The American Agricultural Landscape: Chronicling America’s Crops

Agricultural landscape shaped rural American heritage.

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The next time you're driving through farm country, or flying over, take the time to appreciate everything that rural patchwork represents.

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Though dismissed as fly-over-country by some folks, the American agricultural landscape plays a pivotal role that continues to shape the whole of America, and indeed the world. Hard-won from once wild and woolly conditions, that neat and orderly wheat field represents much more than the crop it bears today. Like one square in an heirloom quilt stitched through the generations, that single wheat field tells a tale of toil, faith, grit and plain old hard work. It stands as a monument to our ancestors who made their living and built their family’s future generations, one hoe’s width, one row, one season at a time. The next time you’re driving through farm country, or flying over, take the time to appreciate everything that rural patchwork represents.

The history of farming: before there were plows

When you think about fields, you surely imagine corn plants marching in mile-long rows like feathered soldiers, or a windswept field of ripe barley – those iconic amber waves of grain. Take a step back to 200 years ago, and the scale, just like the technology, was tiny. And you’d have a hard time finding all those crop plants organized in tidy, perfectly spaced rows.

“Broadcasting” seeds, or literally casting them broadly by hand, was one inexpensive, “poor man’s” method of planting a crop like oats or wheat. Other crops were started by finger, dropped seed by seed, which, though tedious work by today’s standards, was work celebrated by America’s first agriculturists.

In either case, if the field wasn’t properly prepared or the seeds not carefully placed, farmers risked improper coverage or loss of seed at best, and starvation at worst. But putting seeds to ground was the easy part: Before that, farmers endured a backbreaking session at the end of a hoe, digging stick, or a bone-as-plow used to bust up the soil to accommodate the seed.
After all that work, it’s no wonder that aesthetics were secondary to just getting the whole thing done.

In 1797, Charles Newburgh of New Jersey received a patent for the cast-iron plow, but farmers, believing that it was harmful to the soil, avoided the device. Other plows followed, including the “soft-center plow,” the “chilled plow,” the “grasshopper plow,” and one with interchangeable parts for quick (and inexpensive) repairing.

Farmers relaxed their fears and embraced the plow, making it a mandatory part of the farm. Better methods of planting – including the use of machines such as mechanical planters and the grain drill – made crops easier to sow, and the fields grew larger.

Large-scale agriculture

One thousand acres is a little over a mile-and-a-half square, which doesn’t sound like much until you have to plow it, plant it and harvest it. But when you drive through the countryside and see nothing but wheat, corn, rice or grapes, it might feel like you’re traveling through miles of crops … and you’re very likely right.

Remember that math, though. It puts the following into perspective …

In 2010, North Dakota farmers planted a little more than 8.5 million acres of winter, spring and durum wheat. Iowa farmers planted an estimated 13 million acres of corn. Sully County, South Dakota, planted more than 100,000 acres of sunflowers.

Wisconsin’s state crop is cranberries, the fields of which somewhat resemble the rice fields of Arkansas, the largest-producing rice state. Georgia, of course, claims the peanut as the state crop, and Kentucky is known as the Tobacco State.

Oregon grows the most peppermint, and Hawaii is the only state where cacao – the main ingredient in chocolate – is grown. At this time, cacao crops are small but, uh, growing. (Side note: think we can get Oregon and Hawaii together sometime?)

One report says Louisiana farmers alone in 2009 planted more than 200,000 acres of cotton, more than 4 million acres of sugarcane, more than a million acres of soybeans, nearly 500,000 acres of rice, and around 14,000 acres of sweet potatoes.

California wine growers had more than 500,000 acres of grapes hanging in the same year, and U.S. potato farmers planted more than a million acres of spuds.

These stats don’t include alfalfa, rice, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, peanuts, sorghum, berries, beans and other big-yield crops that are harvested in the rest of the country. Which kinda makes you wonder: Where do we have room to put things like cities?

The Dust Bowl years

Anyone who lived during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s can still remember the din of legions of grasshoppers as they arrived in sky-covering clouds, eating everything in their paths – obliterating fields full of promise. The pests reportedly ate rake and shovel handles, paint and wood siding, clothing and blankets. They stripped leaves, needles and bark off trees, and all but obliterated gardens and fields. They were sometimes accompanied by other insects that only caused more damage to already plagued (literally) farmers and homesteaders.

Some states in the Dust Bowl reported worse plagues than others, particularly in the mid-1930s and mainly in the Heartland, although devastating plagues happened in many places in the United States and Canada. Farmers everywhere tried to combat the pests with poison, dynamite and natural repellents like bran, but grasshoppers only survived to eat more and lay eggs. In many areas, they returned the following year. The disaster drove droves of farmers to town.

Tiny fields of urban development

Once in town, those farmers, and plenty of other folks, turned their attention to cultivating the yards that surrounded their houses. Add a little time and plenty of marketing spin, and today plain old turfgrass is said to be America’s largest crop. With up to 40 million national acres of sowing, growing and mowing ornamentation, we have, in fact, been loving our lawns for more than 50 years.

The bad news is that lush lawns require a lot of water to stay beautiful, and cutting the grass can be a weekly (or more!) chore that, if done with a gas-engine mower, doesn’t help the atmosphere – or provide food for the table. Still, experts say we’d be less healthy without our lawns because the green you grow absorbs more than its fair share of carbon dioxide. You’d also be less relaxed, because, after all, lawn furniture is just boring old furniture without the lawn. Better yet, replace some of your lawn with more garden space, and when you hoe that 10-foot row of corn, you’ll have a better appreciation for crop fields everywhere.

I’m sure you’ve heard a neighbor – whether urban or country – say they’re outstanding in their field, be they a doctor, lawyer or country veterinarian. I’m just happy out standing in my field, because our fields are pretty outstanding!  

Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. 


Thoughtful quotes about agriculture

Field work and the mind

Michael Perry, author of Coop, on ridding a field of debris:
“It’s tempting to describe brush-grubbing as ‘mindless’ work, when in fact I am never more mindful than when my body is fully occupied with grunt work. Because the brute basics of the task itself requires only a sliver of brainpower, once I get a sweat going I can just keep bulling along while my mind cogitates as peacefully as if I was seated ever-so-genteelly in the fragrant corner of some tea shoppe.”

Outstanding in a woolly … uh, pasture

From Catherine Friend, author of the forthcoming Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet:

“When it comes to sheep, you want to see them in pastures. If you see them in a field, that means they’ve busted through a fence and are consuming the neighbor’s alfalfa. (A field is cultivated ... a pasture is grazed.) When I see a pasture full of sheep, I see 10,000 years of history, which is how long people have been raising sheep. I see skeins and skeins of hand-painted yarn that I will turn into socks, and others will turn into hats and scarves and sweaters. I see independent lambs racing around the pasture, but then later cuddling up next to their moms.

“When I spend time with my sheep, I end up envying them. They only do one thing at a time — no chewing cud while running, no grazing while texting another ewe — and I want to capture how that feels. Multitasking doesn’t necessarily improve one’s quality of life, and it’s good to remember that. I breathe more deeply when I’m in the pasture. Modern life falls away and for those moments spent lingering with my sheep, I don’t miss it a bit.”

Picking the rock fields

From Jerry Apps, author of Horse-Drawn Days:

“On the subject of rock picking: My dad always said, ‘If no other crop comes up this year, we can always depend on the stones.’ He was, of course, referring to the fact that winter’s freezing and thawing brings to the surface a new crop of stones each year.

“Usually in April, but sometimes in late March, when the snow had melted and the frost was out of the ground, one of the first tasks before a crop could be planted was to pick stones. We’d hitch Frank and Charlie, our team of Percheron draft horses, to our stone boat, and we’d be off to a recently tilled field, studded with stones of every size, color and shape. The stone boat, a homemade affair constructed of 3-inch-thick white oak planks, sawed so they were turned up at the ends, floated across the newly tilled soil. Hour after hour my dad, two brothers and I rolled, pushed, shoved — did whatever it took to move the rocks, some as large as baseballs and others the size of a kitchen stove, onto the stone boat. When the stone boat was piled high, Dad said ‘gid-up’ to the team, and they dragged the heavy load to shore (really the fencerow). The whole process was filled with the language of the sea — boat, shore, etc. — why, I never found out.

“But no matter what it was called and what words were used, picking stones was one of the dirtiest, most difficult and least romantic tasks of anything connected with farm work.”