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Men's Working Lives
Women at Work: Values
During the first half of the century, the number of farms in the United States did not change markedly. Thus, the number of farms at midcentury—5.4 million—was only slightly lower than the 5.7 million farms that were operating in 1900. But from 1950 to 1997, when the last Census of Agriculture of the century was published, the number of farms—and farm operators—declined sharply, from 5.4 million to 1.9 million.
The principal cause of this reduction was the rapid improvement of agricultural productivity as new methods and machinery were introduced. From 1900 to 1997, the yield of wheat per acre tripled, while the time required to cultivate an acre of wheat decreased from more than two weeks to about two hours. At the same time, the yield of corn per acre increased fivefold, while the time required to cultivate an acre of corn declined from thirty-eight hours in 1900 to two hours in 1997.
These gains in productivity were the result of several kinds of technological advances, jointly applied. Tractors began to replace horses for planting and harvesting soon after 1900. Their speed, power, and efficiency increased from year to year. By about 1950, tractors wholly replaced the horses, donkeys, and mules that had served farmers for millennia. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, unknown in 1900, accounted for about 5 percent of farm production costs in 1950 and about 20 per-cent by the end of the century. At the same time, the agricultural experiment stations of the grain-producing states worked continuously to improve the hardiness and yield of crops by selection, hybridization, and, later, genetic engineering.
Large-scale farmers were better able than small-scale farmers to take advantage of these new methods and superior products as they became available. They were also better able to protect their farms from the vagaries of temperature and rain-fall that beset all farming operations. Unable to compete, many small-scale farmers were forced to give up their farms. In addition, many less efficient farmers were pushed off the land during the periodic crises brought on by droughts, floods, high interest rates, and price fluctuations. Others left the farms to pursue job opportunities that emerged in rural areas as industrial and commercial enterprises decentralized. As a result of these trends, between 1950 and 1998, the number of Americans employed in agriculture declined by 53 percent, while the size of the average farm more than doubled.
At the end of the century, the surviving farm operators were a distinctive population— overwhelmingly white (98 percent), male (92 percent), and middle-aged or older (their average age was fifty-four). The great majority had lived on the farms they owned and operated for ten years or more. But only about half of them worked full-time at farming; the others also had jobs in town.
HS series K 1 and K 4; SA 1998, table 1101; and SA 1999, table 1102. For technological advances in agriculture, see Wayne D. Rasmussen, “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture, 1862–1962,” Journal of Economic History 22 (December 1962):578–591.