Agriculture of America
- The Rainfall
- The Temperature
- The Plant Life
- The Corn Belt
- Farm and Village
1. THE RAINFALL
In the Northern Hemisphere, the western portions of continents are
especially favored by the prevailing winds. This is because the western lands
gather the rains as they come off the ocean, blown by storms that circle from
west to east.
Unfortunately, the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so
dose to the west coast, catch the largest share of the rain off the Pacific
Ocean before it can go further Inland. As a result, there is too little rain for
almost the whole western half of the United States, which lies in the ,,rain
shadow” of the mountains. In a great part of that territory, therefore,
farmers must depend on irrigation water from the snows or rains that are trapped
by the mountains.
One of the most important geographic boundaries in the United States 15 the
50-centimeter rainfall line, which runs north and south almost through the
middle of the country. East of the line, farming is relatively easy, and the
population is relatively large. West of the line, one finds man-made irrigation
systems, dry-farming, grazing, and fewer people. West of the Rocky Mountains,
running all the way from the Canadian border to Mexico, there are vast areas
where almost no trees grow. In this section of the country are the deserts which
receive as little as 12.7 centimeters of rainfall a year. Yet, west of the
Sierra Nevada Mountains, there are places in which 250 centimeters of ram falls
2. THE TEMPERATURE
If there were no mountains or oceans, and if the winds circled the earth
with perfect regularity, then the amount of heat and the length of the farmer`s
growing season would progress uniformly from north to south. Instead there are
all kinds of unexpected differences in climate. For instance, all along the
western coast, the temperature changes little between winter and summer. In some
places, the average difference between July and January is as little as 10
degrees centigrade. The climate along the northern part of this coast is similar
to that of England. But in the north central part of the country, summer and
winter are worlds apart. There the average difference between July and January
is 36 degrees centigrade and more violent extremes are common. The coldest days
of a typical January may be –40 degrees centigrade, and the hottest July
day may be 45 degrees. This is the sort of climate that is found far from the
moderating influence of the oceans. In the eastern part of the United States,
the difference between summer and winter is also very distinct, but not nearly
so extreme. Near the southwestern corner of the country, the climate is mild and
springlike in winter, but in summer the temperature may reach equatorial
intensity. In Alaska, almost continuous daylight in summer makes the short
growing season an intense one.
The variations in temperature within the United States have had a marked
effect on the country`s economy and living standards. As the Growing Season Map
on page 13 shows, there is a long crop-growing season along the southeast coast
where cotton is a principal product. This 18 also true in several small strips
and pockets to the west where crops like grapes grow well during a large part of
the year. In some of the cooler climates or in climates which combine coolness
and humidity, animals and produce such as apples, wheat and corn thrive, thus
giving the United States a large range of agricultural products.
These variations, combined with a fast transportation system, have meant
that there can be a rapid interchange of agricultural products from one part of
the country to another. Thus, not only is there a greater market for what
otherwise would have been strictly regional products, but this expansion of
markets has meant great employment opportunities in all areas.
3. THE PLANT LIFE
When early voyagers approached the land that is now the United States, they
noticed a sweet and surprising ,,land smell," a clue that they were near the
shore. This ,,land smell" came from the great, thick forest that covered all the
eastern part of the country and stretched about 1,600 kilometers westward until
it met the tall grass of the prairies.
No one knows just why the woods ended where they did, or why the tall grass
of the prairies - the wide rolling and almost treeless plains - began at that
point. The reason still remains shrouded in mystery, for the eastern part of
the prairies’ tall grasslands have soil that will support tree life.
One explanation has it that the Indians burned off the forest in order to force
game animals out to the hunters. Another reason given is that perhaps some early
special conditions of soil and rainfall were responsible. This has been accepted
as a more plausible explanation, but nobody really knows. Nevertheless, the
early settlers wrote that the prairie grass was very beautiful, interlaced with
flowers in the spring, and so tall that a man on foot could not see over
It is clear why the tall grass became short grass farther west - lack of
Still farther west, the Vegetation Map looks quite mixed. Forests cover the
slopes where mountains catch enough rain. A few favored grassy meadows lie in
the high mountain valleys. On the dry lowland -and on high tablelands - dry,
harsh bushes grow; so do kinds of grass common to and regions, with places here
and there too dry or too full of salt for even this poor desert
The greatest wonder of all are the forests of sequoia and fir trees on the
northwest coast, where the mountains catch the heavy Pacific rains. These great
trees, some of which are 3,000 years old, are among the largest and oldest
living things known. Some were seedlings when Troy fell, and already giants when
Rome was founded. The silent forests are filled with columns of great trunks
lighted dimly by sun filtered through leaves far above. Most of these forests
are protected by law and preserved as a national treasure.
4. THE CORN BELT
On hot, still midsummer nights in the Corn Belt, the farmers insist they
can hear the corn growing. This facetious claim points tip the fact that this
crop grows fast, sometimes five centimeters during a night. By late summer, it
may be three or four meters high. It is easy to get lost in a large field of
full-grown corn because there is no way of looking over it or through its tall,
heavy growth of thick stalks and broad leaves. The only thing to do is to follow
the straight line between two rows of the plants which may stretch for a
kilometer or more to reach a road at the edge of the field.
Corn is the most important of all American crops, as basic to American
agriculture as iron is to American industry. In the United States, two farmers
out of every three, and one hectare out of every four cultivated, grow corn. The
annual crop is greater than the nation`s yield of wheat, rice and other small
grains combined, and probably one of the United States` greatest resources is
its ability to grow great quantities of corn.
However, the only corn most Americans see is ,,sweet corn”, a garden
vegetable that is eaten either fresh or preserved, or is ground into meal for
baking. But these uses account for only a small fraction of the crop.
Most of the yield - some three-fourths of it - is used as animal feed and
reaches the table in the form of milk, cream, cheese, butter, eggs, beef, lamb,
pork or poultry. Much of the remainder is processed into oil, syrups and
Corn also has proven to be an astonishingly versatile industrial material.
From a com distilling process manufacturers extract alcohol-fuel, or gasohol,
used in many farm vehicles and growing numbers of cars. Corn soaked in warm
water for 2 days produces ,,steepwater”, which can be converted into
drugs, vitamins and minerals. Scientists have derived a biodegradable plastic
film from corn starch that could replace plastics made from petroleum. Another
technological offspring of corn starch is called the ,,Super Slurper”, a
dust that can absorb 2,000 times its weight in water. And corn starch itself has
become such a popular sweetener in soft drinks and other prepared foods that it
now rivals sugar.
There are two main reasons why corn has become the basic crop of American
agriculture. One is that it grows so well. A hectare of corn requires only
one-twelfth as much seed as a hectare of wheat, for instance. Yet the yield of
grain from the hectare of corn is several times as high as that from the hectare
of wheat. The other reason is that farmers have worked out high-yield mechanized
product ion methods in all the important corn-producing areas. The Corn Belt
farmer uses machines for every step of his operation-planting, enriching the
soil, cultivating, spraying, killing weeds, harvesting the ears, removing the
thick natural wrappings, shelling the kernels from the long cobs on which they
grow, and cutting the stalks. Because of this extensive use of machinery, the
average farmer can cultivate as many as 140 hectares and care for a large herd
of livestock with no more help than perhaps a son who spends several hours a day
in school. On a Corn Belt farm, the most impressive buildings are the large
barns and machine sheds which may dwarf the farmer`s house itself.
Farmers first began to keep reliable records of corn production in 1866.
Between 1866 and 1939, the corn yield in the United States averaged between 700
and 1,000 liters of shelled grain per hectare. Suddenly, in 1940, it began to
increase greatly each year; by 1948, it was about 1,500 liters per hectare; and,
by 1972, it reached about 3,400 liters per hectare. (The highest recorded yield
is about 7,000 liters per hectare, produced in the State of Iowa.) Such a vast
and rapid change in the most basic crop represents a real agricultural
This has been a quiet sort of revolution, however, because the chief
difference between the older corn agriculture and the new is simply that the
farmer plants a different kind of seed. Instead of saving the best ears from
each year`s crop for the next year`s planting, the traditional method, the
farmer now buys new seed every year. The increased value of the crop more than
pays for the extra cost.
Corn grown from the new kinds of seed is called a ,,hybrid”, that is,
a corn which results from the mating of different types of the same grain.
Different kinds of hybrids are developed for such basic qualities as higher
yields, stronger stalks and hydrotropic roots. As with other grains, different
strains have been developed for different soil and climate conditions and for
different purposes. For instance, some contain twice as much oil as ordinary
corn; others are rich in certain minerals.
Producing hybrid corn is a lengthy process which must be done by hand,
during 12 or more years of crossbreeding among different varieties. This
process, difficult and complex as it is, is simple compared to the job of
discovering that new kinds of corn could be developed, or to the job of
discovering how to develop them. With other grains, all or nearly all the plants
are like the parents. But corn is different. American plant scientists began
working on the problem of controlling corn qualities very early in the 2Oth
century and it was only after many years of trial and error that they were able
to master the theory and practice of growing hybrids.
Like farmers everywhere, American farmers did not like to throw away
anything that experience had taught them. They did not like to risk an untried
new idea, no matter how good it sounded. To the eye, hybrid corn did not look as
impressive as the prize ears of ordinary corn they were so proud of growing. So,
even after the first hybrids were developed, farmers were unwilling to use them.
The corn breeders had to spend some 20 years more improving the value of the new
strains before a few farmers were convinced it was worth risking. After that,
the revolution in the Corn Belt took only a few years as the greater yields
proved the value of the new grain.
5. FARM AND VILLAGE
The rural village typical of many countries in Europe and Asia - a
collection of homes, dose together, occupied by the people who work on the
surrounding lands - is virtually unknown in 2Oth-century America. In the United
States, instead, each farm family usually lives separately on its own fields,
often beyond the sight of its neighbors. The village or town is predominantly a
place where the farm family travels to buy supplies, to attend church, and to go
for entertainment or political, social or business meetings. In most such areas,
special buses pick up children every day to take them to the schools which are
usually in the town.
When the early settlers first came to America they followed the old
European pattern. In New England, they lived in a cluster of houses around a
central green where the cattle of the whole village grazed. The farmer`s
croplands ex-tended outward around the village.
Southward, in the State of Virginia, however, farmers scattered up and down
the creeks and rivers, with great distances between families. These settlers
were planting a New World crop, tobacco, which required fresh land every few
years. This forced the tobacco farmers to move west-ward, as separate families,
whenever the land became exhausted. When, after several generations, families
reached the low hills at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains and the long
valleys enclosed by the mountains, they changed their farming from tobacco to
grain and livestock. With these new crops which did not exhaust the soil, people
had no further need to move. However, the tradition of the independent, separate
farm was very strong, and there were no desires to adopt a village type of
Much the same thing had been happening in other eastern states, but for
different reasons. In the western reaches of Maryland and New York, wealthy
landowners held great blocks of uncultivated land. Frontier farmers who traveled
to these areas to dear and farm them without any legal right to the land,
naturally did not wish to call attention to themselves by establishing villages.
Many other families in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York lived on separate
homesteads because they came from different countries or held different
religious beliefs from their neighbors.
In any case, it was the most independent and self-reliant families who were
the first to push westward to the Appalachian Mountains, then southward along
the mountain valleys, then into the great Central Basin, and finally west-ward
beyond the Rockies. These were the people who set the pattern of the separate
Until the days of good roads and automobiles, farming in the United States
was a hard and lonely life. To be successful, the farmer and his wife had to
develop a variety of skills. Whenever a problem arose, they usually had to deal
with it themselves. There were times, of course, when neighbors helped each
other with big jobs like building barns but, in day-to-day work, the farmer had
to be his own mechanic and was often even his own inventor.
This tradition of the individual farm family was further reinforced by
government policy. For many years, beginning in 1862, the government gave land
away free. To take full possession of that land, a settler and his family had to
clear it, build a house and live there for at least five years.
Between 1890 and the early 1930s, there was an increase in the number of
tenant farmers. To reverse this development and to help farmers keep their
holdings, the national and state governments provided bans in times of drought
or crop failure. Many tenant farmers have also been helped to buy land of their
As a result of this combination of tradition and policy, there are not many
farms which are owned by absentee landowners. In the United States, only about
two to three per cent of all farms are operated by hired managers and only
slightly more than one-fourth of all farm labor is done by full-time hired
workers or by transient farm labor.
The frontier settlers took with them into the Central Basin many different
agricultural traditions which influenced the methods brought over by the
original English settlers. The Swedes introduced the log cabin, which became the
typical dwelling of the frontier wherever there were trees. The Dutch brought
new breeds of farm animals and skills in dairying. The Scots and Irish brought
potato cultivation, for although this was a New World crop, it was first widely
planted in Europe. What became the typical American barn was actually first
created by Germans. Even today, this process of borrowing continues. Two pasture
plants, lespedeza and kudzu, have been brought to the United States from Asia.
The soybean, another Asian plant, has become one of the chief crops in the Corn
Belt. Italians and Japanese have influenced fruit and vegetable growing.
Scandinavians have played a large role in dairying and cheesemaking in the great
northern dairy region of the Central Basin.
Until rather recently, most of the farmers in the Central Basin practiced
,,general farming”, that is, the family produced as much of its own food
and equipment as possible, and sold whatever remained to buy things it could not
raise or make.
Today, however, nearly all the farm families in the Central Basin do
,,commercial farming”: they raise products for sale and do not generally
try to produce crops to be self-sufficient. This change from general farming to
commercial farming represents another kind of agricultural revolution typified
by a decline in the number of farm families concurrent with an increase in the
size of farms.
As a result of the growing use of sophisticated farm machinery and advances
in the development of fertilizers and in the breeding of animals and crops, the
average size of farms in the United States increased from 60 hectares in 1920 to
155 hectares in 1973. A century ago, two-thirds of the American people
lived on farms. In 1920, as many as 32 million, or 30 per cent, of the
population were farmers. In 1960, farmers and their families numbered 15
million, or about eight per cent. By 1980 the farm population had fallen to
In a little town in the southern part of the State of Alabama, there is a
monument honoring the cotton boll weevil! The people of that area erected the
monument because, after the boll weevil destroyed their cotton crop in 1910,
they were compelled to stop growing cotton and turned instead to dairying and to
raising peanuts and melons. What was first viewed as a misfortune was a blessing
in disguise, since the new farming was better suited to the land and raised
their standard of living.
In another place, in Alabama, three brothers in 1934 acquired a lumber mill
that had already depleted most of the surrounding forest. The remaining trees
were enough to keep the mill busy only eight years longer. But the brothers had
new ideas, and today the mill is cutting more wood than it ever did in the old
days. The supply may continue forever because the forest has become a carefully
managed ,,tree farm”. Not only have the brothers grown new trees to
replace the old ones, but they have also been instrumental in spreading ,,tree
farming” to land that could no longer grow cotton.
Mississippi, the most thoroughly agricultural state of the South began a
program around 1940 to increase manufacturing and adopted the slogan, ,,Balance
Agriculture with Industry”. The plan has helped create thousands of new
These examples give but a glimpse of the three-sided movement of
diversification that is revitalizing the South. First, southerners are bringing
their agriculture into balance, with crops that put new life into the soil, and
with many types of plants and animals which are suited to the varied features of
their landscape. Second, they are adding to the basic wealth of the region by
using and cultivating their resources, instead of either letting them lie idle
or destroying them. And, third, they are bringing their whole economy into
balance by adding industry to farming.
At first, diversification was slow and often happened by chance, as the
example of the town in Alabama shows. But, over the years, it became a very
broad movement, deliberately planned by individual farmers and manufacturers,
and deliberately encouraged by local communities, states and the federal
The change in farming started in different ways in different places.
Usually it began with one farmer, more daring than others, willing to experiment
with new crops or a new way of plowing, or one adventurous enough to change from
raising crops to raising farm animals. His success emboldened others to follow
Remaking a farm is always hard and risky, but there are many ways in which
the farmer is encouraged and helped to avoid mistakes. The government has a
program under which farmers in a district vote to adopt a soil conservation
program for their area. Agricultural experts help them plan how to use their
fields for various crops and show them how to rebuild the soil. In some parts of
the South, farmers could not afford to buy the new equipment or seeds or animals
needed to improve their methods. In these cases, the states and the federal
government have arranged financial loans to meet such needs.
One of the biggest problems the South has faced has been the existence of
tenant farmers who only rent the land they cultivate. Since most tenant farmers
do not have the incentive that landowning farmers have, production and income on
these farms has traditionally been low. To overcome this lack of initiative,
loans have been made available to tenant farmers who wish to purchase the land
With these changes in agriculture has also come a growth in industries
related to farm production. New processes have been developed for freezing foods
so that many farmers can now profitably grow vegetables for city markets.
Packing plants for poultry and dairy products have grown in number. The
construction of new hard roads and highways as well as the growth off fleets of
freight trucks have made it easier for farm goods to reach both processing
plants and city markets.
Although cotton is still the principal crop of the South, cotton growing
has changed. Mechanical cotton pickers, one of which can do the work of 40 men,
have taken the place of low-paid labor. Usually, throughout the history of the
industrial revolution, the introduction of machines has created at least
temporary problems of unemployment. However, the growth of industry in the South
has been gradual; thus, workers who have left farm labor have been absorbed into
other occupations without undue hardship.
Until 1940, most southern factories did simple jobs, compared with those in
the North. They turned raw materials into partly finished products - such as
cotton into cotton yarn or unbleached sheeting - and then shipped these goods
north to be made into finished clothing. Or they took already finished machine
parts from northern factories, and assembled them into machines that would be
sold in the South.
Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, has long had a large steel industry, but
its machinery came from the North and it made few finished steel products.
Instead, it shipped out the metal. The South also shipped out partly refined
aluminum ore instead of aluminum products, wood instead of furniture, and
turpentine instead of paints.
This, too has changed. Better farming has brought farm machinery and
toolmaking plants to the South. Higher wages and richer farms have brought
clothing and shoe and household utensil factories. New houses, schools, barns
and machinery sheds have created a need for window frames and doors, pipes and
furnaces, and all the other things that go into modern buildings.
There are millions more industrial workers in the South than there were
before World War II, and the number is increasing every year. Not all the
industries have grown because the South has become a better market, however.
Industry depends on the proper use of basic geographical resources, in the South
as in the North. The South has always had raw materials, transportation and