Lecture #9: The Machine in the Garden: Agricultural Revolutions

Suggested Readings:

Johann Heinrich von Thünen, Von Thünen's Isolated State (1826, translated 1966)
David Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1954)
H. J. Habakkuk, American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century (1962)
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991)


I. Secular Trends in Agriculture

This entire lecture relates to the handout that is downloadable (in color or grayscale) as PDFs from the course web page: various time series of demographic, agricultural, environmental, and political-economic change across the history of the US census. Note that the Y-axis of the graph is logarithmic: straight lines on such a graphic indicate constant rates of growth, so differences in the slopes of different lines indicate different relative rates of growth.

For this part of lecture, consult one of the two sets of graphs from our course handouts:
Color: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_09_ag_time_series_color_graph.pdf
Grayscale: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_09_ag_time_series_bw_graph.pdf

Note general trends from 1800 on:

  • population growth;
  • cities grow more rapidly than countryside, urban population surpassing rural in 1920;
  • rising mechanization in agriculture and industry;
  • replacement of solar energy with fossil energy;
  • increasing intensity of soil use (e.g., fertilizers);
  • growing capital intensity and labor efficiency (100 bushels of wheat took 373 person-hours in 1800, 108 in 1900; 9 in 1970).

Let's first see what how we can analyze some of the underlying abstractions that help make sense of these trends, and then talk about some of their concrete consequences in the second half of the lecture.

II. Von Thunen's Der Isolierte Staat and the Proliferating Market

The proliferation of market relationships was central to the emerging economy and to environmental change, producing important historical geographical changes.

Johann Heinrich von Thünen's The Isolated State (1826) offers one useful way of abstracting geographical consequences of the market as an interface between city and country. (For more on von Thünen, see his Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Heinrich_von_Thünen.)

Consult our course handout for von Thünen's open text: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_09_von_thunen's_rings.pdf

Von Thünen's thought experiment: imagine a city in the midst of a featureless agricultural plain, with uniform soil fertility throughout. How far goods will travel to the city depends on their price, cost of transport, and the value of the land on which they're produced (measured by the rents that land can earn).

Key insight: different marketable goods (and therefore productive regions) will array themselves around the city in concentric rings.

Inner ring: perishable, high-value goods (dairy, orchard, vegetables) produced with intensive agriculture on lands with high rents, able to take advantage of high urban demand for such products.

In 1859 US census: vegetables & milk tended to be prodcued adjacent to major cities; fruit, butter, and cheese farther out, along with hay & hops (hay for horses for transport, and hops for beer).

Next ring: extensive agriculture, especially of grain crops, on lands of lower value.

Grains capable of paying longer journey to market, especially wheat (much less perishable than vegetables and dairy products); corn was highly desirable as a subsistence crop on the frontier, but had to be converted to pork or whiskey for urban demand.

Corn-based agriculture concentrated in the Ohio & Mississippi valleys in 1859; so too did porkpacking and whiskey manufacture; wheat followed as soon as the land was ready for planting it.

Lumbering was also an extensive activity in this ring in US (though not in Europe, where lumber was a more intensive crop): white pine was harvested first in Maine, then in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota.

Third ring: livestock raising, animals grazing on undeveloped land of relatively low value; (lumbering occurred here too as an extensive crop with no replanting of harvested forest).

Outer ring: hunting, trapping, trading. Furs and skins were of high value relative to weight and bulk, so could still pay transport costs, with no land rents at all.

Beyond this ring, where no goods could pay for the journey to market: wilderness?

General implications: market hierarchies expressed themselves geographically. Transport innovations such as canals and railroads (along with actual distribution of natural resources, since the real world was not the uniform featureless plain of von Thünen's thought experiment) changed the spatial expression of these hypothetical rings.

So NYC in 1820 was surrounded by market gardens, with grain agriculture farther out in Mohawk Valley. The opening of the Erie Canal brought cheap western grain east from the Great Lakes (including Wisconsin), driveing New England & New York farmers to intensive agriculture (or bankruptcy), as did rising rents in the vicinity of cities.

Frederick Jackson Turner's westward moving frontier can be seen as the migration of von Thünen's rings, with intensive agriculture around cities, extensive grain in the Midwest, livestock on the Great Plains. Turner's famous passage about the stages of the frontier can almost be read as an inverted description of von Thünen's map:

The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.[11:2] This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern States this page is a palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the "range" had attracted the cattle-herder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a [12]State with varied agricultural interests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time.

(If you're interested, you can read Turner's essay at Project Gutenberg, where it is the first chapter of his 1920 book The Frontier in American History: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22994)

Southern tobacco and cotton shifted west for soil exhaustion, but these had strong urban links too: high yield from English and northeastern markets meant capital and labor-intensive agriculture, with labor capitalized in form of slaves, non-capitalist social relations as foundation for these most commercial (hence capitalist?) of American crops.

III. Relative Factor Costs: People of Plenty, People of Waste

David Potter's People of Plenty (1954) argued that Turner was correct not about free land but rather about the more generalized abundance of natural resources as a defining feature of US economy and culture.

H. J. Habakkuk, in his American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century (1962), cast abundance in terms of classic factors of production as described by political economists from Adam Smith forward (land, labor, capital, each earning, respectively, rents, wages, and profits ) to argue that British-U.S. factor shares accounted for the differing adoption of technologies by the two economies.

Habakkuk argued that in Britain, land was expensive and skilled labor was cheap; in US, on the other hand, land was cheap and unskilled labor was expensive.

Hence: American employers had a strong economic incentive to invest in labor-serving machinery, which became a source of technological innovation and diffusion.

Concrete examples: John Deere's plows and Cyrus McCormick's reapers in 19th century.

John Deere (1804-1886) born in Rutland, Vermont, in 1804, moved to Illinois in 1837, produced his first steel plow there over next three years, moved to Moline, Illinois in 1846 and began large-scale manufacture. For further details, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Deere_(inventor) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plough#Improved_designs

Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) first developed mechanical reaper in Virginia in 1831, but didn't begin large-scale manufacture until he moved to Chicago to set up factory there in 1847. He and others produced series of innovations all designed to reduce labor costs: self-raking reapers, self-binding reapers, eventually reaper-thresher combines where market could support them. Further details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_McCormick and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reaper

US faith in technology became foundation for national commitment to "progress" and "improvement," both of which became powerful engines for environmental transformation and its celebration.

The general tendency of these innovations was ncreasingly to replace human energy with non-human energy: from solar energy to fossil fuel.

Also increased inputs of fertilizer from imported Peruvian guano: growth in this trade began to rise in mid-nineteenth century.

General tendency was to conserve labor rather than natural resources, because "waste" of inexpensive resources made economic sense: goal was to save money by conserving scarce factors of production (wages, in Habakkuk's terms).

Furthermore, Americans (unlike their British counterparts) tended to assume that relatively inexpensive equipment should be used up and replaced with better models, not kept and repaired. This encouraged still more innovation, but also more waste.

Here, then, was a central dialectic of US environmental history between scarcity and abundance, plenty and waste, as noted in the closing sentence of Changes in the Land: "Ecological abundance and economic prodigality went hand in hand: the people of plenty were a people of waste." (It's worth pondering what exactly the word "waste" means in this sentence, given how value-laden it is, and how potentially anachronistic its possible meanings might be.)