In the early 1930s, most Nebraska farmers still used horses and mules to plow, plant, and harvest crops. Tractors were beginning to replace horses, but even by 1940 only 23 percent of the nation’s farmers had tractors. The percentage was higher in the Midwest and the Great Plains where flat ground and large fields made mechanization possible.
The small amount of corn that survived the drought, heat and grasshoppers was picked by hand in the fall. A horse-drawn wagon was pulled through the field as farmers shucked the corn off the stalk and threw it against the high “bang boards.” By the end of the decade, some farmers began to buy mechanized grain harvesters and corn pickers.
If they had enough money to buy the machines, some farmers could use them to earn cash. York County farmer Albert Friesen says his father had a mechanized corn sheller. Other farmers paid his father to remove the kernels from the cob. His father earned enough to save the family farm.
LeRoy Hankel and his brother bought a combine and harvested crops for other farmers. He says the combine was “almost half-paid for by the end of the summer.”
By the end of the 1930s, more rain fell on the Great Plains. Soil conservation programs began to slowly rebuild soil nutrients. As more farmers traded their horses for tractors, they planted their rows of corn and other crops closer together. Instead of rows that were wide enough for a horse to walk through (42 inches), the rows were 30 inches apart. Closer rows meant more corn plants per acre. More plants usually meant a bigger harvest, and a bigger harvest meant more money.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.