Revolution Down On The Farm

Dr. Peterson, Associate Professor of Economics at New York University, is also a weekly con­tributor to the Wall Street Journal.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the now familiar tractor had yet to make its appear­ance on the American farm. The engine was the horse and the mule — and, in good measure, the farmer himself. Before long the first trac­tors made their appearance: steam or gasoline-driven, big, slow, awk­ward, wheezy, given to frequent mechanical failures, good for turn­ing belts and plowing flat stretches, and just marginal at that. Like its mechanical brother on the road, it was not uncommonly greeted with "Get a horse."

Today’s tractor, with such stand­ard equipment as headlights, tires, self-starter, and perhaps fluid drive and power steering, has all but displaced the horse and mule. It’s a compact, efficient, quick-mov­ing, and highly maneuverable power plant. Coupled with attach­ments, it not only can perform the usual field chores but it can also pump, lift, pull, carry, dig, push, and level. With a generator attach­ment, it provides electricity for blowers, portable saws, arc-weld­ing, and so on. With a pumping attachment it can pump water and spray insecticides and weed-killing chemicals. There are now better than 41/2 million tractors on Amer­ican farms — an average of nearly one for every farm. There are also on the farm the other horse re­placements: 41/4 million automo­biles, nearly 3 million trucks.

Technological Improvements

Just this facet of "horse-power" mechanization gives an inkling of the technological revolution down on the farm. This revolution em­braces not only mechanical won­ders, but also new animal hus­bandry techniques, planting meth­ods, animal vaccines, fertilizers, feeds, seeds, plant hormones, weed killers, insecticides, sprays, washes, and even radio-isotopes. In 1956, to cite an example, the Amer­ican farmer used 71 per cent more fertilizer on his fields than he did in 1948 and better than four times as much as he used in 1930.

As a result, per-acre yields are showing an almost certain gain in productivity year after year. As a further result, lambs and poul­try, beef and dairy cattle, pigs and calves are getting bigger faster and — with the exception of layers and dairy cattle — to market soon­er. Chickens are laying more eggs (Terramycin, for instance, boosts egg production from 6 to 37 per cent). Cows are giving more milk. Hogs are giving more meat and less fat. Female farm animals of breeding age accounted for an aver­age of 38 percent more offspring per animal in 1956 than in 1930, a dramatic result of superior hy­giene, better feeds and injections, and better breeds.

In his Atomic Energy in Agri­culture,1 William E. Dick, a British research biologist, shows how tech­nology in radio-isotopes and atomic energy, as yet in its infancy in so­ far as farming is concerned, al­ready can destroy and control in­sects and plant diseases, speed up growing cycles, and open up cross-fertilizations and mutations for plant varieties and yields hitherto impossible. Thanks to nuclear sci­ence alone, food spoilage before long may be reduced to a point of negligibility, and cheap, whole­sale preservation of now perish­able foods soon may become pos­sible.

The technological revolution is seen in the statement of Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz in 1955:2

"In the 15 years since the be­ginning of World War II, Ameri­can farmers have increased their total production by 35 per cent, with no increase in acres."

This increase was accomplished despite a drop of 28 per cent in the number of farm workers during that period.

The revolution is seen dramati­cally in cotton production. Today there are about 850,000 cotton growers, just about half the 1,600,­000 cotton farmers of 1940; cotton acreage is also markedly down. Yet cotton technology, along with some shifting to more fertile lands, has almost made up for the heavy cut­back in cotton farmers and cotton acreage. Per-acre yields have climbed to 400 pounds of cotton in 1956, well up from the 250 pounds in 1940 and 200 pounds in the early 1930′s. Department of Agri­culture figures show the following improvement for other major crops during the 28-year period from 1928 to 1956:

Yield Per Acre



Corn (bu.)



Wheat (bu.)



Tobacco (lbs.)



Said President Eisenhower in his 1958 farm message to Con­gress:3

The rapid changes taking place in agriculture are largely the result of a major breakthrough in agricultural science and technology. In recent years agriculture has been experienc­ing a veritable revolution in produc­tivity. A century ago, an American farm worker fed himself and three others. Today he feeds himself and twenty others. A century ago, our population was 82 per cent rural. Today it is only one-third rural and only 12 per cent of our population actually live on farms. Farm produc­tion per man hour has doubled since 1940. There has been more change in agriculture within the lifetime of men now living than in the previous two thousand years.

The President’s point on the doubling of farm productivity per man hour since 1940 is further em­phasized in the fact that this in­crease is as great as the total in­crease in the 120 years between 1820 and 1940. Today a farmer with modern equipment can plow one acre in 48 minutes as com­pared to 2.6 hours in 1920. He can dig 60 post holes in 2.5 hours as compared to 10 hours in 1920. He can harvest and crib one acre of corn in 1.7 hours as against 7 hours in 1920. Today he can do by machine what only recently he did by hand — bale hay, shuck corn, pick cotton, chop forage, plant seed, cut grain, and fertilize land. A mechanical cotton picker re­places 40 to 80 hand pickers. A potato digging machine can out­pace 17 men. A green-bean picking machine is equivalent to 50 man­ual pickers. A mechanical celery picker not only does the picking but also packs the celery in cartons on the field.

Fewer Farmers — More Output

The big economic upshot of this revolution is that bigger farms with fewer workers are feeding more people. In 1930 there were 12,497,000 farm workers, in 1940 10,979,000, and in 1956 — 7,869,­000, including farm families and hired workers. Technology, in a sense, forces up the size of farms so as to get greater utilization of farm machinery and reduce per-unit overhead. In 1940 the average farm was 174 acres, in 1950 — 215 acres, and in 1956 — 242 acres. In 1935 there were 6,800,000 farmers (including owners, part-owners, and tenants), in 1940 — 6.1 mil­lion, in 1950 — 5.4 million, in 1956-4.8 million.

The farm technological "break­through" — to use President Eisen­hower’s word — partially accounts for the magnitude of today’s "farm problem." The tractor and the other farm machinery has all but eliminated draft animals and their feed. This development alone has enabled American farmers to divert 55 million acres to human food production. This fact, plus the soaring per-acre yields and the continuing high government farm price supports, account for the burgeoning Commodity Credit Corporation hoards. In fact, price support payments almost tripled in the four years of President Eisenhower’s first administration as compared to the entire twenty years of the New and Fair Deals — $2.9 billion between 1953 and 1957 against $1.1 billion between 1933 and 1953.

The price supports boomerang against the American farmer in ways other than cutting back do­mestic and foreign markets through discouraging demand. Price supports hold an umbrella over foreign agricultural pro­ducers and domestic synthetic pro­ducers — and thereby spur compe­tition.

Competition from Synthetics

Consider the inroads of syn­thetics, themselves constituting quite a technological revolution. Until 1930, fibers came almost wholly from natural sources — cot­ton, wool, flax, hemp, and silk. Soap was made from agricultural oils and fats. Adhesives originated from starch, glue, and plant gum. Luggage and shoes were made al­most always of leather. Paints originated from vegetable oils. Alcohol was made from molasses and corn.

But this position of agriculture was not to last. In its interim re­port, issued in 1957, the U.S. Com­mission on Increased Industrial Use of Agricultural Products, a body created by the 84th Congress, notes that farm fibers have lost 45 per cent of their former mar­kets, to synthetics — rayon, nylon, dacron, orlon, acrilan, and so on. Synthetic detergents have taken over two-thirds of the total house­hold soap market, thereby reduc­ing the need for the farmer’s inedible tallow and grease. In 1950, requirements for cattle-hide leath­ers could not be met from domestic sources and imports were neces­sary. But by 1955 cattle hides were in surplus, and many hides had to be exported to less remunerative markets overseas. A big reason: 62 per cent of all domestic shoe soles in 1956 had materials other than leather in them. Luggage tells the same story; plastics, syn­thetics, adhesives, alcohol, and paints are also increasingly made from nonfarm sources.

The Commission on Increased Industrial Use of Agricultural Products provides a lesson in prac­tical politics. The Commission is a "safe" answer to farm surpluses. It is noncontroversial. The farm bloc could more simply meet its foreign and synthetic competition and actually break the "farm problem" through the simple de­vice of lowering or, better, aban­doning price supports, and wiping out all marketing and acreage con­trols. In short, return to the free market. This is a long run propo­sition, however, and elections are always held in the short run.

Technology and politics don’t mix.


1New York: Philosophical Library, 1957.

2Wall Street Journal, July 3, 1957.

3New York Times, January 17, 1958.




Ideas On Liberty
Ask the Man Who Farms One

The men who know farming best are not nearly as keen for federal subsidies as the farm-bloc congressmen are.

A nationwide poll of all kinds of farmers conducted by Farm Journal, No. 1 farm monthly, among its readers shows:

Half of all farmers in the United States want the government to pull out of agriculture lock, stock, and subsidy.

Another 11 per cent want less government help than they are now getting.

In the South, always an enthusiastic advocate of high price supports, more than half want the government to get out.

In the Midwest, 43 percent are against any government help.

The poll is based on the opinions of 4,000 farmers which Farm Journal says is a representative sampling of our five million farmers. Maybe if their wishes were heeded, we could afford more education — and research.

Editorial in New York Herald Tribune