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Until the late 19th-century, the U.S. economy was primarily agricultural. Today, we think of agricultural economies often as poor, but that was not true of the U.S. in the 18th-century — at all. Cash crops like tobacco and cotton were kingmakers during the colonial period, and they remained the foundation of the wealthy plantation class until after the Civil War.

What’s interesting about agriculture in the U.S. is that it is as much a melting pot of cultures as the people that make up the country. New waves of immigrants brought new crops and new techniques, and westward expansion resulted in the introduction of the industry’s embrace of technology.


How did farming change in the U.S. between the 1700s and today? As it turns out, much of it is connected.

Colonial Farming in the U.S. was a Challenge

The first years of settlement in the U.S. weren’t a utopia; starvation was common during the 17th-century, particularly during the winter. In the winter of 1609-1610, three-quarters of the colonists in Virginia died either directly from starvation or a related disease: the winter became known as “the Starving Time.” Even by 1800, life expectancy was only 36 years of age.


For the most part, colonists and settlement builders relied on subsistence farming straight into the 18th-century. People grew what they could manage for their families, but the soil in the original 13 colonies wasn’t ideal for crops, particularly in settlements near the Atlantic coast. Fish was a more stable type of food source for those in the north.


The best soil for agriculture lay in the Middle Colonies, which became the breadbasket of what would become the United States. Settlers grew barley, rye, oats, and corn, which they ground into flour and turned into beer. Farmers were also heavily encouraged to grow hemp both during the colonial period and into the Early Republic; both Washington and Jefferson grew the crop. Hemp was critical for survival during this period because it was so versatile — one plant could provide clothing, fuel, curatives, paper, and rope.


However, real wealth was made in the south, particularly in Virginia, where tobacco was gaining a foothold. Although tobacco wouldn’t feed a family directly, its status as a cash crop would buy food and supplies. The first tobacco shipment sailed from Jamestown to England in 1614 and by the end of the 1680s, Jamestown sent over 25,000,000 pounds of the crop to Europe.


By 1800, the king of all cash crops — cotton — was a major player in U.S. agriculture, and was supported by the plantation-style farming and chattel slavery that would shape America.

The Great Migration Brought New Techniques and Crops

As the U.S. transformed from a backwater outpost with poor weather into an attractive place to begin a life, more and more Europeans from across the continent migrated to the U.S. The passage of the Public Land Act of 1796 only encouraged this change as public land was sold at $2 per acre of credit to anyone with the money to buy it. As a result, the 18th-century was a time of great change for agriculture because migrants brought with them their agricultural technologies and techniques to the newly independent United States of America.


For example, the English, Scots, and Irish spent more time on mixed farming. The Scots, in particular, who had come from places where famine was common and crop raising was often untenable brought their herding techniques built on their own treks with cattle and sheep across the Scottish Highlands. The Germans, on the other hand, grew crops and preferred oxen for plowing, as they had done at home.


Migrants also brought crops with them crops from Europe. In the early 18th century, Americans and new settlers relied on species borrowed from Native Americans like sweet potatoes, maize, gourds, watermelons, peanuts, and maple sugar. But more and more people brought crops like alfalfa, small grains, and fruits with them from Europe. The Atlantic slave trade also brought crops along with human cargo: okra, sorghum, peanuts, grains, and melons traveled from the west coast of Africa and would inform Southern and Low Country crop raising and cooking for centuries.

Technology Would Transform Farming

Today, U.S. agriculture is almost unrecognizable. The U.S. is a land of abundance, and it is largely because of the feats in mechanical engineering that occurred during the 19th-century. The advancement of the railroad sent eastern farmers west, where agriculture began to vary dramatically and new methods were needed to deal with the untilled soil. In 1837, John Deere manufactured the first steel plow because the wood plows that worked in the eastern cities kept breaking in the tough Midwestern fields.


The Great Depression of the 1930s would also impact farming dramatically. Although the period is marked by devastation from the Dust Bowl, farming technology improved as tractor manufacturers borrowed from automobile technology and adopted the diesel engine, which offered more power than ever before.


Flash forward to today, and farming is one of the most innovative sectors in the economy, despite its reputation as being the last ‘traditional’ trade. Farmers in the 21st-century rely on gene editing and cellular agriculture for better crops. They use digital marketplaces to lease equipment, find new customers, and secure loans. They use aspects of the IoT to test for soil acidity to plan their planting. Their operations software and equipment use drones, artificial intelligence, and advanced GPS to the effect that 170 years after John Deere issue a steel plow, a new John Deere tractor practically drives itself.


From the 1800s to today, U.S. agriculture followed the same trajectory as the people behind the plows. New arrivals, dangerous expeditions, and trying times all transformed agriculture into the powerhouse it is twenty years into the 21st century.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.