Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture
Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

by Deborah Kay Fitzgerald

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ISBN-13: 9780300133417
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

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Every Farm a Factory

The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture
By Deborah Fitzgerald

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08813-2

Chapter One

The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

It is ridiculous to assert that agriculture is too tough a nut for the corporation to crack in this day of consolidation of railroads, factories, bakeries, milk distribution, cleaning and pressing, and even beauty parlors. -E. G. Nourse, 1929

When people travel from one part of the United States to another, one of the first things they usually notice is the change in landscape. Flying over the great middle of the country, one sees the checkerboard pattern of farm fields, most with glints of metal in one corner marking the house and outbuildings. In the western part of the country, the irrigation circles paint an oddly modernist picture. The Great Lakes, so much bigger on first sight than one expects from geography class; the northern woods and southwestern desert; and everywhere houses sitting by themselves in the countryside, surrounded by meadows, crops, and livestock. In spite of all the things humans have done to the American landscape over the years, the diversity is genuine. Although all midsize towns, regardless of landscape, can support a Gap or a McDonald's, they can't all grow peaches, or timber, or soybeans-not even chickens can be raised everywhere. The spread of mass culture may seem to be homogenizing the experience of Americans, but there are limits. Climate and landscape still matter in agriculture and agrarian life, and these differences across the country still account for the diversity of food and fibers Americans enjoy.

And yet, thanks to the food-processing industry, the transportation network, and energetic capital flows, most people in America can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of their location. A dozen kinds of chile peppers can be found in Des Moines, fresh salmon in Amarillo, fresh-squeezed orange juice in Wisconsin, pork in San Francisco, avocados in Boston. The physical limitations imposed by nature have been circumvented by the endless possibilities of technology and science, and these in turn have transformed both farmers' and consumers' experiences. That has been the paradoxical story of American food and agriculture in the twentieth century: fewer people than ever before produce all the food. Whereas not so long ago most farmers grew a variety of crops, now most farmers grow just one or two. And although farmers have become more specialized in what they grow, consumers have become more diversified in what they eat. As a result of increasingly elaborate transportation and communication systems, food travels in a seemingly uninterrupted stream. The fact that so much of the produce that Americans eat now originates in southern countries is further testament to the powerful reach of a scientific and technological ethos.

The sheer diversity of landscapes and climates in America, as well as the diversity of crops and livestock and humans, discredits the idea of a monolithic American agricultural aggregate. The secretary of agriculture's Annual Report from 1924 is hundreds of pages long, mentioning nearly everything that had happened of moment during the year: Cotton production is down due to late planting, but the acreage is higher. American farmers can't grow enough raw cotton for domestic and foreign demand. Potato production is up although acreage is down; sugarcane is yielding less than before; an excess of beef cattle on the market is depressing prices; prices for sheep and wool are high owing to low world supplies; tax delinquency has increased; egg standardization is being introduced; cooperative marketing is on the rise, which the USDA approves; radio broadcasts of weather forecasts have been introduced, offering farmers their first up-to-date weather information; more truck crops are being grown in California; because of a wet spring, less corn was planted; Black labor is drifting away from the South.

But it was this very diversity, in fact, that made some people so keen to organize, rationalize, and industrialize American agriculture. It was not something that happened because some farmers bought tractors, or some financiers raised money for an experimental farm. In American agriculture, industrialization began as a logic of production, almost a philosophy. For some it was a principle that unified a disparate collection of observations, practices, and problems. For others it was a road map that offered directions from old-fashioned traditionalism to modernity. For still others it was a mantra that promised far more than it could deliver. Like all futurist philosophies, the logic of agricultural industrialism ran up against certain natural realities: oranges don't grow in Duluth, not all kinds of farms should get bigger, farmers often know more than bankers. For those who believed in this new production logic, however, it was important to push this approach just as far as possible. Surely it would work better in some places, with some kinds of crops and certain kinds of farmers, than with others; this was true of industrial production in general, so why should agriculture be any different? Their point was to try, to push, to rationalize as if it would succeed. And often it did.

Before we can understand how this worked, we need to consider three things. First, the hard realities of American agricultural diversity presented many challenges to those who would industrialize the country's productive efforts. Why did some crops and regions industrialize while others did not? A brief regional tour will help explain this. Second, World War I had a powerful effect on American farmers, both during the war and especially in the years immediately following it. We will take a closer look at the way in which the war set the stage for the growth of an industrial web in the 1920s. Finally, we will consider the historical context in which industrialization seemed like such a good idea, focusing particularly on the factory system and the industrial logic that grew out of successful factories. These were the principles that informed the most rudimentary efforts to "make farming modern."


Although farmers in most of the colonial regions of early America grew whatever conditions would allow and although most settlers moving west and south tried to grow what they liked best, there were some practical reasons for abandoning certain crops and livestock and taking up new things along the way. To begin with, New England was never likely to be a land of large, monocultural farms. The region's short growing season, rocky soil, irregular topography, and early-developing population centers all contributed to a different outcome. By the late nineteenth century, most New England farmers were producing for urban markets, concentrating on dairy products and then on fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The middle Atlantic and "Delmarva" states followed suit, shifting from grains and other staples toward the vegetables, fruits, dairy, and poultry that growing urban centers demanded. By the late nineteenth century, it made no sense to try and compete with the grain and livestock farmers of the upper midwest and far west, whose gigantic acreages and use of machinery made eastern-style grain farming uneconomical. What came to be called the Atlantic Coast truck farming belt, stretching from Maryland to Maine, was thus created by a combination of urban necessity, climatic opportunity, and emerging competitive challenges from newly opened land further west. This region, as we shall see, was among the last to be industrialized.

In the middle southern states of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, pockets of commercial production of tobacco, cotton, and grain were surrounded by small, less productive farms. In the hill country, where soil was poor and eroded, farming was difficult and uncertain, even for subsistence farmers. The main crop in these parts was corn, used locally for food and feed. Farther South, in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina, there were also pockets of commercial production. Citrus and sugarcane in Florida, rice in Louisiana, and nuts, fruit, and corn in Georgia were especially successful in certain areas, but again most farmers were not self-sufficient because of the pressure to produce for the market.

Of course, cotton was the primary crop in the deep south; in 1920, 74 percent of the farmers in this area grew cotton. Certainly the soil and climate were suitable for cotton, but the persistence of cotton's dominance can't be explained by this alone. One significant reason, according to Gilbert Fite, was landowners' insistence that their tenants grow cotton rather than other crops, because there was always a cash market for cotton and because tenants could not eat those potential profits. After World War I, when agricultural promoters began to push for more industrialized farm methods, cotton growers did not mechanize or in any way industrialize the cotton fields. As late as 1937, a visiting researcher would write, "Moses and Hammurabi would have been at home with the tools and implements of the tenant farmer. There is nothing complicated about one-horse gears, single-stock plows, long-handled hoes, double-blade axes, and a long sack to drag through the field at picking time."

Although growers were interested in developing a cotton-picking machine, it turned out to be a frustrating and elusive goal. One disincentive was the large supply of cheap labor. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop, not only during picking time at the end of the season, but also during planting and cultivating times. Because growers needed labor for picking-the most laborious task of the season-they had little incentive to invest in machines to help with the easier, and earlier, tasks of cultivating and planting; as growers figured it, laborers needed something to do while waiting to pick at season's end. In addition, southern banks traditionally did not offer credit to farmers interested in mechanizing or expanding, and there was not much capital around in any case. This began to change in the 1930s, when federal programs offered lower-priced credit, but by the late 1930s most farmers still used a one-horse planters

There was no lack of research on picking machinery. In the 1920s, a picking machine was developed in Texas that stripped the bolls from the plant, but unfortunately it also collected what most growers considered an unacceptable amount of dirt and trash, and it was not adopted outside of west Texas. Two independent researchers as well as the company International Harvester were experimenting with a spindle-type picker; Mack and John Rust began this work in the 1920s, and International Harvester developed a machine in the late 1930s, but its production was interrupted by the war. In postwar years, sales of the machine were slowed by the need to further develop and largely redesign the cotton production process: new types of cotton were necessary to carry bolls at higher, machine-pickable levels on the plant; gins had to be redesigned to accommodate the new cotton types; and herbicides had to be used in large quantities so that the new machines would be protected from the debilitating effects of trash and weeds in the works. Clearly, when cotton picking was mechanized, it was also industrialized, as the basic process was modified and elaborated to accommodate the new capabilities and requirements of the machinery.

In contrast, rice production followed an industrial path relatively early and in many ways resembled wheat in its adaptability to mechanization and labor organization. Pete Daniel explains that there were two kinds of rice farmers in the south in the late nineteenth century: those who grew river rice in the traditional way and those who grew Providence rice on the prairie. Providence rice growers dominated the American market, and when midwesterners moved south to grow rice, they quickly adapted their experience in growing wheat to Providence rice culture. By draining the rice fields before the grain ripened, they could use large mechanical harvesters to bring in the crop, relying at first on the steam traction engines and binders, and by 1914 on the gasoline tractor. As Daniel says, "The highly mechanized state of rice production separated it from other southern crop cultures," such as those for cotton or tobacco. This rice culture also demonstrated the secondary effects of mechanization: rice growers saved considerable time with these methods, freeing entire families from arduous field work and enabling growers to keep their farms in good repair, raise other crops, and participate in more genteel pursuits such as community work and gardening.

The midwestern states were considered prime farm country; because the soil was rich, the climate temperate, and the rainfall generally adequate, farmers could grow lots of crops. Although traditionally most farms were diversified, with farmers growing a wide variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables, as well as keeping livestock such as cows, hogs, and chickens, by the early twentieth century farmers were concentrating on corn and hogs; by 1939, 80 percent of the farms raised corn, most of which was fed to hogs. Some parts of the midwest did specialize in other commodities. In Wisconsin dairy farming predominated, and in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois fruit production took hold. It was the midwestern farm that often stood in people's imaginations as the quintessential American farm, and this has led to the erroneous assumption that innovation originated in the midwest. In the case of large farm machines, Midwestern farmers generally followed the lead of western farmers, who were in fact the earliest adopters. The relative affluence of farmers in the midwest and the generally flat landscape encouraged these farmers to mechanize once machines were developed. By the end of the 1920s, for instance, 30 percent of farms in Iowa and Illinois had tractors. These farmers were quite different, however, from farmers in the Plains and far west, whose farms were much larger and more "industrial" than those in the midwest. Not coincidentally, farmers in the midwest tended to think of themselves as traditional yet progressive and often boasted of their rural genealogy. Farmers farther west were more often new at farming and tended to see themselves as businessmen.

On the western prairies and Great Plains, farming was a less certain proposition than in the midwest due to the erratic climate, frequent drought, and thin soil. Much of the Plains was considered suitable only for grazing livestock, and this view characterized Texas as well as the mountain states.


Excerpted from Every Farm a Factory by Deborah Fitzgerald Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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