Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXII
AGRICULTURE SINCE 1860.--(Continued) OTHER EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES

The Progress of Agriculture in General. The progress of agriculture from decade to decade was considerably affected by conditions determining the general prosperity of the farmer. After the Civil War, in spite of declining prices, expansion proceeded at a rapid pace stimulated by the construction of railroads opening up Western land. The panic of 1873 was followed by a long period of depression and a further decline of agricultural prices, which, though partly offset by lower freight rates, entailed widespread suffering among the farmers of the West. In spite of this, the output of farm products continued to grow at a rather rapid pace--a fact that undoubtedly aggravated the farmers' difficulties at the time. Beginning about 1878 conditions improved and the decade of the eighties was a fairly prosperous one. Stimulated by unprecedented railroad building and the prospective disappearance of the free, fertile public lands, the farming area was rapidly extended and by 1890 was 50 per cent larger than in 1860. At this time many pioneers ventured into the semiarid sections with little knowledge of the difficulties that would there beset them. The rapid increase in production accentuated the downward trend in the general price level and, after the panic of 1893 broke over the country and prices dropped to the lowest point in half a century, the farmers found themselves in a desperate plight, the worst that they had encountered since the early forties. As a result the decade of the nineties showed the least growth of any decade since the Civil War.

Commencing about 1897 the situation began to improve and from then until 1920 the agriculture of the country enjoyed a prolonged period of general prosperity probably unequaled theretofore, though the periods from 1793-1817 and 1845-1865 might approach it in this respect. The general price level steadily rose, but farm products advanced still more rapidly. The supply of good free land being practically exhausted, the depressing effect of its competition ceased to be appreciable except as other countries were opened up. Finally, came the first World War, which created an abnormal demand for nearly all the great agricultural staples of this country and brought with it a sudden advance in the general price level. In the peak year, 1919, the gross income from farm products was nearly $17 billion which was 150 per cent above the 1910-1914 average.

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