The files relating to steel’s contribution to agriculture include documents on the farm-equipment industry, Deere and Company, International Harvester Company, various types of farm machinery and equipment, tractor sales by end use, tractor prices, and census data on farms and farm equipment.
Analysis:The agricultural revolution of the twentieth century is a tribute to generations of farmers and ranchers, who by their hard work have harnessed a recurring stream of scientific and mechanical innovation to greatly improve soil preparation and conservation; the planting, cultivation, harvesting, and rotation of crops; and the breeding and raising of livestock. Compared to 1900, when each farmer was able to supply enough food and fiber to sustain eight persons, a remarkable growth in farm productivity pushed that number to more than 200 as the century drew to a close. The mechanization of agriculture was one of the prime movers of this progress and never would have been possible without the use of iron and steel.
The contribution of iron and steel to agriculture has come with the development of a wide variety of farm machinery and equipment. Starting in the early 1800’s, iron first replaced wood in the manufacture of horse-drawn plows, and in 1846, an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere rolled the first cast steel for plows. By the mid-1800’s, the machine age of farming had dawned, when Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, incorporating iron and steel parts made from bars, plates, and rods, reduced the cost of harvesting by one-third, and threshing machines had come into widespread use in large grain fields.
Nonetheless, through the first two decades of the twentieth century, wire and posts for fencing continued to represented the principal market for steel on the farm, a far more essential role awaiting the 1920’s, when the introduction of gasoline-powered tractors needing steel in significant quantities seriously started to displace horses in favor of mechanized plows. On U.S. farms, the use of draft animals had reached its peak in 1918, when the farm population of horses and mules totaled 26.7 million, compared to only 85 thousand tractors, many of which were big and inefficient, steam-powered units.
It also was in 1918, immediately after World War I, that Ford Motor Company gave mechanized farming a major boost by mass-producing 34 thousand gasoline-powered Fordson tractors. Soon the tractor became a source of energy to operate such power-driven machines as mowers, corn pickers, harvesters, and combines, and once farmers rapidly adopted the internal combustion engine, steel’s role in agriculture became indispensable.
Today, following decades of improving farm productivity, crop yields are benefiting from global positioning system (GPS) technology that enables the farmer to plow perfectly straight rows from the air-conditioned cab of a satellite-guided tractor, which continues to be made mainly of steel.