Peasants and Farmers


When the commons were being enclosed in England at the end of the eighteenth century, settled agriculture had not developed on any extensive scale in the USA. Over 800 million acres were covered with forests and 600 million acres were covered with grasslands.

Bread Basket and Dust Bowl

Till the 1780s, white American settlements were confined to a small narrow strip along the eastern coast. Most of the USA was inhabited by the Native Americans. Most of them were nomadic, while some of them were settled. Hunting, gathering and fishing was the source of livelihood for most of them. Some of them cultivated corn, beans, tobacco and pumpkin.

After the late eighteenth century, white Americans began to move westward. They displaced local tribes and changed the entire landscape into agricultural belts. Finally, they established control up to the west coast. By the early twentieth century, the landscape of the USA had transformed radically. The USA began to dominate the world market in agricultural produce.

The Westward Move and Wheat Cultivation

After the American War of Independence from 1775 to 1783 and the formation of the United States of America, the white Americans began to move westward. By 1800, over 700,000 white settlers had moved on to the Appalachian plateau.

America appeared to be a land of promise. The vast wilderness could be turned into cultivated fields. It was a huge reservoir of timber, animal skin and minerals. But the American Indian had to be cleared from the land to realize the dream.

The US government made of policy of driving the American Indians westward in 1800. Many wars were waged against the Indians which resulted in large scale massacre of the Indians. The Indians resisted but were finally forced to sign treaties. They gave up their land and moved westward.

The white settlers came in successive waves. By the first decade of the eighteenth century, they settled on the Appalachian plateau. Between 1820 and 1850, they moved into the Mississippi valley. They cleared the land for cultivation, put fences around large areas and began sowing corn and wheat.

When the soil became impoverished and exhausted at one place, the migrants moved further west to explore new lands. After 1860s, the settlers swept into the Great Plains across Mississippi. This region became a major wheat-producing region in America, in subsequent decades.

The Wheat Farmers

From the late nineteenth century, the urban population in the USA was growing and the export market was becoming even bigger. Prices increased with increase in demand. This encouraged the farmers to produce more wheat. Expansion of railways facilitated transportation of grain from wheat-growing regions to the eastern coast for export.

The demand increased even higher by the early twentieth century. The world market boomed during the First World War. This was the time when the Russian supplies of wheat were cut off the USA had to feed Europe.

In 1910, about 45 million acres of land in the USA was under wheat. This area expanded to 74 million acres by 1919. Many big farmers controlled as much as 2,000 to 3,000 acres of land individually.

The Coming of New Technology

When the farmers entered the mid-western prairie, the simple ploughs proved ineffective. The prairie was covered with a thick mat of grass with tough roots. A variety of new ploughs were devised by the farmers to break the sod and turn the soil over. Some of the newly-designed ploughs were 12 feet long. Their front rested on small wheels and they were pulled by six yokes of horses or oxens.

By the early twentieth century, tractors and disc ploughs came in use for breaking the soil. Use of tractors helped in clearing vast stretches of land. Cyrus McCormick invented the first mechanical reaper in 1831. The mechanical reaper could cut in one day as much as five men could cut with cradles and 1 men with sickles. Combined harvester was being used by most of the farmers by the early twentieth century. A combined harvester could harvest 500 acres of wheat in two weeks.

With power-driven machinery, four men could plough, seed and harvest 2,000 to 4,000 acres of wheat in a season. For the big farmers of the Great Plains, these machines were attractive option.

What Happened to the Poor?

Many poor farmers bought these machines, even by borrowing from the banks. But most of them found difficulty in repaying the loan. Many of them deserted their farms and looked for jobs elsewhere. But mechanization had reduced the need for labour and jobs were difficult to find. The boom of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century came to an end by the mid 1920s.

There was problem of unsold stocks and overflowing granaries. Vast amounts of corn and wheat were turned into animal feed. Wheat prices fell and export markets collapsed. This made the ground for the Great Agrarian Depression of the 1930s. The Great Depression ruined the wheat farmers everywhere.

Dust Bowl

When wheat cultivation expanded in the USA, farmers uprooted all vegetation to turn over the soil. This created a huge dustbowl in the USA. The early 1930s saw many years of persistent drought. The rains blew at ferocious speeds across America. The wheat-fields without the cover of natural vegetation helped in turning the ordinary dust-storms into Black Blizzards. The Black blizzards could be as high as 7,000 to 8,000 feet high. They rose like monstrous waves of muddy water. The black blizzards destroyed everything in their wake, the wheat fields, houses, cattle, etc. Thousands of cattle died because of suffocation. Farm machineries were clogged with dust to an extent that they could not be repaired. The black blizzards devastated the wheat-fields continuously for many years in the 1930s. After the 1930s, the farmers realized the importance of conservation of the ecosystem.

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