Agriculture has been the basic occupation of the United States. Initially, farming took place by means of hand labor. The farmer of the early 1800s used a hand sickle to farm his land. Wheat, corn and cotton were the staple commodities. The revolution in farming occurred with the invention of machine-based implements and, thus, effected a shift from subsistence to commercial forms of agriculture.
Between 1860 and 1910, enormous changes took place. Previously, there had been approximately 2 million farms; the number increased to 6 million. The expanse of farm land grew from 160 million to 352 million hectares. Production expanded to previously unheard of amounts. At the same time, although the population doubled, farmers were able to produce as much as people needed. Products included grain and cotton, with beef and pork raised and wool shorn from sheep.
While the early farmer dreamed of cutting more than 20 percent of hectares of wheat a day, the machinery of 1840 presented the opportunity for "miracles." Thus, Cyrus McCormick was able to cut two to two-and-a-half hectares a day with the new machine, the reaper. By 1860, with the new factory that had been established, 250,000 reapers were sold. Other machinery was created, such as automatic wire binders, threshing machines, reaper-threshers or combines. Mechanical planters, cutters, huskers and shellers were produced, as well as cream separators, manure spreaders, potato planters, hay driers and poultry incubators.
The development of machinery gave rise to a new science. In 1862, the Morill Land Grant College Act enabled an agricultural and industrial college to be set up on allotted public land in each state. These educational institutions also acted as centers for research in scientific farming. Congress passed funds to agricultural experiment stations that were established throughout the country, and the Department of Agriculture received money to further research.
At the beginning of the 20th century, federal policy facilitated an increased yield of produce for farmers. However, this also served to create an oversupply, thus lowering the market value. Farmers were affected by this circumstance.
Imports began to take place, including from countries such as Russia, North Africa (Kaffir corn) and Turkestan (alfalfa). At the beginning of the 21st century, drought-resistant winter wheat from Russia accounted for half the U.S. wheat crop.
Peanut farming is a significant American agricultural resource. The Peanut Growers is an alliance of three major regional organizations. Each produces its own unique type of peanut for different snacks.
The United States is considered one of the largest agricultural producers and exporters worldwide. The future of U.S. agriculture is, therefore, inextricably linked to international agricultural developments. The question has been raised whether U.S. agriculture will flourish or be adversely affected by international trends and competition. The United States possesses a large proportion of arable land in the temperate zone, and this sizable advantage indicates that the country will remain a major player in agricultural production. At the same time, while the United States has been involved in significant technological innovations, the rest of the world has started to adopt these practices as well. Technology is now being utilized elsewhere to increase levels of productivity.
The United States has become integrated into world agricultural markets. The opening of the U.S. agricultural sector to trade has also contributed to a change in the current dynamic. There are possibilities on both sides of the equation: The United States will continue to gain from economic and technological advances or will be affected by potential disruption to the status quo as a result of competition. Government intervention and protectionist trade policy have, until now, created a system of protection. Trading commodities now places agricultural producers in the realm of international markets.
The changes listed have potential implications for agricultural policy in the United States. On one hand, it is important that the agricultural sector is not inhibited from adjusting to changes in technology and international markets; on the other hand, there is the question of protection and status quo. From the 1980s and beyond, policy has had to take into account the high rate of technological developments, as well as increased integration into world markets.
Since the 1930s, U.S. policy has tried to protect farmers from vulnerability relating to variable prices and incomes. Internationalization of agriculture now alters that protective net, given that trade policy might be dependent on foreign countries. Thus, the previous system of price supports, acreage and production controls may no longer be appropriate.