The History of Farming

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

Over 10,000 years ago, humans began to cultivate and raise crops. Back then, a single farm could maybe grow enough food to feed a family and perhaps a little more.

Today, a farmer in a developed country can grow enough food to feed hundreds of people. 

The path from agriculture’s ancient roots to a modern mechanized farm wasn’t a straight line, and it relied on multiple major innovations throughout history.

Learn more about the history of farming and the innovations that increased production on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In a previous episode, I addressed the history of agriculture. I covered when and where we think agriculture was independently developed. 

In this episode, I want to talk about the innovations that, over time, resulted in changes and improvements in agricultural production. 

So, to start, we have to have an idea of what farming was like when it began. 

The first farms were, as you can imagine, extremely simple affairs. Once people realized they could use seeds to grow new plants, it was just a matter of getting seeds and throwing those seeds on the ground. 

This was a pretty poor system for a host of reasons. 

The process of tossing seeds was something that was done for thousands of years. It is known as broadcasting. That is a word you are probably familiar with, as radio and television transmissions are called broadcasts. 

The modern term broadcasting actually gets its name from the farming technique. 

Broadcasting was nothing more than taking a handful of seeds and casting them in a broad arc. 

The problem with broadcasting is that the seeds weren’t evenly distributed. You’d have clumps of seeds on one part of the field, and other parts had less. 

The second problem is that seeds don’t do very well when they are on the surface of the soil. They don’t have access to the nutrients that lie just below the surface, and they are susceptible to being preyed on by birds and other animals. 

This phase of farming probably didn’t last very long. Farmers realized that their crops did better when they planted in soil that was turned over. This led to the development of the hoe. 

The hoe was a simple device which allowed farmers to turn over the soil by hand. 

Turning over the soil had huge implications for farming, and it is still practiced today. 

When soil is turned over, it allows nutrients that are below the surface to be raised to the surface. It aerates the soil and breaks up the hard, compacted soil on the surface. It also buries weeds that are on the surface and makes it harder for them to grow. In addition, it allowed dead plant matter and field residues to be plowed under the surface where they could decay faster, providing more nutrients. 

Hoes were a breakthrough. In fact, some people place hoe farming with the start of agriculture. However, hoeing was extremely difficult work. Turning over an entire farm field by hand was backbreaking work. Even using a hoe in a backyard garden can be very difficult.

This led to the development of the ard. The ard was a type of hoe that could be dragged. It is considered to be a forerunner of the plow. It was really nothing more than a stick that could be pulled along and cut through the topsoil. 

Ards were initially pulled by people, and the earliest ards date back to the 8th millennium BC. 

In Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, oxen were domesticated around 6000 BC, and one of the biggest uses for these domesticated cattle was pulling ards across a field.

Around 2300 BC, iron ards began to appear in Assyria and Egypt.

Ards were certainly an improvement over hoes. However, there were several weaknesses in the ox-pulled ard. 

One of the biggest innovations was the creation of the plow. In particular, the single stick of the ard was replaced with a board, which was known as a mouldboard. 

The mouldboard was able to not just cut a furrow in the soil but also could turn over the soil. 

The mouldboard is believed to have been developed by the Romans, which is of note because there weren’t many technical innovations that came out of the Roman Empire or Republic. However, plows were something that they really excelled at. 

Celtic farmers took the Roman plow and added wheels to it, making it easier to pull. 

The Chinese independently developed the mouldboard plow and also created the first mouldbord plow made out of iron. 

Another major innovation was the move from oxen to horses. Oxen never stopped being used to pull plows. They are still used in some parts of the world today. 

However, horses had more endurance than oxen. They could work a longer day and plow more of a field. 

However, when horses were initially used, they were hooked up to plows via a throat-girth harness. These were basically a leash put around the neck of a horse. 

The throat-girth harness was extremely inefficient. It would partially choke the horse, preventing them from pulling at their maximum capacity. These sorts of harnesses were used throughout the ancient world, including China, Egypt, Greece, and Assyria, 

This was solved with the development of the horse collar. The first horse collars were developed sometime around the second to fourth century BC in China. 

The horse collar shifted the burden from the neck of the horse to the shoulders, which allowed a horse to pull more efficiently. According to some 18th century experiments, as much as three times more efficient. 

In addition to the plow, I should also note the development of the seed drill, which served a similar function as the plow or the ard.  Seed drills allowed for the planting of seeds at a set depth. They appeared independently in Assyria and China. 

The other major innovation was the development of irrigation. The first irrigation systems appeared around 8000 years ago. The story of irrigation is worth an episode of its own, but like turning over the soil, bringing water to crops was one of the first things that early farmers figured out. 

Here, the story of farming takes an odd turn. 

There was very little in the way of innovation in farming for centuries. The life of a farmer in the first century wasn’t radically different than that of a farmer in the 16th century. 

There were some technical developments, including horseshoes and iron plows. 

During the 14th century, there was a period known as the Arab Agricultural Revolution. Information about farming was shared across the entire Islamic world.  New crops and irrigation techniques were brought to places where they hadn’t been before, but it wasn’t a radical introduction of new agricultural techniques.

Likewise, during the 16th century, the Columbian exchange saw a host of new crops from the New World, which were transported to the Old World. 

The beginning of modern agriculture began in the 17th century with the British agricultural revolution. 

The British agricultural revolution took place alongside the Industrial Revolution, which happened in parallel to it.  The application of experimentation, invention, and the scientific method to agriculture defined the British Agricultural Revolution. 

Multiple innovations were popularized during this period. One of the major ones was the four-crop rotation system. Crop rotation has been known to farmers for thousands of years.  

The four-crop rotation system was popularized by Charles Townshend in the 17th century. It involved farmers replenishing the nutrients in the soil by rotating crops over four plots of land. The most common crops were wheat, turnips, barley, and clover. Barley served as fodder for animals, and clover was used as grazing land for animals that would fertilize the land while grazing on it. 

This system allowed for domesticated animals to be bred year-round.

Selective breeding was also done analytically, starting in the 17th century by Robert Bakewell. While it had been done for centuries, selective breeding programs had never been systematically conducted before. He was able to breed sheep and cattle, including the first cattle that were bred to be raised as beef, not just work animals. 

In 1701, Jethro Tull perfected the seed drill. Versions of the seed drill have been used for centuries. Tull’s version was mechanized and allowed for the planting of seeds three rows at a time….and yes, this is the person that the rock band is named after. 

In 1786, the Scottish inventor Andrew Meikle invented the mechanical thresher, which could remove the outer husks from grains of wheat.

In the 19th century, the pace of innovation accelerated as mechanization increasingly found its way into farming. 

In 1826, Scottish inventor Reverend Patrick Bell developed a reaping machine using a scissor-type device to cut crops at their base. The same type of systems are still in use today. 

In 1835, American inventor Hiram Moore built and patented the first combine harvester. A combine harvester, also simply known as a combine, is a machine that combines four different processes during harvesting into one: reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing.

Combines were a massive labor-saving device, and they are still used today in the harvesting of most major agricultural crops, including wheat, barley, rice, corn, soy, oats, and many others. 

In 1837, an American blacksmith by the name of John Deere developed a steel plow that allowed soil to not stick to the plow blade, which was a problem farmers faced with the soil in the Midwest.

In 1843, Australian John Ridley developed a stripper that would only cut the heads off of crops, leaving the rest of the plant in the field to be plowed back into the soil. 

Chemistry also played a part in improving agricultural outputs. The 19th century saw the first artificial fertilizers, such as ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate.

The thing that really drove the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine. There were attempts as early as 1812 to adopt steam engines for farming, but the technology wasn’t easily transferred. Farms were more remote and only tended to need the power a few weeks a year, not continuously like a factory. Moreover, they weren’t very portable, which would be necessary if they were to be used in the field.

This changed in 1859 when the British Thomas Aveling modified a smaller portable steam engine to be self-propelled. These were known as traction engines, and it is where the modern English word ‘tractor’ comes from.

Steam tractors were used for plowing in the second half of the 19th century, but they were far from universally adopted. In most cases, it was still more efficient to use horses because traction engines were so heavy.

In the 1890s, the internal combustion engine made tractors more practical. In 1889, John Charter in Illinois built the first gasoline-powered tractor.

However, the big breakthrough came in 1902 when English inventor Dan Albone manufactured what he dubbed the Ivel Agricultural Motor. A cheap internal combustion engine tractor that sold for £300. Over 500 of the tractors were built and shipped around the world. 

At first, these tractors didn’t catch on. The person who really made tractors take off in popularity was Henry Ford, who developed the Fordson tractor and first sold it in 1917. The Fordson was able to take advantage of the mass production techniques used by the Ford Motor Company, and by 1923, the Fordson had 73% of the market share.

Chemistry didn’t disappear, either. In 1910, the Haber Bosh process, which I covered in a previous episode, allowed for the creation of fertilizers from nitrogen in the atmosphere. 

One problem that had plagued farmers for thousands of years, literally, was insects eating their crops. Pesticides developed from natural sources began seeing use in the 19th century, and arsenic-based pesticides were popular in the first half of the 20th century. 

Swiss chemist Paul Müller discovered the insecticidal properties of a chemical known as DDT, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948. DDT was put to wide use starting in the 1950s. 

DDT was eventually banned, but pesticides have become ubiquitous in agriculture, as have chemicals such as herbicides to control weeds and fungicides to prevent fungal infections. 

As the genome was unlocked, companies began to genetically engineer crops to increase production and to make them more adaptable for certain climates and soils. 

One of the most recent advancements in farming is the adaptation of information technology to allow for precision farming. Satellite imagery can determine exactly which parts of a field require fertilizing or require pesticides. GPS-guided tractors can be driven automatically, reducing the amount of labor required to work a field. 

All of these more recent developments are worthy of their own future episodes. 

Today, the world produces more food than ever before, and many farms around the world still do not have the advantage of modern mechanized farm machines. That means there are still increases in productivity to be found from just spreading current technologies to places that haven’t adopted them. 

A modern farm in a developed country is a very high-tech affair involving computers, GPS systems, and expensive machinery. 

This is far from its beginnings of people throwing some seeds on the ground and hoping for the best. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Soccerstudd18 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Never lets me down!

I’ve been catching up each day. I listen to about ten episodes a day in an effort of being current with everyone else. I give five stars, hoping to hear my review read aloud in a future episode! Keep pumping them out.

Thanks, soccerstudd! Your wish to have your review read on the show is hereby granted. If you can keep up your 10 a day routine, you should be a member of the completionist club in no time.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.