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rt, science, and industry of managing the growth of plants and animals for human use. In a broad sense agriculture includes cultivation of the soil, growing and harvesting crops, breeding and raising of livestock, dairying, and forestry.

Regional and national agriculture are covered in more detail in individual continent and country articles. See also separate articles on the states of Australia and the U.S. and the provinces of Canada.

Modern agriculture depends heavily on engineering and technology and on the biological and physical sciences. Irrigation , drainage , conservation, and sanitation each of which is important in successful farming-are some of the fields requiring the specialized knowledge of agricultural engineers.

Agricultural chemistry deals with other vital farm problems, such as uses of fertilizer, insecticide, and fungicide, soil makeup, analysis of agricultural products, and nutritional needs of farm animals.

Plant breeding and genetics contribute immeasurably to farm productivity. Genetics has also placed livestock breeding on a scientific basis. Hydroponics, a method of soiless gardening in which plants are grown in chemical nutrient solutions, may solve additional agricultural problems.

The packing, processing, and marketing of agricultural products are closely related activities also influenced by science. Methods of quick-freezing and dehydration have increased the markets for farm products.

Mechanization, the outstanding characteristic of late 19th and 20th-century agriculture, has eased much of the backbreaking toil of the farmer. More significantly, mechanization has enormously increased farm efficiency and productivity.

Airplanes and helicopters are employed in agriculture for such purposes as seeding, transporting perishable products, and fighting forest fires, and in spraying operations involved in insect and disease control. Radio and television disseminate vital weather reports and other information that is of concern to farmers.


Over the 10,000 years since agriculture began to be developed, peoples everywhere have discovered the food value of wild plants and animals and domesticated and bred them. The most important are cereals such as wheat, rice, barley, corn, and rye; sugarcane and sugar beets; meat animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, and pigs or swine; poultry such as chickens, ducks, and turkeys; and such products as milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, and oils. Fruits, vegetables, and olives are also major foods for people; feed grains for animals include soybeans, field corn, and sorghum. Separate articles on individual plants and animals contain further information.

Agricultural income is also derived from nonfood crops such as rubber, fiber plants, tobacco, and oilseeds used in synthetic chemical compounds, as well as raising animals for pelt.

The conditions that determine what will be raised in an area include climate, water supply, and terrain.

Nearly 50 percent of the world's labor force is employed in agriculture. The distribution in the late 1980s ranged from 64 percent of the economically active population in Africa to less than 4 percent in the U.S. and Canada. In Asia the figure was 61 percent; in South America, 24 percent; in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 15 percent, and in Western Europe, 7 percent.

Farm size varies widely from region to region. In the late 1980s, the average for Canadian farms was about 230 ha (about 570 acres) per farm; for U.S. farms, about 185 ha (about 460 acres). The average size of a single landholding in the Philippines, however, may be somewhat less than 3.6 ha (less than 9 acres), and in Indonesia, a little less than 1.2 ha (less than 3 acres).

Size also depends on the purpose of the farm. Commercial farming, or production for cash, is usually on large holdings. The latifundia of Latin America are large, privately owned estates worked by tenant labor. Single-crop plantations produce tea, rubber, and cocoa. Wheat farms are most efficient when they comprise some thousands of hectares and can be worked by teams of people and machines. Australian sheep stations and other livestock farms must be large to provide grazing for thousands of animals. The agricultural plots of Chinese communes and the cooperative farms held by Peruvian communities are other necessarily large agricultural units, as were the collective farms that were owned and operated by state employees in the former Soviet Union.

Individual subsistence farms or small-family mixed-farm operations are decreasing in number in developed countries but are still numerous in the developing countries of Africa and Asia. A "back-to-the-land" movement in the U.S. reversed the decline of small farms in New England and Alaska in the decade from 1970 to 1980.

Nomadic herders range over large areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and Lapland; and herding is a major part of agriculture in such areas as Mongolia.

Much of the foreign exchange earned by a country may be derived from a single commodity; for example, Sri Lanka depends on tea, Denmark specializes in dairy products, Australia in wool, and New Zealand and Argentina in meat products. In the U.S., wheat, corn, and soybeans have become major foreign exchange commodities in recent decades.

The importance of an individual country as an exporter of agricultural products depends on many variables. Among them is the possibility that the country is too little developed industrially to produce manufactured goods in sufficient quantity or technical sophistication. Such agricultural exporters include Ghana, with cocoa, and Burma (Myanmar), with rice. On the other hand, an exceptionally well-developed country may produce surpluses that are not needed by its own population; such has been the case of the U.S., Canada, and some of the Western European countries.

Because nations depend on agriculture not only for food but for national income and raw materials for industry as well, trade in agriculture is a constant international concern. It is regulated by international agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and by trading areas such as the European Community.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN directs much attention to agricultural trade and policies. According to the FAO, world agricultural production, stimulated by improving technology, reached a record high in the late 1980s. Further, agricultural output in developing nations increased 41 percent during the 1977-88 period, as compared to a rise of 9 percent in developed countries. On a per capita basis, however, food production rose by only 12 percent in developing nations, and less than 1 percent in developed countries. See also Food .


The history of agriculture may be divided into four broad periods of unequal length, differing widely in date according to region: prehistoric; historic through the Roman period; feudal; and scientific.

Prehistoric Agriculture

Early agriculturists were, it is agreed, largely of Neolithic culture. Sites occupied by such people are located in southwestern Asia, in what are now Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey; in southeastern Asia, in what is now Thailand; in Africa, along the Nile River in Egypt; and in Europe, along the Danube River and in Macedonia, Thrace, and Thessaly. Early centers of agriculture have also been identified in the Huang He (Yellow River) area of China; the Indus River valley of India and Pakistan; and the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico, northwest of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The dates of domesticated plants and animals vary with the regions, but most predate the 6th millennium bc, and the earliest may date from 10,000 bc. Scientists have carried out carbon-14 testing of animal and plant remains and have dated finds of domesticated sheep at 9000 bc in northern Iraq; cattle in the 6th millennium bc in northeastern Iran; goats at 8000 bc in central Iran; pigs at 8000 bc in Thailand and 7000 bc in Thessaly; onagers, or asses, at 7000 bc in Jarmo, Iraq; and horses at 4350 bc in Ukraine. The llama and alpaca were domesticated in the Andean regions of South America by the middle of the 3d millennium bc .

According to carbon dating, wheat and barley were domesticated in the Middle East in the 8th millennium bc; millet and rice in China and southeastern Asia by 5500 bc; and squash in Mexico about 8000 bc. Legumes found in Thessaly and Macedonia are dated as early as 6000 bc. Flax was grown and apparently woven into textiles early in the Neolithic period.

The farmer began, most probably, by noting which of the wild plants were edible or otherwise useful and learned to save the seed and to replant it in cleared land. Long cultivation of the most prolific and hardiest plants yielded a stable strain. Herds of goats and sheep were assembled from captured young wild animals, and those with the most useful traits-such as small horns and high milk yield-were bred. The aurochs seems to have been the ancestor of European cattle, and an Asian wild ox of the zebu, the humped cattle of Asia. The cat, dog, and chicken were domesticated very early. The transition from hunting and food gathering to a dependence on food production was gradual, and in a few isolated parts of the world has not yet been accomplished. Crops and domestic meat supplies were augmented by fish and wildfowl as well as by the meat of wild animals.

The Neolithic farmers lived in simple dwellings-in caves and in small houses of sun-baked mud brick or of reed and wood. These homes were grouped into small villages or existed as single farmsteads surrounded by fields, sheltering animals and humans in adjacent or joined buildings. In the Neolithic period, the growth of cities such as Jericho (founded c. 9000 bc) was stimulated by the production of surplus crops.

Pastoralism may have been a later development. Evidence indicates that mixed farming, combining cultivation of crops and stock raising, was the most common Neolithic pattern. Nomadic herders, however, roamed the steppes of Europe and Asia, where the horse and camel were domesticated.

The earliest tools of the farmer were made of wood and stone. They included the stone adz; the sickle or reaping knife with sharpened stone blades, used to gather grain; the digging stick, used to plant seeds, and, with later adaptations, as a spade or hoe; and a rudimentary plow, a modified tree branch used to scratch the surface of the soil and prepare it for planting. The plow was later adapted for pulling by oxen.

The hilly areas of southwestern Asia and the forests of Europe had enough rain to sustain agriculture, but Egypt depended on the annual floods of the Nile to replenish soil moisture and fertility. The inhabitants of the so-called Fertile Crescent, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, also depended on annual floods to supply irrigation water. Drainage was necessary to prevent the carrying off of land from the hillsides through which the rivers ran. The farmers who lived in the area near the Huang He developed a system of irrigation and drainage to control the damage caused to their fields in the floodplain of the meandering river.

Although the Neolithic settlements were more permanent than the camps of hunting populations, villages had to be moved periodically in some areas, as the fields lost their fertility from continuous cropping. This was most necessary in northern Europe, where fields were produced by the slash-and-burn method of clearing. The settlements along the Nile, however, were more permanent, because the river deposited fertile silt annually. 

Historical Agriculture Through the Roman Period

With the close of the Neolithic period and the introduction of metals, the age of innovation in agriculture was largely over. The historical period-known through written and pictured materials, including the Bible, Near Eastern records and monuments, and Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings-was devoted to improvement. A few high points must serve to outline the development of worldwide agriculture in this era, roughly defined as 2500 bc to ad 500. For a similar period of development in Central and South America, somewhat later in date, see American Indians .

Some plants became newly prominent. Grapes and wine were mentioned in Egyptian records about 2900 bc, and trade in olive oil and wine was widespread in the Mediterranean area in the 1st millennium bc. Rye and oats were cultivated in northern Europe about 1000 bc.

Many vegetables and fruits, including onions, melons, and cucumbers, were grown by the 3d millennium bc in Ur. Dates and figs were an important source of sugar in the Near East, and apples, pomegranates, peaches, and mulberries were grown in the Mediterranean area. Cotton was grown and spun in India about 2000 bc, and linen and silk were used extensively in 2d-millennium China. Felt was made from the wool of sheep in Central Asia and the Russian steppes.

The horse, introduced to Egypt about 1600 bc, was already known in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. The ox-drawn four-wheeled cart for farm work and two-wheeled chariots drawn by horses were familiar in northern India in the 2nd millennium bc.

Improvements in tools and implements were particularly important. Metal tools were longer lasting and more efficient, and cultivation was greatly improved by such aids as the ox-drawn plow fitted with an iron-tipped point, noted in the 10th century bc in Palestine. In Mesopotamia in the 3d millennium bc a funnel-like device was attached to the plow to aid in seeding, and other early forms of drills were used in China. Threshing was done with animal power in Palestine and Mesopotamia, although reaping, binding, and winnowing were still done by hand. Egypt retained hand seeding through this period, on individual farm plots and large estates alike.

Storage methods for oil and grain were improved. Granaries-jars, dry cisterns, silos, and bins of one sort or another containing stored grain-supported city populations. Indeed, without adequate food supplies and trade in food and nonfood items, the high civilizations of Mesopotamia, northern India, Egypt, and Rome would not have been possible.

Irrigation systems in China, Egypt, and the Near East were elaborated, putting more land into cultivation. The forced labor of peasants and the bureaucracy built up to plan and supervise the work of irrigation were probably basic in the development of the city-states of Sumer. Windmills and water mills, developed toward the end of the Roman period, increased control over the many uncertainties of weather. The introduction of fertilizer, mostly animal manures, and the rotation of fallow and crop land made agriculture more productive.

Mixed farming and stock raising were flourishing in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe as far north as Scandinavia at the beginning of the historical period, already displaying a pattern that persisted throughout the next 3000 years. According to region, fishing and hunting supplemented the food grown by agriculturists.

Shortly after the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus described the "Germans" as a tribal society of free peasant warriors, who cultivated their own lands or left them to fight. About 500 years later, a characteristic European village had a cluster of houses in the middle, surrounded by rudely cultivated fields comprising individually owned farmlands; and meadows, woods, and wasteland were used by the entire community. Oxen and plow were passed from one field to another, and harvesting was a cooperative effort.

Rome appears to have started as a rural agricultural society of independent farmers. In the 1st millennium bc, after the city was established, however, agriculture started a capitalistic development that reached a peak in the Christian era. The large estates that supplied grain to the cities of the empire were owned by absentee landowners and were cultivated by slave labor under the supervision of hired overseers. As slaves, usually war captives, decreased in number, tenants replaced them. The late Roman villa of the Christian era approached the medieval manor in organization; slaves and dependent tenants were forced to work on a fixed schedule, and tenants paid a predetermined share to the estate owner. By the 4th century ad , serfdom was well established, and the former tenant was attached to the land.

Feudal Agriculture

The feudal period in Europe began soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, reaching its height about ad 1100. This period was also that of the development of the Byzantine Empire and of the power of the Saracens in the Middle East and southern Europe. Spain, Italy, and southern France, in particular, were affected by events outside continental Europe.

In the Arab period in Egypt and Spain, irrigation was extended to previously sterile or unproductive land. In Egypt, grain production was sufficient to allow the country to sell wheat in the international market. In Spain, vineyards were planted on sloping land, and irrigation water was brought from the mountains to the plains. In some Islamic areas, oranges, lemons, peaches, and apricots were cultivated.

Rice, sugarcane, cotton, and such vegetables as spinach and artichokes, as well as the characteristic Spanish flavoring saffron, were produced. The silkworm was raised, and its food, the mulberry tree, was grown.

By the 12th century agriculture in the Middle East was static, and Mesopotamia, for example, fell back to subsistence level when its irrigation systems were destroyed by the Mongols. The Crusades increased European contact with Islamic lands and familiarized western Europe with citrus fruits and silk and cotton textiles.

The structure of agriculture was not uniform. In Scandinavia and eastern Germany, the small farms and villages of previous years remained. In mountainous areas and in the marshlands of Slavic Europe, the manorial system could not flourish. Stock raising and olive and grape culture were normally outside the system.

A manor required roughly 350 to 800 ha (about 900 to 2000 acres) of arable land and the same amount of other prescribed lands, such as wetlands, woodlots, and pasture. Typically, the manor was a self-contained community. On it was the large home of the holder of the fief-a military or church vassal of rank, sometimes given the title lord-or of his steward. A parish church was frequently included, and the manor might make up the entire parish. One or more villages might be located on the manor, and village peasants were the actual farmers. Under the direction of an overseer, they produced the crops, raised the meat and draft animals, and paid taxes in services, either forced labor on the lord's lands and other properties or forced military service.

A large manor had a mill for grinding grain, an oven for baking bread, fishponds, orchards, perhaps a winepress or oil press, and herb and vegetable gardens. Bees were kept to produce honey.

Woolen garments were produced from sheep raised on the manor. The wool was spun into yarn, woven into cloth, and then sewn into clothing. Linen textiles could also be produced from flax, which was grown for its oil and fiber.

The food served in a feudal castle or manor house varied-depending on the season and the lord's hunting prowess. Hunting for meat was, indeed, the major nonmilitary work of the lord and his military retainers. The castle residents could also eat domestic ducks, pheasants, pigeons, geese, hens, and partridges; fish, pork, beef, and mutton; and cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, beans, and peas. Bread, cheese and butter, ale and wine, and apples and pears also appeared on the table. In the south, olives and olive oil might be used, often instead of butter.

Leather was produced from the manor's cattle. Horses and oxen were the beasts of burden; as heavier horses were bred and a new kind of harness was developed, they became more important. A blacksmith, wheelwright, and carpenter made and maintained crude agricultural tools.

The cultivation regime was rigidly prescribed. The arable land was divided into three fields: one sown in the autumn in wheat or rye; a second sown in the spring in barley, rye, oats, beans, or peas; and the third left fallow. The fields were laid out in strips distributed over the three fields, and without hedges or fences to separate one strip from another. Each male peasant head of household was allotted about 30 strips. Helped by his family and a yoke of oxen, he worked under the direction of the lord's officials. When he worked on his own fields, if he had any, he followed village custom that was probably as rigid as the rule of an overseer.

About the 8th century a 4-year cycle of rotation of fallow appeared. The annual plowing routine on 400 ha would be 100 ha plowed in the autumn and 100 in the spring, and 200 ha of fallow plowed in June. These three periods of plowing, over the year, could produce two crops on 200 ha, depending on the weather. Typically, ten or more oxen were hitched to the tongue of the plow, often little more than a forked tree trunk. The oxen were no larger than modern heifers. At harvest time, all the peasants, including women and children, were expected to work in the fields. After the harvest, the community's animals were let loose on the fields to forage.

Some manors used a strip system. Each strip, with an area of roughly 0.4 ha (about 1 acre), measured about 200 m (about 220 yd) in length and from 1.2 to 5 m (4 to 16.5 ft) in width. The lord's strips were similar to those of the peasants distributed throughout good and bad field areas. The parish priest might have lands separate from the community fields or strips that he worked himself or that were worked by the peasants.

In all systems, the lord's fields and needs came first, but about three days a week might be left for work on the family strips and garden plots. Wood and peat for fuel were gathered from the commonly held woodlots, and animals were pastured on village meadows. When surpluses of grain, hides, and wool were produced, they were sent to market.

About 1300 a tendency to enclose the common lands and to raise sheep for their wool alone first became apparent. The rise of the textile industry made sheep raising more profitable in England, Flanders, Champagne, Tuscany, Lombardy, and the region of Augsburg in Germany. At the same time, regions about the medieval towns began to specialize in garden produce and dairy products. Independent manorialism was also affected by the wars of 14th- and 15th-century Europe and by the widespread plague outbreaks of the 14th century. Villages were wiped out, and much arable land was abandoned. The remaining peasants were discontented and attempted to improve their conditions.

With the decline in the labor force, only the best land was kept in cultivation, and in southern Italy, for instance, irrigation helped to increase production on the more fertile soils. The emphasis on grain was replaced by diversification, and items requiring more care were produced, such as wine, oil, cheese, butter, and vegetables.

Scientific Agriculture

By the 16th century, population was increasing in Europe, and agricultural production was again expanding.

The nature of agriculture there and in other areas was to change considerably in succeeding centuries. Several reasons can be identified. Europe was cut off from Asia and the Middle East by an extension of Turkish power. New economic theories were being put into practice, directly affecting agriculture. Also, continued wars between England and France, within each of these countries, and in Germany consumed capital and human resources.

A new period of exploration and colonization was undertaken to circumvent Turkey's control of the spice trade, to provide homes for religious refugees, and to provide wealth for European nations convinced that only precious metals constituted wealth.

Colonial agriculture was carried out not only to feed the colonists but also to produce cash crops and to supply food for the home country. This meant cultivation of such crops as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and tea and production of animal products such as wool and hides. From the 15th to the 19th century the slave trade provided needed laborers, replacing natives killed by unaccustomed hard labor in unfavorable climates and substituting for imported Europeans on colonial plantations that required a larger labor force than the colony could provide. Slaves from Africa worked, for instance, in the Caribbean area on sugar plantations and in North America on indigo and cotton plantations. Indians were virtually enslaved in Mexico. Indentured slaves from Europe, and especially from the prisons of England, provided both skilled and unskilled labor to many colonies. Ultimately, however, both slavery and serfdom were substantially wiped out in the 19th century. 

When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors, the more advanced Indians in the New World had intensive agricultural economies but no draft or riding animals and no wheeled vehicles. Squash, beans, peas, and corn had long since been domesticated. Land was owned by clans and other kinship groups or by ruling tribes that had formed sophisticated governments, but not by individuals or individual families. Several civilizations had risen and fallen in Central and South America by the 16th century. Those met by the Spanish were the Aztec, Inca, and Maya.

The scientific revolution resulting from the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment in Europe encouraged experimentation in agriculture as well as in other fields. Trial-and-error efforts in plant breeding produced improved crops, and a few new strains of cattle and sheep were developed. Notable was the Guernsey cow breed, still a heavy milk producer today. Enclosure was greatly speeded up in the 18th century, and individual landowners could determine the disposition of land and of pasture, previously subject to common use. Crop rotation, involving alternation of legumes with grain, was more readily practiced outside the village strip system inherited from the manorial period. In England, where scientific farming was most efficient, enclosure brought about a fundamental reorganization of landownership. From 1660 on, the large landowners had begun to add to their properties, frequently at the expense of small independent farmers. By Victorian times, the agricultural pattern was based on the relationship between the landowner, dependent on rents; the farmer, producer of crops; and the landless laborer, the "hired hand" of American farming lore. Drainage brought more land into cultivation, and, with the Industrial Revolution, farm machinery was introduced.

It is not possible to fix a clear decade or series of events as the start of the agricultural revolution through technology. Among the important advances were the purposeful selective breeding of livestock, begun in the early 1700s, and the spreading of limestone on farm soils in the late 1700s. Mechanical improvements of the traditional wooden plow began in the mid-1600s with small iron points fastened onto the wood with strips of leather. In 1797, Charles Newbold (1764-1835), a blacksmith in Burlington, N.J., introduced the cast-iron moldboard plow. John Deere, another American blacksmith, further improved the plow in the 1830s and manufactured it in steel. Other notable inventions included the seed drill of the English agriculturist Jethro Tull, developed in the early 1700s and progressively improved for more than a century; the reaper of Cyrus McCormick in 1831; and numerous new horse-drawn threshers, cultivators, grain and grass cutters, rakes, and corn shellers. By the late 1800s, steam power was frequently used to replace animal power in drawing plows and in operating threshing machinery.

The demand for food for urban workers and raw materials for industrial plants produced a realignment of world trade. Science and technology developed for industrial purposes were carried over into agriculture, eventually resulting in the agribusinesses of the mid-20th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the first systematic attempts were made to study and control pests. Before this time, handpicking and spraying were the usual methods of pest control. In the 19th century, poisons of various types were developed for use in sprays, and biological controls such as predatory insects were also used. Resistant plant varieties were cultivated; this was particularly successful with the European grapevine, in which the grape-bearing stems were grafted onto resistant American rootstocks to defeat the Phylloxera aphid.

Improvements in transportation affected agriculture. Roads, canals, and rail lines enabled farmers to obtain needed supplies and to market their produce over a wider area. Food could be protected in transport and shipped more economically than before as a result of rail, ship, and refrigeration developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Efficient use of these developments led to increasing specialization and eventual changes in the location of agricultural suppliers. In the last quarter of the 19th century, for example, Australian and North American suppliers displaced European suppliers of grain in the European market. When grain production proved unprofitable for European farmers, or an area became more urbanized, specialization in dairying, cheese making, and other products was emphasized.

The impetus toward more food production in the era following World War II was a result of a new population explosion. A so-called green revolution, involving selective breeding of traditional crops for high yields, new hybrids, and intensive cultivation methods adapted to the climates and cultural conditions of densely populated countries such as India, temporarily stemmed the pressure for more food. A worldwide shortage of petroleum in the mid-1970s, however, reduced the supplies of nitrogen fertilizer helpful to the success of the new varieties. Simultaneously, erratic weather and natural disasters such as drought and floods reduced crop levels throughout the world. Famine seemed to be imminent in the Indian subcontinent and was common in many parts of Africa south of the Sahara. Economic conditions, particularly uncontrolled inflation, threatened the food supplier and the consumer alike. These problems became the determinants of agricultural change and development.


In North America, agriculture had progressed further before the coming of the Europeans than is commonly supposed.

Until the 19th century, agriculture in the U.S. shared the history of European and colonial areas and was dependent on European sources for seed, stocks, livestock, and machinery, such as it was. That dependency, especially the difficulty in procuring suitable implements, made American farmers somewhat more innovative. They were aided by the establishment of societies that lobbied for governmental agencies of agriculture (see Agriculture, Department of); the voluntary cooperation of farmers through associations (see Cooperatives; National Grangem); and the increasing use of various types of power machinery on the farm. Government policies traditionally encouraged the growth of land settlement. The Homestead Act of 1862 and the resettlement plans of the 1930s were the important legislative acts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century steam, gasoline, diesel, and electric power came into wide use. Chemical fertilizers were manufactured in greatly increased quantities, and soil analysis was widely employed to determine the elements needed by a particular soil to maintain or restore its fertility. The loss of soil by erosion (q.v.) was extensively combated by the use of cover crops (quick-growing plants with dense root systems to bind soil), contour plowing (in which the furrow follows the contour of the land and is level, rather than up and down hills that provide channels for runoff water), and strip cropping (sowing strips of dense-rooted plants to serve as water-breaks or windbreaks in fields of plants with loose root systems).

Selective breeding produced improved strains of both farm animals and crop plants. Hybrids of desirable characteristics were developed; especially important for food production was the hybridization of corn in the 1930s. New uses for farm products, by-products, and wastes were discovered. Standards of quality, size, and packing were established for various fruits and vegetables to aid in wholesale marketing. Among the first to be standardized were apples, citrus fruits, celery, berries, and tomatoes. Improvements in storage, processing, and transportation also increased the marketability of farm products. The use of cold-storage warehouses and refrigerated railroad cars was supplemented by the introduction of refrigerated motor trucks, by rapid delivery by airplane, and by the quick-freeze process of preservation, in which farm produce is frozen and packaged the same day that it is picked. Freeze-drying and irradiation have also reached practical application for many perishable foods.

Scientific methods have begun to be applied to pest control, limiting the widespread use of insecticides and fungicides and applying more varied and targeted techniques. New understanding of significant biological control measures and the emphasis on integrated pest management have made possible more effective control of certain kinds of insects.

Chemicals for weed control have become important for a number of crops, in particular cotton and corn. The increasing use of chemicals for the control of insects, diseases, and weeds has brought about additional environmental problems and regulations that make strong demands on the skill of farm operators.

In the 1980s high technology farming, including hybrids for wheat, rice, and other grains, better methods of soil conservation and irrigation, and the growing use of fertilizers has led to the production of more food per capita, not only in the U.S., but in much of the rest of the world. U.S. farmers, however, still have the advantage of superior private and government research facilities to produce and perfect new technologies.

Government Price-Support Policies

One of the recurring problems of American agriculture in the 20th century has been the tendency of farm income to lag behind increases in the costs of production. The problem began in the 1920s, following a period of exceptional prosperity for U.S. farmers. The period 1910-14 was later taken as a standard for the level of farm prices in relation to the general price level and formed the basis for a concept called parity, aimed at maintaining farming as an essential part of the U.S. economy. After the outbreak of World War I the U.S. became the chief source of food for the warring nations of Europe, with U.S. farmers bringing some 16 million additional ha (about 40 million acres) of land under cultivation and investing heavily in new land and equipment. These measures raised production levels until 1920, when the European demand for U.S. farm products suddenly declined, and prices began a continuing downward spiral.

Although attempts were under way to ease the economic difficulties of the farmer, farm income had not begun to recover when the Great Depression of the 1930s intensified them even more. By 1932 the level of farm prices was only about 65 percent of the 1910-14 average. Farmers continued to produce almost as much as before, and even increased their production in an attempt to maintain their income. That succeeded only in lowering farm prices further. By comparison, manufacturers could control their production, thereby maintaining price levels to a certain degree. Although prices for industrial goods declined, they did not drop as severely as farm prices, so that by 1932 farmers were receiving only 58 cents from the sale of their products for every dollar they had to pay for non-farm items.

The federal government, which had done little in the 1920s to help farmers, initiated remedial programs during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One approach was to reduce the supply of basic farm commodities. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 provided payments to farmers in return for agreements to curtail their acreage or their production of wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, corn, hogs, and dairy products. The act was declared unconstitutional in 1936, but in 1938, after several changes in the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court, a second Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed under which production quotas were set as before. Payments were financed from taxes imposed on processors and were based on the parity concept.

The government also lent money to farmers to enable them to withhold crops from the market when prices were low and to store the produce so that it might be available in poor crop years.

A third method to limit production provided payments for shifting acreage of soil-depleting crops such as corn, wheat, cotton, tobacco, and rice to soil-conserving plants such as grasses and legumes and for carrying out soil-building practices. In 1939, an all-risk crop insurance program was initiated for interested farmers to prevent economic distress in case of crop failure for hail, floods, and other natural disasters.

Until World War II the problem of low farm prices was not basically a result of overproduction. Rather, it was a consequence of the cycles of business and weather, and of problems of internal distribution, transportation, and credit. Following World War II, however, overproduction became a serious problem. Both during and immediately after the war, farm prices were generally high. Because production costs also were high, parity payments remained in force. Federal transactions in surplus commodities, principally the sale of such commodities at prices less than those paid to farmers, proved costly for the government. To reduce costs of the federal farm program, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the substitution of flexible or variable price supports for the rigid 90 percent of parity that was in force. A bill authorizing a sliding scale of payments at 82.5 percent to 90 percent of parity on the basic commodities was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1954.

The Agricultural Act of 1956, otherwise known as the soil-bank program, authorized federal payments to farmers if they reduced production of certain crops. A subsidy plan was formulated whereby farmers would be paid for converting part of their cropland to soil-conserving uses. In practice, the farmers shared the costs of planting trees or grasses and received annual payments compensating them for the economic loss incurred by the removal of some of their land from production.

The Department of Agriculture in the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s made control of overproduction a primary goal of farm policy. Farmers were offered what was in effect a rental payment for a part of their land that would be taken out of production during the following year. At the same time, measures were undertaken to expand the export market for agricultural products. During this period the ratio of a farmer's per capita income to that of a non-farm person increased from about 50 percent to about 75 percent.

Direct subsidies for withholding agricultural land from production were phased out in 1973, as a result of a proposal by President Richard M. Nixon. In the same year, net farm income swelled to $33.3 billion.

Poor grain harvests throughout the world, particularly in the Soviet Union, prompted massive sales of U.S. government-owned grain reserves. World climatic conditions also helped keep demand for U.S. produce high through the mid-1970s. Toward the end of the decade, exports lessened, prices dropped, and farm income began to fall without a corresponding decrease in costs of production. U.S. net farm income in 1976 fell to $18.7 billion.

In 1978, a limited, voluntary output restriction was begun by President Jimmy Carter. Called the "farmer-held grain reserve program," the action took grains off the market for up to three years or until market prices reached stated levels. The program was intended also to provide an adequate reserve, lessen food-price gyrations and combat inflation, give livestock producers protection from extremes in feed costs, and contribute to greater continuity in foreign food aid.

On Jan. 4, 1980, President Carter declared a limited suspension of grain sales to the Soviet Union in response to that country's invasion of Afghanistan. Additional restrictions included a prohibition on sales of U. S. phosphate. Despite the grain embargo, the U.S. continued to honor a 5-year agreement already in effect that committed it to sell 8 million tons of grain to the Soviets yearly. The year 1980 was an election year, and despite efforts by President Carter's opposition to void the embargo, it continued. Administration officials argued that the Soviets had never been a major customer or even a reliable buyer. U.S. farmers maintained, however, that the action was at their expense and had made 1980 one of their worst years. In fact, U.S. farm exports in 1980 reached an all-time high of $40 billion, but the continued rise in costs of production and an extremely hot summer with accompanying droughts affected many farmers adversely. A new crop insurance program, passed by Congress in the fall of 1980, offered relief from such conditions rather than having to rely on disaster loans, which amounted to $30 million for feed alone in that year.

Whether the 1980 grain embargo had a strong effect on the USSR was a matter of conjecture. Beef production dropped 16 percent, pork was off 10 percent, and milk production fell 4 percent, but by the end of the year the Soviets had apparently obtained their needed grain from other sources. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he lifted the embargo and extended the agreement that allowed the USSR to purchase 8 million tons of grain yearly from the U.S. The two nations then signed a new 5-year agreement in 1983 that obliged the Soviet Union to import a minimum of 9 million tons of U.S. grain every year.

Farming Regions

The U.S. has ten major farming areas. They vary by soil, slope of land, climate, and distance to market, and in storage and marketing facilities.

The states of the northeast and the Lake states are the country's principal milk-producing areas. Climate and soil there are suited to raising grains and forage for cattle and for pastures. Broiler farming is important to Maine, Delaware, and Maryland. Fruits and vegetables are also important to the region.

The Appalachian region is the major tobacco-producing area of the nation. Peanuts, cattle, and dairy production also are important.

Beef cattle and broilers are the major livestock products farther south in the states of the Southeast; fruit and vegetables and peanuts are also grown. Florida has vast citrus groves and winter vegetable production areas.

In the Delta states, principal cash crops are soybeans and cotton. Rice and sugarcane are grown in the more humid and wet areas. With improved pastures, livestock production has gained importance in recent years. It also is a major broiler-producing region.

The Corn Belt, extending from Ohio through Iowa, has rich soil, good climate, and sufficient rainfall for excellent farming. Corn, beef cattle, hogs, and dairy products are of primary importance. Other feed grains, soybeans, and wheat also are grown.

The northern and southern Plains, extending north and south from Canada to Mexico and from the Corn Belt into the Rocky Mountains, are restricted by low rainfall in the western portion and by cold winters and short growing seasons in the north. But about 60 percent of the nation's winter and spring wheat grows in the Plains states. Other small grains, grain sorghums, hay, forage crops, and pastures help make cattle important to the region. Cotton is produced in the southern part.

The Mountain states provide yet a different terrain. Vast areas are suited to cattle and sheep. Wheat is important in the north. Irrigation in the valleys provides water for hay, sugar beets, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables.

The Pacific region includes California, Oregon, and Washington plus Alaska and Hawaii. In the northern mainland, farmers raise wheat, fruit, and potatoes. Dairying, vegetables, and some grain are important to Alaska. Many of the more southerly farmers have large tracts on which they raise vegetables, fruit, and cotton, often under irrigation. Cattle are raised throughout the region. Hawaii grows sugarcane and pineapple as its major crops.

Agricultural Resources

The total land area of the U.S. is about 917 million ha (about 2.27 billion acres), of which about 47 percent is used to produce crops and livestock. The rest is distributed among forestland (29 percent) and urban, transportation, and other uses (24 percent).

Approximately 161 million ha (about 399 million acres) make up cropland resources. Almost 83 percent of cropland is cultivated, including about 23 million ha (about 57 million acres) used for wheat, about 30 million ha (about 74 million acres) used for corn, and about 25 million ha (about 62 million acres) used for hay. More than 50 percent of croplands are prime farmland, the best land for producing food and fiber.

The nation has another nearly 400 million ha (almost 1 billion acres) of nonfederal rural land currently being used for pastures, range, forest, and other purposes. About 27.5 million ha (about 68 million acres) of this land are suitable for conversion to cropland if needed.

Recent Changes

The history of agriculture in the U.S. since the Great Depression has been one of consolidation and increasing efficiency. From a high of 6.8 million farms in 1935, the total number declined to 2.1 million in 1991 on a little less than the same area, about 397 million ha (about 982 million acres). Average farm size in 1935 was about 63 ha (about 155 acres); in 1991 it was about 189 ha (about 467 acres).

About 4.6 million people lived on farms in 1990, based on a new farm definition introduced in 1977 to distinguish between rural residents and people who earned $1000 or more from annual agricultural product sales. The farm population continues to constitute a declining share of the nation's total; about 1 person in every 54, or 1.8 percent, of the nation's 250 million people were farm residents in 1990.

Total value of land and buildings on U.S. farms in 1990 was $658 billion, substantially less than the value in 1980. Value of products sold was $170 billion per year. Overall net farm income was more than $46 billion in 1989, of which government subsidies accounted for 23 percent.

Not including real estate, major expenditures by farmers in 1989 were for feed ($22.7 billion); fuel, lubricants, and maintenance ($13.1 billion); hired labor ($11.9 billion); fertilizer ($7.6 billion); and seed ($3.7 billion).

Outstanding farm debt in 1989 was $146 billion, of which about 55 percent was owed on real estate. Interest payments on the mortgage debt were about $7.6 billion per year.

In 1980, a report based on projections by the U.S. government stated that in the next 20 years world food requirements would increase tremendously, with developed countries requiring most of the increase, and food prices would double. Less than five years later, however, the U.S. farmer was enveloped in a major crisis caused by exceptionally heavy farm debts, mounting farm subsidy costs, and rising surpluses. A number of farmers were forced into foreclosure.

The ailing Farm Credit System, a group of 37 farmer-owned banks under the Farm Credit Administration (q.v.) appealed to the government for a $5 to $6 billion fund that would keep the system solvent despite the weak national farm economy. After initial resistance, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in December 1985 designed to create the Farm Credit System Capital Corp. to take over bad loans from the system's banks and to assume responsibility for foreclosing or restructuring distressed loans.

In December President Reagan also signed the Food Security Act of 1985, legislation designed to govern the nation's farm policies for the next five years, trim farm subsidies, and stimulate farm exports.

Agricultural Exports

The U.S. is the world's principal exporter of agricultural products. In 1989 the value of produce exported was about $39.7 billion, including roughly $1.5 billion in donations and loans to developing nations.

A substantial percentage of the wheat, soybeans, rice, cotton, tobacco, and corn for grain produced in the U.S. is exported. The principal foreign markets for the products are Asia, Western Europe, and Latin America. Japan heads the list of individual countries that import U.S. farm products.

"AGRICULTURE,." 2009. History.com

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