Accessibility links

From Horses to Tractors, Changes in U.S. Agriculture

I’m Gwen Outen with the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

Over the years, new technologies have changed farming. Change in a general direction is a trend. Yet people often recognize trends only when they consider the past.

Today, we look back at some trends in American agriculture. We begin with the change from animal power to mechanical power. Our information comes from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, part of the Agriculture Department.

In nineteen twenty, America had more than twenty-five million horses and mules. Most were used for farm work. Around the same time, a competitor began to appear in large numbers. Tractors could turn soil, pull loads and speed harvests -- and they could do it better.

More tractors meant fewer horses and mules. By the nineteen sixties, the numbers of these work animals settled to where they remain today. That is about one-tenth the levels in nineteen twenty.

Yet even the demand for tractors had its limits. Tractors reached their highest numbers around nineteen eighty-two. Their numbers have been slowly decreasing. Experts say farmers can do more with less now because of new technologies.

So, tractors replaced horses and mules. As a result, farmers no longer needed to raise crops to feed work animals.

Oats have long been food for horses and mules. In nineteen fifty-four, American farmers planted over sixteen million hectares of oats. By two thousand, that was down to less than one million hectares.

So what did the farmers do with the extra land?

More and more farmers began to plant a new crop around the same time that the tractor became popular. It was the soybean. The soybean is one of the oldest plants harvested. Yet it was not planted widely in the United States until the nineteen twenties.

By the year two thousand, close to thirty million hectares were planted with soybeans. It is the nation's most important crop for high-protein animal feed and for vegetable oil. In fact, soybeans are the second most valuable crop grown by American farmers after corn. Much of the soybean production goes to exports.

Next week, learn about other trends that have affected productivity on American farms. And we will discuss future directions for change.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by Mario Ritter. Our reports are online at I'm Gwen Outen.