From the time that immigrants settled in what would become America, farming was a way of life for a multitude of reasons. Not only did it give farmers and their families the ability to trade and barter for their basic daily needs, it also allowed them to live off the land, offering them sustenance and a form of income.
For centuries, farming in America was much more than a job. It was a lifestyle that produced hardworking, salt-of-the-earth men and women committed to their families, crops, and land.
Incredibly, the vast majority of crops and cattle produced at the time of the nation’s birth continue to be the same crops and cattle produced today. Though many advancements transpired throughout the centuries, the face of agriculture in America remains in many ways unchanged.
There is little doubt that early American farming is responsible for the growth and prosperity of this great nation.
Pre-colonization - 1800: what to grow, how to manage it, and how to harvest it
The earliest British settlers to the Colonies planted crops they were familiar with from their home country, with their main crops being peas and barley.
In addition to those crops from England, settlers in the Thirteen Colonies migrated from various other countries across Europe for a new life in a new land. Because of the diversity of newcomers, farming practices varied among settlers depending upon where they immigrated from.
Learning from the natives
Introduced to the crop by Native American, settlers quickly realized just how beneficial maize could be on multiple levels. In addition to providing sustenance to farmers and those they bartered and sold to, the crop was also used in abundance to feed cattle.
The native populations also taught settlers new ways to fertilize their crops in order to help them flourish. For example, small fish were added to the soil to aid with this process. As the fish decomposed, they turned into fertilizer that would nourish the crops as they grew.
Growing and harvesting: efficiency is key
The first farmers in the Colonies were known to utilize indentured servants to help plant, manage, and harvest crops, tend cattle, and perform other tasks to keep their farms running as efficiently as possible.
Men, women, and children were all eligible to become indentured servants in exchange for passage to Virginia from their homeland, food and a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. Most adult servants took an average of four to seven years to pay off their debt, though children often took much longer because they were typically unable to work at the same pace as adults.
As regulations were set in place regarding indentured servitude and the servants were granted more rights, this practice faded out, leaving a void for farmers in terms of “affordable” labor. The solution to the problem was to bring enslaved people from Africa to replace indentured servants.
This practice would become much more prominent in the Southern part of the nation once those areas were established and would continue well into the next century.
Regardless of who was working on the farm, they required the proper tools in order to perform the necessary work as efficiently as possible.
Initially, farming equipment was rudimentary, to say the least. Tools were mostly made of wood and, occasionally, small amounts of iron. Labor was performed mainly by hand, aided by available tools and animals.
Horses and oxen, when available, were hitched to primitive plows to cultivate the land. When not available, individuals armed with hoes would have to perform this labor by hand. Planting and harvesting were also typically performed by hand. Common tools were the sickle, which was used to cut hay and grains, and threshers, which were used to separate seeds from grain.
As the 18th century came to an end, more advancements were made towards inventions to help ease the burden of early American farmers. Most notably, the iron plow made it easier for horses to cultivate the land for planting. The cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry, causing explosive growth during the next century.
1801-1900: The face of farming changes
As the 19th century approached, technological and sociological advancements significantly impacted American farming.
At its height during the 19th century, approximately 70% of Americans were farmers. With the Louisiana Purchase, the country continued to expand and settlers began to move West and South, causing the face of American farming to change.
With Western Expansion and the addition of railroads, many people migrated in search of new opportunities. Western farms began to dominate the wheat and cattle markets, forcing farms in New England to rethink what they should bring to the table. Many of these farmers chose to refocus their efforts on dairy, cranberry, and tobacco production.
With the north becoming more of an industrial epicenter as the century progressed, farming became less of a necessity to sustain the region’s viability as a whole and more focused on producing enough food to provide that region’s inhabitants.
Southern farmlands were not as rich as farmlands in other parts of the country, limiting their options. Tobacco and sugar grew well in the South and were major cash crops for quite some time. However, with the invention and implementation of the cotton gin, southern farmers shifted their focus to cotton production.
Many Southern farmers were impoverished, and their land produced just enough to allow families to get by. They could not afford paid labor or advanced equipment, so farming continued to be more about survival and eking out a meager living rather than prosperity.
In contrast, the exception in Southern farming took place on plantations. Because plantation owners tended to be extremely wealthy, they could purchase exorbitant amounts of land, slaves to work on the plantations, and the best equipment available to produce crops on a massive scale. The money that plantation owners made from their harvests could then be reinvested back into the plantation.
Unfortunately for many Southern farmers, overproduction of the land caused it to “go bad,” making it difficult to sustain crops and causing many farmers to abandon their farms and head westward in hopes of finding more prosperous, sustainable land.
Following the end of the Civil War, many Southern farmers turned to sharecropping. Unable to afford land and the materials necessary to farm, farmers reverted to planting and harvesting on the land of others. In exchange for land use, horses, seeds, equipment, room, and board, sharecroppers were bound to the land owners and local merchants for a percentage of the harvest.
Because their portion of the harvest would have to be used to pay back merchants, the sharecroppers were typically unable to do much more than simply keep their heads above water once all debts were repaid.
Innovation in farming often grew out of necessity. In part, many of these innovations are still used in farming today. Some of the innovations that came about during this century included: the moldboard plow, the spring-tooth and disk harrow, the grain drill, the expanding and riding cultivators, the grain reaper, as well as the steam and internal combustion engines.
1901 and beyond: phasing out
Many factors caused farming as a way of life to be greatly diminished in America. As industrialization began to dominate the nation, more and more of the country turned toward making a consistent, guaranteed hourly wage that couldn’t be offered by agriculture.
Technological advancements, labor costs, the cost of land, and general production costs continued to rise to astronomical heights, causing the vast majority of small farmers to abandon the profession.
Farming as a business was left to those with the finances to keep up in the industry. Rather than a way of life required to maintain a meager existence, farming became an industry dominated by farmers who could afford to pay for the labor, supplies, and equipment necessary to produce products the rest of the nation and the world demanded.
Early American farming: the backbone of a nation
From rudimentary beginnings to technologically advanced operations, farming in America has changed drastically over the centuries. Starting out as a simple, essential way of life, farming today is a far cry from its origins.
However, farming today is an occupation that in many ways continues to rely on those who are not afraid to put in a hard day’s work in order to accomplish what is needed. These are men and women who are able to harvest the fruits of their labor , allowing the people of this nation to meet their basic needs and live a productive life.
Early American farming was the backbone to building this nation into what it is today. It is a proud culture that continues to help support the lifestyles of the American public in ways that they will probably never fully recognize.