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 1 1.American Agriculture before 1930 From the beginning, English settlers along the Atlantic coast tried to find products that they could sell back in Britain. Many of these products involved the harvest of abundant forests or the purchase of furs from Indians . But very quickly the first colonists inVirginia found an exportable crop that was in great demand in Europe: tobacco. It was the first commodity , or money crop, for the new colony. It set a pattern.American agriculture from the beginning depended on markets. It was commercial. Commercial Origins Despite their commercial endeavors, most of what these early American farmers grew supplied local needs. Some refer to this as subsistence agriculture , but the label is misleading if it suggests that farmers, even in those first decades in America, supplied all their needs. They bought or traded for many items, including tools, housewares, exotic foods, and even some clothing and furniture. Native Americans had long exchanged agricultural goods for manufactured items, some procured from a considerable distance. English colonists in North America simply adopted the same farming methods they knew from back home.They used the same draft animals and the same types of hoes and plows, and they planted the seeds they had brought with them to the NewWorld.At first, they took advantage of the open land already cleared by the natives. Soon they added new land by clearing forests.They learned a few tricks from their Indian neighbors  A Revolution Down on the Farm and adopted Indian maize as the dominant cereal—more important than wheat, oats, barley, or rye in most regions of America. Unlike in Europe, land was plentiful, although it took hard work to get forestland ready for cultivation. Rents were low to nonexistent. It was labor that was expensive .Thus,American farmers sought laborsaving innovations, not the means to extract more production from each acre of land. In a sense, they were reckless in their clearing of trees and in risking both soil erosion and soil exhaustion. Like the Native Americans before them, they simply moved their crops to new ground when yields on older fields declined. Unlike the Indians, the English settlers adopted a fee-simple type of tenure, not an open commons. Up through the nineteenth century, most American farms had more land than any one family could cultivate, even with many working children or one or two expensive hired hands. Only in the South, with its tobacco, coastal rice, and cotton crops, did Americans acquire a servile labor force that allowed the cultivation of large plantations—a pattern Europeans had earlier adopted in the Caribbean. Through the early nineteenth century,Americans could best compete in world markets by selling farm and forest products as they grew or cut them at the first level of processing (such as ginned cotton, flour, or lumber). Quite simply, they were able to produce such goods at the lowest possible prices.This involved not only a surplus of good land but also acquired skills and, gradually, the development of new and better tools. Americans exchanged such agricultural goods for more refined European manufactured products (furniture, fancy clothing, clocks) that, given the labor constraints, they could not produce at a competitive cost at home.This gradually changed after 1815, particularly in New England, as good land became scarce, labor supplies increased (young women were the first source, then immigrants), and new forms of manufacturing developed.Textiles led the way, as they still do in much of the world. They became the first major industry to adapt to a factory type of mass production. In 1800 it took more than 50 percent of human labor worldwide to procure food.This was true even in England, despite its strong commitment to manufacturing. In the United States, one can only estimate the amount of labor devoted to agriculture.At least 90 percent of the population had some tie to agriculture, even if only part time. City artisans grew gardens and, if possible, owned cows, hogs, chickens, or all three. Lawyers , ministers, and schoolteachers almost uniformly owned farmland and at least supervised farming operations. At that time, given the level of agricultural technology, one farm family could supply food for only  American Agriculture before 1930 one other family on average.Also, farmers devoted much U.S. cropland to nonfood crops—mainly tobacco before 1800, but within two decades, even more so to cotton. But very slowly, with each passing decade, farming became more efficient.1 By 1870, one able...


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