown in the
spring in barley, rye, oats, beans, or peas; and the third left fallow. The
fields were laid out in strips distributed over the three fields, and without
hedges or fences to separate one strip from another. Each male peasant head of
household was allotted about 30 strips. Helped by his family and a yoke of
oxen, he worked under the direction of the lord's officials. When he worked on
his own fields, if he had any, he followed village custom that was probably as
rigid as the rule of an overseer.
the 8th century a 4-year cycle of rotation of fallow appeared. The annual
plowing routine on 400 ha would be 100 ha plowed in the autumn and 100 in the
spring, and 200 ha of fallow plowed in June. These three periods of plowing,
over the year, could produce two crops on 200 ha, depending on the weather.
Typically, ten or more oxen were hitched to the tongue of the plow, often
little more than a forked tree trunk. The oxen were no larger than modern
heifers. At harvest time, all the peasants, including women and children, were
expected to work in the fields. After the harvest, the community's animals
were let loose on the fields to forage.
manors used a strip system. Each strip, with an area of roughly 0.4 ha (about
1 acre), measured about 200 m (about 220 yd) in length and from 1.2 to 5 m (4
to 16.5 ft) in width. The lord's strips were similar to those of the peasants
distributed throughout good and bad field areas. The parish priest might have
lands separate from the community fields or strips that he worked himself or
that were worked by the peasants.
all systems, the lord's fields and needs came first, but about three days a
week might be left for work on the family strips and garden plots. Wood and
peat for fuel were gathered from the commonly held woodlots, and animals were
pastured on village meadows. When surpluses of grain, hides, and wool were
produced, they were sent to market.
1300 a tendency to enclose the common lands and to raise sheep for their wool
alone first became apparent. The rise of the textile industry made sheep
raising more profitable in England, Flanders, Champagne, Tuscany, Lombardy,
and the region of Augsburg in Germany. At the same time, regions about the
medieval towns began to specialize in garden produce and dairy products.
Independent manorialism was also affected by the wars of 14th- and
15th-century Europe and by the widespread plague outbreaks of the 14th
century. Villages were wiped out, and much arable land was abandoned. The
remaining peasants were discontented and attempted to improve their
the decline in the labor force, only the best land was kept in cultivation,
and in southern Italy, for instance, irrigation helped to increase production
on the more fertile soils. The emphasis on grain was replaced by
diversification, and items requiring more care were produced, such as wine,
oil, cheese, butter, and vegetables.
the 16th century, population was increasing in Europe, and agricultural
production was again expanding.
nature of agriculture there and in other areas was to change considerably in
succeeding centuries. Several reasons can be identified. Europe was cut off
from Asia and the Middle East by an extension of Turkish power. New economic
theories were being put into practice, directly affecting agriculture. Also,
continued wars between England and France, within each of these countries, and
in Germany consumed capital and human resources.
new period of exploration and colonization was undertaken to circumvent
Turkey's control of the spice trade, to provide homes for religious refugees,
and to provide wealth for European nations convinced that only precious metals
Colonial agriculture was carried out not only to feed the colonists but also
to produce cash crops and to supply food for the home country. This meant
cultivation of such crops as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and tea and production
of animal products such as wool and hides. From the 15th to the 19th century
the slave trade provided needed laborers, replacing natives killed by
unaccustomed hard labor in unfavorable climates and substituting for
imported Europeans on colonial plantations that required a larger labor
force than the colony could provide. Slaves from Africa worked, for
instance, in the Caribbean area on sugar plantations and in North America on
indigo and cotton plantations. Indians were virtually enslaved in Mexico.
Indentured slaves from Europe, and especially from the prisons of England,
provided both skilled and unskilled labor to many colonies. Ultimately,
however, both slavery and serfdom were substantially wiped out in the 19th
encountered by the Spanish conquistadors, the more advanced Indians in the New
World had intensive agricultural economies but no draft or riding animals and
no wheeled vehicles. Squash, beans, peas, and corn had long since been
domesticated. Land was owned by clans and other kinship groups or by ruling
tribes that had formed sophisticated governments, but not by individuals or
individual families. Several civilizations had risen and fallen in Central and
South America by the 16th century. Those met by the Spanish were the Aztec,
Inca, and Maya.
scientific revolution resulting from the Renaissance and the Age of
Enlightenment in Europe encouraged experimentation in agriculture as well as
in other fields. Trial-and-error efforts in plant breeding produced improved
crops, and a few new strains of cattle and sheep were developed. Notable was
the Guernsey cow breed, still a heavy milk producer today. Enclosure was
greatly speeded up in the 18th century, and individual landowners could
determine the disposition of land and of pasture, previously subject to common
use. Crop rotation, involving alternation of legumes with grain, was more
readily practiced outside the village strip system inherited from the manorial
period. In England, where scientific farming was most efficient, enclosure
brought about a fundamental reorganization of landownership. From 1660 on, the
large landowners had begun to add to their properties, frequently at the
expense of small independent farmers. By Victorian times, the agricultural
pattern was based on the relationship between the landowner, dependent on
rents; the farmer, producer of crops; and the landless laborer, the
"hired hand" of American farming lore. Drainage brought more land
into cultivation, and, with the Industrial Revolution, farm machinery was
is not possible to fix a clear decade or series of events as the start of the
agricultural revolution through technology. Among the important advances were
the purposeful selective breeding of livestock, begun in the early 1700s, and
the spreading of limestone on farm soils in the late 1700s. Mechanical
improvements of the traditional wooden plow began in the mid-1600s with small
iron points fastened onto the wood with strips of leather. In 1797, Charles
Newbold (1764-1835), a blacksmith in Burlington, N.J., introduced the
cast-iron moldboard plow. John Deere, another American blacksmith, further
improved the plow in the 1830s and manufactured it in steel. Other notable
inventions included the seed drill of the English agriculturist Jethro Tull,
developed in the early 1700s and progressively improved for more than a
century; the reaper of Cyrus McCormick in 1831; and numerous new horse-drawn
threshers, cultivators, grain and grass cutters, rakes, and corn shellers. By
the late 1800s, steam power was frequently used to replace animal power in
drawing plows and in operating threshing machinery.
demand for food for urban workers and raw materials for industrial plants
produced a realignment of world trade. Science and technology developed for
industrial purposes were carried over into agriculture, eventually resulting
in the agribusinesses of the mid-20th century.
the 17th and 18th centuries the first systematic attempts were made to study
and control pests. Before this time, handpicking and spraying were the usual
methods of pest control. In the 19th century, poisons of various types were
developed for use in sprays, and biological controls such as predatory insects
were also used. Resistant plant varieties were cultivated; this was
particularly successful with the European grapevine, in which the
grape-bearing stems were grafted onto resistant American rootstocks to defeat
the Phylloxera aphid.
in transportation affected agriculture. Roads, canals, and rail lines enabled
farmers to obtain needed supplies and to market their produce over a wider
area. Food could be protected in transport and shipped more economically than
before as a result of rail, ship, and refrigeration developments of the late
19th and early 20th centuries. Efficient use of these developments led to
increasing specialization and eventual changes in the location of agricultural
suppliers. In the last quarter of the 19th century, for example, Australian
and North American suppliers displaced European suppliers of grain in the
European market. When grain production proved unprofitable for European
farmers, or an area became more urbanized, specialization in dairying, cheese
making, and other products was emphasized.
impetus toward more food production in the era following World War II was a
result of a new population explosion. A so-called green revolution, involving
selective breeding of traditional crops for high yields, new hybrids, and
intensive cultivation methods adapted to the climates and cultural conditions
of densely populated countries such as India, temporarily stemmed the pressure
for more food. A worldwide shortage of petroleum in the mid-1970s, however,
reduced the supplies of nitrogen fertilizer helpful to the success of the new
varieties. Simultaneously, erratic weather and natural disasters such as
drought and floods reduced crop levels throughout the world. Famine seemed to
be imminent in the Indian subcontinent and was common in many parts of Africa
south of the Sahara. Economic conditions, particularly uncontrolled
inflation, threatened the food supplier and the consumer alike. These problems
became the determinants of agricultural change and development.
IN THE U.S.
North America, agriculture had progressed further before the coming of the
Europeans than is commonly supposed.
the 19th century, agriculture in the U.S. shared the history of European and
colonial areas and was dependent on European sources for seed, stocks,
livestock, and machinery, such as it was. That dependency, especially the
difficulty in procuring suitable implements, made American farmers somewhat
more innovative. They were aided by the establishment of societies that
lobbied for governmental agencies of agriculture (see Agriculture, Department
of); the voluntary cooperation of farmers through associations (see
Cooperatives; National Grangem); and the increasing use of various types of
power machinery on the farm. Government policies traditionally encouraged the
growth of land settlement. The Homestead Act of 1862 and the resettlement
plans of the 1930s were the important legislative acts of the 19th and 20th
the 20th century steam, gasoline, diesel, and electric power came into wide
use. Chemical fertilizers were manufactured in greatly increased quantities,
and soil analysis was widely employed to determine the elements needed by a
particular soil to maintain or restore its fertility. The loss of soil by
erosion (q.v.) was extensively combated by the use of cover crops
(quick-growing plants with dense root systems to bind soil), contour plowing
(in which the furrow follows the contour of the land and is level, rather than
up and down hills that provide channels for runoff water), and strip cropping
(sowing strips of dense-rooted plants to serve as water-breaks or windbreaks
in fields of plants with loose root systems).
breeding produced improved strains of both farm animals and crop plants.
Hybrids of desirable characteristics were developed; especially important for
food production was the hybridization of corn in the 1930s. New uses for farm
products, by-products, and wastes were discovered. Standards of quality, size,
and packing were established for various fruits and vegetables to aid in
wholesale marketing. Among the first to be standardized were apples, citrus
fruits, celery, berries, and tomatoes. Improvements in storage, processing,
and transportation also increased the marketability of farm products. The use
of cold-storage warehouses and refrigerated railroad cars was supplemented by
the introduction of refrigerated motor trucks, by rapid delivery by airplane,
and by the quick-freeze process of preservation, in which farm produce is
frozen and packaged the same day that it is picked. Freeze-drying and
irradiation have also reached practical application for many perishable foods.
methods have begun to be applied to pest control, limiting the widespread use
of insecticides and fungicides and applying more varied and targeted
techniques. New understanding of significant biological control measures and
the emphasis on integrated pest management have made possible more effective
control of certain kinds of insects.
for weed control have become important for a number of crops, in particular
cotton and corn. The increasing use of chemicals for the control of insects,
diseases, and weeds has brought about additional environmental problems and
regulations that make strong demands on the skill of farm operators.
the 1980s high technology farming, including hybrids for wheat, rice, and
other grains, better methods of soil conservation and irrigation, and the
growing use of fertilizers has led to the production of more food per capita,
not only in the U.S., but in much of the rest of the world. U.S. farmers,
however, still have the advantage of superior private and government research
facilities to produce and perfect new technologies.
of the recurring problems of American agriculture in the 20th century has been
the tendency of farm income to lag behind increases in the costs of
production. The problem began in the 1920s, following a period of exceptional
prosperity for U.S. farmers. The period 1910-14 was later taken as a standard
for the level of farm prices in relation to the general price level and formed
the basis for a concept called parity, aimed at maintaining farming as an
essential part of the U.S. economy. After the outbreak of World War I the U.S.
became the chief source of food for the warring nations of Europe, with U.S.
farmers bringing some 16 million additional ha (about 40 million acres) of
land under cultivation and investing heavily in new land and equipment. These
measures raised production levels until 1920, when the European demand for
U.S. farm products suddenly declined, and prices began a continuing downward
attempts were under way to ease the economic difficulties of the farmer, farm
income had not begun to recover when the Great Depression of the 1930s
intensified them even more. By 1932 the level of farm prices was only about 65
percent of the 1910-14 average. Farmers continued to produce almost as much as
before, and even increased their production in an attempt to maintain their
income. That succeeded only in lowering farm prices further. By comparison,
manufacturers could control their production, thereby maintaining price levels
to a certain degree. Although prices for industrial goods declined, they did
not drop as severely as farm prices, so that by 1932 farmers were receiving
only 58 cents from the sale of their products for every dollar they had to pay
for non-farm items.
federal government, which had done little in the 1920s to help farmers,
initiated remedial programs during the administration of President Franklin D.
Roosevelt. One approach was to reduce the supply of basic farm commodities.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 provided payments to farmers in return
for agreements to curtail their acreage or their production of wheat, cotton,
rice, tobacco, corn, hogs, and dairy products. The act was declared
unconstitutional in 1936, but in 1938, after several changes in the membership
of the U.S. Supreme Court, a second Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed
under which production quotas were set as before. Payments were financed from
taxes imposed on processors and were based on the parity concept.
government also lent money to farmers to enable them to withhold crops from
the market when prices were low and to store the produce so that it might be
available in poor crop years.
third method to limit production provided payments for shifting acreage of
soil-depleting crops such as corn, wheat, cotton, tobacco, and rice to
soil-conserving plants such as grasses and legumes and for carrying out
soil-building practices. In 1939, an all-risk crop insurance program was
initiated for interested farmers to prevent economic distress in case of crop
failure for hail, floods, and other natural disasters.
World War II the problem of low farm prices was not basically a result of
overproduction. Rather, it was a consequence of the cycles of business and
weather, and of problems of internal distribution, transportation, and credit.
Following World War II, however, overproduction became a serious problem. Both
during and immediately after the war, farm prices were generally high. Because
production costs also were high, parity payments remained in force. Federal
transactions in surplus commodities, principally the sale of such commodities
at prices less than those paid to farmers, proved costly for the government.
To reduce costs of the federal farm program, the administration of President
Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the substitution of flexible or variable price
supports for the rigid 90 percent of parity that was in force. A bill
authorizing a sliding scale of payments at 82.5 percent to 90 percent of
parity on the basic commodities was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1954.
Agricultural Act of 1956, otherwise known as the soil-bank program, authorized
federal payments to farmers if they reduced production of certain crops. A
subsidy plan was formulated whereby farmers would be paid for converting part
of their cropland to soil-conserving uses. In practice, the farmers shared the
costs of planting trees or grasses and received annual payments compensating
them for the economic loss incurred by the removal of some of their land from
Department of Agriculture in the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy
and Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s made control of overproduction a primary
goal of farm policy. Farmers were offered what was in effect a rental payment
for a part of their land that would be taken out of production during the
following year. At the same time, measures were undertaken to expand the
export market for agricultural products. During this period the ratio of a
farmer's per capita income to that of a non-farm person increased from about 50
percent to about 75 percent.
subsidies for withholding agricultural land from production were phased out in
1973, as a result of a proposal by President Richard M. Nixon. In the same
year, net farm income swelled to $33.3 billion.
grain harvests throughout the world, particularly in the Soviet Union,
prompted massive sales of U.S. government-owned grain reserves. World climatic
conditions also helped keep demand for U.S. produce high through the
mid-1970s. Toward the end of the decade, exports lessened, prices dropped, and
farm income began to fall without a corresponding decrease in costs of
production. U.S. net farm income in 1976 fell to $18.7 billion.
1978, a limited, voluntary output restriction was begun by President Jimmy
Carter. Called the "farmer-held grain reserve program," the action
took grains off the market for up to three years or until market prices
reached stated levels. The program was intended also to provide an adequate
reserve, lessen food-price gyrations and combat inflation, give livestock
producers protection from extremes in feed costs, and contribute to greater
continuity in foreign food aid.
Jan. 4, 1980, President Carter declared a limited suspension of grain sales to
the Soviet Union in response to that country's invasion of Afghanistan.
Additional restrictions included a prohibition on sales of U. S. phosphate.
Despite the grain embargo, the U.S. continued to honor a 5-year agreement
already in effect that committed it to sell 8 million tons of grain to the
Soviets yearly. The year 1980 was an election year, and despite efforts by
President Carter's opposition to void the embargo, it continued.
Administration officials argued that the Soviets had never been a major
customer or even a reliable buyer. U.S. farmers maintained, however, that the
action was at their expense and had made 1980 one of their worst years. In
fact, U.S. farm exports in 1980 reached an all-time high of $40 billion, but
the continued rise in costs of production and an extremely hot summer with
accompanying droughts affected many farmers adversely. A new crop insurance
program, passed by Congress in the fall of 1980, offered relief from such
conditions rather than having to rely on disaster loans, which amounted to $30
million for feed alone in that year.
the 1980 grain embargo had a strong effect on the USSR was a matter of
conjecture. Beef production dropped 16 percent, pork was off 10 percent, and
milk production fell 4 percent, but by the end of the year the Soviets had
apparently obtained their needed grain from other sources. When President
Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he lifted the embargo and extended the
agreement that allowed the USSR to purchase 8 million tons of grain yearly
from the U.S. The two nations then signed a new 5-year agreement in 1983 that
obliged the Soviet Union to import a minimum of 9 million tons of U.S. grain
U.S. has ten major farming areas. They vary by soil, slope of land, climate,
and distance to market, and in storage and marketing facilities.
states of the northeast and the Lake states are the country's principal
milk-producing areas. Climate and soil there are suited to raising grains and
forage for cattle and for pastures. Broiler farming is important to Maine,
Delaware, and Maryland. Fruits and vegetables are also important to the
Appalachian region is the major tobacco-producing area of the nation. Peanuts,
cattle, and dairy production also are important.
cattle and broilers are the major livestock products farther south in the
states of the Southeast; fruit and vegetables and peanuts are also grown.
Florida has vast citrus groves and winter vegetable production areas.
the Delta states, principal cash crops are soybeans and cotton. Rice and
sugarcane are grown in the more humid and wet areas. With improved pastures,
livestock production has gained importance in recent years. It also is a major
Corn Belt, extending from Ohio through Iowa, has rich soil, good climate, and
sufficient rainfall for excellent farming. Corn, beef cattle, hogs, and dairy
products are of primary importance. Other feed grains, soybeans, and wheat
also are grown.
northern and southern Plains, extending north and south from Canada to Mexico
and from the Corn Belt into the Rocky Mountains, are restricted by low
rainfall in the western portion and by cold winters and short growing seasons
in the north. But about 60 percent of the nation's winter and spring wheat
grows in the Plains states. Other small grains, grain sorghums, hay, forage
crops, and pastures help make cattle important to the region. Cotton is
produced in the southern part.
Mountain states provide yet a different terrain. Vast areas are suited to
cattle and sheep. Wheat is important in the north. Irrigation in the valleys
provides water for hay, sugar beets, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables.
Pacific region includes California, Oregon, and Washington plus Alaska and
Hawaii. In the northern mainland, farmers raise wheat, fruit, and potatoes.
Dairying, vegetables, and some grain are important to Alaska. Many of the more
southerly farmers have large tracts on which they raise vegetables, fruit, and
cotton, often under irrigation. Cattle are raised throughout the region.
Hawaii grows sugarcane and pineapple as its major crops.
total land area of the U.S. is about 917 million ha (about 2.27 billion
acres), of which about 47 percent is used to produce crops and livestock. The
rest is distributed among forestland (29 percent) and urban, transportation,
and other uses (24 percent).
161 million ha (about 399 million acres) make up cropland resources. Almost 83
percent of cropland is cultivated, including about 23 million ha (about 57
million acres) used for wheat, about 30 million ha (about 74 million acres)
used for corn, and about 25 million ha (about 62 million acres) used for hay.
More than 50 percent of croplands are prime farmland, the best land for
producing food and fiber.
nation has another nearly 400 million ha (almost 1 billion acres) of
nonfederal rural land currently being used for pastures, range, forest, and
other purposes. About 27.5 million ha (about 68 million acres) of this land
are suitable for conversion to cropland if needed.
history of agriculture in the U.S. since the Great Depression has been one of
consolidation and increasing efficiency. From a high of 6.8 million farms in
1935, the total number declined to 2.1 million in 1991 on a little less than
the same area, about 397 million ha (about 982 million acres). Average farm
size in 1935 was about 63 ha (about 155 acres); in 1991 it was about 189 ha
(about 467 acres).
4.6 million people lived on farms in 1990, based on a new farm definition
introduced in 1977 to distinguish between rural residents and people who
earned $1000 or more from annual agricultural product sales. The farm
population continues to constitute a declining share of the nation's total;
about 1 person in every 54, or 1.8 percent, of the nation's 250 million people
were farm residents in 1990.
value of land and buildings on U.S. farms in 1990 was $658 billion,
substantially less than the value in 1980. Value of products sold was $170
billion per year. Overall net farm income was more than $46 billion in 1989,
of which government subsidies accounted for 23 percent.
including real estate, major expenditures by farmers in 1989 were for feed
($22.7 billion); fuel, lubricants, and maintenance ($13.1 billion); hired
labor ($11.9 billion); fertilizer ($7.6 billion); and seed ($3.7 billion).
farm debt in 1989 was $146 billion, of which about 55 percent was owed on real
estate. Interest payments on the mortgage debt were about $7.6 billion per
1980, a report based on projections by the U.S. government stated that in the
next 20 years world food requirements would increase tremendously, with
developed countries requiring most of the increase, and food prices would
double. Less than five years later, however, the U.S. farmer was enveloped in
a major crisis caused by exceptionally heavy farm debts, mounting farm subsidy
costs, and rising surpluses. A number of farmers were forced into foreclosure.
ailing Farm Credit System, a group of 37 farmer-owned banks under the Farm
Credit Administration (q.v.) appealed to the government for a $5 to $6 billion
fund that would keep the system solvent despite the weak national farm
economy. After initial resistance, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation
in December 1985 designed to create the Farm Credit System Capital Corp. to
take over bad loans from the system's banks and to assume responsibility for
foreclosing or restructuring distressed loans.
December President Reagan also signed the Food Security Act of 1985,
legislation designed to govern the nation's farm policies for the next five
years, trim farm subsidies, and stimulate farm exports.
U.S. is the world's principal exporter of agricultural products. In 1989 the
value of produce exported was about $39.7 billion, including roughly $1.5
billion in donations and loans to developing nations.
substantial percentage of the wheat, soybeans, rice, cotton, tobacco, and corn
for grain produced in the U.S. is exported. The principal foreign markets for
the products are Asia, Western Europe, and Latin America. Japan heads the list
of individual countries that import U.S. farm products.