Agriculture of America
The Plant Life
The Corn Belt
Farm and Village 12122zzs14tpb6p
1. THE RAINFALL
In the Northern Hemisphere, the western portions of continents are especially favored by the prevailing winds. This is because the western lands gather the rains as they come off the ocean, blown by storms that circle from west to east.
Unfortunately, the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so dose to the west coast, catch the largest share of the rain off the Pacific Ocean before it can go further Inland. As a result, there is too little rain for almost the whole western half of the United States, which lies in the ,,rain shadow” of the mountains. In a great part of that territory, therefore, farmers must depend on irrigation water from the snows or rains that are trapped by the mountains.
One of the most important geographic boundaries in the United States 15 the 50-centimeter rainfall line, which runs north and south almost through the middle of the country. East of the line, farming is relatively easy, and the population is relatively large. West of the line, one finds man-made irrigation systems, dry-farming, grazing, and fewer people. West of the Rocky Mountains, running all the way from the Canadian border to Mexico, there are vast areas where almost no trees grow. In this section of the country are the deserts which receive as little as 12.7 centimeters of rainfall a year. Yet, west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, there are places in which 250 centimeters of ram falls annually.
2. THE TEMPERATURE
If there were no mountains or oceans, and if the winds circled the earth with perfect regularity, then the amount of heat and the length of the farmer's growing season would progress uniformly from north to south. Instead there are all kinds of unexpected differences in climate. For instance, all along the western coast, the temperature changes little between winter and summer. In some places, the average difference between July and January is as little as 10 degrees centigrade. The climate along the northern part of this coast is similar to that of England. But in the north central part of the country, summer and winter are worlds apart. There the average difference between July and January is 36 degrees centigrade and more violent extremes are common. The coldest days of a typical January may be –40 degrees centigrade, and the hottest July day may be 45 degrees. This is the sort of climate that is found far from the moderating influence of the oceans. In the eastern part of the United States, the difference between summer and winter is also very distinct, but not nearly so extreme. Near the southwestern corner of the country, the climate is mild and springlike in winter, but in summer the temperature may reach equatorial intensity. In Alaska, almost continuous daylight in summer makes the short growing season an intense one.
The variations in temperature within the United States have had a marked effect on the country's economy and living standards. As the Growing Season Map on page 13 shows, there is a long crop-growing season along the southeast coast where cotton is a principal product. This 18 also true in several small strips and pockets to the west where crops like grapes grow well during a large part of the year. In some of the cooler climates or in climates which combine coolness and humidity, animals and produce such as apples, wheat and corn thrive, thus giving the United States a large range of agricultural products.
These variations, combined with a fast transportation system, have meant that there can be a rapid interchange of agricultural products from one part of the country to another. Thus, not only is there a greater market for what otherwise would have been strictly regional products, but this expansion of markets has meant great employment opportunities in all areas.
3. THE PLANT LIFE
When early voyagers approached the land that is now the United States, they noticed a sweet and surprising ,,land smell," a clue that they were near the shore. This ,,land smell" came from the great, thick forest that covered all the eastern part of the country and stretched about 1,600 kilometers westward until it met the tall grass of the prairies.
No one knows just why the woods ended where they did, or why the tall grass of the prairies - the wide rolling and almost treeless plains - began at that point. The reason still remains shrouded in mystery, for the eastern part of the prairies’ tall grasslands have soil that will support tree life. One explanation has it that the Indians burned off the forest in order to force game animals out to the hunters. Another reason given is that perhaps some early special conditions of soil and rainfall were responsible. This has been accepted as a more plausible explanation, but nobody really knows. Nevertheless, the early settlers wrote that the prairie grass was very beautiful, interlaced with flowers in the spring, and so tall that a man on foot could not see over it.
It is clear why the tall grass became short grass farther west - lack of rainfall.
Still farther west, the Vegetation Map looks quite mixed. Forests cover the slopes where mountains catch enough rain. A few favored grassy meadows lie in the high mountain valleys. On the dry lowland -and on high tablelands - dry, harsh bushes grow; so do kinds of grass common to and regions, with places here and there too dry or too full of salt for even this poor desert growth.
The greatest wonder of all are the forests of sequoia and fir trees on the northwest coast, where the mountains catch the heavy Pacific rains. These great trees, some of which are 3,000 years old, are among the largest and oldest living things known. Some were seedlings when Troy fell, and already giants when Rome was founded. The silent forests are filled with columns of great trunks lighted dimly by sun filtered through leaves far above. Most of these forests are protected by law and preserved as a national treasure.
4. THE CORN BELT
On hot, still midsummer nights in the Corn Belt, the farmers insist they can hear the corn growing. This facetious claim points tip the fact that this crop grows fast, sometimes five centimeters during a night. By late summer, it may be three or four meters high. It is easy to get lost in a large field of full-grown corn because there is no way of looking over it or through its tall, heavy growth of thick stalks and broad leaves. The only thing to do is to follow the straight line between two rows of the plants which may stretch for a kilometer or more to reach a road at the edge of the field.
Corn is the most important of all American crops, as basic to American agriculture as iron is to American industry. In the United States, two farmers out of every three, and one hectare out of every four cultivated, grow corn. The annual crop is greater than the nation's yield of wheat, rice and other small grains combined, and probably one of the United States' greatest resources is its ability to grow great quantities of corn.
However, the only corn most Americans see is ,,sweet corn”, a garden vegetable that is eaten either fresh or preserved, or is ground into meal for baking. But these uses account for only a small fraction of the crop.
Most of the yield - some three-fourths of it - is used as animal feed and reaches the table in the form of milk, cream, cheese, butter, eggs, beef, lamb, pork or poultry. Much of the remainder is processed into oil, syrups and starches.
Corn also has proven to be an astonishingly versatile industrial material. From a com distilling process manufacturers extract alcohol-fuel, or gasohol, used in many farm vehicles and growing numbers of cars. Corn soaked in warm water for 2 days produces ,,steepwater”, which can be converted into drugs, vitamins and minerals. Scientists have derived a biodegradable plastic film from corn starch that could replace plastics made from petroleum. Another technological offspring of corn starch is called the ,,Super Slurper”, a dust that can absorb 2,000 times its weight in water. And corn starch itself has become such a popular sweetener in soft drinks and other prepared foods that it now rivals sugar.
There are two main reasons why corn has become the basic crop of American agriculture. One is that it grows so well. A hectare of corn requires only one-twelfth as much seed as a hectare of wheat, for instance. Yet the yield of grain from the hectare of corn is several times as high as that from the hectare of wheat. The other reason is that farmers have worked out high-yield mechanized product ion methods in all the important corn-producing areas. The Corn Belt farmer uses machines for every step of his operation-planting, enriching the soil, cultivating, spraying, killing weeds, harvesting the ears, removing the thick natural wrappings, shelling the kernels from the long cobs on which they grow, and cutting the stalks. Because of this extensive use of machinery, the average farmer can cultivate as many as 140 hectares and care for a large herd of livestock with no more help than perhaps a son who spends several hours a day in school. On a Corn Belt farm, the most impressive buildings are the large barns and machine sheds which may dwarf the farmer's house itself.
Farmers first began to keep reliable records of corn production in 1866. Between 1866 and 1939, the corn yield in the United States averaged between 700 and 1,000 liters of shelled grain per hectare. Suddenly, in 1940, it began to increase greatly each year; by 1948, it was about 1,500 liters per hectare; and, by 1972, it reached about 3,400 liters per hectare. (The highest recorded yield is about 7,000 liters per hectare, produced in the State of Iowa.) Such a vast and rapid change in the most basic crop represents a real agricultural revolution.
This has been a quiet sort of revolution, however, because the chief difference between the older corn agriculture and the new is simply that the farmer plants a different kind of seed. Instead of saving the best ears from each year's crop for the next year's planting, the traditional method, the farmer now buys new seed every year. The increased value of the crop more than pays for the extra cost.
Corn grown from the new kinds of seed is called a ,,hybrid”, that is, a corn which results from the mating of different types of the same grain. Different kinds of hybrids are developed for such basic qualities as higher yields, stronger stalks and hydrotropic roots. As with other grains, different strains have been developed for different soil and climate conditions and for different purposes. For instance, some contain twice as much oil as ordinary corn; others are rich in certain minerals.
Producing hybrid corn is a lengthy process which must be done by hand, during 12 or more years of crossbreeding among different varieties. This process, difficult and complex as it is, is simple compared to the job of discovering that new kinds of corn could be developed, or to the job of discovering how to develop them. With other grains, all or nearly all the plants are like the parents. But corn is different. American plant scientists began working on the problem of controlling corn qualities very early in the 2Oth century and it was only after many years of trial and error that they were able to master the theory and practice of growing hybrids.
Like farmers everywhere, American farmers did not like to throw away anything that experience had taught them. They did not like to risk an untried new idea, no matter how good it sounded. To the eye, hybrid corn did not look as impressive as the prize ears of ordinary corn they were so proud of growing. So, even after the first hybrids were developed, farmers were unwilling to use them. The corn breeders had to spend some 20 years more improving the value of the new strains before a few farmers were convinced it was worth risking. After that, the revolution in the Corn Belt took only a few years as the greater yields proved the value of the new grain.
5. FARM AND VILLAGE
The rural village typical of many countries in Europe and Asia - a collection of homes, dose together, occupied by the people who work on the surrounding lands - is virtually unknown in 2Oth-century America. In the United States, instead, each farm family usually lives separately on its own fields, often beyond the sight of its neighbors. The village or town is predominantly a place where the farm family travels to buy supplies, to attend church, and to go for entertainment or political, social or business meetings. In most such areas, special buses pick up children every day to take them to the schools which are usually in the town.
When the early settlers first came to America they followed the old European pattern. In New England, they lived in a cluster of houses around a central green where the cattle of the whole village grazed. The farmer's croplands ex-tended outward around the village.
Southward, in the State of Virginia, however, farmers scattered up and down the creeks and rivers, with great distances between families. These settlers were planting a New World crop, tobacco, which required fresh land every few years. This forced the tobacco farmers to move west-ward, as separate families, whenever the land became exhausted. When, after several generations, families reached the low hills at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains and the long valleys enclosed by the mountains, they changed their farming from tobacco to grain and livestock. With these new crops which did not exhaust the soil, people had no further need to move. However, the tradition of the independent, separate farm was very strong, and there were no desires to adopt a village type of organization.
Much the same thing had been happening in other eastern states, but for different reasons. In the western reaches of Maryland and New York, wealthy landowners held great blocks of uncultivated land. Frontier farmers who traveled to these areas to dear and farm them without any legal right to the land, naturally did not wish to call attention to themselves by establishing villages. Many other families in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York lived on separate homesteads because they came from different countries or held different religious beliefs from their neighbors.
In any case, it was the most independent and self-reliant families who were the first to push westward to the Appalachian Mountains, then southward along the mountain valleys, then into the great Central Basin, and finally west-ward beyond the Rockies. These were the people who set the pattern of the separate farmstead.
Until the days of good roads and automobiles, farming in the United States was a hard and lonely life. To be successful, the farmer and his wife had to develop a variety of skills. Whenever a problem arose, they usually had to deal with it themselves. There were times, of course, when neighbors helped each other with big jobs like building barns but, in day-to-day work, the farmer had to be his own mechanic and was often even his own inventor.
This tradition of the individual farm family was further reinforced by government policy. For many years, beginning in 1862, the government gave land away free. To take full possession of that land, a settler and his family had to clear it, build a house and live there for at least five years.
Between 1890 and the early 1930s, there was an increase in the number of tenant farmers. To reverse this development and to help farmers keep their holdings, the national and state governments provided bans in times of drought or crop failure. Many tenant farmers have also been helped to buy land of their own.
As a result of this combination of tradition and policy, there are not many farms which are owned by absentee landowners. In the United States, only about two to three per cent of all farms are operated by hired managers and only slightly more than one-fourth of all farm labor is done by full-time hired workers or by transient farm labor.
The frontier settlers took with them into the Central Basin many different agricultural traditions which influenced the methods brought over by the original English settlers. The Swedes introduced the log cabin, which became the typical dwelling of the frontier wherever there were trees. The Dutch brought new breeds of farm animals and skills in dairying. The Scots and Irish brought potato cultivation, for although this was a New World crop, it was first widely planted in Europe. What became the typical American barn was actually first created by Germans. Even today, this process of borrowing continues. Two pasture plants, lespedeza and kudzu, have been brought to the United States from Asia. The soybean, another Asian plant, has become one of the chief crops in the Corn Belt. Italians and Japanese have influenced fruit and vegetable growing. Scandinavians have played a large role in dairying and cheesemaking in the great northern dairy region of the Central Basin.
Until rather recently, most of the farmers in the Central Basin practiced ,,general farming”, that is, the family produced as much of its own food and equipment as possible, and sold whatever remained to buy things it could not raise or make.
Today, however, nearly all the farm families in the Central Basin do ,,commercial farming”: they raise products for sale and do not generally try to produce crops to be self-sufficient. This change from general farming to commercial farming represents another kind of agricultural revolution typified by a decline in the number of farm families concurrent with an increase in the size of farms.
As a result of the growing use of sophisticated farm machinery and advances in the development of fertilizers and in the breeding of animals and crops, the average size of farms in the United States increased from 60 hectares in 1920 to 155 hectares in 1973. A century ago, two-thirds of the American people lived on farms. In 1920, as many as 32 million, or 30 per cent, of the population were farmers. In 1960, farmers and their families numbered 15 million, or about eight per cent. By 1980 the farm population had fallen to 6,241,000.
In a little town in the southern part of the State of Alabama, there is a monument honoring the cotton boll weevil! The people of that area erected the monument because, after the boll weevil destroyed their cotton crop in 1910, they were compelled to stop growing cotton and turned instead to dairying and to raising peanuts and melons. What was first viewed as a misfortune was a blessing in disguise, since the new farming was better suited to the land and raised their standard of living.
In another place, in Alabama, three brothers in 1934 acquired a lumber mill that had already depleted most of the surrounding forest. The remaining trees were enough to keep the mill busy only eight years longer. But the brothers had new ideas, and today the mill is cutting more wood than it ever did in the old days. The supply may continue forever because the forest has become a carefully managed ,,tree farm”. Not only have the brothers grown new trees to replace the old ones, but they have also been instrumental in spreading ,,tree farming” to land that could no longer grow cotton.
Mississippi, the most thoroughly agricultural state of the South began a program around 1940 to increase manufacturing and adopted the slogan, ,,Balance Agriculture with Industry”. The plan has helped create thousands of new industrial jobs.
These examples give but a glimpse of the three-sided movement of diversification that is revitalizing the South. First, southerners are bringing their agriculture into balance, with crops that put new life into the soil, and with many types of plants and animals which are suited to the varied features of their landscape. Second, they are adding to the basic wealth of the region by using and cultivating their resources, instead of either letting them lie idle or destroying them. And, third, they are bringing their whole economy into balance by adding industry to farming.
At first, diversification was slow and often happened by chance, as the example of the town in Alabama shows. But, over the years, it became a very broad movement, deliberately planned by individual farmers and manufacturers, and deliberately encouraged by local communities, states and the federal government.
The change in farming started in different ways in different places. Usually it began with one farmer, more daring than others, willing to experiment with new crops or a new way of plowing, or one adventurous enough to change from raising crops to raising farm animals. His success emboldened others to follow suit.
Remaking a farm is always hard and risky, but there are many ways in which the farmer is encouraged and helped to avoid mistakes. The government has a program under which farmers in a district vote to adopt a soil conservation program for their area. Agricultural experts help them plan how to use their fields for various crops and show them how to rebuild the soil. In some parts of the South, farmers could not afford to buy the new equipment or seeds or animals needed to improve their methods. In these cases, the states and the federal government have arranged financial loans to meet such needs.
One of the biggest problems the South has faced has been the existence of tenant farmers who only rent the land they cultivate. Since most tenant farmers do not have the incentive that landowning farmers have, production and income on these farms has traditionally been low. To overcome this lack of initiative, loans have been made available to tenant farmers who wish to purchase the land they work.
With these changes in agriculture has also come a growth in industries related to farm production. New processes have been developed for freezing foods so that many farmers can now profitably grow vegetables for city markets. Packing plants for poultry and dairy products have grown in number. The construction of new hard roads and highways as well as the growth off fleets of freight trucks have made it easier for farm goods to reach both processing plants and city markets.
Although cotton is still the principal crop of the South, cotton growing has changed. Mechanical cotton pickers, one of which can do the work of 40 men, have taken the place of low-paid labor. Usually, throughout the history of the industrial revolution, the introduction of machines has created at least temporary problems of unemployment. However, the growth of industry in the South has been gradual; thus, workers who have left farm labor have been absorbed into other occupations without undue hardship.
Until 1940, most southern factories did simple jobs, compared with those in the North. They turned raw materials into partly finished products - such as cotton into cotton yarn or unbleached sheeting - and then shipped these goods north to be made into finished clothing. Or they took already finished machine parts from northern factories, and assembled them into machines that would be sold in the South.
Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, has long had a large steel industry, but its machinery came from the North and it made few finished steel products. Instead, it shipped out the metal. The South also shipped out partly refined aluminum ore instead of aluminum products, wood instead of furniture, and turpentine instead of paints.
This, too has changed. Better farming has brought farm machinery and toolmaking plants to the South. Higher wages and richer farms have brought clothing and shoe and household utensil factories. New houses, schools, barns and machinery sheds have created a need for window frames and doors, pipes and furnaces, and all the other things that go into modern buildings.
There are millions more industrial workers in the South than there were before World War II, and the number is increasing every year. Not all the industries have grown because the South has become a better market, however. Industry depends on the proper use of basic geographical resources, in the South as in the North. The South has always had raw materials, transportation and population.