The March of Machines
Farming is hard work. It takes a lot of power to force a plow through tough soil and turn it over. It takes a lot of power to push a seed into the ground so it can grow. Then it takes power to chop out the weeds that grow with the crop. It takes a lot of power to harvest the crops and separate the wheat from the chaff, or the corn from the husk.
For centuries, that power had come from the farmer, his family and animals. In the early part of the 20th Century, machines were replacing animals, and that process continued despite the Great Depression. It may be that the drought and hard times meant that buying machines made more sense than ever before.
As the mechanization of agriculture progressed, there were human as well as financial impacts. Dean Buller remembers how “thrilled” people were to get their first tractor. But Helen Bolton found out you had to do more than yell, “Whoa!” to make a tractor stop. And Herman Goertzen found out that his pet horse was more valuable to his father as the down payment on a new tractor.
How do machines like tractors from the 1930s compare to tractors today? Find out in this video segment shot at one of the largest agricultural displays in the country – Husker Harvest Days held outside Grand Island, Nebraska, each spring.
The Depression did have an effect. During the early 30s, sales of farm machinery dropped dramatically. In 1930, there were about 200,000 tractors produced. By 1932, only 19,000 tractors sold. Some manufacturers went out of business or were sold to other companies, but those that remained continued to invent new machines or better parts. By 1935, over 160,000 tractors were being produced again. In some cases, farmers got their first government checks and bought machinery.
At every step in the process of growing crops, new machines were being developed during the 1930s.
- Plows: For the first time in the 30s, plows were mounted directly to the tractor so they could be lifted out at the end of a row.
- Planters: Grain drills and corn planters got better at distributing seeds accurately and quickly.
- Mechanical cultivators: When the tricycle tractor was invented, it allowed allowed farmers to drive cultivators through closely spaced rows.
- Harvesters: In 1935, the first wheat combine that could be operated by just one man was invented. The corn and soybean harvesters were not far behind.
All of this innovation changed farming. Humans are adaptable. Machines are not. Humans can cultivate row crops one month, thresh grain in another, and husk corn in another. It usually takes separate machines to do each of these tasks. So, specialized, expensive machines eventually began to force farmers to specialize in one crop and to get bigger.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, in his poem “Tillage Marks,” has looked at the affects that the mechanization of agriculture has had on the land in the most elemental ways. Kooser observes a flat stone from a farm field that shows “the faint white markes / of a plow, one plow / or many, the sharp blade / crisscrossing its face / like a lesson scratched there / in chalk …” There is also a video podcast version of the poem on the Media Resources page (that can be downloaded) or through iTunes.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.