The end of World War II produced a technological boom in agricultural machinery and research. Ironically, this boom in research spending and emphasis did not produce a revolution in technology. Instead, the boom refined and expanded on many of the discoveries that had been made before and during the war.
The federal government has been involved in funding agricultural research since the Morril Land Grant College Act of 1862. In 1887, Congress created a system of state agricultural experiment stations, and in 1914 created the Extension Service to let farmers know the results of all that research. By 1940, almost 40 percent of the total money spent by the government on research and development (R&D) went to agriculture. In dollars, that meant that $29.1 million of the $74.1 million was ag related.
World War II transformed the U.S. R&D system. First, Congress appropriated more and more money, but most of the increase went into other fields like defense, space exploration, health and general science. Also, much of that increase went to private industry rather than land grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations.
Yet, even in inflation-adjusted dollars, money for farm research continued to rise. In 1946, Congress passed the Research and Marketing Act of 1946 that broadened the Department of Agriculture’s studies to include marketing, transportation and distribution of farm products. The act also emphasized research into human nutrition and the food value of agricultural commodities.
Research conducted by private companies continued to rise as well. Today, private companies invest more in food and agricultural research than the federal and state governments combined. More than a third of the private research money has gone toward improving farm machinery.
For farmers, the lure of new machine technologies was not how much more they could grow, but how they could get the work done with fewer people. They had learned the lessons of World War II. Farm help was hard to come by and expensive. Tractors and other machines were cheaper and usually more reliable. Between 1948 and 1960, labor inputs – the amount of money a farmer had to spend for human help – decreased 35 percent.
Harry Hankel identifies research as one of the biggest changes he’s seen in farming, and he says that it forced farmers themselves to change. “You have to be trained [as a scientist] almost, today to do farming.”
Interestingly, most of the innovation that came out of all this research into farm machinery produced better machines, not entirely new types of machines. Tractors, for instance, have followed the same basic design principles that were present in 1940 models. Today’s models look basically the same as the old models. They have, however, gotten bigger and more powerful. Today’s machines are more useful, safer and above all more comfortable. These were small changes that took place after World War II, but they made huge differences in the productivity of the average farmer.
For example, Nebraska’s Tractor Field Book after the war was filled with ads for padded tractor seats. Before the war, the typical tractor seat was a hard piece of steel. After the war, many companies advertised cushioned seats specifically “designed to fit your equipment”… they didn’t have to mention which part of your equipment it was designed to fit.
Again, this was not as small an improvement as it might first seem. Hours and hours operating a tractor wears on the farmer, and small creature comforts result in more work getting done during the day. Eventually, fully enclosed cabs with air conditioning fulfilled the promise that cushioned seats began.
Safety was another major concern for machinery researchers. Once tractor designs actually performed well at the jobs that needed to be done, safety emerged as a top priority and marketing point. Early tractor farmers lost limbs in belts or poorly designed power take off units. Others lost their lives when tractors tipped over. The implement factories were usually built in rural areas, so the designers and workers at the factories knew people who were injured and killed. Manufacturers worked to design safer machines and advertised their offerings that way.
They also developed and advertised a range of products for a variety of farming needs. In 1947, Massey-Harris proudly advertised that they were introducing, not one or two, but five brand new tractor models. All of the major manufacturers had a range of sizes and power-ratings, gasoline and diesel engines, and a wide range of implements specifically designed to fit on their tractors.
For the first time in a long time, farmers had the money to invest in these better machines, and the postwar technology found buyers.