American Agriculture: A Brief History

Citation metadata

Author: Garry L. Nall
Date: November-December 1995
From: American Scientist(Vol. 83, Issue 6)
Publisher: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
Document Type: Book review; Brief article
Length: 503 words
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

R. Douglas Hurt has written a highly readable history of American agriculture from prehistoric times to the present. Highlighting many topics - including land tenure, rural life, regional development, government programs and farm organizations - he traces these major political, economic, social, scientific and technological changes that influenced the transition of farming in the United States from the era of the primitive producers to that of the modern agribusinessmen.

From this book, we learn that farmers practiced crop experimentation long before agricultural science became a formal discipline. Evidence indicates that primitive Indian groups became skilled plant breeders through selective practices, during which they succeeded in adapting basic commodities such as corn, squash and beans to specific environments. Later, during the British-colonial era, farmers initiated the blending of Old and New World crops as they searched for improved products. For example, although John Rolfe's first tobacco crop in Virginia came from seed supplied by neighboring Indians, he and others imported milder smoking varieties from the Caribbean. As director of the U.S. Patents Office, Henry Ellsworth began collecting seeds and plants from throughout the world during the 1830s, and he distributed them across the nation, a service that was a forerunner to the founding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. From these initial efforts modern scientific research evolved.

As land-grant colleges, federal and state agricultural-experiment stations and private-research facilities were established after the Civil War, scientists generally directed their efforts toward obtaining greater yields or better industrial products. Hurt highlights successes in the early 20th century, including George Washington Carver's work on the uses of peanuts, the hybridization of corn and production enhancement that was made possible after World War II with the application of chemicals, including herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. The author further notes that, with the growth of environmental concerns during the 1960s, scientists increasingly adopted genetic-engineering techniques to produce plants that included disease-, drought- and insect-resistant qualities.

Hurt's discussion of the evolution of farm technology is particularly valuable for those attempting to understand the changes on the American farm scene. He traces the transition from the utilization of man-powered hand-tools - including axes and hoes, sickles and scythes - to the invention of animal-pulled implements - including cast-iron, steel and sulky plows, grain drills and planters, as well as Cyrus McCormick's reaper. Although those improvements represented significant achievements, Hurt contends that the modern transformation of American agriculture rests on the tractor. Along with enhancing an individual operator's capability for handling more acreage with less labor, the adoption of mechanized equipment alone brought such a growth in investment-capital requirements that farmers were forced to become skillful business managers if they hoped to succeed.

Although Hurt does not hide such negative aspects as greed, racism, violence and fraud found in the depiction of America's farmers, the overwhelming story that emerges is one of great achievement. R. Douglas Hurt's excellent survey will serve as a standard for agricultural histories for many years to come. - Garry L. Nall, History, West Texas A&M University

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A17631294