Ed Ellingson's Blog

4. More Historical: Oil & Engines Change Farming

Anyone in an engine business in the late 1800’s must have been trying to figure out how to sell engines to farmers to help ease their burden.  The most notable success was the steam engine and thresher.  This had wheels and steering, so it could be driven between farms and pull things, so it was a traction engine, but it’s main function was to turn the flywheel, a pulley, which in turn could drive a threshing machine, or virtually anything else, like a sawmill, chopper or blower.

Higgins family steam engine and threshing rig, about 1905

I was in a neighbor’s barn once and noticed that the floorboards on the main floor were spaced almost 3/4 inch apart, which aroused my curiosity.  I asked the owner why that was, and got an explanation.  “Oh, that was before threshing machines; they’d spread the grain out on the floor and then horses and people would walk on it, and the grain would fall through and get scooped up.”  Think of someone living at that time, and then being offered a chance to hire a threshing rig that would come in and do that process with steam power, rather than human and animal power; what a great invention!  Virtually everyone took advantage of this wonderful machine.

At about that time, gasoline engines also came onto the market.  These were simple machines; most just had a mounting frame and a pulley so they could drive a belt, which could then be attached something to do the desired work  They could power just about anything, corn shellers, grinders, fanning mills, choppers, blowers, saws, balers, pumps, just about anything conceived that would take over some labor-intensive farm work.  The bigger ones were mounted on wheels, so they could be easily moved.

This easily progressed to the next step, bigger engines with drive wheels, strong enough and fast enough to replace a team of horses, called traction engines, or tractors.  Horse-drawn implements were soon modified so they could be pulled by tractors.  These tractors all had a pulley included, so they could drive stationary equipment, but they soon included a power take-off, so they could power equipment that was attached, adding to their versatility.

The transformation took off at full speed.  Any task that required a lot of energy became a target for mechanization, a specialized machine for the task, and using a gasoline engine to do the real work, and the worker became a controller of the machine with very little human labor required.  The list seems endless: hay balers, chainsaws, corn pickers, combines (a thresher combined with a reaper, and self-propelled), elevators, barn cleaners, planters, dryers.  After the tasks were mechanized, then the machines could be made larger, taking advantage of the economies of scale.

Something else was going on as well, actually three things, fertilization, weed and insect killers, and plant breeding, first just selective breeding, but more recently, genetic modification.  The “old” way of controlling weeds and keeping soil fertility was to rotate crops, and use animal manure for fertilizer.  Each crop tends to take certain nutrients from the soil, replenish others, and favor one type of weed and insect over others.  A good crop rotation was sustainable; the fertility level of the soil would remain constant over the long term, weeds and insects would remain under control.  This required that a hay crop be in the rotation, partly because weeds would be cut down and removed from the field before they could go to seed.  The hay in turn was valuable only for feeding animals that could digest it, basically sheep, cattle, and horses.  Bottom line is, it’s a low-value crop.

Fertilizers were the first improvement.  They could increase crop yields, but they also increased weed yields, and it seemed like weeds were winning.  Then came the weed sprays.  They had their effect, they would knock the weeds down and make them shrivel up in an ugly knot, but if you looked closer, you’d see that they still went to seed before they finally died.  So it was necessary to spray again the following year, but with a problem.  Some of the seeds that survived and grew were “resistant” to the weed killer, so a stronger dose was required, and eventually a new, stronger weed killer was required in order to have the same effect.  The weeds were never eliminated, just seasonally controlled.  But between the fertilizers and the weed killers, it was possible to raise just the high-value crops, like corn, soybeans, and wheat.  You didn’t need to raise hay crops, so you didn’t have to have animals as a part of your farm.

Raising one crop continuously, or even a limited rotation, tends to promote certain insects, so that lead to the need for and use of insecticides in order to continue to get good yields.  Even so, it didn’t seem that the yields could be maintained.  Then it seems that the plants themselves responded.  Selective breeding, and later genetic modification, resulted in crops that did well in a highly fertilized, herbicide-rich and insecticide-rich, environment.

This completed the circle; buy the special seeds from an agri-business, buy fertilizers, buy herbicides and insecticides, buy bigger, specialized equipment, buy fuel, and you could raise only the high-value crops, and make a profit.  It was sustainable, as long as the oil that made it possible was available and cheap.


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