Agricultural revolutions: the view from Stonefield, WI

“Agricultural development” may not be the first thing you think of when asked to name a defining event or moment in history, but until well into the 20th century, agriculture was the dominant industry and employer in most countries, and the fortunes of an economy frequently mirrored those of its agricultural sector.  More precisely, the dynamism (or otherwise) of agriculture– its capacity to respond to evolving scarcities on demand and supply sides– frequently determines that of the aggregate economy, so strong are the ties that link this sector to labor productivity and wages, food prices, household welfare, and trade. The history of agricultural innovations (in the U.S. at least) is on vivid display at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Museum, on the banks of the Mississippi River in Cassville, WI.

There are many instances of these defining moments.  Best-known is the Green Revolution, the release of high-yielding varieties of cereal seeds that helped dramatically to raise yields and stave off starvation in tropical developing countries.  This was an example of “induced innovation”: that is, a process of technological development and adoption that responds to perceived scarcity of productive resources by “saving” the relatively scarce input to production.  In the case of the Green Revolution (and also the dramatic intensification of Japanese agriculture during the Meiji era), the scarce input was land.  New technologies and farming methods were developed that reduced the area of land required to produce a ton of rice, wheat or corn.  Plant-breeding innovations shortened the cropping season and made plants nitrogen-responsive and non-photoperiod sensitive, meaning that crops matured in a fixed number of days regardless of the seasonal signal (day length) that in traditional cultivars determines maturation. Two or three crops could be raised on one plot each year, with higher yields per crop.

Where land-saving innovation is the key to tropical agricultural development, in the frontier days of United States agriculture it was labor that was relatively scarce.  In a massive burst of technological innovation from the middle of the 19th century to the start of the 20th, farmers and agricultural implement manufacturers (which later evolved into corporations like Case, McCormick-Deering, and International Harvester) sought, found, patented, and sold news ways of preparing land and of planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops that dramatically reduced the numbers of workdays required per crop-acre.  Plowshares were improved and combination plow-harrow systems invented. Hand-seeding was replaced by seed drills that rapidly increased in capacity from two-row to dozens of rows at a single pass.  Hand-reaping with a scythe, manual collection and bundling of cut grain stalks, threshing, winnowing and other post-harvest operations were all transformed by innovations such as the mechanical reaper, then the reaper-binder, balers, threshing machines and ultimately the all-in-one combine harvester.

The first steps along this path to mechanization involved sometimes diabolically complex combinations of chains, pulleys, levers and gears, all (typically) built onto a sturdy wooden frame and pulled or powered by horses.  But agricultural innovation also stimulated big steps forward in engineering, so that by the early 20th century the horse had been displaced by steam power then the gasoline tractor, and wooden farm implements, along with most farm workers, by slick steel machines.  In the course of this revolution — and most particularly during and after the Civil War (which dramatically cut the numbers of able-bodied men available for farm work), the number of man-hours required to harvest and thresh an acre of wheat fell from over 30 to less than 5.

Marin Bozic)
(Photo: Marin Bozic)

The pace of this innovation was most urgent at the frontier, where land was abundant but labor critically scarce.  Wisconsin, where I live, was briefly the frontier in the middle of the 19th century, at which time its (short-lived) wheat industry made it “the nation’s granary”.  The history of agricultural technologies used in the state during the era is captured in a fascinating (really!) series of exhibits in the Wisconsin State Agricultural Museum at Stonefield, the former farm of the state’s first governor Nelson Dewey, at Cassville on the Mississippi River. I visited Stonefield this weekend with a group of grad students and we were given a fantastic two-hour tour by Dale, the maintenance and restoration guy.  He turned out to be not just a great guide but also a well of knowledge and anecdotes about the machinery, housed in two rows of implement sheds, and the fabulous collection of original, beautifully-crafted scale models used for patent claims and sales demos.

Of the implements on display, my favorite was the Groundhog Thresher, a vibrating threshing table whose nickname derived from its propensity to work its way into the ground–literally to bury itself–as it shook. This was the first in a long line of mechanical improvements introduced to frontier wheat and grain farmers by Jerome Increase Case, the “Threshing Machine King” from Racine, Wisconsin.  His eponymous company is now, after many decades and more amalgamations, Case IH Agriculture.

On the same trip we camped at Nelson Dewey State Park, adjacent to Stonefield and located high on the bluffs that line the Mississippi valley in southern Wisconsin.  It’s a great place to camp, watch the sunset or sunrise, and generally admire this amazing river.  As an immigrant, I’ve noticed over the years that the iconic status of the Mississippi River in my mind–it’s emblematic of many things American– is something that I share much more with other foreigners than with Americans.  I’m continually surprised to find how many long-term residents of Madison, my home town, have never made the 90-mile trip west to see this place. Everyone associates the river with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, of course, but many Americans seem uninterested in it otherwise, and some express quite negative sentiments.  Maybe the river summons associations with poverty and slavery (think Ol’ Man River), tacky river-boat culture and an industrial past they’d rather forget.  It has all that, of course, but it also has a spectacular natural beauty, a rich history (see Effigy Mounds National Monument), and (to this economist at least) a tangible and even moving sense of the scale and might of the US economy.  The latter can be seen in the mind-blowing volume of freight carried along it by barge tows and high-speed trains: on a typical summer’s day there are 40-60 barge tows navigating the upper Mississippi, each carrying the equivalent of 900 semitrailers in grain, cement, iron ore, scrap metal, or other bulk goods.

Still skeptical about the Mississippi?  Grab a tent and frying pan and a bottle of wine, choose a sunny autumn weekend, and go see for yourself. And while you’re there don’t forget Stonefield, your one-stop tutorial in the history of an agricultural revolution.  Say hi to Dale for me!

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1 Comment

  1. I tend to think about agricultural development as something processual — not necessarily one or more intermittent defining moments. But then again, the lens through which I explore agricultural development is quite different from yours. I wonder about the implications of such museums in shrouding the violence inherent on “the Frontier” and in creating a legacy of Human over Nature. What effort does the museum take in addressing the farmers themselves — perhaps the number of hours needed to reap was reduced but what of the failed harvests, the Grain Stabilization Corporation which undoubtedly influenced the livelihood of farmers in the region at the time, and the Depression? The production of technology? I wonder how much of the museum is *specifically* focused on the product of technology rather than the production of technology.

    I appreciate Julie Guthman’s (2004) take on the paradox of farming in the US (California in particular and though contemporary, she addresses the historical grounding of immigrant farm labor in the state quite well). That is, the anti-label, anti-technology, anti-industrial organic farming that harkens at least some of the original motivations for the U.S. Pure Food Act, yet somehow materializing in a revival of Jeffersonian agrarianism (with a less religious but equally political hue).

    In the image within your post, I’m fascinated by the (in)visibility of the farmers and animals reaping the wheat, as if the machinery itself somehow disappears the knowledge production inherent in farming technology. I find that in California, it’s near impossible for me to separate the body from the farm, no matter how hard I try. And the farm and machinery of farming technology lore is inscribed on the body in often very violent ways.

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