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5 Farming Technologies That Changed the World

Monty Bussard walks back to his 1947 Farmall Model A tractor, after shoveling a sidewalk following a 2014 snowstorm in Myersville, Md. The tractor is one machine that revolutionized farming. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Monty Bussard walks back to his 1947 Farmall Model A tractor, after shoveling a sidewalk following a 2014 snowstorm in Myersville, Md. The tractor is one machine that revolutionized farming. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If you started your day wearing clothing made of cotton, eating multigrain cereal doused with milk or filling your vehicle's tank with an ethanol blend, you may want to thank a farmer.

From fibers to food to fuel, nearly every aspect of daily life is powered by agriculture. Farmers harvest cotton fibers for cloth, raise dairy cows for milk, and cultivate grains for food and fuel. They even grow the hogs that supply our bacon fixation. And turducken? That enigmatic combination of turkey, duck and chicken wouldn't be possible without farmers, either.

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So what does it take to feed, fuel and clothe an increasingly populated planet? A little rain, a little sun and a lot of technology. In fact, modern farmers are just as likely to use GPSs to track crop production as they are to consult the Old Farmer's Almanac for advice.

In the 1940s, one U.S. farmer produced enough to feed 19 people. By the 2000s, that number had grown to 155 [source: Animal Smart]. Here are five farm technologies that have made this possible.

The plow has been around since ancient times and is still used today. Joakim Leroy/E+/Getty Images
The plow has been around since ancient times and is still used today. Joakim Leroy/E+/Getty Images

This ancient tool revolutionized farming. By 3500 B.C.E., Egyptians were turning the soil using an iron-tipped, wooden wedge-shaped implement pulled by oxen. Thanks to the plow, early farmers were able to till more land faster than before, allowing them to produce more crops in a shorter time. The plow also helped to control weeds and bury crop residue. It was such an efficient tool that there wasn't much difference between the first plows that turned the sandy Mesopotamian soil and those used in medieval Europe thousands of years later, save the addition of a moldboard behind the blade to turn the soil once it was broken.

Even in the early 1800s, American West pioneers were using a similar style of plow fashioned out of wood and cast iron to furrow tough-as-nails prairie soil. But this soil was dense and sticky; it clung to plow blades and forced farmers to manually remove it every few steps.

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In 1837, a chance meeting between an Illinois blacksmith and a broken steel saw blade set the plow on its modern course. The blacksmith, John Deere, noticed the steel saw blade was slick and polished from use, and fashioned it into a prototype plow blade. Unlike cast iron, the steel blades didn't gum up with the heavy soil. By 1855, John Deere was selling 13,000 steel plows a year, marking the beginning of one of America's most prolific agricultural manufacturing companies and well-used implements [source: Modern Marvels].

This 1900 version of the tractor was probably steam-powered. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This 1900 version of the tractor was probably steam-powered. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before tractors, farmers worked their fields by relying on their own strength -- or that of oxen, horses and mules. The advent of the first portable steam engines ushered farming into the modern age.

By the 1870s, self-propelled steam engines were being used in America's heartland to help harvest wheat. These steam engines -- the forerunner of the modern tractor -- towed threshing machines from field to field where farmers used the behemoths to separate grain from straw and debris.

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By the 1920s, tractors became light and versatile enough to work the fields. In 1924, the Farmall tractor became one of the first general purpose machines to pull harvesters and a variety of other equipment to plant and cultivate crops. Within a decade, 200 Farmalls were being built each day to keep up with demand, and a host of other manufacturers (like John Deere) had introduced similar tractors. Suddenly, farmers could work more land faster with less help and produce greater yields [source: Moore].

This combine is harvesting wheat on a vast farm in the U.S.A. Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
This combine is harvesting wheat on a vast farm in the U.S.A. Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

During harvest, a farmer's work begin begins to pay off. The work must be done quickly, though, because the faster and more efficient the harvest, the greater the yield.

Before harvesting became a mechanized proposition, it was labor-intensive. Farmers cut crops with scythes and manually removed the seeds before bundling the stalks. Even the steam-powered threshing machine, used to separate grains from plants, required many hands.

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By 1886, the first self-propelled combine had been patented and could harvest 100 acres (40 hectares) a day -- a task that would normally take days [source: ASABE].

This first combine has a lot in common with today's technologically advanced behemoths that stand nearly two stories tall. Modern combines still have a wide header attached to the front. The header has blades that cut the stalks and feed them into a threshing mechanism that removes the grain from the straw and debris. Then, a fan separates the grain and augers it to a holding bin atop the combine.

In addition to these basic functions, contemporary combines have interchangeable heads to harvest crops ranging from wheat and corn to soybeans and rice. They also have a host of technological helpers, including sensors that track the amount of grain slipping through the threshing mechanism and GPS technology to record performance data [source: Ganzel].

An Indian farmer throws fertilizer in a paddy field in 2012. NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages
An Indian farmer throws fertilizer in a paddy field in 2012. NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages

Before the advent of widespread fertilizer use, crops relied solely on compounds in the soil to fuel their growth. The application of commercial fertilizer, however, has been one of the biggest changes to impact farming.

Commercial fertilizer, a blend of nitrogen, phosphate and potash, allows farmers to realize high yields on their crops and to use the same plot of land year upon year for their crops. This makes projecting profits more reliable and eliminates the need to clear new ground for fields [source: Agro Services International].

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Farmers began applying commercial fertilizer about the same time as the first self-propelled tractors hit the market in the late 1880s. Between 1890 and 1899, American farmers applied more than 1.8 million tons (1.6 million metric tons) of commercial fertilizer each year. By 1989, the number had grown to more than 47 million tons (43 million metric tons) annually [source: Agriculture in the Classroom]. Globally, 185.1 million tons (168 million metric tons) of fertilizer were used in 2008 [source: The Fertilizer Institute].

All that fertilizer has raised some environmental concerns. Nitrates, a major component of fertilizers (including those applied to lawns and gardens), can contaminate groundwater and pose a health risk to infants and at-risk populations. Therefore, farmers should be careful in how they store, use and dispose of fertilizer [source: Harris].

Plant specialist Dustin McMahon hand-pollinates genetically modified corn plants inside greenhouses located on the roof of Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Mo., 2009. Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Plant specialist Dustin McMahon hand-pollinates genetically modified corn plants inside greenhouses located on the roof of Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Mo., 2009. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Biotechnology has a number of applications in the agricultural industry -- and not all of them are cause for concern. Throughout history, farmers have selectively bred animals and propagated plants to promote certain traits.

However, using biotechnology to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a relatively new practice. The first plants whose genes were manipulated hit fields in the mid-to late-1990s. Since then, the technology has been used to develop hybrids with higher yields, shorter life cycles and greater pest and disease resistance. For example, some strains of genetically modified cotton are so disease-resistant they require fewer pesticides to thrive, lessening the risk of groundwater contamination [source: USDA].

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By 2012, 94 percent of cotton, 93 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn crops in the U.S. were planted using biotech seeds. Large percentages of other crops, such as alfalfa, are genetically modified, too [source: USDA].

As much as 70 percent of the foods on U.S. store shelves contain genetically modified ingredients, amid rising concerns about the introduction of potential allergens, changes in nutrient content and antibiotic resistance [source: WebMD].

Despite the questions about the long-term impact of biotechnology, one thing is clear: It does help boost agricultural production, and it is changing the way farmers help feed and clothe the world. This is especially important as the number of farmers dwindles. In 2000, for example, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population worked as farmers compared to 53 percent in 1870 [source: Wieczorek].

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Author's Note: 5 Farming Technologies that Changed the World

Farmers may still watch the weather forecasts with great anticipation, but their success is hardly left up to the right amounts of sun, rain and luck. Many of today's farmers rely on technology to help them outwit pests and derive greater yields. From milk cows with barcoded tags to tractors that steer themselves, technology is driving farming into the future.

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Sources

  • American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. "First Self-Propelled Combine." (May 25, 2014) http://www.asabe.org/awards-landmarks/asabe-historic-landmarks/first-self-propelled-combine-49.aspx
  • Agriculture in the Classroom. "Historical Timeline — Farm Machinery and Technology." (May 25, 2014) http://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farm_tech.htm
  • Agro Services International. "Environmental Benefits of Using Fertilizers." (May 25, 2014) http://www.agroservicesinternational.com/Environment/Benefits.html
  • Ganzel, Bill. "Harvest Technology from 1970 to Today." (May 25, 2014) http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe70s/machines_10.html
  • Harris, B.L. "Reducing Contamination by Improving Fertilizer Storage and Handling." (May 28, 2014) http://blackland.tamu.edu/decision-aids/texasyst/reducing-contamination-by-improving-fertilizer-storage-and-handling/
  • Modern Marvels. "Farm Plows Kick Up Dirt." (May 25, 2014) http://www.history.com/shows/modern-marvels/videos/farm-plows-kick-up-dirt
  • Moore, Sam. "10 Agricultural Inventions That Changed the Face of Farming in America." Farm Collector. August 2008. (May 25, 2014) http://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/ten-agricultural-inventions-in-farming-history.aspx
  • The Fertilizer Institute. "Statistics FAQs." (May 25, 2014) http://www.tfi.org/statistics/statistics-faqs
  • U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. "Agricultural Biotechnology." (May 25, 2014) Dec. 30, 2013. http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=BIOTECH
  • U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. "Biotechnology Frequently Asked Questions." (May 28, 2014) http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=AGRICULTURE&contentid=BiotechnologyFAQs.xml
  • WebMD. "Genetically Modified Foods (Biotech Foods) Pros and Cons." (May 28, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-biotech-foods-safe-to-eat
  • Wieczorek, Ania. "History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has Evolved." Nature. 2012. (May 25, 2014) http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/history-of-agricultural-biotechnology-how-crop-development-25885295

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