The introduction of new equipment is an important aspect of farming history. The invention of new tools and machines to decrease the work load of farmers, both in time and
intensity, has made a significant impact on the agricultural industry.
How did farmers learn about the latest in farm equipment? Word of mouth was a powerful source for information as farmers would congregate at feed stores and auction houses.
They would also learn about new equipment from traveling salesman, catalogs, newspapers and magazines. County fairs were also important in the spread of information about new
technology. Since the early 1800's county fairs were used to showcase and exhibit farm equipment and crops. According to the International Association of Fairs and expositions,
American fairs through the years supported "the systematic development of agriculture and animal husbandry while offering education, local resource and local industry promotion
and entertainment" (for more information check out the International Association of Fairs and Expositions Web site at:
http://www.fairsandexpos.com/ about/historyfairs.aspx). All of these sources are still important ways for farmers
to learn about new equipment. There has also been a growth in professional society conferences, trade shows and organized short courses for farmers. Additionally, the Internet
has become an important source of information for the farming community.
To demonstrate the benefits of modern agricultural equipment, use a variety of tools for implementing and maintaining your garden. Two activities providing excellent
demonstration opportunities are preparing your soil and watering your garden.
Preparing Your Soil: Cultivation of your soil can be accomplished manually through the use of shovels, pitchforks, hoes and rakes (tools used for thousands of
years) or through the use of a tiller (engine powered tillers were first produced in the 1920's).
Tillers are like small plows with blades powered by gas or electric engines that work to loosen and turn the soil. They are available in many different sizes.
To demonstrate the difference between traditional hand tools and more advanced power tools, till a set area of your garden using a tiller and the same sized area in your garden
using shovels, pitchforks, hoes and/or rakes. Use the
Soil Preparation Comparison Chart to collect data and then discuss your results as a class. Ask students to write a short paper
on the results drawing conclusions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the tools.
If you are not installing an in-ground garden, look for local garden volunteers or local landscapers who may be able to create a demonstration for you at your school, on a job
site or at a local community or display garden.
Watering Your Garden: Since installing the first cultivated plots of land, gardeners and farmers have devised ways to provide water to their plants.
Traditionally water was transported in pots or animal skin bags. The first water hose appeared around 400 BCE made of ox gut. During the 1600's, people began to make hoses
from leather and then switched to rubber in the 1800's. Most of our hoses today are made of plastic. Through the years, techniques and supplies have been refined to ease
the delivery of water and make the most efficient use of water resources.
The process of supplying water to land is known as irrigation. There are a number of ways to provide water to your garden including watering cans, hoses, sprinklers and drip
irrigation. To demonstrate irrigation techniques, experiment with different watering methods in your garden (if you do not have an outdoor garden, you may experiment with other
landscaped areas in your schoolyard).
Divide your garden (or landscaped area) into 4 sections (or conduct this experiment on 4 different days). You will water one section with a watering can, another section with
a garden hose, a third section with a sprinkler and the fourth section with a soaker hose (a hose covered in small holes to provide slow dripping water to the soil). Before
watering, take a soil sample out of each plot, place it in a closed plastic container and set it aside. Next spend 5 minutes watering with each section with the assigned
watering method (you may need to adjust this time depending on the size of your area). Take another soil sample from the plot and compare it to the one you took before you
watered. Answer the questions on the
Irrigation Demonstration Worksheet to help you compare the different methods. As a class, decide on the most efficient
irrigation method for you to use to water your garden.
Farming changed dramatically in the 20th century. In 1900, 38% of working Americans were farmers, but by 1970, less than 5% of Americans worked on farms. According to the
Census in 2000, only 0.5% of Americans are farmers (the 2002 Census of Agriculture reports a total of 3,115,172 principal farm operators).
Did the demand for agricultural products decrease? No, in fact as our population grew, the demand for products increased. The changes in the industry were due to technological
The agricultural advancements of the 20th century can be separated into three different categories: mechanical, chemical, and biological. Below is a brief description of
each type of advancement.
Mechanical Advancements: Mechanical advancements include the development of equipment that enabled farmers to increase their production and decrease the manual
labor needed to produce a harvest. According to the USDA, it took 3 to 4 man-hours of labor per 1 acre of land to produce 20 bushels of wheat in 1925, but by 1970 it only took
1½ man-hours of labor per 1 acre of land to produce 30 bushels of wheat (less labor and more production per acre). Through power equipment like tractors, seeders, and
harvesters, farmers could expand their production and increase their efficiency. In order to be able to afford this new equipment, farms grew in size (so they had more harvest
to sell) and some small to medium sized farms disappeared because they could not compete with the larger farms. In 1974, the average value of farm equipment and machinery per
farm was $22,303, but in 2002 that number rose to $66,570.
In addition to the mechanical improvements on the farm, advancements off the farm also played a role in changing the farming industry, especially in transportation.
Air-conditioned trucks and trains allowed for perishable harvests like fruits and vegetables to be transported further. Improved communication methods (like fax machines and
computers) and centralized processing centers, created larger networks for selling and distributing the harvest.
Chemical Advancements: During the 1900's the development of pesticides and chemical fertilizers increased dramatically making a major impact on the agriculture
industry. Pesticides include herbicides (to kill weeds), insecticides (to kill insects), fungicides (to kill fungi) and rodenticides (to kill rodents). The use of pesticides
helped keep common insect and disease problems away from crops and increase production. The use of chemical fertilizers provided a fast way to increase the nutrient content
of soil and also increased yields.
The safety of using pesticides and fertilizers is a controversial topic. Some pesticides if used incorrectly can cause cancer and other health problems in humans. Also
pesticides are cited as leading to a disruption in the balance of nature. Many pesticides kill beneficial insects along with the crop pests, which can have a negative impact
the overall environment. Also, over application of fertilizers has resulted in high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in our water ways, killing sensitive water-life
populations. As with many new technologies, proper use is critical and the full impact may not be fully understood when first implemented.
Biological Advancements: The last category of advancements is biological. Scientists made great strides in the 20th century to identify and create better varieties of plants.
They developed varieties with desirable traits like natural disease resistance, insect resistance, increased production, and better adaptation to growing conditions (such as
more drought resistant) through plant breeding (see Activity 3) and genetic research (see Module 4). They also discovered ways to use biological relationships to benefit
agriculture. For instance in 1946, USDA scientists released 5,000 beetles as biological controls against Klamath weed—the first successful attempt in the U.S. to
control a weed with a plant-eating insect.
Like chemical advancements, biological advancements also encounter controversy and concerns about the impact on the natural ecosystem. The debates will continue as the technology
related to genetic engineering grows.
Changing Farm Size: All of these changes translate into a growing trend of fewer, but larger farms. If you look at the average farm size in 2002, 441 acres, compared to the
average farm size in 1974, 440 acres, it would appear few changes had occurred. However when you compare the data on farms by size between 1974 and 2002 the trends emerge:
1 to 9 acres
10 to 49 acres
50 to 179 acres
180 to 499 acres
500 to 999 acres
1,000 to 1,999 acres
2,000 acres or more
As you can see, farms 50 to 999 acres in size decreased significantly over this time period and farms 1,000 or more acres increased in number.
One misleading part of this chart is the fact that farms from 1 to 49 acres also increased in size, so it may lead you to believe the number of small farmers is actually on the
rise. However, even though there may be some full time farmers producing specialty crops requiring 50 acres or less, most of the land owners with 50 acres or less do not
consider farming their main occupation. The 2002 Census of Agriculture found that 63.1% of farm owners reported less than 25% of their income comes from their farm operation
and only 16.3% receive 75% or more of their income from their farm.
Another factor related to the small farm number rise is an increase in landowners who work in cities during the week, but purchase pieces of country land for weekend getaways
or for retirement homes. In order to avoid costly residential taxes, most landowners find a way to classify their land as farm land which is taxed at a lower rate. Their
farms may provide additional income (however in most cases their farming ventures cost more than their profits but are still economically beneficial due to the decrease in
taxes), but the bulk of their income is from other sources.
For additional farm statistics, check out the USDA's Census of Agriculture available at:
Even though the number of farmers has decreased through the years, there are still many agriculture related jobs available with increasing career opportunities. Module 4,
Activity #2 will discuss Careers in Agriculture in more depth.
Changes in Farm Labor: Another important change in farming in the 20th century is the increase in the use of migrant labor. Although mechanical, chemical and biological
advancements have decreased the amount of labor needed to grow most crops, there are still many crops such as fruits and vegetables that must be harvested and packaged by hand.
Since the work is seasonal, it can not provide a steady income, but instead requires workers that are willing to move as needed.
Migrant workers often begin the year in southern states and move north as the work becomes available. Although looking for extra help during harvest has occurred throughout
history, a notable serge in the use of migrant labor in the U.S. occurred during World War II as the war decreased the number of potential workers in rural areas. Being a
migrant worker is hard way of life with frequent travel, back breaking labor, low wages, and uncertain living conditions, but it continues to attract people as a way to
earn money for their families.
There are approximately 47,000 migrant workers in the state of New York each year with a presence in almost every county. The majority of workers in New York are of Mexican
origin, but there are also workers from Jamaica, Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other states within the United States. Migrant labor
is used to harvest crops such as apples, grapes, onions, corn and other fruits and vegetables. They also find work at plant nurseries and dairy farms.
For more information about migrant workers in New York and the United States, check out the Coming Up on the Season Web site from Cornell University at
http://www.farmworkers.cornell.edu/ which includes Facts on Farmerworkers
(http://www.farmworkers.cornell.edu/pdf/facts_on_farmworkers.pdf) and Teacher
Background Information (http://www.farmworkers.cornell.edu/curriculum.htm). Additional
resources include the The Farm Workers Website at http://www.farmworkers.org and Rural Migration News at
Use the Agricultural Advancements of the 20th Century Worksheet to assess your students' understanding of the different types of
advancements. Discuss some of the pros and cons associated with technological advancements as a class. Ask students to find a newspaper or magazine article on a related topic
and bring it in to class for discussion or ask them to prepare a written report about it.
Plant breeding is a method of making new plants with specific traits by controlling seed production through the selection of parents with those traits or who produce those
traits when combined together. In a sense, people have been breeding plants for thousands of years by saving seed from the best producing plants in their gardens and fields to
replant in future years, however, the process has been refined to a more exact science during the last century. To discuss this topic with your students, you must first explain
Seed Production: Seeds are produced by flowers. A flower contains male parts known as the stamen and female parts known as the pistil. The stamens produce
pollen which contains the male genetic material and the pistil has an ovary with eggs containing the female genetic material. To produce seeds, the pollen must move to the
pistil a process known as pollination. In nature the pollen is moved to the pistil by wind, water (bouncing to the pistil in rain droplets) and with the help insects like
bees, butterflies and flies who are also called pollinators. Pollinators collect pollen and nectar from flowers for food and as they do this, pollen from the stamens sticks
to their body and then it falls off on pistils as they move to the next flower. Most of the time seeds are a product of pollen from one plant and the eggs of another so they
inherit traits from two parents.
Just like people, since a seed has two parents it usually will not look exactly like either of its parents. It will have similar traits, but it may favor the traits of one
parent or the other or be a combination of the two parents. This is why all plants in nature do not look exactly the same.
Plant Breeding: Plant breeders use this information to try and produce a plant possessing desirable plant characteristics. For example, if it is desirable for
a plant to be shorter, than they will plant numerous seeds and then select the shortest plants. After identifying the shortest plants, they will cross pollinate them, meaning
they will control the environment so that the pollen from one short plant pollinates another short plant. Next they collect the seeds from these controlled crosses and plant
them and hopefully the new plants will be similar to its parents and also be shorter. They then repeat this process many times with the seeds collected.
Another common example is breeding plants to possess disease resistance. Just like people, some plants are naturally resistant to certain diseases. So plant breeders will
grow a plot of plants and then expose them to the disease they are studying. They will take all the plants surviving the disease and cross pollinate them and collect their
seeds. They will then plant those new seeds and expose the new plants to the disease to see if they inherited the diseases resistant trait of their parents. The repeat this
process numerous times with additional generations until they consistently get disease resistant seeds.
The process of selecting traits can be a very time consuming practice. Scientist must control pollination and grow seeds to maturity for a number of generations until they
produce seed that reliably possesses the desired traits. For plants with an annual life cycle like corn, it takes at least 1 season to grow and produce seeds (the life cycle
of corn from seed to seed ranges from 21/2 to 3 months), so it may take less than 10 years to see a change. For plants like fruit trees, it can take 5 to 7 years for the
first generation to become mature enough to produce seeds and so experiments must span many decades. Plant breeders must collect detailed data, maintain proper plant care,
and be patient for results.
This is a simplified definition of the plant breeding process. The study of genetic or inherited traits is quite complex, but this should provide enough information for
students to get a general idea of the process. For more information, have students read the USDA Sci4Kids article on strawberry breeding available at
http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/kids/plants/story10/strwbrry.html To demonstrate the
importance of plant breeding research, introduce them to the "Green Revolution."
"The Green Revolution:" The Green Revolution describes work conducted in the 1940's through 1960's by the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production
Program in Mexico to develop more efficient farming practices and better varieties of crops to increase food production around the world. Dr. Norman Borlaug directed this
research and through plant breeding experiments (controlled pollination and selecting of plants with desirable traits) conducted over a span of twenty years, he developed
a variety of wheat that was shorter, produced a higher yield and was more disease resistant than traditional varieties. The new seed varieties were planted around the world to
help increase food availability for an increasing world population. In 1970, Dr. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to decrease world hunger through
development of new plant varieties. He is credited with saving millions of lives by increasing food production in Third World Countries.
For more information on Dr. Borlaug, read his Nobel Prize Biography:
Also check out the teaching curriculum from The Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation at:
Although the time constraints of a school year make it difficult to try your hand at true plant breeding, you do have time to demonstrate the fact that seeds do not produce
plants that look exactly like their parents. In the fall, collect seeds from annual plants around the school and take a digital photo of the plant while it is still in bloom.
Zinnias, marigolds, coleus and petunias planted in multi-colored beds work well because they are easy to save and many times the seeds do not produce plants identical to the
parent plant (many of these plants are hybrids which are grown from seeds that are the product of a cross between two different plants, but have not been bred to the point
that the new traits stay true for their offspring - check out this article from Brooklyn Botanic Garden for a full explanation of hybrids:
http://www.bbg.org/gar2/topics/kitchen/1999sp_heirlooms.html). Plant the seeds in
your classroom and grow them to maturity. Describe your new plants and group them into different categories. Compare your new plants to the digital photos of their parent
As an alternative, you may want to look into purchasing Wisconsin Fast Plants (available at:
http://www.fastplants.org) or the genetics of coleus kit from Carolina Biological Supply
(available at: https://www2.carolina.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?jdeAddressId=&catalogId=10101&storeId=10151&productId=4408&langId=-1&parent_category_rn=1285|81|442).
Both of these seeds come with curriculum designed to introduce students to basic genetic principles.