Thursday, July 2, 2015

American Agriculture -- A Condensed History

The history of agriculture in America is extensive. But to answer a few questions from readers, here's the condensed version.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans to America's shores, the North American continent was at a constant state of war. No different than one European nation waging war against another, Native American Indian tribes waged bloody war against each other.

The reasons for war here were really no different than reasons for war anywhere for thousands of years -- land and riches. In the case of the Native American Indian tribes, land was where they settled -- riches were their hunting grounds, their fishing areas, and of course the lands needed for farming. And yes, they needed lots of land for a reason.

While some want to paint the Native American Indian as a warrior, most all Native American tribes were farmers first.  Their crops included maize, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins, gourds, squashes, watermelons, beans, grapes, berries, pecans, black walnuts, maple sugar, tobacco, and cotton.

As for the impact of the horse on Native American history, besides modernizing warfare between tribes, the introduction of the horse turned many tribes which were primarily farmers into hunters -- especially those tribes on the great plains where the buffalo could now be hunted better than on foot.

As for the impact that domesticated animals had on America, it was tremendous because for the first time the inhabitants of these lands could get the land to produce greater yields because of the expertise of Europeans use of animal waste as fertilizers.

In Europe because land was at a premium, European farmer learned to use animal waste as fertilizers out of necessity to enrich the land to produce larger crops.   

In the America's, Native American farmers would farm for two years then allow the land to sit dormant for a third year with the hope that the land will enrich itself.

Besides wild game including turkey, beaver, deer, elk, bear, and buffalo, as for domesticated animals -- there were none.  All forms of the domestic livestock -- pigs, sheep, goats, hens, cattle and horses were brought to America by Europeans.

Along with domesticated animals, in the 1600s and 1700s ships bound for America brought Europeans who introduce new crops from Europe including clover, alfalfa, timothy, small grains, and fruits and vegetables.

From Africa, Europeans introduce grain and sweet sorghum, melons, okra, and peanuts. And from South America, Europeans introduce sugar to the South. And yes, by the late 1700s tobacco is the chief cash crop of the South. 

In 1793, the first merino sheep brought to America. While the merino sheep was originally bred in the warm climate of Spain, between 1795 and 1815 the sheep industry became well established in New England.

From1805 to 1815, cotton begins to replace tobacco as the chief Southern cash crop. From 1810 to 1815, demand for Merino sheep sweeps the country

From 1815 to about 1825, competition with western farm areas begins to force New England farmers out of wheat and meat production and into dairying, trucking, and later, tobacco production

In 1819, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury instructs consuls to collect seeds, plants, and agricultural inventions overseas. By the 1820s, Poland-China and Duroc-Jersey swine are developed, and Berkshire swine are imported for the first time.

In 1821, Edmund Ruffin publishes his first essay on Calcareous Manures. Farming made Edmund Ruffin a wealthy Virginia planter. But he was more than just a farmer, he was a slaveholder who in the 1850s was a political activist known as one of the Fire-Eaters. 

Ruffin was among the 1.6% of the Southern aristocracy who advocated "states' rights" as an excuse to justify slavery. Ruffin requested to be the man and is credited for "firing the first shot of the war" at the Battle of Fort Sumter. He served as a Confederate soldier despite his being 67 year of age. 

When the war ended in Southern defeat in 1865, he committed suicide knowing he had lost everything. I find it strange that Ruffin's chief legacy today is his pioneering work in methods to preserve and improve soil productivity. He recommended crop rotation and additions to restore soils exhausted from tobacco mono-culture.

Around 1830, cotton becomes the most important cash crop in the Old South.

From the early 1830s and into the 1850s, improved transportation to the West forces Eastern staple growers into more varied production for nearby cities.

From 1836 to 1862, the U.S. Patent Office collects agricultural information and distributes seeds. From 1840 to 1850, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are the chief wheat producers in the United States.

From 1840 to 1860, Hereford, Ayrshire, Galloway, Jersey, and Holstein cattle are imported and bred for the first time in the United States. In 1849, the first poultry exhibition is held in the United States. In the 1850s, commercial corn and wheat belts begin to develop.

Wheat occupies the newer and cheaper land West of the corn areas, and is constantly forced Westward by rising land values and the encroachment of corn. 

In the late 1850s, alfalfa is grown on the West Coast in California for the first time.

In 1858, Grimm alfalfa is introduced. Named after Wendelin Grimm, he is best known for his innovative seed-saving techniques that resulted in North America's first winter-hardy alfalfa. When Wendelin Grimm arrived in Minnesota in the fall of 1857, he brought with him more than just his family. He also carried with him a small bag of "ewiger klee" or "everlasting clover" seeds.

These seeds were the best producers from his farmstead in Germany. The following spring, Mr Grimm planted his alfalfa seeds on his newly purchased land. The winters in Minnesota were harsher than in Germany and because of such much of his crop "winter-killed."

It is said that each year, he would save the seeds from the plants that survived and replant them the following spring. After many years of this, he no longer experienced winter-kill on his crop. Many of Grimm's neighbors noticed the superiority of his crops and the health of his cattle. 

One of his neighbors, Arthur B. Lyman, worked to bring Grimm's alfalfa to the attention of Professor Willet Hays at the University of Minnesota. Mr Hays brought Grimm's alfalfa to the masses. 

A deficiency in Grimm's alfalfa was its inability to resist bacterial wilt. In the 1940s, more resistant strains were developed, and Grimm's alfalfa was no longer widely used. 

Roger Stein of the Carver Park Reserve said this about the role and importance of the alfalfa grown by Grimm, "You could say that all North American alfalfa comes from parents that originated on this site." 

It is estimated that Grimm's alfalfa is the basis for the United States' third largest crop (hay) accounting for 60 million acres and a value of $3.4 billion annually.

By 1860, Wisconsin and Illinois are chief wheat States. While that was going on up North, in the 1860s, the Southern "Cotton Belt" begins to move Westward.

About the same time, the Mid-West's "Corn Belt" begins stabilizing in its present area.

Following the Civil War, a hungry nation needed to be fed, and in 1866 the era of the Great Plains cattlemen begins.

In the 1870s, increased specialization in farm production began. During this time Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio chief wheat States.

Also, for cattlemen, the 1870s brought the first reports of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States

In 1874 and again in 1876, grasshopper plagues devastate the Mid-West. In 1877,  U.S. Entomological Commission established for work on grasshopper control. In the 1880s, the cattle industry moves into the Western and Southwestern parts of the Great Plains.

In 1881, French scientist Louis Pasteur developed the first effective vaccine for anthrax for the cattle industry. Until the vaccine, anthrax infections killed hundreds of thousands of animals and people worldwide each year. 

In 1882, Bordeaux mixture (fungicide) discovered in France and soon used in United States. Bordeaux mixture, also called Bordo Mix, is a mixture of copper sulfate and slaked lime used as a fungicide. It is used in vineyards, fruit-farms and gardens to prevent infestations of downy mildew, powdery mildew and other fungi. 

It is sprayed on plants as a preventative, but its mode of action is ineffective after a fungus has become established. If it is applied in large quantities annually for many years, the copper in the mixture eventually becomes a pollutant.

In addition to its use to control fungal infection on grape vines, the mixture is also widely used today to control potato blight, peach leaf curl and apple scab. It is approved for organic use, so is often used by organic gardeners where non-organic gardeners would prefer other controls. 

In 1882, the bacillus causing tuberculosis was identified and described by Robert Koch. He received the Nobel Prize in physiology medicine in 1905 for this discovery. Dr Koch did not believe the bovine (cattle) and human tuberculosis diseases were similar, which delayed the recognition of infected milk as a source of infection.

Later, the risk of transmission from this source was dramatically reduced by the invention of the pasteurization process. Dr Koch announced a glycerine extract of the tubercle bacilli as a "remedy" for tuberculosis in 1890, calling it "tuberculin". While it was not effective, it was later successfully adapted as a screening test for the presence of pre-symptomatic tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB, which is short for tubercle bacillus as it was known in 1880s, in the past also called phthisis, phthisis pulmonalis, or consumption, is a widespread, and in many cases fatal infectious disease.

By the mid-1880s, the state of Texas becomes the chief cotton State.

From 1866 to 1887, this was the heyday of the cattle industry. The day of the cattlemen, of trail drives, and of the open range. It all only lasted about two decades. 

Among the many factors that made the cattle boom go bust was overgrazing, a cattle glut by the late 1880s, increased grazing fees, increased costs to cross lands to get herds to markets, a ten year drought and two horrible winters. 

Yes, the final blow came following a decade of drought and desert-like summer heat, only to be followed by two terrible winters, 1885-1886 and 1886-1887, that killed thousands of cattle. The blizzards were  called "the Great Die Up" and it was disastrous to the cattle industry, 

In 1890, Minnesota, California, and Illinois chief wheat States.

In 1890, the Babcock butterfat test is devised. Until the 1890s, dishonest farmers could water down their milk or remove some cream before selling it to the factories because milk was paid for by volume. It is said that honest farmers, as well as those that produced naturally rich milk, were not being compensated fairly.

Stephen Moulton Babcock researched the problem at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Babcock test became the first inexpensive and practical test which factories could use to determine the fat content of milk to keep cheats from cheating and reward the honest farmer fairly.

In 1892, Boll weevil is found for the first time as it crosses the Rio Grande and begins to spread North and East. The boll weevil is a beetle which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. Thought to be native to Central America, it migrated into the United States from Mexico

In 1892, cattlemen mark that year as the point where eradication of pleuropneumonia took place in the United States.  Contagious bovine plueuropneumonia is highly contagious and generally accompanied by pleurisy. The United States has been free of the disease since 1892,

In 1899, a new improved method of anthrax inoculation is introduced.

From 1900 to 1910, Turkey red wheat emerges as commercial crop in the United States.

From 1900 to 1920, extensive experimental work to breed disease-resistant varieties of plants, to improve plant yield and quality, and to increase the productivity of farm animal strains

In 1903, a Hog Cholera serum developed.  While today the term "cholera" might seem something only heard in Western movies, Hog Cholera, also known as Classical Swine Fever (CSF), is a highly contagious disease of pigs, wild boar, and javelina.

How bad could it be? Well, hog cholera causes fever, skin lesions, convulsions and usually (particularly in young animals) death within 15 days.

1904, First serious stem-rust epidemic affecting wheat

1910, North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota chief wheat States; durum wheats become important commercial crops; 35 States and territories require tuberculin testing of all cattle entering

1910-20,Grain production reaches into the most arid sections of the Great Plains

1912, Marquis wheat introduced; Panama and Colombia sheep developed

1917, Kansas red wheat distributed

By the 1920s, the boll weevil had infested all U.S. cotton-growing areas devastating the industry and the people working in the South. During the late 20th century it became a serious pest in South America as well. So bad was it that it wasn't until, 1978, that the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in the U.S. allowed full-scale cultivation to resume in many regions.

1926, Ceres wheat distributed; first hybrid-seed corn company organized; Targhee sheep developed

1930-35, Use of hybrid-seed corn becomes common in the Corn Belt

1934, Thatcher wheat distributed; Landrace hogs imported from Denmark

1938, Cooperative organized for artificial insemination of dairy cattle

1940s and 1950s, Acreages of crops, such as oats, required for horse and mule feed drop sharply as farms use more tractors

1945-55, Increased use of herbicides and pesticides

1947, U.S. cooperates with Mexico to prevent spread of foot-and-mouth disease

1950s, Sterile flies used for screwworm control

1960s, Soybean acreage expands as an alternative to other crops; 96% of corn acreage planted with hybrid seed; Gaines wheat distributed, and Fortuna wheat distributed

1970s, Plant Variety Protection Act; Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Norman Borlaug for developing high-yielding wheat varieties; Molecular biologist Paul Berg pioneers the techniques that make possible the transfer of genes from one strand of DNA to another; Lancota wheat introduced; according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Hog cholera was officially eradicated in the United States that year; and Purcell winter wheat was introduced.

1980s, The first American patent for a genetically engineered organism, a bacterium used to clean up oil spills, is granted; Biotechnology becomes viable for improving crop and livestock products; Avian influenza of poultry eradicated before it spreads beyond a few Pennsylvania counties; and Anti-smoking campaigns and legislation begin to affect the tobacco industry.

1990s, Biotechnology brings important new developments in dairy, corn, and other commodities; genetically engineered crops and livestock appear; Livestock waste becomes a major issue; USDA meat inspection programs modernized in response to concerns about food safety; FlavrSavr tomatoes were created by Calgene.

These tomatoes contained a genetic sequence that made them soften more slowly than conventional tomatoes; The FlavrSavr tomato often was marketed as a transgenic variety that cost more because of its improved flavor. 

Calgene has said that there were quality control problems with the FlavrSavr. The company did not have access to the best cultivars, so the genetic sequence was inserted into a cultivar that lacked consistent production qualities. 

The resulting tomatoes sometimes fell below the marketing standards set for the FlavrSavr label. The FlavrSavr tomatoes were available sporadically for several years, but eventually production was discontinued.

In 1996, the "New Leaf Superior" potato was developed by Monsanto. It carries a beetle-killing BT gene, and is registered as an insecticide with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Monsanto's NatureMark "NewLeaf" potato, genetically engineered with the Bt gene to provide resistance to insect pests, was first marketed in 1996. 

Two additonal products, NewLeaf Y, which had Bt and resistance to potato virus Y, and NewLeaf Plus, which had Bt and resistance to the potato leaf roll virus, were introduced later. 

NewLeaf potatoes never commanded a large share of the market, partly because several fast-food chains and chip makers declined to accept them. 

Monsanto announced in the spring of 2001 that NewLeaf potatoes would be discontinued so that the company could focus on more profitable products.

So what about the future?

Well for thousands of years, farmers have been altering the genetic makeup of the crops they grow. Always looking for the best crop compared to their wild relatives.

Whether it's corn or cattle, we have plants and animals breeding programs the likes that have never been seen before. And yes, today they are better than that which our ancestors had years ago. 

And no, I don't see research coming to a halt very soon because whether it is looking for features such as being resistant to winter-kill, or needing it to have faster growth or larger seeds, or whether it's about making sweeter fruits or pest resistant, or leaner beef, producers and scientists are working together to better domestic crops and livestock.

History shows us that science and American producers can work together to provide America and the world with more good healthy food than ever before. 

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Agriculture has been a big part of American history for over 200 years. From the colonial era to now people have harvested crops for the winter and fed their families while trying to live a good life. And that way of life is as rugged as ever. But as rugged as it may seem, it has many benefits. The cows give milk and the corn makes for one tasty snack you can enjoy at the movies. And the flour and lard can be used for homemade biscuits. So needless to say, some Southern charm comes from the farm. Or any charm for that matter. LOL.


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