When did the big gains in agricultural productivity come?

I had the general and indeed correct impression that U.S. agricultural productivity has been rising for a long time.  It’s less commonly known how big was the productivity acceleration in agriculture in the 1940s. Between 1880 and 1940, agricultural productivity in this country rose at the rather modest rate of about one percent a year.  After World War II, the trend rate of growth jumps to 2.8 percent annually.  Multi-factor productivity in agriculture skyrockets in the mid-1930s, not earlier.

The information is from Bruce Gardner’s American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century: How it Flourished and What it Cost, pp.20-21, p.44.


The development of hybrid seeds, better pest control and use of fertilizer along with the end of the dust bowl years of the 1930s. Pretty simple logic that anyone who spent time in a farm state knows by heart.

"...and What it Cost."

The 4 greatest words ever seen in a book title.

Horses and mules replaced by wide-spread use of tractors. And the spread of knowledge: the impact of agricultural extension and the replacement of many illiterate and ill-educated farmers by fewer and younger people.

Modernist tripe.

Education has gone up in all sectors of society.

So it didn't go up in the farming sector? Or it did, but educations gains in the manufacturing sector failed to make farming more productive, so those gaisns never occurred? What are you arguing? I can't think of any position your comment could represent that can be twisted into making any kind of sense.

After WWII the United States had a huge industrial base for fixing nitrogen for munitions production. What to do with all that nitrogen capacity? It was converted into fertilizer production and directly lead to the rise in crop yields.

I think I've seen that idea in some of the food movement's writings. Actually Muscle Shoals was started by the Federal Government during WWI to produce ammonium nitrates for gunpowder. During the 20's and early 30's there was a big fight over what to do with it. (See this Time article from 1924: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,728157,00.html Through the efforts of Sen. George Norris it became part of the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA was into electrification (now that accounts for a big increase in productivity on dairy farms--ask anyone who had to milk by hand when the power went off) and fertilizer, as recounted here: http://www.tva.gov/heritage/bloom/index.htm

My family were all farmers during that period. In the 1930s, it was mechanization, specifically the replacement of the horse by practical gasoline-powered tractors and the new tillage/harvesting machinery that made possible. Post WWII not only was nitrogen cheaper, so were things like bulldozers coming off peacetime converted assembly lines. The 1950s ushered in hybrid crops and potent pesticides/herbicides. Yes, farming was a very good thing to be in, if you were one of the few farmers left.

The role of government-supported farm finance is often overlooked. Modern farming is very capital intensive; without a lot of subsidy and regulatory help family farmers would not have been able to leverage as fast. This resulted in a farm-belt bust in the 1980s similar to the residential housing bust today. Anybody remember the Farm Aid concerts? Some of my farming relatives went bankrupt at the time, and others exited the business.

Note that farming faces a dual standard of productivity that most other areas do not. Produce/worker AND produce/acre. About ten years ago, I was talking to my uncle. He mentioned that he had just purchased a $250,000 alfalfa swather. When my jaw dropped, he looked me straight in the eye and said that it was replacing the three that they had which cost $80,000 each.

On the produce/acre side, don't forget about the farm program taking a lot of the less productive acreage out of production.

The productivity increases mentioned here are total factor productivity. So just adding inputs (fertilizer, traction, pesticides) doesn't necessarily explain productivity growth: there has to be proportionally more output. Or especially in the case of labor, reducing inputs has to decresae output proportionally less.

Agriculture became a business for professionals rather than amateurs.

...and, as the auto and financial sectors have also proven, professionals are far more adept at wringing subsidies out of the government.

Lots of underemployed people in farming areas in the 30's. Massive movement into the army and war production in the 40's. Technological reasons for the change as well, but we shouldn't overlook the labor situation. An underemployed person in the city at that time was at the mercy of the kindness of strangers-farm folks could at least garden, raise livestock for personal consumption, and hunt. And for God's sake, Andrew, the agricultural revolution has been a great boon to mankind. Gardner is referring to the decline of the small farmer, but is well aware that the movement of people from hard scrabble farms to college and careers explains much of the economic success of the second half of the last century. Folks who grew up on those farms and headed to California never looked back.

Before the introduction of the tractor US farmers had to allocate some 20% to 25% of their crop land to feeding their draft animals. As the horse was replaced the shifting of this land from producing feed grains and pasture to producing food crops appeared as a big increase in agricultural output and productivity. But was it?

Tyler, please read this
and review carefully the details given in
Once you finish your review of this study (USDA/Economic Research Services has been doing this type of research since the early 1960s and their research was then used in AgEcon courses, for example in U. of Minnesota where I took courses with Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan in the late 1960s) and of any other research on U.S. agriculture productivity that you consider relevant please tell us your conclusions.

Monoculture. Not counting externalities, particularly soil fertility loss, biodiversity loss, and human biodynamic skill loss. This is the biggie because it cannot be replaced by technology. We have also become profligate with cheap food as a society. And we are not counting the health care cost of changes in our diet. So in reality, we have just had a bubble in productivity that will disappear once we quit adding accelerants. Meanwhile the externalities will take decades to run their course. But, since we will still be hungry, we will figure something out.

You all missed the biggest change to agriculture from the 1930s - rural electrification.

I'm sorry, but I've got a VERY hard time with this one. Diesel motors can allow you to do almost anything that electric ones cannot, and for that, you can have diesel generators. I've not studied the matter, but the stories I've heard all point to electrification being desired as a matter of class envy.

very nice site

We cannot address this question without considering the big increases in public expenditures on R and D in agriculture.

check out this address http://www.farmfoundation.org/news/articlefiles/1705-Pardey%20.pdf

And other works by Prof. Pardey and his colleague Prof. Alston.

But in the pdf file listed above, check out slide 19 which shows that public investment in ag R&D rose from nearly 0 at the turn of the century to 4 billion (in inflation adjusted dollars) by the end of the century.

Prof. Gardner was not a big supporter of government intervention in agricultural markets, but he did see the legitimate role for government in supporting R and D.

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