The American Agricultural Landscape: Chronicling America’s Crops

Agricultural landscape shaped rural American heritage.

| November/December 2011

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.

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