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97 5 5. Dimensions of an Agricultural Revolution If one defines an industrial revolution as a dramatic increase (at least 50 percent) in full-sector productivity during a single generation, then American agriculture has attained the most important industrial revolution in American history. Just like manufacturing or services, agriculture includes many distinct industries (or crops). Shifts in production have not always been synchronized among these industries, with some crops lagging behind others. For example, cotton, and with it the South as a whole, lagged behind the rest of the United States, at least until the 1950s. But after 1950, very few crops failed to experience an almost unbelievable burst of productivity gains, with the largest gain in almost every case in production per unit of labor (less so, but still large, for inputs of land and capital). Dates are a bit arbitrary, but in no other twenty-year period were the agricultural gains quite so dramatic as they were from 1950 to 1970. Change was so rapid that almost no one was able to measure, or comprehend, what was happening. By most estimates, some based on thin evidence in the nineteenth century, the annual growth in full-factor productivity in agriculture rose, on average, about 1 percent a year in the century before 1935.All economists agree that, in about 1935, but clearly by 1940, this annual growth rate at least doubled and remained this high until 2000. And all economists agree that labor productivity was more rapid than returns on land or capital. What economists have not agreed on is the exact rate of this accelerated full-factor growth. For a heterogeneous agriculture, a definitive answer may be impossible.The late Bruce L. Gardner clarified many of the problems involved in making such an estimate and concluded that 98 A Revolution Down on the Farm the full-factor rate was around 2 percent. Economist Sally H. Clark, in the most robust estimate of full-factor growth, places it at 3 percent from 1935 until the mid-1980s.This growth was more rapid than in any other economic sector and more rapid than that in all but two of the twenty largest manufacturing industries. She believes that the rate of growth for labor productivity was a hefty 4.5 percent, a truly revolutionary surge unrivaled by any other sector or major industry. What is amazing is the long-term endurance of this growth. Since 1950, labor productivity per hour of work in the nonfarm sectors has increased 2.5-fold; in agriculture , 7-fold. In one generation, from 1950 to 1970, the workforce in agriculture declined by roughly half, while the value of the total product increased by approximately 40 percent.1 Even these numbers understate the pace of change. With each passing year, the output of small farmers (most with off-farm employment), who constituted more than half the 2.9 million farmers in 1970, produced an ever smaller proportion of the total output. This trend continued, so that by 2002, only 322,625 farms produced 89 percent of all output (this is based on the value of what was produced, not on the pounds, bushels, or tons). But it is important to note that at least 425,000 principal or secondary operators managed these farms and that such large farms employed almost two-thirds of all farm laborers, most on a part-time basis.2 The gain in efficiency, based on labor input, was almost unbelievable in some crops. In 1900 it took 147 hours of human labor to grow 100 bushels of wheat. By 1950 this had shrunk to only 14, and by 1990 to only 6. For corn, the number of hours per 100 bushels shrank from 147 hours in 1900 to 16 in 1950 and to 3 in 1990; for cotton, from 248 hours per bale in 1900 to 100 in 1950 (just as the new mechanical cotton picker began spreading to more and more farms) and to only 5 in 1990. The labor required to harvest 10 tons of hay fell from 65 hours in 1950 to only 11 in 1990. In some livestock operations, the increase in efficiency was even greater, with chickens leading the way. In 1929 it took 85 hours of work to produce 1,000 pounds of broilers; by 1980 it took less than 1 hour. Comparable gains are now taking place for hogs. Based on Department of Agriculture estimates, the output per worker on American farms grew by 68...


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