Agricultural Advancements in America: Top 6 Innovations

Agricultural Advancements in America: Top 6 Innovations

When it comes to agricultural advancements in America, there have been so many innovations that have shaped the industry that it would be a challenge to cover them in one short blog post.

From increasing efficiency to being more sustainable, the race to find the best way to grow and harvest crops has been on since the birth of this great nation.

Looking at 6 significant agricultural advancements allows us to trace a history of the United States that has kept American agriculture a world leader. From improvements that have kept massive farms going, to organic farming that can be done on a small scale, innovations in farming over the years continue to make farming a competitive industry in the country today.

The cotton gin

During the late 18th century, cotton was a major cash crop in the Southern United States, used to make cloth distributed not just in the new nation, but around the world. 

Due to the fact that cotton was difficult to cultivate because of the process involved in separating cotton seeds from cotton fibers, cloth made of this material was much more costly to produce than other popular fabrics at the time. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin (short for cotton engine) would revolutionize the world of cotton production and agriculture forever — though not necessarily in the positive way initially intended.

Whitney’s cotton gin used brushes to remove the seeds from the cotton and a wire screen was used as a buffer for hooks to pull the material through mesh. While the cotton was still picked by hand, the cotton gin increased production more than seemed unimaginable.

Without the use of the cotton gin, one man was capable of separating approximately one pound of cotton per day. But with the use of this innovative machine, cotton could be separated at a rate of over 200 pounds per day. 

While the cotton gin was indeed a miraculous invention that greatly increased cotton production, no one could have foreseen the negative backlash that would be directed at it. When Southern plantation owners saw how much more cotton could be processed in a day, increasing their profits exponentially, their greed was unleashed.

Rather than being satisfied with increased production on plantations through the use of the cotton gin, plantation owners took things a step further. They saw that if they had more workers using the gins, they could produce even more cotton. The general consensus was to purchase more slave labor to plant more cotton crops, thus furthering increased production, causing the slave trade to skyrocket.

While the cotton gin might have produced unforeseen adverse effects, there is no denying the fact that it was an agricultural advancement that changed the face of the farming industry in the United States.

The combine

The combine is an integral part of American agriculture. Prior to the invention of the combines, threshers were used to remove the seeds from grain stalks. This had previously been a painstaking and time-consuming process that had to be done by hand. The first threshing machine appeared in the mid-18th century in Scotland, but it wasn’t until 1835 in the United States that Hiram Moore patented the first combine machine. With its invention, agriculture in America was dramatically advanced.

When done by hand, removing grain seeds from stalks was extremely labor-intensive. Once reaped, the grain had to be thrashed, meaning beaten out of the stalks. This was sometimes done by placing them on the ground and being trampled by humans or animals, or by using a flail. This would leave the grain and the chaff which would be gathered and tossed into the air where the wind was relied upon to remove the chaff, a process called winnowing. 

While threshing machines could remove grain or seeds from their stalks, it was the invention of the combine that really allowed grain production to grow leaps and bounds. By combining the steps of reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing, the production of grains became more efficient, reducing the manpower necessary to harvest. 

The steam engine

American agriculture was a lifestyle and business built on the backs of those strong men and women dedicated to producing enough crops to sustain their families and help to eke out a meager living. The invention of the steam engine helped to ease their physical workload tremendously.

The steam engine was initially used to work in tandem with the cotton gin and threshing devices. Horses and oxen were originally used to help transport the stationary steam engine for use with the cotton gin and threshers. 

By the late 19th century, steam engines were not only used to help power other innovations, but they were also put into use in conjunction with plows to make them more efficient. 

The tractor

With the invention of the steam engine, the tractor was not far behind. The initial incarnations of the tractor were excessively large, heavy, cumbersome machines that tended to be more of a hindrance than a help to farmers because they were touted as being largely unreliable.

In the mid-1920s, advancements were made to tractors that made them more appropriate for reliable usage. They were much more lightweight than previous designs, and they were multipurpose.

These tractors were used not only to pull heavy machinery but also to cultivate land in preparation for planting crops and harvesting crops. This innovation truly made farming much more efficient than ever before, allowing farmers to plant and harvest more crops, and helping to reduce the cost of production and increase profits.

Barbed wire

Until the late 19th century, American farms that housed cattle of any sort spent untold amounts of time and money ensuring that their animals didn’t roam off of their land. With the invention and implementation of barbed wire, farmers were afforded a much more economical, efficient way to contain their cattle.

This steel wire, complete with sharp barbs, could be installed around a farm’s property line quickly, keeping farmers from spending as much time and money checking and repairing holes and gaps in wooden fences. Also, barbed wire was much less expensive and more durable than its wooden predecessors. 

Because these fences were more economical and required less maintenance than wooden fences, farmers were free to spend more on purchasing and caring for their cattle or on other expenses necessary to keep their farms afloat. 

Commercial fertilizer

Prior to the implementation of commercial fertilizer in the late 19th century, not only was it challenging to rely on the growth of healthy crops, but it was also difficult to keep the land sustainable and reusable for future crops.

Commercial fertilizer was a blend of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen that helped to increase the production of crops exponentially, making for a more reliable harvest. Additionally, by keeping the land healthy, farmers were able to clear less new land in order to plant crops in the future. Even after offsetting the fertilizer cost, farmers tended to make more money due to producing more crops. 

While there tend to be concerns about fertilizer’s effects on the health of crops produced and the land itself, it continues to aid farmers today.

Innovations for farming

Countless agricultural advancements in American farming have helped shape and form it into the industry it is today, and it could be argued that we wouldn’t be the country we are today without them!

Looking at these 6 agricultural advancements offers insight into how the industry has been able to change over time and continues to be an integral part of America as we know it.

Thanks to these innovations, agriculture is still a healthy industry in this country and worldwide.

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