The Productivity Revolution
Around 1940, a revolution happened in American agriculture. All of a sudden, farmers became much more productive. It took farmers less and less time to produce more and more food. What caused this sudden jump in productivity? There were several technical factors including better machines, new varieties of crops and livestock, new pesticides, and better irrigation techniques.
Also, productivity on the farm grew because the government got much more heavily involved, both through direct payments and indirect support of agricultural technology research. From 1940 on, making money in farming meant that you had to understand and manage government programs.
Bruce L. Gardner charts the growth in productivity using USDA data in his book American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century, (Harvard University Press, 2002). Looking at several factors that document productivity, Gardner says, “Productivity growth was slow before the 1930s… The estimated rate of productivity growth is 0.4 percent in [the period] 1910-1939 per year and 2.0 percent in 1940-1996.”
Gardner says that it’s difficult to pinpoint a single year as the turning point. But, “at some point between 1935 and 1940, U.S. agriculture became able to increase its output of crops and livestock per unit of inputs at a substantially faster sustained rate than had been seen before in our history (and at a faster rate than in the U.S. non-farm economy). This accelerated rate of growth was maintained throughout the last half of the twentieth century.”
In other words, farmers were getting better and better at their jobs, using more and better technology, and progressing at a faster pace than urban workers. Gardner sees huge advantages for both farmers and consumers. “Productivity growth provides the potential for higher farm incomes and lower consumer food costs.”
Plant scientist Stan Jensen says, “We’re certainly more sophisticated farmers now than we were.” He says that the technological innovations built on each other. Corn combines needed better hybrid varieties that would stand up in the field. Advances in irrigation and fertilizers spurred new varieties to take advantage of those conditions in the field. One technological advance took advantage of another and created opportunities for other advances.
In this section, we’ll take a look at the wartime pressures and economic conditions that almost forced farmers to become more productive. We’ll examine a host of post-war Food for Peace programs and the implications of those programs on agricultural exports. And we’ll explore how the farm economy began to change radically.