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Jehovah’s Witnesses


Awake!  |  September 2009

How Modern Farming Has Changed the World

How Modern Farming Has Changed the World

 How Modern Farming Has Changed the World

HOW do you obtain food? Do you buy it or grow it for yourself? Not long ago most of mankind were subsistence farmers​—that is, they lived on food they grew for themselves. But now in some industrialized nations, only 1 person out of 50 works in farming. How did such a transformation occur?

Improvements in farming efficiency began slowly and then accelerated. Every step was traumatic for millions of families, and the process still continues worldwide. A look at how progress in farming has affected people can help you to understand the world today.

A Revolution Begins

Surprisingly, one of the biggest steps leading away from subsistence farming in Europe occurred during the 12th century when the horse collar was introduced. It enabled a horse to work without choking itself. Horses thus harnessed could pull harder, faster, and longer than the oxen that were formerly used. With horsepower, farmers could increase their production. They could use iron plows on land that was previously impossible to cultivate. Another early step forward was the introduction of soil-improvement crops​—such as beans, peas, clover, and alfalfa—​which enrich the earth with nitrogen. Richer soil produced crops that were more abundant.

Those early advances were enough to permit some farmers to grow a surplus of food to sell. This led to the growth of towns, where people could purchase their food and work as manufacturers and tradesmen. From among these rich manufacturers, tradesmen, and farmers came the inventors of the first farming machines.

About 1700, Jethro Tull, an English farmer, invented a horse-drawn seed drill that replaced hand sowing, a practice that wasted seed. In 1831, in the United States, Cyrus McCormick invented a horse-drawn mechanical reaper that could harvest grain five times faster than could a man with a handheld scythe.  Also about that time, traders began bringing fertilizers into Europe from the Andean coast of South America. The use of machines and fertilizer produced a dramatic increase in farm production. But how did it affect people?

Progress in farming made the industrial revolution possible by providing plenty of cheap food for the towns. This revolution occurred first in Britain about 1750-1850. Thousands of families had to move to industrial towns to work in coal mines, iron foundries, shipyards, and textile mills. They had little choice. The small farmers who could not afford the new farming methods received less cash for their produce and so could not pay their rent. They had to leave their farms to live in overcrowded, disease-ridden slums. Instead of families farming together, men now had to work away from home. Even children worked long hours in factories. Other nations soon experienced similar changes.

Scientific Farming Brings More Changes

By 1850, some nations were prosperous enough to finance agricultural research. The scientific study of agriculture has led to continued change down to our day. For example, plant breeders studied genetics and developed plants with greater yields or disease resistance. Researchers also discovered the exact mixture of nitrates and phosphates needed for specific crops and soils. Weeds had kept farm laborers busy hoeing throughout the growing season. But many such workers lost their jobs when scientists developed sophisticated herbicides that slowed the growth of weeds. Insects, worms, and weevils are also old enemies of the cultivator. However, farmers can now select from an armory of chemicals to deal with almost any pest. *

The livestock farmer’s life has also changed. Robotic milkers and computerized feeders allow one herdsman and his helper to care for up to 200 cows. Farmers can also get calves and pigs to put on weight faster than ever before by raising them in sheds instead of in open fields, thus controlling their temperature and diet.

The returns from scientific farming were often spectacular. Some farmers increased their yield per worker to a hundred or even a thousand times preindustrial levels. But how did those developments affect people’s lives?

The Farmer’s Lifestyle Changed

Machines have transformed the farmer’s way of life in many places. Most farmers and farm laborers now have to be skilled in operating and maintaining sophisticated machinery. And increasingly, they are lone workers. Gone is the camaraderie of sowing, hoeing, and harvesting in teams.

In many lands a new type of farmer has emerged, a highly educated businessman specializing in the mass production of just a few agricultural products or only one. He has invested heavily in land, buildings, and machinery. However, he is far from independent. Giant food-processing companies and supermarket chains dictate not only prices but also the variety, size, and color of his product. Agricultural engineers design his production system, and specialized companies supply him with the precise fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds needed for the specific conditions on his farm. He has come a long way from the farming methods of his ancestors. But he continues to struggle, and some people are concerned about the possible harmful effects of certain farming techniques.

Farmers Still in Crisis

In prosperous countries many farmers are still being forced off the land because they cannot compete with big farming corporations. Some farmers can only hang onto their cherished way of life by diversifying into leisure services including tourist accommodations or activities such as camping, golfing, and producing country crafts. Others turn to  specialty products​—organic food, flowers, ostriches, and alpacas.

In poorer countries, where as much as 80 percent of the population may earn their living by working the land, many subsistence farmers are also experiencing traumatic change. International companies using industrial farming methods may acquire most of the best land to grow crops for distant markets. With few, if any, machines, subsistence farmers often work barren land or tiny plots to provide food for their families.

The massive movement of population from villages to cities now occurring in many lands is the culmination of a process that began centuries ago. The change from an agricultural way of life to one that is urban still benefits some and distresses others. Few governments, if any, have provided effective and compassionate help for the people affected. How mankind needs the Kingdom of God, under which there will be a change to a better way of life!​—Isaiah 9:6.


^ par. 10 Awake! does not endorse any particular form of farming techniques.

[Box/​Pictures on page 23]


Eusebio lives in the Andes, where he raises crops and tends 14 head of cattle. “They all have names,” he says. “I like farming. We grow all of our own vegetables. My wife and I help our neighbors to plow and reap, and then they help us. None of us have machines. We plow with bulls, and on steep slopes we dig by hand.

“Disease once killed off most of our cattle. After that I took a short course in veterinary practice. We haven’t lost a single animal to disease since then, and now I can help the neighbors with their animals. We sell cheese at the village market, but we earn very little. Even so, we always have food for our six children.”

Richard farms more than two square miles [500 ha] of Canadian prairie. He works alone except for a single hired hand who works with him in sowing and harvesting seasons.

“Nowadays, the strain of farming is more mental than physical,” says Richard. “Both my tractor and my harvester have air-conditioned cabins that protect me from dust and insects. I have machines that are 30 feet [9 m] wide, so I can seed or harvest a quarter of a square mile [65 ha] in a single day. But I depend heavily on the machines, and that’s where the stress comes in. Occasionally, I have to replace them on credit. Whether I can repay the loan depends on things beyond my control​—rainfall, frost, market prices, and interest rates. The stress of farming has led to many marriage problems among farmers here, and even to suicide.”

[Picture on page 21]

The McCormick reaper, invented in 1831, helped farmers harvest grain five times faster than before

[Credit Line]

Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-24854