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Most of the food produced in America 100 years ago was produced on family farms. The transformation from family farms to agribusiness occurred between the 1930’s and 2000. We will trace the process and the reasons why it happened.

The Family Farm

John and Martha owned about 100 acres of land in a Midwestern state. It had been passed down to them from John’s parents. Americans today have a hard time comprehending what life was like on a family farm. There was no electricity, heat or air conditioning until rural electrification programs came in the 1940’s. Everything was done by hand with the aid of a team of horses, and by every member of the family.

Crops needed to be planted, watered, fertilized and eventually harvested. It was a self-sufficient way of life; the farm provided most of the food the family ate. In addition to a crop sold for cash, chickens and pigs were raised in pens, and a few cows could be found grazing on the leftovers after the harvest.

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Farmhouse and corn field

Every member of the family had chores to do each day based on the time of year. John and the boys worked in the fields, while Martha and the girls grew vegetables near the house, milked the cows and tended to the animals. Everyone, including all of the hired hands John could find, went into the fields at harvest time.

They worked from sunup until well into the night to bring in the corn and grain. When it was sold it would have to provide enough money to last them until the next year’s harvest.It wasn’t all work. The kids enjoyed playing with the cute piglets in the yard, their favorite pets. John and Martha knew their neighbors from church. When there was sickness or disaster, neighbors pitched in and helped each other out.

The number of family farms peaked in the 1930s when there were around 7 million of them. No one at the time suspected that number would dramatically decrease in the decades to come.

The Mechanized Farm

The technology behind the automobile would eventually find its way to the farm. One breakthrough was a gas-powered tractor that could be used to pull various farm implements in the fields. That was a lot faster and more efficient than a team of horses. Moving around the farm and taking crops to market went a lot better in a gas-powered farm truck.

The biggest breakthrough came later with the combine. The combine not only removed the ears of corn from the stalk, but removed the kernels from the cob. It dramatically reduced the number of man hours needed to harvest a crop.

All of those hired hands wouldn’t be needed anymore.

Harvesting grain with a combine

Besides reducing farm employment, the economics of farming changed with the new mechanized equipment as economies of scale kicked in. That means larger production levels result in lower costs.

Farms far larger than John and Martha’s now had the lowest cost per bushel for row crops like corn and wheat. The large mechanized farm used the trucks, tractors and combines nonstop to work the fields. Renting airplanes to spread fertilizer and pesticides is more cost efficient for a larger farm. The mechanized farms’ efficiency lowered the price of the commodities that farms produced to the point where small family farms couldn’t survive.

Farming also became a pretty expensive proposition. Combines with modern features cost half a million in today’s dollars.


The scale economies in farming started to move right through the food chain. Agribusiness became the new way to produce agricultural products and process them for America’s dinner table. Large corporate entities replaced the smaller farm and food processor.

Take meat for example. Eighty years ago, Americans bought meat from a butcher shop. The butcher was a local businessman who bought sides of beef and pork locally and cut the sides into chops, roasts and ground meat right before your eyes! Today, chickens and cows are raised efficiently on large feedlots. Then they are slaughtered and the meat is processed into the wrapped packages that you buy today in grocery stores.

The same process occurs for harvested crops too. They are purchased in large lots and turned into processed food products for the grocery and fast food chains.The ag big businesses that did this soon became a magnet for capital. Feeding people is a moneymaking business even when the economy is bad. The days of John selling a few cows to the local butcher became a memory. Neither could compete with ‘big ag’.

Government Policy

All of the bigness coming into agriculture was reinforced by government farm policies.

The subsidies and crop supports were once meant to aid the 25% of Americans who made their living farming. That began to change in the 1970’s when Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz decided that bigger was better since it had the effect of keeping food prices lower for the American consumer. Much of the farm aid the government doles out today goes to large farms and agribusinesses.

The number of farms in America would decline from approximately 7 million in the mid 1930’s to around 2 million at the turn of the new century in 2000. Today, 66% of farm sales come from large farms with over $1 million per year in sales. Farms that large are only 4% of the total number in the country.

The number of Americans who call themselves farmers today is around 2%.

Smart farming

Today, John and Martha’s great grandson Fred manages a large almond orchard near Fresno, California. Drones fly over the orchard and take aerial photos to alert Fred of trouble spots. Sensors are planed near each tree. With the aid of these sensors, a precise mixture of water, fertilizer and pesticides is applied by an irrigation system to each tree each day depending on what it needs. Fred works in an office with large computer monitors on his desk He is using Smart farming in his business, which involves applying cutting edge technology to agriculture. It’s the wave of the future.

Lesson Summary

Most of the food produced in America 100 years ago was produced on family farms. It was a rugged self-sufficient way of life that provided a living for 25% of Americans. The beginning of the end of the family farm was the mechanization of farm tools and implements.

Gas-powered vehicles, tractors and eventually the modern combine made larger farms the most efficient way to produce the food America eats. Economies of scale took hold in farming and gave much larger farms the lowest cost per bushel. The number of family farms plummeted between the mid 1930’s and 2000.

Today, large scale agribusinesses process the output from large farms into the finished food products we buy in grocery stores and fast food outlets. Smart farming techniques apply cutting edge technology to agriculture in the most advanced farms today.

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