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Home > Master Publication List > Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Farm Internship Curriculum and Handbook > The History of Food & Agriculture

Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education
(SARE) Farm Internship Curriculum and Handbook

Published 2007
Updated 2010

The History of Food & Agriculture

Learning Objectives
The learner will:

  • Gain an understanding of the history of agriculture, both globally and nationally.
  • Develop a context with which to engage in agricultural training.
  • Become familiar with patterns of irresponsible agricultural practices through case studies of historical events.


History of Agriculture

  • Humans as Hunters and Gathers
    • Humans, as in our genus Homo, existed 2 million years ago.
    • Humans lived as hunters and gatherers from then until approximately 12,000 years ago, when we developed agriculture.
    • While hunting, fishing, and gathering in the wild, humans had a limited impact on the environment.
    • Such humans did not have the idea that products of nature could be private property.
    • Populations were smaller and land base was larger. Food sources were dependable. Science and Anthropology have proven that although disease and violence were issues during that time, hunger was not.
  • Early Agriculture and the Domestication of Plants
    • If our history extended over a period of 24 hours, agriculture became a practice in the last 5 minutes.
    • As populations grew, wild plants and animals were taxed, humans depended more on farming and herding, which, in turn, allowed for increased population.
    • 12,000 years ago, Agriculture was independently and simultaneously adopted in the Middle East, China, Mesoamerica, and Peru.
    • Factors that contributed to the adoption of Agriculture
      • 12,000 years ago there was a warming trend in each of these regions.
      • Decrease in large mammals such as mammoths and bison.
    • Areas agriculture spread to and the native origin of many of our domesticated plant and animal species.
      • Southwest Asia - soft wheats, lentils, chickpeas, many vegetables and cows.
      • Southeast Asia - barley, oats, millets, soybeans, cabbage, plum/cherry/peach trees.
      • Mediterranean - hard wheats, peas, olives, sheep and Goats.
      • The Americas - maize, potatoes, beans, tobacco.
  • Civilization and Surplus
    • Over the last 12,000 years, agriculture has enriched our lives. It has brought us our favorite foods, beverages, and culinary traditions. It has allowed for fibers, textiles and clothes. It has brought us into domesticated relations with animals. It has fed the inventions of tools, the freedom to specialize, the pride of tending the earth, and the art and culture of civilization.
    • Agriculture created surplus. Surplus allowed for some individuals to spend time doing specialized activities that gave birth to industry, art, and culture.
    • The sedentary life made possible by agriculture created more complex social relationships that gave birth to more complicated societies.
  • The Power of Trade
    • Archaeological sites offer proof of trade.
    • Humans began to desire special tools, fibers, or foods. Surplus allowed for trade within one society or between neighboring societies. This desire to trade motivated the valuing of land and increase in production.
    • Control of land and agricultural surplus becomes key to wealth and power.
  • Humans begin to manipulate nature on a larger scale without concern for consequences.
    • Genesis I:26: 'then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."'

History of Agriculture in the United States of America

  • Colonization, Land Use, and Settlement
    • First residents are ancestors of Native Americans. Their presence dates back 14,000 years. They lived as hunters and gatherers, and practiced subsistence agriculture.
    • Most settlers were not farmers and relied on assistance from native peoples.
    • Colonial power inflicted genocide on native peoples and appropriated over 1 billion acres.
    • 1775 - 1855, 73.5 million acres given away to men who enlisted and served in the army and navy. In fact, free land was their incentive.
    • Generally land is sold to timber companies, railroads, speculators, developers, and ranchers.
    • 1840's - After pressure to liberalize the distribution of public lands, reformers attempted to pass homestead legislation: made connection between industry/urban development and diminishing self-sufficiency and demanded land be given to urban residents for free as a means alleviating bad economic conditions of urban factory workers. This didn't pass, eastern industrialists opposed it because it would have deprived them of a work force, western landowners opposed it because they felt it would depreciate land values, and southern planters opposed it thinking it would limit the potential expanse of slave-based agriculture.
    • 1870's - Acts, encourage cutting of forests, planting of plains, and irrigation of desert. No ecological awareness.
    • Abundant and cheep land, scarce labor, no markets made pioneer farmers invest mainly in the short term: building infrastructure and clearing forest rather than soil or food/animal production. Improved land was more marketable than food.
  • Deforestation and Desertification
    • Forests covered half of U.S. land, grasses covered 4/10ths.
    • First century began with clearing of over 300 million acres of forest and plowing up over 300 million acres of native grassland.
  • Human Exploitation/Labor
    • Indentured servants
      • Mostly European immigrants working in exchange for their passage from Europe.
      • Average contract was 5-7 years. Many were not fulfilled.
    • Slavery
      • 4,000,000 slaves by late 1800's.
      • One slave per 10 acres.
  • Regional Specialization
      • Corn - Midwest: Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana - leading corn producing states in the union. Grown for: the family, feed for workers (often transported to the South), and feed for livestock. Some used for whiskey.
        • Pork, 1860 - hogs used to run wild. Now fenced and fattened on corn, hogs gave cities like Cincinnati the name "Porkopolis." A new industry was born: growing corn, feeding it to hogs, and then slaughtering and processing for shipping.
        • Beef, 1850's - Completion of the railroad brought an end to cattle drives, which birthed a new industry of farmers (in Ohio first) fattening their cows off corn.
        • Barbed wire invented in 1880.
      • South - cotton
      • Deep South, coastal area - rice
      • Northeast - dairy, vegetable, horse - more local demand because of urban population
  • Farm Prosperity, 1885-1930
    • Frontier settlement era is over.
    • Dryland farming is growing in Great Plains.
    • Increased immigration increases farm output.
    • Government funded R & D, credit, cooperative marketing
  • The New Deal
    • The Agricultural Adjustment Act
      • The first farm bill
      • Paid farmers to reduce crop area
      • Decreased surplus
      • Raised prices
      • Deemed illegal but lead to…
    • The Agricultural Readjustment Act
      • Price supports for major storage crops to maintain sufficient supply
      • Beginning of farm subsidies: Corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and tobacco
  • World War II
    • High demand & high prices for food
    • Food rationing
    • Off-farm employment
  • Beginning of Commercial Agriculture After WW II: 1950-1970
    • In one generation, the workforce involved in agriculture declined by half
    • The value of agricultural products increased by 40%
    • Modern era of convenience
    • G.I. Bill sent people to universities instead of learning through generational knowledge transfer
  • Technological Advancements
    • Electrification
    • Refrigeration
    • Advances in processing, packaging
    • Development of the highway system
    • Price of store-bought goods decreased
    • Availability of goods increased
  • Mechanization
    • By 1925, tractors were becoming a profitable investment
    • Free up 25% of land under cultivation
    • By 1950, almost completely replaced horses and mules
  • Chemical
    • The TVA started selling NH4 to farmers in 1943 as fertilizer
    • Insecticides, fungicides, herbicides
    • Rapid growth of monocultures, no till, labor
  • "Green Revolution"
    • Technology transfer initiatives to Developing Nations, 1943-1970
    • High-yielding varieties
    • Irrigation infrastructure
    • Hybridized seed
    • Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
  • Biological
    • Hybridized Corn- most important plant breeding innovation in the U.S.
    • Decrease in genetic diversity, increase in yields
    • Wheat, rice, animals
    • Genetically-modified organisms
  • Livestock Industry
    • Without electricity, antibiotics and hormones, confinement operations would not be possible
    • Became easier and cheaper to buy meat, eggs and milk than to raise animals
    • 100-fold in labor productivity
  • Government and Policy
    • "The Farm Problem"
      • Incentives for home production lessened, no more sugar rations, homegrown meat, Victory Gardens
      • Now, farms were consistently producing more crops than they could sell
      • Instead of controlling production, had to manage surplus
    • "Get Big or Get Out"
      • In 1971, Nixon appointed Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture
      • Encouraged commodity production from fencerow to fencerow
      • Rise of agribusiness
  • Onset of Crisis and an Un-level Playing Field
    • 2005 Top Crop Payments:
      • Corn
      • Cotton
      • Soy
      • Wheat
      • Tobacco
      • Dairy
  • Consolidation in seed, livestock and organic industries
  • Farm Population
    • 1900: 6 million farms, 38% of work force
    • 1930: 7 million farms, 21% of work force
    • 1950: 5 million farms, 12% of work force
    • 1970: 3 million farms, 4.5% of work force
    • 2007: 2 million farms, 1-2% of work force
    • Average age of farmers = 57
  • Human Health
    • 1950: 10% of income on health care, 22% on food
    • 2007: 10% of income on food, 22% on health care
    • Globally, 1 billion adults are overweight
    • Type II Diabetes
  • Environmental Impact
    • Soil erosion
    • Climate change
    • Dead Zone
    • Air and water emissions from industrial agriculture
  • Energy Use
    • Grain-fed beef: requires 35 calories for every one produced
    • Agriculture contributes 12-15% of annual GHG emissions
  • Around the World
    • Farmers in India & Africa are still fighting for debt relief incurred from the Green Revolution
    • India reports 16,000 farmer suicides due to devastation
    • Climate change, deforestation, desertification
  • Here We Are Now


Historical Case Studies

  • Irish Potato Famine and Monoculture
  • Haiti and Deforestation and Soil Erosion
  • The Dust Bowl and the Destruction of Native Plant Ecology
  • Australia and Salinization
  • Cuba and Self-Sufficiency

Ideology and Practices of the Present and Future

  • Alternatives to industrial agriculture and factory farming.
  • Preserving small and family farms.
  • Remediation of the economic, social, and environmental consequences of Agriculture's history.


  • Consider the context in which you are choosing to become a farmer.
  • How has the historical information learned affected your interest in small and sustainable farming operations?
  • Discuss relevance of historical examples of poor agricultural practices and how to apply lessons learned.


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This page was last updated on: August 25, 2014