Transforming Agriculture

The McCormick binder on a ranch, near Spokane, Washington, about 1800s

The McCormick binder on a ranch, near Spokane, Washington, about 1800s

Courtesy of Digital Library and Archives, University Libraries, Virginia Tech

From Old to New

The Fordson tractor symbolized the future of agriculture. Animal-powered equipment, seed saving, and crop rotation were fading away. Farmers were becoming modern business managers and taking financial risks. To increase yields from their land, they began using gas-powered machinery, hybrids, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Fordson tractor, 1918

As gas-powered tractors dropped in price, farmers moved away from horse-drawn equipment. Seventy-five percent of tractors purchased in 1923 were Fordsons.

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Whitely harvester and self-raking reaper patent model, 1877

Horse-drawn machines made farmers’ lives less dreary and got rid of production bottlenecks but also put them into debt. Yield per acre did not substantially rise.

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Oliver plow patent model, 1877

Oliver plow patent model, 1877

Around 1860 farm equipment manufacturers began to sell innovative plows suitable for tough prairie soils. James Oliver developed a case-hardened cast-iron plow.

Windmill and livestock watering trough, 1927

Windmill and livestock watering trough, 1927

Glidden barbed wire, about 1870s

Barbed wire allowed landowners to fence out cattle from their land inexpensively. Access to public lands and the concept of the open range became disputed.

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Glidden patent model for machine to make barbed wire, 1874

After Joseph Glidden patented improvements in barbed wire, he and Phineas Vaughan patented a machine to attach the barbs.

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Branding iron, about 1920s

Branding iron, about 1920s

When cattle grazed on the open range, ranchers had to mark their animals with a distinctive brand.

Henry Beville windmill patent model, 1880

As farmers moved into the arid Great Plains, windmills provided farmers and ranchers with a power source to pump water from underground.

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Palemon Dorsett and interpreter Peter Liu west of Beijing, about 1930

Palemon Dorsett and interpreter Peter Liu west of Beijing, about 1930

Seed explorers Palemon Dorsett and William Morse studied soybeans in Asia from 1929 to 1932, sending home about 9,000 samples. Soybeans put nitrogen into the soil.

Courtesy of National Agricultural Library, Special Collections

USDA tobacco seed samples, 1860s

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent seed explorers around the world to find new or better cultivars and then distributed free samples to farmers.

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Baugh fertilizer samples, about 1900

Growing crops depletes the soil of nutrients, making the use of fertilizer important. In 1903 Baugh & Sons processed more than 100,000 tons of bones to make fertilizer.

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Dr. Le Gear’s Stock Powders, about 1925

Moving from hand labor to animal-powered machinery had some drawbacks. Farmers had to buy animals, dedicate land to grow feed, and pay for veterinary care.

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Model of a typical midwestern farm, about 1920
Model of a typical midwestern farm, about 1920

Created for American Enterprise exhibition