Farming & Rural Life in the 1970s to Today

One of the central stories of the last quarter of the 20th century was the quickening of the pace of agricultural innovation. As you can see in the following interactive chart, consumers in the first part of century slowly adopted most of the new technologies that were offered to them. Generally, rural residents took even longer. Electricity, telephones, cars, trucks and tractors all show gentle adoption slopes. The exceptions were new communication technologies like radio and television. And by the end of the century, both urban and rural residents rapidly adopted computers and the Internet.


Electricity. Power is a precursor technology. You need electricity to run a radio, refrigerator or computer. But the distances between farms were much greater than in town, so urban residents in the first half of the 20th century were more “powerful” than their rural neighbors. In 1930, for instance, almost 70 percent of all Americans had electricity in their homes while less than 15 percent of rural residents were wired. That changed, of course, when the federal government enacted the Rural Electrification Act in 1935. Through new technologies and the REA’s program of revolving loans to rural power districts, lines were built to even the most remote farms. Farmers knew how important power was, and there was a steep adoption curve. By 1960s, rural residents had almost caught up with their urban neighbors.

Changes in Farming across the Generations

film_zieglerehlers_LChris Ziegler farms today on land outside of Thayer, Nebraska. Chris’ great-great-grandfather, Peters Ehlers, bought the core of the farm for $2.00 an acre in 1881. Chris’ grandfather, Clyde Ehlers, has lived his entire life on that land. And even though Chris’ parents both worked in town, Chris spent “every minute I could with Granddad.” When Chris graduated from high school, he decided he wanted to continue the family farming tradition. He went to a two-year vocational agricultural program and went into partnership with two people, his wife Vicky and his grandfather Clyde. Together, Clyde and Chris have seen tremendous innovation in agriculture, and talk about those changes in this video. They also talk about changes in urban sprawl, planters, tillage eqiupment, as well as the changes – and limitations – in horsepower.

Phones & Cell Phones. Farmers also saw early on how important telephone service could be. Alexander Graham Bell’s patent on the telephone ran out the 1890s, and there was a rush to build telephone exchanges all over the country. Phone wires are lighter and easier to install than power lines, so farmers bought into local exchanges. Often, these party line services could make the difference between life and death.

So, by 1920 – when the Census of Agriculture started keeping track of telephones on farms – there was a higher percentage of farmers with phones than there were in the general population. In that year, almost 40 percent of farm homes had phones, while only about 35 percent of homes in general did.

But as the local switching technology got older and as business got tougher, the proportion of farms with phones had declined to 21 percent by 1940. This is one of the few examples of technological reversals in history.

It wasn’t until the REA was given authority to install rural phone lines in 1949, that the installation of rural phone systems took off. By 1975, farmers overtook and surpassed their urban neighbors in the percentages of households with telephone service.

Then came cell phones. In less than 15 years, cell phones went from being an oddity to a near universal service with almost 90 percent of both urban and rural residents paying for cellular service.

Radio & TV. When consumer radio technology was introduced in the 1920s – with national broadcast networks providing popular programming – sales of radios shot up quickly. Within 20 years from 1920 to 1940, the percentage of general population homes with radios went from essentially zero to over 80 percent.

We don’t have numbers for radios in farm homes, but we know from anecdotal sources that many farmers installed battery powered electricity systems just so they could have a few lights and a radio. The possibility of bringing sounds from all over the world into an isolated rural home compelled farmers to adopt the technology quickly.

We do know how quickly rural Americans adopted the first, black-and-white televisions. In 1950, only 2.7 percent of farmers had a TV set. By 1954, 35.5 percent of farmers had them. Ten years later, 87.6 percent – almost all farmers had at least one TV in their home.

When color televisions were introduced to the general population in the 60s, the adoption curve was very steep and quick.

Cars, Trucks & Tractors. Before the turn of the 20th century, horsepower on farms came from horses or mules. Then tractors, cars and trucks were developed, and farmers gradually adopted these new technologies. But surprisingly, farmers often bought an automobile before they bought a tractor. In 1920, around 30 percent of farmers had a car when less than 5 percent had a tractor or truck. These are big, expensive machines – especially compared to, say, a radio – so the adoption curves on the chart are relatively slow. By 1965, the percentage of farms with automobiles started declining and trucks – particularly pickup trucks – overtook cars on farms. Also, by the 70s, tractors and trucks were almost ubiquitous.

Computers & the Internet. As you might expect, both computers and the Internet reached a critical mass quickly and display very steep adoption curves. As you might not expect, farmers were not far behind the general population. Agribusiness people quickly realized the advantages of computers in tracking income and expense, fertilization and yields, feed additives and weight gain, genetic maps and milk production – to name just a few of the applications.

The Internet added the possibility of real time market and other critical information. So, farmers quickly found ways to connect to e-mail the World Wide Web despite the greater distances involved. Farmers and sometimes their wives discovered unexpected opportunities to market brand new, value added products through Web-based shopping carts.

Today, rural Americans keep pace with their urban cousins when new, useful technologies are introduced.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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